Introduction to the War of 1812

by Josiah Audette

(This is the second transcript in a series of lectures I am presenting on Canadian History.)


This year is a special year for our nation, in it we commemorate the renowned War of 1812 between Canada and the United States of America. This was no Wellington’s battle and sadly Beethoven nor Tchaikovsky composed masterpieces for it, but it was a war which changed the course of history, or arguably, preserved its course. The War of 1812 confirmed Canada as a distinct entity with its own political identity in North America. Furthermore, it had proven Canada’s loyalty as a colony to its mother country, Great Britain, and moreover had providentially demonstrated its ability to defend, restrain, and even conquer the, debatably, third then most powerful nation in the world (Next to Napoleon’s France and Wellington’s England.)

Today I will give a brief introduction to the War of 1812 with the primary focus on Canada. We will give preliminary examination to the causes of the war (The British Blockade and Indian land), we will examine the state of Canada (A divided nation into Upper and Lower Canada), we will examine the state of the churches in Canada (The establishment of the Church of England and the struggle of the Catholic church and other denominations,) and we will examine the relationship of the two countries at war (One of torn loyalties.) As with all introductory lectures, we will be laying the setting and not yet examining the thrilling stories of the war itself. In our next lecture we shall take our first step back into history with the notable fall of the U.S frigate, Cheasepeak , a final event in thrusting America to a declaration of war.


1812, it was a year of colossal turmoil. England was in the midst of a fierce war with France. The greatest generals of the world, the most powerful war minds in history, Wellington and Napoleon, were in a fierce and bloody deadlock in Europe. In North America grim tensions were emerging. In the course of the European war Napoleon tactfully implemented the Berlin Decree of 1806 and the Milan Decree of 1807, France and all subjects under Napoleon’s rapidly expanding jurisdiction were banned from trading with Great Britain. In response the king of the seas, Great Britain, imposed a total naval blockade on all ports under French control under The Orders of Council in November of 1807. It was a stalemate. Napoleon’s chess pieces dominated land, while Great Britain ruled the waters. Under The Orders of Council the British warned that they would seize in the open ocean any ship that dared sail directly for a Napoleonic port, which is exactly what America had been doing as a tremendous source of export and profit. By 1805 the American merchant fleet engaged in foreign trade was growing by seventy thousand tons of shipping a year, at the end of the decade projections were a million tons (Which would be double what it was in 1800 when America already boasted of the world’s largest merchant fleet of a neutral nation.) With this tremendous   boom in American sea trade, Britain captured almost four hundred American vessels by 1812, some even within sight of the enraged U.S coast. The British would halt and board American ships on demand, and confiscate any contraband goods. If the British concocted any trivial evidence of such contrabands the ship would be held. The ships’ owners faced months of lost time, and contesting the seizures would incur thousands in legal fees alone. On the evening of April 25, 1806, the British ship Leander was performing its usual practice of halting American vessels just outside the New York harbor. A poorly chartered cannon shot from the Leander (Which was a common signal used to halt an outgoing American ship) accidentally struck a small coasting sloop. The ball tragically hit and decapitated the helmsman of the sloop, John Pierce. The killed man was brother to the captain of the ship, who immediately sailed back to the harbor and gathered a furious mob by marching his brothers body and separated head through the streets. The following day a party from the Leander returning to their ship were captured and paraded through the city by the crowd. Four of Leander’s officers were present on shore at the time and consequentially placed in jail for their own protection. The impassioned public held a massive funeral for the decapitated John Pierce. Yet beyond the maddening seizure of goods the British would search and impress contraband sailors. Thousands of British sailors had left their country and its ships for a more lucrative employment on American vessels. America’s growing merchant fleet created a huge demand for labor at the rate of 4,000 new sailors per year. By 1807 over 50,000 American’s were seafarers employed on American ships at a handsome $18 a month (More than double the British rate.) The British impressed as many as 7,000 American seamen for service in the Royal Navy on the grounds that they were deserters from British service. In the words of President John Madison, “That an officer from a foreign ship should pronounce any person he pleased, on board an American ship on the high seas, not to be an American Citizen, but a British subject, and carry his interested decision on the most important of all questions to a freeman into execution on the spot is so anomalous in principle, so grievous in practice, and so abominable in abuse, that the pretension must finally yeild.” John Quincy Adams stated with far less ambiguity what Madison precisely meant by “Finally yield.” “The practice of impressment” Adams stated,  “Is the only ineradicable wound, which, if persisted in, can terminate no otherwise than by war.” With no American navy to intimidate, the British thought little of this practice or of America for that matter. In the words of The London Courier at the time, “The sea is ours, and we must maintain the doctrine that no nation, no fleet, no cock-boat shall sail upon it without our permission” With equal confidence Thomas Jefferson from his retirement home at Monticello assured a fellow Republican politician that, “The acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighborhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching.” The American’s felt little for the British and thought Canada would share the same sentiment. With the opening words of American General William Hull in his war proclamation, “INHABITANTS of CANADA! After thirty years of PEACE & prosperity, the UNITED STATES have been driven to Arms. The injuries & aggressions, the insults & indignities of Great Britain have once more left them no alternative but manly resistance or unconditional submission.” It was a relationship of pure spite.


