“The Mighty Waters of Democracy”: Thomas Chandler Haliburton on American Populism

Oana Godeanu-Kenworthy

On Nov 8 2016 reality-show star and billionaire Donald Trump won by a landslide the presidency of the US. Despite the still-ongoing collective head-scratching over the exact causes of the victory, nobody contests that the unlikely candidate rode an unprecedented wave of populism and nationalism whose long-term consequences remain to be seen. Trump’s anti-trade rhetoric in particular has been met with unease in Canada, whose post-NAFTA economic fortunes are profoundly enmeshed with those of the US. Until the December 19th Electoral College vote, online debates continued around the question whether the electors will go back to the role assigned to them by the Founders of the American constitution and independently assess the suitability of the candidate, or merely validate the popular vote in their states as in the past. Indeed, despite James Madison’s trust in the power of constitutional checks and balances (like the Electoral College), in recent history rarely has an elector failed to vote for the candidate winning his or her state’s popular votes.

“Thomas Chandler Haliburton (alias Sam Slick), 1796-1865, bust portrait”, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

“Thomas Chandler Haliburton (alias Sam Slick), 1796-1865, bust portrait”, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

Canadian concerns over American populism and its impact on existing institutions are not new. In 1836, the conservative Nova Scotian judge and writer Thomas Chandler Haliburton (1796-1865) published The Clockmaker, a volume of satirical sketches that rapidly became a surprising global success.[1] Its protagonist, Sam Slick, a charismatic and shrewd Connecticut Yankee, entertained colonial audiences with the shortcomings of the American political model, while ostensibly exalting “the greatest nation on the face of the airth, and the most enlightened too.”[2] Haliburton’s America sounds hauntingly familiar. In the 1830s, the country was in the thralls of economic and political turmoil, of virulent populism and anti-elite antipathy, all punctuated by the extension of the franchise to white males, the expansion of slavery, and the Indian Removal. Like other early Canadians, Haliburton was watching with apprehension the chaotic political dramas unfolding next door, at a time when British North America itself was debating responsible government and elective councils. To be clear, Haliburton was never preoccupied with the welfare of ordinary people; minority rights would have concerned him only if as a white, propertied, and educated male he envisioned himself to be an endangered minority. His arguments against American-style colonial reform were rooted in the belief that institutions not only reflect the core values of the society that created them, they are also instrumental in shaping its long-term evolution. Haliburton’s main focus was the place of British North America in the larger imperial network. If American republican institutions had gradually given rise to the unruly populism of the Jacksonian years, what impact could more democratic institutions have on the fabric of colonial society in British North America and on its loyalty to the Crown?

The US was the only direct experience of republicanism most early Canadians would have had. Yet the American federation with its endless squabbles over state rights and its mobs was more a cautionary tale of republican centrifugal forces gnawing at the fabric of society, than an inspiring one. Haliburton did not object to American republicanism per se, but to the spirit which infused it. To him, the seeds of a profound mistrust towards any authority external to ‘the people’ were already present in the American Revolution, despite the hierarchical view of society that the Federalists subsequently promoted; Jacksonian populism and anti-elitism had merely taken things one step further. Its all-pervasive leveling ethos had degenerated into a tyranny of the majority and was endangering freedom itself. One of the characters in The Clockmaker laments the loss of the ideals of the Revolution: “Where now is our beautiful republic bequeathed to us by Washington and the sages and heroes of the revolution? Overwhelmed and destroyed by the mighty waters of democracy.” [3]

Like many of his contemporaries, Haliburton believed that democratic institutions encouraged selfishness, and feared that people will love equality more than freedom and will be willing to sacrifice the latter for the former.[4] Jackson’s populism politicized American national narcissism by placing power in the hands of disorganized masses of self-interested individuals that rejected any source of authority or of value outside themselves. One of Slick’s American interlocutors, the Episcopalian Reverend Hopewell, described the new national civic religion; his countrymen worshipped at the same time “the golden image” of material success and “the American image…. An image of perfection… the personification of everything that is great and good,–that we set up and admire, and everybody thinks it is an image of himself.” Hopewell concludes sadly: “we are all brought up to this idolatry from our cradle: we are taught first to worship gold, and then to idolize ourselves.” [5]

