The Canada Question
An editorial in the U.S. Magazine & Democratic Review defended Canada’s right to become independent of Britain, as the United States had.
Throughout the early nineteenth-century, the rapidly-developing movements historians have called the “Market,” “Industrial,” and “Communications” revolutions dramatically changed daily life and political institutions, often with violent and destructive, though decidedly generative, results. The Canadian rebellions of 1837-1839 were just such an instance of radical, transformative upheaval. Following their locofoco, Jacksonian-Democrat cousins in the United States, Canadian republicans protested the legally-privileged land monopoly regime in Upper Canada, called the “Family Compact.” Historian Jack Cahill describes the Family Compact as “a relatively small, tightly knit group of men that included the leading members of the administration—executive counselors, senior officials, and some members of the judiciary,” which dutifully relegated the choicest, largest lands in Canada to itself.
The Canadian Reformers adapted New York locofocoism (radical classical liberalism), aiming to sever the colonial relationship altogether, including existing ties to the history of the Old World. For their part, interested Americans wished to banish Britain from the continent once and for all, guaranteeing the future success of the American experiment in republicanism. Led primarily by reformer William Lyon MacKenzie, the Canadian rebel forces were disorganized and diminutive in 1837, likely dwarfed by the numbers of American filibusters prepared to pour across the border. British regulars quickly and easily quashed the uprising, dissolving any indigenous militant movements by early 1838. During the imperial counterrevolution, soldiers invaded and destroyed homes, burned property, and terrorized rebel sympathizers. Twenty-five thousand republicans, including Thomas Edison’s parents, fled Canada and were welcomed by locofocos and Jacksonian Democrats in the United States. Though the Van Buren administration strictly adhered to a policy of international peace and goodwill, American “Patriot Hunters” invaded Canada only to face defeat at the Battle of the Windmill in November, 1838.
Of those Americans captured, 157 were taken prisoner, of which 140 were court-martialed, 11 executed, and 60 transported to Van Dieman’s Land. Thirty prisoners aboard the Marquis of Hastings died in transit, their bodies cast overboard to be eaten by sharks and forgotten by time. The survivors were consigned to the brutal prison labor regime of British Australia. There they continued the intellectual and social cooperation began in the loco networks of North America, their stories the stuff of legend amongst sympathizers.
Throughout the 1830s and 1840s, American locofocos and Canadian radicals exchanged ideas and fused their movements together in important ways too often overlooked in the history of classical liberalism. In the following article, John L. O’Sullivan’s Democratic Review offers its interpretation of the Canadian rebellions and the historical stakes involved for all parties concerned.
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
“The Canada Question,” U.S. Magazine & Democratic Review, Vol. I, No. II, 1838.
Civil war in the British North American Provinces! This event has come upon the people of the United States with something of apparent suddenness and surprise; and yet, to those who have attentively observed the progress of opinion in the two Canadas, the proceedings of the Assembly of Lower Canada, the discussions on the subject in the British Parliament, and the agitation of the Canadians themselves, the actual collision between the mother country and her colonies has been a matter neither strange nor unexpected. Indeed, if there be any thing remarkable in the fact, it has been, that, situated as the British Provinces are, in close contiguity with the United States, and exposed, as they thus have so long been, to the salutary contagion of democratic institutions and democratic principles, they have been content until this time to remain the subject colonies of Great Britain.
While, however, it has been apparent, of late especially, that change in the relations of Great Britain and her North American Provinces was at hand, it is right to observe that actual hostilities were precipitated by the violence of the royalist party in Lower Canada. The Canadians were pursuing reform in constitutional modes. Their House of Assembly had again and again presented the grievances of the colony to the notice of the mother country. They had refused, as they lawfully and constitutionally might, to make appropriations for the salaries of the officers of the Crown, unless the reforms, municipal and constitutional, which they deemed essential to the colony, were conceded by Great Britain. They were peacefully organizing themselves, as they had a right to do, for effective resistance, forcible or not, as the case might require, to any attempt of the Crown to coerce them into an abandonment of the objects of reform which the good of the colony demanded. They were discussing these objects in public meetings and in public journals, as they had full right to do. They were preparing to maintain their rights by force if assailed by force. But they did not strike the first blow. They did not explode the train of revolution. This was done by the persons and the party attached to the mother country, who assaulted individuals of an association called Sons of Liberty, mobbed the printing office, and destroyed the printing materials, of the principal journal of the Canadians, a paper conducted with great spirit and ability, the Vindicator arrested and imprisoned many of their number on charges of sedition or treason, and thus drove the Canadians to take up arms, and kindled the flame of civil war in the Province.
