Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Canada's free land

In the years immediately following the American Revolution, things were looking grim for what was still to become the United States. Colonies had to impose huge tax increases to meet their war debts, the Continental Congress had little power, and rancorous party divisions were well underway. There's no better example than Shays's Rebellion, which erupted in Massachusetts early in the second half of the 1780s and was named after Captain Daniel Shays, a disaffected army officer. Armed farmers, unable or unwilling to repay their debts and also cover their growing tax bills, shut down the courts and resisted state troops sent to suppress them. The British, already convinced that any such ridiculous thing as a "democratic republic" was bound to fail, wanted to pick up the pieces and return the wayward colonialists to the fold of the empire.

And they had a plan. How better to speed up the failure than to create, in Canada, an ideal British society? But such a society needed a much bigger population. British leaders offered Americans willing to settle in what was then called "Upper Canada" - the area above Lakes Erie and Ontario - a grant of 200 acres of land for only a tiny fee. And taxes on that land would be a small fraction of taxes to the south. Once Americans saw a well-governed, stable nation of happy settlers whose civil (if not political) rights were well protected, that silly "republic" surely would soon collapse!

We all know the plan didn't exactly work out. But what many of us don't know is that over the next 20 years, tens of thousands of Americans did indeed flock to Canada and swear allegiance to the king. According to historian Alan Taylor, one observer wrote in 1800 that "You would be astonished to see the people from all parts of the States, by land and by water, 250 wagons at a time, with their families, on the road, something like army on the move." The influx of "late loyalist" newcomers (mostly from New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey) swelled the population of Upper Canada from 14,000 in 1791 to 75,000 in 1812.

Here's how the governor of Upper Canada, John Groves Simcoe, greeted a group of such settlers in 1795: "You are tired of the federal government; you like not any longer to have so many kings; you wish again for your old father ... You are perfectly right; come along, we love such good royalists as you are, we will give you land."

But other Brits had doubts. They feared these American settlers might bring with them the seeds of rebellion. One warned against "the silver-tongued and arsenick-hearted Americans." Another called the newcomers "a base and disloyal population, the dregs and outcasts of other countries." Yet another said they would "form a nest of vipers in the bosom that now so incautiously fosters them."

Of course, both sides of this debate were mostly wrong. As would be the case today, most of the settlers didn't care one way or the other about politics or ideology. But free land? Low taxes? That was cool!

In 1808 settler Michael Smith said he emigrated from Pennsylvania "in order to obtain land upon easy terms, as did most of the inhabitants now there, and for no other reason."

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