British North America
during the eighteen-fifties
THE EIGHTEEN-FIFTIES were to provide the most prosperous decade the colonies enjoyed down to the settlement of the West in the early twentieth century. There were several explanations, and as many consequences. The decade began with depression but by 1853 recovery was well under way, and by 1855 the country was 'booming'. Like all nineteenth-century 'booms', that of the eighteen-fifties ended in a 'bang' and the depression of 1857-1858 ensued. But things quickly picked up again and some of the eighteen-sixties were almost as 'succulent' as were the eighteen-fifties.
In general terms it was the upswing of the business cycle which explained the eighteen-fifties, but a number of specific factors may be easily identified. Great Britain's war with Russia drew wheat and timber abroad in vast quantities. A second gift fell off the Christmas tree in the form of many millions of pounds of British capital dumped into the country to build railroads. A third was provided by the Reciprocity Treaty of 1854, which made British North America for twelve years an associate member of the United StatesZollverein.
The consequences of all these big matters were a continuing rapid growth in population, the occupation of most of the remaining good crown lands, an increase in the size of cities and the complexities of their life, the emergence of new social classes, and most important of all, an observable gain in confidence that led people out a little beyond the timidities of the colonial state. Much of all this is to be set down to the credit side of the new regime in politics with its union of the two provinces and its internal self-government.
In 1851, the population of all British North America was 2,313,000. In 1861 it was 3,174,000. This was an increase of 37 per cent in the ten years, a rate not yet again attained. Upper Canada alone added nearly half a million people to its population, Lower Canada just under one quarter of a million. It was this disparity in growth which produced George