Articles

The Day They Carved Up Canada

In Paris that summer day the fatuous ministers of George III were no match for the shrewd backwoodsmen from the victorious Americas. At the stroke of a pen they gave away the life work of Canada’s great explorers

BRUCE HUTCHISON March 19 1955
Articles

The Day They Carved Up Canada

In Paris that summer day the fatuous ministers of George III were no match for the shrewd backwoodsmen from the victorious Americas. At the stroke of a pen they gave away the life work of Canada’s great explorers

BRUCE HUTCHISON March 19 1955

The Day They Carved Up Canada

BRUCE HUTCHISON

THE STRUGGLE FOR THE BORDER • PART TWO

In Paris that summer day the fatuous ministers of George III were no match for the shrewd backwoodsmen from the victorious Americas. At the stroke of a pen they gave away the life work of Canada’s great explorers

IN THE summer of 1782 Paris beheld, through the front window of Europe, three of that strange race of men who had beaten England, now imagined that they could build a nation in the American wilds and were ready to draw its boundaries.

Few of the better European minds believed that the nation, if ever built, would amount to much or last long. It had won its Revolution but it still consisted of thirteen fractious splinters, called itself a confederation and by no definition could be called a state. It lacked any effective central government. It had no general laws. Its money, those torrents of

paper flowing out of the so-called Congress, were, as the Canadians already had found, “not worth a Continental.”

Just the same, its representatives appeared literate, confident and smooth. Also, they professed to know all about America and entertained extraordinary, rather boyish hopes for its future.

England may have begun to grasp the huge and bitter irony of its recent defeat—all the money, people and genius it had invested in the southern half of the continent had been used to drive it into the northern half, the former empire of France.

Some men in England also saw dimly beyond this paradox and realized that the American Revolution had been the largest human tragedy of modern times. The great, lasting and tragic loss—to England and to civilization itself—lay not in American independence but in the spiritual schism of the English-speaking peoples. And that schism of the spirit would take incalculable time to repair, with incalculable future costs, risks and damage to both sides of the unnecessary war.

The American delegates to the Paris peace conference, in the heady days of their triumph, were the last men who could be expected to see these consequences. They knew all the answers to the immediate questions, supplied them freely and had few doubts about anything.

Ben Franklin, with his homely, smiling face, his genial and ingratiating manners, his humorous and crackling pen, his way with women, his intimate knowledge of such things as stoves and electricity, had long since found his way through the offices,

drawing rooms and coffee houses of London, the salons, boudoirs and intrigues of Paris.

John Jay was a competent New York lawyer, cool, austere and aristocratic. He had drafted some of the basic documents of the Revolution, had presided over its Congress and only missed signing the Declaration by an unfortunate absence on other business.

John Adams, of Boston, though inflicted with a dreadful cousin, Sam, appeared to the English as a gentleman learned in the law, handsome, impetuous, vain and fearless.

The trio of Americans Continued on page 88

Continued on page 88

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possessed more wisdom, knowledge and talent, than all the experienced diplomats of England, France and Spain combined, as they at once proceeded to demonstrate.

But in the considered opinion of King George, Americans were all “knaves” and must pursue their knavishness with his blessings as a good loser. England’s oracle, the omniscient Dr. Johnson, had written off the Americans as a species which “multiplied with the fecundity of their own rattlesnakes,” was drunk with “delirious dreams” and pregnant with “abortions of folly.” Horace Walpole, wiser than the oracle, “laughed that I may not weep” and wrote to a friend that “We do not yet know the extent of our loss. You would think it very slight if you saw how little impression it makes on a luxurious capital.”

The hard-headed politicians of France and Spain saw in the conference only a chance of gain. The parody of a nation installed on some obscure roost at Philadelphia seemed certain to provide good pickings when it fell apart.

Three backwoodsmen from the New World, somewhat polished by fortunate contact with the Old, must confront the ablest brains of England or, at all events, the ablest that the existing government could provide.

Lord Shelburne, the new prime minister, was engaged at home in business far more important than a family quarrel overseas and “probably knew less about Canada than about any portion of the British Empire.” He cared still less, though Canada remained the Empire’s only hold in America.

His chief negotiator at Paris, Richard Oswald, was a feeble vacillating person and had no notion of his responsibilities. Apparently he wished only to make the best of a bad job and get it finished as quickly as possible.

Canada, the unresolved riddle of the Revolution, was not represented. England’s interests alone were to be considered by England, and those carelessly, stupidly, almost blindly. For the contemporary statesmen of England the acres of snows and rattlesnakes could never be more than a minor interest on the fringes of the broken Empire.

The dominant fact at Paris thus was not the sagacity of the three Americans, nor the futility of the English government, equally profound, but the current mood of the English people. The motherland had suffered from a kind of matricide beyond its experience. Therefore, the American experiment must be assigned in bankruptcy with no more trouble.

