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C. P. Stacey on relations between US and Canada
June 7, 2011 8:57 AM   Subscribe

The Undefended Border: the myth and the reality (PDF). In 1812, the US invaded Canada. Today, the US and Canada share the world's longest undefended border. What happened in between? Canadian historian C. P. Stacey discusses the history of relations between the US and Canada from the War of 1812 to the Treaty of Washington in 1871.
Forts were built on the American side of the border too, but the situation here was quite different from Canada's. Anyone who had read the history of 1812-14 or looked at a map knew that if there was another war between Britain and the United States it would be fought on two main fronts: the Canadian-American border and the United States' Atlantic coast. On the former the Americans had great advantages: vast superiority in numbers, more industries, better communications. Every soldier who ever considered the problem came to the conclusion that British strategy on the border could never be anything but basically defensive. Locally the British were weaker than the Americans; therefore they had far more need for fortifications and other artificial preparations.

On the seaboard it was different. Americans remembered the British blockade that had clamped down during the war; the roving cruisers and battleships that seemed to threaten every coastal town; above all, the crowning humiliation of the capture of Washington and the burning of the Capitol and the White House. This was the front where Britain could act offensively. She had the largest navy in the world; she had convenient bases at Halifax and Bermuda. So it was on the Atlantic coast, not on the border, that the United States made its main defensive preparations. As early as 1815 a large programme of coastal fortifications was launched, and the work went on for decades.
posted by russilwvong (39 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
Relatedly: The Haskell Library straddles the border.
posted by kmz at 9:01 AM on June 7, 2011


A few years ago, I saw a car with a bumper sticker on it that said "Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!" Which is either some pretty obscure hipsterism or an impressive testament to grudge-holding.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:21 AM on June 7, 2011 [5 favorites]


Mike Holmes shakes his head at the sorry state of Canada's border fortifications.
posted by infinitewindow at 9:24 AM on June 7, 2011 [11 favorites]


America: Canada's Pants
posted by WinnipegDragon at 9:27 AM on June 7, 2011 [9 favorites]


Thanks for the post. As someone with an interest in the War of 1812, particularly the events on and around the Great Lakes, I knew some of the information in the paper, but much of it was new to me.

I'm hoping to attend several bicentennial celebrations of various related events in 2012-2015. Although I fear in the US the bicentennial of the War of 1812 will be overshadowed by the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:28 AM on June 7, 2011


This is interesting, but I need to return to my post defending the Cascadian Border. Southern California stay out!
posted by Mister Fabulous at 9:32 AM on June 7, 2011 [4 favorites]


The Alabama story is one of those fun "I never knew that" stories that I enjoy reading about. The British surrepticiously supporting the Confederacy by selling them, essentially, pirate ships to attack and sink Northern ships is a part of the Civil War that rarely gets talked about.

I'm a student of the 1860s-1880s: Between the Annexationists who wanted to claim western Canada for the US, Riel's various rebellions, 54' 40" or Fight, the Fenians starting skirmishes every couple years, and then the great difficulties in even measuring the 49th Parallel (one of the erroneous measurements put the Canadian Customs-House north of Pembina about a mile in U.S. territory; then, correct measurements created the troublesome Northwest Angle), it's downright amazing that the the US-Canada border is so straight and unattended today.

Yes, I also love the How the States got their Shapes television show.
posted by AzraelBrown at 9:32 AM on June 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


The British surrepticiously supporting the Confederacy by selling them, essentially, pirate ships to attack and sink Northern ships is a part of the Civil War that rarely gets talked about.

We've stuck them with Gwyneth Paltrow so now we're even.
posted by Trurl at 9:35 AM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Britian was heavily invested in Southern cotton, and I was thought the idea was two smaller countries and markets would be easier to control then one unified one. Colonialism 101 there.
posted by The Whelk at 9:37 AM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Kadin2048: A few years ago, I saw a car with a bumper sticker on it that said "Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!" Which is either some pretty obscure hipsterism or an impressive testament to grudge-holding

Since when?
posted by hangashore at 9:40 AM on June 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


... just as the bitter memories of the war were beginning to fade, the Canadian rebellions of 1837 touched off another crisis. Many Americans were anxious to intervene in Canada's troubles and formed organizations to do so.

