Returning to Empire

In a previous note I said that it’s time to write about Canada’s experience as the Senior Dominion in the greatest empire of modern times. It’s been done, of course. But it’s time to do it again.

If you are planning to write as a political scientist, you’ll need a scheme of categories. Historians have chronology. Political scientists have categories. (There are drawbacks in either case, as the post moderns remind us. And they’re right about the drawbacks. If you posit a category you shine a satisfactory light on something. But the dark springs up all around. If you rely on chronology you’re inviting the “specter of causality.”) There’s no winning this debate. So here I describe a system of two categories.

I’m confining my inquiries to issues of law. And the question is this: in law, what is the best way to tie a dependency to the metropolis? Oops. I’ve skipped the prior question; why sustain the empire; why not opt immediately for revolution and independence. Let me rephrase. Supposing a colony, or indeed a federal union of colonies, wishes to remain within the empire, for whatever reason – avoiding a revolutionary war, fear of letting loose the “passions of the mob,” etc. – what is the best arrangement in constitutional law? In the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century two arrangements presented themselves. So I am supposing.

I take the first from Ron Chernow’s account of Alexander Hamilton. See Chernow’s biography (Penguin, 2004), chapters two and three, for references. While he was still thinking about retaining the connection with Britain, Hamilton argued that the Colonies were subject to the British Crown and not to the British Parliament. He did his homework; searching the records, he found that indeed no power to legislate for the colonies had been reserved to Parliament. Thus one could hope to retain the imperial connection while absolving the colonists of obedience to British law.

In my opinion Lord Durham (Report on the Affairs of British North America, 1839) took exactly this position. (Though I do not think he read Hamilton.) Durham’s recommendation that the colonies adopt the principle of “responsible government” meant that the political executive in each colony would answer to the people’s representatives in the elective chamber of the colonial parliament. It met a raft of objections in the colonies and in Britain, the gist of which was that the introduction of “responsible government” would sever the imperial connection. Dependencies should be dependent, for goodness’ sakes! You couldn’t have an empire that was composed of sovereign countries! But that’s exactly what Durham seems to have had in mind. He says repeatedly that if Britain didn’t give the colonists all powers of legislation the British North Americans would go the way of the Thirteen Colonies.

But in time Durham’s own words on the imperial connection, are given another interpretation and he is presented as recommending a division of powers between the dependencies and the British Parliament. His list of reasons why the colonists and Britain would not differ on certain vital matters (the form of colonial government, immigration, trade, and defense) is taken to describe legislative fields to be formally reserved for the British Parliament. Those who interpret him in this fashion are sometimes known as “dyarchists.” See my Introduction to the new edition of 1839 Report (McGill-Queens, 2007.) Dyarchists who recommend the representation of colonists in the imperial Parliament, come to be known as “imperial federalists.” Imperial federalism in this sense was still on the table for some of those participating in the legislative debates on Confederation in the colonies from 1864 to 1873.

At any rate, we now have our two categories: the Hamiltonians, and the dyarchists. I think it’s time to employ those categories (perhaps under new names) in an account of Canada’s story as Senior Dominion in the British Empire.

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