1841 or 1848: When Did Responsible Government Begin?


The latest issue of The Dorchester Review contains my first little foray into this question of when Responsible Government began;  I hope to expand this initial contribution into a larger project. For now, you can read my initial findings here.

The idea came to me when I noticed that Alpheus Todd, the Librarian of Parliament for the United Province of Canada and the Dominion of Canada, wrote in Parliamentary Government in the British Colonies that Responsible Government was granted to Canada in 1841. He stated it in a perfunctory way as a matter of fact, not in order to make an argument on a matter of controversy. In other words, the creation of the United Province of Canada itself marked the beginnings of Responsible Government. What made this observation so interesting, in my mind, is that Todd was a contemporary to the Rebellions of 1837 and the re-organization of Upper Canada and Lower Canada into the United Province of Canada and could therefore speak with some authority on the subject. Yet, most historians of the 20th and 21st centuries place the grant of Responsible Government to 1848, when Governor General Lord Elgin first applied the principles contained in his letters and instructions. Canadians elected the 3rd Parliament in January 1848; when it convened in March of that year, the Reformers, let by Baldwin and Lafontaine, used their majority to pass a vote of non-confidence in incumbent conservative administration, and Lord Elgin then commissioned Baldwin and Lafontaine to form a new government. (The custom that the incumbent government resigns before the next parliament meets, when the results and outcomes of the election are clear, did not emerge until the late 19th century).

I explore in this article what accounts for that discrepancy in the historiography of Responsible Government.

Bowden, James W.J. “1841: The Year of Responsible Government?” The Dorchester Review 6, no. 2 (Autumn-Winter 2016): 69-72.

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About J.W.J. Bowden

My area of academic expertise lies in Canadian political institutions, especially the Crown, political executive, and conventions of Responsible Government; since 2011, I have made a valuable contribution to the scholarship by having been published and cited extensively. I’m also a contributing editor to the Dorchester Review and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law.
This entry was posted in Dorchester Review, History of British North America, Individual vs Collective Ministerial Responsibility, Origins, Responsible Government. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to 1841 or 1848: When Did Responsible Government Begin?

  1. Craig Burley says:

    More seriously, you could also date its beginning to 1847… and the third Earl Grey’s minute to the respective governors of both Nova Scotia and Canada that they should choose councils from among the majority party of the legislature. Given that in both cases this was quickly to come to pass (in January 1848 in Nova Scotia and I think by March in Canada) and the minute followed, you can pretty convincingly date the *grant* of responsible government to 1847 although the first responsible government was Uniacke’s government in Nova Scotia.

    (As you can tell, I consider collective responsibility and solidarity important… but more than that, without RG being a matter of party–in other words, that solid and collective government being united through organizations established outside the legislature–I don’t think it has much content.)

    I enjoyed the piece!


    • This is a good point. Some of the sources from the 19th century that I examined for this piece did indeed put the grant of Responsible Government in 1847, based on Earl Grey’s instructions. I believe that Ollivier did the same, writing in the 1940s.


  2. Craig Burley says:

    Well, it certainly won’t be the last time that Canada tries to steal Nova Scotia’s thunder.


    • You remind me of my friend from New Brunswick here! He also doesn’t like when the Upper Canadians who come from away culturally or otherwise appropriate the Maritimes.

      I wonder if you would also react like he did to my argument that the Dominion of Canada as a polity dates to 1791 because it descends from the Constitutional Act, 1791 and the Act of Union, 1840.


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