The Toronto Star
Opposing slavery and Yankees in U.S. Civil War
As the U.S. Civil War shook North America in the 1860s, Canadian sympathies often lay with the slaveholding South. In his book Dixie & The Dominion, Toronto Star news editor Adam Mayers examines this paradox of public opinion in a country escaped slaves often called "The Promised Land."
When the news reached the Canadian parliament in July, 1861, that the Northern army had been routed at the Battle of Bull Run, the first major conflict of the American Civil War, a spontaneous cheer was raised in the House for the South.
In Canada, the place that escaped slaves called The Promised Land as they travelled to safety along the underground railroad, the colony's political leaders were rooting for the slave owners' cause.
As strange at it may seem, Canadians were able to separate slavery from the cause of the war, which was fought between 1861 and 1865. This apparent absurdity allowed public opinion to support the South, but oppose slavery, be anti-Yankee, but for closer trade ties with New England. It was the paradox of Canada's relationship with its neighbour in the middle years of the 19th century.
In 1861, Canadians had many things in common with the northern United States. There was language, religion and ethnic similarity. Canada's elite were descendants of United Empire Loyalists, the American colonists who had sided with Britain during the American Revolution.
Canadians and Americans lived along a long, artificial border. The frontier was easy to cross and many Canadians had friends and family living along the south side of the lower Great Lakes in upstate New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan. A free trade agreement in 1854 brought closer economic ties and helped Canada's smaller manufacturing industries find new markets.
Canada (then only Ontario and Quebec) could not help but be drawn into the ideological debate about slavery, the issue that dominated the political stage in the years leading up to the war. The practice had been banned in the colonies for almost three-quarters of a century and there was no public support for the institution. Canada was also proud of its role as the terminus of the Underground Railroad.
After 1850, when American law enforcement agencies were compelled by the Fugitive Slave Act to hunt fleeing slaves and return them to their owners, Canada became even more attractive to runaways. They were safe once they crossed the border and could not be extradited to the United States.
Harriet Beecher Stowe's classic Uncle Tom's Cabin caused a sensation when it was published in Toronto in 1852. The Globe newspaper printed excerpts from the book, helping it become a bestseller. The Globe was then a leading Liberal voice and its owner, George Brown, was a staunch abolitionist. Brown pounded away at the anti-slavery cause in the pages of his paper. He was so involved in the issue that when the Rev. John Brown held a secret meeting in Chatham in 1858 hoping to find recruits for a slave rebellion, George Brown was in the audience.
John Brown's raid a year later on a federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry in what is now West Virginia had many political ramifications as America slid toward war. Brown was captured and charged with treason. At his trial, the Chatham meeting was raised in evidence to support a claim in the Southern States that Canada was involved in a plot to undermine the South's way of life.
For many reasons, the anti-slavery sentiment did not translate into support for the North when the Southern States seceded in April, 1861.
The explanation lay in distrust and suspicion of northern motives in waging the war. Britain and Canada had viewed the dramatic growth of the United States during the first half of the century with alarm. The Americans bought Louisiana from France and Florida from Spain. They picked a fight with Mexico and ended up with Texas and California. Through a deal with Britain, Oregon and the Pacific Northwest were added to the U.S. sphere.
Seen through that lens, the war was about the North trying to impose its expansionist will on the South. The South, on the other hand, was trying to preserve its identity against overwhelming Yankee pressure.
The issue became more confusing when President Abraham Lincoln said in his first inaugural address he did not regard himself primarily as the emancipator of slaves, but the protector of the Union.
..If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it'
"My paramount objective in this struggle is to save the Union and is not either to save or destroy slavery," Lincoln said. "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing some of the slaves and leaving others alone, I would do that."
So, if the war wasn't about slavery, what was it about? To many Canadians it seemed to be more of the American Revolution. The Canadian elite, like the British upper-class, saw Southerners as having the same right to leave the Union as the original Thirteen Colonies had to break away from the British Empire.
English novelist and social commentator Anthony Trollope visited Canada during the middle of the war and was puzzled by the strong public opinion favouring the South.
"Their sympathies are with the Southern States not because they (favour slavery)," he wrote in North America. "They sympathize with the South from a strong dislike to the aggression, the braggadocio and the insolence they have felt upon their own borders."
Britain sensed a strategic advantage for her five North American colonies in a divided Union. Canada might emerge as a dominant player if the Union dissolved into two smaller powers. Col. Garnet Wolseley was quick to see that during a tour of Canada as part of a general reinforcement of its defences.
Wolseley later became commander-in-chief of the British army. In 1862, he spent a month visiting the Confederacy. He argued in a letter to his superiors that Britain should grant the Confederate States diplomatic status because the division of the republic into two weak countries would strengthen Britain's North American hand.
Wolseley later told a friend that his good wishes for the South stemmed from "my dislike of the people of the United States and my delight at seeing their swagger and bunkum rudely kicked out of them."
The pro-Southern feeling lasted well after the war. On May 30, 1867, Jefferson Davis, ex-president of the Confederate States, came to Toronto immediately after his release from prison. More than 1,000 people greeted him at the wharf at the foot of Yonge St.
As Davis moved down the gangway, a cheer went up from the crowd. The Hamilton Spectator reported the next day that Davis appeared deeply moved. He bowed and said repeatedly: "Thank you, thank you, you are very kind to me."
Davis had been arrested in April, 1865, when the Confederacy collapsed, ending four years of war. When he was in Toronto, he met with other Southerners who lived in exile in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Davis later told Gen. Robert E. Lee about the humiliation of being "hooted at and jeered" at train stations throughout the Northern States, yet being so thoroughly welcomed in Canada.
The New York Times was indignant that a "war criminal" should be received so well in Canada.
The New York Tribune said the fuss made over Davis "proves that the Canadians are in a very bad condition of mind. They won't recover their equanimity until they are annexed."
On July 1, 1867, a month after Davis arrived in Toronto, Canadians were celebrating Confederation. Since then, Canadians and Americans have enjoyed one of the greatest friendships in the world, a legacy of peaceful co-existence that despite current tensions remains unrivalled among the nations of the world.