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The Ideological Origins of Canadian Confederation*

  • Peter J. Smith (a1)

This article discusses the ideological origins of Canadian Confederation. As such it directly challenges a belief commonly held by Canadian political scientists and historians that Canadian Confederation was the product of a purely pragmatic exercise. The author argues instead that the ideological origins of the Canadian federal state may be traced to the debate that divided eighteenth and nineteenth-century Britain, America and France—a debate between the defenders of classical republican values and the proponents of a rising commercial ideology formulated during the Enlightenment. Only by understanding how this debate unfolded in nineteenth-century Canada can we understand the particular configuration of the Canadian state that emerged triumphant in the 1860s. Furthermore, an understanding of this debate also offers political scientists a broader context for interpreting long-held Canadian attitudes toward authority, the uses of political patronage, the public debt, capitalism, and the state and economic development.

Les origines idéologiques de la Confédération canadienne posent un défi aux analystes (et notamment aux historiens) qui la conçoivent comme la conséquence d'un exercice purement pragmatique. L'auteur prétend au contraire qu'il faut tracer ces origines au débat idéologique qui a opposé la Grande-Bretagne, les États-Unis et la France: un débat entre les gardiens orthodoxes des valeurs républicaines et les promoteurs d'une idéologie commerciale en plein développement depuis le siècle des Lumières. Cen'est qu'en comprenant les répercussions de ce débat au Canada qu'on saura saisir justement la configuration particulière de l'État canadien à sa naissance. Du même coup, on élargira le contexte dans lequel on peut interpréter les opinions, considérées comme vraie depuis longtemps, sur l'autorité, le patronage, la dette publique, le capitalisme, l'État et le développement économique.

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1 This is a common refrain of Canadian political scientists and historians. Edwin Black, for example, argues that “Confederation was born in pragmatism without the attendance of a readily definable philosophic rationale” (Black, E. R., Divided Loyalities: Canadian Concepts of Federalism [Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1975], 4). Peter Waite states that Confederation had a “fundamentally empirical character” about it and was essentially a practical exercise (The Life and Times of Confederation 1864–1867: Politics, Newspapers and the Union of British North America [Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962], 25). Donald Smiley writes that “Unlike Americans… in the eighteenth century… Canadians have never experienced the kind of decisive break with their political past which would have impelled them to debate and resolve fundamental political questions” (Canada in Question: Federalism in the Eighties [3rd ed.; Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1980], 285). Finally, J. K. Johnson makes the following observation on one of the leading Fathers of Confederation: “John A. Macdonald's political ‘ideas’ or‘beliefs’ have been subjected to more learned scrutiny than those of almost any other Canadian leader, a fact which is more than a little surprising, considering that the scholarly consensus has been that he was not a man of ideas at all.” Johnson also maintains that “it is true he was essentially pragmatic, even opportunistic by nature. He did not disguise his pragmatism with political rhetoric; he positively boasted of it.” The image of “John A.” was that of “the plain, no-nonsense practical man of good sense” (Johnson, J. K., “Macdonald, John A.,” in Careless, J. M. S. [ed.], The Pre-Confederation Premiers: Ontario Government Leaders, 1841–1867 [Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980], 223–24). One of the few political scientists to take Macdonald seriously as a man of ideas is Rod Preece (“The Political Wisdom of Sir John A. Macdonald,” this JOURNAL 17 [1984], 459–86).

2 Some of the more prominent contributors include: John Dunn, “The Politics of Locke in England and America in the Eighteenth Century,” in Yolton, John W. (ed.), John Locke: Problems and Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969);Bailyn, Bernard, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1969);Wood, Gordon S., The Creation of the American Republic 1776–1787 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969);Dickinson, H. T., Liberty and Property: Political Ideology in Eighteenth Century Britain (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977);Browning, Reed, Political and Constitutional Ideas of the Court Whigs (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982);Banning, Lance, The Jeffersonian Persuasion (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978);Forbes, Duncan, Hume's Philosophical Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978);Pocock, J. G. A., The Machiavellian Moment (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975). My debt to Pocock's work is obvious in the first part of this article.

