Notes on 27th Text for reading Field: Greer & Radforth

Canadian History, Week Four


Allan Greer, and Ian Radforth, eds. Colonial Leviathan: State Formation in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992.

In 1651, Thomas Hobbes set forward his principal views concerning the origin of the state and the necessary conditions for assuring its stability in The Leviathan and in  Philosophical Rudiments concerning Government and Society (originally published in Latin as De Cive in 1642).[1] Hobbes’ basic proposition was that Leviathan — or all-powerful, absolute government – is philosophically justifiable because it makes life for man less solitary, nasty, brutish, and short. He argued that man is selfish and, when faced with uncertainty, is concerned with achieving the greatest possible security. Therefore, in the absence of a governing state, society was subject to anarchic disruption and civil disorder; the basic conditions for a good life vanish.

Allen Greer and Ian Radforth present a collection of essays, by various authors, which departs from the ‘great man/hommes d’état’ Canadian historiographical tradition to describe the implementation of the Hobbesian ideal in British North America and the increasing number of reforms which professionalized, expanded, and centralized the formal instruments of state control. The editors’ express purpose is to make the statist edifice – rather than those competing to control it (though such persons are not absent from the text) — visible and central to historical process.

No uniform definition of the state is adopted throughout the collection. Some authors accept a conception of the state whereby it is not a thing — i.e. an amalgamation of tangible institutions — but “essentially an agency of ‘moral regulation’.” The state is thus a process in its own right, becoming “progressively pervasive and efficacious in society” at imposing the discipline of the few on the many – with or without the formal support of the government. Other authors focus on one or more of the various institutions to describe the ways in which these were made to function ever more effectively as “agencies of coercion and administration.”[2]

In the first three chapters, Greer, Brian Young, and Radforth recount efforts to enhance state power in the post 1837-38 “critical moment in colonial state formation.”[3]

  • Greer describes the first North American, large, centrally controlled, and professional police force of Lower Canada as a creation of the Special Council. He argues that the force was meant to function as an instrument of surveillance and coercion that enabled the regulation of individuals and communities, rural and urban, which until then had been self-regulating and beyond the immediate view, reach, or knowledge of council representatives. He notes that the police were effective at keeping public political expression within limits that were acceptable to state representatives, while at the same time imposing a state-determined moral code where once community standards had held sway.
  • Young argues that this substitution of the Special Council’s policies for those of discrete communities was a ‘regime of positive law’ which helped to clear the path for the advance of capitalist relations by asserting the legitimacy of bourgeois democracy run by select political élites (which included priests, capitalists, and colonial officials).
  • Radforth describes a parallel series of adjustments to land tenure, land-registry, and family property law through an analysis of Lord Sydenham’s career. Radforth argues that Utilitarian concepts (which were originally proposed in 18th-century England by Jeremy Bentham and others; were often associated with J.S. Mill; and are sometimes summarized as ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’), informed Sydenham’s approach to policy-making.

In subsequent chapters, Bruce Curtis and Jean-Marie Fecteau touch on many of the same issues in different contexts and guises.

  • Curtis looks at the molding of education into a contestable field of authority in Canada West. A new species of official – the school inspector – was introduced to wrest control, over the ‘proper’ tutelage of children from families, communities, and teachers, and eventually to place the control firmly in the hands of “bureaucratically organized cadres” of geographically removed state advisers. The advisers were representative of, and responsible to, “one class, one gender, and, largely, one ethnic group.”[4]
  • Fecteau looks at changes in the nature of law, public and private realms, and the liberal notion of individualism at a time when québécois experienced a transition to capitalism.[5] She concludes that if democracy arises out of association, so does much that is contradictory, ambiguous, and threatening with respect to individual and collective determination.

Lykke de la Cour, Cecelia Morgan, and Mariana Valverde reinforce Fecteau’s point in their discussion of the implications of state initiatives for gender.[6] They conclude that two simultaneous ‘masculinizing’ shifts in state to citizen/subject relations in society took place prior to 1870:

  1. as a group women were formerly excluded from practicing formalized politics, medicine, and legal decision making;
  2. the classification that corresponds to women-as-a-group was divided along lines of race, class, and morality.

