Academic journal article Early American Studies

The Political Other in Nineteenth-Century British North America: The Satire of Thomas Chandler Haliburton

Academic journal article Early American Studies

The Political Other in Nineteenth-Century British North America: The Satire of Thomas Chandler Haliburton

Article excerpt

Between the British- American War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War of 1846, the face of the North American continent was reshaped by the rapid growth of the American republic. In full territorial expansion, as ten more states joined the Union, its booming population fueled by a powerful economy and by massive emigration from all over Europe, the American experiment was thriving against all odds. It was successful to such an extent that, by the middle of the nineteenth century, the young republic had become a model for most of the other former colonies in the Americas. At the same time, its trademark, "democracy," underwent an unprecedented process of negotiation, redefinition, and institutional elaboration in the troubled context of revolution, counterrevolution, and reform in the Atlantic world.1 Democracy was not contested only in the New World. In the wake of the French Revolution and of the chaos left behind by the Napoleonic Wars, debates over the future of this new experiment in political government raged in Europe as well. The American success story was enflaming the imaginations of reformers, while the very same American realities made conservatives detect in them dystopian elements of a world fallen prey to the unbridled passions of the mobs and condemned to perpetual and collective mediocrity.

This article sets out to examine a view of American democracy originating in a space that, in the first half of the nineteenth century, found itself at the intersection of the British Empire with the new American democratic and republican empire - the Canadian colonies. My focus will be the image of the United States in the political satire of one of Canada's first historians and publicists, Thomas Chandler Haliburton. I will explore the connections between the political ideas separating the American colonies from the British Empire and Haliburton's literary articulation of national identity in British North America. At the same time, I will compare this early Canadian interpretation of American democracy to that of another outsider to the process, the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, whose Democracy in America represents perhaps the single most influential account of democracy in the New World, of its workings, its dangers, and its advantages. Tocqueville belonged to a different intellectual tradition from Haliburton's, and he had a radically different experience of democracy. Nevertheless, in Democracy in America the French philosopher tried to find in the American democratic experiment answers to questions about the struggles of his own society, an endeavor parallel to Haliburton's attempt to explain American democracy in his satirical sketches. Both writers commented on American society at virtually the same time, the 1830s, and both related to the American model from without, being acutely aware that the new form of government that was in its experimental stages in the United States had the potential of ultimately reshaping their own communities.

In the new settler-invader societies that the British Empire had scattered across the world, the issue of representative democracy was particularly urgent, given the transformations that the empire itself was undergoing.2 Were these little Britains going to remain part of the imperial family, or were they going to follow the example of the rebellious thirteen colonies less than three decades earlier? Was democracy the future, the path to social Utopia, or simply a monstrous outgrowth of modernity as seen in the French Revolution? And which type of democracy was it going to be? In Europe artists and historians alike voiced their skepticism toward the rule of the people and expressed their doubts about the possibility (or desirability) of absolute equality. In the United States the debates over the nature of democracy led to a gradual definition of the concept that strengthened its conceptual incompatibility with "empire" and, by extension, with Europe. On the other side of the Atlantic, in Britain, the American republican and democratic alternative to traditional forms of government functioned as a catalyst for parliamentary reform. …

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