Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

Conservatives and Conditional Loyalty: The Rebellion Losses Crisis of 1849 in Montreal (Les Conservateurs et la Loyauté Conditionnelle: La Crise De la Loi D'indemnisation Pour le Bas-Canada De 1849 À Montréal)

Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

Conservatives and Conditional Loyalty: The Rebellion Losses Crisis of 1849 in Montreal (Les Conservateurs et la Loyauté Conditionnelle: La Crise De la Loi D'indemnisation Pour le Bas-Canada De 1849 À Montréal)

Article excerpt

This article argues that in 1849 the conservatives of Montreal adhered to a 'contractual' notion of loyalty, which they understood as a social contract between monarch and subject. They followed the ideas of John Locke, who suggested that government was an institution dependent upon the active consent of the people. When their trust was abused by a tyrannical government, the people had the 'right of revolution' (Locke 1690: paragraph 225). Anglophone Conservatives enthusiastically embraced this philosophy in 1849. The crisis caused by the passage of the Rebellion Losses Bill, and particularly its sanctioning by the imperial government, forced Montreal conservatives to reflect on what it meant to be loyal.1 Even as conservatives railed against 'responsible government', they implicitly accepted its key tenet - that Canadians should govern themselves in domestic affairs. But this was no anti-colonial nationalism - only through the idea of a broken social contract could separation be considered. The conditional conception of loyalty was not limited to the small number of annexationists in the province. Ideas of popular sovereignt y, self-determination, and conditional loyalty were widespread among supporters of alternative reforms, such as the embrace of elective institutions or the union of the British North American provinces. This article would further suggest that the development in conservative understandings of loyalty owed much to the ethnic conflict in Canada that was increasingly described as a 'war of the races'. Fear of 'French Domination' motivated conservative commentators to consider alternatives to the present system of government and the imperial connection. Loyalt y to a mother country that acquiesced to ever y whim of an anglophone oligarchy was unproblematic. Loyalty to an imperial power that gave official sanction to French rule was far more challenging.

In 1837, violent rebellion broke out in both Upper and Lower Canada. The Lower Canadian rebellion was a much more serious affair, forcing the British authorities to mobilise both their regular troops and a substantial contingent of volunteers to suppress the outbreak. In doing so, these troops caused considerable damage to property throughout the Montreal district. A decade later, Lord Elgin was appointed as the Governor General of Canada with instructions to accept 'responsible government'. The executive was now to be accountable to the House of Assembly as the principles of ministerial and part y government were accepted. To the horror of many conservatives, a reform majority government was elected in 1848 and a coalition led by Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine took the reins of power in United Canada.

After a rapid but tumultuous passage through the House of Assembly, on 25 April 1849, the Rebellion Losses Bill was signed into law by the Governor General, Lord Elgin. The anglophone conservative population reacted with unbridled anger. It was believed that the bill was designed to reward the rebels of 1837. The Parliament building was burned to the ground by a surprisingly well-heeled 'mob'. Irate crowds gathered around the houses of leading reform politicians, including those of Francis Hincks and Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, and threatened further acts of incendiarism. Shots were fired in at least one case. Attempts to arrest those involved in the burning of Parliament resulted in further outbreaks of violence. Others reacted in a more constitutional fashion. The British American League was formed in the same month. Petitions were signed by masses of anglophone Canadians demanding the recall of Lord Elgin for his 'partisan' conduct in sanctioning the bill. But the most notable event of the year was the publication of the Annexation Manifesto on 11 October 1849, signed by an alliance of 325 Montreal businessmen, which advocated the annexation of Canada to the United States (Tetley 2006).

Understandings of what it meant to be loyal were expressed throughout the public sphere - in letters written to editors, in poems and plays composed over the year, as well as through the omnipresent editorials that dominated the major papers of Montreal. …

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