Economics, financing, and state intervention is examined by Douglas McCalla (the state and railway construction), Peter Baskerville (the state, canal-building, and railway operating), and Michael Piva (the state and managing money).[7]

  • McCalla argues that the relationship between the state and enterprise, though recognized as important, has not been fully interrogated by Canadian historians. In his view, in addition to geography and chronology of settlement, the cycles of world capital markets were “at least as important as public policy in explaining the timing of Canada’s first railway era.” [8] Railways were not a causal factor in development so much as an indicator of a larger process underway; to stress localized success or failure misses a larger point: regardless of its actual affect, transportation technology in and of itself was valued.
  • To an extent Baskerville expands on McCalla’s thesis, demonstrating that active (as opposed to idealized) state policy respecting transportation improvements was “discontinuous and episodic” because typically, action was precipitated by crisis.[9] In his view, this responsive aspect of state formation – bureaucratization and institutionalization of government after the fact – is a noticeable feature in Canadian development. He attributes the particularity of the feature to the “social and economic fabric of local polities.”[10] People, then, distinguished Canada’s pattern of development in ways that preclude easy imposition of any theorized North American norm.
  • In his analysis of government and finance, Piva agrees that crises elicited responses – responses that, sometimes, were innovative (as in the case of Galt and the 1859 tariff reforms in which a mechanism of trade was used to solve a crisis of finance). He notes that “each crisis … led to a series of reform initiatives the final product of which was the creation of a relatively modern administrative system for managing government.”[11] In the course of supporting his argument he also supports that of McCalla: despite the financial failures of transportation projects (failures that multiplied even during periods of “unprecedented prosperity”), they were vigorously pursued, not abandoned, because they were believed to be integral to realizing progressive development.[12]

Graham Wynn supplies the only article to move substantively out of the shadow of a ‘Laurentian’ Leviathan.[13] He supplies a highly interpretive view of the Maritime experience based on a small sampling of instances or vignettes (St. John circa 1850; agricultural pamphlet prescriptions; a farm’s account books; a lunatic asylum’s location; an Acadian community; a ‘Negro settlement’; a census; and a prince), to question whether people at the peripheries of the colonies supported, opposed, or simply ignored the expansion of state institutions. The ‘good life,’ he suggests is a social and core experience of human beings, in whose experience the state is a peripheral apparatus of dubious utility, let alone necessity.

[1] John M. Orbell and Brent M. Rutherford, “Can Leviathan Make the Life of Man Less Solitary, Poor, Nasty, Brutish and Short?” British Journal of Political Science 3, no. 4 (Oct., 1973): 383-407.

[2] Allan Greer, and Ian Radforth, “Introduction,” Colonial Leviathan: State Formation in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992), 10-11; also Bruce Curtis, “Class Culture and Administration: Educational Inspection in Canada West,” in Colonial Leviathan, 106.

[3] Allan Greer, “The Birth of the Police in Canada,” in Colonial Leviathan, 17-49; Brian Young, “Positive Law, Positive State: Class realignment and the transformation of Lower Canada, 1815-1866,” in Colonial Leviathan, 50-63; Ian Radforth, “Sydenham and Utiliraian Reform,”in Colonial Leviathan, 64-102.

[4] Curtis, “Class Culture and Administration,” 105.

[5] Jean-Marie Fecteau, “État et associationnisme au XIXe siècle québécois : éléments pour un problématique des rapports État/soiété dans la transition au capitalisme,” in Colonial Leviathan, 134-162.

[6] Lykke de la Cour, Cecelia Morgan, and Mariana Valverde, “Gender Regulation and State Formation in Nineteenth-Century Canada,” in Colonial Leviathan, 163-191.

[7] Douglas McCalla, “Railways and the Development of Canada West, 1850-1870,” in Colonial Leviathan, 192-229.

[8] Ibid., 196.

[9] Peter Baskerville, “Transportation, social Change, and state Formation, Upper Canada, 1841-1864,” in Colonial Leviathan, 230-256.

[10] Ibid., 250.

[11] Michael J. Piva, “Government Finance and the Development of the Canadian State,” in Colonial Leviathan, 258.

[12] Ibid., 263.

[13] Graeme Wynn, “Ideology, Society, and the State in the Maritime Colonies of British North America, 1840-1860,” in Colonial Leviathan, 284-328.


About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
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