Table of contents


Chapter 1: Introduction

Part I: The Destruction of the Caroline
Chapter 2: The Insurgency
Chapter 3: The Invasion
Chapter 4: The Canadian Militia
Chapter 5: The Caroline
Chapter 6: The Raid
Chapter 7: Aftermath

Part II: Debating the Caroline
Chapter 8: Grievance
Chapter 9: Claim
Chapter 10: Impasse
Chapter 11: Revival
Chapter 12: Renewal
Chapter 13: Debate
Chapter 14: Resolution

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

Part IV: The Idea of the Caroline
Chapter 22: Freedom to War
Chapter 23: Banning War
Chapter 24: Collapse
Chapter 25: Banning Force
Chapter 26: Remembering the Caroline 

Part V: A Very Modern Steamboat
Chapter 27: Trigger
Chapter 28: Imminence
Chapter 29: Necessity and Proportionality
Chapter 30: Unwilling or Unable
Chapter 31: The Caroline’s Legacy

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


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.


  • Winner, Certificate of Merit for a preeminent contribution to creative scholarship 2019


"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

"Overall, Destroying the Caroline is essential reading for jus ad bellum scholars. It broadens and deepens our understanding of what has become a central feature of our jus ad bellum discourse. It provides the foundation for critical reflection and debate on the curious and winding route through which the incident gained this status and on the utility of Webster’s formula today. And it addresses many of the central challenges in the jus ad bellum today in a thoughtful and provocative way. "

- Tom Dannenbaum, The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University

“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 (2019) 44:2

"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 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)

"Destroying the Caroline is an important book for those State legal advisors, military lawyers, policy makers and academics who want to study how various factors can help resolve the legal, ethical, moral, and textual challenges facing them on today’s omnipresent battlefield. "

- Major Dimitri J. Facaros, “Book Review: Destroying the Caroline: The Frontier Raid That Reshaped the Right to War” (2021), 5 PKI Global Justice Journal 16

"As someone who has undertaken a major (although nowhere near this major) research project on the Caroline in the past – digging into original documents from the time and trying to make sense of the legal context that shaped and embedded elements of Webster’s famous formula in the customary international law that we continue to apply and contest today – it was a real pleasure to read Destroying the Caroline. I thought, unjustifiably self-importantly, that I ‘knew’ the Caroline, more so even than most scholars in the field. Forcese’s book makes it clear that I did not, or, at least, not well enough. My misunderstandings and gaps in knowledge about the incident were entertainingly revealed to me in the pages of this book. [ . . . ] Destroying the Caroline is now one of the leading works on the Caroline incident, and will be an invaluable resource for anyone engaging with it (or its legacy) going forward. "

- James A. Green, University of Reading, Reading, UK, <em>Journal on the Use of Force and International Law</em>