Last Month's Program
"The Impact of American and British/Canadian Relations
that Culminated in the American Civil War and Canadian Confederation"
by Gord Sly, CWRT/GK
Thursday, 12 May 2022
Note from the Editor: "I was unable to attend the May 12, 2022, meeting of the Civil War Round Table to hear Gord's talk in person. However, Gord was kind enough to send me the full 30-page text of his presentation from which I was able to put together the heavily condensed version below."
- Tom Brzezicki.
Today the world generally views Canada and the United States as friendly neighbours: two countries without defended borders. The countries share an Anglo-rooted language and culture in many respects. The oddity of this friendship is that it was not so friendly a relationship during the late 18th century into the 19th century. There was an ongoing and perhaps largely perceived American threat to British North America over those years, which was the product of strained British-American relationship, with the colonies to the north caught in the middle. The effect of the Civil War on Confederation was the embodiment of this long, sometimes apprehensive, interlocking history between the two countries. But it is important to note that American influence was not the only factor contributing to Confederation, though it was significant.
How did this wearisome relationship between the United States and the British North American colonies begin? Before the American Revolution, the Thirteen Colonies were pushing settlement westwards beyond the Appala-chians into French and Indian territory. War ensued from 1754 to 1763 [known in Europe as the Seven Years' War and in North America as the French and Indian War] and, much to the disappointment and anger of the Thirteen Colonies, the victorious British continued to block American movement westwards, having designated the trans-Appalachian lands as Indian Reserve territory. To add insult to injury, the British also imposed numerous taxes on the Thirteen Colonies to help pay for the war debt and the expense of maintaining British troops on the frontier.
The British government subsequently proclaimed the Quebec Act in 1774, part of an attempt to appease the French in Quebec, by repealing the oath of loyalty to the British Crown and restoring Catholic religious rights and French civil law. These actions helped reconcile the French-Canadians to British rule and deprive the Americans of a potential ally during the Revolutionary War. Nevertheless, an angry John Adams, later second President of the United States, publicly exclaimed, "The continent must be ours."
During the Revolution, the Continental Congress established the Articles of Confederation in 1777, a precursor to the Constitution of 1789. Article 11 of the Constitution allowed for the admission of Canada to the United States any time its people chose to renounce their status as subjects of the British Crown.
For Loyalists who fled north following the revolution, there was apprehension about possible retaliation from the developing nation to the south. The Loyalist exodus from the former colonies was encouraged by the aggressive and often violent acts against those who disagreed with the American 'Patriots'.
After the Revolution, there were numerous sources of tension between the United States and British North America. Victory over the British Empire had left the Americans with a strong sense of strength, superiority, and self-confidence. There was also a sense of American Exceptionalism, which gave birth to the idea of Manifest Destiny. The term "Manifest Destiny" was coined by American diplomat John O'Sullivan, who wrote in 1839: "And that claim is by right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole continent which Providence has given to us ..." O'Sullivan even predicted that Canada would eventually request annexation, showing continued American interest in acquiring the British colonies to the north.
In reality, Manifest Destiny was used with force and violence to justify American westward expansion throughout the 19th century. Public pronouncements of Manifest Destiny in the United States led to some concern north of the border. Were British colonies in the north in line for Manifest Destiny?
It is important to note that, despite the rhetoric from men such as O'Sullivan, there was not an overly strong consensus for Manifest destiny in the United States. Many members of the Whig party, such as Abraham Lincoln, expressed that Manifest Destiny did not represent the true values of democracy. However, the conflicting interpretations of Manifest Destiny were still unsettling in areas of British North America for a good part of the 19th century.
Another question on some minds in both the United States and Canada at the time was, would Britain at some point attempt to take on the United States to avenge the loss of the Thirteen Colonies? And was the United States really serious about getting rid of all British presence in North America?
The War of 1812 was a period of tension and violence between Britain and the United States, and by default, Canada. The War of 1812 was generally considered a draw with the British able to successfully fend off American aggression. There was a unity of purposeful protection against the United States throughout the British colonies. To some Americans, the War of 1812 was the Second War of Independence, and perhaps it was an early war for Canadian unity and independence as well.
The 1837-'38 rebellions in Canada were intended to overthrow the Executive Councils in Upper and Lower Canada. The rebels wanted to set up more democratic, American-style republican governments. The unsuccessful rebellions eventually led to the union of Upper and Lower Canada into one province under the Act of Union of 1841. This was an important step toward Canadian unity. [This is also when Upper and Lower Canada were renamed as Canada West and Canada East.]
Before the Civil War, a number of border disputes left a bitter taste in the mouths of British North American officials, notably the Oregon Boundary Dispute of 1846, which was eventually resolved by establishing the Canada/U.S. border at the 49th parallel.
