Letter addressed to the Speakers of the Several Assemblies in the British North American Colonies

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Letter addressed to the Speakers of the Several Assemblies in the British North American Colonies
by Louis-Joseph Papineau
Louis-Joseph Papineau, Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada, leader of the reformists in this province, addressed this letter to the other Speakers of British North America to sketch them the nature of the reforms demanded by the elected representatives of Lower Canada and to invite them to cooperate in a common effort to obtain responsible governments in all colonies.

House of Assembly, Quebec, 15th March 1836

Sir:

In the exposition of the extent and nature of the reforms demanded by the people of this Province, and in the resolutions of their representatives which I transmit to you by order of the House of Assembly, we hope a proof will be found of the earnestness with which we are endeavoring to secure the establishment and recognition of the political rights of our colonial fellow subjects, as well as of our own. To whatever extent the blessings of a just, cheap and responsible system of Government are obtained by us, to that extent and amount will the people of the other British North American colonies also participate in the same blessings.

They cannot but readily understand how various and how grinding are the abuses which distract the Province when they are told that for many long and painful years, the people have directly by petitions or through their representatives, in terms of no common emphasis and by majorities so overwhelming that one might say without impropriety, unanimously impugned the administration of affairs in every department of the public service. They have demanded the option of measures alone adequate to the cure of the various abuses which have sprung from imperfect institutions, acknowledged by a Committee of the House of Commons so far back as 1828, to have been viciously administered. So late as the year 1835, it was admitted both in the House of Commons and in the House of Lords, on the ministerial as well as on the opposition benches, by men the most opposite on their opinions on every question of domestic or European policy, with a concert which could arise from no other cause than the clearest evidence of the fact that nothing efficient had as yet been done in Canada to remedy acknowledged abuses denounced by this House, denounced by His Majesty's Government, repeatedly denounced by Committees of the House of Commons which enjoined the Ministers to see that they should cease.

These Ministers, we impeach as being unwilling to effect the good work of peace and conciliation when charged so to do. We impeach them for their instructions of the 17th July 1835, devised with a view to impose a Government upon us which will be more irresponsible than it has ever been in time past, more prodigal of our lands and taxes, which constitute the common fund, more oppressive by the number of its agents and their excessive emoluments, out of all just proportion to the value of their services rendered, and more servile on account of its more direct dependence on Downing Street, where they never understood, where they are unwilling to understand, that the state of society all over continental America requires that the forms of its governments should approximate nearer to that selected under propitious circumstances, and after mature consideration by the wise statesmen of the neighbouring Union, than to those into which chance and past ages have moulded European societies.

We crave your attention to the contradictions manifest in these instructions of the Colonial Minister above alluded to. They first theoritically acknowledged a few protecting axioms of public colonial law, the salutary operations of which they practically obstruct and then fritter them down to insignificance by niceties and hypothetical extreme cases which the Minister creates to justify the exceptions he chooses to make to their application.

Thus the Minister of the day admits that parliamentary legislation on the part of Great Britain on any exclusively internal subject in any British colony possessing a representative assembly, is, as a general rule, unconstitutional. Yet by Canada Trade acts, Tenure acts, smuggled American Land Company acts, this general rule has been repeatedly, grossly violated. By the first of these acts, temporary taxes imposed during the late war, for the duration of that war and no longer, as a means of aiding Great Britain to preserve a resting place on this Continent, have been ungratefully and oppressively revived and made permanent by the Imperial Parliament. It is true that the Government of Upper Canada induced a bribed or unweary Parliament to petition for the revival and continuance of those taxes, but a treacherous Governor of this Province withheld from this Assembly the information of this fact transmitted to him to be communicated to the representatives of the People of this colony. For years the assemblies of both the Canadas have been endeavoring to settle this important question but the useful bills to provide for the appointment of Commissioners have until now been rejected by the Legislative Councils of the one or the other of these Provinces in turn.

By the other Imperial acts, property affected in its incidents and conditions of possession and transmission, has been rendered insecure. An odious monopoly which retards the settlement of the Country has been created; the administration of justice has been impeded by an attempt to introduce a second system of laws in a Country where courts were constituted and judges commissioned and sworn to administer a different system of law.

Of this unconstitutional parliamentary legislation, on the part of Great Britain, on subjects of an exclusively internal nature, in a British Colony possessing a representative Assembly, this House has repeatedly but hitherto ineffectually complained.

Were we to resign ourselves to a degrading system of servitude, do you hope, do you believe that the Ministerial policy which would degrade us would consent to concede to you an ennobling system of freedom to that extent you deserve, under which the rapid and easy expansion of the moral, intellectual and industrial capacities of the robust and rapidly accumulating population in the several Provinces, would soon reveal how vast is their combined strength and resources, when no sinister and baneful influence is busy sowing dissensions or exciting by misrepresentations, hurtful prejudices amongst those who have so many great and common interests. If misrule went on unchecked in any of these neighboring colonies without exciting our sympathy, your ills would soon become our ills and ours would reach you in turn.

If, however, you are free from improper and unconstitutional parliamentary legislation, we rejoice that such is your happier lot; if you have to complain of evils similar to ours, or of any other evils, all constitutional means in the power of the people of this Province would readily be resorted to aid you in their removal. Such good offices, it is the duty of every Colony to tender and to accept in turn.

The present colonial Minister who is forced to acknowledge the correct axiom that British colonists possessing a representative Assembly are of right freed from the legislation of the Imperial Parliament, is so attached to the privileges enjoyed by his predecessors in office of misgoverning these distant possessions, that he hesitates not to lay bare (in his instructions to Sir Francis Head) in all its naked diformity the Colonial system as it is understood and expounded in Downing Street. The inferences which are manifestly to be deduced from these encroaching instructions are that in the most minute details every thing though of an exclusively internal nature in British Colonies having representative Assemblies must be carefully kept under the patronage, direction and official legislation of the Colonial Office. The remonstrances of near a million people in the Canadas constitutionally expressed by their representatives, disturb too much the set doctrines and practices traditionally transmitted from Tories to Whigs, from Lord North to Lord Glenelg, to expect the concession of any remedial measures which the sufferers claim.

The people of the Canadas laboring under the accumulating wrongs proceeding from an act of Parliament, unite as one man in demanding that that act be amended in such of its provisions as relate to their Legislative Councils, which they denounce as the cause and mainspring of all the heart burnings, distractions and sufferings in these Provinces. The Colonial Minister, four thousand miles distant from the scene of our sufferings, and naturally unable from the multiplicity of his avocations, to become acquainted of the extent of our wrongs, arrogantly tells the Assemblies that have declared that all remedial measures short of rendering the seats in the Legislative Councils dependent on popular Election will be futile and unsatisfactory, that "the King is most unwilling to admit as open to debate the question whether one of the vital principles of this provincial Government shall undergo alteration."

His deceitful agents, the Royal Commissioners to whom those Instructions were addressed told this Assembly, on the other hand, that they are not precluded from entering on an enquiry on this grave subject.

Instead of freely communicating those Instructions to the Legislature of the Province on its being convened, on whose determinations they could not but have had great influence, the Royal Commissioners carefully withheld those Instructions and it was not until after nearly four months session that the representatives of this Province by chance learned the suppressed truths from the Newspapers of the day. And thus for months have we been unfairly deprived of all means of protesting and remonstrating, at an early season, against the tyrannical tendencies of these Downing Street despatches against the gross errors of fact which they contain against the unteneable assumption that the Councils created by the Act of 1791 have any analogies either with the aristocratical Institutions of Great Britain and Ireland or with the Councils of the other British Colonies and against the heinousness of the conduct of this pretended liberal Minister who casts off and derides the prophetic warnings of Charles James Fox, of the miseries that Mr. Pitt's pseudo-aristocratic Councils were to entail on these Colonies, and were it not that his base dissembling had thus lulled us into false security, our complaints would, ere now, have been before the Imperial Parliament.

The Act of 1791 was part and parcel of the now repudiated policy of Mr. Pitt to build up an aristocracy in this hemisphere and to strengthen its power. The population of these Northern colonies has quintupled since the passing of that act; the soil of America repudiates a privileged aristocracy, yet the sages who have our destinies entrusted to their care tell us that they will not close the avenue to any enquiry respecting which for the present they perceive no reasonable ground of doubt; but that they may possibly take into consideration at some future time the best means to discard the views of a million people who ask for Elective Councils, who desire to see nothing rationally to envy in the Institutions of their neighbours, and who have a right to claim, if they see fit, and who would beneficially enjoy, as much of political freedom as was the lot of the most favored of the British subjects within the limits of Colonies founded by Charters of Incorporations.

These sages tell us moreover that if, contrary to their forebodings, they are driven by our importunities to propose amendments to the statute of 31st Geo: 3, ch: 31, it would not be in accordance with the views and wishes of the living generations oppressed by its enactments, but in accordance wit the views and wishes of its bribed and pensioned and long since buried framers. To menaces such as these we can only reply that we value too highly a representative form of Government to sanction any attempt to enfringe our constitutional rights; and such violent attacks on those rights could not but excite feelings ruinous to the interests of the parent state on this Continent.

For a long number of years the Government of this Province and its officers have been in continued minorities in the House of Assembly. Their blind obstinacy to the same oppressive and illiberal policy brought at last the administration into such thorough contempt and so disgusted the mass of the People and their representatives that these on the 21st February 1834, Resolved that the public functionaries of the Colony are combined as a faction, and induce by interest alone to contend for the support of a corrupt Government inimical to the rights and opposed to the wishes of the People. And had recourse further to the extreme though constitutional remedy of withholding the supplies until the numerous grievances detailed in the 92 Resolutions, then adopted, should be redressed, and the remedies demanded to prevent their recurrence be granted.

