In yet another example of the surreal nature of the Trump Administration, a misunderstanding of the War of 1812 was reportedly used by the president to justify his tariffs on Canada. A 200-year-old incident came up in a conversation with the Canadian prime minister last month prior to President Trump’s imposition of tariffs on several allied nations.
According to a report from CNN, the moment came in a May 25 phone call with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in which the two leaders were discussing Trump’s new policy targeting Canadian imports of steel and aluminum. Per CNN’s sources, Trudeau asked Trump how he could justify applying tariffs, which US law permits the president to do for reasons of national security.
“Didn't you guys burn down the White House?” Trump is reported to have replied.
Umm, no. As a matter of fact, they didn’t.
The only time that the White House has burned was in 1814 during the War of 1812. The burning was carried out by British redcoats, not Canadians. In fact, Canada would not exist as an independent country until 1867, some 50 years later.
The War of 1812 began, appropriately enough, in 1812. The cause of the war was the British policy of “impressing” American sailors. British ships would stop American ships on the high seas and kidnap sailors, forcing them to serve in the Royal Navy.
War hawks in the US were anxious to annex the British colonies in present-day Canada, also the subject of a failed campaign in the American Revolution. President James Madison approved a three-pronged assault on our neighbor to the north and the invasion got underway in July 1812. The three assaults quickly failed and American forces lost Detroit and Fort Dearborn, present-day Chicago, in the process.
The following year, the Americans tried again. This time, the American army burned the British fleet on Lake Erie, recaptured Detroit and conquered York, Ontario, burning several government buildings there. Eventually, the US Army was forced to retreat after a failed campaign against Montreal.
By 1814, the end of the Napoleonic wars in Europe allowed the British to send reinforcements to North America. A British invasion of the United States reached Washington, D.C. where the redcoats burned the White House as a reprisal for the American burning of York the previous year.
Since 1814, American have fought alongside British and Canadian troops in several conflicts. The three nations were primary members of the coalition that defeated Germany in World War I and again with Japan in World War II. They stood together against the North Koreans and Red Chinese in the Korean War. Both Canada and the United Kingdom also came to America’s aid after the September 11 attacks. Both countries supplied troops to aid in the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.
Given the long, peaceful relationship between the United States and Canada, it is absurd to consider the nation a national security threat based on events 200 years ago. This is especially true since Canada did not even exist as a country at that point.
It is unlikely that President Trump really wanted to use his tariffs as a retaliation for the burning of the White House. It is far more likely that he used the burning of the White House to justify tariffs that he wanted to implement for other reasons.
In April, Canada promised to address Trump’s claims that Chinese steel was being dumped in the US after being shipped to Canada. Even after this concession, the Trump Administration imposed the tariffs.
President Trump’s decision to impose national security tariffs is reminiscent of President Obama overstepping his legal authority. Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 permits the president to impose tariffs against imports that threaten national security, but it is a stretch to claim that Canadian imports do so. Instead, Trump seems to be using the tariffs as a negotiating ploy to try to rewrite NAFTA.
If President Trump gets an “F” for history, he also deserves a “D” for economics. The hefty tariffs that he imposes on steel and other products will not be paid by foreign countries or corporations. Like any tax, tariffs are paid by the end consumer. In the case of Trump’s tariffs, that is American citizens and businesses.
[Photo credit: Alex Proimos https://www.flickr.com/photos/proimos/4199675334/]