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History Curriculum: North American War 1812-14

Volume 583: debated on Wednesday 25 June 2014

Until June last year I had no knowledge of the North American war of 1812-14. Britain’s education establishment has throughout my lifetime and—I am under no illusion—probably for the entire period of state education in the UK, from the latter decades of the 19th century, airbrushed that war from the history curriculum. Why? I do not have the answer, but perhaps the Minister has.

Totalitarian states are notorious for rewriting history, but they are not the only ones that do so. I am appalled that Britain is equally guilty on this occasion of not telling people about all their nation’s history—choosing to ignore parts of it. I hope that this morning’s debate will lead to the putting right of an unacceptable omission in the school history curriculum. I was aware that at some point in history British forces had burned down the White House, but I did not know when or in what context. I did not know either that among those who probably torched that and other public buildings in Washington were soldiers from the 1st Battalion the 44th East Essex Regiment, which had spent the previous years fighting the French in the Mediterranean. I wonder if any of those troops were from Colchester. That will require more research.

History taught in schools includes the Romans and Saxons, 1066 and the Norman conquest. It features the battle of Trafalgar of 1805 and the battle of Waterloo in 1815—two great British victories in the European conflicts against France and Napoleon. Those British triumphs changed the history of Europe; of that there is no doubt. The North American war of 1812-14 also changed the course of history—Britain’s and that of the USA. Had the fledgling United States of America, which had been in existence some 30 years, following its war of independence from Britain, been successful in its wish to annex British North America—today’s Canada—and had it not been thwarted by the British Army and Navy, ably supported by loyalists who wished to live under the British Crown rather than a US President, that would have changed the history of the world.

Why, then, has Britain ignored the war? It is clearly a forgotten war when it comes to the school history curriculum. It is buried away somewhere and certainly not given equal prominence with the battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo on either side of it. It was not taught to me at either primary or secondary school. Quizzing my two eldest grandsons at the weekend, I found that neither of them knew of the war, although the one who is at secondary school had heard of Trafalgar and Waterloo. Those were British victories, but so, I would say, was the North American war. In my book, the USA was the aggressor when it invaded British North America, and if it had been victorious, there would not have been a Canada. Arguably, the 10 provinces and three territories of that great Commonwealth Dominion would today be states of the United States of America.

Former American President Thomas Jefferson boasted that conquering what we today know as Canada would be a “mere matter of marching.” His successor as President, James Madison, declared war on Britain in June 1812. The Upper Canadian capital of York—now Toronto—was burned by the Americans in the spring of 1813. Parliament buildings were reduced to ashes. At the time of the 1812-14 war, that part of the continent included two British colonies: Upper Canada and Lower Canada. They united in 1841 to become the British Province of Canada, and upon confederation in 1867 with Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, following the passage of the British North America Act 1867, became the Dominion of Canada. Today the country is known as Canada.

As we prepare for the centenary in August of the first world war of 1914 to 1918, it is worth reflecting that in the same month 100 years previously, British troops invaded Washington. It was the last time the mainland of the USA had unwelcome foreign troops on its soil. Canada played a major role in the first world war from the outset. What if it had not existed as a country loyal to the British Crown, as would have been the case had the outcome of the North American war been different? The course of the war would have been different without the Canadians. It was to be another three years before the USA entered the war, in 1917.

What of the second world war? A quarter of the planes, pilots and air crew came from Canada and Britain’s battles in the skies would almost certainly have had a different outcome—it could be argued that there would have been defeat—if it were not for the bravery of the Canadians, long before America joined the second world war. We have just commemorated the 70th anniversary of the D-day Normandy invasion. Canadian troops bravely fought there at Juno beach. Will the Minister confirm that the two world wars are part of the history curriculum? As a result of ignoring, in the history curriculum, the North American war of 1812-14 and its outcome, which led to the emergence of what is now Canada, our pupils and students are not being taught why there were Canadians fighting against the Kaiser and Hitler in the two world wars.

I first became aware of the North American war of 1812-14 when in June last year I had the good fortune to accompany the Colchester military wives choir to Hamilton, Ontario, where they sang at the Canadian international military tattoo. It was the first of our now 80 or so military wives choirs to sing overseas. Between the various acts, there were cameo scenes re-enacting various clashes that occurred in 1813 between loyalist forces in British North America and those from the then 15 states of the USA. The same was scheduled for this year’s tattoo in respect of 1814. That got me interested in finding out more and asking our Canadian hosts about a war of which I was ashamed to admit I had no knowledge. I left Canada better informed.

