The Governors-general: Lord Elgin

The year which intervened between Metcalfe's departure and the arrival

of Lord Elgin at the beginning of 1847, may be disregarded in this

inquiry. Earl Cathcart, who held office in the interval, was chosen

because relations with the United States at that time were serious

enough to make it desirable to combine the civil and the military

headship in Canada in one person. In domestic politics the

governor-general was a negligible quantity, as his successor confessed:

"Lord Cathcart, not very unreasonably perhaps, has allowed everything

that required thought to lie over for me."[1]

But the arrival of Elgin changed the whole aspect of affairs, and

introduced the most {188} important modification that was made in

Canadian government between 1791 and the year of Confederation. Since

1839, governors-general who took their instructions from Britain, and

who seldom allowed the Canadian point of view to have more than an

indirect influence on their administration, had introduced the most

unhappy complications into politics. Both they and the home government

were now reduced to the gloomiest speculations concerning the

permanence of the British connection. In place of the academic or

official view of colonial dependence which had hitherto dominated

Canadian administration, Elgin came to substitute a policy which

frankly accepted the Canadian position, and which as frankly trusted to

a loyalty dependent for none of its sanctions upon external coercion or

encouragement. With 1846, Great Britain entered on an era of which the

predominating principle was laissez faire, and within twelve months

of the concession of that principle in commerce, Elgin applied it with

even more astonishing results in the region of colonial Parliamentary


The Canadian episode in Elgin's career furnishes the most perfect and

permanently useful service rendered by him to the Empire. Although he

{189} gathered laurels in China and India, and earned a notable place

among diplomatists, nothing that he did is so representative of the

whole man, so valuable, and so completely rounded and finished, as the

seven years of his work in Canada. Elsewhere he accomplished tasks,

which others had done, or might have done as well. But in the history

of the self-governing dominions of Britain, his name is almost the

first of those who assisted in creating an Empire, the secret of whose

strength was to be local autonomy.

He belonged to the most distinguished group of nineteenth century

politicians, for with Gladstone, Canning, Dalhousie, Herbert, and

others, he served his apprenticeship under Sir Robert Peel. All of

that younger generation reflected the sobriety, the love of hard fact,

the sound but progressive conservatism, and the high administrative

faculty of their great master. It was an epoch when changes were

inevitable; but the soundest minds tended, in spite of a powerful party

tradition, to view the work in front of them in a non-partizan spirit.

Gladstone himself, for long, seemed fated to repeat the party-breaking

record of Peel; and three great proconsuls of the group, Dalhousie,

Canning, and Elgin, found in imperial administration a more {190}

congenial task than Westminster could offer them. Elgin occupies a

mediate position between the administrative careers of Dalhousie and

Canning, and the parliamentary and constitutional labours of Gladstone.

He was that strange being, a constitutionalist proconsul; and his chief

work in administration lay in so altering the relation of his office to

Canadian popular government, as to take from the governor-generalship

much of its initiative, and to make a great surrender to popular

opinion. Between his arrival in Montreal at the end of January, 1847,

and the writing of his last official despatch on December 18th, 1854,

he had established on sure foundations the system of democratic

government in Canada.

Never was man better fitted for his work. He came, a Scotsman, to a

colony one-third Scottish, and the name of Bruce was itself soporific

to the opposition of a perfervid section of the reformers. His wife

was the daughter of Lord Durham, whom Canadians regarded as the

beginner of a new age of Canadian constitutionalism. He had been

appointed by a Whig Government, and Earl Grey, the new Colonial

Secretary, was already learned in liberal theory, both in politics and

economics, and understood that Britons, abroad as at home, {191} must

have liberty to misgovern themselves. Elgin's personal qualities were

precisely those best fitted to control a self-governing community. Not

only was he saved from extreme views by his caution and sense of

humour, but he had, to an extraordinary degree, the power of seeing

both sides, and more especially the other side, of any question. In

Canada too, as later in China and India, he exhibited qualities of

humanity which some might term quixotic;[2] and, as will be illustrated

very fully below, his gifts of tact and bonhomie made him a

singularly persuasive force in international affairs, and secured for

Britain at least one clear diplomatic victory over America.

Following on a succession of short-lived and troubled governorships,

under which, while the principle of government had remained constant,

nothing else had done so, Elgin had practically to begin Durham's work

afresh, and build without much regard for the foundations laid since

1841. The alternatives before him were a grant of really responsible

government, or a rebellion, with annexation to the United States as its

probable end. The {192} new Governor saw very clearly the dangers of

his predecessor's policy. "The distinction," he wrote at a later date,

"between Lord Metcalfe's policy and mine is twofold. In the first

place he profoundly distrusted the whole Liberal party in the

province--that great party which, excepting at extraordinary

conjunctures, has always carried with it the mass of the

constituencies. He believed its designs to be revolutionary, just as

the Tory party in England believed those of the Whigs and Reformers to

be in 1832. And, secondly, he imagined that when circumstances forced

the party upon him, he could check these revolutionary tendencies by

manifesting his distrust of them, more especially in the matter of the

distribution of patronage, thereby relieving them in a great measure

from that responsibility, which is in all free countries the most

effectual security against the abuse of power, and tempting them to

endeavour to combine the role of popular tribunes with the prestige of

ministers of the crown."[3]

The danger of a crisis was the greater because, as has been shown,

Metcalfe's anti-democratic policy had been more than the expression of

a personal {193} mood. It was the policy of the British government.

