The Two Peers Who Launched the Commonwealth
Durham’s blueprint for Canadian self-government helped send him to an early grave. Elgin braved rocks and cabbages to see it carried out. Thus two English aristocrats stopped annexation by the U.S. and set a pattern that would change the whole Empire
THE STRUGGLE FOR THE BORDER
IN THE footsteps of Champlain, Frontenac, Phips, Montcalm, Wolfe, Montgomery and the others who had worn smooth the cobblestones or battered down the walls of Quebec for more than two centuries, there arrived, on May 28, 1838, an egregious personage who would have perhaps a larger effect on Canada, the United States and the world than any of his predecessors. That date, if any can he fixed in an evolution so long and amorphous, will serve as well as any other for the beginning of the Third British Empire, later called a commonwealth.
When a white charger bore the gaudy gold-braided figure up to the Chateau St. Louis, John George Lambton, Lord Durham, appeared to the eager Canadians as their savior from rebellion, business collapse and anarchy. He had come from London as a dictator to investigate the Macken/.ie-Papineau uprising and, if possible, to invent a new system of government for Canada. His assignment and powers were pract ically unlimited and quite unprecedented.
Much more depended on him than the young Queen Victoria and her government supposed. They knew only that the bewildered Canadians, even the loyal ones, were dissatisfied with their present system and yet clung to the Empire. What did they want? Maybe Durham could make some sense of this outlandish country. In any case, the easy-going British Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, had found Durham a prickly companion in parliament and his voyage at least would keep him out of the way for a while. He was instructed to save Canada from a rebellion that had been suppressed hut might recur. Actually he was undertaking to save the Empire, though few men saw that its future was in imminent peril.
Durham’s work, failing or succeeding, must forever affect the future of the American republic as well. If he failed, the weak, disjointed and chaotic Canadian colonies would certainly lapse, one by one, or all together, into the United States. If he succeeded, there might be a Canadian nation on the flank of the republic and, later on, other similar nations in Africa, Asia and the South Pacific. If a new kind of empire could be invented — a project hardly considered in Britain so far—it might endure as a permanent friend and ally of the republic.
The shoulders on which this heavy and incalculable burden had been placed were young but powerful. Durham was forty-six. The chiseled face, almost theatrical in its beauty, was crowned with an aura of glistening curls, the eye luminous and hypnotic. A brilliant mind and a febrile energy were marred only by frail health.
This darling of a fickle fortune had come from an ancient county family so distinguished that, his father had scorned a title. After college and three years in the army, the son had quickly revealed a certain fashionable Byronic ardor by running off with an heiress for a somewhat scandalous Gretna Green marriage, had fought a duel to settle an election argument, had supported the great Reform Bill with his father-in-law, Earl Grey, and on entering parliament had won the name of “Radical Jack.”
His radicalism was entirely abstract and intellectual. At heart he was an arrogant, brittle and moody aristocrat , who traveled across the Atlantic with his own private band, his family plate, his racing t rophies and other baggage requiring two days to unload. So delicate were his tastes, so sensitive his nostrils, that he forbade anyone on his ship to smoke and, sniffing tobacco one night, rushed from his cabin in a rage to find Vice-Admiral Sir Gharles Paget crouched with a secret cigar in the lee of a lifeboat.
Conditions in America, as Durham judged them, were much worse than he or his government had believed. Of Lower Canada he said in his most memorable phrase: “I expected to find a contest between a government and a people; I found two nations warring in the bosom of a single state.”
Canada, Upper and Lower, was prostrate with depression —public works suspended, government unable to pay its hills, the people desperate or apathetic, many farmers emigrating in despair to the United States. The border still smoldered in the fires of the recent rebellion. The Canadian steamer Sir Robert Peel was burned by a black-faced gang of American pirates on the St. Lawrence a few days after the dictator’s arrival. South of the border raids were being planned by the Hunters’ Lodges, a secret society organized to invade and “liberate” Canada from “British tyranny.” One of Durham’s first acts was to offer a reward of a thousand pounds for the conviction in the American courts of any person who had committed a crime against Canada. By this gesture he told the American government plainly Continued on page 90
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that the Canadian rebellion and aftermath had become an international concern, that he expected Washington to enforce its own laws against pirates and raiders. He then stmt his brotherin-law, Colonel Grey, to see President Van Buren and demand an end American interference.
