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The War of 1812 has been called “the Rodney Dangerfield of wars,” in other words, it doesn’t get any respect. In the realm of American History, it is easily glossed over and does not receive much attention in most textbooks. College Humor lampooned our limited collective knowledge of this event with a spoof preview for a film about the War of 1812:

We are currently celebrating the bicentennial of the War, and yet, outside of PBS’s new 1812 documentary, there has been a lack of resources and literature released this year to help history instructors teach this complex topic.

Several years ago, I wanted to revitalize my approach to teaching the War of 1812. I went on a hunt for engaging and unique resources that could help students develop an enduring knowledge about our “Second War for Independence.” I was lucky to stumble upon Kyle Ward’s AWESOME book, History Lessons. In History Lessons, Ward managed to collect, compile, edit and translate a multitude of international textbooks and sort them into manageable chapters organized around selected topics. The book is a must-have for social studies educators. In some of my favorite sections of the book, Ward showcases the North Korean perspective on the causes of the Korean War, the Philippine take on the Philippine-American War, and a Canadian account of the War of 1812. As I read the Canadian account, I knew it would be a great source to put in the hands of students.

Lesson Plan:
When I teach this lesson, I frame it around a central investigative question: “How do American and Canadian accounts of the War of 1812 differ?” We begin the investigation by analyzing our textbook, David Kennedy’s “The American Pageant.” I ask students to consider the following questions when they read the book:
– According to the text, what are the causes of the War of 1812?
– What terms or adjectives does the author use to describe the various groups who participated in the war (ex. Americans, Canadians, British, Native Americans)?
– Are there any heroes in the War of 1812? Any villains?
– Were there any atrocities committed during the war?
– Who were the winners and losers in the War of 1812?

In most American textbooks, British impressment of sailors, British restriction of American trade and British support of Native Americans on the frontier are usually cited as the main causes in the War of 1812. Andrew Jackson and Commodore Perry emerge as heroes and the British soldiers involved in the destruction of Washington, D.C. make for menacing villains. A majority of American textbooks usually downplay the terms of the Treaty of Ghent and end their narrative with Jackson’s victory at New Orleans and the subsequent rise of nationalism, which make the war seem like a last-minute victory for the United States.
After students have an opportunity to share their analysis of the American textbook, we transition into studying the Canadian textbook. We use the same set of questions to deconstruct the Canadian account. A few key differences usually emerge as students encounter a new point of view:

  • The Americans are described as the aggressors and invaders.
  • The Canadians are the clear victors – they successfully defended their country against the American invaders.
  • Isaac Brock and Laura Secord are Canadian heroes
  • Washington, D.C. was only destroyed as retaliation after the Americans destroyed York (present day Toronto).

I like to wrap up the lesson in a humorous way, by having students compare two songs about the War of 1812: an American song (Johnny Horton’s “Battle of New Orleans”) and a Canadian song (the Arrogant Worms’ “War of 1812”). The songs re-emphasize a lot of the main points in the textbooks and also extend the lesson into modern times in a unique way. Students could use the same set of questions to critically analyze the videos.

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The big idea that I try to drive home with this lesson is that students need to read all sources with a critical eye. They need to understand that their textbook is only one interpretation. Reading international accounts of events, can provide us with a much broader understanding of a topic.

Resources:
PBS Video Clip of the Canadian perspective of the War of 1812
PDF copy of Canadian textbook account of the War of 1812 taken from A History of the Canadian Peoples by J.M. Bumsted
Handout and analysis questions used to compare American and Canadian interpretations of the event

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