The Colonial Office and British North America, 1801–50
During the 18th century both the territorial limits of the British empire, in North America and elsewhere, and the institutions of the imperial government in London were in an almost constant state of flux. The Seven Years’ War and the American revolution clarified the boundaries of the empire and in 1801 responsibility for the colonies was given to the secretary of state for war and the colonies. With the end of the Napoleonic Wars the department was preoccupied with colonial business and became generally known as the Colonial Office. During the Crimean War another secretary of state was created to take over the war department, and from 1854 until 1925, when a separate Dominions Office was established, the Colonial Office had the primary responsibility for managing the overseas possessions of the crown (excluding India).
For a century and a quarter the Colonial Office played a decisive part in determining the destiny of the North American colonies. Particularly before responsible government was introduced into those colonies in the 1840s and 1850s, its views were a critical factor in the calculations of the governors and the governed in British North America. The files of the department literally bulge with letters of advice, of warning, of complaint, and of special pleading from priests and politicians, businessmen and landowners, immigrants and sojourners who had interests to pursue or to protect in the colonies. Frequently the colonists had only a hazy idea of how the Colonial Office was organized and how it functioned but they knew it was an institution that in innumerable ways affected them in their daily lives.
For most of the 19th century the Colonial Office was housed in two dilapidated buildings in London which were condemned in 1839 by the select committee on public offices as unsafe and unworthy of repair. Within these crowded and inadequate quarters at 13 and 14 Downing Street a handful of public servants laboured to run the British empire. They received limited praise from their contemporaries. During the first half of the century the Colonial Office was the object of continuous abuse by a wide range of interest groups both in London and in the colonies. Its principal critics in Britain were the so-called colonial reformers, particularly Edward Gibbon
This view of the Colonial Office as an ignorant and unresponsive bureaucracy answerable for all of the disasters in imperial policy has become so deeply entrenched in Canadian historiography that it is unlikely ever to be entirely eradicated. Yet it is based upon a distorted image of the Colonial Office. During the first half of the 19th century the Colonial Office evolved from a department organized around the personality of the secretary of state into the prototype of a modern bureaucracy. In 1801 the office possessed neither the administrative competence nor the bureaucratic machinery to play a major role in the formulation of policy. Lacking the assistance of an efficient and knowledgeable body of subordinates, the secretary of state had to rely for advice upon reports from officials in the colonies or from self-interested pressure groups in London. Inevitably information about the colonies collected in this haphazard fashion was defective. Year by year after 1801, however, the quantity and quality of information received by the Colonial Office improved. The institution of the blue books in the 1820s, prepared in the colonies according to general guide-lines laid down in London, provided one source of valuable knowledge and in the 1830s colonial authorities were required to send home reports on an ever wider variety of subjects. A representative sample of newspapers and a comprehensive collection of books and pamphlets about British North America were diligently examined by the expanding bureaucracy of the Colonial Office. In fact, by the 1830s the office had evolved what was by contemporary standards a relatively efficient system of collecting, storing, and retrieving information. Egerton
As the internal organization of the Colonial Office improved, British ministers were able to supervise more effectively the activities of their subordinates in British North America. Prior to the mid 1820s the department exercised only a perfunctory control over British officials in the colonies. Indeed, many lesser officials were appointed and dismissed by other government departments in Britain, and the Colonial Office had little knowledge of how adequately or inadequately such officials performed their duties. Until the 1820s it did not even realize how grossly overpaid many of these functionaries were, since they were frequently rewarded by fees rather than paid salaries. Even the governors, whom it appointed and whose salaries it monitored, received few positive instructions from the Colonial Office, and as a result they had nearly unlimited freedom of action. Of course, governors did not always get their own way. On questions of patronage they were frequently disappointed when positions in the colony were distributed according to the exigencies of British and not colonial politics. Thomas
Somewhat greater attention was paid to the affairs of the larger North American colonies because of their strategic location on the border of the United States, particularly during and immediately following the War of 1812. Indeed, in 1815 Sir George
During and immediately following the Napoleonic Wars all of the governors of the British North American colonies were, like Sir John Coape
During the first half of the 19th century the ability of colonial visitors to influence imperial policy-making also declined. As late as the 1820s representatives of the colonial elite who travelled to London – men like John Beverley Robinson and Jonathan Sewell – were co-opted into assisting the staff of the Colonial Office in formulating policy. By the 1830s the permanent officials in the department no longer required this assistance and the access of colonial visitors to the secretary of state was restricted and their influence greatly reduced. Simultaneously, the role of interest groups in Britain was drastically curtailed. In the 18th century British merchants and colonial agents, such as Joshua
There remained, of course, a vast complex of interest groups directly or indirectly concerned with specific colonial subjects. The religious lobbies were particularly active both in parliament and outside it. The strongest lobby was inevitably the Church of England and an assiduous lobbyist such as Bishop John
Although other pressure groups inevitably paled before the great religious lobbies of the period, a web of vested interests stretched across the Atlantic. The single most important strand in it was the timber trade. In the colonies the trade provided the foundation of the personal fortunes and political influence of such prominent merchants as Alexander Rankin and Peter Patterson. In Britain it gave rise to a lobby of formidable proportions, which had to maintain an active presence in parliament because the market for British North America timber had been artificially created by the preference against Baltic timber adopted during the Napoleonic Wars, and this preference came increasingly under attack from free traders after 1815. Even at the peak of the trade, however, the number of merchants in Britain engaged in importing timber was not big and their influence was local in nature, confined largely to Glasgow, Liverpool, and London, where the only important concentrations of merchants were found. What gave the timber merchants considerable influence was their alliance with the Society of Shipowners, perhaps the best organized commercial association in early 19th-century Britain. But when many shipowners came to the conclusion in the 1840s that they would benefit from a general reduction in tariffs, they abandoned their former friends.