The greatest problem for America was not only in the sea with Great Britain, but also on land with the Indians. America had always been at war with the Indians, more so than the French or English in Canada. Violating American pioneering of the land beyond the Appalachians, a territory which was actually conceded by America to the Indians in the Treaty of 1783 and furthermore confirmed by Jay’s Treaty in 1794, was a serious contention with the Ohio Valley Indians. The Indians were mercurial and unreliable, totally passive to the civilized rules of warfare and a proudly antonymous body. They acted upon their pleasures which were just as nomadic in their scope as their tepee’s were in domain. General William Hull set the tone in his war proclamation to the inhabitants of Canada, “The first stroke of the Tomahawk, the first attempt with the scalping knife, will be the signal for one indiscriminate scene of desolation. No white man found fighting by the side of an Indian, will be taken prisoner. Instant destruction will be his lot. If the dictates of reason, duty, justice and humanity cannot prevent the employment of a force which respects no rights, & knows no wrong, it will be prevented by a severe and relentless system of retaliation.” America wasn’t innocent of evil either, while they were signing an overwhelming 400 treatise with the Indians, they were making an even greater attempt to take their land in violation to those very treatise. It was savagery against subversion.


Two Shawnee brothers, Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh had risen great heights among the Indian people in the cause of Indian survival. Tenskwatawa, a hideous one-eyed man (Nicknamed, “The Prophet”) was a profound spiritual leader proclaiming visions that urged “Personal and social repentance” as a means of recovering spiritual vitality and physical victory. Tecumseh, on the other hand, was a handsome and renowned warrior for the Indian people. He was a truly remarkable figure. Tecumseh had formed a unity and leadership among the Indians which was hitherto unheard of, and had also gained the respect of the European man, a respect hard to come by for any Indian. Both brothers would not give up land to the growing population and settlement of the northern American states. Tecumseh famously stated, “No tribe has the right to sell land, even to each other, much less to strangers… Sell a country! Why not sell the air, the great sea, as well as the earth?… The only way to stop this evil is for the red man to unite in claiming a common and equal right in the land, as it was first, and should be now, for it was never divided.”


America saw it very differently. Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Indiana hungered to seize the land of native peoples and while they were at it Upper and Lower Canada. This would not only expand their borders, but would break the Canadian fur trade monopoly, make the hated British sting, and give the promise of cheap land to the strength of the Union. In America there was a small eloquent group that preached these verities from the hilltops, a party who Thomas Jefferson dubbed, “The War Hawks.” The unapologetically War Hawks were vehemently anti-British and believed the British agents were prodding the various tribes to revolt, they hated the new British colony situated so uncomfortably close to their border, and were un-reconcilably embittered against economic depression blamed on the British blockade. The American elections of 1810 resulted in the election of several of these anti-British War Hawks. With the British in their seas, the Indians in their way, and the new British Colony to their north the War Hawks aroused America to vote on war in June 4, 1812. But they were far from united, and President Madison hesitated to sign the fearful declaration. However, circumstances inverted radically as dispatches arrived from England reporting that the British Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, had been assassinated by a lone gunman in the House of Commons on May 11. With the advantageous position now granted them Madison signed the declaration of war on June 18, 1812. History was made, North America joined Europe in the world of warfare.


