The Idea of Liberty in Canada – Canada’s History

Canada’s History, December 2015/January 2016

The Idea of Liberty in Canada during the Age of Atlantic Revolutions, 1776-1838, by Michel Ducharme (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 279 pages, $32.95)

Reviewed by Dean Jobb

The American Declaration of Independence promotes “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Our nation’s founding document, the British North America Act of 1867, contains a less-than-rousing promise of “peace, order and good government.” Yet, as historian Michel Ducharme argues convincingly in this reassessment of Canada’s formative years, even in the pre-confederation period this, too, was a land of liberty.

The Idea of Liberty explores the political and constitutional ideas percolating in British North America from the beginning of the American Revolution until the struggle between republican sympathizers and the colonial elite reputed into the rebellions of 1837 and 1838.

Ducharme, a professor at the University of British Columba, undertakes an ambitious reassessment of this crucial era and Canada’s place in an Atlantic world reshaped by revolutions in America, France, Europe and South America. He uses the concept of liberty – “one of the most important and subversive” ideas at play in the eighteenth century – to rethink the foundations of Canada’s system of government.

Two concepts of liberty, he contends, completed for supremacy during the period, each one a child of the Enlightenment. The republican-style liberty that underpinned the American and French revolutions was based on equality, political freedom and the will of the populace. The other, which Ducharme terms “modern liberty,” stressed the importance of protecting individual rights, civil liberties and private property, and held that the right to govern resided with Parliament, not an abstract concept of “the people.”

To establish the battle lines in this clash of ideas, he draws on an array of speeches, petitions, official reports and newspaper editorials to explore what colonial political leaders were saying and thinking – and how their views evolved.

A key question is why Canada’s age of revolution was delayed until the late 1830s, six decades after the Thirteen Colonies broke with Britain. A major factor, Ducharme believes, was the Constitutional Act of 1791, which divided Quebec into the new colonies of Upper and Lower Canada and established a new political and legal regime to accommodate an influx of English-speaking Loyalists.

The act was based on the principles of modern liberty and replicated Britain’s political system “as near as circumstanced would admit.” An elected house and an appointed legislative council were created in each colony (mirroring the House of Commons and House of Lords), overseen by a handpicked British governor who wielded almost unchecked executive power.

This structure satisfied colonial demands for representative government, at least at first, and prevented American republicanism from spreading northward. There were calls for further reforms – in particular, for the elected branch to control revenues and spending – but official crackdowns on extremists and radical newspapers kept dissenters in check until the late 1820s.

It was only after reformers concluded their aspirations would never be achieved within the existing constitutional framework that the Patriotes of Lower Canada and William Lyon Mackenzie’s Upper Canadian followers embraced republicanism and took up arms. The failure of the uprisings not only preserved a British-style system of governance – it was the triumph of modern liberty in Canada.

This is a work of intellectual history – The Idea of Liberty, originally published in French, won the Canadian Historical Association’s prestigious Sir John A. Macdonald Prize for scholarship in 2011 – and Ducharme writes for specialists rather than a general audience. But his fresh insights and mastery of the subject make it a worthwhile read.

So why is “liberty” missing from the British North America Act’s call for “peace, order and good government”? It turns out this key democratic concept has been there all along, as an unstated cornerstone of the Canadian state.


Dean Jobb is the author of Empire of Deception (HarperCollins Canada), the untold story of 1920s Chicago swindler Leo Koretz and his escape to a life of luxury in Nova Scotia.

Read this review as published in Canada’s History.