“What would Lord Durham advise?”

E.A. Heaman

No, “not assimilate your French”: I think he’s been misread. Lord Durham would have better advice than that because he lived in a world not unlike our own. Devastating and state-discrediting pandemic? Check. Disaffected fringe looking to topple the state? Check. Popular American violence lending strength to popular violence everywhere, including Canada? Check. Belligerent Russian autocrat looking to expand borders and lending strength to autocrats everywhere? Check. Conservatives politicians and media moguls looking to nudge politics to the right, capitalize on those crises, and precipitate themselves back into power? Double check.

John George Lambton, 1st Earl of Durham, 1820, Thomas Phillips.
© The National Portrait Gallery NPG 2547.

Durham, for a few crucial years, was on the front line of all of those battles. He spent the 1820s denouncing the “gonzo conservatism” of the ruling British Tories,[1] riding out their final years of heavily-militarized, oligarchic corruption (formerly misgoverned through violence, we are now misgoverned through corruption, Durham told Parliament in 1821, arguing for an expanded franchise). He spent the early 1830s chairing the committee that wrote the Great Reform Act of 1832 that doubled the British electorate. He spent the mid-1830s as a trouble-shooter in Europe, sent to the various spots, including twice to Tsar Nicholas I’s Russia. And, as all readers of Borealia know, he spent a few months of 1838 as a trouble-shooter in Canada, with the outcome his famous report recommending colonial self-government. He also recommended the union of the Canadas and assimilation of the French Canadians, but as a form of self-civilization by politically empowered voters, not the coercive version that would become Canadian Indian policy.

To understand what advice Durham might have for us in 2022, we should read his observations and recommendations in those three registers: the domestic, the international, and the imperial. I see big overlaps between the “eastern question” (Russia) and the “western question” (Canada, better understood as North America), with domestic politics and public opinion connecting the two. Once you see the connection, everything falls into place. Would the autocrats to the east and the populists to the west, both of them essentially advocating violence, find take-up in Britain and British-held regions sufficient to alienate the people either from the British state entirely or from the weak liberal government barely clinging to power in Westminster, thereby reversing the turn away from militarism and gonzo conservatism? America and Russia were at opposite ends of the political spectrum, the one as democratic as could be imagined (in ways Alexis de Tocqueville had begun to identify), the other as autocratic as could be imagined, but they both threatened the same effect in Britain: militarism and conservatism, the alliance of Wellington and Peel, both of them waiting their opportunity in the Lords and the Commons.

Durham wrote official dispatches and public propaganda that took the measure of military and popular threats to British interests in Russia and North America. Russia’s public did not much worry him, and he thought it disorganized enough to prevent Nicholas from achieving real military victories beyond his border. But he sharply told the party paper, the Morning Chronicle,  to stop its “vituperation” of Russia, stop inflaming things to consolidate party loyalty.[2] If the head of state was the problem and the public the solution in Russia, in North America it was the other way around. The American government had no desire to invade Canada, he observed, but it lacked the capacity to check popular war fever, and the American public could not be trusted. Look how they had invaded Texas, Durham observed. And get them talking about Canada, remembering past conflicts, the White House burnt, and they soon began to threaten invasion, espousing “those undisguised projects of conquest and rapine which, since the invasion of Texas, find but too much favour among the daring population of the frontiers.”[3]

As to domestic Canadian politics, Durham observed very openly in his first dispatch home, in August of 1838, the more serious threat to British interests came not from the French but from the English. They were, as Tocqueville had observed, essentially American and likely to follow the American political trajectory towards independence from Britain. That they had not yet was due to their anti-Frenchness. Durham argued that the English Canadians had jealously used their special relationship with government to shut off advancement for the French, though it took the French quite some time to realize they were being discriminated against. Eventually they did notice and thereupon both races began to polarize around identity. “What may be the immediate subject of dispute seems to be of no consequence so surely as there is a dispute on any subject, the great bulk of the Canadian and the great bulk of the British appear ranged against each other.” But these were empty fights: “the subject of dissension has been, not the connexion with England, nor the form of the constitution, nor any of the practical abuses which have affected all classes of the people, but simply such institutions, laws, and customs as are of French origin, which the British have sought to overthrow and the Canadians have struggled to preserve, each class assuming false designations and fighting under false colours – the British professing exclusive loyalty to the Crown of England, and the Canadians pretending to the character of reformers.” But appearances were deceiving: the British Canadians were the ones demanding more democracy and responsibility, less British oversight. They were “deeply offended” at any sort of restraint upon them, local or imperial. Behind the superficially shared, anti-French passions uniting the English Canadians, Durham observed emerging tensions between the “general” public and the “official body” or executive in Britain or Canada. The danger to British interests, in short, came from British not French settlers. The Canadiens were merely, even accidentally, absorbing the first wave of American-style popular resentment, temporarily shielding the state.[4] British interests in the region were better served by non-assimilation of the French.

