North American Democracies in the Victorian Era: The Political Satire of Th. Ch. Haliburton

Throughout 2020, the world has been watching American democracy appearing to unravel as its Covid-19 pandemic spiralled out of control; the responsibility for public health measures devolved from the federal level to state level, then to county level, and ultimately down to individuals who pushed back in the name of freedom and challenged lockdowns in courts, and attempted to take over the US Capitol. Prudently, on March 31 Canada closed its southern border and is continuing to monitor the increasingly chaotic political and social scene to the south which seems to be continuing into 2021.

Canadian concerns over the impact of American political and social trends beyond its borders are not new. In the nineteenth century, the British Empire provided a powerful ideological counterpoint to the boisterous populism of Jacksonian America which threatened to spill into the colonies. A year before Queen Victoria ascended to the throne, a Nova Scotian judge and writer Thomas Chandler Haliburton (1796-1865) published A volume of political satirical sketches on American and Canadian topics, to an unexpected global success. The protagonist of The Clockmaker is Sam Slick, a garrulous, deceitful, but charismatic Yankee clock-seller that travelled across North America, explaining local mores to an unnamed British Squire. The first sketches appeared between 1835 and 1836 in the colonial press. After their release in book form in 1837 in Halifax, they were immediately republished by Richard Bentley in London (technically pirated, but Haliburton was flattered), then in Philadelphia. Soon both Haliburton and Slick became household names. The Clockmaker rivalled in popularity Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, which appeared around the same time, and soon three more series followed.[i]

Colonial and metropolitan audiences alike delighted in the humorous descriptions of American society and in the acerbic criticism of the American political model which Sam delivered while ostensibly exalting “the greatest nation on the face of the airth, and the most enlightened too.”[ii] Behind the surface humour of the sketches hid a very specific political goal that Haliburton doggedly pursued throughout his political and literary career: to warn colonial Canadians of the dangers of following on the path of popular democracy.

Figure 1: “Thomas Chandler Haliburton (alias Sam Slick), 1796-1865, bust portrait”. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

Like other British North Americans of his time, Haliburton was watching with apprehension the political dramas unfolding next door, at a time when the colonies were debating their future on the continent, their place in the British Empire, and the suitability of such political innovations as responsible government or elective legislative councils. The view from the south was not reassuring; in the 1830s and 1840s, the US was rocked by economic and political turmoil, torn apart by virulent populism, economic instability, anti-immigrant sentiment and mob violence fuelled by the extension of the franchise to white males. To Canadians, as to many European observers, the tenor of American politics in the 1830s seemed to contradict Jefferson’s faith in the political wisdom of ordinary people.

By contrast, the British Empire appeared to colonial Canadians in the 1830s as the best buffer that could protect not only the territory of the colonies, but also their political institutions and social harmony. Haliburton’s opposition to American-style democratic government was rooted in his belief that institutions not only reflect the core values of the society that created them, but are also instrumental in shaping its long-term evolution. Following this logic, just as American republican institutions had gradually given rise to the unruly democracy of the Jacksonian years, importing similar institutions in British North America could dramatically alter fabric of colonial society and undermine its loyalty to the Crown. The very identity of the region hinged on this question. What would British North America be anymore, if it ceased to be British?

Across the three series of The Clockmaker, Sam Slick articulate hypothetical scenarios in answer to these questions, forcing readers to seriously engage with the issues of the day even if his proposed solutions appeared absurd or humorous. Haliburton’s sketches place his characters’ ruminations on Empire and reform in the larger context of transatlantic debates over democracy and republicanism. The first series used the American example in order to stir the Nova Scotians into action and contribute to the economic growth of the colony; the second series disparaged the Reform movement in the colonies and the push for “democracy” by exposing the flaws of American institutions, while the third series had a broader imperial focus, and made the case against responsible government for Nova Scotia. Despite the perceived contradiction between criticising democracy while appealing to public judgment, Haliburton uses the idiom of national identity in his discussion of the ideological models available to the colony in order to build a rational, as well as an emotional argument in favour of empire and monarchical institutions in Nova Scotia.

For most early Canadians, the only close experience of republicanism and democracy would have been the American one. Yet the US, with its endless squabbles over state rights, its urban mobs and highly individualistic culture, was more a cautionary tale of republican centrifugal forces gnawing at the fabric of society than an inspiring one. Haliburton uses the example of the American Revolution as proof of what can happen if London fails to address colonial discontent: republicanism is an aberration, but also is the indirect consequence of imperial blunders. Haliburton did not object to American republicanism per se, but to the principles behind it; by rejecting the rule of the king, the American Revolution already contained the seeds of a profound mistrust towards any authority external to ‘the people.’ By the 1830s, it seemed that the ideas behind the Revolution had degenerated into a tyranny of the majority which, to conservatives like Haliburton, seemed to endanger freedom in the US, rather than fostering it.

One of the characters in The Clockmaker laments the loss of the ideals of the Revolution: “Where now is our beautiful republic bequeathed to us by Washington and the sages and heroes of the revolution? Overwhelmed and destroyed by the mighty waters of democracy.”[iii]  Even religion was reshaped in the process. In the American system, popular will could even decide what religious leaders preached to their flock because ministers depend financially on their parishioners. One of Sam’s interlocutors laments the situation: “They destroyed the independence of their minister,–their minister will pander to their vanity. He will be afeer’d to tell them unpalatable truths. Instead of tellin’ ‘em they are miserable sinners in need of repentance, he will tell ‘em they are a great nation and a great people, will quote history more than the Bible, and give ‘em orations not sarmons, encomiums and not censures.”[iv]

Figure 2: “Sam Slick”. Source: Library and Archives, Canada (1972-26-82).