The then Governor in chief in an angry and unparliamentary speech, with which he closed the session of 1834, endeavored but in vain to throw a censure, and create odium on these deliberate opinions of the House of Assembly of this Province asserting groundlessly that the sentiments of the Constituency did not respond to the solemn declarations of their representatives and that the People were attached to the Government as it was constituted and administered. General elections soon followed and the result was that not a single candidate connected by office to the Provincial Government could secure a seat; whilst those who were returned have repeatedly declared their adherence to the principles avowed in those Resolutions in a proportion of eighty out of eighty eight members, the full number of the representatives.

Instead of grappling with evils of such magnitude and old standing Lord Glenelg has thrown together raw and undigested ideas as to the means of checking some of the minor abuses. Policy such as this might be considered a disingenuous effort to uphold by mild palliatives the system which generated these and much greater abuses. But on the other hand open and violent attacks are directed in those menacing Instructions against the most necessary and just rules by which freeborn British Colonists have striven to protect themselves against improper interference on the part of meddling colonial Ministers.

With this view importunate solicitations are renewed to obtain appropriations for ten years under the plea that Lower Canada would thus be more connected with the other members of the British Empire.

We on the contrary consider that were we to succumb in this assault against the policy that generally prevails in the colonies and which was adopted to protect colonists against the natural and habitual partiality of Downing Street in favor of its nominees, the calumnious concessions would separate us from and exhibit us in a most unenviable comparison with the most of our sister colonies, that the precedent which we would thus establish would expose many colonies, hitherto in a great measure free from this evil working system, to be assailed by the same demands, sophistries or menaces to which we have been unfairly exposed for the last fifteen years during the protracted controversies and discussions of the financial question arising out of the pretensions of the Colonial Ministers.

The attempt to create classes and distinctions among public officers (some of whom would be absolute uncontrolled in whatever excesses they might run for their salaries and other submitted to annual discussions) is so shallow and preposterous a scheme to consolidate the present vicious system that it scarcely requires refutation. Lord Glenelg seems not to understand that however great is the rank, station and importance of a colonial Minister and of all the other Ministers of His Majesty, his Crown officers and legal advisors, they hold their large emoluments of office by a more precarious tenure than Colonial officers subject to the annual vote of the Assemblies. In order that responsibility should attach to the acts of the highest officers of state, the British constitution, in principle and in practice, has wisely entrusted to the representative branch of the Legislature the power of the purse, to use it as they think right and proper. The Commons have established their right to intervene as well in matters of state as of Legislation by reserving to themselves sufficiently large annual appropriations to enforce on the most unwilling Government obedience to its recommendations. They moreover have secured the responsibility of the highest functionaries by the establishment of a proper tribunal to bring to the most condign punishment, yea, even to the forfeiture of life, any of those who in the discharge of their official duties had become the oppressors of the People.

Although the civil list be granted for the life of the king all the officers connected with the service of the state with the exception of a few of the officers of the household attached to the Royal Person are, to use the improper expressions of Lord Glenlg, daily beggars not on the King's good will, but on the Commons whose wishes call them to office, or turn them out of office in some cases after a few days, in others after years of service, but in every instance on a lease revocable at will.

In giving despatches for the direction of a Governor sent to Upper Canada where a permanent appropriation was procured by misrepresentation and surprise, and where the utmost discontent and indignation have existed as well against the Government as against the Assembly which had surrendered its power, and just influence and thus betrayed the rights of its constituents, how can Lord Glenelg pretend that an appropriation for a long period would produce contentment in Lower Canada where the demands have for fifteen years been invariably resisted?

In many other respects might these Instructions be commented on to prove a deep laid plot and a wicked determination among those who penned them not to consent to any rational reforms in the Colonies in opposition to the blind prejudices and routine business of Downing Street. But this hurried commentary drawn up in the mist of the fatigues attendant on a lengthened session, will I hope suffice.

Elected and solemnly pledged to procure a redress of the grievances under which the people of this Province suffer, and to carry out the principles laid down in the Resolutions transmitted herewith the practical operation of which can alone prevent a recurrence of those evils, we have been assailed and denounced by the enemies of a responsible form of Government. Those interested in the continuance of the present system of misrule have been actively engaged in misrepresenting our views in the hope of sowing division and animosity among the people of the Colonies, and by these means crushing therein the cause of reform. In defense of principles which are dear to the mass of the inhabitants of British North America, we hesitate not to publish them to the world, satisfied that our views need only to be known to be respected.

In the position which this province has long ago taken in defense of colonial rights, she has acted from no factious opposition, nor from any local prejudices. All she requires is direct responsibility to her people in the several Departments of the state and economy in her Government. Should she succeed in obtaining these, there cannot be a doubt but the people of the other British Provinces must obtain the same extent of political liberty.

In the hope, Sir, that the Assembly of which you are the organ will cooperate with the representatives of this Province in procuring a better colonial system of Government for all, I beg to assure you of the readiness with which the Assembly of Lower Canada will use all constitutional means in its power to advance the mutual interests of the British North American Colonies.

I have the honor to be, Sir, your most obedient and humble servant.

L.J. Papineau

This work published before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.