There can, we are inclined to think, be little doubt, that it was the purpose of the violent loyalists of Montreal, in those steps, to precipitate the outbreak, the near approach of which was self-evident, in the belief that the rapidity of action, bravery, and discipline of the regular troops, would probably be able to crush at once the first insurrectionary gatherings, before the depth of the winter should open the communication across the St. Lawrence by means of the ice. Matters had, by this time, proceeded so far, the mutual feelings of the two parties had reached such a point of exasperation, and the organization of the Canadians, emanating from the central association of the Sons of Liberty, in Montreal, was progressing so rapidly, that, in truth, the course adopted seemed the only one that afforded a chance of nipping the embryo revolution in the bud. By driving out into overt treason all the leaders, whose designs were already scarce half concealed, while they pursued them so skilfully as to keep within the line of personal safety, it was doubtless supposed that the result would either place their persons within the power of Government, as prisoners, or get rid of them as fugitive exiles.
The immediate crisis was brought on by measures of the British government, adopted in the aim to compel the Canadians to submit themselves to the will of the mother country, in respect of the questions of right raised by the House of Assembly of Lower Canada. To understand this point, however, and the merits of the controversy generally, it is necessary to go back to the former early history of the colony, and trace events down to the present day.
Canada, originally a French colony, it is known, came into the possession of Great Britain by conquest, being assured to her by treaty in 1763, just at the beginning of the controversy between her and the colonies now constituting the United States. The province contained at that time a small population, less than a hundred thousand souls. Being exclusively French, and having for many years been at war, more or less, with the old British Colonies in America, the Canadians did not, at the epoch of the Revolution, sympathize in feeling with the latter; and, unwilling, perhaps, to incur anew so soon the horrors of war, remained passively submissive to the authority of Great Britain, governed, without institutions of their own, as a conquered colony.
But when the French revolution not long afterwards ensued, an event, by which, from their French origin and language, the Canadians were likely to be more sensibly affected than by a revolution in the British colonies, though on the same continent, the British government felt the necessity of anticipating any discontent in Canada by the voluntary concession of institutions, and by other measures which might conspire to secure their allegiance.
Accordingly, in 1791, an act of Parliament was introduced and passed by Mr. Pitt, which is commonly called the Constitutional Act; and by which the colony was divided into two governments, Upper and Lower Canada. The idea was, to organize each after the model of the constitution of Great Britain itself: answering to the King, a Governor, for the Cabinet, an Executive Council, for the House of Lords, a Legislative Council, for the House of Commons, a Representative Assembly. The colony was divided, in order to have that part of it called Upper Canada peopled by emigrants from Great Britain, so as to balance the French colony of Lower Canada…
It was objected that the theory of the Constitutional Act was radically defective, inasmuch as Canada had not, and no American colony could have, an hereditary aristocracy of sufficient number and weight to correspond to the peerage of Great Britain; and therefore the Legislative Council would either be nugatory, if it did not exercise its functions independently of the Assembly, or on the other hand, if it did, would become odious to the colony, as the mere instrument of the Crown, by whom its members were appointed.
Out of this inherent vice of the Constitutional Act a multitude of evils have flowed. As the Canadians grew in numbers and intelligence, they naturally desired to meliorate the condition of their country, in conformity with the spirit of the age. But the Legislative Council proved to be a perpetual drawback on all reform, a standing conservator of every abuse.
Thus matters went on, until the war of 1812, between the United States and Great Britain, at which time, as before in 1774 and 1791, the government of Great Britain took pains, by politic conciliations, of one sort or another, to enlist the Canadas on their side, and against the natural ally of the Canadians.
Since that period, however, the discontents of the Canadians have been gradually growing to a head; until, in 1833, the supply bill, passed by the Assembly, was coupled with conditions of the reform of various gross abuses of the colonial administration; which the Government not consenting to reform, the supply bill was lost. This event was the beginning of the end; for the next year the House of Assembly set forth solemnly the grievances of the colony, in the celebrated “Ninety-two Resolutions…”
The Ministers were warned by the opposition that this was the old question between the thirteen colonies and the mother country; that things had been going on in the same train in Lower Canada now, as in Massachusetts Bay formerly; that Canada had precedents to refer to, and act by, in the history of the thirteen colonies, for any public contingency of her own case; that, in general, a populous and powerful colony could not be retained by Great Britain, without the consent of the colony itself; that especially the Canadas could not, being in the vicinity of the United States, imbued with democratic opinions by contact with a democratic people, and sure of being able to draw resources from, and find refuge in, the American republic; and that the Ministers had but one course to pursue, to grant at once the reforms prayed for by the House of Assembly of Lower Canada…
Our readers can now judge for themselves what are the merits of this great controversy between Great Britain and the Canadas. We say the Canadas, because, though Lower Canada has been foremost in the dispute, and though it was upon the resolutions of the Assembly of Lower Canada that parliament acted, and though the British party is much stronger in Upper than in Lower Canada, yet the public question is the same in both, and the one must follow the fate of the other, so far as regards their ultimate relation to Great Britain. Our readers, we repeat, can judge for themselves, as to the merits of the question, but there are two or three points in it, which we desire to present in relief from the others.
