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War of 1812 battles a nation's collective amnesia

There is a plaque on Washington's L Street on the site of the former British Legation, now home to a chic condo complex, that should stir the heart of a Canadian in the U.S. capital.

Few if any of the George Washington University students who walk by it on their way to Trader Joe's likely ever notice it. But each time I pass, it confirms for me that there was a time when Canada was top of mind here.

The plaque commemorates the 1817 signing of the Rush-Bagot Treaty, leading to the post-War of 1812 demilitarization of the Great Lakes and the eventual creation of the longest undefended border in the world.

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The "undefended" part may become a casualty of Sept. 11, 2001. But history can never erase the fact that Canadians have had an obstructed front seat on a great civilization of the second millennium.

Ours is pretty good, too. And the bicentennial of the War of 1812 is an appropriate time to reflect, collectively, proudly, on why our forebears clung to their desire for an independent nation to the north of the United States.

A study commissioned by the Department of Canadian Heritage indicates that most of us are only peripherally aware of the war that marked the beginnings of our own sense of national identity. We should not need our government to tell us remedying this knowledge gap is in our interest.

Americans would do well to pay attention to their own history, too, and not just the airbrushed Tea Party version of it. The War of 1812 shows that the fault lines that ran through the young country then are the same ones that led to the Civil War decades later. They divide the country to this day.

Yet, if Canadians are vaguely conscious of the war's significance, Americans are wholly oblivious to it – even though their "forgotten war" was just as pivotal in shaping their nation as it was ours.

A new PBS documentary, airing Monday night on all of the U.S. network's affiliates serving the Canadian market, is a useful primer for citizens of both countries on the eve of the bicentennial.

The War of 1812 tells the story of the conflict from four perspectives. The Canadians were triumphant, the Americans in denial, the natives in mourning for their lost chance at statehood and the British more preoccupied with fighting Napoleon than protecting their far-off colony.

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The documentary's plain packaging makes one wonder what a romantic like filmmaker Ken Burns might have done with the subject. But the film accomplishes something: You come out of it wanting to know more.

Historians consider the war a "draw" because the Treaty of Ghent that ended it entrenched the status quo ante bellum. But the truth is, the Americans sought to engulf us; instead they bankrupted their own country (the United States defaulted on its debt) without gaining an inch of territory. That doesn't sound like a draw.

The Americans thought their kin who made their way north after the Revolutionary War would, along with the French-Canadians, take up arms against the British. They were fatally mistaken.

In fact, the war was an early example of how Americans have often been their own worst enemies in foreign affairs. The 1810 election to Congress of the so-called War Hawks, led by Henry Clay of Kentucky and John Calhoun of South Carolina, led to calls for a more muscular response to the blockade imposed by the British, which sought to prevent U.S. trade with France, and the impressment of American sailors by the Royal Navy.

How invading Canada was supposed to resolve those irritants is as much of a mystery today as it was then to the countless Americans who opposed the war, particularly the citizens of New England.

"Public opinion, united and strong, is not with you in your Canada project," a young Daniel Webster told Congress. "You are, you say, at war for maritime rights and free trade. But they see you lock up your commerce and abandon the ocean. They see you invade the interior province of the enemy."

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If Americans remember the war at all, it is for the birth of the Star-Spangled Banner and Dolly Madison's heroic rescuing of a portrait of George Washington from a White House in flames.

The collective amnesia may be one reason the War of 1812 would not be the last time the Americans went into a battle without clearly defining their objectives or crafting an exit strategy.

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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