Not only pride but sound business calculation demanded a quick and generous settlement. England had founded colonies as sources of raw materials and, above all, as markets. They were a business proposition to be

reckoned only on a ledger. For the first light of a new economic philosophy had dawned in The Wealth of Nations written by a revolutionary economist named Adam Smith.

Smith had advised the prime minister to abandon political connection with America altogether and to build it up by the magic of free trade as a larger market for English goods than ever. So far as the new American nation v as concerned, however, Smith had overlooked a disagreeable and essential point.

The rebellious Thirteen Colonies would disregard his discoveries. They would soon install the unrestricted, tariff-free market within their own boundaries. They would not extend it to English goods—or Canadian. England could find other markets. For Canada (if Canada was left at the end of the peace conference) the plans brought to Paris by Franklin, Jay and Adams seemed to spell nothing but economic ruin and probably political extinction.

Oswald’s assignment was to cut losses and liquidate a disastrous investment on practically any terms. Canada entered the conference, so far as it entered at all, hamstrung from the beginning.

England’s Follies at Paris

The Americans, unlike the English, were not tired, frustrated or disillusioned. They were not dealing with some distant colony but with their homeland. They were not at the end but at the beginning of things. They knew exactly what they wanted.

In a contest of this sort—the English defeated and disgusted, the Americans clutching the world’s oyster in their hands-poor Shelburne and Oswald, those fatuous servants of a fatuous King, were no match for the Philadelphia printer, the New York aristocrat and the impetuous lawyer from Boston.

Before England’s follies at Paris are too quickly condemned, as they would always be condemned by hindsight in Canada, consider the known facts of the day. Consider even the littleknown map and the unreliable census. They showed something like three million English colonists hived between the Alleghenies and the Atlantic; much less than a hundred thousand Canadians, nearly all French by blood, clinging to the St. Lawrence. Beyond these sparsely-settled regions nothing but empty wilderness. The calculations of businessmen and economists like Smith showed that wilderness to be worth little. It produced nothing but a few furs and interminable, bloody border wars.

True, English forts held the whole interior, which the Revolution had never been able to capture. The Philadelphia confederacy, though pleased to call itself a nation, was too weak to

resist British power in the West. England also possessed unchallengeable control of the world’s oceans.

(And at that precise moment, by an odd coincidence, its greatest seaman, Horatio Nelson, aged twenty-four, was rowing ashore secretly at Quebec to marry a Miss Simpson, desert the Navy and settle down in Canada, from which pei'sonal and natioixal catastrophe he was dissuaded in the nick of time and hustled back to his ship.)

Thus England’s bargaining position at Paris was strong by history, geography and power. But the interior, including Canada, was hardly worth ai'guing about. The Amei'icans seemed to prize it for some odd x'eason, so let them have it, with England’s best wishes. Then, perhaps,, they would become England’s friends again.

For all these queer reasons England’s case at Paris—which really meant Canada's—was dissipated in advance to the secx-et amazement of Franklin, Jay and Adams. They weixt to the confei'ence prepared for a hai'd fight and a tough bargáin. They found a government ready to give most of a continent away for nothing. The only important problem, it appeared, was to dx’aw the boundaries. Since these decisions must foi'ever affect all future occupants of North America—-the Americans, the Canadians, the Spanish, the Indians, and unknown Eskimos and immigx-ant races without number—they are worth following rather closely.

Franklin, the unequalled horse trader, naturally began the bargain by demanding far more than he expected. Blandly he suggested that England hand over Canada entire to the United States as proof of good intentions. Oswald thought well of the idea axxd recommended it to Shelburne who was inclined at first to accept it.

Still, England could hardly desert the loyal English colony of Nova Scotia and especially the great naval base at Halifax. In sound economics it must retain the fisheries of the Atlantic coast. Anyway, it soon became clear that no one, not even the Americans, really wanted England out of America altogether.

France wanted the United States limited in boundary and power. So did Spain. The Americans might ask for Canada but if it must remain outside their control, as they expected, certainly it was better to have England beside them than to risk a reviving France astride the St. Lawrence.

Franklin’s offer was refused for such reasons as these, though none of them was ever stated. The decision to retain a toe hold in America being reached, almost in a fit of absent-

mindedness, the first boundaries of the new Empire began to appear.

They appeax-ed first in the jungles of the Atlantic coast. In sound horse tx’ading, the Americans ignored the facts axxd demanded a boundary far to the north, on the St. John River. That was too crude, even for Oswald and Shelburne.

The Americans then suggested a generous compromise, doubtless planned beforehand. Let the line run by the St. Croix River on the boundai'v of Nova Scotia. This generosity was immediately accepted by England and the Amei'icans found it difficult to hide their satisfaction.

