Tuesday, 1 March 2011

The Declaration of Independence and Lower Canada

The Declaration of Independence by the American colonies in 1776 played an importance role in the political thinking of the rebels during the rebellions in the Canadas. During each political crisis of the 1820s and especially the 1830s, people in the two Canadas looked with some envy at their neighbours in the American republic.[1] The admission of Canada into the Union when it requested it was included by the Founding Fathers of the American Nation in the Articles of Confederation.[2] However, this article was not included in the subsequent Constitution and the question of the possible annexation of Canada remained a recurring and, especially in the southern states, contentious issue in American politics.[3]

The Proclamation of the Independence of the United States followed the signing of the Treaty of Paris on 3 September 1783 that recognised the independence of the thirteen colonies.[4] The treaty was ratified by Great Britain and the United States and by France and Spain that both had interests in the region. Great Britain was the big loser. As well as losing the thirteen colonies, the most prosperous area in its Empire, it also ceded Florida to Spain and several islands in the Caribbean to France.  The idea for a republic came from the Enlightenment thinkers of the eighteenth century. The Americans were the first to put it into practice. The Canadian colonies obtained these revolutionary ideas from American travellers and settlers. They developed slowly in French Canadian society and finally emerged during the rebellions of 1837-1838.[5] It was not the Treaty of Paris per se that played the critical role in spread America ideas to Canadian reformers but the more important Declaration of Independence of 4 July 1776 and the American Constitution of 25 May 1787.[6]

The Declaration of Independence was an indictment against the British government especially its attacks on the freedoms of its subjects in the American colonies, a breach of the social contract between the colonists and the British Crown. Its drafters denounced colonial taxation, the arbitrary power exercised by the colonial authorities, the suspension of colonial legislatures elected by the people and other injustices and were left with no alternative but to declare their independence from London. The Patriotes used the same rhetoric in sending the Ninety-Two Resolutions to London in 1834 in which they denounced the abuses of colonial government, seigneurial tenure, the nomination by the monarch of members of the Executive and Legislative Councils etc. Although most Patriotes still had faith in British institutions, these Resolutions were a warning that independence remained a credible alternative to colonial rule. The American Constitution was also an important reference point for the Patriotes especially its principle of the separation of powers initially developed by Montesquieu.[7] The opening words of the Constitution, ‘We The People’ was revolutionary since it replaced the power of the Crown with the legitimacy of the people.

These two documents played a central role in the debates between Patriote leaders and the assemblies in the Canadas. After the defeat of the first rebellion in December 1837, Robert Nelson[8] proclaimed the Déclaration d’indépendance de la République du Bas-Canada on 28 February 1838, a document that was a mixture of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.[9] Nelson took the principal articles of the American Constitution that allowed a separation of powers and combined them with the notion of popular legitimacy. The failure of the second rebellion in November 1838 meant that his declaration of independence was not put into practice.

Appendix: Declaration of Independence of the Republic of Lower Canada

Written by Dr. Robert Nelson, who played a major role in the 1838 revolt, the Declaration was read by him as President of the Republic of Lower Canada before a crowd first on 28 February 1838 and later on 4 November 1838. [10]

February 1838

Déclarons solennellement:

1. Que de ce jour et à l’avenir, le peuple du Bas-Canada libre de toute allégeance à la Grande-Bretagne, et que le politique entre ce pouvoir et le Bas-Canada, est maintenant rompu

2. Qu’une forme républicaine de gouvernement est celle convient le mieux au Bas-Canada, qui est ce jour déclaré être une république.

3. Que sous le gouvernement libre du Bas-Canada, tous les individus jouiront des mêmes droits: les sauvages ne seront plus soumis à aucune disqualification civile, mais jouiront des mêmes droits que tous les autres citoyens du Bas-Canada.

4. Que toute union entre l’Église et l’État est par la présente déclarée être dissoute, et toute personne aura le droit d`exercer librement telle religion ou croyance qui lui sera dictée par sa conscience.

5. La tenure féodale ou seigneuriale des terres est par la présente abolie, aussi complètement que si telle tenure n`eàt jamais existé au Canada.

6. Que toute personne qui prendra les armes ou qui donnera autrement de l’aide au Canada, dans sa lutte pour l’émancipation, sera et est déchargée de toutes dettes ou obligations réelles ou supposées résultant d`arrérages des droits seigneuriaux ci-devant en existence.

7. Que le douaire coutumier est. pour l`avenir, aboli et prohibé.

8. Que l’emprisonnement pour dettes n`existera pas davantage excepté dans certains cas de fraude qui seront spécifiés, dans un acte à être plus tard passé à cette fin par la Législature du Bas- Canada.