Like many of his nineteenth-century contemporaries, Haliburton feared that democratic institutions encouraged selfishness, that people will love equality more than freedom, and will be ready to sacrifice the latter for the former. Jackson’s populism had placed political power in the hands of disorganised masses of self-interested individuals that rejected any source of authority or of value outside themselves. Haliburton was wary of the consequences of this shift; in The Clockmaker, the Episcopalian Reverend Hopewell explains to Sam what he sees as a new national civic religion; his countrymen worshipped at the same time “the golden image” of material success and “the American image…. An image of perfection… the personification of everything that is great and good,–that we set up and admire, and everybody thinks it is an image of himself.” Hopewell concludes sadly: “we are all brought up to this idolatry from our cradle: we are taught first to worship gold, and then to idolize ourselves.”[v]

Through Sam’s direct and indirect comments on American realities, Haliburton warned his readers that introducing elective institutions in Nova Scotia would eventually Americanise colonial society by redefining the relationship between individual and state. The judge showed little faith that the Federalist-designed constitutional checks and balances could prevent the hijacking of the American republic by factional politics or populist excesses. Slick’s patriotic praises of all things American satirised this weakness of the American system, and painted human nature as flawed and therefore in need of protection from itself. His protagonist’s caricatured endorsement of American Exceptionalism allowed Haliburton to turn on its head one of its most valued assumptions—the link between popular rule and freedom. In fact, to the Nova Scotian judge American freedom is “that happy condition of mankind where people are assembled in a community; where there is no government, no law, and no religion, but such as are imposed from day to day by a mob of freemen.” Its celebrated liberties amount to nothing more than “the right of openly preaching infidelity” to “a licentious press,” “the absence of all subordination,” ultimately leading to “the insufficiency of all legal or moral restraint”[vi] if all people are equally free to invent the rules.

In recent years Haliburton has been dismissed as an ultra-conservative racist and misogynistic grouch. His ideas on empire, democracy, women, and people of colour are too offensive, reactionary, or simply embarrassing to study or teach anymore, and he has been relegated to the dusty anthologies of Canadian literature as a founding father of North American humour. Yet, in the 1840s and 1850s, his satire helped to popularise complex political ideas in the colonies, engaging with historical realities with which his colonial contemporaries grappled as well. Haliburton pursued his arguments beyond the world of literature, in speeches in the British Parliament, where he became a MP in 1859, after his move to Great Britain, and in book-length historical analyses.[vii] Throughout his political and literary career he vehemently rejected the idea of a self-governing British North America because he considered democracy to be incompatible with monarchy. He viewed popular democracy as a historical tide that American republican institutions were ill-equipped to control. Any kind of colonial reform, the judge insisted, should avoid both the mistakes of the first British Empire, and of the American republic. The Clockmaker interprets eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century continental developments through the lens of imperial history, rather than of an American nation-centric one and argued for a continuing place for British North America in the larger imperial partnership.

Figure 3. “Riot in Philadelphia”, 1844. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington D.C.

Thomas Ch. Haliburton died in 1865, two years before the Canadian Confederation was formed. His warnings against representative government were increasingly out-of-step with history; they echoed nevertheless larger Canadian—and British—anxieties about the future of the monarchy in an age of rising democracy. He never lived to see the Canadian Confederation, nor the centralist path that Canadian federalism was to embark upon after 1867, partly in reaction to the American example. Canadian institutions and laws to this day still favour strong a central government and weak provincial governments, paternalism and proactive state social programs, and a balance between individual rights and collective and governmental concern. To the American “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” almost a century later the Canadian Constitution Act of 1867 opposed “Peace, Order and Good Government.”

Oana Godeanu-Kenworthy (@OanaGodyKenw) is an Associate Teaching Professor of American Studies in the Global and Intercultural Studies Department at Miami University, Ohio. Her research and teaching focus on 19th century settler-colonial literatures in English, globalisation, and the relationship between political ideologies and popular culture. She has published in the Journal of European Studies, the Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Early American Studies, and Early American Literature. Godeanu-Kenworthy is currently working on a book manuscript on representations of American democracy in pre-Confederation Canadian literature.  

Notes & references

Header image: Front page of the 1887 edition of The Clockmaker. Source:

[i] Haliburton published three series of The Clockmaker, in 1836, 1838, and 1840.

[ii] Thomas Chandler Haliburton, The Clockmaker. Series One, Two, and Three, George L. Parker, ed. (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1995) 32. All further references will be to this edition.

[iii] The Clockmaker, 353.

[iv] The Clockmaker, 225.

[v] The Clockmaker 353

[vi] The Clockmaker, 351.

[vii] See for instance A Historical and Statistical Account of Nova Scotia (Halifax: J. Howe, 1829), The Bubbles of Canada (London: Bentley, 1839); Reply to the Report of the Earl of Durham (London: Bentley, 1839); Rule and Misrule of the English in America (London: Richard Bentley, 1851); An Address at Glasgow on the Conditions, Resources and Prospects of British North America (Montreal: Lovell, 1857); Nature and Human Nature (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1859).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *