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  • The Late Loyalists:Northern Reflections of the Early American Republic
  • Alan Taylor (bio)

The American Revolution divided North America, creating an independent republic south of a new border that preserved the British Empire to the north. Far from retreating across the Atlantic, that empire took on a new complexity and dynamism in its Canadian provinces, thanks to the influx of at least 50,000 Loyalist refugees fleeing from the Revolution. American historians, however, rarely examine the northern half of the revolution's legacy—despite its comparative potential for illuminating the early republic. To that end, this essay sets the American nation in a broader, continental context of multiple experiments in political culture during the postrevolutionary generation.1

For that comparison, the province of Upper Canada (now Ontario) is especially promising, for most of its inhabitants were American born. And the American boundary invited a steady exchange of migrants and information, which obliged the colonists and visitors recurrently to evaluate [End Page 1] the differences that a revolution and a border could make. Finally, the political institutions and economic policies of Upper Canada were designed by Britons and Loyalists who had fought against the Revolution and who meant to prevent its recurrence within their province. By reading Upper Canada's constitution and early history (through the War of 1812), we can recover the lessons of the revolution for those who lost. And we can measure the republican consequences of victory south of the new border.

This essay argues that Upper Canada was a counterrevolutionary polity that, by its contrast, highlights the transforming liberal consequences of the republicanism generated by the American Revolution. By liberal I mean a pluralistic society premised on equal individual rights for citizens to seek private property and political power. Republicanism and liberalism may have had distinctions as political theories, but I find none in political practice in North America after the Revolution. Americans looked to a republic to safeguard their liberal aspirations. To their north, the British designed Upper Canada to discourage such aspirations—except within narrow bounds carefully patrolled by executive power.2

* * *

In the Canada Constitutional Act of 1791, Parliament established a new colony on the northern and western shores of Lakes Erie and Ontario and along the upper reaches of the St. Lawrence River. Parliament created Upper Canada by dividing the immense, old province of Quebec along the Ottawa River, above Montreal, defining the lower reaches of the St. Lawrence valley as the sister and superior province of "Lower Canada." The division was cultural as well as geographic: French speakers predominated in Lower Canada while English speakers prevailed in Upper Canada. Based in Quebec City, the capital of Lower Canada, a governor general held military command of both provinces (as well as [End Page 2] over the Maritime provinces to the east). His subordinate, a lieutenant governor, exercised the executive power in Upper Canada.3

The new province reflected the lessons of the American Revolution, as understood by men who rued its success. Led by Secretary of State William W. Grenville, the British examined "the constitution of our former Colonies . . . in order that we may profit by our experience there, & avoid, if possible, in the Government of Canada, those defects which hastened the independence of our antient possession in America." That retrospective found excessive colonial democracy because "no care was taken to preserve a due mixture of the Monarchical & Aristocratical parts of the British Constitutions." Grenville and his associates designed Upper Canada to serve as an antidote to the Revolution, as an alternative to the American republic, and as the model for a revived British empire. In 1791, the colony's first lieutenant governor, John Graves Simcoe, explained, "The establishment of the British Constitution in this Province offers the best method gradually to counteract, and ultimately to destroy or to disarm the [American] spirit of democratic subversion."4

The British designed Upper Canada to restrict both popular discontent and popular participation in politics. On the one hand, the British officials sought a content and inert public by minimizing taxation and by [End Page 3] maximizing access to cheap farm land. On the other hand, they restricted electoral power and tightly controlled the press to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1553-0620
Print ISSN
0275-1275
Pages
pp. 1-34
Launched on MUSE
2007-02-23
Open Access
No
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