Counterrevolutions, Empires, and Canada

Encampment of the Loyalists in Johnstown, 1925, (after an original), National Archives of Canada
“Encampment of the Loyalists in Johnstown,” National Archives of Canada

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.

About John Hannigan

I am a Ph.D. candidate in History at Brandeis University. My scholarly interests include the American Revolution, slavery, and warfare in the eighteenth-century world.
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5 Responses to Counterrevolutions, Empires, and Canada

  1. Haram Lee says:

    John, this is a fascinating post, reminding us of the need for looking farther not only into ‘south’ but also into ‘north’ in our consideration of the ‘Age of Revolution.’ Your post made me want to know more about a couple of issues concerning the new Canada and its relationship with other revolutions and/or counterrevolutions. My first question is concerned with slavery in Canada. If you can understand the creation of Canada as an incident responsive to the crisis of the British Empire (as you put it, as an imperial counterrevolution), I wonder what changes they made in Canada in practice of slavery. Here, I am making this inquiry in line with Christopher Brown’s argument that British abolitionism emerged from the crisis of the British Empire (the crisis mainly caused by the American Revolution). If both the new Canada and the abolitionism were the products of the imperial crisis, could we perhaps find any connection between them? Was Canada a place that played out a liberating potential in the crisis by ‘ameliorating,’ if not abolishing, slavery? Or did it remain a reactionary and consistently counterrevolutionary case in terms of slavery as well?

    Moreover, I am intrigued by your approach to the new Canada as a way of reevaluating the impacts of the American Revolution. My second question is about how you might push forward your claim further, if you would see the American Revolution as ending up with a counterrevolution through the process of the ratification (as Jane passingly suggested in the last session). If the American Revolution turned out to evolve into a counterrevolution, does it still hold that the creation of Canada was a conservative reaction to the American Revolution? Or was it an instance of another counterrevolution? To put it less contentiously, how did the 1791 Canadian constitution’s “measure of republican government” which purported to prevent the ‘dangers’ of democracy relate to the 1788 American constitution? How much were they, in effect, different from one another?

    • John Hannigan says:

      To answer your second question, Haram, (or to cautiously avoid your first question), I think conceptualizing Canada as a counterrevolution only enhances our understanding of an American counterrevolution. If the United States Constitution is to be understood as a counterrevolutionary event, how does it stack up against the other constitutional republic that emerged in relatively the same space at relatively the same time?

      In fact, the more I think on it, the more I believe that comparing the Canadian and American constitutional origins will be absolutely necessary if historians are to fully comprehend the “Revolutionary Settlement” of the late 18th century. Including Canada forces us to discuss an American Revolution that birthed two constitutional republics in North America and–as Cassandra hinted at in her comment–to imagine the Revolution’s subsequent role in Canadian as well as American public consciousness.

  2. Cassandra Berman says:

    This is a curious coincidence – given that we both turned to Canada in some form as we thought about counterrevolution, it seems that your proposal makes a lot of sense (and is useful for the purposes of our seminar!). Canada as a counterrevolutionary space also brings up interesting questions of popular historical memory. In the case of Molly Brant, Canada now remembers her as a hero, and has leveraged her story to celebrate both women and native people’s roles in history (even memorializing her on a postage stamp – which was a bit challenging since she was never visually depicted). I would venture to say that in the United States, however, she is effectively absent from national, popular historical memory. So in addition to thinking about how Canada fits into revolutionary and counterrevolutionary scholarly discourse, it would also be fascinating to think about the space Canada occupies in American popular historical consciousness… as well as the other way around – that is, how the American Revolution fits into Canada’s public history narrative.

    • Jeanna Kadlec says:

      In the case of Molly Brant, Canada now remembers her as a hero, and has leveraged her story to celebrate both women and native people’s roles in history (even memorializing her on a postage stamp – which was a bit challenging since she was never visually depicted).

      This is so interesting! For one, the obvious – like you say – challenge of visually creating a national icon for whom there isn’t a frame of reference. I think of a similar case in the United States: Sacagawea. There isn’t an image of her that was made, or that is surviving, and so all of the artwork – the paintings and sculptures and the “Sacagawea dollar” – are recreations. When it comes to national icons, it seems that sometimes the iconography can border on the hagiographic, and this risk seems especially prevalent when there isn’t a textual/visual line of reference.

    • John Hannigan says:

      I agree, Cassandra, and I think we could also push your theory further to encompass the relationship between the War of 1812 and Canadian/American public memory.

      Aside from the legend of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” there isn’t much room for this war in American public memory. Partly this is due to geographical fact: there are more War of 1812 historical sites in Canada than there are in the United States. But it is undoubtedly due also to a Canadian understanding of the war as preserving their existence as an American counterrevolutionary republic.

      Ironically, we are in the midst of the War of 1812 Bicentennial–a multi-year celebration that has seen hundreds of events and commemorations in Canada but very little in the United States.

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