Next he solved the problem of hundreds oí rebels in the overcrowded Quebec jails by releasing all of them save eight ringleaders, who were mercifully exiled to Bermuda, since no Quebeo jury would convict them anyway.
I hat was the fatal step of Durham’s career anti would soon end it.
Ignorant of the conspiracy now under way against him in London he set feverishly to work, examined witnesses, questioned delegations, read mountains of documents, dashed about the country by boat, carriage or horse and began to compile the famous Durham Report.
It has been called, with some justice, the; greatest state paper in the history of the British peoples. Certainly it was to have an effect on their affairs comparable to that of Magna Carta or the Bill of Rights. It was to be, indeed, the starting point of the future Commonwealth, even if few students Britain, Canada or the United States seem to have realized its importance at the time.
Who actually wrote the report has never been clear. Durham had brought with him an odd brain trust that reflected his contempt of convention. Thomas Turton, after drafting the Reform Bill of 1832, had acquired soiled reputation in a disagreeable divorce case. Charles Buller was an able secretary but practiced a sharp wit, wounding to Canadians. Gibbon Wakefield, not a member of Durham’s official staff, worked closely with him and undoubtedly wrote some part of his findings. This notorious man had been in jail recently for abducting an heiress. Altogether it was a somewhat gamey group of men to represent the virgin Queen.
Durham’s enemy, Lord Brougham, meeting the historian, Macaulay, in a London street said of the report and its authors that “the matter came from felon, the style from a coxcomb and the Dictator furnished only six letters, D-u-r-h-a-m.” That rather shabby aphorism was typical of Brougham, the prince of cads, who would be remembered chiefly as the inventor of a new kind of carriage. Durham would be remembered for the unconscious invention of f.he Third British Empire.
No single hand could possibly have written the report in the available time, hut it was essentially Durham’s work and could hardly have been implemented without his prestige behind it.
There was nothing new in its two principal recommendations. A legislative union of Upper and Lower Canada in one colony had long been discussed by Canadians, had been proposed by the British government a few years earlier but abandoned in the face Quebec s protest. There was nothing new either in Durham’s proposal to give a united Canada and the other Canadian colonies of the Atlantic coast responsible government. That revolutionary reform, which might have prevented the American Revolution sixty years before, had been urged Durham in York by a Canadian, Robert Baldwin.
In accepting it Durham proposed to alter the whole course of the Empire’s
business. Once responsible government had been granted to the Canadian colonies the process could not be halted. It must be the watershed of the Second Empire leading to the Third and to the modern Commonwealth.
Durham had seen the first fact of Canada clear and whole—Canadians must be allowed to govern themselves or they would finally leave the Empire as the Americans had. The issue, as he accurately concluded, was self-government, more rebellion or annexation to the United States.
His second conclusion was totally, almost comically erroneous. He believed that if the French-speaking Canadians of Lower Canada were joined in legislative union with the English-speaking Canadians of Upper Canada they would be quietly engulfed and anglicized. Their separate language, church and culture would gradually disappear. One can hardly understand why a man so intelligent could not see that once the Canadiens were given the power of self-government they would use it primarily to protect their separate life.
These things lay some distance ahead As Durham was starting work on his report at Quebec he read in a New York newspaper the news of his betrajal at home. The malignant Brougham had attacked him in parliament for exceeding his authority in banishing the eight rebels to Bermuda, a colony outside his jurisdiction.
His Legacy—a Time Bomb
The power of Brougham, who might have been the most notable British figure of his age if he had possessed virtue equal to his talent, was too much for Durham’s fair-weather friends. Melbourne yielded to the pressure and disallowed Durham’s ordinance. The lucky prisoners of Bermuda, as guilty as men could be of treason, were released. Durham instantly resigned. After only five months of office in Canada he boarded his ship with another ceremonial procession and sailed for England. Quebec townsmen burned Brougham in effigy.
The deposed dictator reached Plymouth in November. Hastening his work with the ruin of his health, he pushed his report into print by early February. About a year later he died of exhaustion, first of four British governors who would go the same way. His last words—“Canada will one day do justice to my memory” —were an understatement. His countrymen built a Greek temple over his grave. His proper monument is the modern Commonwealth.
Durham was dead, but he had left a time bomb in the politics of Britain.
The practical politicians of London asked themselves whether his proposed experiment would work, whether it should be allowed to work at the risk of smashing the centralized Empire. That question was hardly less important to Americans than to Canadians. If the experiment worked it must produce a second American nation not long hence and only such a nation could permanently secure the boundary, still unfixed in Maine and Oregon and no more than a geographical expression from the Lakes to the Rockies.
If the Canadian colonies could not learn to govern themselves and join together as a nation, annexation to the republic must ultimately ensue.
On the other hand, if the colonies governed themselves and decided to unite, how could they be compelled to serve the interests of Britain? What kind of empire would it be if its several members could go their own separate ways in great affairs? Obviously it would be no kind of empire ever known before.
Faced with this apparently insuperable dilemma of logic, the British government instructed its new governor to mark time and feel out the Canadian situation. Responsible government was indefinitely delayed; only legislative union of the two colonies was to go ahead for the present.
The union was formally approved in 1840 under Durham’s successor, Charles Poulett Thomson, a timber merchant and candlestick maker. For Governor Thomson, now established in the shabby little capital of Kingston, this was only the beginning. He must try to get on with the Canadians and accept the advice of his appointed Council so long as it did not damage British interests. He thus became his own prime minister and began to erect a political party in his own support among politicians who had each been a party unto himself. He appeased his sulking Assembly by securing British subsidies to finance the suspended work on roads and canals. At his death the depression had begun to lift and an orderly administration had been established. Britain’s rejection of responsible government in form was gradually dissolving in fact.
The issue was raised, but hardly joined, under the next two governors —Sir Charles Bagot, an English gentleman of the old school who found Canada almost impossible to govern, and Sir Charles Metcalfe, an able but stuffy civilian administrator from India, who regarded Canadians as subject to the same imperial laws. Both locked horns with Robert Baldwin, a reformer of cold and lofty mind. When his advice was rejected or ignored, he resigned from the Executive Council under each of them in turn to prove that responsible government did not exist.
But these crises were brief back eddies in the current now flowing. For there now strode upon the scene the greatest governor since Frontenac, the man who would establish responsible government, inaugurate the Third Empire and, almost singlehanded, introduce a novel sanity into the joint affairs of Canada and the United States.
James Bruce, Earl of Elgin and Kincardine, was the son of a famous ! father who had carried the Elgin j marbles out of Athens and set them | up in England. He had been well educated in government and he nourished a devout Christian’s faith in humanity. His square John Bull’s face shone with noble sentiments, his manners were disarming, his methods mild, but he could manipulate even the senators of Washington and he turned out to be one of the toughest men ever sent across the Atlantic.
He needed all those qualities. A man less idealistic or less tough might well have smashed the great experiment, ended the chance of an independent Canadian state and assured the disruption of the Empire.
Elgin was sent to Canada with instructions to follow the advice of his local advisers, at least to the point where they might seriously damage Britain. The danger point was not defined and, with luck, might not be reached.
At the same time the old colonial j system was obviously falling to pieces ! on the Atlantic coast. In Nova Scotia Joseph Howe, a man of burly frame and square granite firce, a graduate printer, an editor who wrote classic English, a poet who wrote inferior jingles, a coarse raconteur in the back concessions, a platform orator of magnetic eloquence, a politician loyal to Britain but implacable in his demand for self-government, now emerged as the chosen tribune of his people. He had fought a duel, had driven two governors home in disgrace to England,
and, in his control of Nova Scotia, could no longer be resisted. The new governor at Halifax, Sir John Harvey, was instructed, like Governor-General Elgin, to accept the advice of his councilors.
Thus quietly, by secret instructions and official hints, almost by osmosis, the British government had ended the Second Empire, in theory anyway. In practical politics the ending was not to be easy or peaceful.
When Elgin arrived in Montreal, the new Canadian capital, it was to find much more than two races warring in the bosom of a single state. The old racial split remained unhealed and newer sores had developed.
Quebec, under the surface of politics, had changed little since the conquest hat the English-speaking community was divided between Tories and reformers by the apparent disaster of British free trade and the loss of Canada’s essential markets, by the struggle for responsible government and by ferocious sectarian feuds among the Loyalist Church of England, the Methodists, the Presbyterians and minor communions. A sudden flood of starving and plague-stricken immigrants from Ireland —dying like flies on the Montreal docks and spreading cholera along the St. Lawrence had introduced the ancient Irisli hatreds of f )rangemen and Catholics into religion and a new violence into politics.
Weakened by absentee government,
I by inability to erect a working government of its own, by internal strain and by the loss of overseas trade, Canada had fallen far behind its neighbor, economically, politically and spiritually. Its meagre population of less than two and half millions was frustrated, splintered and poor while the republic to the south had burst into the southwest, now owned Oregon, was about to find gold in California and, with its new railways, was building a continental economy of unprecedented wealth.
What was a Christian gentleman out of London’s genteel politics to think of such a country? What could be made of a parliament in which the shameless figure of Louis Joseph Papineau, the rebel of 1837, had reappeared after his treason, exile and long indoctrination in the radical notions of Paris, actually demanding his back pay as a former Speaker of the Lower Canada Assembly? Elgin, for all his faith in human progress, was appalled.
“Property, especially in the capital,” he reported, “has fallen fifty percent in value within the last three years. Three fourths of the commercial men are bankrupt, owing to Free Trade; a large proportion of the exportable produce of Canada is obliged to seek a market in the United States. It pays a duty of twenty percent on the frontier. How long can such a state of things bo expected to endure?”
Not long, it appeared. “No matter what the subject of complaint,” Elgin added, “or what the party complaining, whether it be alleged that the French arc oppressing the British, or the British the French—that the Upper Canada debt presses on Lower Canada or Lower Canadian claims on Upper —whether merchants be bankrupt, stocks depreciated, roads bad, or seasons unfavorable, annexation is invoked as the remedy for all ills, imaginary or real.”
Annexation, then, was the overriding issue and it must settle Canada’s future one way or the other, soon and forever. The turning point, long foreseen, had been reached. There would be a selfgoverning nation or no nation at all, and the outcome depended at the moment more on Flgin than on any other man. “To render annexation by
This great story concludes in the next issue
In the seventh, and final, part of his new book, The Struggle for the Border, Bruce Hutchison presents the stirring saga of the men who ensured that our nation would stretch from ocean to ocean. There was Douglas, the swarthy governor; Begbie. the ^’hanging judge”; Smith, who was called Lover of the World. A weird trio, but . . .
THEY SAVED THE PACIFIC COAST FOR CANADA
MACLEAN’S MAY 28 ISSUE
ON SALE MAY 17
violence impossible and by other means as improbable as may be,” he wrote, “is the polar star of my policy.”
The catalyst of all these forces —political, racial, religious and economic—appeared overnight in a piece of legislation called the Rebellion Losses Bill and designed to award generous compensation to the victims of the 1837 disorders. While convicted traitors were excluded from its benefits, many persons who had participated in the rebellion would be paid handsomely for their treason.
The Loyalists of Upper Canada indignantly rejected the idea as an outrage and petitioned Elgin to disallow the hateful legislation. He listened but refused to commit himself, waiting for the boil to ripen. As he knew, this was the absolute test of the great experiment. The Rebellion Losses Bill had been passed by a two-to-one reform majority in the Assembly. It was recommended by his chief advisers. If it was disallowed, responsible government would become a farce.
An Issue Too Big for Duels
On the other hand, by approving the advice of his Council and the decision of the Assembly, Elgin must face the fury of the Loyalists, who would accuse him of betraying them and the Queen. By disapproving he probably would foment a new rebellion among the Canadiens and Upper Canada reformers. The war of words might well become a war of muskets and pikes again—or, more likely, Canada’s voluntary annexation by the United States. The issue had become stark clear. Either Canada must manage its own affairs, however foolishly, accept the management of the Crown through its agent or seek escape from the Empire.
3'he birth hour of this Third Empire had arrived. So Elgin, knowing everything, waited and said nothing.
