Pearsall's Books

This blog is defunct! Check out my new music blog at

Monday, March 14, 2005

What impact did the American Civil War have on Canada?

Every now and then I post old history essays of mine. This is another one. Check the comments for a full bibliography.

While the Civil War was indisputably the most important event to occur in the United States in the nineteenth–century, and arguably the most important event in the nation’s history, it had surprisingly little impact on Canada. Indeed, I would argue that that the effect on Canada would have been far greater if the South had managed to successfully secede from the Union. In order to consider the scale and nature of the actual effects of this war on Canada, one must start by quickly summarizing its effects on the United States.

It is almost impossible to overstate the Civil War’s importance in the history of the United States. The American Civil War was the apocalyptic denouement to centuries of economic, social, and political drift between the North and the South. It was a showdown between two alternative perspectives on what being American meant, and its resolution was a crucial determinant of the future pattern of American life. By the middle of the nineteenth century the North was leaving behind its rural past, as industrialization remade the face of the region. Its social composition had already been transformed by the millions of Irish and German European immigrants who had arrived in the decades before the Civil War.

In contrast, the South was still very much a rural society, economically dependent on a small number of cash crops, the production of which were closely linked with the “peculiar institution” of slavery. Its white population had also remained quite homogenous, as only a small minority of the immigrants arriving at the time chose to settle in the South. The South also lacked much of the infrastructure, such as canals and railroads, that was driving the industrial revolution north of the Mason-Dixon line. Indeed, the gap between the regions in terms of economic development was widening week-on-week. These socio-economic differences were reflected in the politics of the regions. Politics in the South were dominated by the planter class, who were content to rule unchallenged their county, a pseudo-feudalism reflected in the lack of strength of the political party machines when compared to their counterparts in the North. In the North urbanization and industrialization had created the phenomenon of the urban political machine, an organization that necessarily operated in a completely different way to the gentlemanly semi-oligarchy prevalent in the South. Machine politics served multiple purposes, distributing patronage, rudimentary social services, and jobs in a time before federal safety nets were introduced. The machine also served a nexus point through which the often mutually antagonistic ethnic, commercial, and religious communities could interact. The result of these differences was that, while Federalism was a strong force in the North, the South clung strongly to the concept of a Confederation of States wherein each State was an independent contracting party which had the right to govern itself. When the South finally concluded that the North intended to introduce policies that would attack the Southern way of life, conflict became inevitable.

The toll of the war was enormous: more than 620,000 dead, millions wounded, millions homeless, and the destruction of a vast swathe of the South. It would be fair to say that even the most isolated communities in the United States would have been deeply affected by the war. Equally, the resolution of the conflict meant wide-ranging change in American life, especially in the South. The end of slavery meant the destruction of the economic system that had propped up the South’s social and political elite. For the average southerner, black and white, the legacy of the war was one of deep poverty, with so much of Southern infrastructure, homes, and agricultural land in ruins. For the federal government, the war, and the strains it put on the mechanisms of American bureaucracy, led to the creation of a much stronger, much more centralised national government than any that had previously existed. Most of this expanded role came at the expense of the states, who saw many of their traditional powers taken by Washington. Economically, the Civil War saw the introduction of the first ever federally-mandated income tax. Socially, it ended nativist anti-immigration sentiment as a major political force in the North as the conduct of Catholic immigrants in the war had placed them beyond reproach. It confirmed that the Northern urban and industrial model would be the driving force for America’s future, not the Southern rural and agricultural model.

For Canada, the impact of the war was relatively slight. Many of the issues that aroused so much passion in the United States, such as slavery, the rights of state governments as opposed to the rights of the federal government, or whether the transcontinental railroad would pass through the northern or southern United States, were absent in Canada. While a parallel can be drawn from the sectional tensions between North and South in the United States to the cultural tensions between Anglophone and Francophone Canada that had led to the rebellions of the 1830’s, the difference lies in the nature of the disputes. The protection of French language, religious and cultural rights did not create anywhere near the same anger among Anglophone Canadians as slavery did among northern Abolitionists. There is also the important factor that many Southerners were actively seeking the extension of slavery to the new territories in the west. There were many in the North outside the abolitionist movement who feared that slavery had become a corrupting influence in American public life, that aspects of the slavery crisis, such as the Fugitive Slave Act, the Dred Scott decision, and the attack on Charles Sumner in Congress, constituted a major threat to the principles of self-government and liberty upon which America was founded. The French-Canadians involved in the rebellions were seeking the protection of their rights within Lower Canada (or Quebec as it is known today), not the imposition of their culture on areas in western Canada. Also, they were a political minority, and did not have the same disproportionate powers over other Canadians that Southerners had over Northerners in the United States. In the period leading up to the Civil War, there was growing resentment in the North at the South’s disproportionate strength in Congress, particularly in the Senate where Southern states had the same number of representatives as the North, despite the South’s ever-shrinking percentage of the national population.

