Thomas D’Arcy McGee and the Vice-Royalty of Canada

The Dorchester Review has just published my piece detailing how Thomas D’Arcy McGee advocated between 1858 and 1864 establishing a new branch of the Royal House of Saxe-Cobourg and Gotha in the Kingdom of Canada, with a separate line of succession, as a vice-royalty.

As with my project on “Canada’s Legal-Constitutional Continuity, 1791-1867”, this piece started from one random observation while I was researching something entirely different. In 2018, I stumbled upon an article by Andrew Smith and Kirsten Greer “Monarchism, an Emerging Canadian Identity, and the 1866 British North American Trade Mission to the West Indies and Brazil” in which they mention, mostly as a throwaway line, that McGee wanted to establish a viceroyalty in Canada along the lines of Brazil’s monarchy.

In 1863, he proposed a permanent viceroy for Canada on the Brazilian model, suggesting that one of Queen Victoria’s younger sons should become Canada’s king. Upon his death, the heir of this viceroy would inherit the throne of Canada. Canada and Britain would therefore have separate but related resident royal families. McGee’s reference to Brazil was an allusion to the origins of the Brazilian royal family, which had begun as a cadet branch of the Portuguese royal house.[1]

I later tracked down most everything that McGee wrote on the subject in the course of researching for the article. While McGee did praise Pedro II and the Empire of Brazil in some of his essays, what he proposed for the Kingdom of Canada would not have precisely copied the violent split of the House of Braganza’s personal union between Portugal and Brazil in the 1820s. Brazil had achieved independence through a personal union and later broke that personal union by establishing an offshoot branch of the Portuguese royal family.

McGee in fact sought a federal arrangement between the United Kingdom and Canada, where the branch line of the Royal Family reigning as Viceroys here would still owe fealty to Queen Victoria, and later the Prince of Wales once he became king, and so on. This set up most closely resembles the German Empire from the 1870s to 1918, wherein lesser hereditary princes, grand-dukes, and dukes owed fealty to the King of Prussia, the ex officio Emperor of Germany. And McGee’s idea, of course, depended upon convincing Her Majesty the Queen, the British government, and his fellow-British North American politicians in the Province of Canada and the Maritimes of his plan, with the consent and assent of all involved. Alas, it was not to be.

McGee left a prodigious record of various essays, transcribed speeches, and newspaper columns from the last decade of his life in Canada between 1857 and 1868, and they proved a great pleasure to read. I quickly understood why his contemporaries regarded him as one of the best orators of his generation and as the Poet of Confederation. I mentioned in one of my earlier posts on the debate over the role of the Governor General in appointing and dismissing prime ministers which Sir Wilfrid Laurier and Sir Charles Tupper undertook in the House of Commons in the fall of 1896 that Hansard made Tupper’s bloviating and pompous narcissism obvious for all posterity; I even started to read Tupper’s self-pitying defence of his blatant patronage and of the spoils system in Donald Trump’s voice, with the main difference being that Tupper spoke in complete sentences and actually expanded my vocabulary by introducing me to new words like “to animadvert.” (See page 1659 of Hansard). Something similar happened in my research on McGee – except that I imagined him sounding more like John F. Kennedy, and not merely because of their shared Irish ancestry. McGee understood how to command the attention of his audience so thoroughly that he made oratory seem effortless; though we cannot determine his accent from the transcripts, they do provide evidence of his prosody and cadence, as well as his inherent mastery of the classical rhetorical techniques which we know by their Greek names. I even came to recognise his writing after a time and could tell when some newspaper articles purporting to have transcribed his speeches lapsed from stenography of McGee’s words into a summary of his speech written by the reporter.

I also purchased and read in full David A. Wilson’s two-volume biography of Thomas D’Arcy McGee, which helped me track down the last remaining references to vice-royalty in McGee’s opus that I missed from The Internet Archive and elsewhere. I would highly recommend to any student of Canadian history Thomas D’Arcy McGee, Volume 1: Passion, Reason, and Politics, 1825-1857 and Thomas D’Arcy McGee, Volume 2: The Extreme Moderate, 1857-1868.

You can read the full article in the The Dorchester Review, if you want to learn more of what McGee said on federalism, constitutional monarchy, and the future of Canada.


[1] Andrew Smith and Kirsten Greer, “Monarchism, an Emerging Canadian Identity, and the 1866 British North American Trade Mission to the West Indies and Brazil,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 44, no. 2 (2016): 216.


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 Articles, Crown (Powers and Office), History of British North America, Succession (Sovereign). Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Thomas D’Arcy McGee and the Vice-Royalty of Canada

  1. In retrospect, we did avoid issues with Victoria’s younger sons Prince Alfred and Prince Arthur, both of their lines run into former or current other European royal families.

    Prince Alfred’s only son died in unclear circumstances without children in 1899. His eldest daughter Princess Marie married into the mess that was the former Romanian royal family.

    A similar story with Prince Arthur, his only sons’ line went extinct when his grandson Alastair Windsor died of exposure in 1943 (at Rideau Hall interestingly). His eldest daughter married into the Swedish royal family.


  2. I wonder if there is a line of intellectual tradition from D’Arcy McGee to Andrew Coyne’s call in Macleans a decade ago to patriate the monarchy to Canada, or if this idea simply re-occurs every so often in Canadian politics.


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