An Imperial Idea and Its Friends: Canadian Confederation and the British

  • Ged Martin


If an idea is sufficiently grand to inspire general support within a society, it will be ‘strong enough to force circumstance itself to obey its dictation’.1 A. P. Thornton’s great contribution to the writing of imperial history has been to remind us that ideas may themselves be numbered among the causes of events, and are not merely reflexive patterns deduced from them. If this be true of the overarching ‘imperial idea’, it is equally the case with its component elements. Canadian Confederation is one such example. Although James A. Gibson, Bruce Knox and L. F. S. Upton have demonstrated that the idea of British North American union had long been discussed on both sides of the Atlantic, most historians have concentrated on explaining British support for the initiative of 1864 in the purely contemporary terms of a reaction to the crisis of the American Civil War.2 Although this interpretation is correct in perceiving American events as the crucial context of Confederation policy, the deductions do not necessarily follow. In the face of a victorious and vengeful North, already angry at the French adventure in Mexico, it might well have seemed best to leave well alone among the British provinces. With the Reform issue dominating the British agenda in the mid-1860s, it might have seemed better to sidestep the issue of parliamentary engineering in autonomous colonies with their broad franchises.


Regional Union Public Record British Government Public Archive Imperial Idea 
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© Gordon Martel 1986

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  • Ged Martin

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