The central issue of the war, the one facet of Southern life that created the political crisis leading to war, was slavery. Although the majority of white Southerners had no personal connection to slavery their political leaders were deeply involved with it. Slavery was the cornerstone of an economic system that gave the Southern plantation owners the money and the leisure to transform themselves into a pseudo-aristocratic ‘squirearchy.’ Their lifestyles were completely dependent on slavery, and so they grew progressively more alarmed as the abolitionist movement in the North swelled swelled over the course of the nineteenth century. Even beyond the abolitionist movement there was strong opposition in the North to the possibility of slavery's extension to the new states being carved from the western frontier. In contemporary Canadian analyses of the American tensions, this was an area of particular misunderstanding, of failing to see fully the divisiveness of this issue. Mainly this was down to the lack of a tradition of mass slavery on the level seen in the southern United States. There had been a limited amount of slavery in Canada from the earliest days of New France, but Canada had never been a major destination point for slavers. Generally, although racism was hardly an unknown factor in Canadian life, the average person was unsupportive of slavery as an institution, but it seemed so remote from their lives that the conflict over it in America seemed, to Canadian observers, quite extreme.

There was widespread sympathy in Canada for the South and its cause, with many seeing the Lincoln government’s actions as unwarranted belligerency . This was not indicative of pro-slavery views in Canada, merely a reflection of the lack of importance attached to the slavery controversy, a fact seen in the way that newspaper editorials would tend to sidestep it as an issue, concentrating on states’ rights as the basis for their support for the Confederacy. In Quebec, where a majority of the population was illiterate, views were shaped by the attitudes of the clergy, who saw the war as the supreme result of America’s moral degeneracy and culture of violence . In the Maritimes, as Marquis writes, the view was that the Confederacy was “a government of reasonable gentlemen casting off the Northern yoke, much like the Italians were doing with the Austrians or the Poles with the Russians.” These pro-Southern sympathies can be ascribed, in large part, to the much greater degree of familiarity that Canadians had with the northern United States. It was, after all, Northerners who had abortively invaded Canada in the War of 1812, and it was from the mill towns and urban slums of the North that so many Canadian emigrants wrote unhappy letters home from. Political, social, and economic ties to the South were much weaker, and the Southerners who did visit Canada seemed, in their dignified and mannered bearing, to be much closer to the ideal of the English gentleman than the hustling, scheming Yankee. It is also important to note that Canadians rarely met the average white Southerner, as those who did visit Canada tended to be members of the Southern elite, but Canadians were frequently in contact with Yankees from all social classes. There is also a loyalist element to this, as a sizeable proportion of the Canadian population were descended from the American loyalists who had arrived in Canada after Britain’s defeat in the American Revolutionary War. The southern United States had, after all, been a relative stronghold of loyalty to Britain, and so to some Canadians it seemed a case of historical repetition, as the descendents of the Northern fanatics who had overthrown the British went about oppressing the South.

The American Civil War did have several direct effects on Canada. Perhaps the main one was the recruitment of Canadians as soldiers, principally for the Union Army. This affected different communities across the whole of British North America, and was a source of bitter condemnations in Canada, creating an outcry that echoed from the pulpit to the editorial page to the colonial assemblies and wherever ordinary people gathered. Although there are no precise details as to how many Canadians fought in the Civil War it is undeniable that many Canadian men did join the hostilities, despite the fact that in 1861 the British government announced its neutrality in the war and called for obedience to the Foreign Enlistment Act of 1819, which forbid British subjects to fight in the army of a foreign nation. Nonetheless, tens of thousands of Canadian men ended up involved. Many were among the emigrants who had crossed the border in the hundreds of thousands prior to the war, seeking employment in the industrial centres of the North. Others were lured by the promise of high bounties for several years of service in the Union Army. Most controversially, many were tricked into service. Some were persuaded across the border by agents claiming to be providing industrial jobs, when in fact the men were left at recruitment camps. Others were drugged or made drunk in Canada and then transported to Army camps in the northern United States. Although the US government never explicitly condoned such activities, they did little to stop them. Freelance agents recruiting for the Union Army had been active throughout British North America from the earliest days of the war. The flow of Canadian men into Union camps was never checked and the men rarely returned before serving out their time in the Army. Penalties imposed by the provincial Canadian authorities, such as high bounties for the capture of recruitment agents and the concentration of police resources on fighting the problem, did manage to slow the recruitment of Canadian men for the Union Army from the high points of the early 1860’s, but despite legislative efforts it remained a serious problem through to the end of the war in 1865.

