My grandmother’s grandmother was in her bedclothes one night when the Americans burst in.
“Twelve of them came down to us in the middle of the night demanding arms and they had each suspended to their sides swords and rifles,” she wrote of the fearful moment when she and her Welsh-born barrister husband became combatants.
“They searched the house but William (being a strong Tory) had the precaution to hide his guns and pistols … I then felt alarmed and rather dreaded the consequences of refusing them arms, fancy me close to William’s elbow, pale as death in my night dress covered with a cloak – I think I could almost have fired at them myself; after that we were not undressed for some weeks,” lest they need to flee the house, pistols in hand, at short notice.
“What a country this is, my dear Mother,” Catherine Lloyd-Jones wrote to her family in England. “This is to come to nothing but war – and civil war the worst of all – being in danger of being shot by our neighbours and people are in danger of their lives unless armed with their pistols even to go a mile from their own home … little did we anticipate a bloody war which will eventually take place, pray God the Americans may not invade us, they are great cowards.”
Those terrifying events took place not during the War of 1812, but two decades later. Yet to my ancestors and most of their well-heeled neighbours, the war had not really ended, and the “Americans,” which by then meant any Canadian born south of the border or drawn to democracy, were a greater threat than ever.
As we mark the 200th anniversary of the war’s beginning this week, we should pay far more attention to what happened after its end: It was the decades-long victory dance, not the war itself, that really shaped Canada.
Judging by my ancestors, it’s hard not to conclude that winning the war was the worst thing ever to happen to this country.
The events that Catherine describes took place in Brantford, Ont., during part of what became known as the 1837 rebellions, that fast-quashed series of democratic uprisings that flashed across Upper and Lower Canada for a year – but for most people of the British colonies, they were simply the latest extension of an undeclared civil war that had begun in 1812 and had become only more urgent and personal as the years wore on.
By this point, after decades of mounting paranoia, the enemy was everywhere, or so it seemed. In the minds of my ancestors, the war had turned the Canada-U.S. border, previously a rather nebulous thing that farmers, merchants and preachers crisscrossed with little consideration, into a fortress barrier.
Like most Upper Canadian Tories in those days, Catherine and William believed that, in the years after the 1815 Treaty of Ghent, Canada’s U.S.-born majority had become potential traitors, the border was something that had to be sealed tight against both invaders and immigrants, and such concepts as democracy, public education, religious freedom, church-state separation and industrial capitalism were dangerous Americanisms to be kept at bay.
While the United States flourished, colonial Canada became a paranoid, insular place, with a sparse population and an economy limited to resources – a condition that would poison its growth for almost a century and leave an even longer legacy of choked-off development.
Viewpoint of the elite overtakes the majority
Catherine and William Lloyd-Jones were the quintessential new Canadians of the post-1812 era, their views shaped by the stark logic of victory: fiercely loyal to the Crown and to the colonial administration, however tawdry and corrupt it might be, and almost genetically opposed to anything from south of the border, however beneficial it might be.
Those attitudes would have put them in the elite minority in 1812, but a quarter-century later had become the standard Canadian ideology.
But my other ancestors, those who had arrived earlier, who had hung around the Brantford, Dundas and Wentworth areas during the War of 1812 and in the decades before, were rather more silent on such matters.
Like most Canadians of the time, the Millars, MacFarlanes and Smiths were farmers, small traders, remittance men and cattle thieves, some loyal to the king and some utterly indifferent, many of whom had drifted back and forth across the border between Ontario and New York in search of a better life.