Letter to Lord John Russell 1
Sept. 18, 1839
MY LORD,—I beg your Lordship to believe that no desire to seek for notoriety beyond the limited sphere in which Providence has placed me, tempts me to address these letters to you. Born in a small and distant Province of the empire, and contented with the range of occupation that it affords, and with the moderate degree of influence which the confidence of some portion of its population confers, I should never have thought of intruding upon your Lordship, had not the occupations of my past life, and the devotion to them of many days of toil and nights of anxious inquiry, led me to entertain strong opinions upon a subject which your Lordship has undertaken recently to discuss; and which, while it deeply concerns the honour and the interests of the empire, appears to be, by Her Majesty's present ministers, but little under-stood. Whether or not the Anglo-American population, upholding the British flag on this side of the Atlantic, shall possess the right to influence, through their representatives, the Governments under which they live, in all matters touching their internal affairs (of which their fellow-subjects living elsewhere know nothing and with which they have no right to interfere) is a question, my Lord, that involves their happiness and freedom. To every Nova Scotian it is no light matter that the country of his birth, in whose bosom the bones of a hardy and loyal ancestry repose, and whose surface is possessed by a population inferior in none of the physical, moral, or mental attributes which distinguish his race, to any branch of the great British family, should be free and happy. I share with my countrymen their solicitude on this subject; I and my children will share their deep disgrace, if the doctrines recently attributed to your Lordship are to prevail; to the utter exclusion of us all from the blessings and advantages of responsible government, based upon the principles of that Constitution which your Lordship's forefathers laboured to establish and ours have taught us to revere. To the consciousness of social and political degradation which must be my portion, if the future government of North America is arranged upon the principles recently avowed by the ministry, I am reluctant that the reflection should be added that the colonists were them-selves to blame in permitting a great question, without ample discussion and remonstrance, to be decided upon grounds which they knew to be untenable and untrue. In addressing your Lordship on such a topic, it is gratifying to reflect that your past life is a guarantee that the moment you are satisfied that a greater amount of freedom and happiness can be conferred on any portion of your fellow-subjects than they now enjoy, without endangering the welfare of the whole—when once convinced that the great principles of the British Constitution can be more widely extended, without peril to the integrity of the empire—you will not hesitate to lend the influence of your great name and distinguished talents to the good old cause "for which Hampden died in the field and Sidney on the scaffold."
Lord Durham's Report upon the affairs of British North America appears to have produced much excitement in England. The position which his Lord-ship occupies as a politician at home naturally draws attention to whatever he says and does; and the disclosures made in the Report must appear so strange to many and the remedies suggested so bold and original to many more, that I am not surprised at the notice bestowed by friends and foes on this very important document. From what I have seen, however, it is evident that his Lordship is paying the penalty of party connection ; and that his opinions on Canadian affairs, instead of being tried upon their merits, are in many cases applauded or opposed, as his views of British and Irish politics happen to be relished or condemned. It is almost too much to expect that my feeble voice will be heard amidst the storm of praise and censure that this Report has raised ; and yet there may be some, who, disliking this mode of estimating a state paper, or distrusting the means of judging possessed by many who express opinions, but whose practical experience of the working of colonial constitutions has been but slight—if indeed they have had any—may feel disposed to ask, What is thought of the Report in the colonies? Are its leading features recognized as true to nature and experience there? Are the remedies suggested approved by the people whose future destinies they are to influence and control?
The Report has circulated for some months in the colonies, and I feel it a duty to state the grounds of my belief that his Lordship in attributing many if not all of our colonial evils and disputes to the absence of responsibility in our rulers to those whom they are called to govern, is entirely warranted by the knowledge of every intelligent colonist ; that the remedy pointed out, while it possesses the merits of being extremely simple and eminently British,—making them so responsible, is the only cure for those evils short of arrant quackery ; the only secure foundation upon which the power of the Crown can be established on this -continent, so as to defy internal machination and foreign assault.
It appears to me that a very absurd opinion has long prevailed among many worthy people, on both sides of the Atlantic ; that the selection of an Executive Council, who, upon most points of domestic policy, will differ from the great body of the inhabitants and the majority of their representatives, is indispensable to the very existence of colonial institutions ; and that if it were otherwise, the colony would fly off, by the operation of some latent principle of mischief, which I have never seen very clearly defined. By those who entertain this view, it is assumed, that Great Britain is indebted for the preservation of her colonies, not to the natural affection of their inhabitants—to their pride in her history, to their participation in the benefit of her warlike, scientific or literary achievements,—but to the disinterested patriotism of a dozen or two of persons, whose names are scarcely known in England, except by the clerks in Downing Street ; who are remarkable for nothing above their neighbours in the colony, except perhaps the enjoyment of offices too richly endowed ; or their zealous efforts to annoy, by the distribution of patronage and the management of public affairs, the great body of the inhabitants, whose sentiments they cannot change.