That summer, by coincidence, a fantastic book was published, entitled “When Britain Burned the White House: The 1814 Invasion of Washington”. I recommend it to all who have an interest in our nation’s history. The author is Peter Snow, the highly respected journalist, author and broadcaster, perhaps best known for presenting BBC’s “Newsnight” from 1980 to 1997 and for being an indispensable part of election nights. The first words are:

“In August 1814 the United States Army is defeated in battle by an invading force just outside Washington DC. The US President and his wife have just enough time to pack their belongings and escape from the White House before the enemy enters. The invaders tuck into dinner they find still on the dining room table and then set fire to the place.”

Mr Snow observes that 200 years ago Britain was America’s bitterest enemy. Today, the two countries are close friends. He describes the invasion of Washington DC as

“this unparalleled moment in American history”

and remarks on

“its far-reaching consequences for both sides—and Britain’s and America’s decision never again to fight each other.”

The events in question were no small retaliatory incursion into the US by Britain. British forces—soldiers and sailors—totalled 4,500, including many who had fought Napoleon. The Royal Navy had some 50 ships in battle readiness. In the book’s introduction, Mr Snow states:

“The British invasion of Washington is not an episode in their history that Americans recall with much relish—any more than the French do the Battle of Waterloo. In Britain, very few people know it happened or even that there was a so called War of 1812.”

That confirms what I mentioned earlier in my speech: the war does not feature in the history curriculum in our country. That wrong needs to be put right. It is not as if the war was a brief affair. It was spread over three years, culminating officially in a treaty on Christmas eve 1814, but with a further battle on 8 January 1815 because news of the treaty, signed in Europe, was not known to either side. Mr Snow says of the war:

“It was actually one of the defining moments in the history of both countries”

and describes Britain and the USA as

“now inseparable friends, then bitter enemies.”

The White House bears the burn marks to this day and, on visits to it, former Prime Minister Tony Blair and our current Prime Minister—in March 2012—referred to the historic event of 24 August 1814 when British forces set fire to the White House. As an historic footnote I will mention that the White House was staffed largely by slaves.

Mr Snow’s book concentrates on the final three weeks of the war, the scene for which he summarises as follows:

“The fierce struggle of August and September 1814 was one of the last bouts of fighting between two nations that later became the closest of allies. It defines the strengths and weaknesses of each: the British empire—overstretched and arrogant, but fielding a navy and army of experienced veterans who could sweep all before them; the young American republic, struggling with internal divisions but infused with a freshness of spirit and patriotic fervour. And underlying this often bloody conflict is the grudging respect that often marked dealings between the two sides. This was after all a battle between two supposedly civilised nations who spoke the same language, shared family ties and were neither of them bent on the other’s outright ruin.”

Why is such an historic point in our nation’s history not taught as part of the history curriculum? If it is okay for a single battle in 1805 and another single battle in 1815 to be on the curriculum, why not the entire North American war of 1812-14?

As perhaps we might expect, the Americans claim that they won the war—well, they would, wouldn’t they? The truth, of course, is that if they had won and taken over British North America—a vast area of the continent—as states of the USA, there would not today be a proud, independent Commonwealth country called Canada, with Queen Elizabeth II as its Head of State. But as Peter Snow writes, the events of 14 September 1814, with the British decision neither to continue the naval bombardment at Baltimore nor to proceed to put troops ashore, were interpreted by the Americans

“as a glorious triumph…transformed by American myth-makers into a resounding victory that would become an emblematic moment in US history.”

After Baltimore, Britain and the USA sought to bring the war to a close. Back in Britain, the cost of a foreign war and severe economic pressures at home helped to convince the Government of Lord Liverpool to seek a peace settlement, and the treaty of Ghent was signed on 24 December 1814. Mr Snow observes:

“Both sides abandoned territorial ambitions. Britain renounced any claim to places like Maine, America scrapped any claim to Canada.”

Sadly, it took a month for news to cross the Atlantic. Not knowing of the signing of the treaty in Europe, only two weeks later the armies of Britain and America faced each other just outside New Orleans. The battle that followed was a resounding victory for the Americans, but even if Britain had won, it would have counted for nothing. The compelling words of Mr Snow explain why:

“New Orleans was an utterly futile waste of life: even if the British had triumphed, captured the city and plunged deep into Louisiana, they’d have had to hand every inch of it back under the peace treaty signed a fortnight earlier 5,000 miles away.”

I offer a brief footnote on the war of 1812-14 and Anglo-American relations. While researching my speech, I learned that the words of the national anthem of the United States of America, “The Star-Spangled Banner”, come from a poem written about a battle towards the end of the war. American Francis Scott Key wrote “The Defence of Fort McHenry” after he witnessed British forces bombarding the American fort at Baltimore.

