Peasants find freedom in Canada but anarchy and doomed democracy forecast

A settlers’ homestead, cleared from the bush in Upper Canada, ca. 1800. Pen Pictures of Pioneer Life in Upper Canada, 21.htm.

Liberty, democracy, and freedom from want, hunger and an oppressive aristocracy were said to prevail among peasants from Europe in the Upper Canada of 1821, but anarchy and doomed democracy were widely predicted. Sixteen years later, the peasants mounted armed rebellions against the ruling aristocracies of the Family Compact in Upper Canada and the Chateau Clique in Lower Canada.

For immigrant peasants from Europe, a settler’s life in Upper Canada in the first decades of the nineteenth century “means to sit at meals with one’s hat on.” That was an observation of British travel writer John Howison, author of Sketches of Upper Canada, Domestic, Local and Characteristic, Edinburgh, 1821. His sketches were mainly drawn from the large Talbot settlement bordering Lake Erie, about midway between present day London and Windsor.

The fact that a former peasant was no longer obliged to doff his hat also meant that he had escaped the tyranny of Europe’s class system and aristocracy, and the “starving human wretchedness” of European cities. He had come to a life of independence, equality and civility and a state of democracy that “is hardly to be met with in any other part of the world.”

Ninety percent of the settlers, Howison claimed, started out “extremely poor,” and while they still lived in “wretched log huts,” a few years of toil and perseverance had “placed them beyond the reach of want” with “abundant means of subsistence” and the prospect of “increasing comforts.”

“There is a freedom, an independence, and joyousness connected with the country,” Howison wrote. “Beggary, want, and woe, never meet the eye. No care-worn countenances, or famished forms, are to be seen among its inhabitants.” He promised that immigrants “will not find themselves thrown in the shade by the false pretensions of rank, nor see the avenues of distinction closed, and their ambitious efforts defeated, by the influence of a presuming aristocracy.”

With this independence and freedom, Howison says the settlers began “to consider themselves as gentlemen” (the women, presumably, as ladies) and “to use the same kind of manners towards all men.” Thus “the utmost harmony prevails in the colony” and relations are “characterized by politeness, respect, and even ceremony.” The settlers were said to be hospitable and “extremely willing to assist each other in cases of difficulty.”

New arrivals were greeted warmly, and “any poor starving peasant, who comes into the settlement, will meet with nearly the same respect as the wealthiest person.”

The English and Scottish immigrants, however, accustomed to kow-towing to lords and lairds, were at first flummoxed on being addressed as “sir, master or gentleman.” Howison describes “some old Highland crone” mulling this over while “twitching his bonnet from one side of his weather-beaten brow to the other, and looking curiously around, as if suspicious that the people were quizzing him.”

For all the virtues of civil life that he found in Upper Canada, Howson fails to escape his own class consciousness. He says the settlers are “offensively dirty, gross, and indolent,” as well as “very bad farmers” who could improve the productivity of their lands to the level of English farms if only they were not so lazy. He does not reconcile this alleged indolence with the daunting dawn-to-dusk back breaking labour in hacking out a farm from a dense forest. He sees an inevitable tendency of human beings—or at least the lower classes—to sink into “a state of natural and inexcusable depravity,” as much in the country as in the teeming cities:

“…for the inhabitants of the bountiful wilderness are as depraved in their morals, and as degraded in their ideas, as the refuse population of a large city. It will be found that the lower classes are never either virtuous, happy, or respectable unless they live in a state of subordination, and depend in some degree upon their superiors for occupation and subsistence.”

While Howson spent nearly three years in Upper Canada, he fails to say what he was doing there, other than touring and observing the locals. Clearly, he wasn’t working at hacking out the forest or tilling the soil between the stumps and roots.

Perceived evils of democracy

While democracy flourished in a new land among those early settlers who declined to doff their caps, the colonial establishment was not enamoured. For British colonial administrators, their local Canadian supporters such as the Family Compact in Upper Canada, and official newspapers, democracy was an American practice that could lead only to mob rule, degradation of social standards, and collapse of civil society.

Nor was it just the British who feared that democracy would end in ruin. John Quincy Adams, the second U.S. president, warned in 1814, that “democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy that did not commit suicide.”

In lieu of democracy, colonial authorities preached the protection of British constitutional liberty and the beneficence of aristocracy. Even John A. Macdonald promised that Confederation and parliamentary government would provide Canadians with “constitutional liberty as opposed to democracy.”

The theory of aristocracy embraced by the Family Compact was that their supposed superior attributes endowed them with privileges, but also obligations to elevate society and promote the common welfare. Privilege invariably became exploitation and many obligations became myth.

While the United States had greater democracy than the British colonies, there was less liberty, at least for minorities. The very fullness of U.S. democracy tended too often to allow the majority to steamroll over the rights of Blacks, Indians, Catholics and other minorities, who generally enjoyed fewer liberties and suffered greater discrimination than in Canada. It was the tyranny of the majority. The most dramatic confirmation of this was the underground railway that delivered runaway U.S. black slaves to liberty in Canada.

Typical of the views on democracy expressed by the newspapers of the colonial authorities in the 1820s are a pair of items from the Brockville Gazette, and the Upper Canada Gazette in York.

Democracy, warned the Brockville paper, December 26, 1828, rests “upon the whim and caprice of a vain and arrogant people [and] has a tendency to blunt, and ultimately do away with the finer feelings of humanity.” It claimed that in the United States “the ideas and sentiments peculiar to what are emphatically styled gentlemen in England, are almost unknown… and in lieu of them little is to be found except an all absorbing thirst of gain.” Americans were said to be “cajoled by the rich, who do in fact despise the poor more than any aristocracy.” Believing that they had no superiors, Americans were said to “feel no inclination to respect any station more exalted than that to which a notorious slave dealer is eligible.”

The Upper Canada Gazette, on July 7, 1825, boldly forecast the failure of republican government in the United States:

“Viewing all republics, ancient as well as modern, as so many imperfect systems of government, differing only in their respective degrees of imperfection, we consider the growth and extension of the Federal Government of the United States, as a subject of deepest interest—as an experiment on a large scale of a system which, it appears to us is contrary to the universal order of nature, from the Divinity, downwards, to the communities of the meanest insects; and so satisfied are we of the impossibility of any long duration of the present order of things in the United States—that we have no doubt there are many now living who will see an entire disruption of the North American Federal Government.”


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