Notes on 19th Text for Reading Field: Buckner

Canadian History, Week Three

Phillip A. Buckner. Transition to Responsible Government: British Policy in British North America, 1815-1850. Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press, 1985.

Phillip A. Buckner traces the transition from representative to responsible systems of government in North American colonies remaining in the British Empire after the American War of Independence. He argues that, ultimately, policy and objectives for governance of the colonies were set by the specific decisions of an array of British administrators. Their decision-making was noteworthy in that it was based on a pragmatic need to address immediate or pressing contingencies (pressing, not infrequently, because response to colonial requests and agitation had been delayed). Long-range planning was not their forté.

Buckner notes that as a political practice, responsible government was not fully outlined in Britain much before the Reform Act of 1832. Yet, the idea that an upper, or executive house of a parliament (the Cabinet in Britain), must be responsible to the lower assembly (the Commons), had been asserted as a longstanding principle as early as 1806 by Lord Castlereagh. By 1829, residents of Upper Canada were petitioning to have such an arrangement instituted for the governance of their colony. Although Buckner allows that their demand was understood by British statesmen to be for responsible government, he cautions that use of the term in the written record should not be read teleologically: “the decision to abandon the traditional model of colonial government in the colonies was neither an inevitable nor an obvious solution.”[1] In his opinion, events in the colonies, not theory about the colonies, determined the shape of colonial government. Further, he observes that as a practice in the colonies, responsible government was initially ill-defined and it remained so precisely because practice appeared to be the only means of determining what would be its most efficient and lasting form.

To make his argument Buckner traces the careers, opinions and interactions of officials in the Colonial Office (a department subordinate to the Secretary of State for War as of 1801), and the Governors they appointed to oversee the colonies and officers of Parliament. To a degree, the responses of reigning monarchs and the actions of colonial subjects are also surveyed – to a lesser extent the former, to a greater, the latter. He finds that “the Cabinet rarely paid much attention to colonial questions unless forced to do so by public opinion or partisan considerations.”[2] The important point, to Parliament and to the British public was merely that, in all events, imperial control was to be maintained: the colonies were to be ruled as possessions of the Empire, for the good of the Empire, at a minimum expense.[3]

The preferred line of ‘action’ was to keep interference in the internal affairs of the colonies as slight as possible. The Colonial Office was meant to act as an arbitrator between colonial factions, ideally through the appointed governors, who were to diffuse whatever tensions might arise by mollifying disgruntled individuals through the judicious use of patronage appointments. Thus, in theory, imperial and colonial interests would be harmonized and colonial development directed along copasetic lines.[4]

In practice, governors found themselves in an extremely difficult position, which Buckner characterizes as “something approaching a state of suspended animation, afraid to initiate measures which their superiors might not approve, while waiting for detailed instructions that never came.”[5] It was no easy task to ensure that the British concept of social balance between the estates of the Crown, the nobility, and the people was instituted in North America. When governors did take ‘conciliatory’ action, invariably they gave offense and were criticized by superiors and colonists alike for showing favoritism, or for upsetting any hope of balance by ignoring or willfully misapplying the expressed intent of whatever communications they did receive. Not only was factionalism rampant in all the colonies, the assemblies were set on controlling the disbursement of local revenues and their ambitions “could not be accommodated under the existing constitutional framework.”[6]

In Buckner’s view, “the political situation alone is an adequate explanation for the gradual breakdown of representative government.”[7] In observing that “In one sense, the difference between a party and a faction is a difference in degree which at some point becomes a difference in kind,” Buckner introduces the idea that resistance to responsible government was to an extent the resistance to partyism.[8] He demonstrates that the dualistic party system, which began to emerge in Upper and Lower Canada in the 1830s, over time proved to be a solution that allowed the business of colonial government to avoid paralysis — though the efficacy of the solution was not immediately apparent. It took time for ideas about the ‘proper’ means of organizing systems of government to be modified. Essentially through trial and error, the responsible system triumphed. In Buckner’s view the change took place because the new system accommodated party organization that reflected actual, not imagined, differences in political economic perspective in the Canadian context, and these were differences that could not be made to disappear simply through adopting peremptory measures. For the makers of British colonial policy, the point to recognize was that, for administrators such as James Stephen, undersecretary of the Colonial office: “Canada is too big for our management: & must be allowed to do just as she pleases, or whatever may please the knot of Politicians who, for the time being, may govern the majority of the Canadian Assembly.”[9]


[1] Phillip A. Buckner, Transition to Responsible Government: British Policy in British North America, 1815-1850 (Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press, 1985),10, see also 99.

[2] Ibid., 16, see also 18.

[3] Ibid., 6, 48, 93.

[4] Ibid., 37, 48, 50.

[5] Ibid., 52.

[6] Ibid., 68.

[7] Ibid., 80.

[8] Ibid., 73, see also 161.

[9] Ibid., 321.

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[1] Phillip A. Buckner, Transition to Responsible Government: British Policy in British North America, 1815-1850 (Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press, 1985),10, see also 99.

[1] Ibid., 16, see also 18.

[1] Ibid., 6, 48, 93.

[1] Ibid., 37, 48, 50.

[1] Ibid., 52.

[1] Ibid., 68.

[1] Ibid., 80.

[1] Ibid., 73, see also 161.

[1] Ibid., 321.

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About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
This entry was posted in Book Notes, Canadian History, Week 3 and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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