Canadian relations with the United States had always been complicated by the fear of invasion from the south. The failed invasion of 1812 meant that for decades after Canadians worried that the United States might move against them again, a fear that was heightened by the vast expansion of the Union Army during the Civil War. It was an open secret that many Americans, particularly in the North, saw it as a long-term goal for Canada to become part of the United States. Canadian worries about such machinations seemed to be confirmed during the events of what came to be known as the Trent Affair. The Trent was a British merchant ship that set sail for England from Havana on November 7th, 1861, with two semior Southern diplomats on board: James Murray Mason of Virginia (who had written the Fugitive Slave Act), the Confederate envoy to London, and John Slidell of Louisiana, the Confederate envoy to Paris. A day after setting sail it was stopped by a Union ship operating under Captain Charles Wilkes, who seized the passengers and allowed the Trent to continue on its course. This caused an immediate uproar in Canada, and the Governor-General of Canada, Lord Monck, immediately began the task of strengthening Canada’s defences along the border in case of invasion. The aftermath of the Trent Affair saw a war of words conducted between newspapers and politicians in Canada and the North that would lead to the scrapping of the Reciprocity Act of 1854, which had allowed for the relatively free movement of goods across the border. Although ultimately no invasion was to come, the tensions created by the Civil War in relations between Canada and America proved to be a unifying force in Canadian life, as the French-Canadians, so often in dispute with Anglophone Canada, were worried enough by the potential of invasion that they made demonstrations of their loyalty to the British Crown and showed a greater willingness to make compromises over political disputes.

The most important event of the 1860’s in Canada was unquestionably the Act of Confederation in 1867, where the different colonies that constituted British North America were joined together as constituent parts of one nation, Canada. The lesson that the Confederation movement took from the American Civil War was the danger of unchecked disunity, that the fact that for decades the two main factions of American life had completely refused to compromise and cooperate meant that ultimately their differences could only be solved through fratricidal bloodletting. The fear of American invasion had created a greater sense of national feeling, and Confederation was seen as the best method for ensuring military security. Although the pace of Confederation was undoubtedly quickened under the influence of the American Civil War, it is much harder to determine whether or not it was a decisive factor in Confederation. It had already been a growing movement for some time before the 1860’s and other examples from the British Empire, such as Australia where similar constitutional change would occur in the late nineteenth century without the impetus of a vicious civil war on its doorstep, show that it is doubtful whether the American Civil War changed the likelihood of Confederation.

In conclusion the Civil War was a moment of defining historical importance to the United States. For Canada, as shown, the impact of the conflict was much smaller. It is possible to argue that the Civil War’s impact on Canada would have been much greater if the Confederacy had won the war and successfully seceded. The north’s victory meant that the great historical trend of Canada’s relations with the US, of having a population a tenth of America’s, of being very reliant on American trade and investment, were maintained. As far as long-term trends go, relations between the two nations before and after the war continued much as before. Victory for the South would have plunged this relationship into unpredictability. The North could have either sought to revenge its loss of the South with a new campaign for annexation in Canada, with the tensions during wartime mentioned earlier merely a taster for what it was to come. Or it could have meant that, with their neighbour to the south less monolithic and imposing, Canada would have been able to escape from the aforementioned reliance on America, and could have been able to forge a more independent future, where considerations were less affected by events south of the border. Or it could have eroded the temporary sectional stability achieved in the face of the violence and encouraged the growth of secessionist tendencies within Canada, particularly among Francophones. It may also have further stunted the spread of democracy within British North America, with America’s collapse a useful example of the untrammelled chaos to be unleashed via popular democracy. The point is that America’s maintenance of the Union kept these potentialities to the north sealed up.

|| RPH || 5:32 AM || |