One Canadian View of the American Revolution

A few of you know about my recent obsession with all things Canadian.  (Oh, Caaah-na-duuuuh!)

Why not? I ask.   Quiet, unobtrusive neighbor of common patrimony sitting on some fine real estate to the north of us?  Canada is more than worth my interest.

Yet, I know very little about Canada, except that which everyone knows: Mounties, Québec separatists, state-run healthcare, and Will and Kate condescending to make an appearance there last year.

Of course we like Canada.

Other than that?  Not much.

Now, not only does Canada border Michigan, my current state of residence, but the mother of Lisa and Tess, the leading ladies of that novel I’m supposedly writing, is Québécoise (Quebecker, or French Canadian).

I had better learn something about Canada, eh?

A Canadian friend was kind enough to lend me The Colour of Canada by Hugh MacLennan.  First published in 1967, it was revised in 1972 and reprinted in 1974 (the edition she lent me).  It’s a sort of coffee table book, a “journey across Canada in words and pictures,” made interesting by the commentary of MacLennan, who was a novelist and professor of English at McGill University.

In his 1972 introductory essay, MacLennan reflects on the state of the state of Canada, and in doing so cannot but help to compare it to the state of the United States at the time.  And yet, he says, Canada’s sole reason for existence is because “our ancestors repudiated the most important single event in the history of the western hemisphere, the American Revolution”:

Canada exists today because they said no to that.  She will cease to exist if she ever says yes to that, unless she does so in the spirit of a girl in the back seat of a taxi with one eye on the meter and the other on the profile of the determined man who took her out that night.

Just the same, that decision of our ancestors has haunted their descendants ever since.  The United States has been quite the most marvellous country in the world.  She became so rich, successful, exciting and proud, and for years her public pleasure in herself was an enchantment.  The ideals on which she was founded rang like bugles around the globe.  Her techniques were copied everywhere, and in no countries more meticulously than in Canada and the Soviet Union.

No wonder the descendants of the original Loyalists, looking enviously across the border the British had so negligently agreed to accept for them, asked themselves whether their ancestors had not ruined their children’s lives by betting them on the wrong horse.

Why did the Loyalists choose to be loyal?  I had never asked the question.  MacLennan proposes an answer:

The usual explanations are that the Loyalists were Tories hostile to liberty and progress, while the French Canadian Church abominated democracy worse than the Vatican used to abominate Communism.  But sure these explanations are superficial. Why should a French Canada abandoned by such a miserable practicing Catholic as Louis XV, owning neither him nor France an adulterated sou, the Union Jack of their conquerors flying over British garrisons in their own cities, have said no to the Americans when they revolted against Britain?

Point taken.

The reason was basic; it was not intelligent but visceral.  They wanted to survive as a people, and it was as simple as that.  If they said yes to the Revolution, they would prosper more as individuals in their material lives, but as a people they would disappear and lose all sense of themselves as such.

MacLennan will say more to this point further down.  To continue:

Why did the Loyalists, most of whom deplored the stupidity and corruption of Lord North’s government, refuse to join the Revolution?  Certainly not because they were anti-democratic or afraid of losing their privileges.  Very few of them were rich and privileged, and if they had been hostile to democracy they never would have introduced the town meeting into Ontario and the Maritime Provinces, nor would their sons have struggled for a responsible government in British North America until, without a revolution or severing their ties with the motherland, they won it.

The Canadians got exactly what we Americans got – nationhood – but in the quintessentially British way: by slow, painful, Chinese-water-torture reform.  Would they have gotten it had not the Americans revolted in the first place, to show the British was independent nationhood looked like?  Perhaps, perhaps not.

What does all this mean unless it means that what the French Canadians and the Loyalists were rejecting was something deeper than was visible on the surface?  Letters and statements made by Loyalists suggest that they knew very well what it was.  It was not the ideals of the Revolution, but the hidden passions which those ideals masked (emphasis mine).