3 The work of Janet Ajzenstat is one exception. See, for example, her “Modern Mixed Government: A Liberal Defence of Inequality,” this JOURNAL 18 (1985), 119–35.

4 The Country opposition, however, was hardly a homogeneous group. Dickinson provides a succinct overview of their internal divisions, which centred around religious matters and the question of who should enjoy active political power (Liberty and Property, 163–80).

5 For a good overview on how these approaches have been applied to Scottish social thought see Pocock, J. G. A., “Cambridge Paradigms and Scotch Philosophers: A Study of the Relations between the Civic Humanist and the Civil Jurisprudential Interpretation of Eighteenth Century Social Thought,” in Hont, Istvan and Ignatieff, Michael (eds.), Wealth and Virtue: The Shaping of Political Economy in the Scottish Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 235–53.

6 This is particularly the view of Nicholas Phillipson, “Adam Smith as Civic Moralist,” ibid., 179–203, and “The Scottish Enlightenment,” in Porter, R. and Teich, M. (eds.), The Enlightenment in National Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 1940.

7 Hume, David, “Of Refinement in the Arts,” Essays Moral, Political and Literary, Vol. 1, Green, T. H. and Grose, T. H. (eds.), (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1875), 300.

8 Smith, Adam, The Wealth of Nations, Canaan, E. (ed.), (New York: Random House, 1937), bk. 14, chap. 7, 551.

9 Smith, Adam, Lectures on Justice, Police, and Arms, Canaan, Edwin (ed.), (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896), as quoted in Chitnis, Anand C., The Scottish Enlightenment (London: Croom Helm, 1976), 104.

10 Smith also had a more integrated and historical understanding of the relationship between the economic and the political than did Hume, believing as he did in the four stages theory of development—hunting, pastoral, agriculture and commerce. Smith was also less optimistic than Hume about the beneficial effects of commercial society. For a good overview of the intellectual differences, see John Robertson, “Scottish Political Economy Beyond the Civic Tradition: Government and Economic Development in The Wealth of Nations,” History of Political Thought 4 (1983), 451–82.

11 Hume, David, “Of Civil Liberty,” in Essays, 162–63.

12 The Wealth of Nations, bk. 5, chap. 3, 896, 897.

13 Bailyn, B., The Origins of American Politics (New York: Random House, 1972), 5658.

14 For more on Hume's influence see Douglas Adair, “That Politics May Be Reduced to a Science: Hume, David, Madison, James and the Tenth Federalist,” Huntington Library Quarterly 30 (1956–57), 343–60.

15 Hume, David, “Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth,” in Essays, 497.

16 Madison, James, The Federalist Papers, no. 10, introduction by Clinton Rossiter (New York: Mentor Books, 1961), 79. On this point see Adair, “That Politics May Be Reduced to a Science,” and Moore, James, “Hume's Political Science and the Classical Republican Tradition,” this JOURNAL 10 (1977), 809–39.

17 See Farrand, Max (ed.), The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), vol. 1, 296, 376, 381.

18 For more on this point see Banning, The Jeffersonian Persuasion, and Stourzh, Gerald, Alexander Hamilton and the Idea of Republican Government (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1970).

19 Thomas Jefferson, “Letter to Ogilvie, 1811,” in Padover, Saul K., Thomas Jefferson on Democracy (New York: Mentor Books, 1939), 136.

20 Of all of the above Cobbett radicalism was sharpest in its attack upon corruption. See Dickinson, H. T., British Radicalism and the French Revolution 1789–1815 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 70, 71. One of Cobbett's greatest admirers was Robert Gourlay, a radical leader in Upper Canada during the 1820s, whose views, according to his biographer, were close to “an almost forgotten party called the Country Party which opposed court corruption” (Milani, Lois Dorroch, Robert Gourlay, Gadfly [Thornbury, Ontario: Ampersand Press, 1971], 26).

21 Kelley, Robert, The Transatlantic Persuasion: The Liberal-Democratic Mind in the Age of Gladstone (New York: Knopf, 1969), 409.