9. Que la condamnation à mort ne sera plus prononcée ni exécutée, excepté dans les cas de meurtre.

10. Que toutes les hypothèques sur les terres seront spéciales et pour être valides seront enregistrées dans des bureaux à être établis pour cette fin par un acte de la Législature du Bas-Canada.

11. Que la liberté et l’indépendance de la presse existera dans toutes les matières et affaires publiques.

12. Que le procès par jury est assuré au peuple du Bas-Canada dans son sens le plus étendu et le plus libéral, dans tous les procès criminels, et aussi dans les procès civils au-dessus d`une somme à être fixée par la législature de l’État du Bas-Canada.

13. Que comme une éducation générale et publique est nécessaire et est due au peuple par le gouvernement, un acte y pourvoyant sera passé aussit tôt que les circonstances le permettront.

14. Que pour assurer la franchise électorale, toutes les élections se feront au scrutin secret.

15. Que dans le plus court délai possible, le peuple choisisse des délégués, suivant la présente division du pays en comtés, villes et bourgs, lesquels formeront une convention ou corps législatif pour formuler une constitution suivant les besoins du pays, conforme aux dispositions de cette déclaration, sujette à être modifiée suivant la volonté du peuple.

16. Que chaque individu du sexe masculin, de l’âge de vingt et un ans et plus, aura le droit de voter comme il est pourvu par la présente, et pour l`élection des susdits délégués.

17. Que toutes les terres de la Couronne, et aussi celles qui sont appelées Réserves du Clergé, et aussi celles qui sont nominalement la possession d`une certain compagnie de propriétaires en Angleterre appellée ‘La Compagnie des Terres de l’Amérique britannique du Nord’ sont de droit la propriété de l’État du Bas-Canada, et excepté telles parties des dites terres qui peuvent être en possession de personnes qui les détiennent de bonne foi, et auxquelles des titres seront assurés et accordés en vertu d’une loi qui sera passée pour légaliser la dite possession et donner un titre pour tels lots de terre dans les townships qui n`en ont pas, et qui sont en culture ou améliorés.

18. Que les langues française et anglaise seront en usage dans toutes les affaires publiques.

Et pour l’accomplissement de cette déclaration, et pour 1e soutien de la cause patriotique dans laquelle nous sommes maintenant engagés avec une ferme confiance dans la protection du Tout-Puissant et la justice de notre conduite, - nous, par ces présentes, nous engageons solennellement les uns envers les autres, nos vies et nos fortunes et notre honneur le plus sacré.

Par ordre du gouvernement provisoire.

ROBERT NELSON, Président

November 1838

Whereas the solemn compact made with the people of Lower Canada and registered in the book of statutes of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, the 31st chapter of the Acts passed in the 31st year of the reign of George III, has been continually violated by the British Government and our rights usurped; and whereas our humble petitions, addresses, protests, and complaints against this prejudicial and unconstitutional conduct have been in vain; and whereas the British government has disposed of our revenue without the constitutional consent of our local legislature, that it has pillaged our treasury, that it has arrested and imprisoned a great number of our fellow citizens, that it has spread throughout the country a mercenary army whose presence is accompanied by consternation and alarm, whose path has been reddened by the blood of our people, that has reduced our villages to ashes, profaned the temples, and spread terror and desolation throughout the land; and whereas we can no longer put up with the repeated violations of our most cherished rights or patiently bear the multiple outrages and cruelties of the government of Lower Canada; We, in the name of the people of Lower Canada, recognising the decrees of Divine Providence that permit us to overthrow a government that has violated the object and the intention of its creation, and to choose the form of government that will re-establish the reign of justice, assure domestic tranquillity, assure the common defense, increase general well-being, and guarantee for ourselves and our posterity the advantages of civil and religious freedom;

Solemnly declare:

1. That from this day forward the people of Lower Canada are absolved of all allegiance to Great Britain, and that all political ties between that power and Lower Canada have ceased as of this day;

2. That Lower Canada shall take the form of a republican government and, as such, declare itself a Republic;

3. That under the free Government of Lower Canada all citizens will have the same rights; the savages will cease being subjected to any form of civil disqualifications and will enjoy the same rights as the other citizens of the State of Lower Canada;

4. That all ties between Church and State are declared abolished, and every person has the right to freely exercise the religion and the beliefs dictated to him by his conscience;

5. That feudal and Seigneurial tenure are abolished in fact, as if they never existed in this country;

6. That any person who bears or will bear arms, or will furnish the means of assistance to the Canadian People in its struggle for emancipation, is relieved of all debts or obligations, real or supposed, towards Seigneurs, and for arriérages[11] in virtue of Seigneurial laws that formerly existed.

