The Memory of Revolution and the War of 1812

Postwar Politics (>1783)

January 28, 2014
by Matt Barrett Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

Battle of Quebec, 1775, by Charles William Jefferys (1916)
Battle of Quebec, 1775, by Charles William Jefferys (1916)

On June 18, 1812, the United States declared war on Great Britain. American political and military leaders planned to attack the British provinces of Upper and Lower Canada in order to force Britain to redress grievances concerning free trade and maritime rights. Thirty-seven years earlier, in September 1775, the Continental Congress had authorized General Richard Montgomery and Colonel Benedict Arnold to lead an invasion of the province of Quebec. Although the attempt ended in failure, the battle was remembered through popular history as an extraordinary struggle in which a band of determined Revolutionary militiamen nearly overcame impossible odds to capture British Canada. Studies of the War of 1812 have rarely explored how the memory of the first unsuccessful campaign later shaped the debate to go to war a generation later. This article examines the contradictory interpretations of Montgomery’s defeat at Quebec offered by war supporters and war opponents as both sides sought to demonstrate either the necessity or futility of a second invasion.

In the 1810s as new tensions emerged with Britain, Democratic-Republicans and Federalists in Congress could agree that the 1775 campaign was courageous and praiseworthy but they came to diametrically opposed conclusions over its historical meaning. For the most ardent War Hawk Republicans, the expulsion of the British from Canada was the last unfinished objective of the Revolution. A successful assault on the colony would not only revitalize America’s sense of autonomy but also rectify the original failure of 1775. For Federalists as well as some dissenting Republican war opponents, renewed conflict with Britain was not only unnecessary but also potentially ruinous. According to these critics, the failure of the first attack served as a valuable lesson for the United States not to embark on untenable foreign wars of conquest.

The 1775 campaign against the colony of Quebec involved a two-pronged invasion by Montgomery’s army who advanced along the St. Lawrence River and Arnold’s militia who trekked through the border frontier along the Kennebec River. On the night of 31 December 1775, the American force assaulted the capital of Quebec City during a blizzard. The attack on the fortifications ended in disaster as Montgomery was killed, Arnold was wounded and several hundred Americans were taken prisoner. Despite the defeat, American Patriot leaders sought to transform the dead Montgomery into a venerable hero and martyr of the Revolutionary cause. Shortly after learning of his death, Congress allocated funds for the purchase of a marble monument that would ensure Montgomery remained an example worthy of inspiration and imitation to “future ages.”[1]

Three decades later, as the United States and Britain drifted toward war, the memories of Montgomery’s heroism, Arnold’s wilderness march and the siege of Quebec seemed particularly important for the American public to recall. In Congress, war advocates hoped to recapture the spirit of 1775 by uniting the politically fractured country in a common cause.[2] In February 1810, Republican Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky declared, “the American hero now lives, who upon the walls of Quebec, imitating his glorious example, will avenge the fall of the immortal Montgomery.”[3] While Clay praised the “illustrious founders,” he ultimately believed that a second generation of heroes could succeed where their fathers had failed. War opponents were far more skeptical about the attempt to emulate the celebrated exploits of the bygone Revolutionary era. In December 1811, Virginia representative and maverick conservative John Randolph denounced the proposed invasion of Canada, rhetorically asking, “Where is the Montgomery, or even the Arnold or the Burr who is to march to Point Levi?”[4]  Randolph believed that since the first invasion had ended in disaster even with competent commanders, a second would surely fail with inept generals under the perceived ineffectual leadership of President Madison.[5]

War supporters in Congress strongly rebuked Randolph for invoking the honored name of Montgomery in order to oppose war. South Carolina Representative John C. Calhoun argued that Randolph’s reference to the fallen general would have the opposite effect by exciting the public imagination as it “calls our memory back to the time of our revolution, to the Congress of ’74 and ’75.”[6] Both political parties believed that the other was dishonoring the memory of the Revolution and betraying the sacrifice of Montgomery and his troops. War Republicans accused their opponents of failing to protect the freedoms won in the War of Independence by martyrs like Montgomery while Federalists and dissenting Republicans countered that a foreign war of conquest violated the original spirit of the Revolutionary cause.[7]

Although acknowledged as a military defeat, historical and personal narratives of the 1775 Quebec offensive nevertheless emphasized the soldiers’ past dedication and fearlessness. In the years before the War of 1812, a number of soldiers who had participated in Arnold’s march through the wilderness published their memoirs and recollections. These accounts attempted to establish the ordinary veterans as heroes in their own right by stressing the hardships endured and the sacrifices made in defence of liberty.[8] To War Hawks, the military service of veterans from the Canadian campaign could serve as important historical examples for the country in a time of war.

