Sidebilder
PDF
ePub

ART. IV.-MEMOIR OF THE LIFE OF LORD SYDEN

HAM: with narrative of his administration in Canada (by his Secretary, Mr. Murdoch). By his brother, J. POULETT SCROPE, Esq., M.P. London: 1843.

sense.

We do not notice this work on account of its intrinsic merits; for it appears to us about as uninteresting as the biography of an eminent politician could easily have been made. The memoir of Lord Sydenham's life is nothing better than an indiscriminate panegyric, of that sort which imposes upon nobody, and leaves no other impression than that of distrust of its author's good

Mr. Murdoch's share of the work is superior in execution, but equally one-sided. It requires no very intimate knowledge of the state and history of the Canadas, to satisfy one that he frequently exalts his hero at the expence of historical truth. It is the vindication of a partizan. Most of its mis-statements have been exposed in an article of the last Westminster Review, and we have therefore no occasion to notice them further.

Recent events in Canada have called in question the prudence of a concession, which was made to the popular party in that colony: we allude to “responsible government.” Previous to the Act of Union, the representative assemblies of Upper and Lower Canada had very little effective power. The provincial form of government may be illustrated by a comparison with the British constitution, to which it bears a kind of analogy. The house of representatives corresponds to our House of Commons, and the legislative council to our House of Lords-except that the councillors are not hereditary, but life-members appointed by the crown. The governor of course represents the sovereign. The executive council answers to our cabinet; being appointed by the governor, and holding office during his pleasure.

The constitution previous to the union was not unlike that of England under the Stuarts. The king, in appointing his ministers, bestowed no thought upon the state of parties in the house of commons. The monarch's personal favour was of infinitely greater importance to a ministry, than a parliamentary majority: the latter, indeed, was held to be quite immaterial. A secretary of state would be found lunatic, if he were to throw up his office because a hostile vote had passed the house. Cardinal Wolsey never dreamed of resigning the great seal because the Commons were not subservient to his wishes. Thus, the parliament having no power over the ministry, the popular branch of the constitution became almost nugatory. The parliaments might wring from the monarch a consent to the abrogation of some odious branch of his prerogative--such as impressing or quartering soldiers, or imprisoning suspected persons without trial. But no sooner was the parliamentary pressure withdrawn, than the prerogative, like a bent spring, flew back to its old position. The minister who had first committed, or advised the unpopular acts, found no great difficulty in eluding the barriers which had been raised against a repetition of them.

It was thus in Canada. And the governors had the additional advantage of appointing their house of lords—the legislative council. The policy which had been persevered in for half a century, was such as to leave no available political power in the hands of the representatives of the people. The legislative council was filled with men of the anti-popular party; devotedness to the governor, and unpopularity in the other house, being the chief qualifications for membership. The governor thus secured the rejection of any unpalatable bills sent up

from the commons, and therefore might treat them and their votes with silent contempt. He was not at the pains of forming a ministerial party in the house; the members of his cabinet seldom had seats there, and he possessed no recognised organ of his wishes or policy. The two houses were left, undisturbed, in a perennial state of hostility, which kept them powerless; while all the functions of supreme sway were exercised by the governor and his cabinet. The revenue of the crown was so settled as to make it, in a great measure, independent of moneyvotes; so that the stoppage of supplies was no very formidable evil. Thus, while the house of representatives was reduced to a stale-mate, the governor had as perfect a liberty of action as any despotic ruler.

No doubt such a state of things was sure to breed discontent; and the revolt in Upper Canada must be ascribed principally to the disloyal feelings engendered by this irritating hostility. It was necessary to make some change, and the only question is, whether the ministry of the day went about it wisely. The difficulties in which Sir Charles Metcalf has just found himself involved, owing to the concession referred to, are certainly not decisive against it; but they prove that the question is still open for discussion.

Lord Sydenham, acting under the directions of Lord John Russell, introduced into the Canadian government the principle of responsibility, which has prevailed in England since the revolution. By this material change of system, the governor was reduced at once, from a despotic to a constitutional sovereign. As long as he holds his place, and has not his hands tied by specific directions from the Colonial-office, the governor has precisely the same quantity of power in Canada, as her Majesty has in Great Britain. His cabinet, the executive council, is responsible for his acts. He has the agreeable privilege of being held incapable of doing wrong. But the executive council, like the English cabinet, cannot now, constitutionally, continue in office unless they have a majority in the Canadian house of commons. Thus the house controls the council, and the council controls the governor. For, as the councillors are responsible for his acts, he must only act by their advice. Otherwise, it will be their duty and their interest to resign; and as he cannot supply their places with other men, if the house will not sanction the change, the whole machine is brought to a full stop. And the working of this system was secured against attack on the part of the governor, by resigning the hereditary revenues of the crown, and leaving the whole power of the purse, except only the Civil List, with the house of representatives. The commons move the wheels. The governor's only power is that of changing his council, and trying the experiment of a dissolution of parliament. If the people hold their minds, he must submit, eventually, to become a puppet in the hands of a hostile parliament, and a hostile cabinet.