A Deserter, political cartoon by John Doyle, January 1839. Depicts Lord Durham being led away by Viscount Melbourne and the Duke of Wellington, with Lord Brougham bringing up the rear. © The National Portrait Gallery D41502.

That, after all, was how British managed the European question, as Stella Ghervas has recently argued. From the Treaty of Utrecht that saw France cede Acadia, European diplomacy rested on a “balance of power,” described in the Treaty as “an equal Weight of Power, so that many being united in one, the Balance of the quality desired, might not turn to the advantage of one, and the Danger and Hazard of the rest.”[5] Britain served as the “balancing factor in European politics, dampening potential political conflicts by switching sides if one bloc threatened to overcome the other.” The policy was so effective, Ghervas argues, that Britain “is still the only European power to have found itself on the winning side of each great alliance since the war of the Spanish Succession.” But it “required a modicum of disunity in Europe.”[6] Durham was in a position to understand that disunity could serve the same purpose in  North America as in Europe. The Americans came close to pursuing the kind of universal sovereignty in the Americas that the French regularly seemed to pursue in Europe, but a plethora of colonies, nations, and alliances to the north, south, and west of the United States could enable the British to orchestrate resistance to American ambitions. Jeremy Black sees Britain still the major power in the region, even underpinning the Monroe Doctrine, for all that the Americans believed they had banished power politics.[7] Stoking anti-Frenchness while handing the French Canadians the tools to protect themselves would maintain the necessary disunity. It would also enable the French to assimilate the English to constitutional politics, because the French must keep their eyes on politics rather than identities if they wanted to preserve their rights. Durham’s despatch noted the empty core of assimilation; the Report concealed it from the British  and Canadian public, the better to deflect the vituperation.

And so perhaps, in 2022, Durham might advise Canadian politicians and journalists to discipline those amongst them who want to cozy up to American populists and Russian autocrats. The threat for Durham and for us remains the same: extreme or “gonzo” conservatives willing to pursue power at any cost. If we face accelerating crises, it may be because we’ve failed to hold the line against them.

E.A. Heaman teaches history at McGill. This is drawn from Civilization: From Enlightenment Philosophy to Canadian History (forthcoming with McGill-Queen’s University Press).  


[1] Corey Robin, “The Gonzo Conservatism of the American Right,” New York Review of Books, 22 October 2020, and his The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin (Oxford University Press, 2011).

[2] Margaret Lamb, “Writing up the Eastern Question in 1835–1836,” International History Review 15, no. 2 (1993): 243; Darwin F. Bostick, “Sir John Easthope and the ‘Morning Chronicle,’ 1834–1848,” Victorian Periodicals Review 12, no. 2 (summer 1979): 55; Jack Snyder, Myths of Empire: Domestic Politics and International Ambition (Cornell University Press, 2013), 166.

[3] Lord Durham’s Report on the Affairs of British North America, ed. Sir C.P. Lucas, II, 118.

[4] Lord Durham’s Report on the Affairs of British North America, ed. Sir C.P. Lucas, III, 319–33.

[5] Stella Ghervas, Conquering Peace: From the Enlightenment to the European Union (Harvard University Press, 2021), 42.

[6] Ghervas, Conquering Peace, 48, 108.

[7] Jeremy Black, Fighting for America: The Struggle for Mastery in North America, 1519–1871 (Indiana University Press, 2011), 189; Stephen Wertheim, Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy (Harvard University Press, 2020), 19–20.

Featured Image: “Protests Swell in Canada’s Capital as Ontario Police Struggle to End Bridge Blockade,” New York Times, 12 February 2022.

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