It was a calm night at the British post at Fort George on the Niagara frontier. The English officers were entertaining their American guests at dinner when news arrived to the dinner party of the declaration of war. The British officers bid the American officers to keep their seats and insisted the meal continue as if no hostilities had been announced. The meal finished with much handshaking and confessions of regret as the British officers accompanied the American officers to their boats. In just a few weeks, each of the attendants to the dinner party would be ripping through each others fortifications with cannon, bullet, and bayonet. Such was the spirit of camaraderie between the two new North American Nations pre-War of 1812. Outside of the fierce political realm which the War Hawks dominated, citizens from each side of the border thought little on their differences. Almost everyone had a relative or friend on the other side of the border. Story has it that the first cannonball to be exploded across the Niagara river toward the American fort during the battle of Detroit killed the best friend of the British cannon operator. Trade between the two countries was rather uninhibited and many were land and business owners on both sides. Pierre Berton gives record of John Askin of Sandwich, Upper Canada. Askin was a fur trader and patriarch with a son-in-law, Elijah Brush, an American commander at Detroit. When the Americans invaded Sandwich, Askin was force to flee and Brush obligingly detailed men to harvest Askin’s crops. When Fort Detroit fell, Brush gave his personal papers, money, and members of his family to Askin’s care. None of this prevented Askin’s sons and grandsons from taking up arms and killing Americans or for that matter Elijah Brush from attacking Canada. Another instance is the Canadian town of St. Stephen who upon realizing that its American neighbor, Calais, could not obtain fireworks for its Independence Day festivities, obligingly helped out with a gift of gunpowder. Such a predicament between the nations is both humorous and sad to recount. Besides American family, friends, trade, land, business, and the neighborly spirit Canada had long been benefited by the immigration of American settlers. The settler population in Upper Canada (Established by the British Parliament under the Constitutional Act of 1791) consisted of 100,000 settlers by 1812, three out of five of which were newly arrived Americans brought either by the promise of land or loyalty to Britain. In lower Canada, 6,000 protestant loyalists had come into Quebec in 1784. These were the “Tories” of American revolutionary history who remained loyal to the British Empire. We will note this later, but the growth of Methodist and Baptist churches in Canada was also a large missionary endeavor headed by Americans. Neither country’s border citizens desired to be at war with each other. Congress in the words of a Kentucky editor was, “Driven, goaded, dragged, forced, kicked” into war by the War Hawks. America had not declared war on Canada, but had declared war on Britain, and consequentially Canada as a colony of Britain was to suffer the blows for such loyalty.  William Hull the American General wrote to Canada, “I come to find enemies not to make them, I come to protect you not to injure you.” Isaac Brock the British General wrote back less charitably, “Every Canadian Freeholder is by deliberate choice bound by the most solemn oaths to defend the Monarchy as well as his own property; to shriek from that Engagement is a Treason not to be forgiven”. Both fought for the honor of their nations, and did so valiantly.


