Skip to Main Content
Canada's Governors General, 1847-1878

Canada's Governors General, 1847-1878: Biography and Constitutional Evolution

Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 300
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Canada's Governors General, 1847-1878
    Book Description:

    Oft-ignored in the study of Canadian history or dismissed as a vestige of colonial status, the governor general's office provides essential historical insight into Canada's constitutional evolution. In the nineteenth century, as today, individual governors general exercised considerable scope in interpreting their approach to the office. The era 1847-1878 witnessed profound changes in Canada's relationship with Britain, and in this new book, Barbara J. Messamore explores the nature of these changes through an examination of the role of the governor general.

    Guided by outmoded instructions and constitutional conventions that were not yet firmly established, the governors general of the time - Lord Elgin, Sir Edmund Head, Lord Monck, Lord Lisgar, and Lord Dufferin - all wrestled with the implications of colonial self government. The imprecision of the viceregal role made the character of the appointee especially important and biographical details are thus essential to an understanding of how the new experiment of colonial self-government was put into practice. Messamore's book marries constitutional history and biography, providing illumination on some of the key figures of nineteenth-century Canadian politics.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-7172-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-2)
  4. 1 Introduction: Biography and Constitutional Evolution
    (pp. 3-9)

    Donald Creighton, the renowned Canadian historian of the last century, once observed that ’an historian’s chief interest is in character and circumstance.’¹ Many would find such a remark quaintly old-fashioned today. Thomas Carlyle famously remarked that history was the study of ’Great Men’; to reflect on the lives of heroes and leaders of men could not but be profitable. ’On any terms whatsoever, you will not grudge to wander in such neighbourhood for a while.’² But in recent decades, other neighbourhoods have been preferred. Works of social history have proliferated, with the laudable goal of creating a picture of life...

  5. 2 ‘Governor-Generalities’
    (pp. 10-30)

    Though it might be intriguing to attempt a kind of prosopographical study of the viceregal office to arrive at a profile of a ‘typical’ governor, previous efforts to do so have not yielded any clear findings.¹ The five office holders considered in this study did share a number of attributes, but they prove resistant to treatment as a ‘type.’ All were aristocratic, broadly speaking, seen in the Canadian context, but only Dufferin, and arguably Elgin, belonged in the innermost circle of the peerage. All, save Sir Edmund Head, originated in the Celtic fringe of the British Isles. Head was also...

  6. 3 Mary Lambton’s Husband
    (pp. 31-46)

    The Earl of Elgin is deservedly remembered as the governor general who made the single most important contribution to Canada’s constitutional evolution. Arguably as significant as Confederation, Elgin’s acceptance of and adherence to the principle of responsible government heralded a new era in Canada’s political life. The idea of self-government for a colonial possession - dismissed by some as a contradiction in terms¹ -did not originate with Elgin. In fact, the most famous proponent of such a plan was the Earl of Durham, Elgin’s father-in-law. But Elgin came to Canada determined to carry it into effect, and there can be...

  7. 4 The ‘Great Experiment’: Elgin, Grey, and Responsible Government
    (pp. 47-70)

    The year 1848 might properly be seen as the ‘hinge’ of the imperial relationship. Elgin demonstrated that the idea of a self-governing colony was indeed workable. Such a system, however, would call for a new approach by Elgin and his successors. Still a guardian of imperial interests where external matters were concerned, the governor’s role in internal matters was far from extinct, although it had become more sensitive than ever. The governor continued to fulfill the function of constitutional watchdog in the event of a political crisis but, under normal circumstances, left the day-to-day operation of domestic politics to...

  8. 5 A Round Man in a Square Hole: Sir Edmund Head in the United Canadas
    (pp. 71-93)

    Lord Elgin’s selection of Sir Allan MacNab after the inconclusive election of 1854 demonstrated that, even under responsible government, an important role remained for the governor general. The potential instability of Canadian politics during the years leading up to Confederation forced Sir Edmund Head, Elgin’s successor, to be actively involved in the process of forming governments. He would not be permitted the dignified aloofness of a constitutional monarch. Unfortunately, the informal negotiations demanded for coalition building did not come naturally to Head. He was diligent and conscientious, and given to theorizing about political philosophy, but had little actual parliamentary experience....

  9. 6 ‘A Cat into Hell without Claws’: Monck and His Ministries, 1861-1864
    (pp. 94-114)

    When Lord Monck arrived in Canada in November 1861 to take up the only overseas appointment of his career, he was immediately bombarded with problems that would have tested the most experienced of governors. The American Civil War was raging and theTrentaffair erupted when Monck had been in Canada scarcely two weeks. Earlier that month, Captain Charles Wilkes of the Union navy stopped theTrent, a British merchant ship, in neutral Atlantic waters and seized two Confederate emissaries on their way to London and Paris. The violation of British neutrality represented by the incident raised the spectre of...

  10. 7 ‘An Indolent Individual’?: Lord Lisgar and Canadian Diplomacy
    (pp. 115-147)

    Much of this study has been concerned with the constitutional role of the governor general - the part he played in ensuring the smooth workings of government during changes in administration or periods of political instability. It follows from this that during periods of stable government the role of the governor general was less conspicuous. Sir John Young, Lord Lisgar, had the apparent good fortune to preside over an unchanging Conservative administration dominated by Sir John A. Macdonald during his entire term of office (1869-72).¹ The absence of any constitutional crises has given him a lower historical profile and has led...

  11. 8 ‘A Matter of Instinct’: Lord Dufferin and Pacific Scandal
    (pp. 148-176)

    Less than one year into his viceregal term, Dufferin was forced to confront a challenging political crisis. Like his predecessors - Elgin in 1854, Head in 1858, and Monck in 1863 - Dufferin faced the dilemma of whether or not to accept the advice of his ministers. The ‘Pacific Scandal’ seemed to implicate John A. Macdonald and key Conservative ministers in corrupt financial bargains and vote buying, and Macdonald’s advice to Dufferin to prorogue parliament at the height of the crisis appeared to be a cynical ploy to escape censure.¹ Dufferin was temperamentally inclined toward activism, and his decision to...

  12. 9 Character, Context, and the Constitution: Dufferin, Edward Blake, and the Role of the Governor General
    (pp. 177-213)

    The event that begins this study - Lord Elgin’s implementation of colonial self-government - reveals how significant one individual could be in shaping and solidifying constitutional change. The study will end with the year 1878, and here, too, character played a determining role in directing the evolution of Canada’s system of government and its relationship with the empire. The end of Lord Dufferin’s term in 1878 was marked by the establishment of permanent Letters Patent and Instructions for future governors general. The ambiguity of the existing documents, which could vary slightly for each incumbent, has already been addressed.¹ Arthur Berriedale...

  13. 10 Conclusion
    (pp. 214-220)

    Within the prevailing paradigm of Canada’s evolution from colony to nation, little attention has been paid to the governor general. Perceived as a vestige of a dependent past, the viceregal office has not been emphasized in Canadian historical writing, especially where the post-Confederation period is concerned. This has led to a pervasive misinterpretation of Canada’s constitutional history and a distorted understanding of the meaning of Confederation. The true points of significant change in Canada’s relationship to Britain were reflected in changes in the governor general’s function. Despite outward continuity, the viceregal role changed in very significant ways in 1848, in...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 221-280)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 281-296)
  16. Illustration Credits
    (pp. 297-298)
  17. Index
    (pp. 299-308)