Is Blood Thicker Than Water

by James M. McPherson,
ISBN: 0679309284

Last Best Hope:
Quebec Secession

96 pages,
ISBN: 1550591665

Post Your Opinion
The Cruel Teacher
by Jason Hanson

These books are reviewed together because their authors claim that Canadians can better understand Quebec separatism by looking at the American Civil War. Both books are thin and interesting and while neither claims to be comprehensive, they complement each other nicely. Schwartz's book is better, but readers may appreciate it more if they read McPherson's first.

James McPherson is a Princeton professor, Pulitzer Prize winner, and a Civil War expert. "Despite obvious differences," he says, "the similarities between the United States after 1787 and Canada after 1837 are instructive," although "one must be careful not to push the analogy too far."

Perhaps McPherson strikes this cautionary note expecting that some Canadian readers will be shocked at-and certainly reluctant to accept-his argument. He is probably right. Many Canadians will ask how a country that keeps winning U.N. awards can learn anything useful from the history of a country that tolerated slavery. One answer is that the U.S. Civil War-and more particularly its end-helped drive most of the British North American colonies to confederate. The politicians who negotiated the constitution of 1867 believed that the strength of the states and the weakness of the federal governments had caused the war. The made-in-Canada preventative against civil war was "peace, order, and good government". John A. Macdonald and the other framers drafted the BNA Act to provide a strong federal government and relatively weak provinces. We should not be shocked or offended by McPherson's thesis; it is a thesis he shares with many of the Parents of Confederation.

Most of McPherson's "similarities" between Canada and pre-Civil War America are grey: economic, demographic, and social trends. The economic and demographic trends are diverse. The South was more rural, less economically developed than the North. (Quebec is more rural, less economically developed than Ontario.) The bankers were Northern (Bay Street is in Toronto). Southerners (the whites, of course) grew increasingly insecure after 1800, fearful that their relative decline in population would reduce their region's power in the larger federation. (Mr. Bouchard's clear message is that Quebec is under siege.) Despite-or perhaps because of-this insecurity, Southern politicians commanded disproportionate power in federal politics. (Name three non-Quebec prime ministers who lasted more than eight months, and Macdonald doesn't count.) The Granddaddy of the Southern "States' Rights" movement, John C. Calhoun, called for a form of sovereignty-association.

For McPherson, social trends are paramount. He presents the Civil War as a "conflict between ethnic and civil nationalism". Definitions of these two nationalisms lie at the heart of his account. "Ethnic nationalism" means "the sense of national identity and loyalty shared by a group of people united among themselves and distinguished from others by one or more of the following factors: language, religion, culture, and, most important, a belief in the common genetic or biological descent of the group". "Civic nationalism" seems to be a spruced-up version of adherence to the rule of law. For the civic nationalist, society is stuck together not by common roots, but by law.

McPherson cites a variety of original sources to support his argument that Southerners regarded themselves as ethnically different from and certainly superior to Northerners. The Southern secessionist elite claimed that Southern whites were ethnically (genetically) different from and superior to Northern whites. The Southern ethnic nationalist advanced the goofy genetic theory that the Northern states were settled by (inferior) Britons and Saxons, while the South was settled by (superior) Cavaliers, direct descendants of the Norman Barons! McPherson argues that many Southerners-particularly opinion leaders- believed in these stupid ethnic distinctions. According to McPherson's definition, this belief is enough to constitute an ethnic nationalism. Its inaccuracy is immaterial.

The North was motivated by "civic nationalism": the emotional attachment to the principles of the American Revolution. Ethnic nationalism is "blood", civic nationalism "water"; hence the book's title. In Canada, Quebec separatists are ethnic nationalists, federalist are civic nationalists.

Many will challenge McPherson's analysis of Quebec and his comparison of Quebec to the slave-owning South. More fundamentally, he does not adequately explain the Civil War since his thesis can only explain secession. He cannot explain the war, because a Northern "civic nationalist" would have had no reason to kill Southern secessionists to preserve the union. A civic nationalist would have said, "If the South wants to separate, let them."

Secession is one thing; civil war is another. In the thirty years before the Civil War, many recognized that secession would not necessarily mean there would be war. Tocqueville, the great observer of America, thought that the union would fail, but that civil war was unlikely. (The best parts of McPherson's essay are updates on Tocqueville's more delicate analysis of the differences between North and South.) Tocqueville was wrong because he could not have predicted Abraham Lincoln. McPherson's analysis falls short because it does not recognize Lincoln's central role in the start of the war.

To simplify for the sake of brevity: In 1858, Lincoln drove Stephen Douglas into a debating corner, from which Douglas could not lead or keep together his coalition. If he had not "broken" Douglas, he would not have been elected President.

Had Lincoln not been elected President, the South would not have seceded. Had he not maintained the federal troops at Fort Sumter, there would have been no war.

McPherson's book does not help Canadians develop a plan to get us through our constitutional crisis. The reader is left thinking that ethnic nationalism is bad and civic nationalism is good. Or, if you are Québécois, maybe it is the other way around. Why then is it worth reading?

If you accept even a few of what McPherson calls the "striking parallels", you should be open to consider the arguments of Lincoln, who both intellectually and militarily defeated the Southern "ethnic nationalists". McPherson gives us good reason to suspect that an American who died six score and thirteen years ago might have something useful to say to Canadians. He makes it easier for Canadians to take Lincoln seriously.

Bryan Schwartz's Last Best Hope is explicitly based on the premise that we can learn a lot from Lincoln. If Canadians think of Lincoln at all, we think of him as the Great Emancipator, the President who led the North to victory over the South. But Schwartz, a law professor at the University of Manitoba, reminds us that he presented a variety of arguments against the South's claim that each state had a right to unilaterally secede from the federal union.

Schwartz argues three major points that bear directly on the current constitutional debates.

1. Quebec has no legal or moral right to unilaterally withdraw from Canada;

2. A stronger and more unified Canada can be built on what he calls "balanced and visible federalism"; and

3. There is no guarantee that a unilateral separation by Quebec would be peaceful.

With all these arguments, Schwartz's analysis draws upon statements made by Lincoln, primarily in various speeches shortly before or during the first few months of the Civil War. Schwartz's arguments are at their best when they are most tightly integrated into Lincoln's analysis.

By the early summer of 1861, most of the Southern states had seceded, and Lincoln claimed "no choice was left but to call out the war power of the [federal] Government." On July 4th, Lincoln spoke to Congress and advanced his arguments against the Southern states' claim that they had a right to unilateral separation. In quoting him, I will add in square brackets the Canadian equivalents:

"If all the States [provinces], save one, should assert the power to drive that one [Quebec] out of the union [Confederation], it is presumed that the whole class of seceder politicians would at once deny the power, and denounce the act as the greatest outrage upon the State's [Quebec's] rights. But supposing that precisely the same act, instead of being called `driving the one out', should be called `the seceding of the others from that one' [the separation of B.C., Nova Scotia, etc. from Quebec], it would be exactly what the seceders [Quebec separatists] claim to do; and unless, indeed, they make the point, that the one [Quebec], because it is a minority, may rightfully do what the others, because they are a majority, may not rightfully do."

Lincoln undermined the moral claim of the seceding politicians by confronting them with the "moral logic of reversal". Schwartz updates the point with this provocative question: Do a majority of Canada's provinces have the right to unilaterally expel Quebec? He argues that they would have no legitimate basis for expelling Quebec from Canada against its wishes. The reverse is also true; Quebec has no legitimate basis to separate from Canada against the majority's wishes.

Throughout, Schwartz uses a technique of first quoting from Lincoln and then presenting his own comparison to the Canadian or Quebec situation. He selects a variety of Lincoln's topics for this treatment. For example, he refers to territory seceding from seceding states and returning to the union (West Virginia seceding from Virginia and returning to the union) to support the argument for the partition of an independent Quebec, with a chunk of it returning to or staying with Canada.

Of course, the relevance of Lincoln's speeches varies. He did not have much to say about "entitlement programs", so he offers no serious support for Schwartz's views on an improved "visible federalism". In many ways, a six-page section called "Lincoln, Fort Sumter, & the Descent into Violence" is the most sobering part of the essay. The North and the South seemed to stumble into war although both sides professed to desire peace and although war was clearly not in the interest of the more visible aggressor, the South.

After the war broke out at Fort Sumter, Lincoln, in the same July 4th speech, calls the United States as an "experiment" in popular and liberal government. In his most famous speech-which Schwartz quotes in its entirety at the start of the essay-Lincoln said that the war was "testing whether [the United States], or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure." For him, the war would decide whether or not government of the people, by the people, for the people, would perish from the earth.

Schwartz will not say the same about Canada. He does not want to puff up the federalist cause since, for him, Canada is not an experiment in popular government per se, but is an experiment about whether federalism is a successful means of resolving ethnic tensions. If Canadian federalism fails, then the lesson learned by the rest of the world is that ethnic accommodation easily leads to disintegration and that the state must promote linguistic and cultural uniformity. Schwartz's book would have been better if he had asked whether popular government or liberal democracy is still an experiment at the end of the twentieth century. Most human beings have not, and do not now, live in liberal democracies. Maybe Canada too is an experiment in popular government per se. Maybe liberal democracy is rare, fragile, and always subject to challenge and defeat.

Schwartz could have explored the "experiment" by examining Lincoln's arguments on liberal democracy and slavery.

Although he quotes at length from the First Inaugural, Schwartz does not present the core of its argument. Lincoln maintained that in all political questions, society divides "into majorities and minorities. If the minority will not acquiesce, the majority must, or the government must cease. There is no other alternative; for continuing the government, is acquiescence on one side or the other. If a minority, in such case, will secede rather than acquiesce, they make a precedent which, in turn, will divide and ruin them; for a minority of their own will secede from them, whenever a majority refuses to be controlled by such minority. For instance, why may not any portion of the new confederacy, a year or two hence, arbitrarily secede again, precisely as portions of the present Union now claim to secede from it. All who cherished disunion sentiments, are now being educated into the exact temper of doing this. Is there such perfect identity of interest among the States to compose a new Union, as to produce harmony only, and prevent renewed secession?

"Plainly, the central idea of secession, is the essence of anarchy. A majority, held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily [my emphasis], with deliberate changes in public opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people. Whoever rejects it does, of necessity, fly to anarchy or to despotism. Unanimity is impossible; the rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that rejecting the majority principle, anarchy, or despotism in some form, is all that is left."

Regrettably, Schwartz does not take up Lincoln's analysis and assess whether Quebec separatists really do reject the majority principle, and if so, whether they take up "anarchy or despotism in some form".

He does give us a clue to what he might have said about this, when he observes that "it is not easy to understand" why the more trendy Quebec separatists say they want an "officially Francophone but multi-ethnic and tolerant" cosmopolitan society, yet insist that separation from a multi-ethnic Canada is necessary. Schwartz also delicately refers to "a risk that an independent Quebec would take a turn toward parochialism and outright intolerance".

Schwartz (like McPherson) does not present or analyse Lincoln's criticism of the "ethnic" basis of slavery. Repeatedly, Lincoln tried to convince the slaveholders and their supporters that slavery was against their self-interest. In 1854, he wrote:

"If A. can prove, however conclusively, that he may, of right, enslave B.-why may not B. snatch the same argument, and prove equally, that he may enslave A.?

"You say A. is white and B. is black. It is color then; the lighter, having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are to be a slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own."

And again at the end of one of his campaign speeches in 1858, Lincoln reminded the pro-slavery members of his audience that slavery jeopardized their own freedom:

"When.you have succeeded in dehumanizing the negro; when you have put him down and made it forever impossible for him to be but as the beast of the field; when you have extinguished his soul and placed him where the ray of hope is blown out in darkness like that which broods over the spirits of the damned; are you quite sure the demon which you have roused will not turn and rend you? What constitutes the bulwark of our own liberty and independence?. Our reliance is in the love of liberty which God has planted in our bosoms. Our defense is in the preservation of the spirit which prizes liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands, everywhere. Destroy this spirit, and you have planted the seeds of despotism around your own doors. Familiarize yourselves with the chains of bondage, and you are preparing your own limbs to wear them. Accustomed to trample on the rights of those around you, you have lost the genius of your own independence, and become the fit subjects of the first cunning tyrant who rises." (Lincoln's emphasis)

For Lincoln, claims for ethnic superiority are wrong and against the self-interest of those who claim to be superior. These arguments should be examined in the Canadian context. If these arguments are readily imported, then all Canadians-and not just Québécois-should be reminded that once you permit and encourage ethnic politics, the kind of politics that favours one group while it discriminates against another, you necessarily encourage the conditions for oppression against all groups, including your own.

As well as making Lincoln accessible to Canadians, Schwartz performs another valuable service. He adopts an argument advanced by James Madison (revolutionary and President during the War of 1812) to encourage liberals in English Canada to support the federalist cause. By "liberals", I mean lovers of liberty, not the party. In a three-page mini-chapter called "Federalism as a Safeguard for Minority & Individual Rights", Schwartz just misses hitting pay dirt when he discusses Madison's famous Federalist No. 51.

Schwartz correctly points out that the American constitutional framers believed that the federal system best protected individual and minority freedom. The federal system-the division of powers between the federal and state governments-combined with the division of powers within each type of government provided the best constitutional assurance of liberty. Schwartz rightly argues that in an independent Quebec, with all government power vested in whatever party has the majority in Quebec City, individual and minority rights are at greater risk. Now, government authority rests in two different legislatures, almost always controlled by different parties, and always run by different politicians with widely diverging interests. Divided power is less likely to oppress individuals and minorities.

Schwartz only briefly refers to Madison's discussion of the kind of society that best protects freedom. Because Madison's analysis addresses vital concerns for all Canadians, it merits a more expanded discussion. The American framers recognized that federalism alone would not protect minority rights. Such rights are best protected in a society where majorities are not easily formed. A majority is less easily formed in a federal system in a vast commercial republic, with different kinds and degrees of property, wealth, and interests. In Federalist No. 51, Madison wrote:

"It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part.. If a majority [of society] be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure. [A minority can be protected] by comprehending in the society so many separate descriptions of citizens as will render an unjust combination of a majority of the whole very improbable, if not impracticable.. [In the federal republic of the United States], whilst all authority in it will be derived from and dependent on the society, the society itself will be so broken into so many parts, interests and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority. In a free government the security of civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case on the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects. The degree of security in both cases will depend on the number of interests and sects; this may be presumed to depend on the extent of country and number of people comprehended under the same government."

For Madison, the larger, the more diverse the society the less the likelihood an oppressive majority can form itself. In a diverse society, there is no majority group that can coalesce around "ethnic nationalist" appeals. For Madison (and for Lincoln, who said that a majority is "always changing easily"), "coalition" politics is ideal. Majorities are cobbled together on narrow topics for quite short spans of time.

The larger the country (though Madison said there are "practicable" limits to the size of a federal state), the greater the chance of a diverse society. Big is better. Toward the end of Federalist No. 51, Madison wrote that if Rhode Island separated, the society would be so small that democratic government would not last long.

The federalist argument to Quebec liberals is that Quebec society is less diverse than Canadian society as a whole (including Quebec). For that reason, a unified government in an independent Quebec would pose a greater risk to minority and individual liberty. Adapting Madison's hypothesis of a separated Rhode Island, liberals can predict that in a separated Quebec:

"The insecurity of rights under the popular form of government within such narrow limits would be displayed by such reiterated oppressions of factious majorities that some power altogether independent of the people would soon be called for by the voice of the very factions whose mistake had proved the necessity of it."

A similar argument should be made to liberals in the other nine provinces. Without Quebec, Canadian society would be smaller, less diverse, less fluid. The power of Western politicians would significantly increase. English Canadian liberals should think through whether a Canada without Quebec will help or harm the prospects for individual and minority freedom in what would be left of Canada. If the Federalists and Lincoln were right, then a Canada without Quebec will have worse prospects. That being so, liberals in every province should start advancing the arguments for maintaining Canada as the best way of protecting everyone's freedom. Contingency planning might also be in order. The presence of the Atlantic provinces in a post-Quebec Canada would be essential, despite the logistical challenges. Ontario might have other options; perhaps some kind of revamped "Upper and Lower Canada" alliance is not too far-fetched. But for liberals in the Western provinces, Atlantic Canada is critical and may be the best last hope for all of English Canada.

This review was written shortly after the close of the oral argument before the Supreme Court in the Quebec Separation Reference case. A decision is not expected for several months. Neither McPherson nor Schwartz compares the roles of the U.S. and the Canadian Supreme Courts. The U.S. Supreme Court's pro-slavery Dred Scott decision gave Lincoln the issue upon which to forge the political base that got him elected President. The Canadian Supreme Court has a federalist slant. Schwartz hopes that the Court will write a persuasive decision in the Reference, but he is sure that the federal government will win. The separatists (and some federalists) say it does not matter what the Court does, since separation is a political, not a legal, question. In this, Lincoln might agree with Bouchard. In the First Inaugural, a speech dedicated to preserving the Union, he said:

"This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or their revolutionary right to dismember, or overthrow it." (Lincoln's emphasis)

He continued the speech with a strangely detailed discussion of constitutional amendments, the President's limited tenure and limited power, and the advantages of careful deliberation, but he never returned to the topic of the "revolutionary right to dismember, or overthrow" a government whenever the people "grow weary" of it. Whatever Lincoln meant by this revolutionary right, it is reasonably clear that he would not have thought that a court judgement was the final definer of that right. After all, Lincoln was an American revolutionary. 

Jason Hanson is a Toronto lawyer.


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