The American Civil War captured the rapt attention of our Fathers of Confederation during the Confederation Debates in 1864 and 1865, and the prospect of another American invasion into Canada (a repeat of the War of 1812), as remote as it might have been, and the Fenian incursions into New Brunswick in 1866 spurred the British North American colonies to unite into one federation for their common defence. Thomas D’Arcy McGee, who had lived in Boston for several years before settling in Montreal in 1857, warned repeatedly that the most committed American Manifest Destinarians had long set their sights on Canada. George Brown, who had also spent some time in New York before settling permanently in Toronto, similarly warned that the United States would annex Rupert’s Land and British Columbia.
The Annexation Bill of July 1866
Some Americans had indeed made these claims quite plain. On 2 July 1866, Nathaniel Banks, a Republican Congressman from Massachusetts, introduced a bill, H.R. 754 “for the admission of the States of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Canada East, and Canada West, and for the organization of the Territories of Selkirk, Saskatchewan, and Columbia” into the United States of America. The bill died in committee. But Banks had actually taken a remarkably sophisticated approach in his proposed legislation by cleverly countering some of the guarantees contained in the Quebec Resolutions, especially those relating to public works, what we today call infrastructure.
Under the bill, the United States would have assumed debts “and contingent liabilities of the late provinces” – now called states – “to the amount of $85,700,000.” It included the amounts to each “late provinces”, including Newfoundland and Labrador, which by 1866 had dropped out of the negotiations to join Confederation. But the purpose of representation in Congress, “Newfoundland shall be part of Canada East, and Prince Edward Island shall be part of Nova Scotia,” though each “state” would remained its own electoral district. Under Article IV of the bill, Nova Scotia would absorb Prince Edward Island, and Quebec would absorb Newfoundland – something which Quebec still wants in part today. Since the United States would also purchase Rupert’s Land for $10 millions under Article XI, Ontario would have gained “the addition of territory south of Hudson’s Bay” and west up to the 90th meridian. The Province of Ontario would eventually gain this additional territory by 1912, and the current border between Manitoba and Ontario runs closer to the 95th meridian West. The Selkirk Territory would have roughly corresponded to Manitoba, and the Saskatchewan Territory would have included most of what are now Saskatchewan and Alberta – except that the northern border of these two territories would have extended up to the Arctic Circle instead of stopping at the 60th Parallel. British Columbia would have become Columbia Territory, since we certainly couldn’t call ourselves British after being annexed into the United States, along the same borders as today.
Additional material inducements came in Article VII of the bill, which would have committed the United States to constructing new canals and expanding existing ones in order “to aid the navigation of the Saint Lawrence river and the great lakes” – which sounds like the St. Lawrence Seaway which we eventually did construct in the 1950s. Under Article VIII, the United States would finance the construction of a railway from Bangor, Maine to Saint John, New Brunswick. Under Article IX, the United States would facilitate the construction of a massive trans-continental railway from Truro, Nova Scotia to Riviere du Loup, Quebec, and on to Ottawa, Sault Ste. Marie, by-passing the Canadian Shield in northern Ontario and running through Wisconsin, but then moving back up to Winnipeg and west to the Pacific through Selkirk, Saskatchewan, and Columbia Territories. Article X would provide for the surveying of “the public lands in the late provinces.”
These included the construction of the Inter-Colonial Railway connecting Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to Quebec and Ontario, and building another railway (or railroad, as the Americans say) from Ottawa to Fort Garry, what is now Winnipeg, Manitoba. McGee warned in an essay from August 1863, entitled “A Plea for British American Nationality,” that the United States would offer attractive and reasonable material inducements for annexation and would always ply economic arguments first and only turn to an armed invasion as the last resort. McGee understood that the United States had set itself apart in the 19th century from the European imperial powers by conquest through economics, increasingly bolstered by the threat of force. Jefferson had arranged for the purchase of Louisiana from France. After the Republic of Texas joined the Union, Polk had originally offered to purchase Mexico’s northern provinces of Upper California and New Mexico before launching a war. Banks offered similar inducements. If the Johnson administration had ever taken this idea seriously, then it could have backed up those economic inducements with an implicit threat of military force.
Congress Objects to Confederation in March 1867
William Seward served as Secretary of State under Lincoln and Johnson from 1861 to 1863, and his rhetoric on the Monroe Doctrine grew increasingly expansive throughout his tenure. Originally in the 1820s, the Monroe Doctrine stated that European powers should no longer establish new colonies in the Western Hemisphere and that former Spanish possessions under the Vice-Royalty of New Spain and the Vice-Royalty of Peru should not fall back under Spanish rule, or that of another European power, now that they had become independent republics. This extent of this doctrine grew in proportion with the power of the United States to enforce his edicts throughout the 19th century. By the late 1860s, the Monroe Doctrine had blended with Manifest Destiny and came to mean that the United States would not tolerate the presence of any monarchical polities in the Americas.