I have ever held, my Lord, and still hold to the belief, that the population of British North America are sincerely attached to the parent State; that they are proud of their origin, deeply interested in the integrity of the empire and not anxious for the establishment of any other form of government here than that which you enjoy at home; which, while it has stood the test of ages and purified itself by successive peaceful revolutions, has so developed the intellectual, moral and natural resources of two small Islands, as to enable a people, once comparatively far behind their neighbours in influence and improvement, to combine and wield the energies of a dominion more vast in extent and complicated in all its relations than any other in ancient or modern times. Why should we desire a severance of old ties that are more honourable than any new ones we can form ? Why should we covet institutions more perfect than those which have worked so well and produced such admirable results? Until it can be shown that there are forms of government, combining stronger executive power with more of individual liberty; offering nobler incitements to honourable ambition, and more security to unaspiring? ease and humble industry; why should it be taken for granted, either by our friends in England or our enemies elsewhere, that we are panting for new experiments; or are disposed to repudiate and cast aside the principles of that excellent Constitution, cemented by the blood and the long experience of our fathers and upon which the vigorous energies of our brethren, driven to apply new principles to a field of boundless resources, have failed to improve ? This suspicion is a libel upon the colonist and upon the Constitution he claims as his inheritance; and the principles of which he believes to be as applicable to all the exigencies of the country where he resides, as they have proved to be to those of the fortunate Islands in which they were first developed.
If the conviction of this fact were once acknowledged by the intelligent and influential men of all parties in Britain, colonial misrule would speedily end and the reign of order indeed commence. This is not a party question. I can readily understand how the Duke of Wellington and Sir Robert Peel may differ from your Lordship or the Earl of Durham as to whether measures should be carried, which they believe will impair and you feel will renovate the Constitution; but surely none of these distinguished men would wish to deny the Constitution itself to large bodies of British subjects on this side of the water, who have not got it, who are anxious to secure its advantages to themselves and their children; who, while they have no ulterior designs that can by any possibility make the concession dangerous, can never be expected to be contented with a system the very reverse of that they admire; and in view of the proud satisfaction with which, amidst all their manly struggles for power, their brethren at home survey the simple machinery of a government, which we believe to be, like the unerring principles of science, as applicable to one side of the Atlantic as to the other, but which we are nevertheless denied.
Many persons, not familiar with the facts, may wonder how this occurs, and be disposed to doubt the correctness of my assertion. It seems strange that those who live within the British Empire should be governed by other principles than those of the British Constitution; and yet it is true, notwithstanding. Let me illustrate the fact, by a few references to British and Colonial affairs. In England, the government is invariably entrusted to men whose principles and policy the mass of those who possess the elective franchise approve and who are sustained by a majority in the House of Commons. The Sovereign may be personally hostile to them ; a majority of the House of Lords may oppose them in that august assembly ; and yet they govern the country until, from a deficiency of talent, or conduct, or from ill fortune, they find their representative majority diminished, and some rival combination of able and influential men in condition to displace them. If satisfied that the Commons truly reflect the opinions of the constituency, they resign ; if there is any doubt, a dissolution is tried, and the verdict of the country decides to which party its destinies are to be confided. You, in common with every Englishman living at home, are so familiar with the operation of this system and so engrossed with a participation in the ardent intellectual competition it occasions, that perhaps you seldom pause to admire what attracts as little attention as the air you breathe. The cabman who drives past St. Paul's a dozen times a day, seldom gazes at its ample outline or excellent proportions ; and yet they impress the colonist with awe and wonder and make him regret that he has left no such edifice in the west.