The state of the church in Canada was that of a struggling one. Both America and Canada at the time were incredibly religious. Even at the turn of the 18th century you would be hard pressed to find any man not at the very least familiar with Scripture, never-mind Christian morality and conviction. By 1800 you would have the same problem even among the Maritime & Quebec Indians. Society of both nations was fundamentally Christian and rapidly growing with the determined missionary movement. Untold by historians, this was a war fought by Christians both claiming the blessing of God on their endeavors. William Hull wrote to Canada, “The United States offers you Peace, Liberty and Security your choice lies between these and War, Slavery, and destruction, Choose then, but choose wisely; and may he who knows the justice of our cause, and who holds in his hand the fate of Nations, guide you to a result the most compatible, with your rights and interests, your peace and prosperity.” While America’s religion was notably united, Canada’s was divided. With the victory of England over the French Canadians years ago there was significant contention socially and politically between the new establishment of the Church of England and the toleration of the Catholic Church. The instructions of the first British governor of the Province of Quebec, General James Murray, provided for the allowance of 65,000 Roman Catholics but gave him the daunting task of establishing the Church of England in due course. Catholics had little civic rights with the conquest of Britain, yet The Quebec Act of 1774 provided conciliatory policy which reversed the earlier plan to anglicize Quebec by allowing the French Canadians to retain their old semi-feudal system and civil law even as Britain was introducing English criminal law. The Act admitted Roman Catholics to citizenship and eligibility for public office, and allowed the Catholic church to retain its right to receive the tithe. This policy made controls actually lighter on the Catholic church than the previous French crown had. Ten years later in 1784, the new immigration of English speaking protestants to Canada petitioned for a division of the province to be for themselves. The Constitutional Act of 1791 modified but did not repeal The Quebec Act of 1774 and authorized the division of Canada into Lower Canada (Quebec) and Upper Canada (The later Ontario) with the boundary running along the Ottawa River. Tensions also appeared among competing groups of English, Scottish, Irish, German, and American groups who wanted some form of religious establishment or religious liberty.  These contentions often became significant over educational issues with the founding of schools. The Church of England enjoyed certain initial advantages of support from the government as the established church of the mother country. Presbyterian strength rose with the immigration from Scotland. The Baptist churches of Nova Scotia were strong enough to form a small association of churches in 1800. With the strong missionary enthusiasm in the dominion of Canada a missionary society was founded in 1814 by the Baptists. The Methodist movement in Canada was fueled by American methodist missionaries. From 1790 up to 1812, 76 methodist missionaries had been sent from the US. But the War of 1812 cut communication across the border, thus prohibiting the flow of methodist ministers. Additionally, invading forces distributed circuits and upset the life of many methodist societies. Numerous Americans left with the resurgence of the anti-American spirit and the Methodist movement struggled greatly. The development of the Baptists in Canada, like the methodists, was aided by missionaries from the United States. Likewise they too were weakened by the War of 1812. Outside Quebec, the Catholics were debilitated by lack of adequate ecclesiastical supervision with the turmoil of the French Napoleon period. The Catholic Church dominated the older, larger, French-speaking Lower Canada, while other protestant denominations laid their foundations in the new communities of English-speaking Upper Canada. In Lower Canada the Catholic church sought for recognition and independence from British supervision. The War of 1812 made it undesirable for the government to jeopardize Catholic loyalty, and so the Catholic church of Lower Canada received its wishes. Catholic Bishops were now being named into legislative council thus dashing hopes for the full establishment of the Church of England. Both the Catholics, headed by Joseph Octave Plessis the Bishop of Quebec, and the Church of England, headed by John Strachan, were active in guiding their congregations to support Britain through the war. Contrary to modern sentiment, Canada was a profoundly religious nation. Predominate enough to literally define Canada not only geographically, but also socially,  and politically.


