Canada’s Counter-Manifest Destiny

The Dorchester Review latest issue just came out last week. It includes my little piece on George Brown and Canada’s Manifest Destiny, in which I argue that George Brown — the underrated visionary — saw Confederation as the means of making British America stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific to the Arctic as a counterweight to and mirrorimage of the United States of America. Confederation cemented the Counter-Revolution of 1783.

Manifest Destiny and Counter-Manifest Destiny

Brown wrote a 9000-word essay on the history of British North America from 1791 to 1867 in his newspaper, The Toronto Globe, now The Globe and Mail and referred to 1 July 1867 (incidentally, also a Monday) as “Confederation Day” and extolled the virtues of Union in terms that any mid-19th-century American would have immediately recognized.

The history of Old Canada, with its contracted bounds and limited divisions of Upper and Lower, West and East, has been completed, and this day a new volume is opened, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia uniting with Ontario and Quebec, to make the history of a greater Canada, already extending from the [Atlantic] ocean to the headwaters of the Great Lakes, and destined ere long to embrace the larger half of this North American Continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific.[1]

You could be forgiven for mistaking Brown’s speech for that of an American politician of the same era extolling the virtues of what Americans call their “Manifest Destiny.” George Brown sounds even like John O’Sullivan himself, the American newspaper editor who first coined the term in 1845. O’Sullivan promoted the annexation of Texas and Oregon (territories which corresponded not merely to the borders of those states by the same names, but rather to the western third of the Continental United States) and argued:

And that claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.[2]

But Brown did not content himself with lofty pronouncements alone. He also advocated specific, realistic, achievable policies through which the future federal government could turn the Dominion of Canada into a trans-continental country, namely through building infrastructure, attracting mass immigration, and settling those immigrants in homesteads.[3] And this is precisely what the Macdonald and Laurier governments did: Macdonald fulfilled British Columbia’s Terms of Union and shepherded construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway (even after his false start in 1873 and the Pacific Scandal which brought down his penultimate ministry that November), which, in turn, paved the way for the Dominion Lands Act of 1872a direct Canadian equivalent of, and counter-weight to, the American Homestead Act of 1862; Laurier continued and perfected these policies, commissioning the construction of two additional trans-continental railways, and, along with his able Minister, Clifford Sifton, attracted hundreds of thousands more immigrants to settle the Prairie Provinces, two of which Parliament created under his watch in 1905. George Brown himself had clearly set out these policies in this speech in 1865. He pointed out that Canada already boasted public works (what we would today call infrastructure) far superior to that of the United States at its Union, partially, of course, because of technological advances but also because of deliberate policy.[4]

Americans tend to think of their history of settlement as unique — dare I say, exceptional? — but it is not. American Manifest Destiny is merely a sub-set of an over-arching Imperial ethos — “the civilizing mission” as the British and French then called it, and the “muscular Christianity”, as it was often called, of the era —  shared by white settler populations in all European empires throughout the 19th century. The brand of manifest destiny that O’Sullivan and Brown expressed also corresponds to the Second Great Awakening in the United States and a broader evangelical Protestant revivalism throughout the English-speaking world during the Victorian Era. America was and is no different. This mid-19th century trend was spurred by the Industrial Revolution in general and George Stephenson’s steam-engine locomotive and railway in particular, which provided a means of opening up and settling North America and Australia at rapid rates unthinkable in the pre-industrial 18th century. George Brown championed this trend and wanted to secure the Dominion of Canada against the United States of America.

Self-Righteousness Meets Condescension: A Contemporary American Take on Confederation

Yesterday, a friend of mine sent me an interesting editorial from an American newspaper on 1 July 1867, which provides the perfect foil to Brown’s essay and shows that at least some Americans (to the extent that they cared) took a decidedly different tone of Confederation. The Louisville Daily Courier from Louisville, Kentucky invoked American Manifest Destiny and promoted that good ol’ “54’40” or Fight!” Jacksonian and Frontier spirit that the federation of British North America should not stop the United States from annexing it. The Kentuckians also admonish the Senate of Canada for having dispensed with the elective character of the Legislative Council of the Province of Canada and become an appointed body, “which indicates the tendency in Canadian institutions.”[5]

Where Brown stated in all seriousness (though, if not perhaps with conceited loftiness) that “Canadians, no longer confined with petty provincial limits, but members of a larger nationality, […] join hands, and a shout of rejoicing goes up from the four millions of people who are now linked together for weal or for woe, to work out in common the destinies of a united British America”[6] , the Louisville Daily Courier derided Confederation and Canada’s haughty self-regard — though, admittedly, not entirely inaccurately : “The event is regarded as one of grave importance by Canadian politicians. The promoters of the scheme are jubilant of their success. The Canadas, they regard as emerging from a colonial state of dependency to the position of allies, who are hereafter to rank amongst the powers of the world.”[7]

The Louisville Daily Courier further sneered:

“The young Confederacy is anxious to put on the airs of a big nation and carry out some lofty ideas. Like a boy with his first wooden horse, they are over-anxious for the sport, and it is quite likely that on the first opportunity they will inquire if they are not in someone’s way.”[8]

The Kentuckians capped off their disdain with a mild, yet still mocking, lament that Canadian Confederation might have halted the Manifest Destiny of the United States to annex all of North America.