As a politician, then, your Lordship's only care is, to place or retain your party in the ascendant in the House of Commons. You never doubt for an instant that if they are so, they must influence the policy and dispense the patronage of the Government. This simple and admirable principle of letting the majority govern, you carry out in all your corporations, clubs, and public companies and associations ; and no more suspect that there is danger in it or that the minority are injured when compelled to submit, than you see injustice in awarding a cup at Epsom or Doncaster to the horse that has won rather than to the animal which has lost the race. The effects of this system are perceptible everywhere. A peer of France, under the old regime, if he lost the smiles of the court suffered a sort of political and social annihilation. A peer of England, if unjustly slighted by the Sovereign, retires to his estate, not to mourn over an irreparable stroke of fortune, but to devote his hours to study, to rally his friends, to connect himself with some great interest in the state, whose accumulating strength may bear him into the counsels of his Sovereign, without any sacrifice of principle or diminution of self-respect. A commoner feels, in England, not as commoners used to feel in France, that honours and influence are only to be attained by an entire prostration of spirit, the foulest adulation, the most utter subserviency to boundless prerogatives, arbitrarily exercised,—but, that they are to be won in open arenas, by the exercise of those manly qualities which command respect ; and by the exhibition of the ripened fruits of assiduous intellectual cultivation, in the presence of an admiring nation, whose decision ensures success. Hence there is a self-poised and vigorous independence in the Briton's character by which he strangely contrasts with all his European neighbours. His descendants in the colonies, notwithstanding the difficulties of their position, still bear to John Bull, in this respect, a strong resemblance; but it must fade if the system be not changed, and our children, instead of exhibiting the bold front and manly bearing of the Briton, must be stamped with the lineaments of low cunning and sneaking servility, which the practical operation of colonial government has a direct tendency to engender.
From some rather close observation of what has occurred in Nova Scotia and in the adjoining colonies, I am justified in the assertion, that the English rule is completely reversed on this side of the Atlantic. Admitting that in Lower Canada, in consequence of the state of society which Lord Durham has so well depicted, such a policy may have been necessary; surely there is no reason why the people of Upper Canada, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland, should, on that account, be deprived of the application of a principle which is the corner-stone of the British Constitution—the fruitful source of responsibility in the Government, and of honourable characteristics in the people. If the Frenchmen in one Province do not under-stand, or cannot be entrusted with this valuable privilege, why should we, who are all Britons or of British descent, be deprived of what we do understand and feel that we can never be prosperous and happy without?
Your Lordship asks me for proofs. They shall be given.
Looking at all the British North American Colonies, with one single exception, so far as my memory extends, although it has sometimes happened that the local administration has secured a majority in the Lower House, I never knew an instance in which a hostile majority could displace an Executive Council, whose measures it disapproved; or could, in fact, change the policy or exercise the slightest influence upon the administrative operations of the Government. The case which forms the exception was that of the Province of New Brunswick; but there the struggle lasted as long as the Trojan war—through the existence of several Houses of Assembly, and was at length concluded by an arrangement with the authorities at home after repeated appeals and two tedious and costly delegations to England. But the remedy applied, even in that case, though satisfactory for the time, can have no application to future difficulties or differences of opinion. Let us suppose that a general election takes place in that Province next year and that the great body of the people are dissatisfied with the mode in which the patronage of the Government has been distributed and the general bearing of the internal policy of its rulers. If that colony were an English incorporated town, the people would have the remedy in their own hands; if they were entrusted with the powers which as British subjects of right belongs to them, they would only have to return a majority of their own way of thinking; a few men would change places; the wishes of the majority would be carried out, and by no possibility could any-thing occur to bring the people and their rulers into such a state of collision as was exhibited in that fine Province for a long series of years. But under the existing system, if a hostile majority is returned, what can they do? Squabble and contend with an executive whom they cannot influence; see the patronage and favour of Government lavished upon the minority who annoy but never outvote them ; and, finally, at the expiration of a further period of ten years, appeal by delegation to England ; running the hazard of a reference to a clerk or a secretary whose knowledge of the various points at issue is extremely limited—who has no interest in them, and who, however favourably disposed, may be displaced by some change in the position of parties at home before the negotiations are brought to a close.
In 1836, a general election took place in Nova Scotia; and when the Legislature met for the despatch of business, it was found that the local government had two-thirds of the members of the representative branch against them. A fair-minded Englishman would naturally conclude that the local cabinet, by a few official changes and a modification of its policy, would have at once deferred to the views and opinions of so large a majority of the popular branch. Did it do so' No. After a fierce struggle with the local authorities, in which the revenue bills and the appropriations for the year were nearly lost, the House forwarded a strong address to the foot of the throne, appealing to the Crown for the redress of inveterate grievances, the very existence of which our colonial rulers denied or which they refused to remove.
