Prime Ministers and Empire

A week ago in The First Gay Prime Minister, I tried to argue that the colonies of British North America became independent nations in 1848 with the grant of “responsible government.”

That’s not the usual view by any means, as Craig reminds me in his politely restrained response. He points out that the British continued to appoint the colonial governors and that the British JCPC remained the colonists’ highest court of appeal. He concludes that after 1848 the British retained “formidable reserve powers” over colonial legislation, notably dominating the area of foreign policy. He makes a good case.

Or does he? The introduction of “responsible government” meant that the colonial governors were no longer heads of government; they were no longer in the legislative game. They became mere heads of state – forced to live “upstairs” in the dignified realm of the apolitical.

What I can’t get around is the fact that after 1848 the British couldn’t spend money in the colonies without the approval of the provincial parliaments. In 1848, each colonial parliament attained exclusive right to tax and spend. As political scientists and constitutional lawyers – and students of A.V. Dicey – we call a legislature that exercises the exclusive right to tax and spend, sovereign. So for the time being, at least, I’m sticking to my guns: with the introduction of responsible government the colonies of British North America became so many independent small nations. (Dear friends, it’s April: tax time. You are in the process of forking money over, or at least indicating your willingness to fork over by filling out forms. As I’ve argued before, paying taxes is the mark of a free citizen. In an independent country.)

Craig’s most interesting observation is that in 1774, Jefferson and Adams proposed an empire of co-equal legislatures under one Crown. Now I wonder, would “empire of co-equal legislatures” be another name for what comes to be known later as “imperial federalism”? Were Jefferson and Adams on the brink of inventing this notion? The idea of imperial federalism is mooted in the colonial debates on Confederation (1864-1873). It’s still around in the early years of the twentieth century.

If another thing Craig’s saying is that it’s time for Canadians to take another look at the history of imperialism and foreign affairs, I agree.

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3 Responses to “Prime Ministers and Empire”


  1. 1 Craig April 24, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    Hi Janet,

    I am not saying that responsible government was an insignificant development, nor am I arguing that money is not at the heart of political power. But I still think that a state can’t be independent until it exercises all of the marks of sovereignty. So taxation is important, but there’s also the power to declare war, make alliances, raise an army, control the judicial system (to name just a few). And if the Canadian colonies were independent states in 1848 because they had the power of the purse, then wouldn’t any American colony have also been an independent state decades before 1776?

    As for imperial federation – didn’t those who advocated it in late 19th Canada want to create an imperial Parliament which would have representation from all of the dominions as well as Britain (I don’t have a copy of Carl Berger’s book at hand)? If so, it differed from what Jefferson and Adams wanted in 1774, which was a connection to the monarch while retaining full control over their local affairs. In other words, they envisioned an empire of co-equal legislatures with no pan-imperial body.

    I agree that Canadian scholars need to think (again) about these questions of empire and statehood.

  2. 2 James W.J. Bowden December 16, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    According to English historian David Starkey, Jefferson indeed did almost invent an Imperial Federation in 1774. He expounded upon his idea in a pamphlet that year called “A Summary View of the Rights of British Americans.”

  3. 3 James W.J. Bowden December 16, 2011 at 1:42 pm

    If anyone is interested in reading more about the significance of “A Summary View of the Rights of British Americans”, please read this!

    http://parliamentum.org/2011/09/10/1774-thomas-jefferson-and-the-origins-of-responsible-government-and-of-the-commonwealth-realms/


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