Notes on 24th Text for Reading Field: Morton

Canadian History, Week Four

Delegates who gathered at the Charlottetown Conference to consider the confederation of the British North American colonies.

Delegates who gathered at the Charlottetown Conference to consider the confederation of the British North American colonies.

Charlottetown, PEI, Sept. 1864. Source: Library and Archives Canada / PA-091061


W.L. Morton. The critical years: The union of British North America, 1857-1873. Canadian Centenary Series. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1964.

In this volume W.L. Morton — co-editor, with D.G. Creighton, of the authoritative Canadian Centenary Series — surveys a decisive 16 year period surrounding Confederation. He describes the realization of political union among British North American colonies and the new dominion’s continental expansion. Although Morton has expressed disappointment with the text, and even if in places it is dated by a celebratory tone as well as teleological and essentialist assumptions, it still serves as a well organized description. The prose is clear and the analysis is thoughtful — admirably compensating for the lack of extant documentation of key negotiations (such as the Charlottetown conference).[1]

Morton presents the period he studies as marked by complex events. Regional interests, conflicting issues, and political and economic pressures that combined “in a pragmatic particularism peculiar to the country,” seemed destined to perpetually forestall attempts to unite the British North American colonies.[2] The Canadian union had failed to provide a stable and viable system of government but clearly by mid-nineteenth century the British North American colonies had problems in need of solution.

Morton isolates several problems as particularly important. There was a desire for competitive economic development that required not only entrepreneurial enthusiasm, vision, and talents of persuasion, but sufficient resident population to justify spending and attract funding. There was therefore a need for a land base that would both attract immigrants and accommodate natural increase – hence the interest in the lands granted under the Hudson’s Bay Company’s charter. There was also a need to improve communication routes so that transportation of people, messages, and trade goods could be carried out efficiently and over significant distances – potentially very vast distances if the Maritime colonies were to communicate effectively with British Columbia. Thus there was a desire to implement the latest technological solutions such as telegraphy and railways. Considerable funding had to be secured. Then there were problems of colonial defense, an issue brought forward in such events as the Trent Affair and in discussions about the presence of British garrisons in British North America — the British insisting that the colonies furnish more of their own defence, while colonists argued the expense was prohibitive and that without British protection they could not survive (Americans, Fenians, and any potentially acquisitive, “restless” foreign power were presented as possible threats[3]).

Morton, in sorting the opinions of men connected to the upper echelons of British and colonial society, finds that their solutions to these problems were limited to the options of colonial federation or American annexation. Of the two, federation appears to have been more acceptable to most individuals who had decided to settle north of the United States – in no small part because the American union was obviously under stress. The first question was federation among which colonies? The second, when? And the third, how – three points not easily resolved given the constant rise and fall of various weak and divided colonial governments and bouts of political paralysis. Despite economic, idealized, and practical pushes towards federation there was no shortage of opposition. The reasons for countering any proposals were diverse; the commitment to particular positions could be trenchant. For example, the French of Canada East were concerned to safeguard cultural norms and advance their own geo-political positioning; while Maritimers were reluctant to give up their customary eastward and seaward orientation, or to compromise increased powers of self-government recently won. Morton does not dismiss such opposition as petty, regional posturing; rather, he appears to regard it as evidence of real, meaningful difference that was structurally and culturally reinforced.

In Morton’s view, the conclusion that confederation was the answer, reached by key men such as Macdonald, Taché, Cartier, Tilley, and Howe, along with the fact that the colonial system of government enabled elites to engage in political negotiation and broker deals behind doors closed to public scrutiny in Charlottetown and Quebec, tipped the balance in favour of its implementation. International, high-level policy decisions were equally important. Morton argues that Britain reached a tacit agreement regarding continental balance with the American Union forces. After the conclusion of the Civil War, the British opted to withdraw militarily from North America (excepting the naval base at Halifax). In return, the U.S. government did not support any American attempts to effect annexation. And, critically, London capital remained available to all.

In Morton’s estimation, Canada, if not an inevitable outcome, seems to have been an inexorable one. The defeat of anti-confederationists may have been slow and the years of consolidation before 1873 difficult, but the partition of a continent in “one of the great national unions of the nineteenth century” — a union imbued with “moral purpose” — was not to be denied.[4]


[1] W.L. Morton, quoted in, “An Interview with Manitoba Historian, William Lewis Morton,”

Manitoba History 1 (1981), cached at <http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/mb_history/01/mortoninterview. shtml>, observes: “My work really came to an end with The Critical Years because that started out to be a book about the place of the West in Confederation. When the Centenary series came up I simply reshaped it somewhat to make it fit in. It didn’t quite come off; I meant it to crown my work and it has been a rather disappointing book. I don’t understand why because I think I did what I set out to do, to show how Confederation was possible only because the large scheme was followed and these outlying places like the Maritimes and the West were brought in to resolve the conflict between Upper and Lower Canada, between the French and the English. So anything I have done since has been just done for itself and not as part of an architectural scheme.”

[2] W.L. Morton. The critical years: The union of British North America, 1857-1873, Canadian Centenary Series (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1964), 8.

[3] Ibid., 30.

[4] Ibid., 228, 277.

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About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
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