There were developments in international trading arrangements as a result of a growing belief in the economic benefits of free trade. In 1854 a Reciprocity Treaty was negotiated between Britain/Canada and the United States to alleviate problems in trade between the two countries. Some Americans perceived this treaty as a preliminary step to annexing Canada. At the same time, there were discussions of an economic union between the Maritime colonies and central Canada, including plans for an inter-colonial railroad.
Another source of irritation between the two countries was Canada's role as the northern terminus of the Under-ground Railroad and haven for abolitionists and conductors such as Harriet Tubman. There was some concern about what impact this kind of Canadian involvement might have on future relations with the U.S.
The Civil War accelerated the long-held concerns of annexation that helped to provide a significant push toward Confederation. Britain and the colonies remained officially neutral, but generally and unofficially favoured the South. On the other hand, the vast majority of the 40,000 or 50,000 Canadians who fought in the Civil War joined the Union side.
A number of incidents between the United States and Britain pushed the two countries to the brink of war. There was, for example, the Trent Affair of November 1861 when a U.S. Navy vessel stopped a British mail steamer on the high seas and seized two Confederate agents on board. There was also the Chesapeake Incident of December 1863 when a U.S. Navy vessel violated British neutrality by seizing a vessel crewed by Confederates in Nova Scotian waters. Better known is the St. Alban's Raid of October 1864 when Confederate agents based in Canada East robbed several banks in St. Alban's, Vermont, and then fled to Montreal, where they were captured but then subsequently released.
From the first years of the war, Confederate clandestine activities were evident in Canada. In 1864, Jefferson Davis made spying on the North from Canada official policy. Jacob Thompson of Mississippi was in charge of Confederate covert operations in Canada and organized such plots as the unsuccessful attempt to rescue rebel POWs from Johnson's Island on Lake Erie in September 1864. He also botched an attempt to burn down New York City. It was alleged that Thompson also conspired with John Wilkes Booth in Montreal in the spring of 1865, a report which Thompson always denied.
The end of the Civil War did not allay concerns of annexation in Canada. John A. Macdonald continued to fret about a Union victory and the possibility of a strong, victorious Union army being turned against Canada. As the Fathers of Confederation were concluding their debates in Quebec in 1866, an Annexation Bill, authorized by President Andrew Johnson, was introduced to Congress. However, the bill never left the committee stage.
On the west coast in the British colony of Vancouver, annexation was a hot topic of discussion. For years, the colony felt neglected by Britain and there was a danger that present day British Columbia might join the U.S. as part of the American purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867[sometimes known as Seward's Folly]. It was even suggested that America might absorb the colony of Vancouver as compensation for the Union shipping losses suffered from the depredations of the British-built commerce raider, the CSS Alabama, during the Civil War. However, John A. Macdonald's promise of a continental railroad from Canada led British Columbia to join Confederation in 1871.
Threatening incidents against Canada continued after the Civil War, which only created more support for Confederation. The Fenian Movement was a society of Irish-Americans fighting for Ireland's independence, which they hoped to achieve by occupying Canadian territory to use as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the British government. Between 1866 and 1871, Fenian raids took place in New Brunswick, Ontario, Quebec, and Manitoba. However, the Fenians did not get the hoped-for support from the United States and their raiding parties were no match for the reinforced Canadian militia. Some historians have suggested it was the threat of the Fenian raids that finally persuaded the Maritime colonies to join Confederation.
Perhaps the greatest impact on Canadian Confederation came in 1789 from the Constitution of the United States. The American constitutional experiment convinced the Fathers of Confederation that the British constitution was far superior and more democratic than that of the United States. Events leading up to the Civil War and the war itself clearly demonstrated to Canadians flaws in the American Constitution. The strong sentiment of individualism and individual rights in the United States tended to take priority over national rights and responsibilities.
The British North America Act, on the other hand, gave the central government powers over such areas as criminal law and complete jurisdiction over federal elections. The undefined or residual powers were also left to the federal government rather than to the provinces. The general conclusion is that the Canadians chose a government that is far more responsive to its citizens than the United States, at least in theory.
At the end of the Civil War there was immediate concern among the Fathers of Confederation that, since the Union had won the war, its large army would be unleashed on Canada. So why didn't the powerful United States take the opportunity to finally achieve its Manifest Destiny and invade Canada? One reason was that the U.S. did not want another war, not even with its longtime adversary: Britain. There was also so much else on America's agenda at the end of the Civil War--healing the wounds of the late bloody conflict, rebuilding the country, expanding and settling the frontier, constructing railroads, and the whole of Reconstruction. And as pointed out earlier, annexation was not a strong fixation with all Americans. Confederation to some extent had also been the result of international develop-ments of the time, driven by industrialization, international trade, and railroads.