Shortly afterwards, the poem was set to existing music that had been written in Britain. Thus, it is British music that the Americans took for their national anthem. The music was written for words originally known as “The Anacreontic Song”, later as “To Anacreon in Heaven”, which was the official song of the Anacreontic Society, an 18th century gentlemen’s club in London named after the 6th century BC Greek poet Anacreon. The music is attributed to the composer John Stafford Smith, from Gloucester—it is believed he composed it in the mid-1760s while still a teenager—and was first published by The Vocal Magazine in London in 1778.

For a good 100 years “The Star-Spangled Banner” was a well-known patriotic song throughout the United States. It was officially designated as the US national anthem on 3 March 1931. Mr Howarth, when you next see Americans, hand on heart, singing their national anthem, give a smile in the knowledge that it is British music that accompanies their patriotism.

To conclude—and to set this matter in the context of teaching British values—the war of 1812-14 was as important to Britain as the battles of Trafalgar and of Waterloo in 1805 and 1815 respectively. It should thus be given equal prominence in the history curriculum.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth.

“Just imagine foreign troops invading London, defeating the British Army in Hyde Park then marching on Buckingham Palace.

The Queen and Prince Philip order their most precious belongings piled into a lorry and are whisked off to safety before the enemy break in and burn the place down.

Unthinkable? Well, that’s just what the British did to the White House in Washington nearly 200 years ago.

What’s more, in the expectation that their army would beat the British, the American President and his wife had ordered a slap-up meal prepared for 40 guests. They’d been counting on celebrating a victory. Instead they found themselves fleeing for their lives.

When the British invaders in their blood-stained uniforms burst into the White House, they found the table elegantly laid for dinner, meat roasting on spits and the President’s best wine on the sideboard.

Delightedly, they tucked in. One young officer said of the President’s Madeira wine: ‘Never was nectar more grateful to the palates of the gods…’ Afterwards he nipped up to the President’s bedroom and swapped his sweaty tunic for a smartly-ironed presidential shirt.”

Those fine words are not mine, but my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) may recognise them, as they are also by that great man Peter Snow—not from his book, “When Britain Burned the White House: the 1814 Invasion of Washington”, but from an article that he wrote, I suspect to support the book’s publication. What those words do is what my hon. Friend has done this morning: they bring to life that period of Anglo-American relations—if we can say they were relations at that time.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on raising awareness of the North American war of 1812-14, which included that extraordinary event, and of its impact on national and international history, as well as its deep relevance to Essex, which has its own rich heritage. I am sorry that there were not more hon. Members present to absorb the detail of the history lesson available for free to all parliamentarians this morning.

The date 1812 will make many of us think of Tchaikovsky’s overture, or perhaps of other British events at that time. But my hon. Friend made a clear case for ensuring that all those periods of British history that reflect directly on our current place in the modern world are more readily known to many more members of our society.

The Government believe that, as part of a broad and balanced education, all young people should acquire a firm grasp of the history of the country in which they live, and how different events and periods relate to each other. The history curriculum that we published in September 2013 sets out within a clear chronological framework the core knowledge that will enable pupils to know and understand the history of Britain from its first settlers to the development of the institutions that help to define our national life today, as well as understand how that history relates to key events in world history. In doing that, however, we have given teachers more freedom over the detailed content that should be taught.

Of course, there will always be a wide range of views about what pupils should be taught in history lessons. So that everyone could have their say on that, we held a public consultation on the content of the history programmes of study, along with the other reforms that we proposed for the national curriculum. The consultation ran between February and April 2013 and attracted over 17,000 submissions.

The majority of the new national curriculum will come into force from September 2014, so schools will have had a year to prepare to teach it. To help the transition to the new curriculum, and to give schools more flexibility over how they prepare for it, we have disapplied the majority of the outgoing national curriculum for the academic year 2013-14. Disapplication means that schools still have to teach the subjects of the national curriculum, but they do not have to follow the programmes of study or attainment targets.

The new history curriculum has been well received, and is supported by some of our country’s most eminent historians, including Jeremy Black, David Abulafia, Robert Tombs and Simon Sebag Montefiore—Peter Snow is not on my list, so I cannot give his view, but he will clearly be taking a keen interest in the matter. Indeed, Professor Jeremy Black of the university of Exeter has said:

“You can’t debate our sense of national identity and our national interest unless you understand our national history. This curriculum puts British history first as well, which I think is right. It kicks out the woolly empathy in favour of giving children more of a sense of where we are at that moment between the past and the future.”

Professor Robert Tombs of St John’s college, Cambridge, has said that

“the new History curriculum provides a new coherence for the study of history. It properly focuses on British history, while including a breadth of topics from other parts of the world. It is sufficiently flexible to include local studies, and it gives the opportunity to draw together material over a long period to illustrate change over time.”

