The Idea of Liberty in Canada during the Age of Atlantic Revolutions, 1776–1838 by Michel Ducharme (review)
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The Idea of Liberty in Canada during the Age of Atlantic Revolutions, 1776–1838. Michel Ducharme. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014. Pp. xii + 284, $100 cloth, 32.95 paper

Historians have long excluded Canada’s history from the Enlightenment and the Age of Atlantic Revolutions. Since both Upper and Lower Canada did not exit the British Empire when the thirteen colonies to the south did, their story was not deemed worthy of inclusion, despite [End Page 180] the momentous rebellions of 1837–8. Perhaps the date of these revolts–occurring after the conventional ending of the Atlantic revolutionary era in 1824 with Spain’s defeat in mainland America, but before the start of a new revolutionary epoch in 1848–is relevant as well.

In The Idea of Liberty, Michel Ducharme argues convincingly that the ideologies espoused by revolutionaries in other parts of the Atlantic world were shared by the two main political camps in 1830s Canada. Full inclusion in the Age of Atlantic Revolutions is therefore appropriate. Ducharme has much less to say on the Enlightenment, even if he gestures toward the notion that the Canadian rebels, as much as their opponents, had drunk from the same ideological sources. His book does indeed make clear that this was the case.

Ducharme’s central argument is that Canadians pursued two types of liberty. The supporters of “modern liberty” stressed individual autonomy and allowed private interests to compete for political influence, while the partisans of “republican liberty” emphasized popular sovereignty, participation of the people in the political process, and the key role of the legislative branch in that process. Ducharme distinguishes between Lower and Upper Canada. Before 1828, almost all members of Upper Canada’s colonial elite–conservatives and reformers alike–were partisans of modern liberty. Even as the opposition radicalized, its influence remained limited. By contrast, republican liberty gained ground early on in Lower Canada, whose House of Assembly was dominated by reformers and republicans. The ideological dispute was consequently more pronounced in Lower Canada, where constitutionalists were forced to defend themselves inside and outside the Assembly.

Ducharme does not make the connection, but most reformers and republicans in Lower Canada aligned themselves with what historian Jonathan Israel has called the Radical Enlightenment, while the conservatives are unambiguously identified with the Moderate Enlightenment. Like radicals elsewhere, those challenging the status quo declared war on privileges and spoke in the name of the people. They also cited the same philosophes to bolster their case, including Raynal and Rousseau, although the latter occupied a complicated position in the Enlightenment. Ducharme shows that the type of society they strived for differed significantly from the emerging capitalist world. Instead of putting their trust in commercialism and the accumulation of wealth, they aimed to achieve an egalitarian society that was based on economic equality, simplicity, and frugality. They opposed primogeniture and sang the praises of independent smallholding. Their adversaries considered the British Constitution to be the wellspring of freedom. As a [End Page 181] mixture of democratic, aristocratic, and monarchical elements, ensured by the division of powers, it was said to provide a balanced compromise between the social classes. The Constitution was seen as inimical to both despotism and licentiousness and as a guarantee of the rights to personal security, personal liberty, and private property.

Ducharme writes that this conflict has been presented as “one between conservatives and reformers, defenders of the order and aspirants to liberty. The scheme is not incorrect per se, but it does give the impression that order and liberty are antithetical concepts–and nothing could be less certain” (128). One could argue, however, that to the French Canadians, whom constitutionalists in Upper Canada wanted to exclude from the political process in 1837, the established order was at odds with liberty. In an attempt to ally American and British Upper Canadians, the constitutionalists called them–in language reminiscent of the way in which the debarment of non-whites was legitimized in other parts of the Americas–incapable of being free and in rapid need of assimilation.

It would be unfair to the author to belabour this point. After all, Ducharme’s goal was to...


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