No one else in all Canada seemed to be silent. 3'he introduction of the indemnity bill had revived all the passions of the rebellion. “No pay to rebels!” shouted the 3'ories and attacked the Canadiens as “aliens and rebels.” W. H. Blake, .Solicitor-General for Upper Canada, retorted in the Assembly that the Tories wert: “rebels to their constitution and country.” At which Sir Allan MacNab, an old soldier and deep-dyed Loyalist, leaped up to give Blake “the lie with circumstance.” The two men rushed at each other, were pulled apart by the sergeant-atarms and taken into custody until they cooled off. Early use of MacNab’s famous silver-mounted dueling pistols was expected, hut the struggle was too big for settlement on the field of honor.
The country writhed in speeches, demonstrations, parades and riots.
Baldwin, Blake and William Lyon Mackenzie were burned in effigy. A reporter of the New York Herald viewed this spreading anarchy with satisfaction and predicted “a complete and perfect separation of those provinces from the rule of England.”
This was a well-worn prediction and as unsound as it had always been. In his lonely residence of Monklands, outside Montreal, Elgin was watching not the death of the Canadian colonies hut a new state and a new empire in their first labor pangs.
His mind was made up: “If 1 had
dissolved parliament I might have produced a rebellion, but assuredly 1 should not have produced a change of ministry.” The alternative of “reserving” the indemnity bill and leaving the British government to approve or reject it he considered cowardly. The responsibility “rests and ought, I think, to rest on my shoulders. If I pass the bill, whatever mischief ensues may possibly be repaired, if the worst comes to the worst, by the sacrifice of mc. Whereas if the case he referred to England, it is not impossible that Her Majesty may have before her the alternative of provoking a rebellion in Lower Canada ... or of wounding the susceptibilities of some of the best subjects she has in the province.”
The ice of the St. Lawrence broke early in the spring of 1849 and with it the brittle substance of Canadian society. 3'he first ship was sighted in the river on April 25. The Assembly having passed a new tariff act, little noted in the larger excitement, the government proposed to apply it to the cargo of this approaching vessel. Francis Hincks, the treasurer, drove hurriedly out to Monklands and asked Elgin to appear in Montreal and approve the new customs duties. At the same time he could sign the Rebellion Losses Bill.
Elgin, expecting trouble, was staggered by his reception in the city. A restive crowd watched him approach the remodeled market building that housed the Assembly. There he signed all the legislation laid before him. The news passed swiftly to the townsmen waiting outside. Elgin left the parliament buildings to be greeted, in his own words, “with mingled cheers and bootings from a crowd by no means numerous ... A small knot of individuals, consisting, it has since been ascertained, of persons of a respectable class in society, pelted the carriage with missiles which they must have brought with them for the purpose.”
The missiles included a rotten egg. smashed against the cheek of the Queen’s representative. He drove on without turning his head. One rotten egg would be a small price to pay for responsible government. But he
found it was only the first installment.
That night Canadian democracy took leave of its senses—clanging fire bells; streets filled with mobs and flaming torches; on the Champ de Mars a riotous multitude, hoarse orators screaming “Tyranny!”; then the shout, “To the parliament buildings!”; mobs surging into town, smashing H ¡neks’ newspaper plant on the way, breaking into the Assembly, driving out the members, splintering the furniture; “a man with a broken nose” in the Speaker’s chair declaring: “1 dissolve this House!”
It was in truth dissolved. Was Canadian democracy dissolved with it?
The mob had no time for these abstractions. It was lighting halls of Paper and tossing them about the wrecked Assembly hall. In a moment the centre of responsible government was aflame. Firemen turned back by the rioters, the seventy-two city policemen helpless, the militia called out too late, the buildings soon smoking ruins, all official records burned, the Queen’s portrait carried through the flames by some intrepid young men—thus had responsible government achieved its agonizing birth.
But not quite born yet. Next day attacks on the reform leaders’ houses; arrest of ringleaders by Lafontaine; destruction of his home and stables; a thousand special constables, armed with pistols and cutlasses, and regiments of militia patrolling the streets; four days of civic revolution.