Pupils are being taught about the two great European battles of 1805 and 1815, but those occurred while another war involving Britain was happening on the other side of the Atlantic. Surely that other war is part of the total story of the first 15 years of the 19th century.

One reason why we reviewed and changed many aspects of the national curriculum is that too often, particularly at primary school level, children were being taught about events without the context in which they took place. That emphasis has changed in the new curriculum and the great array of teaching talent we now have to teach history enables children to have deeper knowledge of the circumstances in which these events took place.

I commend my hon. Friend on his deep and passionate knowledge, albeit that he admitted today that it has been more recently acquired than he would have hoped. I am sure, Mr Howarth, that you grasped from my opening description of events that the 1812 war was a two-and-a-half-year military conflict between the United States of America and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, its North American colonies and its Indian allies. It was a wide global war, the outcome of which resolved many of the issues that remained from the American war of independence. The war was clearly of lasting significance and many historians argue that it was a defining moment in the establishment of distinct national identities for the United States and Canada, which my hon. Friend made great play of in his speech.

The war has particular resonance and interest in Colchester and Essex for the reasons my hon. Friend gave, not least because of the involvement of troops from the East Essex Regiment in the attack on Washington, and the occupation and burning down of the White House in 1814. August this year sees the 200th anniversary of that event, and I am sure there will be celebrations in Colchester.

I do not think there will be any celebrations, but I am hoping that there will be a commemoration.

We can argue about how we go about recognising such events. Sometimes they are termed a celebration of our deep history and heritage, but at the back of our mind we should always remember those who fell in battle and their sacrifice for our country.

My hon. Friend asked that the war be added to the history national curriculum, and that is at the centre of this debate. Our new curriculum sets out in a clear chronological framework the core knowledge that will enable pupils to understand the history of Britain from its first settlers to the development of the institutions that help to define our national life today. However, it does not set out every event, person or institution that pupils should be taught about, and there is flexibility for a range of different approaches. Indeed, there is much scope for schools to study the events of the 1812-14 war. Under the statutory requirement for schools to teach about ideas, political power, industry and empire under “Britain 1745-1901” at key stage 3, pupils may be taught about the American war of independence and the subsequent war of 1812-14. I trust that any teacher who can find the time will read Hansard, take that on board and consider it for September.

My hon. Friend asked whether the two world wars were included in the curriculum. They are included in the new history programmes of study and part of the statutory unit on challenges for “Britain, Europe and the wider world 1901 to the present day”. He will know that the Government are providing the opportunity for two students from each state-funded school to visit the first world war battlefields during the commemorative period.

One of the aims of the new curriculum is to allow pupils to gain historical perspective by placing their growing knowledge into different contexts and to understand the connections between local, regional, national and international history; between cultural, economic, military, political, religious and social history; and between short and long-term time scales. That is why the new curriculum also requires the study of history in a local context and suggests that that may be a study in depth linked to an area of national or international history that students may have covered.

For example, in my constituency, many schools teach their pupils about the battle of Nantwich on 25 January 1644, fought between the parliamentarians and the royalists. It was a turning point in the first English civil war. Every year on Holly Holy day, the Sealed Knot troops come to Nantwich in droves to re-enact the battle when the royalists under Lord Byron besieged the town but were overrun and destroyed by the parliamentarians led by Sir Thomas Fairfax—a victory that halted the royalists’ advance and was a major blow to King Charles I. That should, of course, be taught in the context of the wider ramifications of the English civil war, but it is a good example of how a local event may be enriching in education, particularly history, in our schools.

Similarly, the North American war and the significant role played by members of the East Essex Regiment is an excellent example of how Essex schools can explore the impact of people from their own local area on national and international history. Having had a history lesson from my hon. Friend, I have no doubt that he will be in great demand in his constituency to give up some of his time to go into schools, albeit as an unqualified teacher, to share the pearls of wisdom he has taken on board since June last year.

The issue is important because it touches on the very heart of what the Government are seeking to do: to give every child the best possible start in life. Education is essential to achieving that aim. I know that view is shared not just in the coalition, but across the House.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important matter. Schools can and should look at it as part of a broader, balanced curriculum. Having had to research it for this debate, I have become more knowledgeable about and interested in the 1812-14 war. I hope that that will spur other hon. Members to go back to their constituencies and find out about local historical events, and use them as a catalyst. History is becoming more and more popular at GCSE, thanks in part to our EBacc performance measure, with an increase of more than 16% in the last year. I hope that more budding historians will want to take up the subject in future.

Sitting suspended.