The Conservative Party was one of the two major political parties of the Confederation of North America in the nineteenth century. After the adoption of the Second Britannic Design, three of the first six governors-general of the C.N.A. were Conservatives. The Conservative Party was supplanted by the People's Coalition in the late nineteenth century. The last Conservative nominee for governor-general mentioned by Sobel was Abraham Reese in the 1888 Grand Council elections.
Origins of the Conservative Party
Like their Liberal Party rivals, the Conservatives had their origins in the autonomous confederations of the original Britannic Design. The three eastern confederations of Quebec, the Northern Confederation, and the Southern Confederation had the closest commercial ties with Great Britain, and the economic interests of different groups within each confederation gave rise to partisanship as the groups organized to promote their own interests.
In the Southern Confederation, the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 eliminated a bottleneck in the production of cotton. The result was a surge in the production of cotton, and a vast expansion of the acreage devoted to its growth. However, the increased production also resulted in increased indebtedness, investment in slaves, and an expansion of the African slave trade. Plantations spread across western Virginia and North Carolina, and huge landed estates appeared in the province of Georgia. The planter class, along with their merchant allies in the cities, formed the Country Party, known after 1819 as the Liberal Party, while the small farmers, urban workers, and the few free Negroes made up the Farmers Party, known after 1820 as the Conservatives. The Liberals supported low tariffs, improvements to the confederation's ports and waterways, and a large military. The Conservatives sought higher tariffs, subsidies for industrial plants, a limit to the size of plantations, and a smaller military.
Both parties preferred to ignore the problems resulting from the growth of Negro slavery. As a result, a third party called the Southern Union was formed in 1825 by various abolitionist groups, led by the Anti-Slavery Society of Norfolk, Virginia. In the wake of the Insurrection of 1829, a major slave uprising that resulted in the deaths of over 3,000 slaves and 1,400 whites, Liberal leader John Calhoun of Georgia took a strong stand against abolitionism, delivering his Defense of the Realm speech after the Insurrection. In his speech, Calhoun insisted that slavery, right or wrong, was essential to the confederation's power and prosperity, and must be maintained.
Conservative leader Willie Lloyd of South Carolina took the opposite approach, calling slavery "the bane of our state, bleeding us at every occasion, destroying the fabric of our society, and making slave and slaveholder alike less than men." Lloyd allied the Conservatives with the Southern Union and with British abolitionists. The 1833 elections produced a Liberal majority, and Calhoun became Governor-General of the Southern Confederation. Slavery in the S.C. continued to maintain its grip on the confederation.
In the Northern Confederation, the beginnings of industrialization after 1800 created a class of wealthy factory owners, who combined in 1814 to gain control of the Northern Confederation Council. The Council's industrial cabal sponsored legislation raising tariffs, subsidizing manufacturing, and easing restrictions on the creation of private banks. In 1820, they organized themselves into their own Liberal Party, and went on to win control of the Council in the 1821 elections.
The success of the Liberals led their political opponents, made up of farmers, urban workers, and small businessmen, to form their own Conservative Party. Between them, the groups that made up the Conservatives outnumbered the Liberals, and in the 1825 elections they were able to gain control of the Council. Liberal Party Governor Daniel Webster of New Hampshire was replaced as governor of the N.C. by Conservative leader Martin van Buren of New York. Unfortunately, due to the heterogeneous nature of their membership, the Conservatives were unable to put together a coherent program of their own. Van Buren's manipulation of the banking system was a major cause of the Depression of 1829, which brought the Liberals, and Webster, back to power in 1831.
After losing control of the Council, many Conservative groups abandoned politics. Urban workers formed a labor union called the Grand Consolidated Union which used strikes and other labor actions to agitate for better pay and working conditions. At the same time, the confederations' farmers formed the Freeholders' Alliance to seek currency inflation, anti-creditor laws, and the abolition of the Bank of the Northern Confederation.