A light bulb went on when I read this.  Have you seen the HBO series John Adams?  Remember the tar-and-feathering of the Boston customs officer, portrayed (as HBO is wont to do) so starkly?  The mob riled up, Sam Adams egging them on, and John Adams angry with him for doing so — and the humiliation of a man, naked, dripped with tar, covered in chicken feathers, hoisted up on a rail and run out of town — a man just doing the job he was paid to do.

It’s an ugly scene.  I almost vomited after watching it.

To John Adams’ credit, we know that he believed in the rule of law above the rule of the mob, to the point of defending the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre.  But perhaps there are other passions besides those of the Boston mobs.  MacLennan, continued:

In a famous book written in 1923 (Studies in American Classic Literature), D.H. Lawrence writes with a wild and fascinated eloquence about those drives which lay hidden underneath the idealism of the American Revolution, and few learned Americans have denied that he was basically right, especially in recent years when they have to live with the results of them.

Lawrence sought to explain the startling contradiction between the pride and confidence taken by Americans in their wonderful, rationally created nation and the violence, irrationality and unhappiness that have pervaded most of the best American literature from Melville and Hawthorne until the present day.  The typical American hero of the deepest American literature is nearly always a defeated individual, a desperate man alienated from the triumphant crowd… [Ahab, Sam Hall, the "passive anti-hero who can imagine no other role than civil disobedience"].  Why all this? (emphasis mine)

That we celebrate the individual in our culture is, I think, no secret.  “Army of One,” anyone?  That our best literature portrays the defeated individual is an indication of something else.  Lawrence, and MacLennan, are on to something:

Lawrence finds his explanation in the hidden compulsions of many early New Englanders; had he been more familiar with literature south of the Mason and Dixon Line he would have found examples even more striking.  Most of the revolutionary Americans, so Lawrence thought, were seeking to escape, to get away.  But from what? The ineffectual authority of an ineffectual king who lived in London?  And if there was a determination to create a state where all men would enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, why did the revolutionaries retain the institution of slavery? Underneath the perfect rationality lurked something hidden, and it was this that the Loyalists rejected.

Lawrence is right, surely, when he says that what America really sought to escape was nothing less than the human past of Europe — history itself and the long and exhausting burden of it.  Under God in a new continent, they aspired to create a new and purer nation, uncontaminated by the evil past, free forever from the repetitive patterns of history and injustice.  “No foreign entanglements” was echoed a century and a quarter later by Henry Ford’s “History is bunk” (emphasis mine).

Whoa, Nellie.  Let’s stop and consider this.

D. H. Lawrence and MacLennan are interpreting the intentions of the American Revolutionaries from a literary and Freudian perspective, an approach not without problems.  And yet they make what I think is a valid point. Americans, when discovering that people are people, and that high-minded principles are followed imperfectly, tend to jump ship and try to do it better, themselves, whatever the project, instead of staying and fighting the bloody battle for unity and reconciliation.

We see this most strikingly in American religion. The sheer number of Protestant denominations in this country is shocking.  It always begins well: some hopeful preacher, full of faith, idealism, and high-minded principles, founds a new church.  Other believers are moved, they fill the sanctuary, and the church grows.  Everyone is happy; Christ is present in his faithful flock.

But because everyone, ultimately, is their own pope, and because human nature is what it is, division and discord strike.  What’s the response?  Some will leave and scatter among the other already-existing churches.  Some will stay.  And some will decide that the ideals were good, but the people bad, and the church will split, and those who part leave in a spirit of pride – they are the true believers.  They will make a better church.  They have the truth, the real truth.

It is “easier” to divide and divide again than to maintain unity amidst deep disagreement.

It is “easier” to isolate from others instead of working through our problems.

Was the American Revolution, the entire American Project, the product of a similar impulse?  Good and lofty ideals, worthy of striving after, but all the same a sort of political and historical schism from humanity?  The hero of American literature is a defeated individual, because individual man cannot cut himself off from humanity and still survive?

This is what Lawrence and MacLennan are suggesting, and I’m afraid I have no counter-argument.