After Metcalfe's departure, and Stanley's resignation of the Colonial

office, Gladstone, then for a few months Colonial Secretary, assured

Cathcart that "the favour of his Sovereign and the acknowledgment of

his country, have marked (Metcalfe's) administration as one which,

under the peculiar circumstances of the task he had to perform, may

justly be regarded as a model for his successors."[4] In truth, the

British Colonial office was not only wrong in its working theory, but

ignorant of the boiling tumult of Canadian opinion in those days;

ignorant of the steadily increasing vehemence of the demand for true

home rule, and of the possibility that French nationalism, Irish

nationalism, and American aggression, might unite in a great upheaval,

and the political tragedy find its consummation in another Declaration

of Independence.

But Elgin was allowed little leisure for general reflections; the

concrete details of the actual situation absorbed all his energies.

Since Metcalfe's resignation, matters had not improved. There was

still an uncertain majority in the House of Assembly, although, in the

eyes of probably a {194} majority of voters, the disorders of the late

election had discredited the whole Assembly. But the ministry had gone

on from weakness to further weakness. Draper, who did his best to

preserve the political decencies, had been forced to ask Cathcart to

assist him in removing certain of his colleagues. Viger had been a

complete failure as President of the Council, and performed none of the

duties of his department except that of signing his name to reports

prepared by others. Daly was of little use to him; and, as for the

solicitor-general for Upper Canada, Sherwood, "his repeated absence on

important divisions, his lukewarm support, and occasional (almost)

opposition, his habit of speaking of the Members of your Excellency's

Government and of the policy pursued by them, his more than suspected

intrigues to effect the removal of some members of the council, have

altogether destroyed all confidence in him."[5] Draper himself had

seemingly grown tired of the dust and heat of the struggle, and, soon

after Elgin's assumption of authority, resigned his premiership for a

legal position as honourable and more peaceful.


Elgin, then, found a distracted ministry, a doubtful Assembly, and an

irritated country. His ministers he thought lacking in pluck, and far

too willing to appeal to selfish and sordid motives in possible

supporters.[6] He was irritated by what seemed to him the petty and

inconsistent divisions of Canadian party life: "In a community like

this, where there is little, if anything, of public principle to divide

men, political parties will shape themselves under the influence of

circumstances, and of a great variety of affections and antipathies,

national, sectarian, and personal.... It is not even pretended that

the divisions of party represent corresponding divisions of sentiment

on questions which occupy the public mind, such as voluntaryism, Free

Trade, etc., etc. Responsible Government is the one subject on which

this coincidence is alleged to exist."[7] The French problem he found

peculiarly difficult. Metcalfe's policy had had results disconcerting

to the British authorities. Banishing, as he thought, sectarianism or

racial views, he had yet practically shut out French statesmen from

office so successfully, that, when Elgin, acting through Colonel Tache,

{196} attempted to approach them, he found in none of them any

disposition to enter into alliance with the existing ministry.[8]

Elgin, who was willing enough to give fair play to every political

section, could not but see the obvious fault of French Canadian

nationalism. "They seem incapable of comprehending that the principles

of constitutional government must be applied against them, as well as

for them," he wrote to Grey. "Whenever there appears to be a chance of

things taking this turn they revive the ancient cry of nationality, and

insist on their right to have a share in the administration, not

because the party with which they have chosen to connect themselves is

in the ascendant, but because they represent a people of distinct

origin."[9] Most serious of all, because it hampered his initiative,

he found every party except that in office suspicious of the governor's

authority, and newspapers like Hincks' Pilot grumbling over Imperial


One sweeping remedy, he had, within a few months of his arrival, laid

aside as impossible. Lord John Russell and Grey had discussed with

{197} him the possibility of raising Canadian politics out of their

pettiness by a federal union of all the British North American

colonies. But as early as May 1847, Elgin had come to doubt whether

the free and independent legislatures of the colonies would be willing

to delegate any of their authority to please a British ministry.[10]

It was necessary then to fall back on the unromantic alternative of

modifying the constitution of the ministry; and here French solidarity

had made his task difficult. Yet the amazing thing in Elgin was the

speed, the ease, and the accuracy, with which he saw what none of his

predecessors had seen--the need to concede, and the harmlessness of

conceding, responsible government in Baldwin's sense of the term.

Within two months of his accession to power, he declared, "I am

determined to do nothing which will put it out of my power to act with

the opposite party, if it is forced upon me by the representatives of

the people."[11] Two months later, sick of the struggles by which his

ministers were trying to gain here and there some trivial vote to keep

them in office, he recurred to the same idea as not merely harmless but

sound. That ministers {198} and opposition should occasionally change

places struck him not merely as constitutional, but as the most

conservative convention in the constitution; and in answer to the older

school to whom a change of ministers at the dictation of a majority in

the Assembly meant the degradation of the governor-generalship, he

hoped "to establish a moral influence in the province, which will go

far to compensate for the loss of power consequent on the surrender of

patronage to an executive responsible to the local parliament."[12]