In Quebec, the economic issues that divided the other confederations were complicated by ethnic conflict between a wealthy, powerful Anglophone minority and an impoverished Francophone majority. Because of this, Quebec saw the rise of three parties, one exclusively Francophone.
The wealthier citizens of Quebec City formed their own Liberal Party, also known as the Progress Party, which sought investment from New York City and London to increase commerce and industry, and develop the north country. The Liberal Party called for strong imperial ties and full partnership by Quebec in the C.N.A. In response, a group of farmers, urban workers, and small business owners centered in Montreal formed the Farmers Congress in 1812, which was renamed the Conservative Party the following year. The Conservatives opposed industrialization, and sought to keep Quebec's economy based on agriculture and animal husbandry. They saw the Liberals as agents of foreign powers, who would cooperate with strangers to exploit their brothers.
Alongside these two parties was the more radical Free Quebec Party, formed in 1810 by Paul Cerdan and Pierre Ribot. The F.Q.P. sought recognition of French Quebec's autonomy within the C.N.A. Although Ribot professed loyalty to the C.N.A., it was later learned that he sought the violent overthrow of the Anglophone government in Quebec City and independence for Quebec. However, Cerdan and Ribot were dull men who lacked the charisma needed to lead a popular movement, and the F.Q.P. languished while the two Anglophone parties dominated Quebec.
Even though the F.Q.P. was regarded as a fringe group by Quebec's Anglophones, their opposition to control by outsiders made them natural allies of the Conservative Party, and the two formed an electoral alliance during Quebec's 1814 provincial elections. Although the Conservatives won control of Quebec's government, their policies proved too moderate for the F.Q.P., which turned to terrorism and acts of violence.
The Crisis Years
The status quo between the parties that had been established during the 1820s was upset by the Panic of 1836. Following a series of bank failures in London, both Britain and the C.N.A. underwent a period of severe economic contraction. The two coastal confederations, being the most commercialized, suffered the greatest disruption in the wake of the Panic.
Southerners had been willing to endure the social and economic burdens imposed by slavery as long as cotton remained a profitable commodity. However, when the Panic of 1836 struck, the price of cotton fell, and with it the price of slaves. A prime field hand who was worth N.A. £150 in the spring of 1835 had fallen in value to N.A. £30 by October 1837. By February 1838, the price of slaves had fallen below the cost of transporting them from Africa, and by 1839 the slave trade had collapsed.
In August 1838, Governor-General Calhoun again spoke up in defense of slavery in a speech in Sparta, Georgia. Lloyd responded to Calhoun by claiming that civilization in the S.C. would not be threatened by manumission, and proposing that all the confederation's slaves be freed over a period of ten years, with the government compensating the owners. The following year, British Prime Minister Sir Duncan Amory called for the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire, promising financial and administrative aid in manumission programs.
Citing Amory's pledge, Lloyd in the spring of 1840 proposed the payment of N.A. £35 per slave to any and all slaveholders who would accept the price, with the money to be raised through the sale of "manumission bonds" in Britain and North America. The offer would end on 1 January 1842, at which time all remaining slaves would be freed at a rate of N.A. £32. Since the price of slaves in the S.C. had declined to N.A. £19 two years before, manumission would be a way for cash-starved plantation owners to recoup their fortunes.
The Lloyd bill also arranged for the education and training of the former slaves, while a provision inserted into the bill by James Philipson required that former slaves be bound to their plantations until their period of education was over. The Philipson provision would later be used to keep the former slaves and their descendants bound to the soil for another two generations.
After bitter wrangling in the S.C. Council, the Lloyd Bill was passed, and sent to Viceroy Sir Alexander Haven in Burgoyne for ratification, which he gave on 16 May. There was talk in the S.C. of revolution in the week before ratification, but in the event there were few disturbances. Within six months of the Lloyd Bill's passage, half of the slave owners in the S.C. had accepted the manumission program, and before the deadline almost every slave in the S.C. had been freed.
