Nineteenth-Century Collective Violence: Toward a North American Context

By See, Scott W. | Labour/Le Travail, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Nineteenth-Century Collective Violence: Toward a North American Context


See, Scott W., Labour/Le Travail


Scott W. See, "Nineteenth-Century Collective Violence: Toward a North American Context," Labour/Le Travail, 39 (Spring 1997), 13-38.

UNTIL ALMOST A QUARTER CENTURY AGO, the theme of violence in North American history focused primarily on the extraordinary events that definitively shaped the course of republicanism, democracy, and freedom. To most historians, violence invoked panoramic images of revolution, civil war, and rebellion. Violence in post-Conquest Canadian history, outside the parameters of the Upper and Lower Canadian Rebellions of the late 1830s and the Red River and North West Rebellions of the late 19th century, seemed to be an obvious and mildly amusing oxymoron. In the United States, on the other hand, generations of historians had concentrated their energies on those most profound and almost mesmerizing events in the American saga: the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. The story of collective or group violence in North America, meaning spontaneous or planned demonstrations and confrontations outside the political arena, seemed anecdotal at best. Historians lightly touched upon those events or passed them over altogether because they appeared ill-suited to give citizens of either nation-state an enriched sense of their collective experience. The decade of the 1960s, however, kindled a modest yet vibrant anthology of historical literature on less well-known episodes of violence in each country's past.

Significantly, during the last three decades historians in both countries helped either to establish or to reinforce national self-images that still retain a tremendous popular appeal: Canada as the "peaceable kingdom" and the United States as the "violent society." (1) For example, William Kilbourn, who considered the nature of violence in a troubled world with a sharp eye cocked on his bumptious southern neighbours, succinctly expressed the Canadian ideal in the Cold War era: "I cannot help feeling ... that Canada, merely by existing, does offer a way and a hope, an alternative to insanity, in so far as there is a way and a hope for any of us in an insane world." (2) Importantly, in the wake of the energetic historiographical activity of some of his colleagues as they pursued violence in Canada's past, Kilbourn later revisited the peaceable kingdom paradigm. Finding it under scholarly assault, he mounted a spirited defense by maintaining that it appropriately described late 20th-century Canada:

For all its faults, this country has remained blessedly free of those deadly clashes of rival ideologies, dreams, and purities with which almost every other corner of the earth is still plagued today. To say otherwise, to state in portentous tones that our recent history too has been terrible, is about as useful as proclaiming that Canada is the worst country in the world except for the others. (3)

The American ethos, as an almost perfect counterpoint, was clearly enunciated by Richard Maxwell Brown. "American life has been characterized by continuous and often intense violence," he argued, and essentially it has formed a "seamless web with some of the most positive events of U.S. history." (4) These Canadian and American ideals--espoused so eloquently in the 1960s and early 1970s--rapidly became entrenched; they continue to shape our memory of episodic collective violence in both countries.

Many scholars have crafted their ideas in light of theories of popular violence in the Western world, and the more thorough practitioners have mined the international literature on violence in order to provide a framework for their own research. (5) Still, with rare exception, most continue to view 19th-century violence in the socio-political spheres of their respective countries; their work bears the indelible watermark of national ideals. Whether they consider themselves proponents or critics of their country's domestic or foreign agendas, historians cannot escape the insistent reverberations of nationalism.

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