To give your Lordship an idea of the absurd anomalies and ridiculous wretchedness of our system up to that time, it is only necessary to state, that a Council of twelve persons administered the government, and at the same time formed the upper branch of the Legislature, sitting invariably with closed doors. Only five of these twelve gentlemen were partners in one private bank, five of them were relations, two of them were heads of departments, and one was the Chief-Justice, who in one capacity had to administer the law he had assisted to make, and then in a third to advise the Governor as to its execution. To heighten the absurdity of the whole affair, it is hardly necessary to add, that only nine of these twelve were members of a particular Church, which, however useful or respectable, only embraced one-fifth of the whole population of the Province. To the passage of certain measures for the regulation of our currency, the derangement of which was supposed to be profitable to those who dealt in money, the bankers were said to have opposed their influence. Any attempt at reduction of the expense of the revenue departments, the heads of which sat at the board, was not likely to prevail ; while the patronage of the Government was of course distributed by the nine Churchmen, in a way not very satisfactory to the four-fifths of the people who did not happen to belong to that communion. Such a combination as this never could have grown up in any colony where the English principle of responsibility had been in operation. Indeed, there was something so abhorrent to British feeling and justice in the whole affair that Lord Glenelg at once decided that it was "too bad"; and, while in Her Majesty's name he thanked the Commons for the representation they had made, he directed the Governor to dissolve the old Council and form two new ones free from the objections which the Assembly had urged.
Had the instructions given been fairly carried out, there is little doubt that in Nova Scotia as in New Brunswick, the people and their representatives would have been contented for a time, and would have felt that in extreme cases an appeal from their local rulers to the Colonial Secretary would be effectual. The existing machinery of government might have been supposed to be adequate to the necessities of the country with perhaps an entire revision and repair at the hands of the master workmen at home once in ten years, or whenever the blunders of subordinates in the colony had completely clogged its operations.
But mark the result. The Governor was instructed to call into the new Councils those who "possessed the confidence of the country." Now, you in England are simple enough to believe, that when the Whigs have, in a house of six hundred and fifty-eight members, a majority of eight or ten, they possess the confidence of the country, and if their majority should happen to be double that number, you would think it droll enough if they were entirely excluded from political influence, and if the new creations of peers and selections for the Cabinet should all be made from the ranks of their opponents. This would be absurd at home, and yet it is the height of wisdom in the colonies. At the time these commands were sent out, the party who were pressing certain economical and other reforms in Nova Scotia were represented by two-thirds of the members of the popular branch. The relative numbers have occasionally varied during the past three sessions. At times, as on the recent division upon a delegation, the reformers have numbered thirty-three to eleven, in a House of forty-six. On some questions the minority has been larger, but two-thirds of the whole may be fairly taken as the numerical superiority on all political questions, of the reformers over their opponents. It will scarcely be believed, then, in England, that in the new appointments, by which a more popular character was to be given to the Councils, six gentlemen were taken from the minority and but two from the ranks of the majority. So that those who had been thanked for making representations to the Queen and who were pressing a change of policy, were all passed over but two, while those who had resisted and opposed every representation were honoured by appointments and placed in situations to render any such change utterly hopeless. The Executive Council, the local cabinet of ministry, therefore, contained one or two persons of moderate views, not selected from the House; one from the majority, and eight or ten others, to render his voice very like that of the "man crying in the wilderness." He held his seat about half a year and then resigned; feeling that while he was sworn to secrecy and compromised by the policy he had not approved he had no influence on the deliberations of the Cabinet or the distribution of patronage. Things were managed just as much in accordance with the royal instructions with respect to the Legislative Council. The pack was shuffled, the game was to remain the same. The members of the majority, as I have said before, were all omitted in the new creation of peers, but one; while both from the House and beyond it some of the most determined supporters of old abuses were selected; and among them, a young lawyer who had shown a most chivalrous desire to oppose everything Her Majesty so graciously approved ; and who, in the excess of his ultra zeal, had, upon the final passage of the address to the Crown, when almost all his friends deserted him, voted against the measure in a minority of four.
Here, then, your Lordship has a practical illustration of the correctness of Lord Durham's observations, and may judge of the chance the present system offers of good colonial government, even when the people have the Queen and the Colonial Secretary on their side. Such policy would wither all hope in the Nova Scotians, if they did not confide in the good sense and justice of their brethren within the four seas. We do not believe that the Parliament, press, and people of England, when rightly informed, will allow our local authorities " to play such tricks before high heaven " or force us to live under a system so absurd, so anti-British, so destructive of every manly and honourable principle of action in political affairs. The House of Assembly, as a last resort, after ample deliberation, determined to send two members of that body as delegates to England to claim the rights of Englishmen for the people of this country. Your Lordship's declaration tells me that on this point they will be unsuccessful, but patient perseverance is a political characteristic of the stock from which we spring.
You ask me for the remedy. Lord Durham has stated it distinctly ; the Colonial Governors must be commanded to govern by the aid of those who possess the confidence of the people and are supported by a majority of the representative branch. Where is the danger? Of what consequence is it to the people of England whether half-a-dozen persons, in whom that majority have confidence, but of whom they know nothing and care less, manage our local affairs ; or the same number selected from the minority and whose policy the bulk of the population distrust ? Suppose there was at this moment a majority in our Executive Council who think with the Assembly, what effect would it have upon the funds? Would the stocks fall ? Would England be weaker, less prosperous or less respected, because the people of Nova Scotia were satisfied and happy ?
