Canada An American Nation

Democratic vs. Aristocratic Conceptions of Government

The movement for nationhood in Canada began when in the new British colonies the settlers from the older American colonies, who had been driven into exile by the victors, sought to reproduce the customs and the institutions with which they were familiar; and it closed when the principle of coördinate membership, so clearly set forth by Madison, was finally established. In time it covered a century and a half. In its humble beginnings it was instinctive and unknowing. The people of Canada were far on the road before they understood whither they were bound. Those who resisted and fought the movement realized what it meant; but they fought against the stars since it was no more possible for Canada, once it had attained a measure of power, to remain subordinate to an overseas authority than it was for the American colonists in the eighteenth century.

A very common observation, at least in Canada, forty or fifty years ago, was that Great Britain learned the art of governing colonies from the disaster of the American Revolution. The statement is inexact. What the British government drew from the loss of the colonies, as Professor H. E. Egerton says, was the moral “that democratic institutions are a menace to the Mother country and should therefore if possible be avoided.”

When Great Britain began to build up a second colonial Empire on the North American continent, the authorities were of one mind that the mistakes (as they regarded them) which had attended {25} the founding of the earlier colonies must not be repeated. The new colonies were not to be abandoned, in the words of Chief Justice Smith, to the fatal spirit of democracy.

At the close of the Revolutionary War Great Britain retained two of her North American colonies—Canada (or to give it its official name, Quebec), a French province, and Nova Scotia (soon to be divided into two provinces, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick).

Here the loyalists, fleeing from the triumphant American states, found refuge. One estimate is that 35,000 loyalists went to Nova Scotia, and 20,000 to Quebec, more than half of them going from the province of New York. The New England migration was directed, in its entirety, to Nova Scotia. It dowered that province with scholars, jurists, men of affairs, clergymen of note, who became the leaders of the community. Since there is an intellectual fervor for reaction, as there is for revolution, there were, for a somewhat lengthy period of time, fewer signs in that province than in Canada of the coming to life of the North American spirit of democracy; yet when the revival came, such was the vigor and effectiveness of the movement, such the competence of the leadership, that responsible government, the road to nationhood, was achieved with promptitude and without the convulsions which marked its attainment in Canada.

It is in the history of Canada that we see most clearly the origins and the development of the struggle between the democratic conception of government that was carried there from the English colonies along the Atlantic, and the imported and imposed scheme of government which the British statesmen of the day regarded as the embodiment of the lesson taught by the Revolution. There is a wealth of documentary material available in the letters which passed back and forth between the parties who were planning the new arrangements made necessary by the influx of the Loyalists.

These refugees came into a territory which had already been supplied by the Quebec Act with a carefully thought out scheme of government. The first effect of the impact of the American influx was the recognition that the Quebec Act would not do for the districts in which the Loyalists were finding homes, and that it would have to be modified in essential respects in the areas occupied by the French-speaking subjects. Hence the deliberations and interchanges of views preceding the enactment of the Constitutional Act of 1791. By this Act the Province of Quebec, as it had been constituted seventeen years before, was divided into the provinces of Upper and Lower Canada. The latter included the French towns and settlements, the former the relatively unsettled areas along the Great Lakes and the upper St. Lawrence, into which the Loyalist inflow had been directed. A legislative assembly, which had been denied by the Quebec Act, was conceded to both provinces; but exceeding care was taken that these assemblies should resemble only in name the bodies in the colonies that had delivered those communities to democracy. While the Act was in the making Grenville, the Home Secretary, wrote to Lord Dorchester, the Governor of Canada, that the Crown must have a “certain and improving revenue” from sources “beyond legislative control.”

If this, he said, had been the rule in the older colonies it “would have retained them to this hour in obedience and loyalty.” An appointed legislative council, made up of a specially created nobility with hereditary titles, was outlined as desirable. There would be thus supplied “A body of men having that motive of attachment to the existing form of government which arises from the possession of personal or hereditary distinction,” to act as a buffer against change.

We find an almost complete picture of the ideal colony in the British style in the writings public and private of John G. Simcoe, the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada. Simcoe as subaltern was at Bunker Hill; among the troops that surrendered at Yorktown was the light cavalry regiment, the Queen’s Rangers recruited in Connecticut, which he commanded. The intervening years had been marked for him by much fighting and many wounds, and he returned to Great Britain after the war, still in his twenties, with a reputation for devotion to the lost cause that brought him high praise from George III, and with a lively dislike for the victors in the struggle. His Canadian biographer speaks of “his blind fidelity to the King’s Cause.” When the project of dividing Quebec took shape he was advised that he would be given charge of Upper Canada; and in the light of this knowledge he wrote to a friend in January, 1791, giving in outline some of his hopes for the new province. Simcoe could not bring himself to believe that the separation of the English race was permanent. The outcome of the Revolution and the establishment of the Republic was to him some kind of horrid dream that would pass away. He hoped that the establishment of a model government, new colonial style, in the forests of Upper Canada would in some way contribute to this end.

I mean to prepare for whatever Convulsions may happen in the United States and the Method I propose is by establishing a free honorable British Government and a pure administration of its Laws which shall hold out to the solitary Emigrant, and to the several States, advantages that the present form of Government doth not and cannot permit them to enjoy. There are inherent Defects in the Congressional form of Government; the absolute prohibition of an order of nobility is one.