7. That the douaire coutoumier[12] is, in future, entirely abolished and prohibited;

8. That imprisonment for debt will no longer exist, except in cases of obvious fraud, which will be specified in an act of the Legislature of Lower Canada to that effect;

9. That the death penalty will be pronounced in cases of murder alone, and no other;

10. That all mortgages on lands must be special and, in order to be valid, must be registered in Offices created to that effect by an act of the legislature of Lower Canada;

11. That there will be full and entire freedom of the press in all public affairs and matters;

12. That trial by jury is guaranteed to the People of the State in criminal trials to its most liberal extent, and in civil affairs to the sum of an amount to be determined by the legislature of the State of Lower Canada;

13. That as a necessity and obligation of the Government towards the people, public and general education will be put in operation and encouraged in a special manner, as soon as circumstances permit;

14. That in order to ensure the franchise and electoral freedom, all elections will be held in the form of a ballot;

15. That as soon as circumstances permit, the People will choose its Delegates following the current division of the country in cities, towns and counties, which will constitute a Convention or Legislative body, in order to found and establish a constitution, according to the needs of the country and in conformity with the conditions of this Declaration, subject to modification according to the will of the people;

16. That any male person over the age of 21 will have the right to vote as above mentioned, for the election of the above-named delegates;

17. That those lands called Crown lands, as well as those called Reservations of the Clergy and those nominally in the possession of a certain company of speculators in England, called the ‘Company of the Lands of British North America’ shall become by law the property of the State of Lower Canada, except for those portions of land that are in the possession of farmers who hold them in good faith, for which we guarantee the title in virtue of a law which will be passed in order to legalize the possession of such lots of land situated in the Townships which are now under cultivation;

18. That French and English will be used in all public matters.

And for the support of this declaration, and the success of the Patriote cause that we support, we, confident of the protection of the All-Powerful and of the justice of our line of conduct, engage by these present, mutually and solemnly the ones towards the others, our lives, our fortunes, and our most sacred honor.

By order of the Provisional Government

Robert Nelson

President


[1] Caron, Ivanhoe, ‘Influence de la Déclaration de l’Indépendance Americaine et de la Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme sur la rebellion French Canadianne de 1837 et 1838’, Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, 3rd series, Vol. 26, (1931), pp. 5-26

[2] The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union (commonly referred to as the Articles of Confederation) was the constitution of the revolutionary wartime alliance of the thirteen United States of America. The Articles’ ratification (proposed in 1777) was completed in 1781, and legally federated several sovereign and independent states, allied under the Articles of Association into a new federation styled the ‘United States of America’. The original five-paged Articles contained thirteen articles, a conclusion, and a signatory section. The pre-approval of Canada’s inclusion was in Article 11: ‘Canada acceding to this confederation, and adjoining in the measures of the United States, shall be admitted into, and entitled to all the advantages of this Union; but no other colony shall be admitted into the same, unless such admission be agreed to by nine States.’

[3] Corey, Albert B., The Crisis of 1830-1842 in Canadian-American Relations, (Russell and Russell), 1941, pp. 16-17. The attitude of the southern states was to a considerable extent influenced by the slave-free status of the Canadas.

[4] Bemis, Samuel Flagg, A Diplomatic History of the United States, 4th ed., (Holt, Rinehart & Winston), 1955, p. 62

[5] Ibid, Caron, Ivanhoe, ‘Influence de la Déclaration de l’Indépendance Americaine et de la Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme sur la rebellion French Canadianne de 1837 et 1838’, p. 5.

[6] Peyret, H, Les États-Unis, (PUF), 1961, p. 15.

[7] Ibid, Peyret, H, Les États-Unis, p. 15.

[8] Soderstrom, Mary, Robert Nelson, Le Medecin Rebelle, (L’Hexagone), 1999 is the most recent study; see also ‘Robert Nelson’, DCB, Vol. 9, pp. 544-547 and Messier, pp. 351-352..

[9] Ibid, Bernard, Jean-Paul, Assemblées publiques, résolutions et déclarations de 1837-1838, pp. 301-304.

[10] Nelson, Robert, Déclaration d’indépendance et autres écrits (1832-1848), édition établie et annotée par Georges Aubin, (Comeau et Nadeau), 1998, pp. 26-34.

[11] The amount due on the rent of a farm.

[12] That which the husband assigns to the wife for her use should she survive him.

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