But, it is said, a colony being part of a great empire must be governed by different principles from the metropolitan state ; that unless it be handed over to the minority it cannot be governed at all ; that the majority, when they have things their own way, will be discontented and disloyal ; that the very fact of their having nothing to complain of will make them desire to break the political compact and disturb the peace of the empire. Let us fancy that this reasoning were applied to Glasgow or Aberdeen or to any other town in Britain which you allow to govern itself. And what else is a Province like Nova Scotia than a small community, too feeble to interfere with the general commercial and military arrangements of the Government ; but deeply interested in a number of minor matters, which only the people to be affected by them can wisely manage; which the ministry can never find leisure to attend to and involve in inextricable confusion when they meddle with them? You allow a million of people to govern themselves in the very capital of the kingdom; and yet Her Majesty lives in the midst of them without any apprehension of danger, and feels the more secure, the more satisfaction and tranquillity they exhibit. Of course, if the Lord Mayor were to declare war upon France or the Board of Aldermen were to resolve that the duties upon brandy should no longer be collected by the general revenue officers of the kingdom, everybody would laugh, but no one would apprehend any great danger. Should we, if Lord Durham's principles be adopted, do anything equally outré, check us, for you have the power; but until we do, for your own sakes—for you are as much interested as we are—for the honour of the British name, too often tarnished by these squabbles, let us manage our own affairs, pay our own officers, and distribute a patronage altogether beneath your notice among those who command our esteem.
The Assembly of Nova Scotia asked in 1837 for an elective Legislative Council or for such other reconstruction of the local government as would ensure responsibility. After a struggle of three years we have not got either. The demand for an elective upper branch was made under the impression, that two Houses chosen by the people would sufficiently check an Executive exempt from all direct colonial accountability. From what has occurred in the Canadas; from the natural repugnance which the House of Peers may be supposed to entertain upon this point; and from a strong desire to preserve in all our institutions the closest resemblance to those of our mother country, a responsible Executive Council as recommended by Lord Durham would be preferred. Into the practicability of his Lordship's plan of a union of all the colonies under one government, I do not intend to enter; that is a distinct question ; and whenever it is formally propounded to the local Legislatures, will be gravely discussed upon its own merits ; but whether there be union or not, the principle of responsibility to the popular branch must be introduced into all the colonies without delay. It is the only simple and safe remedy for an inveterate and very common disease. It is mere mockery to tell us that the Governor himself is responsible. He must carry on the government by and with the few officials whom he finds in possession when he arrives. He may flutter and struggle in the net, as some well-meaning Governors have done, but he must at last resign himself to his fate ; and like a snared bird be content with the narrow limits assigned him by his keepers. I have known a Governor bullied, sneered at, and almost shut out of society, while his obstinate resistance to the system created a suspicion that he might not become its victim; but I never knew one who, even with the best intentions and the full concurrence and support of the representative branch, backed by the confidence of his Sovereign, was able to contend, on anything like fair terms, with the small knot of functionaries who form the Councils, fill the offices, and wield the powers of the Government. The plain reason is, because, while the Governor is amenable to his Sovereign, and the members of Assembly are controlled by their constituents, these men are not responsible at all ; and can always protect and sustain each other, whether assailed by the representatives of the Sovereign or the representatives of the people. It is indispensable, then, to the dignity, the independence, the usefulness of the Governor himself, that he should have the power to shake off this thraldom, as the Sovereign does if unfairly hampered by faction ; and by an appeal to the people, adjust the balance of power. Give us this truly British privilege, and colonial grievances will soon become a scarce article in the English market.
The planets that encircle the sun, warmed by its heat and rejoicing in its effulgence, are moved and sustained, each in its bright but subordinate career, by the same laws as the sun itself. Why should this beautiful example be lost upon us ? Why should we run counter to the whole stream of British experience; and seek, for no object worthy of the sacrifice, to govern on one side of the Atlantic by principles the very reverse of those found to work so admirably on the other. The employment of steamers will soon bring Halifax within a ten days' voyage of England. Nova Scotia will then not be more distant from London than the north of Scotland and the west of Ireland were a few years ago. No time should be lost, therefore, in giving us the rights and guards to which we are entitled; for depend upon it the nearer we approach the mother country, the more we shall admire its excellent constitution and the more intense will be the sorrow and disgust with which we must turn to contemplate our own.