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Monday, January 9, 2017

January 9, 2017: Special Guest Post: Oana Godeanu-Kenworthy on Thomas Haliburton and 19th Century Populism

[One of my favorite things about blogging for these 6+ years has been all the connections it has helped me make to fellow AmericanStudiers and public scholars, near and far. As a case in point, this weekend Keith Grant of the wonderful early Canadian history blog Borealia contacted me about cross-posting a great new post by Dr. Oana Godeanu-Kenworthy, on the Nova Scotian judge and writer Thomas Chandler Haliburton and American populism in the 19th century. I'll be sharing the first half of Dr. Godeanu-Kenworthy's post, and then directing you to the link where you can read the rest! Enjoy!]

"The Mighty Waters of Democracy”: Thomas Chandler Haliburton on American Populism

On Nov 8 2016 reality-show star and billionaire Donald Trump won by a landslide the presidency of the US. Despite the still-ongoing collective head-scratching over the exact causes of the victory, nobody contests that the unlikely candidate rode an unprecedented wave of populism and nationalism whose long-term consequences remain to be seen. Trump’s anti-trade rhetoric in particular has been met with unease in Canada, whose post-NAFTA economic fortunes are profoundly enmeshed with those of the US. Until the December 19th Electoral College vote, online debates continued around the question whether the electors will go back to the role assigned to them by the Founders of the American constitution and independently assess the suitability of the candidate, or merely validate the popular vote in their states as in the past. Indeed, despite James Madison’s trust in the power of constitutional checks and balances (like the Electoral College), in recent history rarely has an elector failed to vote for the candidate winning his or her state’s popular votes.

Canadian concerns over American populism and its impact on existing institutions are not new.  In 1836, the conservative Nova Scotian judge and writer Thomas Chandler Haliburton (1796-1865) published The Clockmaker, a volume of satirical sketches that rapidly became a surprising global success.[i] Its protagonist, Sam Slick, a charismatic and shrewd Connecticut Yankee, entertained colonial audiences with the shortcomings of the American political model, while ostensibly exalting “the greatest nation on the face of the airth, and the most enlightened too.”[ii] Haliburton’s America sounds hauntingly familiar. In the 1830s, the country was in the thralls of economic and political turmoil, of virulent populism and anti-elite antipathy, all punctuated by the extension of the franchise to white males, the expansion of slavery, and the Indian Removal. Like other early Canadians, Haliburton was watching with apprehension the chaotic political dramas unfolding next door, at a time when British North America itself was debating responsible government and elective councils. To be clear, Haliburton was never preoccupied with the welfare of ordinary people; minority rights would have concerned him only if as a white, propertied, and educated male he envisioned himself to be an endangered minority. His arguments against American-style colonial reform were rooted in the belief that institutions not only reflect the core values of the society that created them, they are also instrumental in shaping its long-term evolution. Haliburton’s main focus was the place of British North America in the larger imperial network. If American republican institutions had gradually given rise to the unruly populism of the Jacksonian years, what impact could more democratic institutions have on the fabric of colonial society in British North America and on its loyalty to the Crown?

The US was the only direct experience of republicanism most early Canadians would have had. Yet the American federation with its endless squabbles over state rights and its mobs was more a cautionary tale of republican centrifugal forces gnawing at the fabric of society, than an inspiring one. Haliburton did not object to American republicanism per se, but to the spirit which infused it. To him, the seeds of a profound mistrust towards any authority external to ‘the people’ were already present in the American Revolution, despite the hierarchical view of society that the Federalists subsequently promoted; Jacksonian populism and anti-elitism had merely taken things one step further. Its all-pervasive leveling ethos had degenerated into a tyranny of the majority and was endangering freedom itself. One of the characters in The Clockmaker laments the loss of the ideals of the Revolution: “Where now is our beautiful republic bequeathed to us by Washington and the sages and heroes of the revolution? Overwhelmed and destroyed by the mighty waters of democracy.” [iii]

[i] Haliburton published three series of The Clockmaker, in 1836, 1838, and 1840.
[ii] Thomas Chandler Haliburton, The Clockmaker. Series One, Two, and Three, George L. Parker, ed. (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1995) 32. All further references will be to this edition.
[iii] The Clockmaker 354.

[To read the rest of Dr. Godeanu-Kenworthy's post, head over to Borealia, please!

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