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Canada, the Savage Invader?

Does Canada really help explain the United States’ characteristic “way of war”?

November 18, 2011

Does Canada really help explain the United States' characteristic "way of war"?

On a gray October morning in 1613, a raiding party under Captain Samuel Argall attacked the French trading settlement of Port Royal in Acadia (what is now Nova Scotia). It was a peaceful outpost, bringing the first library, the first resident surgeon, the first French theatrical performance, and church services to the indigenous people of North America.

The raiders caught the settlement unprepared. They sacked it thoroughly, burning down every building. Those who escaped death fled into the welcoming hinterland. This tiny sanctuary of European enlightenment was lit into ash. Who did this terrible thing? At first blush you might think Vikings, but no. This act of pillage and predation was the work of Virginia Gentlemen.

In the Wall Street Journal — in advance of his new book, Conquered Into Liberty — Eliot Cohen claims that America’s characteristic “way of war” was our response to an existential Canadian threat (mostly in the 18th century) to American survival, from French and Indians and later, British and Indians. This might sound reasonable, but it is actually backwards. Our combat with Canada was simply the expression of an American way of war already genetically hard-wired into our national DNA … by England.

For hundreds of years the English had been a race of freebooters, who, like Vikings, lived for raiding and the dream of booty. We might trace these pillaging beginnings to the late 14th century when, losing their ill-gotten French fiefdoms one-by-one to the Gallic counteroffensive, the English resorted to the raiding lifestyle.

Most famous was John of Gaunt, who led a celebrated Chevauchée in a sweeping, lazy loop of la belle France, looting and plundering with his marauding companions the whole way. Some of England’s most treasured landmarks, like Bodiam Castle, were built on the booty from these “excursions on horseback.”

When the English discovered ships, they literally created the entire romance of piracy on the spot. Drake and Hawkins (along with great Dutch leaders like Piet Heyn) were the prefiguration of later pirate greats like Morgan and Anson and Vernon. Over a couple centuries these freebooters acquired proper navy uniforms and gold-braid flag rank, but no official banner could mask the heart of a true raider.

Often too the British Crown blessed pirate enterprise, granting letters of legitimate predation to any man-of-war captain and crew. So the English, and then British, monarch practiced polite, official rulebook combat in the Low Countries and Germany, while “privateers” ravaged French and Spanish communities in the Americas. These were the pirates so beloved today by American boys and Johnny Depp-adoring movie audiences. Above all, pirates were the creation of the English crown, in its turn-of-the-18th-century wars against Bourbon France and Spain.

But even Anglo state-on-state war was conducted more like grand pirate raids on steroids. Admiral Vernon’s assault on Cartagena, called The War of Jenkin’s Ear, was the biggest expeditionary force ever to enter the Caribbean. This grand fleet and its army was resoundingly defeated in 1741 by the great Spanish Admiral Blas de Lezo, so at least his city was spared the horror of an English sack. But big as Vernon’s armada was, it was still no more than a class act Viking raid — in search of booty.

Anglo-American dominance of the Atlantic slave trade was also established in the 18th century. Is it possible to imagine a more predatory basis for sea commerce? Is not the single fact of slave trade centrality in the Anglo-American transatlantic economy the best evidence of our raider-ethos ancestry?

How did this English way of war affect our early American colonists? Try on Governor James Moore’s great Carolinian raid on St. Augustine. It was midnight on the night of November 3, 1702, when his colonial militia unleashed their assault on La Florida. The outlying outposts were savaged, and then they went on to the city itself.

African slaves who had fled Carolinian chattel-shackles — and who were now free men in Spanish America — were part of the city’s outer defenses. This dedicated black militia fought to the last to stop the raiders — but to no avail. The Roman city plan of the thriving city of St. Augustine was all that was left after every single building was torched.

Only the great fort as city sanctuary saved the community from complete rapine and death. Yet Raptor-Carolinians could not take it. Their meager artillery could not dent its tufa walls. Then a Spanish fleet appeared to save the lost city. Contemporary historians of this raid call it “the apocalypse of 1702.”

Think there would have been mercy for the city without its sheltering fort? Two years after his failure to finish off St. Augustine, Moore launched another raid in 1704 against the Apalachee Indians. Cremating their missions, the Carolinian militia killed and tortured hundreds: “Their plunder included Indian slaves, and all that could be collected, including cows and horses…”

Cohen strokes and entreats Americans longing to be the historical injured party: “For almost two centuries, Canada was the greatest threat to England’s American colonies and the young United States.” Really? Go to the stones. The stones themselves tell a very different story.

Is it any wonder that the most splendid city fortifications in North America are French and Spanish? Go to Quebec City, and marvel at the almost sedimentary-like layers in the earth built up as fortification: Wall-on-wall, casemate-on-casemate, hornwork-on-hornwork. Seven times from 1690-1812, expeditionary armies invaded Canada from the South. Each one of these assaults was determined to end French (and then British) rule.

