Barack Obama: What would Cartier Say?

Barack Obama is being critized for his supposed lack of patriotism. Some
Americans – who knows how many – think he is flirting with anti-Americanism.

There’s a rich tradition of anti-Americanism in the United States. Canadians
like to fool around it. But we’re pussycats compared to the real thing, the
Americans who love to hate their country. You will understand that I am not
talking about critics of the party in office, or critics of national
policies. I mean the Americans who despise “the West” and liberal democracy.
I mean the American Counter Enlightenment. (A useful first book on this
topic is Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit, Occidentalism, The West in the
Eyes of Its Enemies, Penguin, 2004). Our question might be phrased in this
way: is Obama an “Occidentalist,” a despiser of “the West”? (Is his pastor a

I propose to bring George-Etienne Cartier forward into the twenty-first
century to assist us. He’s a good choice I suggest, because he once carried
arms against the government of Lower Canada. He knew – he knows – what it is
to be profoundly dissatisfied with constitution and country. (It was after
the introduction of the principle of “responsible government” that he became
a supporter of the British parliamentary system.) He’s a good choice for a
second reason. He was deeply critical of the American Constitution.

John A Macdonald praised it Here’s Macdonald in the Confederation debates:
“It is the fashion now to enlarge on the defects of the constitution of the
United States, but I am not one of those who look upon it as a failure. I
think and believe that it is one of the most skilful works which human
intelligence ever created; is one of the most perfect organizations that
ever governed a free people.” He’s betraying his lieutenant Cartier in this

Here’s Cartier: “We found ourselves at the present day discussing the
question of the federation of the British North American provinces, while
the great federation of the United States of America was broken up and
divided against itself. There was, however, this important difference to be
observed in considering the action of the two peoples. They [the Americans]
had founded a federation for the purpose of carrying out and perpetuating
democracy on this continent; but we, who had the benefit of being able to
contemplate republicanism in action during a period of eighty years, saw its
defects, and felt convinced that that purely democratic institutions could
not be conducive to the peace and prosperity of nations” (Canadian
Legislative Assembly, February, 1865).

Commentators cite this passage to suggest that the Fathers of Confederation,
Cartier foremost among them, despised democracy. One prominent Canadian
historian says: “It has long been known that the Fathers of Confederation
were not democrats and that they were determined to secure the protection of
property and to create barriers against the democratic excesses which, in
their minds, had led to the collapse of the American constitution and to the
American Civil War.” But in the passage I cite above Cartier is in fact
defending democracy, defined as liberal democracy. What he objected to in
the U.S. Constitution was that it assigned to the American President two
roles that ought to be distinguished: head of state and head of government.
The signally admirable feature of the British system, in Cartier’s view, is
that it expects the head of state, the Queen, or Governor, who represents
the Constitution and the country as a whole, to refrain from meddling in
party politics. Thus a British citizen can dislike the Prime Minister while
remaining a patriot, loving Constitution and country. In the United States,
in contrast – this is Cartier’s understanding – because the president speaks
for party and country, dislike of the President and his party invites,
positively encourages, dislike of country and Constitution.

So. I think Cartier’s first reaction will be to say, “I told you so.”
Dislike of presidential candidates is bound to get mixed up with dislike of
country. The American Constitution is to blame.

But does Cartier have the whole story? Perhaps not. After all the Americans
seem to muddle through. The president wears his two hats – head of state and
head of government – with considerable grace and citizens finds to express
disdain for the party in office while retaining confidence in the form of

No. I think something else is going on. And I have already hinted at what
that something else might be.

I’ve said enough in this note. But I’m going to ask Cartier to stick around.
I think he may have more to say about Obama as he becomes acclimatized. And
He’s a political man. He’ll enjoy watching the course of the American
election on television. Just wait ‘til we introduce him to politics on You

2 Responses to “Barack Obama: What would Cartier Say?”

  1. 1 diploportal May 14, 2008 at 4:47 am


    I think Cartier would worry that Obama is a dangerous demagogue.

    Alastair Sweeny

    Alastair Sweeny
    V-P Development
    Northern Blue Publishing

  2. 2 Peter T May 30, 2008 at 9:01 pm

    This populist politicians is a distant relative I have been watching the primaries statistically(yes this is fun) and wish I had more time to hear him speak. About 250 years ago two brothers in America went their separate ways. One came to Canada as an Empire Loyalist and established a community in Southern Ontario where the civic minded descendants of this brother did much work including some firsts for women in politics such as Mabel Dunham. The other brother I do not know but, in fact, his family produced Barack Obama’s mother. Of course, the brothers were also descendant from someone in common and one of those persons may have been a passenger on the Mayflower.

    Kurt Vonnegut was also against the USA when he was very old.

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