There are antinomies in politics as in philosophy, problems where the

difficulty lies in reconciling facts indubitably true but mutually

contradictory. For growth in the political world is not always

gradual; accidents, discoveries, sudden developments, call into

existence new creations, which only the generous logic of events and

the process of time can reconcile with pre-existing facts and systems.

It is the object
f this essay to examine one of these political

antinomies--the contradiction between imperial ascendancy and colonial

autonomy--as it was illustrated by events in early Victorian Canada.

The problem was no new one in 1839. Indeed it was coeval with the

existence of the empire, and sprang from the very nature of colonial

government. Beneath the actual facts of the great {2} American

revolution--reaching far beyond quarrels over stamp duties, or the

differentiation between internal and external taxation, or even the

rights of man--was the fundamental difficulty of empire, the need to

reconcile colonial independence with imperial unity. It was the

perception of this difficulty which made Burke so much the greatest

political thinker of his time. As he wrote in the most illuminating of

his letters, "I am, and ever have been, deeply sensible of the

difficulty of reconciling the strong presiding power, that is so useful

towards the conservation of a vast, disconnected, infinitely

diversified empire, with that liberty and safety of the provinces,

which they must enjoy (in opinion and practice, at least), or they will

not be provinces at all. I know, and have long felt, the difficulty of

reconciling the unwieldy haughtiness of a great ruling nation,

habituated to command, pampered by enormous wealth, and confident from

a long course of prosperity and victory, to the high spirit of free

dependencies, animated with the first glow and activity of juvenile

heat, and assuming to themselves as their birthright, some part of that

very pride which oppresses them."[1]


Dissatisfied as he ever was with merely passive or negative views,

Burke was led to attempt a solution of the problem. He had never been

under any illusion as to the possibility of limiting colonial

constitutional pretensions. A free government was what the colonists

thought free, and only they could fix the limit to their claims. But

many considerations made him refuse to despair of the empire. His

intensely human view of politics led him to put more trust in the bonds

of kindred and affection than in constitutional forms. He hated the

petty quibbles of political legists and pedants--their dilemmas, and

metaphysical distinctions, and catastrophes. In his opinion the bulk

of mankind was not excessively curious concerning any theories whilst

they were really happy. But perhaps his political optimism depended

most on his belief that institutions, as living things, were

indefinitely adaptable, and that the logic of life and progress

naturally overcame all opposing arguments. In his ideal state there

was room for many mansions, and he did not speak of disaster when

American colonists proposed to build according to designs not ratified

in Westminster.

I have dwelt on the views of Burke because here, as in Indian affairs,

he was the first of British {4} statesmen to recognize what was implied

in the empire, and because his views still stand. But his

contemporaries failed utterly, either to see the danger as he saw it,

or to meet it as he bade them meet it. Save Chatham, they had no

understanding of provincial opinion; in their political methods they

were corrupt individualists, and their general equipment in imperial

politics was contemptibly inadequate.

After the loss of the American colonies, the government in England

contrived for a time to evade the problems and responsibilities of

colonial empire. The colonies which remained to England were limited

in extent and population; and such difficulties as existed were faced,

not so much by the government in London, as beyond the seas by

statesmen with local knowledge, like Dorchester. At the same time, the

consequences of the French Revolution and the great wars drew to

themselves the attention of all active minds. Under these

circumstances imperial policy lost much of its prestige, and imperial

problems either vanished or were evaded. It was a period of "crown

colony" administration.[2] The connexion, as it was called, was

maintained through oligarchic {5} institutions, strictly controlled

from Westminster; local officials were selected from little groups of

semi-aristocrats, more English than the home government itself; and the

only policy which recommended itself to a nation, which still lacked

both information and imagination, was to try no rash constitutional

experiments, and to conciliate colonial opinion by economic favours and

low taxation.

Yet the old contradiction between British ascendancy and colonial

autonomy could not for long be ignored; and as in the early nineteenth

century a new colonial empire arose, greater and more diversified than

the old, the problem once more recurred, this time in Canada. It is

not the purpose of this book to discuss the earlier stages of the

Canadian struggle. The rebellions under Mackenzie in the West and

Papineau in the East were abnormal and pathological episodes, in

considering which the attention is easily diverted from the essential

questions to exciting side issues and personal facts. In any case,

that chapter in Canadian history has received adequate attention.[3]

But after Colborne's firmness had repressed the {6} armed risings, and

Durham's imperious dictatorship had introduced some kind of order,

there followed in Canada a period of high constitutional importance, in

which the old issue was frankly faced, both in England and in Canada,

almost in the very terms that Burke had used. It is not too much to

say that the fifteen years of Canadian history which begin with the

publication, in 1839, of Durham's Report, are the most important in

the history of the modern British empire; and that in them was made the

experiment on the success of which depended the future of that empire.

These years are the more instructive, because in them there are few

distracting events drawing the attention from the main constitutional

question. There were minor points--whether voluntaryism, or the

principle of church establishment, was best for Canada; what place

within the empire might safely be conceded to French-Canadian

nationalism; how Canadian commerce was to relate itself to that of

Britain and of the United States. All of these, however, were included

in, or dominated by, the essential difficulty of combining, in one

empire, Canadian self-government and British supremacy.


The phrase, responsible government, appears everywhere in the writings

and speeches of those days with a wearisome iteration. Yet the

discussion which hinged on that phrase was of primary importance. The

British government must either discover the kind of self-government

required in the greater dependencies, the modus vivendi to be

established between the local and the central governments, and the seat

of actual responsibility, or cease to be imperial. Under four

governors-general[4] the argument proceeded, and it was not until 1854

that Elgin, in his departure from Canada, was able to assure the

British government that the question had been for the time settled.

The essay which follows will describe the character of the political

community within which the question was raised; the fortunes and policy

of the governors-general concerned in the discussion; the modifications

introduced into British political thought by the Canadian agitation;

and the consequences, in England and Canada, of the firm establishment

of colonial self-government.

[1] Burke, Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol.

[2] Sir C. P. Lucas, Introduction to Lord Durham's Report, p. 266.

[3] Its latest statement may be found in Sir C. P. Lucas's admirable

edition of Lord Durham's Report, Oxford, 1912.

[4] I omit from my reckoning the brief and unimportant tenure of office

by the Earl Cathcart, who filled a gap between Metcalfe's retirement

and Elgin's arrival.