Of coui'se no one in Pai'is knew where the St. Cx'oix lay exactly and no one in England part iculax'ly cax-ed. Beyond the unmapped river the line would strike due north almost to the St. Lawrence, then turn south on the horseshoe of the watershed dividing the tributaires of the St. Lawrence from the streams falling into the Atlantic— again a line unknown to the map. The western half of the horseshoe, at its southern end, would sti'ike the fortyfifth pax-allel, on the St. Lawrence, about halfway between Montreal and Lake Ontario.

Who Would Get the West?

England ignored or was uninterested in the fact that it had cut its Atlantic regions off from their natux-al connections with central Canada. If there was to be a Canadian nation its whole geography and sound economic pattern had been grossly warped. England I could not foresee that those small con! cenxs would continue to agitate the j Canadians and cost them dear for a ' long time to come.

Westward from the intersection of 1 the forty-fifth parallel and the St. Lawrence where should the boundary lie? Any answer given to that question in Paris must largely fix the future anatomy of the continent. The decision* here involved perhaps the greatest stake in the world—the West, for which French Canada had vainly struggled this century and a half, from which the Revolution had first emei'ged and in which lay treasures of land, mineral and forest beyond reckoning.

There was no ostensible reason in px'actical politics why England should abandon the West, the Ohio country ' and all the territory between the Alleghenies and the Mississippi. The Revolution, with its series of raids and marches, had been unable to shake England’s hold here. However, seeing the English negotiators so anxious for the United States’ good will at any price, the Americans proposed that

England retire from the West altogether.

Their first horse-trading gambit Was the old western boundary of Quebec, stretching from a point near the present city of Cornwall, and paralleling the Ottawa northwestward to the south end of Lake Nipissing.

That line, if it halted the movement of furs out of the West, must destroy the historic business of Canada and, in any case, must leave the colony as a small island of French race in the eastern St. Lawrence valley. Even the hopeful American delegates must have been secretly dumbfounded when the British Cabinet decided in August to accept this bargain and virtually write off any prospect of permanent British power in Canada.

Just as the United States had most of the spoils in its grasp, a delay occurred at Paris and saved the chance of a Canadian nation. Between August and October the British garrison at Gibraltar, under Spanish siege since 1779, proved it could survive Spain’s supreme effort. England’s power at the Mediterranean gate had been saved. The Empire was not crumbling entirely to pieces after all. If Gibraltar was worth holding, so, perhaps, was Canada. A reviving England not only rejected the Nipissing line but intended to retain the whole interior down to the Ohio.

This was staggering news for the Americans. England’s possession of the Ohio country would be disastrous to the ambitions of the United States. The Americans proposed a new compromise. It looked generous after their original demands.

England could have the north if it would abandon the Ohio claim and support the United States in holding the Mississippi line against the old French colony of Louisiana, now in Spanish hands. Where would the boundary then run between Canada and the United States west of the forty-fifth parallel at its junction with the St. Lawrence? The Americans were ready with two alternatives, both far more ambitious than American resources could then enforce.

Britain could have either a straight boundary on the forty-fifth parallel to the headwaters of the Mississippi or a wriggling line along the course of the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes, westward to the northwest corner of the Lake of the Woods, and thence directly west to the Mississippi.

The second line was geographically impossible, since the Mississippi headwaters lay south not west of the Lake of the Woods, but no one knew that.

Moreover, there was a vast difference between the two alternative lines in territory, natural wealth and routes of transportation, a difference that must drastically affect the future of Canada, if it had any.

The line of the forty-fifth parallel would give the United States the rich Niagara peninsula, where Canadian settlement would soon be concentrated, all of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, half of Lake Huron; but it would give Canada the main artery of travel to the prairies, the northern third of Lake Michigan, all Lake Superior, much of the farm land of Wisconsin and Minnesota and the priceless, unknown Minnesota iron field. If the line were ever extended beyond the Mississippi it would give Canada also North Dakota, Montana and Washington.

Britain either was unaware of the difference between the two lines or thought it unimportant. What were a few miles north or south between enemies now becoming friends?

Anyway, to the ignorant but practical mind of London the more northern boundary of the St. Lawrence and the Lakes looked natural on the map. England accepted it without further argument and surrendered all the country to the south.

A stroke of the pen gave away the work of Talon, Joliet, Marquette, La Salle and all the old explorers, the fur route and the interior valley for which innumerable battles had been fought in the wilderness and innumerable men had died. Huge areas, in modern Wisconsin and Minnesota, though no American had ever seen them, were included in the surrender. To make matters worse for Canada, the line across Lake Superior was pushed north of Isle Royale, close to the north shore, and Canadians were almost barred from the lake’s western end. As the cynical French statesmen remarked, “England does not make peace, she buys it.”

