Entre le National et le Transnational: les Rébellions de 1837-38

*Watch for a special blog post next week! Jason Opal turned his recent talk at the Wilson Institute on the sugar economy and Barbados into an op-ed tentatively titled “Want Hope? Look to Barbados.”*

 Maxime Dagenais & Julien Mauduit

On October 19, we hosted a roundtable discussion in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Institut d’histoire de l’Amérique française (IHAF). Held at the Prison des Patriotes at Pied-du-Courant – where twelve patriotes where executed following the rebellions – we invited several specialists to discuss the relationship between national history and transnational history, using the 1837-38 Rebellions as a point of interest.

We assembled a panel of historians that represents the variety of opinions on the topic quite well. First, we invited three well-known Québec historians. To start, Éric Bédard, a professor of history at TELUQ and the author of the award-winning Les Réformistes: Une génération canadienne-française au milieu du XIXe siècle, which we believe embodies a Rebellion Affichemore nationalist perspective. We also welcomed  Julie Guyot, a professor of history at Cégep Édouard Montpetit and the author of Les Insoumis de l’Empire: Le refus de la domination colonial au Bas-Canada et en Irlande, and Louis-Georges Harvey, a professor of history at Bishop’s University and the author of Le printemps de l’Amérique française: Américanité, anticolonialisme et républicanisme dans le discours politique Québécois, 1805-1837, two historians that, exemplify a middle ground between the national and transnational perspectives. While Guyot’s research compares events in Lower Canada to those in Ireland, Harvey focuses on Lower Canada in the context of a transatlantic history of ideas. And finally, we invited Jason Opal, a professor of American history at McGill University, who recently published Avenging the People: Andrew Jackson, the Rule of Law, and the American Nation – and who started working on the rebellions – for a more transnational perspective.

The purpose of this workshop was, admittedly, self-serving. We are currently completing an edited volume on the rebellions titled Revolutions across Borders: Jacksonian America and the Canadian Rebellion. Adopting a transnational approach, our volume seeks to understand the place of the rebellions in a North American, and not national (i.e. Canadian and Québecois), context. Although we believe that our book – and more specifically our transnational perspective – will add much to our knowledge of the rebellions, we are nonetheless aware that our approach has its limits, particularly it minimizes the national context, which remains at the forefront of rebellions historiography in Canada. And before we officially send our manuscript to the publisher, we selfishly decided to organize a roundtable on the rebellions and transnational/national history in an attempt to further understand what we may have overlooked as a result of our approach. Plus, who wouldn’t want to hang out in Montréal (and eat bagels) for a few days?

Our aim was not to place transnational and national history against one another, but to understand the pros and cons of each approach and what historians of the rebellions can gain or lose from either perspective. Some of the questions our panelists discussed included: Why is the history of the rebellions in Québec dominated by the local and national perspective, generally avoiding the transnational and even the Canadian contexts? Why are we still speaking of rebellionS in plural form rather than singular as many other nations do (ex: The American Revolution, The French Revolution, The Irish Rebellion of 1798)? What could more nationally-minded historians learn from transnational perspectives and vice versa.

Our panelists touched upon a variety of intriguing subjects. For instance, Éric Bédard not only reminded us that many of our past historians – Lionel Groulx and François-Xavier Garneau, for example – engaged with international historiography, he, most of all, warned against transnational history as a potential ideological “machine de guerre” thrown against the supposed “backward” idea of the nation. Louis-Georges Harvey, for his part, suggested that the national perspective has been preferred because historians have attempted to understand the local sociopolitical forces behind the rebellions. And while Julie Guyot – using her own work on Ireland and Lower Canada as a frame of reference – insisted that comparative transnational histories could help “illuminate” the national perspective, Jason Opal argued in favour of a transnational perspective suggesting that the British had to defeat the Canadian republicans to keep American economic and imperial expansion in check. Britain, without a doubt, feared that the colonies would be annexed to the United States if the rebellions succeeded.

However, the subject that caused the greatest (and most passionate) discussion was the question of “la rébellion” vs “les rébellions.” Our question was simple: why do we in Québec (and Canada) refer to the rebellions in the plural form rather than in the singular (la Rébellion) like historians do in other countries? While Jason Opal preferred to remain a witness to the heated discussion by only stressing the fact that the American Revolution (au singulier) was, at the outset, a very plural event –  pointing out that Virginia and Massachusetts, for example, did not have a common ambition – the other three panelists urged us not to change the terminology. Their reasons were, however, very diverse. Éric Bédard referred to Maurice Séguin’s interpretation of a “double uprising” in 1837, from both the patriotes and the ultra-tory population of Montreal. Julie Guyot not only stressed the fact that Lower and Upper Canada were two very different colonies – whereas there was only “one” France and Ireland – she also warned us against this revisionism as a “second colonization” of French Canada. We would lose an important and distinct part of our history. Finally, Louis-Georges Harvey insisted that there was no “Canada” in 1837 and that by calling it “the Canadian Rebellion,” we were imposing a Canadian neo-nationalist ideology on the event. He also maintained that, at the time, the patriotes’ patrie” was Lower Canada.

As hosts, we did not take a major part in the discussion, allowing our guests to offer their own perspectives, which was the point of this exercise. However, we did remind them that historians from other countries – particularly the United States – were able to look past these differences when looking at similar events and that some scholars – namely Allan Greer in “1837-38: Rebellion Reconsidered” – have also made strong arguments in favour of “the Canadian Rebellion.”

It’s fair to say that we underestimated the importance that historians in Québec still place on disconnecting the rebellion in Lower Canada with that in Upper Canada and other similar events taking place in British North America during this period. In fact, in the last general history of the rebellion(s), author Gilles Laporte minimized the links between Upper and Lower Canada, arguing that events in Lower Canada represented a unique and distinct episode. This remains the leading historiographic position taken by rebellion(s) historians. One thing is for sure though: despite the push back, this discussion convinced us – even more – that we have to refer to the event au singulier. However, we have to work harder to convince our peers. Stay tuned!


Maxime Dagenais is the coordinator at the Wilson Institute for Canadian History. He was a SSHRC post-doctoral fellow at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and received a PhD in French and British North American history from the University of Ottawa. He has published in several academic journals, including Canadian Military History, Bulletin d’histoire politique, Quebec Studies, and American Review of Canadian Studies, and co-authored a book entitled The Land in Between: The Upper St. John Valley, Prehistory to World War One. Max is currently editing a volume on the Canadian Rebellion and the United States – with Julien Mauduit  for the Rethinking Canada in the World series published by McGill-Queen’s University Press. 

Julien Mauduit is a visiting assistant professor at the Wilson Institute for Canadian History. He is graduate of l’Université Sorbonne Paris-IV and l’École des hautes études en sciences sociales. A specialist of colonial Canadian and early American history, he received his PhD from the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM). Julien is the editor of a special issue with the Bulletin d’histoire politique titled “Patriotisme et économie durant les Rébellions de 1837-1838” and is currently preparing an edited collection, with Maxime Dagenais, on the United States and the Canadian Rebellion.

Cover Image: Thomas Constant, Upper Canada Sketches … With Illustrations, Portraits and Maps (1897), p. 223.

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