The Canada Threat

Civil War Emancipation is supposed to be a blog about the U.S. Civil War and emancipation (hence the name), but I hope everyone will grant me a whimsical post unrelated to freedom for the slaves at the end of the week (as an excuse, let me note Brooks Simpson at Crossroads and Andy Hall at Dead Confederates often indulge in less than totally serious posts over at their Civil War-related blogs).

Due to an accident of ancestry, I am a dual-U.S.-Canadian citizen (my mother hails from north of the 49th parallel, although except for visits I’ve spent my entire life south of the line). So when I was surfing the web recently for material for Civil War Emancipation, I was amused to find the following editorial in the New York Times, dated October 14, 1861, entitled “The Canada Threat.” As any Canadian will tell you, the United States always has represented a much greater threat to Canada than Canada does to the United States. Still, it must be admitted in 1861, Canada was still a colony of Great Britain (and would continue to be so until 1867, when Canada finally became independent) and Americans were justifiably concerned about British intervention in the conflict (given its interest in southern cotton), there was a threat of sorts from Canada, but nothing as serious as the following editorial suggested.

The Canada Threat.

In spite of the neutral declaration of Great Britain, we have evidence of the strongest kind that the Government of that country, whatever its professions may be, is influenced, in its America policy, by an unquestionable partiality. Not to speak of the bias of the London Press, and notoriously of those journals supposed to receive their inspiration from official sources, we wait in vain for a rebuke to those West Indian authorities who permitted a rebel privateer to take in coal, provisions, and even munitions of war, at Port of Spain, in the Island of Trinidad. No satisfactory explanation has been yet given of the large additions to the army in Canada; and assured, as we must be, that the sentiment of the governing classes in England is hostile to a reconstruction of the Union, we may well doubt, without being over suspicious, the honesty of the excuses advanced for the military movements in the adjacent Province. We have been so utterly deceived in regard to the reputed aversion of the British Government and people to Slavery and slave institutions, that we may be pardoned, for the future, if we mistrust their professions and doubt their most solemn assurances.

The increase of the English army in Canada, though not sufficiently great to indicate any sudden movement of aggression, is still large enough, in view of the leaning of the Government, to excite grave apprehension, and to form the subject of an international remonstrance. Under no possible interpretation of the existing relations between the two countries could a British Ministry affect to believe that America, with a rebellion on her hands taxing all her energies and resources, is contemplating a wanton attack on a powerful colony. Yet this is the fear to which English and Canadian prints have given free expression! No sensible person of course believes it; for it is not derogatory to the position and character of this country to admit that at the present time, a war with such a Power as England would be a most disastrous calamity. To avoid it we would be justified in making almost any sacrifice short of National honor.

Lord PALMERSTON has well said that the surest way to avoid war is to make your enemy understand that you are fully prepared to meet it. Knowing, then, as we now do, that the separation of the Northern and Southern sections of the Union is a part of British policy, and an object that British statesmen desire to set accomplished, we should not neglect any of those warnings that indicate and advance from passive hope to active interference. We look upon the reinforcements of the Canadian garrisons as a step in the latter direction. The move is wholly unnecessary, except in so far as it may be regarded as a standing menace to the Republic. If it be objected that the love in the Canadas is inconsiderable, it must be remembered that there is a beginning to all things, and that the first is ever the most important step. When the East India Government encamped a regiment on the frontiers of Oude, its wretched King was dreaming away his life in unconscious security. When that regiment swelled to a brigade, and the brigade to an army, pitiless and insensible, the King of Oude discovered the design, but all we have to struggle against the fate that swept away his inheritance. History admonishes us of the subtlety, determination and force with which threat Britain prosecutes her national schemes of self-interest.

In our case she has not left us in doubt as to her sympathy and bias. When, with indecent haste, she declared a neutrality between the United States and the “belligerent” rebels, it was an open insult to our sovereignty. For, reversing the cases: — suppose that France, Russia, or the United States, at the outbreak of the Irish rebellion in 1848, had pursued a similar course, how many days would have passed before an explanation would have been demanded in no very measured language? Appreciating, then, the feeling by which the governing classes of Great Britain are actuated, we do not think that any movement, particularly of ships or soldiers, should pass unchallenged. The regular troops, in the Province of Canada alone, have been increased from 7,500 to about 12,000 men, and the artillery arm of the service, especially, has been strengthened beyond all precedent. English papers report that some 4,000 men are again ready to embark for the same colony. In a month or two we may hear of a third expedition having a similar destination, and so on, until any remonstrance on our part would be foolish and useless. During last Summer a very large and altogether unusual quantify of war munitions were landed and stored at Quebec. Besides these preparations, the Provincial militia and volunteers corps have been increased and raised to a point of serviceable efficiency; and Government organs throughout the colony — the Toronto Leader, for example — use all their influence to excite in the Canadian mind sentiments of bitter hostility against our people and Government.

We look upon the matter as one that calls for inquiry, if not for the positive interference of our Government. We have a right to ask of Great Britain whether she is using Canada as a menace, or is seeking by such means to encourage the attempt to dismember the Republic. There is prima facie evidence of such a design. The idea, indeed, prevails to some extent in the Province itself; and though the danger is neither imminent nor great, it is still sufficiently serious to demand attention, and call for some preparation.

Fortunately, Abraham Lincoln apparently did not take very seriously the Canadian threat in the U.S. Civil War (unlike the fictional president in Canadian Bacon played by Alan Alda–see below). More proof that the Great Emancipator was the greatest U.S. President.


About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at
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