God’s peculiar peoples: essay on political culture in nineteenth-century Canada // Review
Wise, Sydney F
Historians have long – known that the American Revolution created Canada in a political sense as surely as it created the United States. Consequently any work that changes our understanding of the Loyalists, or of the way political ideas were formed in the revolutionary and post – revolutionary era, is of fundamental importance. These five quite different yet superb books provide interesting perspectives on the Loyalists, and on the way Loyalist Canadians saw their politics. To begin with, patriarchal values loomed large in Loyalist thought as it emerged after 1785. Historians, not recognizing this, have misread the history of Loyalism, perpetuated gender stereotypes and misconstrued an important thread in our understanding of political culture in Canada. As Janice Potter – MacKinnon convincingly demonstrates, Loyalist ideology was defined in exile, complete with short – term objectives and deliberate misrepresentation.
Potter – MacKinnon wonders why women have been disadvantaged and ignored in the historiography of the Loyalists. Loyalist women played key roles in the decisions of families to become Loyalist. Often, they ran the family farms and businesses when husbands had to leave suddenly to avoid capture by the Patriots. During these periods the contributions of these women were recognized as valuable by their families, by the British authorities and by the American Patriots.
Within the patriarchal conventions of the eighteenth century, women were treated as extensions of their husbands. While this was also true for Patriot women, it was at least possible to create legends around women who advanced the Patriot cause. For one thing, revolutionary rhetoric, unlike Loyalist rhetoric, lent itself to a loosening of the prevailing paternalism.
For Loyalist women, the war tightened patriarchal values. In the early stages of the war, women could be independent as long as they remained where they were. Where they were, however, was increasingly behind the lines in a bitter civil war, open to abuse and mistreatment by their neighbours, especially if they were easily labelled as traitors. They lacked legal guarantees to their rights or properties; aside from dower rights, land and chattel were considered the property of their husbands. If the husband had left, or if he were considered an enemy, his property could be confiscated even while his wife and children occupied it.
There was pressure on Loyalist women to leave, even at great sacrifice. However, in leaving they lost any semblance of independence. They often required permission from local committees of vigilance. Then, they needed aid and assistance from Indian and military guides to reach husbands stationed in military forts or in refugee camps. In these forts and camps, they were only significant as spouses; they were treated as dependents and as burdens. Now weak and dependent, they sought compensation for very real sacrifices from a British government only interested in helping those with military experience. Women’s assistance was rarely considered militarily important, partly because of the limitations of language and ideology: male values had assertive qualities, females, submissive ones. Consequently, their petitions for assistance were couched in a language of submissiveness and paternalism: all sacrifices had to be translated in terms of husbands, for only husbands were likely to be compensated.
The experience of exile framed a Loyalist culture and ideology. A female Loyalist ideology would have found strength from the decisions and sacrifices made before exile; in exile, the female experience was neither valued nor liberating. “Loyalty, service, and sacrifice, as defined in Loyalist petitions, were all male concepts” (126). Women had to write in the language of suffering and enfeeblement (151).
Potter – MacKinnon makes a convincing case that women have been given short shrift by historians. The internal dynamics of the “rebel – to – exile” drama, coupled with the prevailing views of women’s proper roles, deprived women of their independence. The American rebellion gave new strength to the “male” values of authority and decisiveness. Loyalist leaders and British officials believed they were building a new society, but it was defined in very masculine terms. Loyalist women were marginalized before the historians wrote; historians marginalized them further. While historians might never know what was typical, we now know there were many exceptional Loyalist women, none of whom were treated as exceptional in their time.
Historians, as S.F. Wise makes clear, have not made enough effort to understand Canadian political culture. God’s Peculiar People, a book reprinting essays that Wise mostly wrote between 1965 and 1974, is studded with the insights that inspired a generation of historians. Wise tells us that Tories probably did well in the elections of the 1820s and 1830s because the pragmatic Family Compact, long the villain of Whig historiography, attracted talented and effective leadership and won elections on merit and programs. The Family Compact was prepared to use the power of the state to further economic development, as it did with the Bank of Upper Canada and the Welland Canal, and as its spiritual heirs would do with railways in the 1850s and 1880s. In Wise’s skillful hands politicians such as Christopher Hagerman and John Macaulay emerge as icons of the pre – rebellion generation. It is also clear that provincial elections, at least in Kingston, were not characterized by a volatile electorate. Elections were won riding by riding and, viewed from the riding level (rather than the provincial level), electoral results were remarkably consistent across the two decades.
