Canada An American Nation

The Political Inheritance of Canada

I could not but think as I noted these proceedings that here we had, on a small scale, an example of the processes by which Canadians achieved nationhood for themselves and at the same time profoundly modified the structure of the British Empire. The empire of central authority and obedient provinces is gone; and the influence that transformed it flowed largely from a circumstance whose significance, obscured for many decades, we can now in retrospect appraise. That circumstance was that the principle upon which that empire was built was repugnant to the populations of its colonies in British North America which made up the bulk of its colonial possessions. This repugnance was due to the fact that these colonies in their political inheritance were North American and wholly democratic. They had a political instinct which rejected the theory of government upon which the Empire was founded; and once the initial economic pressures which dulled this instinct were relaxed, there began a movement for modifications in the imperial scheme, as affecting these colonies, which, because it had in it the germ of the doctrine of equality, made the breakdown of the Imperial theory, given time, inevitable; because the modifications made in response to Canadian pressure extended of necessity to the whole Empire.

Speaking some four years ago to an audience in London, I said that many of the misconceptions which Englishmen visiting Canada acquired, arose from their inability to realize that Canada was an American country. I went on to say:

Canada is an American country by virtue of a common ancestry with the people of the United States. When one talks of a common ancestry between Canadians and Americans, people say “Yes, they had a common ancestry in England.” But it is something closer than that. The common ancestry to which I refer occupied the American colonies prior to the Revolution. The English-speaking provinces in Canada were settled by citizens of the English colonies along the Atlantic sea-board. The generations which laid the cultural foundations of Canada and their forbears had lived in those colonies for a hundred or a hundred and fifty years—four or five generations. They had lived divorced from English influences, thrown very largely upon their own resources, and faced with problems upon which the experience of England threw no light.

Along the Atlantic coast, cut off from people with the aristocratic point of view, they developed an indigenous American civilization, now the common inheritance of Canada and the United States. The difference between the Americans who came into Canada after the War of Independence and the Americans who stayed at home was not profound. The people who were driven into exile were called Tories by the Americans, but that term was true of only a very small element. The great bulk of these people were of precisely the same type as the men in the American armies, but they did not think that the situation which had arisen between the colonies and Great Britain was one which could be profitably settled by an appeal to the sword. They thought that by patience and steady resort to constitutional methods the difficulties could be adjusted.

Let me enlarge upon this, for it is the very fiber of my thesis. In discussing the question of the constitutional development of the Empire, the terms “First Empire,” “Second Empire,” and “Third Empire” (which is the Commonwealth) are commonly employed. Pundits rage against the distinctions but, as is usually the case with pundits, they are wrong. Now, the principles which, if observed, would have kept the First Empire intact and the English race one and indivisible, are precisely the principles upon which the present Commonwealth is founded. In the Second Empire we see a determined and persistent effort to replace these principles, which were rooted in democratic instinct and tradition, with principles in essence aristocratic and imperialistic; and it took just about a century and a half for the original conception of Empire relationships—which was American in origin—to overtake and push aside the bastard idea of centralization and control which destroyed the First Empire and would have as surely destroyed the Second, had it not been challenged.

“The Greek colonies,” said Goldwin Smith, “took nothing from the mother countries but the sacred fire and freedom.” The sacred fire that the English colonists carried with them, when they braved the North Atlantic in their cockleshells, was the rudimentary conception of self-government by means of elective assemblies. But the development of the idea did not proceed in the homeland and in the over-sea colonies on parallel lines or at the same pace. By the American assemblies practically the whole adult male population was admitted to a share in the government through their control of the purse. This was possible because intrenched privilege and vested interests were not strong enough to slow up this democratic development. But in England oligarchies and class combinations continued in easy charge of the governmental controls until a time within the memory of living men. For two centuries or more there was no general admission of the people to the franchise; and, after these conditions were modified, the social authority of these classes kept their political authority intact. Bagehot in his English Constitution has an enlightening word upon the deferential organization of British society, in both its social and political manifestations.

There appears to have been no understanding in Great Britain of the extent to which democratic self-government had developed in the colonies until the taxation policies of the British government were challenged. We get a contemporary expression of the alarm and chagrin to which this revelation of democratic American insubordination gave rise in a letter written by Sir Guy Carleton, Governor of the newly conquered Province of Quebec in January, 1768, to his official superior, the Earl of Shelburne. The English-speaking residents of Quebec who had gone into the Province of Quebec largely from the Atlantic colonies, demanded an assembly; and in his letter Carleton set out the reasons why, in his judgment, it should not be granted. He wrote:

It may not be improper here to observe that the British form of government, transplanted into this continent never will produce the same fruits as at home, chiefly because it is impossible for the dignity of the Throne and Peerage to be represented in the American forests…. A popular assembly which preserves its full vigour and in {15} a country where all men appear nearly upon a level must give a strong bias to Republican principles.

