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Destroying the Caroline

Destroying the Caroline

The Frontier Raid That Reshaped the Right to War

By Craig Forcese


Winner, 2019 Certificate of Merit for a preeminent contribution to creative scholarship, The American Society of International Law

In the middle of night on 29 December 1837, Canadian militia commanded by a Royal Navy officer crossed the Niagara River to the United States and sank the Caroline, a steamboat being used by insurgents tied to the 1837 rebellion in Upper Canada. That incident, and the diplomatic understanding that settled it, have become shorthand in international law for the “inherent right to self-defence” exercised by states in far-off places and in different sorts of war. The Caroline is remembered today when drones kill terrorists and state leaders contemplate responses to threatening adversaries through military action.

But it is remembered by chance and not design, and often imperfectly.

This book tells the story of the Caroline affair and the colourful characters who populated it. Along the way, it highlights how the Caroline and claims of self-defence have been used — and misused — in response to modern challenges in international relations. It is the history of how a forgotten conflict on an unruly frontier has redefined the right to war.



1. Introduction

Part I: The Destruction of the Caroline

2. The Insurgency
3. The Invasion
4. The Canadian Militia
5. The Caroline
6. The Raid
7. Aftermath

Part II: Debating the Caroline

8. Grievance
9. Claim
10. Impasse
11. Revival
12. Renewal
13. Debate
14. Resolution

Part III: The Merits of the Caroline

15. The Law of the Day
16. The Idea of War
17. Imperfect Wars
18. Self-Preservation at Copenhagen
19. Neutrality and Its Limits
20. Self-Defence and the First Seminole War, 1817–1818
21. The Merits of the Case

Part IV: The Idea of the Caroline

22. Freedom to War
23. Banning War
24. Collapse
25. Banning Force
26. Remembering the Caroline

Part V: A Very Modern Steamboat

27. Trigger
28. Imminence
29. Necessity and Proportionality
30. Unwilling or Unable
31. The Caroline’s Legacy

Epilogue The Protagonists’ Fate
Appendix: Chain of Citations and Misunderstandings about the Caroline's Core Facts
List of Illustrations


This book is, today, the most comprehensive and accurate analysis of the often-misrepresented Caroline incident. It is a scrupulously researched recounting of the incident using a multi-disciplinary approach of history, international law, political science, and international relations. The attack upon the Caroline became the big bang moment in international law that created, as insightfully described by Forcese, the meme for how states use military force in anticipatory self-defence. He advances several important observations, including that the Caroline could be viewed as the archetypal example of a state using military force against non-state actors on the territory of another state that is unwilling or unable to stop unlawful activities of the non-state actors. This example persists today and directly informs the passionate debates about the use of military force against non-state actors, such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda. The book will quickly become a leading text on the topic. It will be of significant value to students, teachers, practitioners, and decision-makers. Moreover, it is simply a captivatingly good read about some of the rumbustious early times in Canada-US military, political, and legal history.

Blaise Cathcart, QC, Major-General (Retired), Judge Advocate General of the Canadian Armed Forces (2010–2017)

Craig Forcese’s book on the Caroline affair is a tour de force. With the insight of a legal scholar, the instinct of a detective, and the thoroughness of a historian, he has traced the origins of a core principle in international law, starting with the attack in 1837 on the ship for which that principle is named. His highly readable account creates a rich context in which we can better understand the influence of the Caroline on the legal doctrine of self-defence as a justification (or a pretext) for war. Basing his argument on what really happened, he separates fact from fiction to contend that the Caroline principle has sometimes been put to broader use than its original purpose would justify.

Allan Rock, PC, Minister of Justice of Canada (1993–1997); Canada’s Ambassador to the United Nations (2003–2006)

This is an excellent piece of scholarship. The story of the raid on the Caroline is exhaustively researched and beautifully told. Having taught about the incident for decades, and read all the standard academic articles, I appreciate how very much of a contribution this book will make.

Professor Michael Byers, Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law, University of British Columbia

Destroying the Caroline is a thorough historical and legal discussion of an important precedent in modern international law. Forcese’s work shows that state-level interpretations of the concept of self-defence have evolved over time, but in the end, the goals remain the same. The latter part of the book highlights contemporary debates about pre-emption, imminence, unwilling or unable standards, and the personalities involved. The book should appeal to students, teachers, practitioners, and decision-makers.

Donata Krakowski-White, Judges’ Librarian, Province of Nova Scotia, Department of Justice, Halifax, Canadian Law Library Review


Published 31 May 2018
Publisher Irwin Law (Canada)
ISBN 9781552214787
Australian RRP $45.00
International Price $40.00
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Law - Canadian Law
Law - International
Law - Legal History
Law - Military Law

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