Some Canadians seem prone to assume that all the fire and brimstone of North American history was naturally in the U.S., while the genteel â€œpeace and good governmentâ€ tradition equally as naturally informed the more sedate history of Canada. Yet, though it doesnâ€™t seem to have received the attention it deserved in Canadian historiography, the question as to why Canada didnâ€™t have a â€œcivil warâ€ of the kind that so profoundly affected the history of the U.S. is hardly one with an immediately obvious answer. [ref]Two important points have to be made before going any further. First, I use the term â€œcivil warâ€ in the interest of convenience, but as those historians working in the Austrian tradition have observed this is a misnomer: a civil war is between two factions, each vying for power over the other. In the case of the U.S., the Confederacy had no intention of invading Washington and imposing its rule upon the entire Union. It was a war of seccession (from the perspective of the South) and of invasion (from the perspective of the North). Second, anyone who believes that the war was fought over the emancipation of the slaves is labouring under the sway of an unfortunate mythology. Lincoln, along with many other influential Northern war mongers, frequently stated that this was not the purpose of the war. Many of them, including Lincoln, supported the Fugitive Slave Act. The Emancipation Proclamation came only two years after the start of the war and at a time when the Union was suffering serious battlefield setbacks. It was intended as a strategy to discourage European support of the Confederacy and possibly incur slave rebellions in the secessionist states. Further, the Proclamation emancipated no slaves as it did not pertain to those already under Union jurisdiction, but only those in the Confederacy â€“ over which the Union government had no control. That the war was not considered a war of slave emancipation by the general population of the North is also shown by the Northern riots, most terribly in New York City, where blacks were attacked by rioters en mass, and in the massive army desertions â€“ 90,000 of which escaped to Canada â€“ which resulted when the Proclamation led many to think the purpose of the war had changed to slave emancipation.[/ref]
The situation in Canada for several decades after 1879 was quite similar to that in the U.S. for the three decades leading up to 1861.[ref]The story considered here is that of Western Canada. Eastern Canada, particularly the Maritime Provinces, have their own history to tell as a result of the National Policy tariff. It is, though, a different story, and so will have to be saved for another occasion.[/ref]There was an industrial part of the country (the U.S. North, the Canadian Centre) and an agricultural part of the country (the U.S. South, the Canadian West); the agricultural part of the country was a major producer of a commodity in great international demand (cotton in the U.S. South, wheat in the Canadian West); the industrial part, in both cases, through its political cronyism, rampant rent-seeking and patronage, had forged an industrial-state complex that imposed onerous tariffs on the pro-free trade, agricultural part of the country. In both cases, the agricultural part of the country had great incentives for pursuing free trade policy and open international relations. However, such policy to benefit the agricultural part of the country placed the goods of the industrial part of the country in a situation of disadvantageous competition with international manufacturers.
Whereas there was a long history of using tariffs to generate income to finance the state, prior to the creation of income taxes, in both these situations the industrial-state complex imposed massive tariffs, the purpose of which was never pretended to be income generating, but were openly acknowledged as intended to create monopoly markets for the domestic production of industrial goods to the benefit of the industrial part of the country. These tariffs had the unambiguous intention of reducing the agricultural part of the country to a mere hinterland, a captive market for the overpriced, uncompetitive industrial goods of the tariff-imposing political class based in the industrial part of the country.
In both cases, major political unrest resulted in the agricultural parts of the countries. Prominent intellectual and political leaders emerged to express the anger, outrage and betrayal felt in the agricultural parts of the countries. In both civil society and electoral politics major protest movements emerged in each of the agricultural parts of the countries. Many were unapologetic in describing the state imposed tariff as nothing short of exploitation and thievery. To repeat, these are strikingly similar situations. From there, though, the stories part company.
As we know, in the U.S., after decades of failing to win redress for the relentless assault on their liberty and property, the agricultural part of the country took the initiative to exercise its confederal rights to secede from the Union. Given all the other similarities, noted above, why did the Canadian West not do likewise? First letâ€™s consider some possible explanations, which donâ€™t stand up well to scrutiny. These would include, first, the claim that states in the U.S. enjoy a level of sovereignty that exceeds that historically of Canadian provinces. A second might be the argument that the U.S. South constituted a more viable independent society and economy than did the less developed Canadian West. Neither of these, it seems to me, stand up to close scrutiny as explanations for the absence of a Western Canadian secession movement. A third claim for U.S. southern advantage could be based upon purported discrepancies in access to world markets. While there may be more merit in this explanation, it seems to raise as many questions as it answers.
To my knowledge, most scholars associated with the Mises Institutes tend to share the view that the original U.S. colonies formed the Union, in contrast to the Lincolnian mythology in which somehow the Union gave rise to the pre-existing parts of what came to be united. Hopefully, then, I can address these matters briefly. This Lincolnian mythology is logically absurd (how can a combination pre-exist the elements that had to combine for it to exist?) and there are numerous other political and legal arguments, regarding the peace settlement with Britain and the terms of joining the Union set by several of the founding colonies, which argue that secession was always an implicit option in uniting. It is true, of course, that only two of the original Confederacy states were part of the original thirteen colonies, but the gist of the scholarship seems to suggest that, by joining of their free will, those non-original founding states â€“ since there were no explicit conditions to the contrary â€“ joined under the terms of the same assumption for freedom to secede as had the founding states. Thus, though I canâ€™t make the argument thoroughly in the limited space here, it does seem that a right of secession was implicit in the uniting of the American states from the beginning.