Without the backing of the shipowners the timber merchants were too weak to protect the preference on colonial timber. Other groups in Britain with a financial or commercial stake in British North America, such as the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North American fisheries interest, were not without political influence, and to some extent their concerns were intertwined with those of the timber lobby since they also had a vested interest in the protective system. None the less, by the 1840s they were fighting a rearguard action to defend their own privileges and could provide only limited support for the timber merchants. Of course, there were numerous merchants who like Peter Buchanan were engaged in the wholesaling or retailing of British goods in the colonies, but in the main they ran small-scale operations and could bring little pressure to bear on the Colonial Office. Far more important was the much smaller number of merchant bankers with investments in the colonies, the firms – Baring Brothers among them – to which such colonial officials as Receiver General John Henry Dunn of Upper Canada had recourse when they went to London to borrow money. Yet as a proportion of the total of their overseas investments, the stake of British financial institutions in the North American colonies remained small until the building of the railways. Except for a handful of land speculators, who purchased estates or bought shares in one of the land companies founded during the 1820s and 1830s, there were few investors whose fortunes depended upon the commercial health of the North American colonies, and with rare exceptions these men had little access to the councils of the great in Britain.
One of the exceptions was Edward
Indeed, the merchants concerned with North America never rivalled in influence the far stronger West Indies interest. One glaring weakness of their organizations, such as the Canada Club (formed by Isaac
By the 1830s and 1840s the Colonial Office had developed the administrative competence to play a much more positive role in the government of the colonies. In fact, it rarely did so. The government in London seldom anticipated events; it simply responded to external pressures. The Colonial Office was essentially a regulatory agency, primarily concerned with the security of the empire, not with the growth or development of the colonies. Its major functions were to protect imperial interests by supervising the activities of the colonial governors and by scrutinizing colonial legislation and to coordinate the activities of all those metropolitan bodies with a role to play in colonial government.
In the 18th century there had been no real equivalent of the 19th-century Colonial Office. The ministers and departments of state in Britain simply assumed for the colonies responsibilities similar to those they undertook at home. A limited degree of coordination was provided by the Board of Trade and after 1768 by the short-lived American Department, but in 1782 both bodies were abolished and their supervisory role was transferred to the two secretaries of state. Later that year one secretary of state became responsible for foreign affairs and one for home affairs; the colonies were placed under the jurisdiction of the Home Department, which had little experience in colonial matters, and was unable to give much coherence or direction to the conduct of colonial policy. In 1801, largely for reasons of political convenience, the colonies were transferred to the secretary of state for war, a position created in 1794. For the duration of the Napoleonic Wars the secretary of state for war and the colonies concentrated on military affairs, but after 1815 he was relieved of a whole range of administrative duties and became, virtually by accident, primarily concerned with the colonies.
In one sense the Colonial Office as it developed in the early 1800s was a new department, providing a service that had been performed inadequately and fitfully in the previous century. Certainly the scale of its responsibilities was new. The second British empire was both larger and more diverse than the first. In theory, secretaries of state were expected to “be minutely acquainted with all the details of the business of their offices, and the only way of being constantly armed with such information is to conduct and direct those details themselves.” In practice, no secretary of state could be well informed about all the details of the affairs of a vast and heterogeneous empire. In 1846 the 3rd Earl Grey, probably the most conscientious colonial minister in the 19th century, admitted to a subordinate that he did not know whether the Auckland Islands were part of the British empire: “I see that they are coloured red in Arrowsmith’s map of the world which I suppose implies some sort of claim on our part.” Yet, although the secretary of state might know little about the distant and less important parts of the empire, he usually had some general knowledge about the British North American colonies and an idea of the principles upon which he wished those colonies to be governed. In British North American affairs he always paid comparatively close attention to the activities of his subordinates and performed much of the work himself.
