Classical Canada

The ancient roots of self-government here and down under

In 1849, when Governor General Lord Elgin gave his assent to the Rebellion Losses Bill, which remunerated allies of the Patriotes in the 1837 rebellion, the result was a loyalist riot in the streets of Montreal and the burning of the city’s parliament. Much more importantly for the long term, Elgin’s act also launched responsible government in the province of Canada.

What sparked this event and others like it in colonial Canada and Australia? Was it something entirely new, inspired by liberal thinkers such as John Locke, the beginnings of a distinct Canadian state grounded in ideas of equality and independence that would gradually usurp traditional notions associated with its monarchical and colonial roots? Or was it a nod to far older conceptions concerning an active citizenry and the promotion of political virtue, as first enumerated by classical writers such as Aristotle and Cicero? In Republicanism and Responsible Government: The Shaping of Democracy in Australia and Canada, Australian historian Benjamin T. Jones makes what might be considered a counterintuitive argument for the second.

The ideas he highlights go by a variety of names; Jones’s preferred term is civic republicanism. As he traces this outlook from its classical beginnings to Renaissance writers such as Machiavelli, he highlights Machiavelli’s prescription of a division of powers involving executive decision making constrained by popular input and aristocratic oversight. Concerning the executive branch, a “Roman consul, Greek magistrate, or any powerful political leader” could do, Jones notes, “so long as their power was curtailed.” It was quite possible for a constitutional monarch to play the role as well.

Indeed, for many in the British world sympathetic to civic republican thinking, constitutional monarchy was far preferable to any narrowly republican alternative, thanks to the negative connotations attached to republican ideals. “Owing, in part, to the perceived barbarity of the French Revolution,” says Jones, “the word ‘republic’ was associated with a savage, nearly anarchic regime that was juxtaposed sharply with the peaceful civility of the British constitution.” That meant civic republicanism’s notions were often presented in masked form, as its adherents chose to concentrate on the least controversial aspects of this tradition, such as the promotion of civic virtue or fostering a climate of compromise so that the tripartite framework could function smoothly. Jones’s purpose is to bring the groundwork of these ideas to light.

Republicanism and Responsible Government is not the first book to attempt this task. In the 1970s J.G.A. Pocock applied a similar interpretation to America’s revolutionary era in The Machiavellan Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition, and Janet Ajzenstat and Peter Smith covered the Canadian case in Canada’s Origins: Liberal, Tory or Republican?

Jones acknowledges his debt to these authors. His own account is distinguished not just by its double focus on Canada and Australia, but also by a range of protagonists from both countries. Some of the Australians in his story might be unfamiliar to readers in Canada, but the historical Canadians he highlights are well known—rebel leaders William Lyon Mackenzie and Louis-Joseph Papineau, British colonial officials Lord Durham and Lord Elgin, and Nova Scotian statesman Joseph Howe.

While 19th-century colonial Canada and Australia shared a range of political features, there were sharp distinctions as well. Most notable was the fact that the Australian colonies were still grappling with the impact of the transportation of convicts from Britain. Opposition to this practice lay at the heart of Australian reform. A leading figure in this struggle was the radically minded New South Wales minister John Dunmore Lang. Lang’s political journalism is laced with classically infused paeans to political virtue, as he railed against the social ills created by convict transportation that, unless rectified, would ensure that New South Wales remained “a mere gaol and dunghill for the British empire.”

With evidence such as this, Jones easily makes his case that civic republican principles lurked in the aims of the Australian reform movement. However, matters are more complicated for the early Canadian reformers. One figure who at least partly fits Jones’s thesis is Joseph Howe. Thanks to Howe’s lobbying of British authorities, Nova Scotia was the first colony in the empire to be granted responsible government in 1848, a year before the united province of Canada gained this status. A political moderate, Howe was adept at couching his demands amid praise for the division of powers found within British political traditions. “Why should we desire a severance of old ties, that are more honorable than any new ones we can form?” he asked in one famous statement of his views. “Why should we covet institutions more perfect than those which have worked so well, and produced such admirable results?”

Such rhetoric was far less common among reformers in the two Canadas, especially once disagreements with British authorities had hardened into incipient rebellion. It was only after the failure of the two insurgencies of 1837, says Jones, that the language of civic republican moderation became dominant in the newly united province, accompanying official attempts to craft a compromise that would satisfy reformers’ demands.

The Durham Report has a central place in Jones’s story. While Jones points out Durham’s problematic view of French Canadian society, he stresses the extent to which Radical Jack, as he was derisively known to his British enemies, crafted a persuasive call for responsible government, thereby providing an “ideological building block on which a new British Empire would be built.” Once this recommendation was accepted, it was left to the practical skills of Lord Elgin to see it implemented.

In many ways Elgin is the perfect model for Jones’s thesis: classically educated and non-partisan in outlook, in his political career he managed to bridge the gap in the great battle over reform within the British establishment—formally a Tory, he was closely affiliated through family connections to Durham and other radical Whigs. So it is a fitting climax to Jones’s account that Elgin should perform one of the pivotal acts ushering in colonial self-governance; his personal correspondence at the time revealed that he was fully cognizant of how his deferral to popular opinion in the case of the Rebellion Losses Bill aligned with civic republican ideals.

In sketching the after-effects of this event throughout the broader empire, Jones shows how closely Australian reformers followed developments in British North America, then strategically used these precedents to further their own cause. This was an important reason why responsible government spread so quickly in the years after its first appearance in Nova Scotia and Canada, with seven other colonies in British North America and Australia—Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, New Brunswick, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania—granted the same status by 1856. Although the case can be made that Jones pushes his civic republican hypothesis too far, as he tries to apply it with equal force in all of the particular settings he deals with in his book, there is little doubt that his thesis contains some truth. At a time when classical political thought—especially of the civic republican variety—was such an essential part of formal education, it would have been surprising if it did not have a profound influence on political views. Recognizing this fact helps ensure that this key period in the histories of both Canada and Australia is seen on its own terms, rather—as has can all too easily occur—through a modern ideological lens unwittingly applied to the past.