While the federal government has come under much-needed criticism for its politicization of Canadian history through its $28 million commemoration of the War of 1812, the misguided effort to re-brand Canada as a nation founded upon militarism and martial values has spawned some creative new digital history projects. One such project is The War of 1812 Live, organized and led by Dr. Andrew Smith, senior lecturer in history in the Department of International Studies and Social Science at Coventry University. Dr. Smith answered some questions to provide some background to this fascinating, new way of presenting the past to wider audiences.
Sean Kheraj: What is Warof1812Live?
Andrew Smith: Between now and January 1815, a team of undergraduates working under my supervision will be “live tweeting” the War of 1812. Our Twitter feed is similar to the better-known @RealTimeWWII and the Disunion blog of the New York Times. On the anniversary of a battle or important event, we send out tweets related to it.
A key difference, however, between our initiative and these projects is that we are tweeting links to online primary sources related to the events in question. For instance, on 18 June 2012, the anniversary of the formal start of the war, we tweeted a scanned image of the actual proclamation of war signed by President Madison. Accounts of battles and other events will follow over the next two and a half years. Our goal is to tweet one link to a primary source each day. In some cases, the links will be to scanned images of actual primary sources. In other cases, the links will be to transcriptions of the original primary sources. Here is an example of a link to an image of an actual primary source: http://www.archives.gov.on.ca/english/on-line-exhibits/1812/niagara-1814.aspx#lundys2
As you can see, the link above takes you to an image of letter from Lt. C. Blake, 9th U.S. Infantry to his brother William Blake, March 30, 1815. In the letter, Blake describes the Battle of Lundy’s Lane, which took place on 25 July 1814. We intend to tweet a link to Blake’s letter on 25 July 2014.
That’s an example of the type of primary source we are trying to showcase.
SK: What are the goals of this project?
AS: The first goal is to highlight the work of the archivists, librarians, and other digital history professionals who have made these primary sources available online. Showcasing their work is especially important at a time when budgets for archives are under review in many jurisdictions.
The second goal is to create a resource, a directory of online primary sources, that will be useful in teaching undergraduates. I really believe that working with primary sources enhances the intellectual training of undergraduates. We are lucky to have so many online primary sources at our disposal today. Obviously undergraduates require extensive instruction before they engage in primary source research, the process can be rewarding for both students and the instructor. This Twitter feed can be useful in familiarising students with some of the major repositories of online primary sources, such as those on the Library of Congress website. Once the students get used to looking a primary sources online, we can go to the next step, which is teaching them how to navigate databases of online primary sources.
Our third goal is to bring the great wealth of online primary sources about the war to the attention of the public. Making primary sources accessible to non-historians helps to democratize historical knowledge and analysis. I’m a huge believer in making primary sources Open Access so that all citizens can see them. Access to primary sources can help empower people so they can see through the narratives about historical events that the historians, journalists, advertisers, and politicians attempt to create and manipulate “usable pasts”. Putting primary sources into the hands of citizens allows citizens to judge the facts of the case for themselves and to come to their own conclusions about why Britain and the United States went to war in 1812 and, just as importantly, how future wars can be avoided. Personally, I’m a big fan of the “cross-border trade creates peace” theory of world peace, but I certainly don’t want to skew the selection of documents to support any particular theory of war, peace, and international relations. I want to present as many documents as possible and then let citizens make their own minds up.
SK: Why profile the War of 1812?
AS: First of all, it’s the bicentennial and the public likes anniversaries. That makes 2012 a “teachable moment”. People are interested in the histories of their local communities. Communities throughout North America were affected by the War of 1812. There are many online primary sources related to this war.
I also want to use the War of 1812 to get people in North America, and particularly in Canada, to empathize with innocent people who get caught up in present-day conflicts. Few Canadians have any experience with war or other forms of politicized violence. Canada has been peaceful for such a long time that it is very difficult for Canadians to understand what it is like to be, say, a villager caught between two warring armies in a civil war. During the war of 1812, part of the area that later became Canada was the battleground between Britain and the United States. Some farmers living in Upper Canada sided with the British and even fought for them. Others greeted the American invaders as liberators. Perhaps a majority of Upper Canada’s population was indifferent and really didn’t care whether London or Washington won the war, provided they could go on raising their crops and their children. I suppose that’s been the default attitude of peasants throughout history to wars: if your ruler declares war against another ruler, hide your crops and your young men. That sort of thing. I think that the predicament of ordinary farmers in Upper Canada is remarkably similar to that of civilians who live in regions that are today the battlegrounds between rival regional powers. What is going on in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is a case in point. The countries that were destroyed by the proxy wars fought by the superpowers during Cold War are another historical analogy that comes to mind. Because I teach at a university with many African students, some from conflict zones, I’ve become sensitized to this point.
SK: Thus far, what have been the most surprising discoveries about the War of 1812?
AS: I was expecting lots of people in North America to follow our Twitter account. I’m pleasantly surprised by the number of followers in the UK. In Britain, the memory of the War of 1812 is normally overshadowed by the much larger conflict between Britain and Napoleonic France that was raging at the same time. It is good to see British people taking an interest in this country’s last war with the United States.
SK: Where can readers go to learn more about your project?
AS: Our project is described here: http://warof1812live.com/about/