Responsible Government and Colonial Independence


In the blog of August 22 reviewing the new journal The Dorchester Review, I make the argument that each of the British North American colonies became an independent state on adopting the principle of responsible government. In 1848 the colonies walked away from Empire. That’s John Ralston Saul’s contention. That’s mine.

Craig Yirush asks: “If independence was achieved in 1848 or 1867 then why was J.W. Dafoe (and many others) so concerned about our autonomy in the early 20th, and so happy about the Statute of Westminster?”

A good question! I do not have an answer.

You’ll find a good statement of idea the grant of “responsible government” would emancipate the colonies in John Beverley Robinson’s Canada and the Canada Bill (1840). Robinson admired parliamentary government, including its defining principle, “responsible government.” He is extravagant in his praise of it! His sole argument against its adoption in British North America is that it is not a form of rule suitable for a colonial dependency

There’s much more to say on the topic and I say some of it in “Durham and Robinson, Political Faction and Moderation,” in Ajzenstat and Smith, eds. Canada’s Origins, Liberal, Tory, or Republican? (Carleton Press, 1995). And see my Introduction to the new edition of G.P. Browne’s Documents on the Confederation of British North America (McGill-Queen’s, 2009), and my Introduction to the new edition of the abbreviated Lord Durham’s Report (McGill-Queens, 2007). Why didn’t the colonies drift away from Britain? 

And why isn’t Robinson’s argument part of our historical vocabulary today? My guess is that no one has been reading Robinson for years, except, no doubt, Ralston Saul.

We’ve lost much of our institutional history. That’s good news for some of you. There’s interesting work to be done.




11 Responses to “Responsible Government and Colonial Independence”

  1. 1 James W.J. Bowden August 30, 2011 at 9:18 pm

    I will attempt to answer Yirush’s question: we didn’t achieve full independence upon the adoption of responsible government in 1848, and the BNA Act, 1867 merely reorganized jurisdictions and the crown colonies’ powers into a new, federal configuration; it didn’t augment the level of autonomy achieved in 1848. I would argue that the Dominions didn’t achieve full legal independence until the Statute of Westminster, 1931; and most of the Dominions choose not to implement politically those new legal powers until later, gradually throughout the 20th century.

  2. 2 Alastair Sweeny (@AlastairSweeny) August 31, 2011 at 6:38 pm

    We didn’t walk away from empire. We just became provinces of the Empire. Baldwin and La Fontaine wanted the same rights as other British subjects.

    My two pence.

  3. 3 Craig Yirush September 6, 2011 at 7:10 pm

    Hi Janet,

    Thanks for posting my query. I agree with the two previous posters – between 1848-1867 we got what you might call domestic sovereignty – that is, all matters having to do with Canada’s internal affairs would now be dealt with by ministers who had the support of the people (with a division of authority between the provinces and the new dominion government). But the British Parliament was still (at least if Dicey was correct) the sovereign over the whole empire, and thus in foreign affairs we were not fully independent. The same, I think, could be said of our judiciary where the final appelate power lay with the JCPC.

    In this sense, what we got in the mid-19th was similar to what the British American colonists wanted in 1774-1776 – the right to govern themselves in all “internal” matters (a word that occurs frequently in their pamphlets and petitions) while ceding to the King and/or the King-in-Parliament the right to conduct foreign and trade policy.

  4. 4 Christopher Moore September 9, 2011 at 11:54 am

    A parliamentary rather than a black-letter approach to sovereignty begins with the precept that a people are represented in their parliament, and that their parliament is the locus of sovereignty. 1848 established agreement on all sides that the British North American colonists were represented in and by the British North American legislatures.

    It is true that those legislatures, and the Canadian one after 1867, did not wish to break all ties to Britain and its parliament. But from 1848 they had the power to do so, and no one could have stood in their way. Had BNA/Canada, at any moment after 1848, chosen to break all remaining ties to Britain, Britain would surely have yielded to the will of Canada and its parliament(s).

    That is, BNA/Canada did not choose to exercise all the powers of sovereignty immediately after 1848. But from then on it had the unquestioned authority to do so. And surely that satisfies the definition of sovereignty itself. After 1848, it’s all details and technicalities, I would say. But technicalities still matter, not least to JW Dafoe.

    How does that sound, Janet?

  5. 5 Beverley Thomas Hall October 29, 2011 at 6:14 pm

    I was surprised, then puzzled and now intrigued by the your suggestion that the advent of responsible government in the British North American colonies meant that those colonies had become “independent states”. My reaction–and I am not a historian but a student of parliamentary government–is that they could not have achieved independence because (1) their governors were not viceroys, i.e. the governors did not enjoy the full range of Crown powers and prerogatives; and (2) perhaps more importantly, their legislatures were not parliaments, i.e. they did not hold the full range of legislative powers that are required for a sovereign state. I would appreciate your comments on this point.

    (I am a very distant cousin of John Beverley Robinson’s.)

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