In March 1812, an article in the Capitol newspaper the National Intelligencer entitled “American Heroism” called Colonel Arnold’s expedition “one of the most Hannibal-like of any that were undertaken during the revolutionary war.” The writer lamented no historian had sufficiently detailed this ignored chapter of America’s independence. The Intelligencer requested a survivor to supply a short history of this remarkable battle, noting such a story “cannot fail to be interesting at the present time— to the soldier who may again be called to a similar enterprise.”[9] Samuel Brown, a sixty-two year old former lieutenant in Arnold’s command, noticed the article and wrote a letter to the editor providing a brief but detailed version of his experience. Brown discussed the great hardships the soldiers had encountered while trekking through the wilderness to the disastrous blizzard assault on Quebec City. As he noted, of the force that survived the journey, one-fourth were killed in the attack and another fourth died in captivity. Brown himself was held as a prisoner until he was exchanged in January 1777.[10] The unique first-hand description of the campaign was widely reprinted in newspapers throughout the United States in the months before the declaration of war.

Battle of Chippewa, 1814, by H. Charles McBarron, Jr.
Battle of Chippewa, 1814, by H. Charles McBarron, Jr.

The opposition press believed that Republican-aligned newspapers like the Intelligencer wanted to use patriotic narratives from Revolutionary veterans in order to inspire a new generation of young men to enlist for another invasion of Canada. One anti-war newspaper, the Connecticut Mirror, emphasized that Brown’s account, while noble, highlighted some of the more undesirable features of warfare on the Canadian frontier. The Mirror observed that Brown’s candid letter held, “…such alluring circumstances to recruits, as eating dogs, drinking the blood of oxen and eating their intestines, marching over mountains and forests in snow…”[11] For Federalists, Montgomery’s defeat was a powerful warning that a future campaign into Canada should not be attempted. As early as January 1809, Connecticut Representative Benjamin Tallmadge advised his congressional colleagues to learn from Revolutionary history, reminding them, “if at that period our enterprise proved so unsuccessful, it should not be rashly undertaken now.”[12]

War opponents believed that the best way to honor the memory of Montgomery was by drawing the right lesson from history— to protest a second invasion. In November 1812, Brigadier-General Alexander Smyth addressed the men of western New York to request volunteers for his planned invasion of Canada. He appealed to their sense of history and patriotism, asking, “Would you not choose to be one of those who imitating the heroes whom Montgomery led, have… visited the tomb of the chief and conquered the country where he lies?”[13] The cynical potential recruits responded, “Go, General, if you will. Should you ever reach the walls of Quebec, the shade of Montgomery will reproach you for not having profited by his example.”[14]

After the American army experienced early setbacks and defeats in Niagara and the Detroit frontier, Republican politicians tried to deflect increasing criticism of the war effort by citing the 1775 campaign as a moral precedent. In 1814, Pennsylvania Representative Charles Jared Ingersoll reiterated to opposition members, “Have gentlemen forgot that the first blow of the war of the Revolution, even before the Declaration of Independence, was aimed at Canada?”[15] Similarly, North Carolina Representative Nathaniel Macon stressed, “…if it is now wicked to attack it [Canada], it was quite as wicked in the Revolutionary war.” He further challenged war opponents asking if they would therefore agree, “the gallant Montgomery fell in a wicked, unjust attack on Quebec?” Macon affirmed that the celebrated general “…lives in the hearts of his countrymen, not for a wicked and unjust attack, but for the brave and faithful discharge of his duty in a most glorious and honorable war.”[16]

However, Federalists were unreceptive to the Republicans’ strategy of associating the cause for the War of 1812 with the righteousness of the Revolution. Massachusetts lawyer John Lowell, Jr. explained in an anti-war pamphlet, Mr. Madison’s War, “…we should recollect that the war of revolution, so far as it affords us a precedent of our power when we turn ourselves into invaders, offers us no flattering prospect. The invasion of Canada by Arnold and Montgomery… do no redound to our honor in the pages of our history.”[17] For New England Federalists, the failure of Montgomery was not due to a lack of courage or daring; it was the inevitable consequence of the attempted military conquest of a foreign neighbor.

Pro-war Representative William Findley of Pennsylvania noted the irony that Massachusetts was the center of opposition to the War of 1812 because the people of the state had long fought for possession of Quebec.[18] This appeal to New England’s military heritage however failed to convince war opponents. The Boston Centinel expressed the sentiment of many in Massachusetts, explaining that the state had spent enough blood and treasure against Canada over the past hundred years and was unwilling once again to carry a disproportionate burden. In reference to Montgomery’s attack on Quebec, the newspaper noted, “Let it be remembered too, that the men who in 1775 fell upon the heights were New-Englanders. Yet, alas! The sons of these heroes are destined in 1814, ‘to fall before the sword of the South and West’!!!!”For the opposition, Madison’s war not only tarnished the memory of the Revolution but it threatened to make the sacrifice of Montgomery and his soldiers meaningless.