“The little dream entertained by many of our people that Canada would soon be absorbed by our expanding policy, is for the present dispelled, yet the new Confederacy may prove as good a neighbor as before, and when our Northwestern territory is reclaimed from the Esquimaux, walrus, and iceberg, and made to contribute to a teeming, hardy population, we can tell whether the dominion of Canada would be a digestible morsel, if willing to obliterate the lines which now divide us.”[9]

The reference to “our Northwestern territory” refers to Alaska, which the United States had purchased from Russia only a few weeks earlier, on 30 March 1867, for around 7.2 millions of dollars. Americans opposed to the purchase at the time denounced it as “Seward’s Folly” — but history (and a treasuretrove of mineral resources and bountiful natural resources as well) would prove Secretary of State William Seward right in the end. Essentially, the editorial was suggesting that if the United States of America could successfully absorb Alaska, then it could probably also annex the Dominion of Canada as well and bring the entire North American continent under its sovereignty.

If this American newspaper was representative of broad American opinion at the time, then Confederation did achieve one of its main goals of making British America more defensible  and deterring American expansion by making the cost of annexing a single British North American polity too high. It would have at least made them think twice. Annexing the Province of Canada, or New Brunswick, or Nova Scotia, or British Columbia as one “digestible morsel” each would certainly have been easier than annexing the entire Dominion of Canada at once, which might have given Washington a bad case of indigestion by comparison.

The Death of Free Trade — Again

The Louisville Daily Courier‘s editorial denouncing Canada’s haughty self-regard is not entirely wrong, especially in light of how George Brown portrays Confederation as a grandiose New Beginning in Canadian history in his editorial. Perhaps in this sense, the dynamic between Canada and the United States — the younger, weaker sibling filled with an almost pathological resentment toward its jocular and occasionally abusive but also cooler and wealthier older brother — has changed little over the last 151 years.

Finally, the Louisville Daily Courier dismissed the Liberal Party’s overtures of free trade between Canada and the United States as “condescending.” George Brown’s Clear Grits had long championed free trade, or Reciprocity, as its 19th-century proponents called it, and sought to re-establish the Reciprocity Treaty of 1854 between the United States of America and the Dominion of Canada, which the US Congress had unilaterally abrogated in 1866 in a protectionist turn. Free trade begets free trade, and protectionist begets protectionism. The Province of Canada sought out a Reciprocity Treaty with the United States precisely because the United Kingdom had abolished the preferential tariff with British America in the 1850s as part of the British Empire’s turn to free trade. In fact, by abrogating the Reciprocity Treaty and cutting off a free market for Canadian raw products like timber and fish, the United States inadvertently spurred forward the economic argument for Confederation of British North America. And even before the United States’ unilateral abrogation of the Reciprocity Treaty, George Brown had advocated in 1865 not only free trade between Canada and the United States, but also, perhaps more importantly, free trade within British North America as well:

I go heartily for the union, because it will throw down the barriers of trade and give us control of a market of four millions of people.[10]

If only that were so! Then we would not need the Agreement on Internal Trade of 1995, the Canada New West Partnership (originally the TILMA of 2003), or the Canadian Free Trade Agreement of 2017. Nor would the Supreme Court contrive a ruling in R v Comeau against the obvious plain meaning of section 121 of the Constitution Act, 1867 that “All Articles of the Growth, Produce, or Manufacture of any one of the Provinces shall, from and after the Union, be admitted free into each of the other Provinces” and declared instead that provinces can impose bans on importation of alcohol against each other. And nor would the Government of Canada abdicate its authority over inter-provincial commerce and allow British Columbia to veto the infrastructural projects and investments of Alberta.

The editors of the Kentucky paper also correctly predicted that the Johnson administration and Secretary of State William Seward would reject any overture from the Dominion of Canada to re-establish free trade: by the 1860s, the United States had firmly turned itself toward protectionism and erected tall tariff walls around itself and punitively taxed Canadian and other products. By 1878, the renewed Macdonald ministry responded in kind with a comprehensive policy of retaliatory Canadian protectionism, the National Policy. Sadly, all of this Jacksonian and protectionist rhetoric seems all too familiar in 2018.

But perhaps as President Trump has de facto abrogated NAFTA with the tariffs on Canadian imports which take effect today, we should also consider that we in Canada have failed to realize Brown’s vision of Confederation and still maintain protectionism within Canada and between provinces, even though the main rationales for federation remain promoting common defence and markets.  

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[1] George Brown, “Confederation Day: The Dominion of Canada — Historical Notes, How Confederation Has Been Brought About, Statistics of the United Provinces,” The Globe, volume 24, no. 156, 1 July 1867.

[2] Shane Mountjoy, Manifest Destiny: Westward Expansion (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 2009), 9-10.

[3] Janet Ajzenstat, Paul Romney, Ian Gentles, and William D. Gairdner, editors, Canada’s Founding Debates (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003), 134-136.

[4] Ibid., 134.

[5] The Louisville Daily Courier, “The Dominion of Canada,” Monday, 1 July 1867.

[6] George Brown, “Confederation Day: The Dominion of Canada — Historical Notes, How Confederation Has Been Brought About, Statistics of the United Provinces,” The Globe, volume 24, no. 156, 1 July 1867.

[7] The Louisville Daily Courier, “The Dominion of Canada,” Monday, 1 July 1867.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.


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 Dominion Day, Dorchester Review, History of British North America. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Canada’s Counter-Manifest Destiny

  1. Rand Dyck says:

    A beautiful “Canada Day” contribution, James!



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