He Kept a Sense of Humor
The Assembly, though homeless, was unafraid. It drew up an address protesting its loyalty to the Queen and Elgin and decided to present it to him not secretly and safely in rural Monklands but publicly, in spite of the risk, in the heart of the city. For this ceremony it ostentatiously chose the Chateau de Ramezay, ancient residence of the French governors, headquarters of Montgomery and Franklin in ’75. The story of this notable building was to have another violent chapter.
Elgin had been assaulted once with rotten eggs. He was warned that on a second visit to Montreal he might be murdered. It did not occur to him to avoid this danger. On April 30 he drove into town again, escorted by a troop of dragoons and looking straight ahead, motionless and cool, when the stones began to fly. A howling crowd tried to block his entry into the chateau. His dragoons shouldered a narrow passage for him.
The Christian gentleman had not lost his sense of humor. He entered the chateau carrying in his hand a two-pound rock that had fallen into his carriage.
The address of loyalty was read and accepted. Elgin started home again by a back street. The mob soon discovered him and followed in “cabs, calèches and everything that would run . . . the carriage was bitterly assailed in the main street of the St. Lawrence suburbs. The good and rapid driving of bis postilions enabled him to clear the desperate mob, but not until the head of his brother, Colonel Bruce, had been cut, injuries inflicted on the chief of police and on Captain Jones, commanding the escort, and every panel of the carriage driven in.”
The Loyalist counter-revolution had demonstrated its loyalty to the Queen and Empire by hounding their representative out of the Canadian capital. He escaped into the protection of Monklands within an inch of his life. But Elgin had won. By refusing to meet violence with violence, rejecting the ust* of martial law, sitting quietly in his house and writing his cold, factual dispatches to London, he had
at last established responsible government. Could the Canadians manage it? That was the only question remaining.
The counter-revolution, failing by violence, now attempted to destroy Canada by lawful means.
A lunatic fringe of Canadian Toryism had imitated the left-wing lunatics of ’37 in riot, had assaulted the Queen’s deputy, burned the centre of government and compelled the Assembly to move the Canadian capital from Montreal to Quebec and Toronto, which would be occupied alternately. All this it had done in loyalty to the Queen, in defense of the Empire and in punishment of the former rebels.
And what had been the Loyalists’ reward? They had been betrayed by a British governor when he signed the Rebellion Losses Bill. They had been betrayed by a British government when it introduced free trade. The poison of betrayal turned the Montreal Tories sour and a little mad. They swallowed their past, their principles and their pride by proposing that Canada be annexed forthwith to the United States.
If Canada could not be saved for the Empire in their way it was not worth saving. If it could not provide Montreal with the satisfactory profits of preferential trade the businessmen must forget all their battles of the border, all their martial memories and. if necessary, their sacred honor. They must follow, like the Tories of Britain, the new god called the Market and find that deity in the republic, even though they had been resisting it since Carleton’s time.
The Annexation Manifesto issued in the autumn of 1849 was the work of embittered Loyalists and desperate businessmen. It argued, with economic determinism worthy of Adam Smith, that annexation was Canada’s natural future (a fact oddly overlooked before) and that Britain desired it (a slander instantly denied by the British government which called the manifesto a document “scarcely short of treason”).
More than a thousand merchants and politicians, some of them the leading figures of Montreal, signed the manifesto and soon wished they hadn’t, for it was to become in the Canadian mind a register of infamy. Outside Montreal the plan of national suicide received no serious support. Quebec would never approve annexation because it would assuredly mean the destruction of the Canadien race and culture. The radical Englishspeaking elements had listened to Mackenzie’s republican ideas sympathetically twelve years before hut were now pacified by the grant of responsible government. Most Tories refused to trade the British connection for a chance of business in the United States. Few Canadians in any party believed that annexation would be profitable even commercially.
In this test, as in all others previously and afterward, the Canadian instinct was clear and overwhelming—these people, somehow, sometime, would build a nation of their own. Thus the manifesto, exciting for the moment and humiliating in retrospect, failed to reverse and only swelled the tide of Canadian independence. The work of Carleton at Quebec and Brock at Queenston was confirmed again. ★
NEXT ISSUE: CONCLUSION
They Saved the Pacific Coast for Canada