As the War of 1812 entered its final year, opponents mocked the president and his party as the army had not captured British territory or even come close to assaulting Quebec. New York Representative Morris S. Miller argued that the War Hawks’ zealous enthusiasm had doomed the invasion from the beginning. Republican spokesmen such as Ingersoll and Clay exaggerated the country’s expectations by arguing that the conquest of Canada was the continuation of a Revolutionary effort to correct the 1775 defeat. Federalists asserted nothing less than the capture of Quebec City would have fulfilled the War Hawk rhetoric. Miller stated that in anticipation of an easy victory the naïve war advocates “…had already overrun the Upper Province; they march to the Plains of Abraham and visited the tombs of Wolf[e] and Montgomery.”[20] While the American military experienced late-war successes on land and sea, the invading force ultimately failed to penetrate or occupy significant portions of British Canada. As a Massachusetts newspaper astutely observed in reference to the ghost of Montgomery, “… our officers have been more afraid of his fate, than emulous of his glory.”[21]

In 1818, three years after the end of the war, the British colonial government in Canada and the state of New York amicably negotiated the removal of Montgomery’s remains from Quebec where he had been buried since the fateful battle in 1775. His elderly widow Janet Livingston witnessed the return of the general’s bones to New York City amid a festive July Fourth celebration.[22] During the contentious debate over the War of 1812, the memory of Montgomery and the battle of Quebec had provided politicians and public commentators with the rhetoric to either justify or condemn the invasion of Canada. Although the war had revealed deep partisan and regional conflicts, Montgomery’s status as a national icon remained secure. For most nineteenth-century Americans, the campaign against Quebec in 1775 continued to be regarded as a heroic defeat worthy of commemoration and remembrance. By contrast, the military misadventures against Canada in the War of 1812 received far less of the symbolic significance that had made the memory of the Revolutionary War a central part of America’s national identity.


[1] Hal Shelton, General Richard Montgomery and the American Revolution: From Redcoat to Rebel (New York: NYU Press, 1996), 154, 5.

[2] Purcell, Sealed with Blood: War, Sacrifice, and Memory in Revolutionary America (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), 153

[3] Annals of Congress. 11th Cong., 2nd Sess. (22 Feb 1810), 581.

[4] Annals of Congress. 12th Cong., 2nd Sess. (10 Dec 1811), 454.

[5] Two of the American military leaders in the War of 1812 had prior experience in the Canadian campaign during the Revolutionary War. General Henry Dearborn had been a captain with Arnold on the march to Quebec. General James Wilkinson went to Canada in summer 1776 as part of the force sent to reinforce Arnold before retreating.

[6] Annals of Congress. 12th Cong., 1st Sess. (12 Dec 1811), 481.

[7] Nicole Eustace, 1812: War and the Passions of Patriotism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), 70.

[8] Purcell, Sealed with Blood, 153; Michael Gabriel, Major General Richard Montgomery: The Making of an American Hero, (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2002), 192. Examples include George Morison (1803), Abner Stocking (1810) and John Joseph Henry (1812).

[9] “American Heroism” National Intelligencer, 28 Mar 1812.

[10] “Invasion of Canada, 1775,” National Intelligencer, 2 May 1812.

[11] Connecticut Mirror, 11 May 1812.

[12] Annals of Congress. 10th Cong., 2nd Sess. (27 Jan 1809), 1200.

[13] Ernest Cruikshank ed., The Documentary History of the Campaign Upon the Niagara Frontier in 1812 (Welland: Tribune Office, 1901), 194.

[14] Ibid, 195.

[15] Annals of Congress. 13th Cong., 1st Sess. (14 Jan 1814), 953.

[16] Annals of Congress. 13th Cong., 1st Sess. (3 Mar 1814), 1779.

[17] John Lowell, Mr. Madison’s War (Boston: Russell & Cutler, 1812), 45.

[18] Annals of Congress. 13th Cong. 1st Sess. (12 Feb 1814), 1337.

[19] “Interesting Politics,” Norfolk Gazette and Publick Ledger, 21 Aug 1813. Reprinted from the Boston Centinel.

[20] Annals of Congress. 13th Cong., 1st Sess. (14 Jan 1814), 973.

[21] Newburyport Herald, 4 Jan 1814.

[22] Gabriel, Major General Richard Montgomery, 195.


  • First, I want to compliment the editors for the ‘revolutionary’ change in the design and utility of the website. With echoes of Washington at New Windsor, I’m also grateful because the site is easy on these old eyes.

    Thank you, Matt, for an article that is instructive on a variety of levels from how the anti-war movement resounded before and during the War of 1812 to the delicate balance between castigating the politicians while praising the fighting soldier. It sounds a bit like our debates today, as it should. The article was well-researched and written and continues to underscore how essential is the study of history because it is intended to decode the past while informing the present and our future actions and policies. Would that our contemporary educational planners put history on the same level as math and science.

    1. Thanks for noticing the new look, Steven. Glad you like it. A bit more involved than the last design, but equally clean and striking. Gives loyal readers a chance to browse a bit more and hopefully discover treasures of articles past.

    2. Thanks for the insightful comment, Steven. I agree with your point on the historical parallels with modern-day political debates and decision-making policy.

  • One minor comment, those soldiers who went to Canada in 1775 were not militiamen, but the first enlistees of the Continental Army.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *