When we think about the relationship between revolution and counterrevolution in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world, perhaps we should be thinking about Canada. Modern Canada’s constitutional foundations have their origins in the Constitutional Act of 1791 and the resettlement of thousands of Loyalist émigrés fleeing the American Revolution. The act split French Canada into two new provinces: Upper Canada–roughly corresponding to modern-day Ontario and predominantly British in character–and Lower Canada, analogous to modern-day Quebec and chiefly retaining its French culture. Each province received their own elected legislatures and legal structures, one based on British law and custom, the other following French precedents.
I propose to think about this new Canada as not one but three counterrevolutions. First, as a Loyalist counterrevolution. Although still yoked to the British Empire, the new Canada offered low taxes, cheap land, and a measure of republican government that promised to avoid the excesses of democracy that had threatened to overwhelm the American Revolution. The Crown also took measures to ensure the establishment of the Anglican church in Canada, putting an effective end to nearly two centuries of the “Catholic menace” in Quebec. In effect, the American Loyalists in Upper Canada succeeded in securing imperial support for many of their Patriot adversaries’ original goals.
But Canada was also a conservative imperial counterrevolution: with the 1791 Constitution, the Crown acted to prevent another American Revolution by firmly securing Canada within London’s imperial orbit. The new government strictly regulated the press, limited access to the electoral process, and encouraged the establishment of a new governing aristocracy unwavering in their allegiance to the monarchy. Each of these actions aimed at curbing the sources of friction that plagued the Crown’s relationship with the thirteen seceded provinces–inflammatory newspaper editorials, the growth of a recalcitrant upper class, and broadly-conceived constitutional rights concerning the sovereignty of the people. 1791 was the first test of a mixed imperial/constitutional government that became the hallmark of the new British Empire.
Finally, it might be possible to imagine Canada’s new constitution as a British counterrevolution in the face of an increasingly radical French Revolution. Edmund Burke, one of the act’s chief proponents, had published his counterrevolutionary pamphlet Reflections on the French Revolution the previous year. Burke and Parliament’s growing fear of the French mob might be one reason behind the clear division of Canada into separate British and French zones–if the Constitution’s concessions to republicanism proved inadequate to French Canadians, a divided populace would be easier to control. In any event, the new Canada emerged shortly after French Revolutionaries forced a reluctant Louis XVI to adopt the 1791 Constitution, severely limiting the powers of the French monarchy. Burke might have found this poetic.
What do we gain when we think about Canada as a counterrevolution? I will offer a transnational suggestion: as historian Alan Taylor has argued, acknowledging the existence of a second republican government on the American continent demands a re-conceptualization of the gains and limits of the American Revolution. In other words, can we now imagine a Canadian dimension to the 1787 Constitutional Convention and the “Revolutionary Settlement,” itself often described as an American counterrevolution? Similarly, how does Canada’s constitution compare with the Haitian constitutions promulgated between 1801 and 1816, and the French constitutions of 1791-1804? Is it noteworthy that in an age of constitutional turmoil, Canada emerged with a relatively solid government structure? If nothing else, the idea of Canada-as-counterrevolution insists that we include Canada in any transnational discussion of an Atlantic Age of Revolution.