Wise also provides a guide for understanding the Upper – Canadian Conservative world view. He explains how John Strachan, in the aftermath of the War of 1812, saw Upper Canada as remarkable because it had survived the Yankee assault. This “peculiar situation” offered a bulwark against American republicanism, a prime example of the value of framing society with links between church and state (40). In two influential essays from Canada Views the United States, both reprinted in this collection, Wise notes that Canadians, when describing the United States, invariably were describing themselves. What Canadians thought they knew about Americans was defined by a Canadian, not an American agenda. Insight and ignorance were close companions (146). At root Canadian anti – Americanism was founded in jealousy; Canadians were more materialistic, Americans more materially successful. Canadian political culture was dominated by predominantly conservative people who at mid century held political views that had been shaped in the years following the American Revolution. For them, Confederation flowed from Loyalist assumptions, as had the War of 1812. Loyalism in 1812 was pitted against anarchism, and in Egerton Ryerson’s reading of the war, even against the very people who had driven the Loyalists from America.
Wise tried to read wide significance into his very effective case studies of individuals such as Strachan, Hagerman and Macaulay. In a clever assessment of Lucian Pye’s work, he argues that national development can occur in a society with conservative principles, challenging Pye’s assumptions. Electoral trust, equality, liberty, and political loyalty and commitment could transcend the particular characteristics that Wise thought tautological (assuming that liberal democracy flows from liberal democratic principles). Wise is driven to argue that Confederation (which he assumes is a national development) flowed from Upper – Canadian and conservative support of economic development; conservative values no less than liberal ones can support national maturation. As Wise summarized it, “From the seeds of early Toryism, with its deep hostility towards democratic and republican values, had sprung, by the decade before Confederation, a dominant set of political values of sufficient sharpness and intensity to provide the ingredients for a transcontinental nationalism” (197).
Wise’s 1974 presidential address to the Canadian Historical Association appears in very truncated form in this volume, but his demolition of the Hartz thesis as applied to Canada remains impressive. Wise finds many objections: when and how to define the fragment, when to time the liberal moment, and how to see the flowering of the fragment. The problem for Wise is that the Loyalists, considered the founding fragment of English Canada, in the Hartzian thesis must be considered liberal. Contrary to Hartzian assumptions, there were different societies in British North America, and the founding fragment was never free of European contact. In the end, Wise assumes that Canada developed more diversity than America, while the Hartzian thesis seeks to explain consensus. He concludes that “[t]he English Canadian style and character is not to be understood in terms of the consensus of a triumphant liberalism, but, out of its contradictory heritage, in terms of muted conservatism and ambivalent liberalism, of contradiction, paradox and complexity” (211).
It is fascinating to reread articles that deeply impressed me on the first read. Curiously, my thoughts turned to Frederick Jackson Turner, an American historian whose greatest insights were also in his essays; why, then, are we given the essays repackaged rather than the magnum opus that a whole generation has eagerly awaited? Wise provides hints in the last chapter of this book, a 1990 essay on Ontario’s political culture: he is overwhelmed by the complexity of the concept of political culture and the way it has been handled. It is hard to single out his own approach, for he talks comfortably of political culture as synonymous with “the dominant political culture” (225). He is willing to see Ontario at the heart of Canadian political culture even while explaining that Ontario’s political culture exists and is different, and he wrongly claims that electoral analysis is impossible for the years before 1867.
