Flames may as well have erupted in the White House for a second time in its history last month when President Trump, in a heated phone call with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, invoked the burning of the Executive Mansion by British forces during the War of 1812. The call came as Trump started to impose tariffs on Canada in the name of national security, a move he reinforced last week with attacks on Trudeau after the latter objected to the tariffs during a tumultuous Group of Seven summit in Quebec.
But when it comes both to the war and to national-security threats, Trump has gotten Canada all wrong. First, he erred in painting the United States as the victim of the War of the 1812. In reality, it was the United States that began the war by launching an invasion of Canada, not the other way around. British soldiers set ablaze much of Washington in 1814 — but only in retaliation for U.S. soldiers burning the Upper Canadian capital building in present-day Toronto.
And in fact, the actual history of the war reveals that Trump’s trade policies are deeply misguided as well. By attempting to impose steel tariffs against Canada in the name of national security, Trump is repeating the very mistakes that led to the War of 1812 in the first place. The difference: This time it is the people of the United States who will get burned, rather than the White House.
In the early 1800s, it was Thomas Jefferson who boxed himself in with economic sanctions against the Canada. He saw it as a way to pressure the British Empire into respecting the rights of American merchants and sailors to freely pursue foreign trade.
Following the outbreak of the wars of the French Revolution in 1793, American citizens found themselves targeted by both the British and French navies, as the conflict between the two nations spilled into the Western Hemisphere. The French were determined to protect their revolution at home and export it abroad; Britons were determined to defend the world from the violent excesses of the Jacobin terror and, after 1803, the tyranny of Napoleon Bonaparte. Both sides were determined to close off their rival’s foreign trade, because it offered their enemies a lifeline from starvation and defeat.
American merchants and sailors found themselves caught in the middle of this global conflict, one in which the United States had tried to avoid picking sides.