The War of 1812 holds lessons about the costly error of tariffs — not the threat of Canadians.

By Lawrence B. A. Hatter, associate professor of history at Washington State University and author of Citizens of Convenience: The Imperial Origins of American Nationhood on the U.S.-Canadian Border

Lawrence Hatter

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.

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