Inevitably the personal ability of successive secretaries of state and the degree of interest they showed in the colonies fluctuated greatly. The six men who held the seals of the office between 1801 and 1812 – Henry Dundas, Lord Hobart, Lord Camden, Lord Castlereagh, William Windham, and Lord Liverpool – concentrated on military affairs and showed a minimum of concern with the colonies. Their successors had very limited responsibilities for military affairs after 1815, however, and were compelled to devote their primary attention to the colonies. The Colonial Office continued to suffer occasionally from poor appointments, but since the post of secretary of state carried considerable prestige and a position in the cabinet, it was usually held by a senior and distinguished politician. Collectively the 12 men who served as secretary of state between 1812 and 1850 had impressive credentials. Five – Lord Goderich, Lord Stanley, Lord Aberdeen, Lord John Russell, and William Ewart Gladstone – had been or were to become prime minister. With the exception of Sir George
Under the direction of Lord Bathurst, the secretary of state from 1812 to 1827, the Colonial Office was reorganized in the 1820s. Revisionism has been kind to Lord Bathurst. Recent studies have painted a picture of a reasonably intelligent and capable man, deeply conservative in his political philosophy but prepared to deal with specific issues pragmatically. Unfortunately Bathurst was past his prime by the 1820s and he allowed his under-secretary, Robert John Wilmot-Horton, to persuade him to adopt, during Dalhousie’s administration of Lower Canada, a policy of confrontation with the assembly over the civil list question. During the rapid change of ministries in Britain in 1827–28, neither Lord Goderich nor William Huskisson found time to make much of an impact at the Colonial Office, although Huskisson was responsible for the appointment of the House of Commons select committee on Canada in 1828 [see Sir James Kempt]. Between 1828 and 1830 Sir George Murray proved incapable of formulating a coherent response to the report of that committee, which had recognized the claims of the Lower Canadian assembly as represented by Denis‑Benjamin
Between 1835 and 1839 poor Lord Glenelg, the most maligned of the secretaries of state of this period, presided over the failure of the imperial government to find a peaceful resolution to the crisis in the Canadas. His successor, Lord Normanby, was even less capable and was quickly transferred to the Home Office. Lord John Russell, secretary of state from 1839 to 1841, and Lord Stanley, from 1841 to 1845, dominated the decision-making process within the Colonial Office in the years when the introduction of responsible government was an overriding issue. Contemporary historiography tends to assign the decision to introduce responsible government to the 3rd Earl Grey (as Lord Howick became) in the period 1846–52; in practice, however, as Adam
Even before responsible government was conceded, the authority of the secretary of state was constrained by a variety of factors. The military departments – the Admiralty, the War Office, the Ordnance, and the Horse Guards – had their own representatives overseas and were a law unto themselves. The Treasury, the Post Office, and the Board of Customs also stationed their own officials in the colonies and only gradually relinquished control over them to the local executive. The Colonial Office had running battles with the Treasury, which wished to pare imperial expenditures in the colonies to levels the Colonial Office considered unacceptable, and with the Privy Council committee for trade, established in 1784 and commonly called the Board of Trade, which sought to exercise greater control over colonial legislation than the Colonial Office believed was practicable. During the 1830s and 1840s the Colonial Office was able to exert considerable influence over other departments with lingering responsibilities in the colonies, but it could not impose its will. Frequently inter-departmental rivalries could be resolved only at the cabinet level, and sometimes not even there.
With the decline of royal authority in the 19th century the cabinet became the focus of the executive government. Yet it was, as Lord John Russell noted in 1854, “a cumbrous and unwieldy instrument” for formulating policy unless given clear guide-lines by a strong minister. In fact, the degree of interest shown by the cabinet in colonial affairs normally reflected the degree of interest shown by parliament, where the affairs of British North America were of concern only to a small minority of members. “I almost despair,” Henry Bliss, the colonial agent for New Brunswick, lamented in 1826. “The Empire is so vast and we are so distant, our affairs are but a bore.” It is true that, during the 1830s and 1840s, a significant proportion of the time of the House of Commons was devoted to British North American, and particularly Canadian, affairs. None the less, it would be wrong to conclude that those colonies had assumed an unusual importance in the collective mind of the house. The rebellions of 1837–38 in the Canadas coincided with a domestic political crisis during which the parties in the Commons were almost equal in strength, and partisan considerations gave to colonial issues a transitory importance. After 1841, with the Conservatives again possessing a clear majority, the interest in debating British North American issues dissolved, to be reconstituted only when this period of political stability came to an end in 1846.