First, it must be admitted, that the Canadians have had ample cause of complaint; grievances enough to justify them in demanding redress, and in persisting until they should obtain it. The ministers of the Crown confessed this in the very resolutions they offered; Parliament confessed it; and it is a fact undeniable upon the record; proved by authentic state papers, of which we have given some idea in the preceding pages.
Secondly, those grievances were of a kind which seem to be of the very essence of a colonial government. The remoteness of an American colony from its European metropolis; the diverse and contrariant interest which of necessity grew up in such a case; the fact of being governed by officers, civil and military, sent from a foreign country these, and a multitude of other considerations, which the colonial history of the United States renders familiar to all, tend to show that a colony on this continent, when it arrives at maturity, and acquires the feelings of self-respect belonging to maturity, cannot be satisfactorily governed, or well governed, by a Colonial Secretary in Europe…
Thirdly, it is the right of every people, which possesses the inclination and physical power, to remodel and reform its institutions at will. This is the fundamental principle of the institutions of the United States, and cannot be denied or controverted, without impeachment of the wisdom and virtue of our fathers of the Revolution, nor without the renunciation of every thing which is peculiar or valuable in the constitutions, whether of the United States, or of the individual States. It is a right, which belongs to every people; and it belongs to a European colony in America, not less, but more, than to any other description of people. The Canadians have all these grounds of right to reform their government, and to institute a new one, in such form as may best promote their own happiness; and they have another, which is equally sacred, they are a conquered people. Great Britain acquired her dominion over them by force; they do not owe allegiance to her as an original colony of hers; and surely, if there be any case in which a people may of right throw off the authority of those who govern them, it is when these last are foreign conquerors; and which is the precise relation of Great Britain to the Canadas.
We do not propose to look at this question in any bearings which it may be presumed to have upon supposed interests of our own. Our aim has rather been to consider it as a question of political right. We look with solicitude, personally, to the issue of the event, because the triumph of the people will be a triumph of liberty of democratic principle of the right of self-government; but at all events, it must be the duty, and of course the determination and the endeavour, of the United States, to avoid any compromise of its neutrality, by taking sides either with the colonies against Great Britain, or of Great Britain against the colonies.
On a calm view of the whole subject, no one can, it appears to us, entertain the preposterous idea of the possibility of the continuance of the colonial relation between the Canadas and Great Britain. It is utterly contrary to the spirit of the age. Thank God, the period of force, of armed violence, is passing away from the world, at least, from those countries enlightened and liberalized, as England has been preeminently, by the influence of the genius of Commerce. The idea of an armed struggle for dominion over a powerful colony, by England, at this day, is too absurd. A large proportion of the party now in the ascendency in that country, has long been utterly opposed to the whole system of foreign and colonial policy, maintained by England under the auspices of those anti-liberal principles which are now fast passing away in the mother country itself. A majority of the people of the Canadas desire to be free, to govern themselves on the pure representative principles of which they have so glorious a model perpetually before their eyes; and they are so unreasonable as not to feel contented to go down to the sea shore to greet rulers sent to them from across an ocean three thousand miles wide! It is enough. They must become free whenever they will it.
The question is of no importance to us. There is nothing to be desired by us in the prospective annexation of the Canadas to our Union. That event may happen, or those provinces may maintain a friendly independence. We have no material objection to the English neighbourhood. Any serious disturbance of friendly relations between the two commercial sister countries, Great Britain and our Union, is an event not less impossible, now, or hereafter, than it would be to roll back the lapse of time, and resuscitate the passed and buried centuries. Nor is there any thing to be either desired or deprecated in the proximity of a kindred republic on the banks of the St. Lawrence. It could not influence, in the slightest degree, either our safety or prosperity. Nor would there be any benefit to them in a participation in our federal union, at least no greater benefit than would attend a sovereign independence, provided they should follow, which would doubtless be the case, our great principles of republican freedom at home, and peaceful commerce abroad.
