From 1776 to 1825, wars of independence swept through the Americas. Canada, for the most part, was an exception. Why?
The Americas in the Revolutionary Era, a Great Courses lecture by Marshall C. Eakin, surveys the countries of the Americas and how they gained their independence. It focuses on the period he calls the “revolutionary era,” starting with the Revolutionary War of the 13 colonies, followed by the Haitian rebellion and the Spanish American wars of independence involving Simón Bolívar and his contemporaries, and Brazil’s independence which was achieved through “relatively little bloodshed” by a member of the Portuguese royal family living in exile from Portugal during Napoleon’s domination of Europe.
Eakin draws a distinction between revolution — being a sudden profound change involving political, social, and economic systems — and independence. In many cases independence in the form of “self government” comes without any real “revolution.” In fact, that’s often the point. A common pattern is that the elites of the colonies decide they want to continue to exercise their power without being subject to a colonial power, and manage to affect an independence that perpetuates their rule. In Spanish America this led to the expression “same mule, different rider.”
Eakin emphasizes that there are common causes of independence — for example, a desire for free trade — but also differences. For someone searching for an answer to questions about why Canada didn’t join the U.S. revolution, or pursue their own independence sooner or more aggressively, this could be frustrating. For example, one of the reasons many American colonies were hesitant to pursue a revolutionary path was that the elites were afraid of a slave uprising, like what happened in Haiti. (Haiti was ultimately a successful slave revolt, but started out with many stratified disgruntled classes all jockeying for power.) Canada had slaves, but not so many that slavery explain Canada’s hesitance to split from the throne.
When Eakin finally addresses Canada directly about 20 lectures into the 24 lecture course, he points to a few key factors in Canada remaining loyal. One, the population of the Canadian colonies at the start of the American Revolutionary War — the first example of colonial independence in the Americas — was very small. Then, during and following the war, many loyalists moved to Canada in significant enough numbers to substantially change the makeup of those colonies. In fact, Eakin says it was that influx of immigration that forced the split of the Canadian colonies into two Upper and Lower colonies, partly due to the increased scale of the population and partly due to the clear distinction between a French Catholic population and a new English Protestant one.
The second major factor that Eakin identifies is that Britain had learned their lesson. Having lost a war and the 13 colonies, they understood the risk of full independence and did not want to incur the cost of that happening to their remaining North American interests. So they were much more willing to give concessions to the colonies in Canada in order to avoid a drive for full independence while maintaining at least some control. The main demands seem to have been free trade (which was less of an issue in British America than in Spanish America, since most of what the Spanish colonies meant by “free trade” was “access to British markets”) as well as some level of self governance. This perspective suggests that incremental Canadian independence was gained peacefully in part thanks to the American violence.
Even so, in this survey of revolutions in the Americas, there were two Canadian rebellions that Eakin deemed notable, one each in Upper and Lower Canada. He centered his mention of each on their leaders: William Lyon Mackenzie in Upper Canada and Louis-Joseph Papineau in Lower. The fact that these rebellions were not successful supports Eakin’s thesis that successful rebellions to gain independence throughout the Americas were not as inevitable as history can make them seem. Eakin views Canada as an interesting counter-example to the larger trends of independence in the Americas.