Anglo-American raiding on the biggest scale was the existential threat to French and Spanish communities in the New World — not the other way around. Whether it was a single city burned and sacked, like St. Augustine again and again, or an entire people ethnically cleansed and scattered to the winds, like the Acadian French expelled from Nova Scotia — it was the French and Spanish New World that was existentially threatened, not the Anglo-American. The walls built by those truly threatened tell the real story.

The homes of the predators, in contrast, had no need of walls. Where is the great Vauban trace girdling Boston, or New York, or Philadelphia, or Charleston? The Vikings, too, had no need for home defense: Just ships, just eager warriors.

There is no denying that the Anglo-American raiding ethos was thus like Dark Age Vikings both in form and intent. Colonial Americans were just as ruthless and brutal preying on French or Spanish as their English cousins, yet also passionately more savage with local Indian nations. Surging more strongly, as colonies transformed into the American nation, our ideological vision of conquest went farther than any British raptor.

In the case of Benedict Arnold’s attack on Quebec, America’s intent was also to end the French-Canadian way of life. Consider this enterprise America’s first attempt at nation building, 1775-style. The intent was to bring American Liberty to an essentially medieval Church-Seigneurial community. That was how sons of liberty saw the proposition. They were bringing freedom: “You are being conquered into Liberty.”

But poor, pathetic French-Canadians saw an entirely different proposition: Calvinist conversion and the end of a cherished way of life. Likewise, the U.S. invasion in 1812 had the existential intent of forcibly pushing Canada down, and into our union. Americans came to Canada blind that our democracy-offer was their death-offer. We set up, and ended up, fighting identity — and lost.

In the end, Britain’s predator ethos ended before America’s, with the rise of Methodism and the coronation of Queen Victoria. Abolishing the slave trade, and shortly thereafter, British slavery itself; the reformation of parliament; the triumph of law; the dissolution of the irredeemably corrupt East India Company — all these pointed the way to a new British ethos, and with it a decisive turning away from the piratical and deeply licentious ways of Georgian England.

But the new American nation remained captivated by its beloved raptor-stance, reveling in the pleasures of casual raiding and exultant in the fruits of its predation. Andrew Jackson championed this spirit against Florida and a slew of Indian nations — and a trail of tears. Gentleman filibusters, or filibusteros (i.e., freebooters like William Walker), conquered and briefly occupied whole nations in Central America, brazenly chewing long cheroots as they tore at the fabric of civilized life.

Yet perhaps the most celebrated narrative of Raptor America was a truly grand excursion on horseback from Vera Cruz to Mexico City. Winfield Scott’s stupendous Chevauchée against the Republic of Mexico was, according to the Duke of Wellington, “unsurpassed in military annals” — and with the Duke’s equivalent touring record in India in the late 18th century, this was raptor-to-raptor accolade indeed. Simply, an American army now had its fond excursion in Mexico, having its vicarious way with Mexico — at the expense of its people, its republic and its civilization.

Just look at the scene in the great plaza of El Cuidad de Mexico, with General Winfield Scott and his regulars in all-highest arrogant parade over a prostrate republic: Wantonly invaded — all for the extension of slavery. The Mexican War was all about American chattel slavery. We took what we wanted as shackled spoils of war.

“Conquered into Liberty” indeed.

But this was a false culmination for America’s predator ethos. The South failed in the 1850s to bring Cuba — as a slave state — into the Union, just as it failed to bring slavery to the American West. In just a decade this most shameful raider enterprise would founder in civil war.

Like Britain, the United States transformed into a new nation. Moreover, ours would be dedicated to a new proposition — the redemption of humanity. In the fullness of the 20th century this proposition would be fulfilled, not as being “conquered into liberty,” but as a new offering to humanity. Neither would it come in the hard guise of John of Gaunt, Andrew Jackson or William Walker and their “excursions on horseback.” Nor would booty-driven raiders bring new serfdom and slavery, like old predator-Americans.

The new American offering would come instead from a nation that really could make good on its promise to save the world — that really could redeem humanity. Thus for a glorious moment in time, the United States in the mid-20th century really did save the world, and offered not conquest into liberty, but rather a world framework for the future collective governance of humankind.

In the 19th century, America and Britain both extricated themselves from the predator sensibility that drove them so long to the Dark Side. In modernity, they both transformed themselves and left a raider ethos behind. So why do we even want to celebrate the raptors we once were? Why would we even want to argue how our former, primitive ways of thinking might inform our current greatness? Why do we even want to go there?

Unless — flowing from the corruption of the post-9/11 wars — some of us have returned to our former selves.

Editor’s Note: This views in this essay are solely those of the author.


Anglo-American raiding on the biggest scale was the existential threat to French and Spanish communities in the New World — not the other way around.

Benedict Arnold's attack on Quebec was America's first attempt at nation building, 1775-style.

Pirates were the creation of the English crown, in its turn-of-the-18th-century wars against Bourbon France and Spain.

Is not the single fact of slave trade centrality in the Anglo-American transatlantic economy the best evidence of our raider-ethos ancestry?

There is no denying that the Anglo-American raiding ethos was like Dark Age Vikings both in form and intent.