When the British Parliament passed the British North America Act in 1867 and Queen Victoria signed the Royal Assent, there were still huge challenges awaiting Canadians as they sought to convert the ideals of Confederation into a functioning reality. Now, 155 years later, has time proved that the work of the Fathers of Confederation was right and successful?
Editor: Tom Brzezicki
BOOK REVIEW by TOM BRZEZICKI
[This topic only broadly relates to the American Civil War but, in several ways, relates to the topic of Gord Sly's talk, printed above: slavery. Ed. Paul Van Nest]
Gerald Horne, The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America, New Yor
k: New York University Press, 2014.
This book caught my eye when I was browsing the shelves at The Novel Idea bookstore, always a good place to find scholarly histories and biographies that the big box stores tend not to carry. According to the cover, Gerald Horne is the Moores Professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston and the author of over thirty books dealing with aspects of race, empire, culture, and colonialism from the 18th century up to the present day. Although Professor Horne's book does not deal directly with the American Civil War, it does touch upon that conflict and presents an interpretation of the causes of the American Revolution that supports the old Southern description of the Civil War as being a Second War of Independence, one in which the Confederacy claimed to be defending the original founding principles of the Republic that it accused the Union of abandoning.
A condensed version of the commonly accepted narrative of the American Revolution tends to go as follows. After the Treaty of Paris of 1763 ends the Seven Years War, the British government passes a number of measures to maintain the peace in its North American colonies. These include reconciling French Canadians to their conquered status by granting them protection of their Catholic religion and other legal rights, barring settlement west of the Appalachians to avoid provoking war with the Native Americans, and imposing taxes upon the American colonists to help pay for the recent victorious war of which they were the main beneficiaries. Prominent men in the Thirteen Colonies find these acts to be intolerable and an affront to their traditional rights and liberties under British law. When the Americans riot and resist, the British send troops to enforce the will of the Crown. The Americans muster their own forces and on an early spring day in 1775 war breaks out at Lexington and Concord. Six years later comes Yorktown and the British grudgingly acknowledge American independence by the 1783 Treaty of Paris. The collective genius of the Founding Fathers then devises a constitution of checks and balances to preserve their newly won freedom and democratic government. However, the problem of slavery is left unaddressed, a blemish on the body politic that is left for the future to resolve.
Professor Horne's retelling of the American Revolution is from a quite different perspective with the slavery issue squarely in the forefront. He begins his story in the late 17th century amid the islands of the Caribbean where Spanish, French, Dutch, and British colonists imported large numbers of black slaves to labour on their sugar plantations. Harsh treatment led the slaves to rise up against their masters in frequent bloody revolt, leading some planters to migrate to the mainland where they settled mainly in Virginia and the Carolinas. At this time British planters obtained their labour force through the Royal Africa Company, but in 1698 the British government, under pressure from the growing merchant class, threw open the slave trade to all comers. The result was a rapid increase in the slave population of the mainland colonies. In North Carolina the black population increased from 6,000 in 1730 to 65,000 in 1765, while in Virginia the number of blacks skyrocketed from 6,000 in 1700 to 120,000 by 1756. As early as 1734, there were close to 22,000 blacks in South Carolina, outnumbering the white population by about three to one.
White Americans lived in constant fear of slave revolts. Not only were Africans numerous and omnipresent in the daily lives of the colonists, but also they seemed to have an uncanny ability to transmit information quickly over long distances. Some had arcane knowledge of plants, herbs, and poisons with which to practice against their masters, while others had command of several languages such as French, Spanish, or Portuguese. They were also strongly motivated to fight for their freedom and were fierce in combat when given the opportunity to bear arms in battle.
This last point was realized first by the Spanish and subsequently by the other colonial powers. Over time, the Spanish had allowed a class of free blacks to emerge in their New World possessions; moreover, the Spanish were also willing to grant freedom to slaves who were willing to fight on behalf of the King of Spain. Thus, British and colonial troops fighting in the West Indies during the War of Jenkin's Ear in the 1740s found themselves confronted with companies and even whole regiments of black soldiers marching under the gold and crimson banner of Spain. These units were also officered by blacks who conferred and consulted with Spanish officials on equal terms. Professor Horne emphasizes that Spanish policy towards their slaves was dictated by expediency and pragmatism rather than any high-minded humanitarian motives. Compared to other European powers, however, the Spaniards had "the cleanest dirty shirt" with regard to their attitude and treatment of their black subjects.