To give his ministers a last fair chance of holding on to office, he

dissolved parliament at the end of 1847, recognizing that, in the event

of a victory, their credit would be immensely increased. The struggle

of December 1847, to January 1848, was decisive. While the French

constituencies maintained their former position, even in Upper Canada

the discredited ministry found few supporters. The only element in the

situation which disturbed Elgin was the news that Papineau, the

arch-rebel of 1837, had come back to public life with a flourish of

agitating declarations; and that the French people had not condemned

with sufficient decisiveness his seditious utterances. Yet he need

have {199} had no qualms. La Revue Canadienne in reviewing the

situation certainly refused to condemn Papineau's extravagances, but

its conclusion took the ground from under the agitator's feet, for it

declared that "cette moderation de nos chefs politiques a puissamment

contribue a placer notre parti dans la position avantageuse qu'il

occupe maintenant."[13] Now Papineau was incapable of political


The fate of the ministry was quickly settled. Their candidate for the

speakership of the Lower House was defeated by 54 votes to 19; a vote

of no confidence was carried by 54 to 20; on March 23rd parliament was

prorogued and a new administration, the first truly popular ministry in

the history of Canada, accepted office, and the country, satisfied at

last, was promised "various measures for developing the resources of

the province, and promoting the social well-being of its


The change was the more decisive because it was made with the approval

of the Whig government in England. "I can have no doubt," Grey wrote

to Elgin on February 22nd, "that you must accept {200} such a council

as the newly elected parliament will support, and that however unwise

as relates to the real interests of Canada their measures may be, they

must be acquiesced in, until it shall pretty clearly appear that public

opinion will support a resistance to them. There is no middle course

between this line of policy, and that which involves in the last resort

an appeal to parliament to overrule the wishes of the Canadians, and

this I agree with Gladstone and Stanley in thinking impracticable."[15]

The only precaution he bade Elgin take was to register his dissent

carefully in cases of disagreement. Having conceded the essential, it

mattered little that Grey could not quite rid himself of doubts as to

the consequences of his previous daring. The concession had come most

opportunely, for Elgin, who feared greatly the disturbing influences of

European revolutionism, Irish discontent, and American democracy in its

cruder forms, believed that, had the change not taken place, "we should

by this hour (November 30th, 1848) either have been ignominiously

expelled from Canada, or our relations with the United States would

have been in a most precarious condition."


It is not necessary to follow Elgin through all the details of more

than seven busy years. It will suffice to watch him at work on the

three great allied problems which combined to form the constitutional

question in Canada; the character of the government to be conceded to,

and worked along with, the colonists; the recognition to be given to

French nationalist feeling; and the nature of the connection between

Britain and Canada which would exist after concessions had been made on

these points. The significance of his policy is the greater, because

the example of Canada was certain, mutatis mutandis, to be followed

by the other greater colonies. Elgin's solution of the question of

responsible government was so natural and easy that the reader of his

despatches forgets how completely his task had baffled all his

predecessors, and that several generations of colonial secretaries had

refused to admit what in his hands seemed a self-evident truth. At the

outset Elgin's own mind had not been free from serious doubt. He had

come to Canada with a traditional suspicion of the French Canadians and

the progressives of Upper Canada; yet within a year, since the country

so willed it, he had accepted a cabinet, composed entirely of these two

sections. On his {202} way to the formation of that cabinet he not

only brushed aside old suspicions, but he refused to surrender to the

seductions of the eclectic principle, which allowed his predecessors to

evade the force of popular opinion by selecting representatives of all

shades of that opinion. He saw the danger of allowing responsible

government to remain a party cry, and he removed "that most delicate

and debatable subject" from party politics by conceding the whole

position. The defects of the Canadian party system never found a

severer critic than Elgin, but he saw that by party Canada would be

ruled, and he could not, as Metcalfe had done, deceive himself into

thinking he had abolished it by governing in accordance with the least

popular party in the state. With the candour and the discriminating

judgment which so distinguished all his doings in Canada, he admitted

that, notwithstanding the high ground Lord Metcalfe had taken against

party patronage, the ministers favoured by that governor-general had

"used patronage for party purposes with quite as little scruple as his

first council."[16]

Since the first general election had proved beyond a doubt that

Canadians desired a {203} progressive ministry, he made the change with

perfect success, and remained a consistent guide and friend to his new


There was something dramatic in the contrast between the possibilities

of trouble in the year when the concession was made, and the peace

which actually ensued. It was the year of revolution, and the men whom

he called to his assistance were "persons denounced very lately by the

Secretary of State to the Governor-General as impracticable and

disloyal";[17] but before the year was out he was able to boast that

when so many thrones were tottering and the allegiance of so many

people was waxing faint, there is less political disaffection in Canada

than there ever had been before. From 1848 until the year of his

recall, he remained in complete accord with his liberal administration,

and never was constitutional monarch more intimately and usefully

connected with his ministers than was Elgin, first with Baldwin and La

Fontaine, and then with Hincks and Morin.

Elgin gave a rarer example of what fidelity to colonial

constitutionalism meant. In these years of liberal success, "Old

Toryism" faced a new strain, and faced it badly. The party had {204}

supported the empire, when that empire meant their supremacy. They had

befriended the representative of the Crown, when they had all the

places and profits. When the British connection took a liberal colour,

when the governor-general acted constitutionally towards the

undoubtedly progressive tone of popular opinion, some of the tories

became annexationists. Many of them, as will be shown later,

encouraged a dastardly assault on the person of their official head;

and all of them, supported by gentlemen of Her Majesty's army, treated

the representative of the Crown with the most obvious discourtesy.[18]

Nevertheless, when opinion changed, and when a coalition attacked and

unseated the Progressive ministry of 1848-1854, Elgin, without a

moment's hesitation, turned to the men who had insulted him. "To the

great astonishment of the public, as well as to his own," wrote

Laurence Oliphant, who was then on Elgin's staff, "Sir Allan MacNab,

who had been one of his bitterest opponents ever since the Montreal

events, was sent for to form a ministry--Lord Elgin by this act

satisfactorily disproving the charges of {205} having either personal

or political partialities in the selection of his ministers."[19]

But the first great constitutional governor-general of Canada had to

interpret constitutionalism as something more than mere obedience to

public dictation with regard to his councillors. He had to educate

these councillors, and the public, into the niceties of British

constitutional manners; and he had to create a new vocation for the

governor-general, and to exchange dictation for rational influence. He

had to teach his ministers moderation in their measures, and,

indirectly, to show the opposition how to avoid crude and extreme

methods in their fight for office. When his high political courage, in

consenting to a bill very obnoxious to the opposition, forced them into

violence, he kept his temper and his head, and the opposition leaders

learned, not from punishment, but from quiet contempt, to express

dissent in modes other than those of arson and sticks and stones. For

seven years, by methods so restrained as to be hardly perceptible even

in his private letters to Grey, he guided the first experimental

cabinets into smooth water, and when he resigned, he left behind him

politicians {206} trained by his efforts to govern Canada according to

British usage.

At the same time his influence on the British Cabinet was as quiet and

certain. He was still responsible to the British Crown and Cabinet,

and a weaker man would have forgotten the problems which the new

Canadian constitutionalism was bound to create at the centre of

authority. Two instances will illustrate the point, and Elgin's clear

perception of his duty. They are both taken from the episode of the

Rebellion Losses Bill, and the Montreal riots of 1849. The Bill which

caused the trouble had been introduced to complete a scheme of

compensation for all those who had suffered loss in the late Rebellion,

whether French or English, and had been passed by majorities in both

houses; but while there seemed no valid reason for disallowing it,

Elgin suspected trouble--indeed, at first, he viewed the measure with

personal disapproval.[20] He might have refused permission to bring in

the bill; but the practical consequences of such a refusal were too

serious to {207} be accepted. "Only imagine," he wrote, "how difficult

it would have been to discover a justification for my conduct, if at a

moment when America was boiling over with bandits and desperadoes, and

when the leaders of every faction in the Union, with the view of

securing the Irish vote for the presidential election, were vying with

each other in abuse of England, and subscribing funds for the Irish

Republican Union, I had brought on such a crisis in Canada by refusing

to allow my administration to bring in a bill to carry out the

recommendation of Lord Metcalfe's commissioners."[21] He might have

dissolved Parliament, but, as he rightly pointed out, "it would be

rather a strong measure to have recourse to dissolution because a

Parliament, elected one year ago under the auspices of the present

opposition, passed by a majority of more than two to one a measure

introduced by the Government." There remained only the possibility of

reserving the bill for approval or rejection at home. A weaker man

would have taken this easy and fatal way of evading responsibility; but

Elgin rose to the height of his vocation, when he explained his reason

for acting on his own {208} initiative. "I should only throw upon her

Majesty's Government, or (as it would appear to the popular eye here)

on Her Majesty herself, a responsibility which rests, and ought I think

to rest, on my own shoulders."[22] He gave his assent to the bill,

suffered personal violence at the hands of the Montreal crowd and the

opposition, but, since he stood firm, he triumphed, and saved both the

dignity of the Crown and the friendship of the French for his


The other instance of his skill in combining Canadian autonomy with

British supremacy is less important, but, in a way, more extraordinary

in its subtlety. As a servant of the Crown, he had to furnish

despatches, which were liable to be published as parliamentary papers,

and so to be perused by Canadian politicians. Elgin had therefore to

reckon with two publics--the British Parliament, which desired

information, and the Canadian Parliament, which desired to maintain its

dignity and freedom. Before the Montreal outrage, and when it was

extremely desirable to leave matters as vague as possible, Elgin simply

refrained from giving details to the Colonial Office. "I could not

have made my official communication to {209} you in reference to this

Bill, which you could have laid before Parliament, without stating or

implying an irrevocable decision on this point. To this circumstance

you must ascribe the fact that you have not heard from me

officially."[23] With even greater shrewdness, at a later date, he

made Grey expunge, in his book on Colonial Policy, details of the

outrage which followed the passing of the Act; for, said he, "I am

strongly of opinion that nothing but evil can result from the

publication, at this period, of a detailed and circumstantial statement

of the disgraceful proceedings which took place after the Bill

passed.... The surest way to arrest a process of conversion is to

dwell on the errors of the past, and to place in a broad light the

contrast between present sentiments and those of an earlier date."[24]

In constitutional affairs manners make, not merely the statesman, but

the possibility of government; and Elgin's highest quality as a

constitutionalist was, not so much his understanding of the machinery

of government, as his knowledge of the constitutional temper, and the

need within it of humanity and common-sense.


Great as was Elgin's achievement in rectifying Canadian constitutional

practice, his solution of the nationalist difficulty in Lower Canada

was possibly a greater triumph of statesmanship; for the present modus

vivendi, which still shows no signs of breaking down, dates from the

years of Elgin's governorship. The decade which included his rule in

Canada was pre-eminently the epoch of nationalism. Italy, Germany, and

Hungary, with Mazzini as their prophet, were all struggling for the

acknowledgment of their national claims, and within the British Islands

themselves, the Irish nationalists furnished, in Davis and the writers

to The Nation, disciples and apostles of the new gospel. It is

always dangerous to trace European influences across the Atlantic; but

there is little doubt that as the French rebellion of 1837 owed

something to Europe, so the arch-rebel Papineau's paper, L'Avenir,

echoed in an empty blustering fashion, the cries of the nationalist

revolution of 1848.[25]

Elgin found on his arrival that British administration had thrown every

element in French-Canadian politics into headlong opposition to itself.

How dangerous the situation was, one may infer from {211} the

disquieting rumours of the ambitions of the American Union, and from

the passions and memories of injustice which floods of unkempt and

wretched Irish immigrants were bringing with them to their new homes in

America. In Elgin's second year of office, 1848, he had to face the

possibility of a rising under the old leaders of 1837. His solution of

the difficulty proceeded pari passu with his constitutional work. In

the latter he had seen that he must remove the disquieting subject of

"responsible government" from the party programme of the progressives,

and the politic surrender of 1847 had gained his end. Towards French

nationalism he acted in the same spirit. As has already been seen, he

was conscious of the political shortcomings of the French. Yet there

was nothing penal in his attitude towards them, and he saw, with a

clearness to which Durham never attained, how idle all talk of

anglicizing French Canada must be. "I for one," he said, "am deeply

convinced of the impolicy of all such attempts to denationalize the

French. Generally speaking, they produce the opposite effect from that

intended, causing the flame of national prejudice and animosity to burn

more fiercely."[26]


But how could the pathological phase of nationalism be ended? His

first Tory advisers suggested the old trick of making converts, but the

practice had long since been found useless. His next speculation was

whether the French could be made to take sides as Liberals or Tories,

apart altogether from nationalist considerations. But the political

solidarity of the French had been a kind of trades-unionism, claiming

to guard French interests against an actual menace to their very

existence as a nation within the empire; and they were certain to act

only with Baldwin and his friends, the one party which had regarded

them as other than traitors or suspects, or at best tools.

No complete solution of the problem was possible; but when Elgin

surrendered to the progressives, he was making concessions also to the

French--by admitting them to a recognized place within the

constitution, and doing so without reservation. The joint ministry of

La Fontaine and Baldwin was, in a sense, the most satisfactory answer

that could be made to the difficulty. From the moment of its creation

Elgin and Canada were safe. He remained doubtful during part of 1848,

for Papineau had been elected by acclamation to the Parliament which

held its first session that year; and he "had {213} searched in vain

... through the French organs of public opinion for a frank and decided

expression of hostility to the anti-British sentiments propounded in

Papineau's address."[27] He did not at first understand that La

Fontaine, not Papineau, was the French leader, and that the latter

represented only himself and a few Rouges of violent but

unsubstantial revolutionary opinions. Nevertheless, he gave his French

ministers his confidence, and he applied his singular powers of winning

men to appeasing French discontent. As early as May, 1848, he saw how

the land lay--that French Canada was fundamentally conservative, and

that discontent was mainly a consequence of sheer stupidity and error

on the part of England. "Who will venture to say," he asked, "that the

last hand which waves the British flag on American ground may not be

that of a French Canadian?"[28]

His final settlement of the question came in 1849, and the introduction

of that Rebellion Losses Bill which has been already mentioned. The

measure was, in the main, an act of justice to French sufferers from

the disturbances created by the Rebellion; for they had naturally

shared but slightly {214} in earlier and partial schemes of

compensation; and the opposition to the bill was directed quite frankly

against the French inhabitants of Canada as traitors, who deserved, not

recompense, but punishment. Now there were many cases of real

hardship, like that of the inhabitants of St. Benoit, a village which

Sir John Colborne had pledged himself to protect when he occupied it

for military purposes, but which, in his absence, the loyalist

volunteers had set on fire and destroyed. The inhabitants might be

disloyal, but in the eyes of an equal justice a wrong had been done,

and must be righted. The idea of the bill was not new--it was not

Elgin's bill; and if his predecessors had been right, then the French

politicians were justified in claiming that the system of compensation

already initiated must be followed till all legitimate claims had been


It would be disingenuous to deny that Elgin calculated on the pacific

influence which his support of the bill would exert in Lower Canada.

"I was aware of two facts," he told Grey in 1852: "Firstly, that M. La

Fontaine would be unable to retain the support of his countrymen if he

failed to introduce a measure of this description; and secondly, that

my refusal would be taken by him and his friends {215} as a proof that

they had not my confidence." But his chief concern was to hold the

balance level, to redress an actual grievance, and to repress the fury

of Canadian Tories whose unrestrained action would have flung Canada

into a new and complicated struggle of races and parties. "I am firmly

convinced," he told Grey in June, speaking of American election

movements at this time, "that the only thing which prevented an

invasion of Canada was the political contentment prevailing among the

French Canadians and Irish Catholics"; and that political contentment

was the result of Elgin's action in supporting his ministers. A happy

chance, utilized to the full by Elgin's cautious wisdom, had enabled

him to do the French what they counted a considerable service; and the

rage and disorder of the opposition only played the more surely into

the hands of the governor-general, and established, beyond any risk of

alteration, French loyalty to him personally.[29]

From that day, with trivial intervals or incidents of misunderstanding,

the British and the French in Canada have played the political game

together. It was in the La Fontaine-Baldwin ministry that {216} the

joint action, within the Canadian parties, of the two races had its

real beginning; and while the traditions and idiosyncrasies of Quebec

were too ingrained and fundamental to admit of modification beyond a

certain point, Canadian parliamentary life was henceforth based on the

free co-operation of French and English, in a party system which tried

to forget the distinction of race. From this time, too, Elgin began to

discern the conservative genius of the French people, and to prophesy

that, when Baldwin's moderate reforming influence should have been

withdrawn, the French would naturally incline to unite with the

moderate Conservatives--the combination on which, in actual fact, John

A. Macdonald based his long control of power in Canada.

The nationalist question is so intermingled with the constitutional

that it is not always easy to separate the two issues. The same

qualities which settled the latter difficulty ended also French

grievances--saving common-sense which did not refuse to do the obvious

thing; bonhomie which understood that a well-mannered people may be

wooed from its isolation by a little humouring; a mind resolute to

administer to every British subject equal rights; and an austere

refusal to let an {217} arrogant and narrow-minded minority claim to

itself a kind of oligarchic glory at the expense of citizens who did

not belong to the Anglo-Saxon stock.

There is a third aspect of Elgin's work in Canada of wider scope than

either of those already mentioned, and one in which his claims to

distinction have been almost forgotten--his contribution to the working

theory of the British Empire. Elgin was one of those earlier sane

imperialists whose achievements it is very easy to forget. It is not

too much to say that, when Elgin came to Canada, the future of the

British colonial empire was at best gloomy. Politicians at home had

placed in front of themselves an awkward dilemma. According to the

stiffer Tories, the colonies must be held in with a firm hand--how

firm, Stanley had illustrated in his administration of Canada. Yet

Tory stiffness produced colonial discontent, and colonial discontent

bred very natural doubts at home as to the possibility of holding the

colonies by the old methods. On the other hand, there were those, like

Cobden, who, while they believed with the Tories that colonial

home-rule was certain to result in colonial independence, were

nevertheless too loyal to their doctrine of political liberty to resist

colonial claims. They looked to an immediate but {218} peaceful

dissolution of the empire. It seemed never to strike anyone but a few

radicals, like Durham and Buller, that Britons still held British

sentiments, even across the seas, and that they desired to combine a

continuance of the British connection with the retention of all those

popular rights in government which they had possessed at home. A

Canadian governor-general, then, had to deal with British Cabinets

which alternated between foolish rigour and foolish slackness, and with

politicians who reflected little on the responsibilities of empire,

when they flung before careless British audiences irresponsible

discussions on colonial independence--as if it were an academic subject

and not a critical issue.

Elgin had imperial difficulties, all his own, to make his task more

complicated. Not only were there French and Irish nationalists ready

for agitation, but the United States lay across the southern border;

and annexation to that mighty and flourishing republic seemed to many

the natural euthanasia of British rule in North America. Peel's

sweeping reforms in the tariff had rekindled annexationist talk; for

while Lord Stanley's bill of 1843 had attracted all the produce of the

west to the St. Lawrence by its grant of preference to the {219}

colony, "Peel's bill of 1846 drives the whole of the produce down the

New York channels of communication ... ruining at once mill-owners,

forwarders and merchants."[30] And every petty and personal

disappointment, every error in colonial office administration, raised a

new group to cry down the British system, and to call for a peaceful

junction with the United States.

Elgin had not been long in Canada before he saw one important

fact--that the real annexationist feeling had commercial, not political

roots. Without diminishing the seriousness of the situation, the

discovery made it more susceptible of rational treatment. A colony

suffering a severe set-back in trade found the precise remedy it looked

for in transference of its allegiance. "The remedy offered them,"

wrote Elgin, "is perfectly definite and intelligible. They are invited

to form part of a community which is neither suffering nor free-trading

... a community, the members of which have been within the last few

weeks pouring into their multifarious places of worship, to thank God

that they are exempt from the ills which affect other men, from those

more especially which affect their despised neighbours, the inhabitants

of North {220} America, who have remained faithful to the country which

planted them."[31] With free-trade in the ascendant, and, to the

maturest minds of the time, unanswerably sound in theory, Elgin had to

dismiss schemes of British preference from his mind; and, towards the

end of his rule, when American policy was irritating Canada, he had

even to restrict the scope within which Canadian retaliation might be

practised. There could be no imperial Zollverein. But he saw that a

measure of reciprocity might give the Canadians all the economic

benefits they sought, and yet leave to them the allegiance and the

government which, in their hearts, they preferred. The annexationist

clamour fell and rose, mounting highest in Montreal, and reaching a

crisis in the year of the Rebellion Losses disturbance; but Elgin,

while sometimes he grew despondent, always kept his head, and never

ceased to hope for the reciprocity which would at once bring back

prosperity and still the disloyal murmurs. Once or twice, when the

annexationists were at their worst, and when his Tory opponents chose

support of that disloyal movement as the means of insulting their

governor, he took stern measures for repressing an unnatural evil. "We

intend," {221} he wrote in November, 1849, after an annexation meeting

at which servants of the State had been present, "to dismiss the

militia officers and magistrates who have taken part in these affairs,

and to deprive the two Queen's Counsels of their silk gowns." But he

relied mainly on the positive side of his policy, and few statesmen

have given Canada a more substantial boon than did Elgin when, just

before his recall, he went to Washington on that mission which Laurence

Oliphant has made classic by his description, and concluded by far the

most favourable commercial treaty ever negotiated by Britain with the

United States.

There is perhaps a tendency to underestimate the work of his

predecessors and assistants in preparing the way, but no one can doubt

that it was Elgin's persistence in urging the treaty on the home

Cabinet, and his wonderful diplomatic gifts, which ultimately won the

day. Oliphant, certainly, had no doubt as to his chief's share in the

matter. "He is the most thorough diplomat possible--never loses sight

for a moment of his object, and while he is chaffing Yankees, and

slapping them on the back, he is systematically pursuing that

object";[32] and again, "There was concluded in {222} exactly a

fortnight a treaty, to negotiate which had taxed the inventive genius

of the Foreign Office, and all the conventional methods of diplomacy,

for the previous seven years."[33]

It was a long, slow process by which Elgin restored the tone of

Canadian loyalty. Frenchmen who had dreamed of renouncing allegiance

he won by his obvious fairness, and the recognition accorded by him to

their leaders. He took the heart out of Irish disaffection by his

popular methods and love of liberty. Tory dissentients fell slowly in

to heel, as they found their governor no lath painted to look like

iron, but very steel. To desponding Montreal merchants his reciprocity

treaty yielded naturally all they had expected from a more drastic

change. It is true that, owing to untoward circumstances, the treaty

lasted only for the limited period prescribed by Elgin; but it tided

over an awkward interval of disaffection and disappointment.