The fervency of Simcoe’s desire to see the lost colonies recovered thus found expression: “I would die by more than Indian torture to restore my King and his Family their just inheritance and to give my Country that fair and natural accession of Power which an Union with their Brethren could not fail to bestow and render permanent.” The value of the reunion, it will be noted, is expressed in terms of military power. In the new province there was to be, Simcoe hoped, “a hereditary Council with some mark of Nobility.” He would have a bishop, by which he meant that the Church of England would be established and endowed. There would be an English chief justice. The colony was to be the home of the arts and sciences. “This colony” he said, “should in its very Foundations provide for every Assistance that can possibly be procured for the Arts and Sciences and for every Embellishment that may hereafter Decorate and attract Notice, and may point it out to the Neighboring States as a Superior, more happy and more polished form of Government.”

The same note of cheerful appreciation of the superiority of the new system was sounded when the Constitutional Act was submitted to Parliament a few months later. Parliament, Lord Grenville said, was “about to communicate the blessings of the English Constitution to the subjects of Canada because they were fully convinced that it was the best in the world.” The supreme virtue of the Constitution, it was {30} explained, was found in its happy combination of the aristocratic and the democratic elements. In the American colonies unbridled democracy had run wild without the counterweight of a House of Lords; while the authority of the Crown had lacked the support of a hereditary aristocracy and an established church. These errors, it was declared, were to be guarded against in the new colonies. By the scheme thus adopted the actual power was vested in the governor; an executive council, appointed by the British government, was to advise and assist him; there was to be a legislative council of life members to whom hereditary titles carrying right of membership in the Upper House would be issued if conditions permitted; and a legislative Assembly, elected on a wide franchise but with such limitation of control over the collection and distribution of revenue as to deprive it almost completely of the power of the purse. A reserve of land, equal to one-seventh of all land granted, was set aside as an endowment for a “Protestant clergy,” which term was interpreted for many decades as meaning only the clergy of the Church of England.

John G. Simcoe, as a Member of Parliament, assisted in the passage of the Constitutional Act and thereafter set sail for Canada to bring his model colony into being. All the circumstances favored him. There were no encumbrances or handicaps; the field was clear for constructive experiments. The colony was remote from the great world. Its peoples were, to a {31} man, British by blood or by inclination, tested by war and sacrifice. They were insulated against influences from the new Republic by the resentments, hatreds, and grievances of a fratricidal war. But in spite of these seemingly favorable conditions, Simcoe’s achievements fell far short of his hopes; many of his plans miscarried; others in their practical application bore little resemblance to the dreams he had dreamed in England. In a letter to the Duke of Portland, written toward the end of his term, he said: “I have endeavoured to establish the form as well as the spirit of the British Constitution by modelling all the minutest branches of the Executive Government after a similar system and by aiming as far as possible to turn the views of His Majesty’s subjects from any attention to the various modes and customs of the several provinces from which they emigrated, to the contemplation of Great Britain itself, as the sole and primary object of general and particular imitation.”

Governor Simcoe in this attempted the impossible and was paid for his temerity in disappointment. The settlers had brought from their American homes a desire to continue in their new homes the “modes and customs” to which the governor objected; they wanted to reproduce the simple municipal methods of the old colonies; their views about schools were not those of the governor; they, by a very large majority, preferred the ministrations of itinerant dissenting ministers—”sectaries” Simcoe called them—to the services of the Church of England, which was regarded by the Governor as a sure bulwark for the Constitution. Owing to the poverty of the people, the scheme for creating a nobility had to be postponed (forever, fortunately); his plan to have lieutenants appointed for the counties was regarded with such dislike that it did not long survive his departure; his proposal to turn the towns over to corporations so organized that the elections would be “as little popular as possible, meaning such corporations to tend to the support of the Aristocracy of the Country” was rejected as quixotic by the home authorities. One of Simcoe’s earliest disappointments wears a comic air. The settlers chose, for the first Assembly, members of a type displeasing to the governor. To retired officers of the British Army who were available, they preferred “one table men”—that is, men who drew no social line between their families and their hired help. Behind resistance to his purposes, open or disguised, the governor always detected disloyalty, democracy, and republicanism. When he was presented with a petition drafted by Rev. John Bethune, a Presbyterian minister, and largely signed, asking that the right of solemnizing marriage be extended to the ministers of all denominations, he denounced it as “the product of a wicked head and a most disloyal heart.” Even in the guarded chamber of the Legislative Council, with its hand-picked membership, the horrid specter of republicanism raised its head; when two of its members disagreed with him on a matter of policy, he identified them as republicans. He asked forthwith for the appointment of a Captain Shaw “so that the plotters will have to face another staunch friend of the Constitution.”

There was of course not a vestige of desire for the establishment of republican institutions on the part of those who thus failed to respond to the ardent young governor’s enthusiasms; their resistance was nothing but the instinctive rallying of the mass of the people to the defence of modes, customs, habits of thought, social attitudes, and preference for simple democratic institutions in keeping with the North American tradition and with convictions which were part of their existence. Though they had fought and suffered for the royal cause they were not prepared willingly to accept a form of government which they knew to be not in keeping with their needs or their interests. Not that there was any organized formal resistance; the time for that had not yet come.

There were indeed influential residents who were enthusiastically in favor of the Simcoe policy of setting them apart from the generality of the people and conferring upon them power, privilege, and emoluments. These were the Loyalist gentry who had lost position, office, and wealth through their devotion to the cause of the King; and it was quite in keeping with the spirit in which the colonies of the Second Empire were being founded that they should be constituted the upper governing class in the new colony. Whatever his failures, Simcoe did succeed in imposing upon Upper Canada a nondemocratic form of government, in keeping with the blue prints, which in its strongholds of privilege and advantage held out for nearly half a century against a rising tide of opposition.