Jacksonian America and the Canadian Rebellion – A Review by Mark R. Cheathem

[This review, by an American-based scholar, is the second in a two-part series on Revolutions across Borders; a first, by a Canadian-based scholar, appeared on 13 January – Editors.]

Mark R. Cheathem

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

If Americans know very little about Martin Van Buren, they know even less about his foreign policy. If they learned anything about Old Kinderhook, it was probably that he was a one-term presidential loser who didn’t live up to Andrew Jackson’s legacy. It is possible that that they also may have learned that an economic depression was the main cause of Van Buren’s presidential failures. Maybe they would recall something about his involvement with the Trail of Tears, but most would probably lay the blame for that atrocity at the feet of Jackson (who, of course, deserves the criticism). Perhaps they would have some familiarity with the Second Seminole War or of U.S. efforts to annex Texas—but, if we’re being honest, probably not. Even less likely is a recognition that the United States experienced significant conflict along the Canadian border throughout Van Buren’s four years in the White House.

Revolutions across Borders: Jacksonian America and the Canadian Rebellion is an attempt to raise more awareness to one aspect of Van Buren’s foreign relations. In particular, editors Maxime Dagenais and Julien Mauduit have brought together scholars who present the American perspective on the Canadian Rebellion of 1837-38. Dagenais and Mauduit argue that despite the other domestic, and even foreign, concerns that Van Buren’s America faced, “Canada’s Rebellion added to the internal pressures felt by the young republic” (9). Americans found in the Canadian Rebellion an opportunity to discover remedies for their disillusionment with their nation as it made the transition from the newness and excitement of its early years to the awkwardness of maintaining the democratic experiment in its fifth decade and beyond. Highlighting the interconnection of Canada and the United States during the Jacksonian period, the editors focus on three themes: the rebellion’s significance for the U.S.; the fluctuating definition of what it meant to be a nation or state; and the porousness of the U.S.-Canadian border (15).

Dagenais and Mauduit divide their essay collection into three sections. Part 1 focuses on the economic pressures that contributed to the rebellion, as well as the economic consequences that resulted. Jason Opal argues that economic changes following the War of 1812 produced in the U.S. an alliance “in all but name” with Great Britain, one that worked against the Canadian Rebellion (28). Robert Richard considers the rebellion in the context of the Market Revolution taking place within the Jacksonian-era U.S. He finds that “the mutual agendas of the Jacksonian Democrats and Lower Canadian patriotes should be seen as a loosely coordinated response to the unsettling effects of the Market Revolution,” illustrating that economic change often fails to respect artificially drawn national borders (79).

Part 2 examines the ways in which the rebellion allowed for conceptualizing alternate ways of governing. Thomas Richards Jr. contends that Americans joined the Canadian Rebellion because it “represented a political, economic, and social alternative to the United States, where Americans could achieve political power and financial gain that seemed no longer possible in a United States riven with depression and uncertainty” (93). The American identification with Canadian rebels was most closely held in Upper Canada, an area in southern Ontario where “a majority . . . were either American migrants or their descendants” (94). While Lower Canada (bordering Maine, Vermont, and eastern New York) seemed a more likely geographic area of American support for the rebellion, Richards observes, the lack of a large U.S. city and “essential differences in language and religion” prevented the development of significant American support for the rebellion (95). Andrew Bonthius uses the example of Dr. Samuel Underhill to explore the potential consequences a successful Canadian Rebellion promised. Underhill, who edited and published the Cleveland Liberalist and Bald Eagle newspapers, embraced a variety of what was then considered radical beliefs. He was a supporter of Owenism, which proposed a form of utopian collectivism, and the Workingmen’s party, which embraced “equal rights, opposition to special privileges and monopolies, and support for hard money (‘anti-bank’) policy” (142). During the Canadian Rebellion, Underhill used the Bald Eagle as a recruitment tool for the cause. Ultimately, Bonthius concludes, Underhill “connect[ed] the fight for workers’ and women’s rights to the larger all-encompassing struggle against the Bank of the United States,” envisioning a successful rebellion as the foundation for a new society based on the ideological principles espoused in his newspapers (158). Albert Schrauwers’ essay on Dr. Charles Duncombe looks at his influence on the development of joint stock democracy, “a banking system predicated upon ‘equality of opportunity’ (free banking), unlimited liability, a ‘hard’ paper currency accessible to all without transaction costs, regulations by local norms of ‘political economy,’ and democratic accountability to their shareholders and the public” (176). Duncombe’s views “emphasized the way in which the chartered banks of his day were ‘licensed monopolies’ whose privileged access” to banknotes “created a new, threatening ‘monied aristocracy’ that was undermining the republic” (178).

The last section of this collection examines how “the Rebellion changed the American political and ideological landscape” (17). Louis-Georges Harvey considers the ways in which Democratic newspaper editor John L. O’Sullivan used his Democratic Review to argue against U.S. intervention in the Canadian Rebellion based “on the agency of neighbouring colonial peoples” (234). Co-editor Julien Mauduit argues that the rebellion “undermined Van Buren’s electoral basis in the northern states” during the 1840 presidential election” (240). “Many of the citizens supporting the Canadian Revolution,” Mauduit writes, voted for Whig presidential candidate William Henry Harrison “despite their ‘locofocoist’ [i.e., Democratic] principles” (240). Amy Greenberg ends the book with an afterword looking at the persistence of some Americans’ desire to annex Texas after the rebellion ended.

As an American historian knowledgeable about Jacksonian domestic politics, I found that this collection expanded my perspective on the era’s foreign policy. Familiar names, such as William Lyon Mackenzie, and recognizable organizations, such as the Hunters’ Lodges, now have a Canadian context that makes them more understandable. Each essay’s extensive citations also uncovered a wealth of published and unpublished scholarship that will prove useful, both for teaching the Jacksonian period and for making Van Buren’s foreign policymaking understandable as the Papers of Martin Van Buren project tackles his presidency.

Not everything about the collection was satisfactory, however. The editors could have provided a more detailed overview of the rebellion in the introduction for those, like me, who are less acquainted with its origins, development, and consequences. Some of the essays also strayed into more esoteric discussions unrelated to the rebellion and never quite tied things together as the authors intended. Because of my own work on Jacksonian-era presidential campaigns, I confess that I was disappointed that Mauduit’s essay did not provide quantitative analysis of his assertion that the Canadian Rebellion cost Old Kinderhook votes in 1840, an analysis that potentially would alter and enrich the ways in which historians interpret the first modern U.S. presidential campaign.

These minor shortcomings notwithstanding, this collection is an important contribution to the field of Jacksonian historiography. It challenges scholars to abandon their narrow conception of the era’s political, economic, and social issues and place them in a broader, transnational context. Revolutions across Borders won’t elevate Van Buren into the pantheon of great U.S. presidents, but understanding the numerous international challenges presented to him may help us be more cognizant of the difficulties even less-notable presidents faced as leaders.

Mark R. Cheathem is a professor of history at Cumberland University, where he also serves as project director of the Papers of Martin Van Buren. He is the author or editor of seven books, including Andrew Jackson, Southerner (winner of the 2013 Tennessee History Book Award) and The Coming of Democracy: Presidential Campaigning in the Age of Jackson (winner of the 2018 Phi Alpha Theta Best Subsequent Book Award).

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