The editors, in a sprightly and insightful introduction, note that efforts to draw different conclusions from Wise’s work have been incomplete. My own work, for example, challenges Wise on several fronts. There was a coherent liberal tradition that came with the Loyalists and was reinforced by British emigration and by the work of Adam Smith, Edmund Burke and Thomas Jefferson. The leadership of Joseph Willcocks, a traitor in the War of 1812, tarnished the idea of opposition but the tradition persisted, clearly defined in the Alien Crisis of the 1820s, in the struggle for responsible government in the 1830s and 1840s, by the development of local government in the late 1840s, by the fight against separate schools and railway monopolies in the 1850s, by the sympathy for separatism from Quebec in the late 1850s and 1860s, and by the demand in the mid 1860s that Confederation must be perceived to have popular discussion and support. Electoral analysis confirms Wise’s insight about Kingston; persistence is the hallmark of Upper – Canadian local elections. Historians, depending on riding results rather than poll results, have wrongly characterized the electoral swings; textbooks invariably have the story wrong.
Wise accepted the patriarchal assumptions of Loyalists; such ideals offered solid bases for stable government and national aspirations. Potter MacKinnon’s fundamental points never occurred to him. Loyalism, at the heart of Wise’s conservative tradition, was defined after 1785 by a tightly knit group of leaders who were seeking to make sense of its exile experience and to reap some reward for its sacrifices. It was patriarchal, and placed high value on masculine qualities such as loyalty (defined narrowly as support of one’s superiors). It did not eliminate political opposition, as recent work on Nova Scotia and New Brunswick make clear, and as Bruce Wilson made clear in his study of Niagara politics.
Wilson’s ideas, as abridged in the fine new collection of essays The Capital Years: Niagara – on – the – Lake 1792 – 1796, de – emphasizes political opposition. Wilson identifies the start of a tradition of commercial Toryism very reminiscent of Wise’s Family Compact (65). More interesting, though, is his suggestion that local Niagara society could win victories over the established elites (62) and that Loyalist units lacked coherence and established status (50). While Wilson leans to pitting Loyalist elites against merchant elites, one wonders whether the divisions might follow occupational or religious lines. The poll list for an 1816 Niagara election certainly suggests a strong Baptist anti – elitism.
Many of the essays in The Capital Years provide insights into the Loyalist experience in Niagara. The several articles examining the material culture of Niagara are quite fascinating and suggest that Niagara society was more complex and more commercial than generally assumed. Peter Moogk, in an excellent examination of War of 1812 losses claims, contends that Niagara was a commercial society from the outset, with many goods bought from England. Elizabeth Severin, in her discussion of clothing, concurs: clothes marked status and were imported from England. Brian L. Dunnigan, while clarifying military arrangements, also shows the Englishness of the material culture. Dorothy Duncan suggests that for food the people of Niagara relied on indigenous plants and the knowledge of local Natives, while Richard D. Merritt, in an informative discussion of inns and taverns (a source of culture shock for British travellers), concludes that the food was unappetizing; the sumptious local fare was available only occasionally and so the dependable staple was fried salted pork. Charles Roland’s wide – ranging discussion of disease concludes that medical problems were numerous.
Joy Ormsby’s discussion of housing plans and surveys is full of insights. The first settlers in Niagara were Loyalists who had been putting great pressure on facilities at Fort Niagara, and they were soon producing valuable crops. But surveys and various arrangements to straighten out irregularities produced other difficulties. A pub and a masonic lodge emerged as higher priorities than a church, a school or a market place. Housing reflected commercial development along the river rather than the planning suggestions of D.W. Smith; similar problems had occurred a century earlier even in Philadelphia, America’s best – planned colonial town. Ormsby is impressed that Niagara’s residents did in fact display “outspoken independence” from 1783 to 1797 (40).
Several impressions emerge from The Capital Years. Niagara was a complex place with settlers from diverse backgrounds. The town was on a major trade route and not so isolated as might be imagined or has been assumed. Politics were likewise complex and diverse; deference was more expected than received.