In the industrialized Northern Confederation, the Panic brought widespread bank and business failures and mass unemployment. The Consolidated grew rapidly, and by 1839 had branches in every major city and organizers in every important firm. However, rather than join forces with the Conservatives, the head of the Consolidated, Franz Freund, chose to form his own party, the Laborers' Alliance. With their opposition divided, the Liberals were able to retain control of the Council in the 1839 elections, and Webster remained in power. However, conditions continued to worsen, resulting in a general strike throughout the N.C., and a general breakdown of order.
In September 1840, Webster was assassinated by an embittered worker named Matthew Hale. The N.C. Council chose Henry Gilpin of Pennsylvania to replace him. Gilpin moved swiftly to suppress the Consolidated, calling up the N.C. militia and encouraging industrialists to employ private strikebreakers. By March 1841, Gilpin's war against the Consolidated had resulted in over 40,000 dead and 78,000 injured in the Northern Confederation.
With the union and its associated party gone, the confederation's surviving workers joined the Conservative Party, which had been spared Gilpin's retribution. Under John Dix of New York, the Conservatives rode an anti-Gilpin reaction to victory in the 1842 elections.
1839 also saw outbreaks of violence in the confederations of Indiana and Quebec. In Indiana, an army of Indians under Chief John Miller occupied Michigan City, killing some 5,000 inhabitants, before being overrun by a combined North American army under General Winfield Scott. At the same time, in Quebec, a new resistance group called the Patriotes led by the charismatic Louis Papineau attempted to sieze control of Quebec City. Papineau's attempt failed, but the Patriotes remained a permanent threat to Anglophone control of Quebec.
The Second Britannic Design
As far back as his Defense of the Realm speech of 1829, John Calhoun had called for the various confederation-level Liberal parties to send representatives to a national conference. By 1841, the consequences of the Panic of 1836 had convinced the Liberal leadership in the other confederations that Callhoun was right, and that a unified approach was needed to deal with the C.N.A.'s problems. Accordingly, delegates from the four major confederations met in Concordia, North Carolina in July to work out a joint strategy. The result of the Concordia Convention was a declaration issued in August calling for amending the Britannic Design to create a more unified C.N.A.
Conservative leaders responded to the Concordia Convention by holding a convention of their own in Brant, Indiana in September. The leading figures of the Brant Convention were Dix and Freund of the Northern Confederation and Charles Lefort of Quebec. The Conservative delegates found that they, too, wished to see the C.N.A. become more unified. Freund, for instance, believed that urban workers in the North and newly-freed slaves in the South were natural allies. He told the delegates, "Color and status have divided us in the past. Common persecution and suffering will unite us in the future." The Brant convention ended in October by issuing its own declaration calling for the creation of a more tightly-knit C.N.A.
Representatives from both conventions presented their declarations to the Viceroy in November, and he agreed to submit them to the British government. Prime Minister Amory favored the proposed revision of the Design, and a bill was introduced in Parliament in January 1842 to convene a special session of the Grand Council to amend the Design.
The Grand Council session, known as the Burgoyne Conference, was convened in the North American capital in June 1842. The Conservative members of the Conference organized themselves the National Conservative Party, with Governor Lloyd at their head. The Liberal members, meanwhile, organized the Unified Liberal Party under General Scott. Lloyd and Scott were able to form a successful working relationship, and between them they introduced a series of amendments, known as the Second Britannic Design, establishing a strong central government in the C.N.A.
The new government consisted of a bicameral legislature, in which the Grand Council would form a popularly-elected lower house with 150 members, while a Senate would be appointed by the confederation governments to act as an upper house. The Governor-General, who had served as chairman of the Grand Council under the original design, was to serve as head of government, chosen by a majority vote of the Grand Council. The office of Viceroy was retained to serve as a representative of the British Crown.
The drafting of the Second Design was completed in September, and elections to the revamped Grand Council were scheduled for 14 February 1843. Both of the new national parties launched elections campaigns, selecting candidates for the newly-established Council seats, and drafting party platforms. Lloyd and the Conservatives proposed a broad program of social reforms, while Scott called for internal improvements to stimulate commerce and open the frontier confederations of Manitoba and Vandalia to wider settlement.
