16 March 2016

Populism, Loyalism’s long-lost cousin?

The political geography and sociology of colonial Loyalism, a philosophy with which I still have strong sympathies, has been of interest to me since reading Woodard’s book. In fact, my strongest and most pointed disagreements with Woodard concern precisely his treatment of Loyalism as a political and a cultural phenomenon. Good Yankee that he is, Woodard is none too sympathetic to the Loyalists: in the broad strokes, he views particularly the ‘late Loyalists’ as being largely opportunists and tax-dodgers driven by economic motives to seek shelter with the Crown, rather than as having any real cultural affinity either with the mother country or with each other. Woodard sees Upper Canada as therefore belonging to an anti-governmental, peaceable, diverse and politically-quietist Midland culture rather than having any real identity of its own, and devotes considerable space to debunking the ‘Loyalist myth’, though he never quite manages to make an argument for rejecting it. After all, Loyalism was a political phenomenon which the Germans, Dutch and Scots he describes did take part in – it wasn’t simply to be considered as apathy writ large. A grain of it did take root in Canada as the Red Tory political persuasion. In the process of his treatment of the ‘late Loyalists’, however, Woodard does bring up several good points and shows how we of the American Midlands do share a number of cultural affinities with our Canadian cousins across the Great Lakes.

The historical Loyalists reached their highest concentrations, as Woodard recognises, in the ‘middle colonies’: Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, with some smaller and active populations among the Scots-Irish immigrants of the Inland South. Some of them were motivated by religious concerns, being Quaker, German Anabaptist, or High Church Anglican. Middlekauff describes their distribution thusly:
The largest number of loyalists were found in the middle colonies: many tenant farmers of New York supported the king, for example, as did many of the Dutch in the colony and in New Jersey. The Germans in Pennsylvania tried to stay out of the Revolution, just as many Quakers did, and when that failed, clung to the familiar connection rather than embrace the new. Highland Scots in the Carolinas, a fair number of Anglican clergy and their parishioners in Connecticut and New York, a few Presbyterians in the southern colonies, and a large number of the Iroquois Indians stayed loyal to the king.
Woodard characterises Middlekauff’s configuration, not entirely without reason, as an ‘alliance’ between the ‘nations’ of New Netherland, the Midlands and parts of Greater Appalachia. And consider what population elements Middlekauff is describing here: tenant farmers and peasants both North and South; German smallholders; and Dutch New Yorkers – mostly merchants. Consider also that the ‘late Loyalists’ being described by Woodard were ‘farmers … craftsmen … impoverished labourers and sailors’ who were fleeing persecution, expropriation and debt in the wake of the War of American Independence. These ‘late Loyalists’ were content to keep to themselves and allow Britain’s government to manage their public affairs. For the most part, the British government did so, and did so to their advantage.

Now, consider Lawrence Goodwyn’s descriptions of the Populists. The theorists of Populism, the advocates of ‘soft money’ solutions to the mounting debt problem for America’s poor tenant farmers in the wake of the Civil War, were either New Netherlanders (Edward Kellogg; Peter Cooper) or Midlanders (Alexander Campbell; Henry Carey; Sam Fenton Cary). They belonged most often to the small-mercantile and farming classes. Goodwyn notes that soft-money theories ‘had nothing to offer in the way of sectional appeal’, by which he means simply that they could not be used either by the Yankee Republican bloc or by the Dixie Democratic bloc to stir up patriotic or regional sentiment. But the soft-money idea did belong to a very specific place. Kellogg’s and Campbell’s soft-money theories were most popular along that corridor of territory running west-east through the middle of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, which corresponds to the Midlands and New Netherland: precisely the Loyalist ‘alliance’ as described by Woodard. Indeed, greenbacks were commonly referred to as ‘the Ohio idea’, and the first convention of the National Independent Party – which later turned into the Greenback Labour Party – was held in Indianapolis, Indiana. It spread westward in a pattern that looks very similar to the map drawn by Woodard of the Midland region: greenback theory became immensely popular in Iowa and in the Plains states stretching from North Dakota all the way down to North Texas, and the second wave of Populism in the 1890’s, when the Farmers’ Alliance took over from the less-radical (but no less Greenbacker) Grange, of course has its epicentre precisely in these western Plains states.

There are other interesting parallels and cross-pollinations as well. The flight of the late Loyalists into Canada finds an eerie (uh, no pun intended) historical echo in the flight of the impoverished and indebted tenant farmers from the Inland South into north Texas as described by Goodwyn, where they were organised into the Farmers’ Alliance – particularly if Woodard is right and they were motivated by economic concerns about their livelihood rather than by political loyalty! And even though Woodard no doubt considers Saskatchewan and Alberta part of the Far West rather than the historically-Loyalist Midlands, both the socialist-populist (CCF) and social-credit (Socred) movements which arose there were almost certainly of the same nature and cultural origin as the Populist movement here was. Both of them shared a tinge of social conservatism and localist interest that made them close kin to the red Tories, who drew their inspiration from the Loyalists (John Diefenbaker himself was a man of Saskatchewan who was born in Upper Canada). Even their plans to reform the currency in each nation shared a similar theoretical basis.

The difference between the experience of the late Loyalists and the Greenbackers was this: the British government supported the late Loyalists with grants of land, with low land taxes and the promise that they would administer their public affairs – including public infrastructure – honestly, efficiently and in their interests. It wasn’t until the Great Depression that this faith was strongly shaken, resulting in the expressions of prairie radicalism that surfaced in the CCF and the Socreds. The American government, dominated as it was by Yankee bankers and big industrialists on the one hand, and Lowland Southern slaveholders (later speculators and furnishing-merchants) on the other, had no intention of making policy for the relief of the indebted tenant farmers of the inland regions. The Yankees were wont to view the frontier farmers at best as an object of condescending pity, or at worst with the usual Puritanical accusations of sectional treason, vagrancy, laziness and cultural and moral inferiority. And the Lowland Southerners were no better, seeing the frontier farmers as vulgar upstarts and inferior mongrels raised from the dregs of continental Europe, without civilisation or taste and fit only for servitude. Greenbacker theories were met with accusations of moral corruption in the North, and with the suspicion of communism and levelling in the South. Prairie radicalism found a much more fertile environment in America than it did in Canada, if only because the exploitation and – as Woodard would have it – cultural warfare was much more pronounced here.

But it does seem to me that the Populists are something of a late expression of the same kinds of political and economic concerns that motivated the late Loyalists who settled in Ontario. Both the Populists and the late Loyalists were economically hard-pressed or indebted, more likely to be rural, more likely to be ‘ethnic’ (that is, not Southern or East Anglian English in origin) and more likely to belong to marginal religious groups. And both groups were (ultimately, if we’re including the CCF and the Socreds) drawn to forms of radical anti-capitalism which emphasised cooperative, localist, socially-conservative forms of collective mutual self-help, which were not antagonistic to government – indeed, the Canadian forms were explicitly loyal to the Crown! – but which were willing to relegate its importance to a secondary and auxiliary role.

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