Enemies at Home: Upper Canada and the War of 1812

George Christopher Blayne Sheppard, McMaster University


This study challenges several common assumptions about the War of 1812. Most writers have stressed that the inhabitants of Upper Canada played a large role in the defence of the colony and that they conflict created a greater sense of unity among an already cohesive population. Some authors have even suggested that the war was responsible for Confederation since it produced a wave of anit-Americanism that "knit together" British North Americans. In economic terms, it is usually claimed that the colonists benefited from military spending and that the war set the province on a course for future prosperity.

Before the war, however, Upper Canada was a fragmented and pluralistic community. Colonists were divided by racial, religious, linguistic and class differences. Most settlers had no strong ties to either the United States or Britain and few appeared eager to fight for either government. The atomistic nature of Upper Canadian society made concerted action against an invader an impossibility and a majority of Upper Canadian males avoided service altogether during the conflict.

A computer-assisted study of 2055 claims submitted by inhabitants for war damages reveals that British soldiers and their Indian allies were responsible for much of the damage done to private property. That information explains why there was little increase in anti-Americanism after the conflit. Most wartime destruction was restricted to the Niagara region and areas to the west and residents in eastern Upper Canada lost little by the fighting. Some merchants in that area made small fortunes by breaking laws relating to currency or by taking advantage of civilian and military customers but many toerh inhabitants saw little benefit from increased spending by the British army. While a handful of shopkeepers gouged the public, other Upper Canadians who stole or traded with Americans were branded as rebels and eight "traitors" were hanged for such activities.

Upper Canada was ill-prepared to deal with the legacy of the fighting. The economic depression which gripped the colony for almost a decade was, in part, a result of the damaged and dislocation caused by the war. The creation of a reform group in the Assembly can also be linked to issues that arose out of the conflict. Disputeds over compensation, militia pay, land grants, pensions, and medals for heroism enlivened post-war politics for many years. War damage claims, for example, were not liquidated until 1837. The assumption of that debt helped drive the colony into bankruptcy and it was this fiscal embarassment, not unity arising from the war, which led to the union of Upper and Lower Canada.