Haliburton’s goal was to persuade his readers that introducing in Nova Scotia elective institutions could eventually Americanize colonial society by redefining the relationship between individual and state. He showed little faith that the Federalist-designed constitutional checks and balances could prevent the hijacking of the American republic by factional politics or populist excesses. Slick’s patriotic praises of all things American satirized this weakness of the American system, and paint human nature as deeply flawed and in need of protection from itself. Slick’s caricatured endorsement of American exceptionalism enables Haliburton’s deconstruction of the American national narrative by turning on its head one of its most valued assumptions—the inherent advantages of popular rule. For Haliburton, making America great again would have meant bringing the Federalists back.

Haliburton is today remembered primarily as a humorist, but his satire popularized complex political ideas he also articulated elsewhere—in speeches in the British Parliament or in book-length historical analyses.[6] Throughout his political and literary career he vehemently rejected the idea of a self-governing British North America because he considered democracy to be incompatible with monarchy and believed that embracing self-rule would weaken Canada’s imperial bonds—emotional and otherwise. The Clockmaker interprets 18th and early 19th century continental developments through the lens of imperial history, rather than of an American nation-centric one: if republicanism had opened the path for popular democracy in the US, the reverse might happen too. This perspective enabled Haliburton to delegitimize the Jacksonian normalization of popular democracy and to challenge the U.S. rhetorical monopoly over freedom, while arguing for a continuing place for British North America in the larger imperial partnership.

Haliburton died in 1865, three months after the American Civil War ended. His warnings against representative government were increasingly out-of-step with history; they echoed nevertheless larger Canadian—and British—anxieties about the future of the monarchy in an age of rising democracy. He never lived to see the Canadian Confederation, nor the centralist path that Canadian federalism was to embark upon after 1867 (partly in reaction to the American example). National histories do matter, as do national cultural differences, even in this supposedly borderless, global age; rereading Haliburton’s Clockmaker as a political text today can help uncover some of original points where American and Canadian political cultures parted ways—although it will probably not explain the paradox of a billionaire propelled to power by the votes of the American working classes mesmerized by his promises to restore America to its past national greatness.


Oana Godeanu-Kenworthy is a senior lecturer in American Studies and teaches in the Global and Intercultural Studies Department at Miami University, Ohio. She has published in the Journal of European Studies, the Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Early American Studies, and Early American Literature. Her research focuses on transatlantic and hemispheric studies, settler colonial literatures, and the relationship between fiction, film and political ideologies.

Editor’s note: We’re very pleased that this essay has also been posted at the American Studies blog, hosted by Dr. Ben Railton.


[1] Haliburton published three series of The Clockmaker, in 1836, 1838, and 1840.

[2] Thomas Chandler Haliburton, The Clockmaker. Series One, Two, and Three, George L. Parker, ed. (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1995) 32. All further references will be to this edition.

[3] The Clockmaker 354.

[4] For a comparison of T.C. Haliburton’s views on democracy with Alexis de Tocqueville’s, see my article “The Political Other in Nineteenth-Century British North America,” Early American Studies 7, no. 1 (2009): 205-234.

[5] The Clockmaker, 353.

[6] See for instance A Historical and Statistical Account of Nova Scotia (Halifax: J. Howe, 1829), The Bubbles of Canada (London: Bentley, 1839); Reply to the Report of the Earl of Durham (London: Bentley, 1839); Rule and Misrule of the English in America (London: Richard Bentley, 1851); An Address at Glasgow on the Conditions, Resources and Prospects of British North America (Montreal: Lovell, 1857); Nature and Human Nature (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1859).


Featured Image: “A noisy mob; but the sound money police are closing in on them” Keppler & Schwarzmann, 1896, Library of Congress Prints and Photography Division, Washington DC; LC-DIG-ppmsca-28837

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