Having established the historical setting of the War of 1812 it behoves us to examine the Biblical lawfulness of this war. From my previous lecture we examined that all things which occur in history are within God’s decreed will, and we necessarily conclude that the War of 1812 was indeed God’s decreed will. But the question remains, was it God’s prescribed will? Was America executing its Biblical prerogative in declaring war against Britain? Is war and such aggression even Biblical at all? Summarily, what is the Biblical doctrine of warfare? Pindar gave the adage, “Sweet is war to him who knows it not.” War is undeniably hellish, destructive, violent, and horrific, but a vivid reality nonetheless in the affairs of human history. Historically the church has held two doctrines when it comes to war: “Pacifism” and “Just War.” Scripture leads Christians to presuppose the just war doctrine over the pietistic, sectarian tradition of pacifism. Throughout Scripture God depicts His nature with reference to war (Ex. 15:3-9; Isa 42:13; Ps. 24:8; Deut. 32:41-42), God furthermore commanded Israel to engage in war and God cannot command His people to do that which is intrinsically evil, additionally the New Testament repeals no Old Testament regulations of warfare but rather upholds the state as the wielder of the sword (Rom. 13:1-4), and finally the just war doctrine bodes deep through church history in the teachings of Ambrose, Augustine, and Aquinas. William Einwechter summarizes the just war doctrine taught by these reformers in his constructive article, “A Christian Perspective on Just War.” 1. A just war is conducted by legitimate civil authority. God has given the state the sword as a means to restrain and punish evil by means of force, even to the point of death. (Rom 13:1-6; 1 Pet. 2:14) 2. A just war is based on a just cause. Augustine taught that the goal of just war was the restoration of international peace. Summarily just wars are ones which are a defense against aggression, or to help and defend an ally from aggression, or to overthrow rank tyranny and oppression by the rulers. 3. A just war is waged with right intention. Scripture instructs us that the intent behind our actions, however just, is morally determinative. Thus, as Alexander Mosely states, “A just war cannot be considered to be just if reasons of national interest are paramount or overwhelm the pretext of fighting aggression.” 4. A just war is undertaken only as a last resort. Matthew 18:15-17 teaches us the principle that ultimate sanctions should not be initiated until all reconciliatory actions have been depleted. 5. A just war is fought on the basis of a reasonable chance of success. This is not pragmatism or cowardice, but Biblical wisdom. Wisdom which Christ Himself taught so clearly  in Luke 14:28-32. 6. A just war has the establishment of a superior peace as its goal. Einwechter explains this sixth principle as, “The peace which is sought through going to war must be preferable to the peace that would have prevailed if the war had not been fought.” Finally 7. A just war is waged with proper discrimination between combatants and non-combatants. This is essentially the distinguishing of civilians from non-civilians and applying the appropriate behavior to both. In summary, Rushdoony wrote that “Warfare is a part… of a sinful order, but no less right under godly circumstances, and the right of the sword is by no means withheld because the war belongs to the state of sin. Hardly an aspect of our lives can be separated from this sinful order in any full sense, but the law of God speaks to covenant-keepers in a sinful world, not to men in heaven.” Or to put it simply and soberly as Solomon did, “There is a time for war.”


Upon consideration of the reformer’s doctrine of just war taken from Scripture I would conclude that the War of 1812 was indeed just. 1, It was the legitimate American government who declared war on Britain. 2, It was a just act of defense against the British abuse of their liberty and property. 3, It was with the intention of establishing peaceful trade and a strong nation. 4, It was a resort taken after years of wrongful aggression by the British. 5, It was certainly taken with reasonable possibility of success since they had defeated the British only thirty years earlier. 6, The temporary cost of peace was adequately proportional to the the peace which both nations experienced afterward and even to this day. 7, The war was fought with civility and proper discrimination between combatants and non-combatants. As far as the War of 1812 against the British is concerned it was a just war. I have with me here a copy of the War Proclamation from President James Madison, and as I read it see if you can distinguish some of these principles of Just War being met…


The War of 1812 between America and Great Britain was a war of tremendous consequence. At the end Britain recognized America, and America recognized Canada. The British diplomat Augustus J. Foster, who served as his country’s minister to America during the years of the war, acknowledged the war’s real, and enduring significance, “The Americans have brought us to speak of them with respect.” What The First War for Independence had not fully been able to perform The Second War for Independence (Or the War of 1812) did. For Canada it was a remarkable event. A nation of a mere 300,000 defended itself aptly from the attack of a nation 8 million strong. Henry Clay, a renowned War Hawk, wrote to the United States Senate, “The conquest of Canada is in our power. I trust I shall not be deemed presumptive when I state that I verily believe that the militia of Kentucky are alone competent to place Montreal and Upper Canada at your feet.”  Turns out he was presumptive. The war which was supposed to attach the British North to the American South accomplished exactly the opposite. It ensured Canada as its own entity, never to become part of the Union to the South. While Britain meant it for evil, God meant it for good. America won its peace and Canada gained its nationality. What a wonderful picture of God’s hand of providence in the affairs of men. The War of 1812 wasn’t serendipitous, but divinely ordained.