Chapter 11. Politics to 1860

11.6 Republicanism in Canada

The depth of authentic loyalist feeling in the Canadas is difficult to measure. Even the most radical reformers were known to preface their demands for change with a reassuring statement of their affection for the king. Republicanism as a movement that aimed to topple the monarch seemed to have had limited appeal in political circles; republicanism as a system of democratic rule, however, seemed to be more effective at delivering growth and political unity. Canadian merchants and professionals regularly travelled to the United States, and there they could see a growing and prospering economy in which freedom of speech seemed (for their social equivalents anyway) much more generous. The War of 1812 and predictable demands at the time for intensified loyalism in the colonies would stifle demands for reform until the post-war years. The bottled-up envy of merchants, republicans, reformers, and other critics of the oligarchies would bubble forth in peacetime after 1818.

In the 1820s and 1830s, the call for more civil liberties was heard in many countries, including France and Britain. Colonies in the Americas broke with their imperial motherlands. The American revolution was followed by Haiti’s break with France in 1804. Hardly a decade later, the Spanish Empire in South America was collapsing. Mexico declared its independence in 1821. Continent-wide revolutions led or inspired by Símon Bolivar culminated in the 1830s in the emergence of post-colonial regimes. In July 1830 the streets of Paris were the scene of a three-day uprising. The July Revolution deposed Charles X and established the principle of a constitutional monarchy.

The reform movement in Britain was very different. It drew its strength from both the middle class and the emerging working class. The Reform Act of 1832 was meant to extend the vote very broadly, but a cautious British government allowed only half-measures: middle-class males got the vote but not the lower classes. Poor and working-class Britons reacted with further protest and quickly suppressed risings. This movement rallied around a charter of rights; the goals of the Chartists included universal male suffrage, annual elections, secret ballots, and no property restrictions on candidates. For the most part, the early Chartists took the position that parliamentary democracy was essentially sound but that it needed upgrading, not toppling.[1]

The position and experiences of the British Chartists were not entirely different from those of the reformers in the Canadas. And it is clear that the former influenced the latter. Claims made on the Family Compact and the Château Clique for greater democratic rights echoed global movements. Of course, it was precisely against these worldwide trends that the Tory elites proposed to stand immovable.

Key Points

  • The early 19th century saw anti-monarchical and anti-imperial movements spread through the Americas and Western Europe, some of which enjoyed a degree of success.
  • Even in Britain there were growing calls for greater democratic government.
  • These trends and intellectual developments influenced and contextualized protests against oligarchy in British North America.

  1. See Dorothy Thompson, The Chartists: Popular Politics in the Industrial Revolution (London: Ashgate, 1986).


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Canadian History: Pre-Confederation - 2nd Edition Copyright © 2020 by John Douglas Belshaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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