He did more, however, than cure definite phases of Canadian

disaffection; his influence through Earl Grey told powerfully for a

fuller and more optimistic conception of empire. With all its virtues,

the bureaucracy of the Colonial Office did not understand the

government of colonies such {223} as Canada; and where colonial

secretaries had the ability and will, they had not knowledge sufficient

to lead them into paths at once democratic and imperial. Even Grey

relapsed on occasion from the optimism which empire demands of its

statesmen. It was not simply that he emphasized the wrong

points--military and diplomatic issues, which in Canada were minor and

even negligible matters; but at times he seemed prepared to believe

that the days of the connection were numbered.[34]

In 1848 he had impaled himself on the horns of one of those dilemmas

which present themselves so frequently to absentee governments and

secretaries of state--either reciprocity and an Americanized colony, or

a new rebellion as the consequence of a refusal in Britain to consent

to a reciprocity treaty.[35] In 1849, "looking at these indications of

the state of feeling in Canada, and at the equally significant

indications as to the feeling of the House of Commons respecting the

value of our colonies," he had begun to despair of their retention.[36]

But there were greater sinners than those of the Colonial Office.

While Elgin {224} was painfully removing all the causes of trouble in

Canada, and proving without argument, but in deeds, that the British

connection represented normal conditions for both England and Canada,

politicians insisted on making foolish speeches. At last, an offence

by the Prime Minister himself drove Elgin into a passion unusual in so

equable a mind, and which, happily, he expressed in the best of all his

letters. "I have never been able to comprehend why, elastic as our

constitutional system is, we should not be able, now more especially

when we have ceased to control the trade of our colonies, to render the

links which bind them to the British Crown at least as lasting as those

which unite the component parts of the Union.... You must renounce the

habit of telling the colonies that the colonial is a provisional

existence.... Is the Queen of England to be the sovereign of an

empire, growing, expanding, strengthening itself from age to age,

striking its roots deep into fresh earth and drawing new supplies of

vitality from virgin soils? Or is she to be for all essential purposes

of might and power monarch of Great Britain and Ireland merely, her

place and that of her land in the world's history determined by the

productiveness of 12,000 square miles of a coal {225} formation which

is being rapidly exhausted, and the duration of the social and

political organization over which she presides dependent on the annual

expatriation, with a view to its eventual alienization, of the surplus

swarm of her born subjects?"[37] That is the final question of

imperialism; and Elgin had earned the right not only to put it to the

home government with emphasis, but also to answer it in an affirmative

and constructive sense.

The argument forbids any mention of the less public episodes in Elgin's

Canadian adventure; his whimsical capacity for getting on with men,

French, British, and American; the sly humour of his correspondence

with his official chief; the searching comments made by him on men and

manners in America; the charm of such social and diplomatic incidents

as Laurence Oliphant has related in his letters and his Episodes in a

Life of Adventure. But it may be permitted to sum up his qualities as

governor, and to connect his work with the general movement towards

self-government which had been proceeding so rapidly since 1839.

He was too human, easy, unclassical, and, on {226} the other hand, too

little touched with Byronic or revolutionary feeling, even to suggest

the age of Pitt, Napoleon, Canning; he was too sensible, too orthodox,

too firmly based on fact and on the past, to have any affinity with our

own transitionary politics. Like Peel, although in a less degree, he

had at once a firm body of opinions, a keen eye for new facts, and a

sure, slow capacity for bringing the new material to bear on old


He was able, as few have been, to set the personal equation aside in

his political plans, holding the balance between friends and foes with

almost uncanny fairness, and astonishing his petty enemies by his

moderation. His mind could regard not merely Canada but also Britain,

as it reflected on future policy; and, in his letters, he sometimes

seems the one man in the empire at the time who understood the true

relation of colonial autonomy to British supremacy. Not even his most

foolish eulogist will attribute anything romantic to his character.

There was nothing of Disraeli's "glitter of dubious gems" about the

honest phrases in which he bade Russell think imperially. Unlike

Mazzini, it was his business to destroy false nationalism, not to exalt

that which was true, and {227} for that cool business the glow and

fervour of prophecy were not required. We like to see our leaders

standing rampant, and with sulphurous, or at least thundery,

backgrounds. But Elgin's ironic Scottish humour forbade any pose, and

it was his business to keep the cannon quiet, and to draw the lightning

harmless to the ground. The most heroic thing he did in Canada was to

refrain from entering Montreal at a time when his entrance must have

meant insult, resistance, and bloodshed, and he bore quietly the taunts

of cowardice which his enemies flung at his head.

He was far too clear-sighted to think that statesmanship consists in

decisions between very definitely stated alternatives of right and

wrong. "My choice," he wrote in characteristic words, "was not between

a clearly right and clearly wrong course--how easy is it to deal with

such cases, and how rare are they in life--but between several

difficulties. I think I chose the least."[38] His kindly, shrewd, and

honest countenance looks at us from his portraits with no appeal of

sentiment or pathos. He asked of men that which they find it most

difficult to give--moderation, common-sense, a willingness to look at

both sides, and to {228} subordinate their egoisms to a wider good; and

he was content to do without their worship.

It is now possible to summarize the movement towards autonomy so far as

it was affected by the governors-general of the transition period.