Paris and London had raised Washington’s ire by installing a Hapsburg Arch-Duke as Emperor of Mexico in 1863, deliberately taking advantage of the Civil War which had temporarily prevented the Americans from enforcing the Monroe Doctrine. They did so after the Second Federal Republic of Mexico had defaulted on interest payments to European creditors. The United States could not pursue military action but adamantly refused to grant diplomatic recognition to the Second Mexican Empire, and the US Congress in April 1864 passed a joint resolution denouncing it:
Resolved, &c., That the Congress of the United States are unwilling, by silence, to leave the nations of the world under the impression that they are indifferent spectators of the deplorable events now transpiring in the Republic of Mexico; and they therefore think fit to declare that it does not accord with the policy of the United States to acknowledge a monarchical government, erected on the ruins of any republican government in America, under the auspices of any European power.
This brazen action had clearly violated even the original less extensive Monroe Doctrine of the 1820s, and this, in turn, galvanized Washington to start expanding the scope of the Monroe Doctrine in response. Secretary of State William Seward made a more sweeping denunciation of monarchy in general and not merely against the imposition of a monarchy on a former republic when France installed Maximilian as Emperor in 1863: “Nor can the United States deny that their own safety and destiny to which they aspire are intimately dependent on the continuance of free republican institutions throughout America.” Seward also presumed in 1866 to interfere in the affairs of the Empire of Brazil, a well-established monarchy which had proclaimed its independence from the Kingdom of Portugal in 1822 and had, at that stage, never been a republic.
The US Congress, still then under the sway of the Radical Republicans and rabid manifest destinarians, debated and passed a joint resolution denouncing the Confederation of British North America on 27 March 1867, the very day on which the British North America Act received Royal Assent and only three days before the Alaska Purchase. Congressman Nathaniel P. Banks, Republican from Massachusetts, proponent of Manifest Destiny, and lifelong abolitionist who put its views into practice as a Union general during the Civil War, happily presented the joint resolution, which seemed to flow from a vague corollary to the Monroe Doctrine:
The joint resolution, which was read at length, declares that the people of the United States cannot regard the proposed confederation of the Provinces on the northern frontier of this country without extreme solicitude ; that a confederation of States on this continent, extending from ocean to ocean, established without consulting the people of the Provinces to be united, and founded upon monarchical principles, cannot be considered otherwise than in contravention of the traditions and constantly-declared principles of this Government, endangering its most important interests, and tending to increase and perpetuate embarrassments already existing between the two Governments immediately interested.
The US Department of State included this exchange within an historical memorandum on the Monroe Doctrine compiled in 1929. Banks further denounced Confederation on the grounds that it had not been submitted to the people of the British North American provinces in a series of referendums but deigned to acknowledge that “the Legislatures of most of the colonies have assented to it.” He might have mentioned that none of the 13 Colonies held referendums in the 1780s and put the ratification of what became the United States Constitution to a vote either. But some of Banks’s colleagues thought that he had not gone far enough. Fernando Wood, a Democrat from New York, argued that the motion should have condemned “the establishment of monarchical Governments anywhere on the American continent” and that Congress should turn its attention “not only to the contemplated monarchy in Canada, but also to the attempted monarchy in Mexico.” Banks replied that his resolution need not mention the latter because “the question of monarchical or imperial government in Mexico has been settled.” The Second Mexican Empire did indeed gave way to a restored republic in June 1867. Zachariah Chanler, an abolitionist Republican from New York, argued that Congress should either put up or shut up:
Unless he intends to carry this matter to some point which will make our power felt, I think it is wiser for us to remain silent. If we propose to make up a political issue with Great Britain as to the form of government in her colonies on this continent, well and good. Let us take up arms with Canada on that issue.
Chanler also demonstrated a uniquely American mixture of profound ignorance and presumptuous arrogance regarding other forms of government, based on the false premise that a presidential-congressional system presented the only possible method of self-government and freedom under law.
If Great Britain rules her colonies under a monarchical form of government, why not meet it at once, and say we take issue with Great Britain in holding any dominion on this continent, unless she gives them the right of self-government such as we have now? A monarchical form of government does exist in Canada to-day. The Queen of England rules that Government directly to-day under the laws of England and under the Imperial system of England. […] The resolution means nothing. It contains nothing with is true. It assumes the Government of Canada to-day is not monarchical.