And yet we are not haunted with that idea, which we hear so frequently expressed, of the danger of extending our already overgrown territorial limits. This is one of those false ideas which has been bequeathed to us by the Past, that Past which was terminated when the American experiment first dawned upon the world as the commencement of a new era. That idea is evidently correlative to the one of strong central governmental action. A strong central government cannot, indeed, maintain the cohesion of extended territories, of diversified peculiar interests, beyond certain limits. They follow the mathematical law of all radiating forces—the strength of their action diminishes in inverse proportion to the square of the distance; beyond a certain circular limit it must be inoperative, except by such convulsive effort as must derange and disorganize the whole system. Such a territorial dominion, is then overgrown and unmanageable. But those terms can have no proper applicability to a federal republican system, on the principle of diffusion of power on which ours is based. The peculiar characteristic of our system, the distinctive evidence of its divine origin (that is to say, its foundation on those original principles of natural right and truth, implanted by the Creator, as the first moral elements of human nature) is, that it may, if its theory is maintained pure in practice, be extended, with equal safety and efficiency, over any indefinite number of millions of population and territory. In such a federative system, in which every individual portion is left free to its own self-government, and to the cultivation of its own peculiar interests, with the sole restriction, of respect for the equal rights of other portions, and under the protection of a federal union, of strictly defined powers, to give some degree of uniform national organization to the whole mass, in its relations with foreign powers, every part has an equal interest in the maintainance of the system, and its great principles. The vitality is not forcibly propelled from the centre to the extremities, but is diffused equally throughout all the parts; and it is only necessary for the latter to contribute a sufficient degree of the vital energy towards the centre to keep alive the general unity of the national body. Such a system is, from its nature, if its great principles are only preserved sound and pure, as applicable on a large scale as on a small one; and we can see no reason why, at some future day, our experiment should not be in successful operation over the whole North American continent, from the isthmus to the pole…
In discussing freely, therefore, the question of the relations between the Canadas and the mother country, we shall not be suspected of a hankering after an extension of our own territory. We look upon the subject only in the light of general principles, and may, without impropriety, and without violating the spirit of perfect neutrality, express ourselves with entire freedom upon it. No American, sincerely and understandingly imbued with American principles, can refrain from feeling a deep sympathy in a cause so closely analogous with that of our own Revolution; and feeling, there can exist no consideration to check the free expression of it. At the same time, we hold all actual participation in the contest, whether by individuals or bodies of men, to be highly improper, and equally a violation of our national neutrality (which the individual citizen is as much bound to hold sacred as the organized government) and inconsistent with a philosophical view of the principles involved. If the Canadian people will to be free from their dependence on a foreign country, they have but to arise in their strength of mass and say so;—they need no assistance of money or volunteers from us. If it is not the will of the people, or if that will is not sufficiently strong to carry them through the ordeal of revolution, we ought not yet to desire it…If freedom is the best of national blessings, if self-government is the first of national rights, and if the fostering protection of a paternal government is in reality the worst of national evils in a word, if all our American ideas and feelings, so ardently cherished and proudly maintained, are not worse than a delusion and a mockery then are we bound to sympathize with the cause of the Canadian rebellion, with the most earnest hope that success may, with as little effusion of blood as possible—Why should it flow!—crown it as a Revolution…The end is at hand; and it would far better become the noble nation which would itself be the first to dare and sacrifice all in such a struggle, to resign at once, with magnanimity and mercy, an unnatural dominion which it will cost seas of human blood to attempt to retain. In fact, we look with not less deep interest to the news from England, than to the events of the contest in the Provinces. May she be true to her own best interests and highest glory!
Stanley Ryerson, Unequal Union: Roots of Crisis in the Canadas, 1815-1873, (Toronto: Progress Books, 1973
Albert Corey, The Crisis of 1830-1842 in Canadian-American Relations, (New Haven: Yale University Press), 1941
Francis Carroll, A Good and Wise Measure: The Search for the Canadian-American Boundary, 1783-1842, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001
Jane Errington, The Lion, the Eagle, and Upper Canada: A Developing Colonial Ideology, Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1987
Colin Read, The Rising in Western Upper Canada, 1837-8: The Duncombe Revolt and After, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press), 1982.
“Two Years in Van Dieman’s Land. By James Gemmell, One of the Captives: Letter II, Daily Plebeian, 1 July 1842, 1
Edwin Guillet, The Lives and Times of the Patriots: An Account of the Rebellion in Upper Canada, 1837-1838 and of the Patriot Agitation in the United States, 1837-1842, (University of Toronto Press), 1968 (Original Printing: 1938)