The fur traders of Canada, both English and French Canadian, were the first to idealize the extent of that surrender. Their trail to the West had ! been cut. The canoe passage threaded by the first French voyageurs, the portages tramped down by Canadian moccasins for a century, the defending posts of Niagara, Detroit, Mackinac and the others, the control of the Indian fur harvesters, all were handed over to American settlement for the political convenience of England. This was the ultimate betrayal of Canada and it was much larger than the fur traders supposed. Loss of furs would prove to be

the least pai't of the total Canadian loss.

English and Amex'ican negotiatoi's had an easy and false answer to the fur ti’ade and its Indian fx'iends. After all, they said, the political line, a mere scribble on the map, meant little. The important thing for the Canadians was the opportunity to trade with the interior, and this would be protected. Englaxxd had the assux'ance of the Amex'icans that Canadian ti’aders would be admitted freely south of the new boundaxy. It was only on such an understanding that England had consented to the bai'gain.

If the London govexmment believed that, it would believe anything. Obviously nothing could sto¡3 the American businessmen, once they were strong enough, from making the boundary not an imaginary line but a firm wall against Canadian commerce in fur and everything else. The Americans were building a nation and would build it as they pleased.

Were the Canadians Sold Out?

England failed even to write the proposed system of free trade into a treaty—but not entirely out of neglect or stupidity as the Canadians might imagine. There were businessmen in London also, as hard-headed as those in Philadelphia. They had been told by the Americans, quite reasonably, that if there was to be freedom of trade in the western wilderness there must be the same kind of freedom elsewhere. English business would not surx-ender its Navigation Acts and other forms of protection to satisfy a few Canadian fur traders.

The whole problem of trade, therefore, Was postponed for later negotiations, the Canadians fobbed off with the promise of a satisfactory commercial treaty at some time in the future. No such treaty would be negotiated for three quarters of a century and then it would last only ten years. The political boundary drawn in Paris inevitably must bisect not only the territory but the business of North America in pursuit of commercial, political, human and emotional objectives, in denial of all geographic and economic law, in defiance of nature itself.

But a still higher law was operating here, as in all nations—subtle, intangible, illogical and irresistible. Two different peoples were going their separate ways because they prized their myths more than their treasure.

No one at Paris could yet estimate the full dimensions of myth or treasure.

The Americans certainly had established their myth already. It was written in the Declaration and in the hearts of the people; and because men are always governed in essentials not by fact but by feeling, the myth was more valuable to them and more potent than any map, political system or economic theox*y.

The Canadians had a myth also, a French-Canadian myth, but so far

inarticulate, and only half the myth necessary to nourish a nation. The Americans, without ever suspecting it, were about to supply the other complementary half, already moving into Canada with the United Empix'e Loyalists from the new American nation while the Paris confei'ence scrawled its curious line across the map.

It was far too early yet to gauge intangibles far more decisive than the apparent facts. The new map seemed to show only that loyal Canada was I imprisoned within a northland barren, ¡ poor and almost worthless beside the ; rich heritage of the Revolution. Canada j had been sold out, not for the first or J last time. Or so it thought.

In their anger the handful of existing Canadians—or those of them intex-ested in the West—over-looked two facts.

The fix-st was the undiscovered fact j that nox-th of the new line, in all this mess of px-e-Cambrian rock and stunted trees, lay some of the wox-ld’s most px-ecious minerals; the spax-se px-airies, now feeding buffalo and Indian, could grow hax-d wheat; the foothills of the Rockies covered a lake of oil; and farther west, where no boundary was yet considered, the dark smear of a giant forest ran down to the sea x-ocks.

The second fact was that a line fixed by power politics, by horse trading and ignox-ance, by guess and by God, probably was the only line that would stay put iix America. It gave the Canadians far less than they deserved but it also gave the Americans enough to satisfy their appetite. If Britain had pushed the line south to the Ohio, or even to the forty-fifth parallel, a powerful United States, in due time, would have rolled it back to acquire what the expanding nation needed for its purposes and might have kept rolling to the north pole.

The southern Canadian boundary, in plain truth, could be held, mainly and perhaps only, because the Americans had tempoi-arily lost their appetite for Canada. They seemed to have ail the land they knew what to do with on the north. They would somehow secure Louisiana on the west when they got ax-ound to it, would cross the Mississippi and reach the Pacific.

In the meantime, winding up their Revolution, they were secure south of the natural line of the St. Lawrence and the Lakes. West of the Lakes, so long as Spain held a Louisiana of indeterminate shape, no boundary between English and American power was needed. Out there the buffalo, the Indians and the fur traders could continue to cross the forty-ninth parallel without interruption. But not for long, if