Britain and the Origins of Canadian Confederation, 1837-67

By Ged Martin | Go to book overview

3 The Origins of British Support for Canadian Confederation

The fact of British support for the union of British North America between 1864 and 1867 is so much a part of the accepted background of the story of Confederation that it is easy to overlook that in some respects, the extent and unanimity of British backing was surprising. While some historians have demonstrated that there had been interest in the possibility of British North American union for earlier decades, 1 others have deduced the reasons for British support for the initiative of 1864 largely from the contemporary circumstances of the American Civil War. 2 This is another example of the way in which the nature of the causal argument may have been influenced by our knowledge of the outcome: in 1864, Britain backed Confederation, therefore the American Civil War provides the explanation. It is reasonable enough to see American events as the context within which the British response to Confederation was formed, but the causal deductions do not necessarily follow.

1864 was the year when it gradually became clear that the North was going to win the Civil War. It was also the year when Northern opinion, already angry at European sympathy for the South, was further inflamed by the French adventure in Mexico, complete with a comic-opera Emperor. All in all, 1864 might well have seemed a highly unpromising year in which to launch not simply a union of the British North American provinces, but one which evidently intended to remain under the sovereignty of Queen Victoria and the protection of the British empire. Pro-Southern opinion in Britain, which naturally had to downplay the role of slavery in bringing about the war, held firmly to the belief that any federal

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