That opinion was inspired by a disturbance in Sir Guy’s mind occasioned, by his observation of events in the thirteen colonies. Already he was formulating in his mind means by which he could throw the weight of the conquered province into the scale against the English colonies; the harvest of his thoughts and plans was the enactment six years later of the Quebec Act which, as the Declaration of Independence clearly states, was one of the occurrences which precipitated the Revolution. Carleton did not want his project interfered with by a “popular assembly” with its tendency, in the absence of the restraining influence of an upper class, to encourage what he regarded as republican ideas. Then and for long afterward in the official mind and in official language, democracy, if the real article, was a term interchangeable with republicanism.

A quaint expression of the view universally held in official circles that the Revolution was the result of a usurpation of power by the popular assemblies is to be found in a letter written in 1790 by William Smith, Chief Justice of Quebec, to the governor, Lord Dorchester (Guy Carleton), embodying suggestions about the Constitutional Act then being drafted. Smith, who was an exile from New York, where {16} formerly he had held high office, wrote feelingly:

My Lord, an American Assembly, quiet in the weakness of their Infancy, could not but discover in their Elevation to Prosperity that themselves were the substance and the Governor and Board of Council mere shadows in the Political Frame. All America was thus, at the very outset of the Plantations, abandoned to Democracy.

In my next quotations I jump forward some seventy-five years to show you that in 1863 fear and distrust of democratic assemblies in the colonies still dominated the minds of the class that governed Great Britain. My authority is not official, but it will serve, as it is from the Times which then, as always, perfectly reflected the views, antipathies and hopes of the more moderate elements of the governing class. My quotations are from an article in which in 1861 the Times thundered against the excesses, as it judged them, of democratic self-government in Australia. Said the Times:

It is evident that the balance of society and of government in these communities has been overthrown and that they are now governed by a single class, and that class the most ignorant and the least respectable of all…. There is no limit to this downward tendency; there is no power in the single class which governs these communities to regenerate itself. In an evil hour the Colonial Assemblies were entrusted with the power of reducing at their will the qualification of electors…. We ought never to have given them universal suffrage unless we intended to adopt universal suffrage ourselves.

It urged the imperial government to intervene by veto or by parliamentary action. Was Parliament—it asked—to allow this state of things to go on?

I find this quotation in The Empire, a collection of letters written to the London Daily News in 1862 by Goldwin Smith. He buttresses the language of the Times by an extract from a speech by the Duke of Newcastle, Secretary of State for the Colonies. The Duke remarks that he wishes the Australian colonies had been less precipitate in applying manhood suffrage. Australia is a “country where those established rights and interests were not to be found which might prove a check to it in other countries.”

Goldwin Smith in these letters, noting the contrasts in government between Great Britain and the colonies, remarked:

“England is an aristocracy while the whole frame of Society to which political institutions must conform, is in Canada democratic.”

If this was the contrast in 1862 between government at “home” and in colonies overseas, how much more marked was the difference in 1776! The clash which ended in the American Revolution was between an aristocratic government functioning through a parliament which was a perfect instrument for its will, and the elective assemblies of the American colonies which were outright democratic institutions. These assemblies had been set up promptly in every colony at the demand of the colonists and their power had grown because there was no counter-power to say them nay. They were regarded by the colonists as essential to their welfare.

Nova Scotia, the fourteenth American colony, erected on territory wrested from the French, was set going about the middle of the eighteenth century by the establishment of a military capital at Halifax. But the settlers who gave substance to the colony came from the New England colonies. They found themselves under the rule of officials attached to the governor’s staff. To this they at once offered vigorous opposition, and their demand for an assembly was pressed upon the home authorities by Chief Justice Belcher, who was himself from Massachusetts. The military governor offered a stout resistance. An assembly, he said, would “serve only to create heats, animosities and disunion among the people.”

After four years of agitation the Assembly was established. As the events of the next few years were to show, the people of Nova Scotia were more compliant than the inhabitants of the other colonies with the taxation policies of the British government, but even they would not submit to the rule of officialdom.

There could not thus be common ground between the Parliament of Great Britain and the Assemblies {19} of the colonies, once the dispute arose; they were on different planes of political development. They were contemporary only in the technical sense of time; one party to the dispute was an oligarchy with medieval ideas about government; in the other the doctrines of modern democracy, revolutionary for those times, were astir. It was impossible for the older body, with its historic roots, its prestige, its sense of power and authority, even to begin to understand the political language of the colonies. Not even the friends of America in the motherland could grasp the American contention that their Assemblies were outside the jurisdiction of the British Parliament and subject only to the prerogative of the monarch.

The terms upon which the American Revolution could have been forestalled are a matter of record. Looked at in the light of today, the concessions were trivial, put in the balance against the disruption of an empire; but we must look in the history of the constitutional development of Canada to find a measure for the width and the depth of the gulf which separated the demands of the colonists and the convictions of George the Third and his advisers (perhaps it would be more accurate to say his assistants) as to the only workable polity of empire.