The history of politics is like a sausage that can be sliced several different ways. One way is to look at the politicians of the day, the prominent figures who led the debates around policy and strategy. Personality matters as a force in history and we cannot know the contexts of decisions made without knowing something about the players.
Another way is to look at power itself, which is ultimately the business of politics. Where did power reside in this society and why? What forces were being mobilized that would raise or ruin the likelihood of this group or that having more agency in making their own history? It’s not enough to say, for example, that women had little political power because they couldn’t vote; they couldn’t vote because their power itself was limited, and we need to understand why.
There is, as well, the question of ideology to address. What ideas and values drove people in their struggles for power? This relates, too, to the language of politics: words like democracy and freedom clearly have meanings that change over time. As heirs to a long tradition of liberal democracy, we need to appreciate that its practices came into being as part of a movement, and that those who advocated greater democracy in one generation might have been appalled at where those changes went in the next.
Finally (and this is not an exhaustive list of topics), there is the media to consider. As the colonies became larger and more complex, the influence of the press also grew. It isn’t just the case that we should pay attention to what journalists had to say; we need to know what it was that newspapers were trying to be in the 19th century.
With economic and social change after 1818 came demands for political transformation. An oligarchy with roots deep in the pre-Conquest soil of Canada and New England was at odds with a rising bourgeois class in the towns and cities. In an age defined by new theories of social relations and power, by the rise of democratic and socialist ideas in England, and by technological advances that sped up communications, people across British North America debated change: should it come and, if so, how much and how fast?
Governments and Constitutions
Not all of the colonies of British North America were governed similarly. It is true that their constitutions derived from a combination of American traditions and practices, on the one hand, and British parliamentary models on the other. Loyalist refugees brought with them a powerful expectation of continuity of American practices in the Maritimes as British colonies appeared there after 1713, and many believed the absence of a local assembly in Nova Scotia deterred some potential migrants from New England, at least until 1758. Cape Breton (independent of Nova Scotia until 1820) never had its own representative assembly, nor did Newfoundland until 1832. Tension between Catholics and Protestants in Newfoundland reached such a pitch mid-century that half of the seats in the colonial assembly were stripped from the electorate and filled with appointees. Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick both inherited much of their administrative structure from Nova Scotia, to which they were both for a time attached. Prince Edward Island’s assembly was made problematic by the landholding system on the island: most of the landowners were absentees. This and tenant-farmer unhappiness put their assembly at jeopardy on several occasions.
Nova Scotia got its first elected assembly in 1758, but its ability to control government expenditures — money bills — was limited. The legislative council, an appointed body, was able to alter or amend legislation arising in the assembly, a practice that was unusual by British American standards and offensive to the New England element in the colony. It was, as well, out of step with Westminster’s ability to control expenditures. Nova Scotia in the late 18th century thus became a testing ground for all the constitutional issues that would face the rest of British North America in the years ahead.
By 1808 the Nova Scotia Assembly controlled much of the government’s spending. Executives, however, retained control of external revenue sources and that allowed them to spend money outside of the assembly’s purview. Political appointments and rewards were commonly used to secure support for the regime and for advancing the interests of the Church of England. These appointments were paid for through the “civil lists” — public appointments — over which all the British North American assemblies desired control. Governors and executive councils realized that assembly control of the civil lists would put an end to patronage and would undermine paternalism. In the 1830s a compromise was struck peacefully in the Maritimes in which the assemblies gained control over money bills (that is, legislation that involved expenditures) with the exception of the civil list.
Unlike the Canadas (which are considered in the next section), the Maritimes had no formal constitution until the 19th century. Reflecting the military orientation of the Atlantic outposts, the governors of these colonies were simply supplied with “instructions” from the Crown for the term of their appointment. Of course, these could be renewed or changed or rescinded over the course of a term in office.
All of the assemblies in British North America were elected. The extent of their authority varied over time and between colonies. The electorate also varied. Only property owners could vote and, since Catholics could not own property outside of a special dispensation, Acadians and Canadiens were initially not enfranchised. This soon changed in Lower Canada, but the law would stay in place in Nova Scotia until the 1820s. Further, elections were not conducted by secret ballot: they occurred in public view, providing opportunities for opposing sides to sway electors by means of drink, bribes, threats, and beatings. Only a small fraction of the adult population was able to vote in the pre-Confederation period and, outside of Lower Canada, the electorate was entirely male. Assemblies were sometimes split between advocates and opponents of deference to the governor. At times in the 19th century, individuals who wished to change the relationship between the governor and the assembly dominated the House; these individuals were called Reformers.
Legislative council: In Nova Scotia prior to 1758, the council was created as a committee to devise legislation for the governor. Its members were appointed from a network of local elites. More like Britain’s appointed and hereditary House of Lords than the House of Commons, the legislative council constituted the political upper class in the colony. With the introduction of assemblies, the council’s role changed to proposing and revising legislation that was debated by the assembly. It was this power of revision that some members of the assemblies most disliked, specifically as it applied to money bills.
While governors might be inclined from time to time to appoint into the legislative council someone drawn from outside the Anglican Tory elite, the executive was consistently an appointed body of the highest Tories and Loyalists. In Lower Canada their number were increasingly dominated by the Montreal fur-trading establishment and early capitalists. The executive was responsible only to the governor, but that didn’t stop them from biting the hand that fed them. Sir George Prevost (1767-1816), the governor of Lower Canada during the War of 1812, was effectively hounded from office by his own appointees.
The title of this position varies between governor, governor general, and lieutenant-governor. Defending Nova Scotia against the French or Upper Canada against the Americans was part of the job description. To deal with civil matters — everything from road construction to education, from civil order to land titles — governors appointed an executive council to provide oversight and a legislative council to write the laws. Governors were appointed by the Crown (in practical terms, the British cabinet). They came from three sources: most in the 18th century were high-ranking military men with battle experience; some of the early governors and more in the 19th century were from the British aristocracy; a few in the late 18th century were North Americans who cut their administrative teeth as governors in the Thirteen Colonies. All of them were Anglicans. Sir John Sherbrooke (ca. 1764-1830), the lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia from 1811 to 1816 and governor general of British North America from 1816 to 1818, for example, rose to the rank of Lieutenant General in the British Army. He was first sent to Nova Scotia to improve its defences and, later, to mount an attack on American territory. (Ironically, he was better as a civic administrator than as a military figure and made peace between difficult factions in Lower Canada in only two years.) Lord Durham and Lord Sydenham provide mid-century contrasts: the former was an aristocrat sent to British North America to referee the conflicts of 1837-38, and the latter was a commoner who had risen to political and bureaucratic prominence as treasurer of the Royal Navy (he lasted in Canada from 1839 to 1841).
- The political conflicts and transformations of the mid-19th century reflect changing social relations and economic conditions.
- Not all of the colonies of British North America were governed similarly.