Reviving prosperity, combined with growing tension between the C.N.A. and the United States of Mexico, resulted in victory for the U.L.P., which won 91 seats in the Council to the Conservatives' 59. General Scott was elevated to the office of Governor-General, with Gilpin serving as Minister of War in his Cabinet.
The Rocky Mountain War
Relations between the C.N.A. and Mexico worsened as copper and silver deposits were discovered in the poorly-defined border between Vandalia and the Mexican state of Mexico del Norte. Although Scott wished to avoid war, Gilpin was eager to confront the "anarchists and half-breeds of Mexico" as he called them. As Gilpin had more influence within the U.L.P., Scott was unable to prevent him from provoking war between the two countries.
Although there was considerable opposition to the war among the National Conservatives, Lloyd refused Scott's pleas for assistance. Lloyd said, "If Scott cannot control his own party, he should resign and allow Gilpin to take command. Better still, let him call a new election, so that the people may judge his party on the record." Rather than resign or call new elections, Scott chose to go along as Gilpin maneuvered the two countries into war in September 1845.
With Lloyd refusing to commit the Conservatives to a peace platform, leadership of the anti-war faction of the N.C.P. fell to Councilman William Johnson of Manitoba. As invading North American armies suffered defeat after defeat at the hands of the Mexicans, the war grew more unpopular. Gilpin blamed the defeats on Scott's poor leadership, and in April 1849 Gilpin resigned from Scott's Cabinet and called for a no-confidence vote. Lloyd, hoping to precipitate a snap election, joined in the vote of no confidence, and Scott's government fell. Gilpin, though, refused to call an election, and instead persuaded enough pro-war Conservatives to switch sides to form his own government.
The war continued to go badly under Gilpin's leadership, and by the 1853 Grand Council elections, Gilpin had lost control of the Liberals to Councilman Bruce Harrison of the Northern Confederation. At the same time, Lloyd's inconsistent record on the war cost him the leadership of the Conservatives, who chose Johnson as their party leader. Although both men ran on peace platforms, Johnson's well-known stand on the issue allowed the Conservatives to win a 91-seat majority in the Grand Council.
Johnson and Mexican President Hector Niles both agreed to the establishment of an international tribunal in The Hague to negotiate a peace settlement, with an armistice established on August 1, 1853. While negotiations for a final peace continued, Johnson sent his Minister of State, Montgomery Harcourt, to London to seek British investment to help revive the North American economy. Harcourt was successful, and British investment in the C.N.A. continued until the coming of the Great Depression of the 1880s.
The Era of Faceless Men
Following the signing of a final peace treaty in 1856, Johnson chose to resign the governor-generalship. His popularity among the Conservative caucus allowed him to secure the succession for his protégé, Minister of Finance Whitney Hawkins. Unfortunately, Hawkins proved to be a poor choice. He allowed corruption to flourish during his administration, and during the 1858 Grand Council elections, proved to be a poor campaigner. The Conservatives lost 19 seats, and their majority, to the Liberals under Councilman Kenneth Parkes.
Although corruption grew even worse under Parkes, he remained personally popular, and was able to lead the Liberals to a second victory in the 1863 Grand Council elections. Parkes chose to step down in 1868, instituting a national convention for the Liberal Party during which he was able to gain the leadership for his own protégé, Governor Victor Astor of the N.C. The Conservatives held their own convention in New York, leading to bitter squabbles for the party leadership. The convention finally chose Councilman Herbert Clemens of Indiana, a wealthy business owner. Clemens was able to use his own fortune to outspend the Liberals, securing an 85-seat majority in the 1868 Grand Council elections.
After ten years out of power, the Conservatives were eager to make up for lost time. Government contracts with Liberal supporters, mostly in the N.C., were cancelled and awarded to Conservatives, mostly in Indiana and the S.C. The reform bills of 1869 and 1870 were pushed through, widening the franchise and reapportioning electoral districts, both designed to increase Conservative votes at the expense of the Liberals.