When examining the colonial period in British North America, historians usually dwell on the threat posed by New France to the expansionist aspirations of the Thirteen Colonies, particularly the competition for the lands of the Ohio River country in the mid-1750s. Professor Horne, however, assesses the Spanish colony in Florida centered around St. Augustine as a much more potent rival, mainly because of the beckoning haven it provided for escaping slaves from the north. The Spaniards were only too happy to welcome these refugees into their expanding colony where they could receive military training and take part in seaborne raids and other expeditions against their former masters. Indeed, the colony of Georgia was founded in 1733 as an all-white buffer zone between Spanish Florida and the British colonies to the north, although its slave-free status did not last long.
By the time of the Seven Years' War, the British too had come to see that the thousands of Africans in Jamaica and their other West Indies settlements could be a prime source of military manpower. General Robert Monckton captured Martinique from the French in 1761 with the assistance of 3,000 black troops and a year later a contingent of blacks were instrumental in the capture of Havana. Indeed, some British officers found that free and slave blacks made better soldiers than white colonists, the latter of whom were incensed when black troops were given the same shares of captured spoils as they were. The British would later adopt a similar policy of arming blacks during the American Revolution, most notably when the Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, announced in November of 1775 that any slaves willing to enlist in the Ethiopian Regiment he was raising would be given their freedom.
Looking at the bigger picture, Professor Horne explains that, as the 18th century progressed, Africans were becoming accepted more and more in European society for their common humanity. He quotes one Scottish traveler in the West Indies who, after meeting a Jamaican man educated in England, concluded that "it is not color but genius and education that makes the man." Another British observer in the West Indies found that the French treated Africans as if they were "free people" and dealt with them "with such justice, favour, and complaisance that they have entirely won their hearts." By the 1770s there were anywhere from fifteen to twenty thousand Africans in the British Isles and the brutal treatment their kinfolk were receiving in the plantations of the southern American colonies helped kindle a growing abolitionist movement.
Meanwhile, the American colonists continued to behave in a manner that, as we would say today, placed them on the wrong side of history. Fearful of the ever-increasing number of Africans in their midst, Americans resorted to floggings, brandings, and other barbaric measures to terrorize their slaves into submission. Those slaves found inciting revolt were usually executed, sometimes by being burned alive. Britons were repelled by such practices which they felt hearkened back to an earlier, less civilized time. When the idea was raised of creating seats in Parliament for members from the Thirteen Colonies, Edmund Burke expressed revulsion at the thought of rubbing shoulders with slaveholders.
Professor Horne states that the growing divide between the Thirteen Colonies and the admini-stration of Lord North in London was reflected in differing attitudes and policies towards slavery, just as it was in questions of taxation and representative government. As we all know, the colonists protested taxes on stamps and tea, but they were also angered by taxes on slaves.
Americans felt an increasing sense of disconnect and even betrayal between themselves and the home country on the whole issue of slavery. Just as slaveholders were adopting more rigorous methods to deal with recalcitrant blacks, the British Parliament in 1772 passed a bill granting freedom to any slave who reached the shores of the British Isles, as if to say that British law no longer recognized the institution of slavery. A bill was even introduced proposing that slaves be granted the right of trial by jury, an anathema to colonists accustomed to a prototypical lynch law for offending blacks. And then in January 1775, only about three months before Lexington and Concord, came a bill in Parliament proposing outright abolition of slavery.
When the colonists took up arms against the Crown, they maintained they were doing so only to protect their traditional rights and liberties. The irony was not lost on the British public and, as Samuel Johnson famously quipped, "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from among the drivers of Negroes." High flown rhetoric about inalienable rights, all men being created equal, and life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness was only so much rhetorical obfuscation intended to hide the fact that the American colonists were willing to secede from the British empire in order to preserve slavery, just as their grandsons would be willing to secede from the Union less than a century later and for the same basic reason. Professor Horne is not alone in this position, and he quotes fellow historian Michael Groth who states that, "in one sense, slaveholding Patriots went to war in 1775 and declared independence in 1776 to defend their right to own slaves."
Looking ahead to 1861, Professor Horne views the leaders of the Confederacy as echoing the concerns of the generation who fought the Revolution and concludes, in his unique non-academic writing style, "Defenders of the so-called Confederate States of America were far from bonkers when they argued passionately that their revolt was consistent with the animating and driving spirit of 1776."
- Tom Brzezicki
FROM THE DESK OF THE SECRETARY
We are continuously grateful for all the writing that Tom Brzezicki does for us, primarily in editing our speakers' presentations, month after month, year after year. The result of course is not just in providing a meaningful monthly newsletter but also providing essays found on our website for our benefit. I hope that you utilize the index to these articles, probably now numbering 150 essays, mostly provided by Tom. A huge thank you to you, Tom, from all of us.
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