Longevity in office, the pressures and demands of domestic politics, and the complexity of the difficulties confronted were all critical factors limiting the freedom of action of the secretary of state. Equally important in determining whether he succeeded or failed in his objectives was the quality of information and advice he received from his subordinates in the Colonial Office. By far the most influential of these subordinates were the under-secretaries of state. In 1801 there was one under-secretary; after 1806 there were two; in 1816, as a measure of post-war retrenchment, the number was reduced to one. The duties of an under-secretary fluctuated with the needs and whims of his superior. Lord Bathurst left much of the daily routine of the office in the hands of his subordinates and so placed an almost unbearable work-load on their shoulders. At the end of his first day as under-secretary in 1821, Wilmot-Horton, a man of immense if not always well-directed energy, confided to his wife that he was “daunted by the enormous Mass of Papers and correspondence, which I must conquer and carry on.” To deal with this mass Henry Goulburn and Wilmot-Horton, under-secretaries in 1812–21 and 1821–28, devoted considerable attention to internal improvements within the department. At the end of 1823 the establishment of the Colonial Office was composed of one under-secretary, a private secretary, a librarian, ten clerks, and a part-time legal counsel. By the end of August 1825 the staff had been expanded to two under-secretaries, three private secretaries, two librarians, fifteen clerks, two registrars, a précis writer, and a full-time legal counsel shared with the Board of Trade. Thereafter only slight additions were made to the establishment until the 1870s. Prior to the expansion of the 1820s individual clerks had been responsible for specific colonies, but after 1822 the business of the empire was divided into geographical areas and a senior clerk, assisted by two to four junior clerks, was placed in charge of each. After 1824 there were four geographic departments, one of which dealt with North American affairs.
Perhaps the most important innovation was the decision to reappoint a second under-secretary in 1825, because in time he became a permanent under-secretary with control over the establishment of the Colonial Office. Initially, there was no clear functional division of labour between the two under-secretaries. Wilmot-Horton simply shared the business with his new colleague on a geographical basis, retaining for himself the colonies, including the British North American colonies, in which he was most interested or which attracted the most attention in the House of Commons. After Wilmot-Horton was forced to retire from office in 1828, he was replaced by a series of parliamentary under-secretaries. Some of them played an important role in evolving Colonial Office policy in British North America. Particularly active were Stanley, who had been appointed additional parliamentary under-secretary in 1827 and who succeeded Wilmot‑Horton the following year, and Lord Howick, who served as parliamentary under-secretary between 1830 and 1833. It was Stanley, for example, who shaped the more conciliatory policy adopted by the British government toward the Canadas in 1827–28, and Howick drafted virtually all of the important dispatches dealing with those colonies in the early 1830s. Other parliamentary under-secretaries were nonentities who left the running of the North American department in the hands of the second under-secretary, Robert William Hay. Appointed in 1825, Hay was theoretically responsible for overseeing the work of the North American department for most of the period between 1828 and 1836.
Although Hay became the first permanent under-secretary, he was no innovator. He continued to conduct the business in the old manner, he seldom took the initiative, and he avoided controversial subjects. To a considerable degree his views were shaped by the reports he received from the numerous colonial officials with whom he carried on an extensive private correspondence. There was nothing unusual or sinister in this practice. Goulburn and Wilmot‑Horton had conducted their work in the same way and many of the clerks regularly corresponded with friends or acquaintances who were serving in the colonies. Even James Stephen, who as under-secretary was to end the practice, admitted “a sort of propensity to make acquaintance with the crowd of Colonial Officers who are constantly passing and repassing through Downing St.” But while these informal channels frequently provided useful information about the colonies, they were not an adequate foundation upon which to base decisions and they left the Colonial Office open to the charge of taking sides in the struggles within the colonies. Indeed, as political changes in Britain in the later 1820s and the 1830s brought shifts in the policies of the imperial government, correspondence with officials in the colonies whose activities were no longer condoned by the government at home could be dangerous. Part of Hay’s dilemma in the 1830s was that he found himself more sympathetic to the views of his acquaintances overseas than to those of the Whig governments he served. His passive role was easily interpreted by some of the Whigs as hostile to their interests. Moreover, it created a vacuum at the top in the Colonial Office which annoyed those clerks within the department who did sympathize with Whig policies.
To some extent, this vacuum was filled by James Stephen, who, as legal adviser to the Colonial Office, was already performing in the 1820s duties that would later be assigned to the permanent under-secretary. Although the outlines of Stephen’s character are well known and he has been the subject of a useful biography by Paul Knaplund, the definitive study has yet to be written of the man who more than any other individual influenced the development of the Colonial Office in the 19th century and who played a very important role in shaping the North American policy of the British government.