But nobody can escape from his past, neither can any nation live alone and escape from history, as successive American presidents have discovered.  The effort to be superior to the past, superior to human nature, is more than human nature can bear, no matter how nobly people try to bear it.  As Lawrence saw it, such an effort was bound to alienate the individual, the blood-and-flesh woman and man, and at the same time exalt and magnify the state which, as its power grew, imperceptibly was given the kind of worship and obedience usually offered to God.  “Hear ye, O America, our nation is one nation” — and in order to preserve the mystique of its unity, the most humble and merciful of presidents waged the most terrible civil war in history.  Now challenged by a newer messianic ideology [Communism], the power and concentration of the state has become… but these are deep waters, and we have no fishing rights in them (emphasis mine).

I love my country.  I appreciate and enjoy my personal freedoms, especially my First Amendment rights (all of which hang together).  I want our nation to succeed in its ideals.  I hope for freedom for us all.  I vote.  I support our military.  America, despite the Ron Pauls out there, has largely backed off from her isolationist stand of pre-World War II.

And, as a friend pointed out to me via email, America, for all its problems, is spiritually, morally, and financially healthier than those countries with a monarchy.

So I’m not moving to Canada any time soon.

But I cannot help but think that, knowing myself, should I have lived in 1776, I probably would have been a Loyalist.

Hate me if you like, but I don’t think it’s anti-American to say that I prefer unity to division.  I’m a Catholic, after all.  Unity despite (much) discord is our middle name.  (That’s not to say that Catholics shouldn’t have or should never support political revolution. I don’t pretend to speak for the Church.)

It’s not that I wouldn’t necessarily want democracy, but that I would rather have democracy by means of reform rather than revolution.  (Whether a representative republic is the best form of government is a different debate entirely.)

Bu it’s not 1776, and therefore I seek unity in the here and now.  I love America, I acknowledge my present reality, and I embrace her.

MacLennan agrees:

But we still have our huge country and our little nation.  Nor is it anti-American to emphasize that it was because Canadians had no wish to alienate themselves from the past and from their European source that the Canadian nation came into being.

Earlier I said that this peculiar nation of ours, in most things important, acts from instinct and sentiment.  She has always tried to guard her continuities.  If to do so is unfashionable, her leaders pay unfailing lip-service to the pressures of the moment, but in practice they seek to guard the continuities.  Why else was there such a soul-searching over the ditching of the Red Ensign in favour of a distinctive national flag?  Why else does Quebec insist upon the maintenance of her French culture?  Our instinct — perhaps in the insanity of the post-war years our reason goes along with it – tells us that the only “unity” worth having is one which will permit the greatest possible variety of individual and collective differences, that the individual will have a chance only if he is given priority over the vast, impersonal state.  The world today is on a psychic hinge, and the young generation, confused though it is, everywhere recognizes that the challenge it faces in the Age of Affluence is not a material but a spiritual one.  Flesh and blood against the abstraction; genuine human needs against the needs of the super-organization (emphasis mine).

No matter the source of our nationhood, no matter our past, this we must all recognize. We need both solidarity and subsidiarity. The State exists for man, and not man for the State. The State does not trump the needs of the little ones, but exists to serve them.  Serve them, in justice, according to their rights, according to mercy, and without robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Ideals are easy to express and hard to achieve.  The ideals of America’s Founding Fathers are good ideals.  I’m willing to seek the unity we need to strive after these ideals.

All this to say, amongst all these thoughts of mine, there are characters, a plot, and a novel lurking.

Update:  One thought I had since posting this is that the Declaration of Independence itself claims that the Americans sought a peaceful solution, repeatedly.  Unity first, but when all solutions fail, necessary division?  Was it, in fact, necessary?  (I tend to think that the grievances against George III were a wee bit exaggerated – I’m sure a historian or two could weigh in on that.)  I really don’t know, and it gives me more food for thought.

Images Credit: WikiCommons (here and here).


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