Originally a thesis for the University of Wales (Aberystwyth), Robert Allen’s His Majesty’s Indian Allies is a competent examination of British Indian policy in the old province of Quebec from the American Revolution to the War of 1812, although the epilogue carries some threads right to the present. For the most part this is a sad story of the difficulties of forging alliances, especially after the American Revolution led to the devaluing of Indian military assistance. Loyalists do not loom large in Allen’s story, but what he has to tell is illuminating. The Iroquois who followed Joseph Brant must be seen as Loyalists; Brant sought (and thought he had won) guarantees from the British. The British under General Howe in 1777 undertook to move on Philadelphia; the loss of time this entailed prevented Howe from uniting with Burgoyne and his Indian allies, who lost at Saratoga. Over the course of six years (1774 to 1782) Indians won several impressive victories; the major losses were the American attacks on Iroquoian villages in the Finger Lakes and the heartless slaughter of Moravian Delaware Indians. But the British proposals for peace effectively abandoned the Indians. Subsequent efforts postponed the negative impact until 1794, as the British made efforts to support a swath of Indian lands between Canada and the new American nation. Relatively few individuals were involved in making decisions for the British; Allen treats General Haldimand as the author of British policy, “based on fear and necessity,” in 1783 (56). One suspects the story is more complex, but probably Allen is right to emphasize the patriarchal nature of British decision – making in these years.
The British efforts to prevent American incursion into the regions to which Indians had neither lost battles nor surrendered land also had implications for non – Native Loyalists. The British could protect Canada from American settlement and create an opportunity for it to become “imbued with the Loyalist ideals”: loyality to the king, unity of the empire and respect for “the traditions and flexibility of custom and usage”(57). The efforts to maintain a buffer state bought sufficient time for Upper Canada’s Loyalists to establish a patriarchal state immune in the short run from republican values.
For both the Indians and the American exiles, Loyalism was defined after the peace. For the Indians it was a belated effort to maintain a world that no longer was; for Upper Canada, to establish one that had never been. Both suffered because the British government chose to surrender for all parties, not just for itself.
Marianne McLean provides another angle from which to look at Loyalists. The People of Glengarry is one of the finest books to appear on early Canadian immigration. McLean demonstrates that emigration from Glengarry in Scotland to Glengarry in Upper Canada in the years before 1815 was dominated by families (over 60 percent headed by farmers) who raised funds to cover their own travel costs. Emigration was largely organized by local leaders, although government assistance, especially from Montreal, was useful. Communities, in the new world as in the old, were characterized by loyalty, defense of local interests and conservatism; there was considerable cultural transfer. Many internal divisions also were carried across the Atlantic, and communities in the new world differ from one another chiefly because the earliest settlers came from different parts of the Highlands.
Unfortunately McLean’s work was not able to encompass David Hackett Fischer’s magisterial study Albion’s Seed (Oxford, 1989). Fischer looks at four distinctive folkways and finds that differences between them is greater than the differences within the migrations. Examining 24 characteristics, he found that founding cultures set the patterns for subsequent arrivals. One of his four folkways was that of the Highlands, a group which he found establishing cultural communities from the Carolinas to New York. Many of these became Loyalists and found their way to Glengarry, something of no interest to Fischer but surely of great importance to McLean.
These five books cast interesting insight into Loyalists, and should help historians frame new questions and fresh understandings. Janice Potter – MacKinnon quite correctly explains the dilemma of female Loyalists, and astutely notes and counters the pressures underlying a particularly patriarchal and masculine formulation of Loyalist ideology in the post – revolutionary years. In varying degrees the other four authors build their argument on this rather late formulation. Interestingly, though, both Allen and McLean assume the Loyalist experience as an early (1773 – 75) rather than a late one (1783 – 85). None of the five seem alive to the importance of how Loyalism was articulated, and except for Potter MacKinnon find little that merits comment.
Only McLean notices a category of Loyalist emigrants, a term that she sees likely applying to the migrations organized out of New York in 1785. I have thought for some time that Canadian historians should highlight the Loyalist emigre. If a fifth to a third of the American population was Loyalist in 1776, then we have to acknowledge that many Loyalist sympathizers never left the United States. If we knew more about the distinction between those who stayed and those who left we might be able to answer Wise’s concern as to whether the Loyalists were Conservative or Whig. The question probably needs to be seen as one with chronological significance as well. It was easier to be Whig before 1774, and maybe even through 1777; it was not so easy for those who left to be Whig after 1782. We still need to know much more about the circumstances — of class and community — that lay behind Loyalism. At least the books at hand contain great insights on all these issues, and more.
Copyright Trent University Fall 1994
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