Notes on 29th Text for Reading Field: Underhill

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Canadian History, Week 5

Frank H. Underhill. The Image of Confederation. Toronto: CBC Publications, 1964.

This series of essays by Frank H. Underhill was originally prepared for the third season of the Massey Lectures in 1963.[1] The lectures, considered an important Canadian public lecture series, were named for Vincent Massey in recognition of his support for the humanities in Canada. Massey was also known as a staunch promoter of Canadian unity and identity. The Lectures were designed to allow noted scholars or public figures to speak on a subject of their choosing. Underhill chose to speak to the issues of unity, identity, and the nation, while commenting as well on those who would shape national opinion.

Underhill opened with a discussion of the climate of opinion in 1867. Reference to intellectual climate had been popularized by Carl Becker in 1932 with his publication, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers. As in Underhill’s later text, Becker’s first chapter included ‘climate of opinion’ in the title. The phrase was one that Becker claimed was traceable to the 17th century. As used by Becker — and presumably by Underhill as well, though he makes no overt reference to Becker — the phrase underscores the points that:

  • world-views change over time;
  • historians can only make sense of arguments put forward in the past if the past intellectual context is understood;
  • misleading results accrue to attempts to understand past pronouncements in light of present opinion.[2]

According to Underhill, by the 1960s it was obvious that the optimism inspired by the concept of nationality as understood by the Fathers of Confederation was no longer palatable in Canada. It was his opinion that “Nationalism was one of the great dreams of the nineteenth century. It has become one of the chief nightmares of the Twentieth.” He therefore set out to “review what Canadians, from time to time since 1867, have thought about their nationhood, its purpose and significance.”

He argued that, of the Canadian delegates at the conferences that gave rise to the British North America Act, none had been selected to represent discreet ‘racial’ or ‘national’ groups. In his view “If the Canadian delegates at these conferences spoke in any role but that of Canadians, they spoke as Conservatives or Reformers.” Further, he described them as overwhelmingly loyal to Britain, and, of the Confederation they designed he stated, “there is no doubt; it was fundamentally anti-American, a grand design to protect British America from American encroachments.”[3]

Underhill described Canadian nationalism in the 1870s and 1880s as exemplified by exponents of the ‘Canada First’ movement, including Charles Mair and John C. Shultz, and other “idealistic intellectuals,” such as Edward Blake and Goldwin Smith. The general thesis these men held in common, according to Underhill, was that there was “need of a truly national spirit in Canada.” Their vision, although temporarily popular enough to see the West secured to Canada, was displaced relatively quickly by stronger support for what Underhill characterized as the “nationalism … of John A. Macdonald – the nationalism of the protective tariff and the Pacific Railway.” This, in Underhill’s view, was a nationalism that appealed to a particular class:

the ambitious, dynamic, speculative or entrepreneurial business groups, who aimed to make money out of the new national community or to install themselves in the strategic positions of power within it – the railway promoters, banks, manufacturers, land companies, contractors, and such people.

Underhill noted that any benefits of the Macdonald/capitalist form of nationalism “were very unevenly distributed,” and the distribution “involved a tremendous amount of corruption.” Hence, in his opinion, a “heavy cost” had been paid, i.e., the “lowered standards of our public life.”[4]

Underhill appears to have resented those who applied “cold rational analysis [and] paid no attention to all the traditions and sentiments that had grown up in our Canadian past.” Some of the traditions that he presented as being of the most moment in his own time, however, read as essentialist and stereotypical today: French who were “instinctive” and insular and English who were more British than the British. To Underhill’s way of thinking, Wilfrid Laurier “was the greatest of all Canadians,” because embodying the qualities necessary “if we are to solve our difficulties between the two main communal groups.” He believed these were major difficulties that had to be resolved, or, he warned, “Confederation will fail.”

Interestingly, Underhill lauded Laurier and the “Laurier tradition” despite admitting they were “not popular” among his contemporaries in Quebec. He was of the opinion that “populist democracy” works best when restrained and led. Thus, whether French or English, whether fond of Laurier or not, Canadians needed “the guidance at the top of specialists, trained administrators, experts in economics, finance and science” if they were not to “go wildly astray.”[5]

The real problem, as Underhill saw it, was that, unlike other nations, “We Canadians are not a people who have ever shown much aptitude or genius for whole-hearted, deeply felt dedication to purposes and goals beyond those of our individual lives.” He regarded this as a severe handicap in a world where, for as much as he could make out of his foreseeable future, “the nation-state” would be the basic unit of identity – even if it was subsumed in “something wider” [an international trading bloc? an empire?].

The challenge that Underhill saw for Confederation as it moved into its second century would be to demonstrate that French and English Canadian men, “who have done great things together in the past,” could again come together and, “hope to do great things in the future.” He concluded by proffering a rather old vision, partly reminiscent of historian Jules Michelet (1798-1874), apparently inspired by Henri-Gustav Joly de Lothinière (1829-1908), but very redolent of Utilitarianism. For revitalizing what had been “the new nationality” of 1867, to revive popular approval of Confederation’s image, Underhill counseled that what was required of Canadians was that ‘we’ put the general good foremost.[6]

Additional Sources on Underhill:

Kenneth C. Dewar, “Frank Underhill: The Historian as Essayist,” Underhill Review (Fall 2007): 5-10 http://bit.ly/VcqZP.

Barry Ferguson, review of Frank Underhill: Intellectual Provocateur, by R. Douglas Francis, Manitoba History online,  http://bit.ly/87UMS.

Bruce Walton, review of Frank Underhill: Intellectual Provocateur, by R. Douglas Francis, Archivaria 23 online pp. 160-161 http://bit.ly/QIrgg.


[1] The first Massy Lecture, presented by Barbara Ward Jackson, was entitled “The Rich Nations and the Poor Nations” (Toronto: CBC Learning Systems, 1961; 7th printing, 1971). In 1962, Northrop Frye followed with “The Educated Imagination” (Toronto: CBC Enterprises, 1963; 24th printing, 1991).

[2] Becker, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1932), 5. Becker’s assertion that, “Whether arguments command assent or not depends less upon the logic that conveys them than upon the climate of opinion in which they are sustained” is Hegelian. On that point see, “Climate of Opinion,” Dictionary of the History of Ideas, University of Virginia Library, cached at <http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/cgi-local/DHI/dhi.cgi?id=dv4-74&gt;: According to Hegel, “Philosophy has to be related to a particular reality; it is to this relatedness that he refers in quoting the famous phrase, Hic Rhodus, hic salta. The concept of the spirit of the time has thus both a guiding and a limiting connotation. The latter connotation implies the historicist understanding of the spirit of the time. Related to this historicist view is the conception that the thought and culture of peoples are correlated with certain historical periods, that is to say, to certain trends of the spirit of the time. Transcending a spirit of the time makes a trend not only impossible but sometimes obsolete, as in the case when an individual or a group of individuals cling to a trend which has already been overcome.” See also Frank H. Underhill, The Image of Confederation (Toronto: CBC Publications, 1964), 44-45.

[3] Underhill, The Image of Confederation, 13, 2, 10-11.

[4] Ibid., 23-25.

[5] Ibid., 31, 54, 47, 55, 64.

[6] Ibid., 61, 69, 58, 1. Check, for example, “Utilitarianism,” <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title= Utilitarianism&oldid=27590827> which, when accessed in 2005, noted, “Utilitarianism was originally proposed in 18th century England by Jeremy Bentham and others. A similar concept can be found a little earlier in David Hume’s Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, who in turn reflects John Locke. However, the tradition of utilitarian ideas can be traced back to ancient Greek philosophers such as Parmenides.

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About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
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