Indeed, British North America already possessed a constitutional monarchy, and the Dominion of Canada merely consolidated these disparate colonies into a federation and expressly continued constitutional monarchy. But they had practised Responsible Government and self-government in their internal affairs since the 1840s; Her Majesty the Queen did not rule British North America directly at all, nor did Queen Victoria rule the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland itself directly either. Ministers of the Crown govern in the name of the Queen. In reality, the self-governing colonies of the British Empire fell under both the Imperial Parliament and their own legislatures. But this subtle separation between head of state and head of government, between Crown and Ministers of the Crown, passes over the heads of the literal-minded who can only understand rupture and revolution and presidentialism and understand not evolutionary parliamentary forms of government.
This whole exchange sounds so depressingly familiar to me and brought me back to my 9th-grade social studies class in the fall of 2002 in Anchorage, Alaska. My humourless teacher, Mrs Sugita, told the class that the United Kingdom — or, as she called it, “England” — is a monarchy, by which she meant direct rule by a Sovereign. (She had made that clear by the context of the rest of the lesson and asked the class rhetorically “What kind of government does England have?” A monarchy!”). I could take no more of that rubbish, and at this stage decided to intervene. I pointed out that the British operate under a constitutional monarchy and have a parliamentary form of government and that the prime minister, and not the Queen, answers questions in the House of Commons. She and the rest of the class stared at me blankly as if I had just uttered the most stupendous absurdity that they had ever heard; I then realized that I was wasting my time. She pulled me aside after class and admonished me for “confusing” my peers by pointing out that constitutional monarchy does not mean direct rule by the monarch. But how else can you respond when you’ve only ever been taught the likes of what Zachariah Chanler said in 1867 and were brought up exclusively on a rich, high-fat diet of American Exceptionalism? (Those of you who know me in real life will no doubt find my interjection in 2002 completely in character; I’ve always been how I am today.)
This kind of talk in Washington also played into the latter stages of Canadian Confederation and acted as a deterrent against stronger endorsements of constitutional monarchy. While the Johnson administration itself did not endorse these congressional prevarications (either in 1866 or in 1867), Colonial Secretary Carnarvon and Foreign Secretary Lord Derby had, by early February 1867, already rejected calling the new federation in British North America the “Kingdom of Canada” in favour of “The Dominion of Canada” on the grounds that “Kingdom of Canada” might attract unwelcome protest from Washington. It had, and even the monarchical principle itself had. These sorts of congressional outbursts coupled with Secretary Seward’s increasingly expansive talk on the Monroe Doctrine would only have reinforced London’s decision not to antagonise Washington yet further after having supported the French invasion of Mexico four years earlier.
- History of British North America
- Comparative: Monarchism v Republicanism
- Comparative: Parliamentarism v Presidentialism
- George Brown and Canada’s Manifest Destiny
- Canada’s Counter-Manifest Destiny
- The Borders Between Quebec and Newfoundland
 Nathaniel Banks, “H.R. 754, A Bill for the Admission of the States of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Canada East, Canada West, and for the Organization of the Territories of Selkirk, Saskatchewan, and Columbia,” 39th Congress, 1st Session, 2 July 1866.
 Edward McPherson, The Political History of the United States of America During the Great Rebellion: From November 6, 1860, to July 4, 1864 (Washington, D.C.: Philip & Solomons, 1864), 349.
 William R Manning et al., “Statements, Interpretations, and Applications of the Monroe Doctrine and of More or Less Allied Doctrines,” American Society of International Law 8 (22-25 April 1914): 101.
 William R Manning et al., “Statements, Interpretations, and Applications of the Monroe Doctrine and of More or Less Allied Doctrines,” American Society of International Law 8 (22-25 April 1914): 99.
 J. Reuben Clark, Memorandum on the Monroe Doctrine (Washington: US Department of State, 1929), 145.
 J. Reuben Clark, Memorandum on the Monroe Doctrine (Washington: US Department of State, 1929)
 Nathaniel Banks, “British American Confederation,” in The Congressional Globe, 40th Congress, 1st Session, 27 March 1867, page 392.
 Fernando Wood, “British American Confederation,” in The Congressional Globe, 40th Congress, 1st Session, 27 March 1867, page 392.
 Zachariah Chanler, “British American Confederation,” in The Congressional Globe, 40th Congress, 1st Session, 27 March 1867, page 392.
 Zachariah Chanler, “British American Confederation,” in The Congressional Globe, 40th Congress, 1st Session, 27 March 1867, page 392.