Jacksonian America and the Canadian Rebellion – A Review by Stephen R. I. Smith

[This review, by a Canadian-based scholar, is the first in a two-part series on Revolutions across Borders; a second, by an American-based scholar, will appear on 20 January – Editors.]

Stephen R. I. Smith

Maxime Dagenais and Julien Mauduit, eds., Revolutions across Borders: Jacksonian American and the Canadian Rebellion (Montreal andKingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019).

For readers of Borealia, Revolutions Across Borders: Jacksonian America and the Canadian Rebellion is not just another book on colonial Canada or antebellum America: we have had the pleasure of following its conceptualization and development over the course of this blog.

The essential focus of the edited collection – the place of the Rebellion in the United States – has remained constant in the years since the project was first referenced on this platform. Exploring the role of the Rebellion in US history is a useful point of departure and a much needed one. With so much of the focus of antebellum history elsewhere (e.g. the Bank war, Texas, sectional tension), scant attention has been paid to how this event in the Canadas impacted on the United States. Conversely, while scholars have considered how external thought currents influenced the Rebellion, there has been almost no focus in the other direction.[1]

The collection includes contributions by both established and emerging scholars on both sides of the border. Not only was there an effort by the editors to have this mix of experience and location, but also to have those scholars meet and collaborate. These essays have also been a product of a collaboration that brought together those whose works we find in the collection, but also other scholars who helped workshop the collection. (Full disclosure: I was one of the participants at the 2017 workshop in Montreal.)

Some of the contributions have evolved markedly since the start of the project while others are quite similar to their focus, form, and structure of three years ago. Overall, the collection remains coherent, although some articles are more engaged with other contributors than others. (Andrew Bonthius is especially to be commended in respect to this latter point.) What is particularly striking is the large focus that emerges in the collection on political economy. For example, Robert Richard and Albert Schrauwers focus exclusively on the patriots and banking. For Jason Opal, banking is a major theme in his piece on the political economy of Anglo-American rapprochement. For Bonthius, Underhill’s views on banks represent an important point of departure. Finally, Thomas Richards addresses the economic and financial motives, among others, of the patriots.

The final two chapters, the forward, and the afterword address other consequential impacts of the Rebellion in the United States. Louis-Georges Harvey considers the influence of the Canadian Rebellion on John O’Sullivan and his conceptualization of Manifest Destiny. Julien Mauduit explores Canadian interference in the American politics through the lens of the 1840 presidential election. Ruth Dunley reflects on Abram Daniel Smith in her foreword. Finally, in her afterword, Amy Greenberg assesses currents in the views of Americans on the annexation of Canada and the responses of US administrations.

While the focus on political economy is not a criticism, the coverage is interesting and timely, political economy and the patriots could have become a conscious theme of the collection. The focus on banking also left me wanting more on other consequential impacts of the Rebellion in the United States. The first mentions of this project on Borealia touched on the Rebellion and the US debate over slavery – the focus on political economy meant it became less a focus.[2]

Revolutions across Borders is noteworthy because it represents work that finally follows Allan Greer’s call to both break down the boundaries between Rebellion events in Lower and Upper Canada as well as to view them in an international context.[3] (There is admittedly still more work to be done in this regard.) The collection begins with an overview of the battles in Lower Canada and then Upper Canada, rather than a chronological description of these events. Disappointingly, there is, in some instances, an artificial division between the Hunters’ Lodges and the Frères Chasseurs as organizations based on geography. Moreover, some of the essays also continue a history of subsuming all patriot organizing under the umbrella of the Hunters – presenting them as an all-encompassing synonym for many forms of patriot organization in the US.

Melding a major Canadian event into US historiography indeed creates challenges. For one, how do US historiographical concepts relate to Canadian events? For example, given that the Market Revolution has such a massive scholarship and analysis tied to US colonial expansion and capitalist development, can the term be brought wholesale into Canadian colonial historiography? Considering Canadian events in this new context can present risks. For example, Greenberg blames the 1849 burning of the parliament buildings on “economic distress produced by the British repeal of the Corn Laws in 1847” without reference to what is acknowledged as its central cause, the Rebellion Losses bill.[4] There are also challenges when applying this new overlay to Canadian historiographical debates: some scholars of Lower Canada might bristle at the contention that the 1841 union gave residents of both provinces “meaningful rights and privileges.”[5]

Maxime Dagenais and Julien Mauduit are to be congratulated on the publication of Revolutions across Borders and commended for how rapidly it has gone from conceptualization to print. They have overseen an extensive, thought-provoking, and fruitful collaboration.

Stephen R. I. Smith is a historian based in Halifax. His recently completed dissertation focused on the relationship between violence, voluntary associations, and the press, using as case studies the newspapers and voluntary organizations that emerged around the 1837-8 Rebellions in Lower Canada, Upper Canada, and the United States. He has a chapter on the patriot press in the United States in the edited collection Violence, Order, and Unrest: A History of British North America, 1749-1876 (2019). He has taught history at Queen’s University and worked in heritage interpretation at a number of museums and historic sites. He is currently an historian at Parks Canada.

[1] See, for example, Louis-Georges Harvey, Le Printemps de L’Amérique française: Américanité, anticolonialisme et républicanisme dans le discours politique québécois, 1805-1837 (Montreal: Les Éditions du Boréal, 2005); Michel Ducharme, Le Concept de liberté au Canada à l’époque des Révolutions atlantiques (1776-1838) (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010). For how those outside the Canadas spectated the Rebellion see Aurélio Ayala and Françoise Le Jeune, Les rebellions canadiennes de 1837 et 1838 vues de Paris (Québec: Les Presses de l’Université Laval, 2011) and Michie, Michael. York University, “‘Three cheers for the Canadian peasants’: the response of British Radicals and Chartists to the Canadian rebellions of 1837-38,” (unpublished conference paper).

[2] https://earlycanadianhistory.ca/2015/11/02/the-canadian-revolution-the-early-american-republic-and-slavery-research-notes/; https://earlycanadianhistory.ca/2015/11/02/la-revolution-canadienne-la-republique-americaine-et-lesclavage-note-de-recherche/

[3] Allan Greer, “1837–38: Rebellion Reconsidered” Canadian Historical Review 76, no 1 (1995): 1-18.

[4] Amy S. Greenberg, “Afterword,” in Revolutions Across Borders, 281.

[5] Greenberg, 277. See, for example, the premise of Stanley B. Ryerson’s Unequal Union: Roots of Crisis in the Canadas, 1815-1873 (Toronto: Progress Books, 1973).

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