Canada An American Nation

Parallels with Pre-Revolutionary America

There are three statements associated with the American Revolution which have parallels in the Canadian record; and when the dates are compared an idea can be got of how impossible it was for British statesmanship in the seventies of the eighteenth century to understand and still less to act upon the propositions put forward by the colonists.

The first is article four of the Declaration of the First Continental Congress in 1774 as drafted by John Adams: Here the claim was made that the colonists “are entitled to a free and exclusive power of legislation in their several provincial legislatures, subject only to the negative of their sovereign in such manner as has been heretofore used and accustomed.” But the right of the British Parliament to regulate the external trade of the colonies “for the purpose of securing the commercial advantages of the whole empire to the Mother country” was conceded.

It was not until 1839, more than half a century later, that it occurred to a British statesman that the division of power between the Imperial and the Colonial Parliaments suggested by Adams in 1774 might afford a solution for the imperial problem of that day. Lord Durham in his report proposed self-government for the Canadian colonies, to be accompanied by the “perfect subordination” of the colonies to the British government with respect to all external matters.

The exception, had there been a settlement in 1774 on these terms, would doubtless have proved as {21} unworkable in the American colonies as it afterwards proved in Canada. Of Lord Durham’s reservation in the case of Canada, in the light of its subsequent abandonment, Sir C. P. Lucas has said: “He did not seem fully to recognize that when once an overseas community has been endowed with national institutions it is difficult, if not impossible, to set limits to its growth as a nation or permanently to withhold any subject as outside its scope.”

The most comprehensively succinct statement of the issue between the British Parliament and the first American colonies was that made by Madison. He wrote in 1800:

The fundamental principle of the revolution was that the Colonies were co-ordinate members with each other and with Great Britain, of an Empire united by a common executive sovereign. The legislative power was maintained to be as complete in each American parliament as in the British parliament. And the Royal Prerogative was in force in each colony by virtue of its acknowledging the King for its executive magistrate as it was in Great Britain by virtue of a like acknowledgment there. A denial of these principles by Great Britain and the assertion of them by America produced the revolution.

It was not until 1926—150 years after this issue was put, in the old colonies, to the test of the sword—that {22} the principle thus defined by Madison was accepted as the true basis of empire with the consent of Great Britain, which thus renounced its position of central authority. The parallel between Madison’s statement and the governing affirmation of the Balfour declaration in 1926 is exact. Of the “group of self-governing communities composed of Great Britain and the Dominions” the declaration said:

Their position and mutual relation may be readily defined. They are autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.

Let me now quote a statement in which the Centralist argument against the demand of the colonies was put in some twenty words. Governor Hutchinson, speaking to the Massachusetts Assembly in January, 1773, said: “I know of no line that can be drawn between the supreme authority of Parliament and the total independence of the Colonies.”

In the long contest in Canada for responsible government the argument of Hutchinson was repeated, until it became a commonplace, as the supposedly conclusive answer to the case put forward by the reformers.

In the few uncompromising words of Hutchinson we find the explanation of why force alone could break the deadlock between the American colonies and the government in London.

Professor W. B. Munro of Harvard—one of the many Canadians who have found their talents acceptable to American universities and have repaid the opportunity given them by conspicuously brilliant service—says of Madison’s principle that it “would probably have gained full recognition at Westminster a whole century or more ago if the American Revolution had not occurred.”

But the Revolution could not be avoided because the Americans could not accept subordination and Great Britain would not permit them to stay in the Empire on any other condition; nor was it then possible for the idea of peaceful separation to rise in the minds of men.

Therefore the issue moved with all the inevitability of Greek tragedy through the arena of discussion to the battlefields. It was a clash of opposing principles that could not be adjusted within the ambit of a single political system.