Responsible Government

Responsible Government
   The mid-nineteenth-century extension of self-government to British colonies possessing representative legislatures. The British North American colonies had been granted representative government - that is to say elected assemblies - at various stages in the eighteenth century. In the 1830s and 1840s, British North American colonists adopted a variety of stratagems to win responsible government. The rebellions that engulfed Lower Canada and Upper Canada in 1837 and 1838 were in part driven by this agenda. Moderate reformers who rejected rebellion, like Robert Baldwin in Upper Canada, Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine in Lower Canada, and Joseph Howe in Nova Scotia, pressed the point with British policymakers in measured and reasoned tones, insisting that their agenda was not to sever the colonies from the mother country, but merely to achieve the British system of cabinet government.
   In the wake of the 1837 rebellions, the first earl of Durham was sent as governorin-chief of British North America, commissioned to investigate the causes of colonial discontent. While Durham remained in Canada only a few months, his Report on the Affairs of British North America (1839), or Durham Report, offered a proposed solution to Canada’s unrest. He advocated a union of the colonies of Upper and Lower Canada, and recommended responsible government, something traditionally considered incompatible with colonial status. Durham looked to the model of the British system and argued that implementing the system in Canada would require no new colonial theory and would entail only extending the principles of the British constitution and accepting the logical consequences of representative government. The governor should appoint an executive council with support from a majority of the assembly. The matters over which Britain should retain control were comparatively few, Durham argued: the constitution, foreign relations and trade, and public lands.
   Britain’s Colonial Office, however, was as yet unprepared to concede selfgovernment to the colony. Lord John Russell, secretary of state for the colonies, insisted that the British constitution could not be copied in a colonial possession. Complications would arise if the governor received conflicting advice from his colonial administration and the imperial cabinet. Britain’s ultimate willingness to change this policy and surrender the right of self-government has been attributed to a number of factors. Although Britain’s own constitutional system was held up as a model by colonial reformers, conventions limiting the sovereign’s power of independent action were still in a fluid state before the 1830s. The hardening of constitutional conventions in Britain was thus a necessary antecedent to any attempt to introduce party government in the colonies.
   The key factor that has been cited in Britain’s policy shift is the move to free trade. It is not surprising that a reconsideration of colonial policy would be tied to the mid-nineteenth-century dismantling of centuries of mercantilist doctrine, as that doctrine had provided the rationale for the acquisition of colonies in the first place. The Whig administration of Lord John Russell assumed power in Britain in 1846, with the Third Earl Grey in the Colonial Office. The Corn Laws, a system of tariffs on wheat, had just been repealed under the previous administration of Robert Peel, and Canadian wheat merchants who had prospered under a system of protection in the British market were hard hit by the change. A loss of imperial protection on timber followed.
   The loosening of the economic ties of empire was accompanied by a loosening of political ties. Soon after assuming the Colonial Office portfolio, Grey encapsulated his views on responsible government in a famous dispatch to Sir John Harvey, lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia. This 1846 dispatch instructed Harvey to follow the constitutional analogies of the mother country. His executive council should remain in power only as long as they enjoyed the confidence of the assembly. The governor still possessed reserve powers, but these should be used sparingly and discreetly. Grey warned Harvey that the government of the British North American provinces should not be carried on in opposition to the wishes of the inhabitants. Nova Scotia thus became the first self-governing colony in the British Empire. In January 1848, following an election in which the previous Conservative administration was defeated, Harvey called on Nova Scotia’s Reform Party to form a government. Nova Scotia reformer Joseph Howe liked to boast that while Canada had experienced a rebellion in its quest for political change, Nova Scotia won responsible government before any other colony in the empire, without “a blow struck or a pane of glass broken.” The eighth earl of Elgin, who arrived in Canada as governor in chief in 1847, then recognized the principle of responsible government in that colony. The results of the spring 1848 election made it clear that Canada’s Reform Party held more seats in the legislature, and Elgin accordingly called on Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin, the leading reformers in the French and English sections of the colony, to form a government.
   The shift toward responsible government should not be confused with an adoption of wholesale democracy, nor was it the opening wedge of republicanism in British North America. Both Elgin and Grey were committed to preserving a constitution in which the monarchy, aristocracy, and popular will would be held in balance. Elgin rejected any constitutional model that proposed to eliminate the sovereign; the check of the crown was essential. Borrowing de Tocqueville’s phrase, Elgin asserted that a “tyranny of the majority” was “not the more tolerable because it is capricious & wielded by a Tyrant with many heads.” By the 1850s, the principle of responsible government was nonetheless conceded in the Australian colonies as well. An 1852 Colonial Office dispatch set out this objective for New South Wales, Tasmania, Victoria, and South Australia, although the implementation was slightly delayed by controversies over an elected upper house. The imperial government approved the extension of responsible government to New Zealand in 1854 and afterward to other colonies. In 1931, the Statute of Westminster formally extended to these self-governing dominions complete autonomy over foreign affairs.
   See also <>.
    Buckner, Phillip A. The Transition to Responsible Government: British Policy in British North America, 1815–1850. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985;
    Craig, Gerald M., ed. Lord Durham ’ s Report. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1963;
    Ward, John Manning. Colonial Self-Government. The British Experience, 1759–1856. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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