The characteristic note in the earlier stages had been the domination

of the governor-general's mind by a clear-cut theory--that of Lord John

Russell. That theory was in itself consistent, and of a piece with the

rest of the constitution; and its merits stood out more clearly because

Canadian progressives had an unfortunate faculty for setting themselves

in the wrong--making party really appear as faction, investing

self-government with something of the menace of independence, and

treating the responsibility they sought in the most irresponsible way.

The British theory, too, as guaranteeing a definitely British

predominance in Canada, brought into rather lurid relief the mistaken

fervour of French-Canadian nationalism.

Yet Sydenham, who never consciously, or at least openly, surrendered

one detail of the system entrusted to him by Russell, found events too

much for him; and that which conquered Sydenham's resolution made short

work of any resistance Bagot may have dreamed of offering. Metcalfe

was wrong {229} in suspecting a conscious intention in Sydenham's later

measures, but he was absolutely right when he wrote, "Lord Sydenham,

whether intending it or not, did concede Responsible Government

practically, by the arrangements which he adopted, although the full

extent of the concession was not so glaringly manifested during his

administration as in that of his successor."[39]

Canadian conditions were, in fact, evolving for themselves a new

system--Home Rule with its limits and conditions left as vague as

possible--and that new system contradicted the very postulates of

Russell's doctrine. It was only when the system of Russell became

incarnate in a governor, Lord Metcalfe, and when the opposing facts

also took personal form in the La Fontaine-Baldwin ministry, that both

in Canada and Britain men came to see that two contradictory policies

faced each other, and that one or other alternative must be chosen. To

Elgin fell the honour not merely of seeing the need to choose the

Canadian alternative, but also of recognizing the conditions under

which the new plan would bring a deeper loyalty, and a more lasting

union with Britain, as well as political content to Canada.

[1] Elgin-Grey Correspondence: Elgin to Grey, 24 February, 1847. It

would be wrong to call Cathcart the "acting governor-general"; yet

apart from military matters that term describes his position in civil

matters not inadequately.

[2] Walrond, Letters and Journals of Lord Elgin, p. 424. "During a

public service of twenty-five years I have always sided with the weaker


[3] Elgin-Grey Correspondence: Elgin to Grey on Grey's Colonial Policy,

8 October, 1852.

[4] Gladstone to Cathcart, 3 February, 1846. The italics are my own.

[5] W. H. Draper to the Earl Cathcart, in Pope, Life of Sir John

Macdonald, i. pp. 43-4.

[6] Elgin-Grey Correspondence: Elgin to Grey, 24 February, 1847.

[7] Elgin-Grey Correspondence: Elgin to Grey, 26 April, 1847.

[8] Elgin-Grey Correspondence: Elgin to Grey, enclosing a note from

Col. Tache, 27 February, 1847.

[9] Ibid.: Elgin to Grey, 28 June, 1847.

[10] Elgin-Grey Correspondence: Grey to Elgin, 7 May, 1847.

[11] Ibid.: Elgin to Grey, 27 March, 1847.

[12] Elgin-Grey Correspondence: Elgin to Grey, 13 July, 1847.

[13] La Revue Canadienne, 21 December, 1847.

[14] The speech of the governor-general in proroguing Parliament, 1848.

[15] Elgin-Grey Correspondence: Grey to Elgin, 22 February, 1848.

[16] Elgin-Grey Correspondence: Elgin to Grey, 17 March, 1848.

[17] Elgin-Grey Correspondence: Elgin to Grey, 5 February, 1848.

[18] Elgin refers (11 June, 1849) to "military men, most of whom, I

regret to say, consider my ministers and myself little better than


[19] Episodes in a Life of Adventure, p. 57.

[20] The obvious point, made by the Tories in Canada, and by Gladstone

in England, was that the new scheme of compensation was certain to

recompense many who had actually been in arms in the Rebellion,

although their guilt might not be provable in a court of law. See

Gladstone in Hansard, 14 June, 1849.

[21] Elgin to Grey, concerning Grey's Colonial Policy, 8 October,

1852. Metcalfe's policy in the matter had really forced Elgin's hand.

[22] Elgin-Grey Correspondence: Elgin to Grey, 14 March, 1849.

[23] Elgin-Grey Correspondence: Elgin to Grey, 12 April, 1849.

[24] Elgin's letter of 8 October, 1852, criticizing Grey's book. The

italics are my own.

[25] Elgin kept very closely in touch with the sentiments of the

Canadian press, French and English. See his letters passim.

[26] Elgin-Grey Correspondence: Elgin to Grey, 4 May, 1848.

[27] Elgin-Grey Correspondence: Elgin to Grey, 7 January, 1848.

[28] Ibid.: Elgin to Grey, 4 May, 1848.

[29] See an interesting reference in a letter to Sir Charles Wood,

written from India. Walrond, op. cit. pp. 419-20.

[30] Elgin-Grey Correspondence: Elgin to Grey, 16 November, 1848.

[31] Walrond, p. 105.

[32] Mrs. Oliphant, Life of Laurence Oliphant, i. p. 120.

[33] L. Oliphant, Episodes in a Life of Adventure, p. 56.

[34] For Grey's mature position, see below, in Chapter VII.

[35] Elgin-Grey Correspondence: Grey to Elgin, 27 July, 1848.

[36] Ibid.: Grey to Elgin, 20 July, 1849.

[37] The letter, which may be found in Walrond's Life of Lord Elgin,

pp. 115-20, ought to be read from its first word to its last.

[38] Elgin-Grey Correspondence: Elgin to Grey, 7 October, 1849.

[39] Kaye, Papers and Correspondence of Lord Metcalfe, p. 414.

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