Was this, though, so different from the situation of the Canadian provinces? Yes, they united with the consent and encouragement of Britain, rather than in defiance of it. But the parts still logically preceded the union and had to be sovereign to some degree to have the authority to choose to enter the union. It is true that, unlike the U.S. Constitution that was worded to be bias toward the rights of the states, the British North America Act was biased in the other direction. While in the U.S. any right not stipulated as federal in the Constitution was assumed to the states, in Canada any right not stipulated to the provinces was assumed to the federal government. This is an important difference, but the provinces were the founders, confederation had to be endorsed by the provincial legislatures, and the fact that the BNA act protected provincial sovereignty in key areas of civil life would suggest that no one involved thought that joining confederation constituted an abandonment of sovereignty.[ref]Indeed, efforts by the Federal Government over the next century to usurp areas of provincial sovereignty were regularly defeated by pro-provincial rights rulings of the British Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.[/ref] Further, more recent events surrounding the fate of Quebec has not provided any conclusive legal or scholarly case against secession of a province. So, the suggestion that the U.S. southern states had some advantage over the Canadian western ones in this regard doesnâ€™t seem plausible.
It certainly is true that the U.S. South was a more developed society and economy. However, itâ€™s not as though only such a level of development provided the necessary conditions for secession. After all, in many ways the Canadian West was considerably more developed, certainly technologically, than were the thirteen colonies when they seceded from the British Empire over a century earlier. Furthermore, thereâ€™s a bit of a chicken and egg problem in this argument. The main reason that the southern U.S. states were more developed was that they had been more successful in fighting the Northâ€™s mercantilist empire building. Their success at winning occasional relief from excessive tariffs, in the 1830s to 1860s period, allowed them to increase their standard of living and quality of life by better profiting from the trade of their cotton. The only way for the West of Canada to parlay its wheat into a similar development boon was precisely to gain relief from the Centreâ€™s mercantilist tariff regime. Given the many decades of failure to gain relief from the National Policy, it was less a question of how the West could become developed enough to pursue secession as how it could possibly develop without secession.[ref]The fact that post-WWII Federal Government policy may have helped reduce some of these historical discrepancies begs the question in regards to either the ethical standing of such policy for any taxation-based regime, as well as the long term sustainability of stimulus and redistribution policies. And, of course, the events of the National Energy Program, as recently as the 1980s, indicates that the old mercantilism of the Centre is not as far back in the rear-view mirror of history as some might suggest.[/ref]
At first glance, greater access to world markets for the U.S. southern states might seem like a plausible explanation for their greater readiness to secede. Indeed, it was recognized that if the South did as they promised, and refused to enforce the tariff in their ports, places like Charleston and New Orleans would quickly displace the harbour of New York as the major entry point for European trade. For the North mercantilists to succeed in their North American empire building, they had to impose their tariff regime on the southern states. The latterâ€™s easily accessible ports were surely an attractive feature in the Southâ€™s consideration of its options. In contrast to this, students of Canadian history are always told how the railroads were built east and west, funnelling trade back and forth with Central Canada, denying western farmersâ€™ access to U.S. and international markets. While this claim is true as far as it goes, it leaves too much unaddressed. Even if we rule out the western extremes of the Great Lakes (technically in Ontario and arguably under the control of Central Canada) the Canadian West enjoyed a long history of maritime access to world trade through ports on Hudsonâ€™s Bay. Indeed, eventually, by 1929, Churchill, Manitoba, finally became a port for the exportation of the Westâ€™s wheat into the world market.
In the three or so decades following the 1879 National Policy tariff, there no doubt were obstacles to overcome. A railway had to be built from Winnipeg to Churchill and the freezing of the Bay limited the maritime season. Such ports were clearly not going to be as convenient as Charleston or New Orleans, but neither is it obvious to me why provinces, under the yoke of the Central Canadaâ€™s mercantilist North American empire, wouldnâ€™t have and couldnâ€™t have found quicker solutions of great strategic importance, should secession have been seriously considered. The other option, of course, was land routes connecting with the U.S. cities to the south. Of course, with the financial impacts of the tariff, there were no economic incentives to build the lines south. However, thatâ€™s assuming the very outcome that is being questioned here: the lack of a secessionist movement against the mercantilist empire building regime of the industrial part of the country. A declaration of secession and refusal to enforce the tariff, as was done in the southern U.S. states, certainly would have changed overnight the economics of building railroads from the western prairies south to the U.S. So, while transport options were certainly not as readily at hand for the Canadian West as they were for the U.S. South, in and of itself, that alone doesnâ€™t seem to provide a conclusive explanation for the absence of a secessionist movement in the former, despite the initial great success of such in the latter. (A success, of course, that was only forestalled by military invasion.)
Certainly, other factors have to be considered, from the role of nationalism and monarchism to fears of what actually happened to the secessionists of the U.S. South: not merely military and political defeat, but the infliction of terrible war crimes. And, neither can we prima facia rule out the possibility of corruption among Western provincial elites being bought off by the Central Canadian mercantile empire. Trying to sort out all these questions on pure speculation and a heavily statist historiography that has not been much interested in such topics â€“ and certainly doesnâ€™t take matters of legitimate secession and voluntary governance even remotely seriously â€“ is ultimately not going to provide satisfactory answers to such questions. The hard work of a libertarian history alone can help us solve interesting puzzles of Canadian history such as this one. This is why I am trying to raise the funds to write a libertarian history of Canada. If you would like to see such a project come to fruition, please support my efforts: information on this is available at my website.[ref]Individual donations are great and very much appreciated; however, this project can only succeed with institutional, foundation and business support. If you know of anyone with such connections who might be able to help, please inform them of the project and pass their contact information onto to me. Thank you to all for your support in this effort.[/ref]