Dividing power in the first and second British empires: revisiting Durham's imperial constitution

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Date: Dec. 2015
From: Review of Constitutional Studies(Vol. 20, Issue 2)
Publisher: Centre for Constitutional Studies, University of Alberta
Document Type: Article
Length: 9,532 words
Lexile Measure: 1860L

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In his Report on the Affairs of British North America, Lord Durham proposed that "internal" government be placed in the hands of the colonists themselves and that a short list of subjects be reserved for Imperial control. Janet Ajzenstat maintains that Durham did not intend to formally restrict the authority of the new colonial legislature by dividing power. This paper argues otherwise: that Durham's recommendation fell squarely within a tradition of distinguishing between the internal and external affairs of the colony. This was the imprecise but pragmatic distinction that American colonists invoked during the Stamp Act crisis as a means of curtailing imperial authority over internal taxation while maintaining their allegiance to the British Crown. It also was a division that Charles Buller relied upon in a constitution for New South Wales that he proposed prior to sailing to Canada as Durham's principal secretary. Durham likely was drawing upon this tradition when he made his recommendation, a distinction that began to crumble away almost immediately. In the result, Canadians inherited a robust semblance of self-government, just as colonists during the Stamp Act crisis had desired, but without the needfor revolution.

Dans son Report on the Affairs of British North America (rapport sur les affaires de l'Amerique du Nord britannique), Lord Durham suggera de placer le gouvernement "interne" en mains propres des colons et de reserver une liste restreinte de sujets pour l'autorite imperiale. Janet Ajzenstat soutient que Durham n'eut pas l'intention de limiter officiellement l'autorite de la nouvelle legislature coloniale en partageant le pouvoir. L'auteur de cet article soutient le contraire, c'esta-dire, que les recommandations de Durham s'inscrivaient completement dans une tradition visant a distinguer entre les affaires internes et externes de la colonie. Ceci fut la distinction imprecise mais pragmatique que les colons etats-uniens invoquerent lors de la crise de la loi sur le timbre (Stamp Act crisis) comme moyen de restreindre l'autorite imperiale en matiere d'impots interieurs tout en maintenant leur allegeance a la Couronne britannique. Il s'agit egalement d'une division sur laquelle compta Charles Buller dans une constitution pour la Nouvelle-Galles du Sud qu'il proposa avant de s'embarquer pour le Canada, ou il fut le secretaire principal de Durham. Il est probable que Durham puisait dans cette tradition lorsqu'il fit cette recommandation, une distinction qui commenca a s'effondrer presque aussitot. Il s'ensuivit que les Canadiens heriterent un semblant solide d'autonomie gouvernementale, exactement comme l'avait desire les colons pendant la crise de la loi sur le timbre mais sans la necessite d'une revolution.


In the course of events leading up to the American Revolution, there arose calls for a division of power between imperial and colonial authorities. The argument evolved over the course of a few short years, with colonists essentially claiming that the metropole had no authority to impose an internal tax on the colonies for the single purpose of raising revenue. Imperial authority could raise revenue, however, as an incident to its external power of regulating trade of the colonies. Those matters that concerned the internal...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A480195408