This bit has always fascinated me; there were a number of Americans who crossed the border to join in the rebellion, fully expecting that the rest of the American army would be right behind them to help finally kick the British out of North America. That didn't happen, and a number of those Americans were tried and sent to the prison colonies in Tasmania. I've read some of their journals; they went through some pretty awful stuff (as did a lot of folks who were transported) and many of the survivors cursed Martin Van Buren to their grave, for abandoning them to that fate.

Wish I had some good links for that stuff, sorry.
posted by nickmark at 9:40 AM on June 7, 2011 [4 favorites]


A few years ago, I saw a car with a bumper sticker on it that said "Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!" Which is either some pretty obscure hipsterism or an impressive testament to grudge-holding.

The most fun I've ever had at a baseball game was going to a Twins-Blue Jays game a few years ago, getting loaded and yelling "Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!" to heckle the Jays. I'm sure I struck terror into their hearts.

(this was back when the Twins were rotten; I think the attendance for the game was like 2500, so I had a sparsely-filled Metrodome amplifying my nationalism)
posted by COBRA! at 9:40 AM on June 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


this was back when the Twins were rotten Not trying to derail here, but have you seen the Twins lately? I've got tickets to a few upcoming games and I'm really looking forward to it, but geeez.
posted by Clinging to the Wreckage at 9:43 AM on June 7, 2011


I read that entire thing. Wonderful! Thanks!
posted by absalom at 9:46 AM on June 7, 2011


Britian was heavily invested in Southern cotton, and I was thought the idea was two smaller countries and markets would be easier to control then one unified one. Colonialism 101 there.

The British textiles industry was huge and powerful and didn't appreciate the price of price of their raw materials skyrocketing.

As to 1812 etc, I find it pretty amazing that the Royal Navy was straight up kidnapping foreign sailors and thought this was a good idea. I know there was a manpower shortage because of the wars with France, but it just ended up opening another front in the war for them and they should have been able to see that coming.
posted by Winnemac at 9:48 AM on June 7, 2011


Well, to be fair, the impressment issue was a little more complicated than just straight up kidnapping. The desertion rate on Royal Navy vessel was between 10-40%. Those deserters often ended up working as sailors on American ships.
posted by absalom at 9:55 AM on June 7, 2011


Related, Dead Moon - 54/40 or Fight
posted by wcfields at 10:00 AM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


British captains were responsible for filling the crew of their ships. Britain wanted the best navy in the world, but wasn't willing to actually pay for it. So a captain had to resort to kidnapping unlucky young men.

A fair number of Caribbean pirates were British men who deserted the Navy at the first opportunity. Living on a pirate ship was actually less harsh than being an unwilling enlisted man on a British Navy vessel. I read this in a book.
posted by riruro at 10:06 AM on June 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


Supposedly, the reason the US has Lubec and Canada has Campobello is because Daniel Webster showed up drunk to sign the treaty and didn't notice the redrawn map.
Some Americans smuggled flour across to Canada. It was simple to put a two or three barrels into a rowboat and get it across the bay. I seem to remember reading that a $4 barrel of flour netted $28 on the Canadian side.
posted by pentagoet at 10:09 AM on June 7, 2011


The British surrepticiously supporting the Confederacy by selling them, essentially, pirate ships to attack and sink Northern ships is a part of the Civil War that rarely gets talked about.

There is a pretty good museum in Bermuda, should you ever find yourself there, on this aspect of the war. The British used Bermuda as a trans-shipment point for Confederate supplies, where they would be unloaded from big supply ships and put on non-British-flagged blockade runners for the trip into Confederate port cities. Some Bermudians made a fair bit of money in this trade, and the museum (when I visited) was one of the more sympathetic to the Confederacy that I had visited outside the deep South.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:27 AM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


America: Canada's Pants

I've never seen a hat wearing pants.
posted by zephyr_words at 10:29 AM on June 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


Obligatory: we love you all.
posted by Rumple at 10:38 AM on June 7, 2011


Wait, when did this become a thread about 54-40?

and Hootie, et al ruined that song! ruined it!
posted by GuyZero at 10:53 AM on June 7, 2011


The US makes up for the border being undefended by making it as unpleasant as possible to get through customs at a Canadian airport.

But seriously folks, the Treaty of Washington was a fascinating bit of statecraft by MacDonald that not enough Canadians know about.
posted by dry white toast at 10:54 AM on June 7, 2011


The Canadians are the only nation to manage to burn the US capitol. They bear watching.
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:04 AM on June 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


dry white toast: "The US makes up for the border being undefended by making it as unpleasant as possible to get through customs at a Canadian airport."

That's interesting-as a US citizen who works in Canada from time to time, I've always found Canada Customs to be an unpleasant experience, with some really hostile employees.
posted by Chrysostom at 11:12 AM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Canadians are the only nation to manage to burn the US capitol. They bear watching.

That was the British freakin' Empire. Not a bunch of Sweater wearin', Labatt Blue swillin' guys named Gordon.
posted by codswallop at 11:15 AM on June 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


zephyr_words: "America: Canada's Pants

I've never seen a hat wearing pants.
"

I like this version.
posted by idiopath at 11:23 AM on June 7, 2011 [4 favorites]


For whatever reason, a good chunk of my trips to the Canadian border have been to the military installations between the two countries.

Fort Ontario (active in WW2 as a site for Jewish refugees) and Fort Oswego, both in Oswego NY, are mentioned in the PDF. It's pretty interesting to go to Fort Ontario (the better preserved of the two) and look out over Lake Ontario and see how peaceful the area is today.

Then there's the Pig War. If you're ever in the San Juan Islands, you should see the British and American camps (San Juan Island was jointly occupied for a time by both militaries). Winfield Scott and George Pickett of Pickett's Charge fame were both involved for a time in that little (but potentially serious) flare-up.
posted by librarylis at 11:32 AM on June 7, 2011


In passing: just before the Am Civil War began, there were some members in Congress who suggested we let the South go its own way and make up for it by invading and incorporating a large part of Canada.I think we would have been much better off had we done this.
posted by Postroad at 11:39 AM on June 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


Winfield Scott and George Pickett of Pickett's Charge fame were both involved for a time in that little (but potentially serious) flare-up.

I made a short blog post (self link) once about Pickett's life in the San Juans, where he was, perhaps ironically considering his Confederate allegiances, married to a Haida woman named Sâkis Tiigang.
posted by Rumple at 11:46 AM on June 7, 2011


That was the British freakin' Empire. Not a bunch of Sweater wearin', Labatt Blue swillin' guys named Gordon.

I suspect it is all a pose to put us at our ease. Then, when America least expects it, hockey will be our national sport, and we will all have to be a lot politer. Which... you know... would not be that bad...
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:58 AM on June 7, 2011


The Canadians are the only nation to manage to burn the US capitol. They bear watching.

Luckily they publicize everything on a website, making it easy to keep track of: Canadian World Domination. ;D

And my own small contribution to Canadian propaganda humour: California Republique.
posted by Celsius1414 at 12:29 PM on June 7, 2011


Postroad writes "In passing: just before the Am Civil War began, there were some members in Congress who suggested we let the South go its own way and make up for it by invading and incorporating a large part of Canada.I think we would have been much better off had we done this."

I'm fairly sure the people on this side of the We would disagree.
posted by Mitheral at 1:20 PM on June 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


I've always found Canada Customs to be an unpleasant experience, with some really hostile employees.

Indeed. As I once said to someone, "Oh, so that's where all the East Germans ended up finding work..."

U.S. customs is stupid and bureaucratic. "Yes, I said 'Turn your head and cough.'"

Canadian customs is "Why in the fuck are you here?"
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:56 PM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Customs, and to some degree immigration people are universally unpleasant because most of the people they deal with aren't citizens and can't do anything about it.
posted by atrazine at 2:22 PM on June 7, 2011


Our flag has a maple leaf on it, which means: "Don't fuck with us, or we'll withhold our maple syrup."

And possibly our Canadian Club whiskey.
posted by bwg at 5:37 PM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


The new Fordy Toronto City Council cut off funding for the new Fort York pedestrian bridge, so Americans win the war of 1812 by default now, from a Bicentennial Celebration perspective.
posted by ovvl at 6:20 PM on June 7, 2011


In passing: just before the Am Civil War began, there were some members in Congress who suggested we let the South go its own way and make up for it by invading and incorporating a large part of Canada.I think we would have been much better off had we done this

I read that Lucas Alamán (a Mexican statesman) predicted ~1850 that the US would soon split, the north would annex Canada, and the south would re-invade annex and enslave the rest of Mexico. Fun thinking about almost history.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 6:59 AM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


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