Now the question is—will this do for a colony? The governor is the only link between the mother-country and the offshoot; and to make him virtually powerless, is to go a great way towards severing the one from the other. If Canada were to be made into an absolute republic, and every question in dispute were to be settled by the votes of native Canadians,—she would of course cease to be a province of the British Empire. In the event of a war between England and America, the Canadians would be free to choose their own side. They might find it safer and more agreeable to take part with their neighbours, and against us: and we could not reasonably blame them for doin so.—The case is but slightly altered, when, instead of a pure republic, we have a government, in form monarchical but, republican in spirit and in fact. And such certainly is the British constitution, which has been bestowed on Canada. Every one sees that the personal inclinations of the soverign are as nothing, against the wishes of the people. If those wishes are only strong enough to hold out against two or three dissolutions, and against the influence and patronage of the crown, the queen of Great Britain, or the governor of Canada, is a cypher. It will avail the governor nothing, to be backed by the Colonial-office, or the British parliament: the ultimate power rests with the democracy of Canada. Supposing the people to be bent on joining the United States in a declaration of war upon England, the English viceroy may be compelled to set his hand to it-or to reduce the province to anarchy.

There is a parallel case, unhappily, by which this may be illustrated. If Ireland were to have a separate parliament, it would be in the power of the Irish people, whenever they were firmly bent upon it, to wage war against England. The common link, a titular sovereign, would be too feeble to bear the strain upon it. As long as a monarch truly holds a sword, he may hold together two countries with separate popular assemblies: when the sceptre is no more than an ornament, the conflicting interests which drag them asunder, are sure to be too strong for him. It is true there were no overt acts of hostility between the two countries

during the old Irish parliament. But the reasons are obvious. The Irish house of commons did not represent the whole people, but a minority; and therefore had very little moral weight. They represented that party which was most closely united with England, by descent, by religion, and by fear of the catholic majority. And most of the members were in the pay of English ministries. Yet, in spite of all this, there was very little cordiality between the two parliaments. They passed hostile tariffs : the Irish members were perpetually declaiming against the tyranny of England : and the only thing in which they united heartily was in persecuting the catholics. It is hardly doubtful, therefore, but an Irish parliament, elected by and from the whole people, without distinction of religion, would not be at peace with England one moment longer than its interest or convenience dictated.

The spirit of the Canadian people, it is true, may not at present be so hostile towards this country, as that of the Irish. But it is no less true, that their immediate interests, and even their geographical position, are likely to lead them away from an English and into an American alliance. And the mere prospect of independence is perhaps flattering enough to their vanity, to seduce them from their allegiance.

But, it may be objected, it is the prerogative of the crown to declare war or conclude peace. In other words, it is the prerogative of the cabinet. If the governor acts in opposition to his council, the members of it must resign : they cannot be responsible for acts of which they disapprove. We apprehend that no artificial limitations, no restrictions set upon responsibility by act of parliament, no wiredrawn distinctions between domestic and imperial questions, can be relied upon as breakwaters against this difficulty. Upon the resignation of the council, if the people and their representatives will but support them by constitutional means, the governor must be defeated. His only hope will then rest upon another suspension of the constitution, an importation of English bayonets, and in short the conquest of an independent people. Our alternative will lie between this, and an abandonment of Canada.

In fact, even this wretched alternative will not be available. We shall be forced to give up the province without a struggle, as soon as a numerical majority of the Canadians desire it. For, in legal right, the populace is now omnipotent. No act of theirs, however displeasing to us, will justify us in taking away their constitutional rights by military force. The attempt to do so would be suicidal: it would arouse the just indignation of the Canadian people; it would make them our irreconcileable enemies, and throw them into the outstretched arms of the United States. If we commenced a war on such indefensible grounds, --if we were guilty of that greatest of crimes, a war of aggression-aggression, too, against the rights of a free people, made free by ourselves,-no sane person could look for any other result than that of the American war of independence. We must submit, then, to the conclusion, that the Canadians have it in their power to gain their independence, without a war, as soon as they take it into their heads to wish for it. We have given them the legal power to make it impossible for us to govern them. We can only take it away by an act of the grossest injustice, such as, it is to be hoped, the English people never would sanction; and which, if they did sanction it, would only defeat its own object.

Thus far the connection between Canada and Great Britain is loosened. It is a fact worthy of notice, that statesmen who advocate our present colonial system, should themselves have struck it this heavy blow,—the heaviest which it has received since the first American war. They seem to have done it unintentionally: otherwise, the inconsistency would have been remarkable enough. However we are not now concerned with the merits of past or present administrations. The prosperity of Canada is too important a subject to be mixed up with the shifting interests of party politics.

In theory it is no doubt true, that every colony ought to be independent as soon as it is fit for self-guidance. We must not keep Canada in pupilage after it has grown into manhood. And perhaps the only proof we can have, of a colony's fitness for freedom, is, its wish to acquire it. It may thus be thought no more than reason, that the Canadians should have the

power, they now have, of obtaining independence by merely willing it

as

« ForrigeFortsett »