22 Creighton, Donald, The Empire of the St. Lawrence (Toronto: Macmillan, 1972), 45.

23 The Seventh Report from the Select Committee of the House of Assembly of Upper Canada on Grievances (Toronto: M. Reynolds, 1832). iii.

24 See Dickinson, , Liberty and Authority, 208.1 am grateful to James Moore for bringing this to my attention.

25 The Seventh Report.

26 Papineau, L. J., Address to the Electors of the West Ward of Montreal (Montreal: Fabre, Perrault and Co., 1831), 1.

27 Toronto Constitution, June 14, 1837.

28 Papineau, L. J., La Minerve, March 17, 1836, as quoted in Ouellet, F., Lower Canada 1791–1840 (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1980), 218.

29 Davis, Robert, The Canadian Farmer's Travels in the United States (Buffalo: Steel's Press, 1837), 97.

30 Reprinted in Lavere, Trevor H. and Jarrell, Richard A. (eds.), A Curious Field-Book: Science and Society in Canadian History (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1974), 160, 161.

31 For the relationship between patronage and responsible government see Trofimenkoff, Susan Mann, The Dream of Nation (Toronto: Macmillan, 1982), 8687.

32 The Examiner, September 19, 1849, as quoted in Careless, J. M. S., The Union of the Canadas (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1967), 167.

33 Ibid.

34 Frank Underhill, “Some Aspects of Upper Canadian Radical Opinion in the Decade before Confederation,” in Cook, Ramsay (ed.), Upper Canadian Politics in the 1850's (Canadian Historical Readings; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967), 2.

35 See the introduction by Bruce, Vida to Gerin-Lajoie's, AntoineJean Rivard (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1977).

36 Antoine Gerin-Lajoie, as quoted in Marcel Rioux, “The Development of Ideologies in Quebec,” in Schultz, Richard, Kruhlak, Orest M., and Terry, John C. (eds.), The Canadian Political Process (3rd ed.; Toronto: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1979), 101.

37 Jean Rivard, 65.

38 Heintzman, Ralph, “The Political Culture of Quebec, 1840–1960,” this JOURNAL 16 (1983), 359.

39 As quoted in Shortt, Adam and Doughty, Arthur G., Documents Relating to the Constitutional History of Canada, pt. 2 (Ottawa: J. de L. Taché, King's Printer, 1918), 984.

40 Chisholme, David, The Lower-Canada Watchman (Kingston: James Macfarlane, 1829), 305. Chisholme (1776?-1842) was born in Scotland and emigrated to Canada in 1822, where he worked as a journalist and editor for the Montreal Gazette. He was also a close friend of Lord Dalhousie.

41 Camillus (Henry, John), An Enquiry into the Evils of General Suffrage (Montreal: Nahum Mower, 1820), as reprinted in Hare, John and Wallot, Jean-Pierre (eds.), Confrontations (Trois-Rivières: Boréal Express, 1970), 100. The emphasis is Henry's. John Henry (1776–1820) was probably born in Ireland, moving to the United States at the turn of the century and then to Canada, where he became connected with the North West Company.

42 “Uniacke's Memorandum to Windham, 1806,” in Canadian Historical Review 17 (1936), 35.

43 For more on the two plans of union see Cuthbertson, B. C. U., “The Old Attorney General, Richard John Uniacke, 1735–1830” (unpublished M.A. thesis, University of New Brunswick, 1970).

44 Nelson, W. H., “The Last Hopes of the American Loyalists,” Canadian Historical Review 32 (1951), 23.

45 Smith, Adam, “Essays on the Colonies,” in Sir Lewis, George Cornwell (ed.), Governance of Dependencies (London: M. Walter Dunne, 1901), 76, 77, 78. Most of Smith's essay in replicated in Wealth of Nations.

46 Wealth of Nations, bk. 5, chap. 3, 898; bk. 4, chap. 7, 551. If Donald Winch is correct there are parallels not only with Loyalists and Tories but with Madison's thoughts on federal union. See his Adam Smith's Politics: An Essay in Historiographic Revision (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), 161–62.

47 Jonathan Sewell, Jr., “Memoir on the Means of Promoting the Joint Interests, 1807,” in Robinson, J. B., Plan for a General Legislative Union of the British Provinces in North America (London: W. Clowes, 1822), 7. Justice Sewell of Quebec was the son of Jonathan Sewell, Sr., of Massachusetts.

48 Robinson, J. B., Letter to the Right Hon. Earl Bathurst (London: William Clowes, 1825), 31.

49 Strachan, John, Observations on a Bill for Uniting the Legislative Councils and Assemblies (London, 1824), in Henderson, J. L. H., John Strachan: Documents and Opinions (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1969), 157.

50 Strachan, John (and Robinson, J. B.), Observations of the Policy of a General Union of all the British Provinces of North America (London: William Clowes, 1824) in Henderson, , John Strachan, 68.

51 Hamilton, P. S., Union of the Colonies of British North America, Being Three Papers Upon This Subject (Montreal: John Lovell, 1864), 10, 58.

52 Robinson, J. B., Plan for a General Legislative Union, 40.

53 Cuthbertson, “The Old Attorney General,” 224.

54 Lord Durham's Report, Craig, Gerald M. (ed.), (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1963), 162.

55 On this point see Allan, Cephas D., “The Genesis of the Confederation of Canada,” in Annual Report of the American Historical Association 1 (1911).

56 Johnston, J. S., in Edward Manning Saunders, Three Premiers of Nova Scotia (Toronto: William Brigges, 1909), 255.

57 Hamilton, P. S., “Observations Upon a Union of the Colonies, 1854–1855,” in Union of the Colonies, 18.

58 Strachan, John, A Discourse on the Character of King George Addressed to the Inhabitants of British America (Montreal: Nahum Mower, 1810), 29, 30, 50.

59 Wise, S. F., “Upper Canada and the Conservative Tradition,” in Firth, Edith G. (ed.), Profiles of a Province (Toronto: Ontario Historical Society, 1967), 21. See also Whitaker, R., “Images of the State in Canada,” in Panitch, Leo (ed.), The Canadian State (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977), 2871.

60 Hamilton, “Observations upon a Union,” 20.

61 Innis, Harold, The Fur Trade in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973), 396.

62 See Nourry, Louis, “L'idee de fédération chez Etienne Parent, 1831–1852,” Revue d'Histoire de l'Amérique Française 26 (1973), 533–57.

63 See Silver, A. L., The French-Canadian Idea of Confederation (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982).

64 Mackenzie, W. L., “Letter to John Neilson, December 7, 1829,” in Fairly, Margaret (ed.), The Selected Writings of William Lyon Mackenzie (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1960);Gourlay, Robert, “To the Honourable the Commons of Upper Canada Met in Assembly, December 24, 1825,” Public Archives of Canada. Co. O. 42 Vol. 380.

65 Waite, , The Life and Times of Confederation, 9394.

66 Whelan, Quoted by, Union of the British Provinces, 42, in Waite, , The Life and Times of Confederation, 80.

67 McGee, D'Arcy, Parliamentary Debates on the Subject of the Confederation of the British North American Provinces (Quebec: Hunter and Rose and Co., 1865), 128 (hereinafter referred to as Confederation Debates).

68 Pope, Joseph (ed.), Confederation: Being a Series of Hitherto Unpublished Documents Bearing On the British North America Act (Toronto: Carswell, 1895), 55. Minutes and notes of discussion of the Quebec Conference were kept by Hewitt Bernard.

69 Confederation Debates, 62.

70 Ibid., 255, 256.

71 Creighton, D. G., British North America at Confederation: A Study Prepared for the Royal Commission on Dominion-Provincial Relations (Ottawa: Queen's Printer, 1963), 9.

72 Confederation Debates, 64.

73 Ibid., 64.

* Earlier versions of this article were presented in 1985 at the Tenth Anniversary Conference of the British Association for Canadian Studies in Edinburgh, Scotland, and at the annual meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association, Montreal. I am grateful not only to David V. J. Bell for his comments and suggestions at the CPSA meeting, but also for the comments of Elizabeth Smythe and of the anonymous reviewers of this JOURNAL.

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Canadian Journal of Political Science/Revue canadienne de science politique
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