The Capacity to Judge: Public Opinion and Deliberative Democracy in Upper Canada, 1791-1854

Article excerpt

McNairn, Jeffrey L. The Capacity to Judge: Public Opinion and Deliberative Democracy in Upper Canada, 1791-1854. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000.460 pp. $75.

Jeffrey McNairn begins this study of public opinion in Upper Canada with an excerpt from an anonymous mechanic in the British Whig newspaper criticizing a Kingston town leader in 1834. Noting he wrote on behalf of fellow mechanics, he said, "We are as capable of judging on a point which concerns our interests, either as citizens or mechanics, as well as he; we will not be led by the nose, by any interested set of men." This illustrates how quickly the elites lost the deference of the public in Canada in the early nineteenth century.

In a thoroughly researched and documented study of newspapers in Upper Canada, McNairn considers the evolving methods of public discourse under the 1791 Constitution Act in which the British Parliament split what was then Quebec into two provinces: Upper and Lower Canada. Eventually, Upper Canada become Ontario and Lower Canada became Quebec. In a system that mirrored England, each province was governed by an elected assembly, a legislative council appointed for life, and a governor named by the crown.

The term "public opinion" was widely used in Canada during the period, but it referred to the outcome of a deliberative process that yielded a public consensus rather than a survey measurement. Looking at recent history in 1827, the Upper Ganada Herald concluded that "public opinion is acquiring strength in every Government, in proportion to its freedom. In Great Britain its influence is more and more manifest." It also said the colonies should listen to the people. "By the public voice, we do not mean the clamour of interested partisans, but the general sense of the People at large to which the measures of Government ought to be conformed." McNairn makes extensive use of such supporting quotations throughout his book. …