The Dorchester Revisits Responsible Government

Enjoying the Dorchester Review again! The debate on responsible government continues in Volume 1, No 2.

Craig Yirush, Department of History UCLA, Los Angeles, argues that what the British North American colonists got in 1848 was merely a limited form of responsible government. I have to say that all the secondary sources, British and Canadian, agree with him. All that is, but John Ralston Saul (or so I think) and Janet Ajzenstat.

In his Introduction to the 1963 edition (Carleton Library No. 1), Gerald Craig says, “Responsible government was the dynamic idea in the Report, but it must not be forgotten how severely the idea was qualified by Lord Durham. It would apply to what he called internal legislation, and he would withhold only those matters that concerned the relations of the colonies with the mother country.” That is the standard view. On that point Yirush is correct.

But why don’t we get the opinion of the colonists who lived through the period from 1848 to Confederation? I can tell you immediately that without exception – I believe without exception –  participants in the ratifying debates on Confederation report that their province was rendered free in 1848, free in the way that independent countries are free. Indeed after 1848 speakers feel comfortable using the term “country” to refer to their province.

In Nova Scotia’s Legislative Assembly, Stewart Campbell said: “I am a free man. I claim the right and attributes of a free man, speaking in the presence of a British free assembly (Canada’s’ Founding Debates, ed. Janet Ajzenstat et al., [Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999, hereafter CFD], 60.) Campbell’s term “a British free assembly” refers to the Legislative Assembly of the province. Nova Scotia’s William Lawrence boasted: “We are a free people, prosperous beyond doubt, advancing cautiously in wealth … Under the British Constitution we have far more freedom than any other people on the face of the earth (CFD, 60).

In Newfoundland, George Hogsett said: “We have here a constitution for which the people nobly fought, and which was reluctantly wrung from the British government. We had the right of taxing ourselves, or legislating for ourselves (CFD, 98). In the same legislature, Ambrose Shea said that responsible government had brought “virtual independence.” He claimed moreover, that the colony had legislated tariffs “hostile to the commercial interests of England” (CFD, 219). In New Brunswick, John Mercer Johnson boasted: “We want nothing better than British institutions, for under them we have as much liberty, and a little more, than they have in the United States (CFD, 180).

The speakers I cite to this point are among the anti-Confederates. I could multiply examples. In the Atlantic Provinces the chief objection to Confederation was fear that union with the Province of Canada would impair the liberty enjoyed from 1848. But the argument that the colonies had enjoyed a singular liberty from 1848 can also be found among the “Confederates,” those committed to colonial union. In the Canadian Legislative Assembly Thomas D’Arcy McGee said: “The two great things that all men aim at in any free government are liberty and permanency. We have had liberty enough – too much perhaps in some respects  – but at all events, liberty to our heart’s content. There is not on the face of the earth a freer people than the inhabitants of these colonies” (CFD, 16-7).

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4 Responses to “The Dorchester Revisits Responsible Government”


  1. 1 James W.J. Bowden March 6, 2012 at 12:52 pm

    Did the legislators and responsible ministers of the era not care that their legislatures exercised no jurisdiction over defence and foreign affairs because they saw them as Imperial issues that affected them little?

    I ask because I still consider the Statute of Westminster and 15 December 1931 the day when Canada achieved independence.

    • 2 janetajzenstat June 17, 2012 at 12:04 pm

      Good Question. We need some work here. I am not going to be able to do it. Of course the British North Americans thought defence was important. The Fathers of Confederation – the 33 men who drew up the British North America Act, were keenly aware that at the conclusion of the Civil War the Americans might invade the British North American colonies. The Americans had men in arms, just across the St. Lawrence. It appears from the legislative debates of the period that some colonists were of the opinion that British North American union would improve British North America’s means to keep the americans at bay, while others that union would mean fighting on a longer front, and would make BNA victory less likely. war front would be longer and harder to maintain. Canada’s Founding Debates is not as helpful on this point as it might be. It does not contain the complete debates, you remember. It’s only 500 oversized pages of excerpts.. Try for the complete Province of Canada debates in a university library. Should be available. The British Columbia debates were/are available at the U of Toronto Library. I am not sure what is in the archives at Dalhousie.

      And then there’s the pamphlet literature, newspapers.

      Consider whether the British both the British and the colonists did not simply consider that cooperation on defence and trade would always be matters for consultation and cooperation. Canada today cooperates with other countries, freely and because it appears to be in the interests of this independent country to do so, on a particular matter, or as long-term policy.

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