However, the most momentous event of Clemens' administration was not the work of the national government, but of a grassroots political movement. At the 1869 Norfolk Convention, a group of small farmers, both white and Negro, combined with impoverished plantation owners, formed the People's Party of the Southern Confederation, issuing the Norfolk Resolves as a party manifesto. Branches soon formed in the other confederations and united to create the People's Coalition. By the 1873 Grand Council elections, the Coalition had grown to the point where it was able to field candidates for every Grand Council seat, as well as confederation and local elections. Thanks to the Conservatives' electoral reforms, the Coalition was able to win ten Council seats, with the Liberals losing two and the Conservatives themselves eight, reducing their majority to 77 seats. It would be the last majority the Conservatives would ever have.
The Conservative Decline
As Clemens' second term came to a close, he chose to step down as governor-general and Conservative party leader. At the Conservative convention in Michigan City in early January 1878, Clemens was able to gain the leadership for his hand-picked successor, Indiana Governor Joseph Fellows. At his acceptance speech on 3 January, Governor Fellows pledged himself "to the continuation of the prosperity we have enjoyed for the past decade." Although the Conservatives were losing reform-minded members to the People's Coalition, they were attracting recent immigrants from Great Britain and Ireland. The party appeared outwardly as strong as ever.
The Liberals had little hope of regaining their majority, and at their convention in Philadelphia they selected a little-known Manitoba Councilman, John McDowell. The Coalitionists, having experienced rapid growth in the nine years since their foundation, held a disorganized national convention in New York where it was decided to allow each confederation to nominate its own candidate for governor-general. The Conservatives and the Liberals were both alarmed by the appearance of the People's Coalition, and as the 1878 Grand Council elections approached, both older parties targeted the radical insurgents for violent attacks. The five-week campaign season was marked by an unprecedented wave of political violence.
Despite (or because of) the political violence directed against it, the People's Coalition won 39 seats in the Grand Council, mostly at the expense of the Conservatives, who saw their share of seats fall from 77 to 49. The Liberals lost only a single seat, which left them with a plurality; for the first time since the adoption of the Second Design 35 years before, none of the parties had a majority of the seats.
As the leader of the party with the most seats, it fell to McDowell to try to form a government. McDowell refused to consider forming a coalition with one of the other parties, opting instead for a minority Liberal government. He was able to pass some moderate reforms with the help of Coalitionist reformers. However, it was not until the C.N.A. was struck by a major economic crisis in 1880 that he gained the passage of major legislation offering relief to bankrupt farmers and businesses. This raised his popularity, and encouraged him to launch the 1883 campaign season with his Age of Renewal speech and a flurry of Liberal reform bills which were voted down by the other two parties.
Theodore Lindsay, the publisher of the country's leading Conservative newspaper, the New York Herald, denounced McDowell's Age of Renewal speech, writing, "Such talk is not only dangerous, it is cruel. Our country is in grave danger. We have more than one million men out of work, our factories are operating sporadically, our trade is declining, and there are revolutionaries at work in all the states. And the Governor-General talks of progress, of his accomplishments, and of his plans for the future! Any more such plans, and we shall have no future, but go the way of France and Austria into national oblivion!" Lindsay urged the North American people to reject McDowell's leadership and instead support "a man who will recognize the old values of our nation, those cherished by Burgoyne and Dickinson, and not be moved to accept every nostrum that comes along."
It was clear that Lindsay considered himself that man, and when the Conservatives met in New York Lindsay was one of the leading candidates for party leader. Although he lacked political experience and had a reputation for supporting crank causes, Lindsay was the most dynamic candidate, and the most influential. The convention chose him to lead the party, and in his acceptance speech, he vowed "to carry the message of the New Conservatism to every part of the Confederation, and before I am done, the people will know of our dangers and how McDowell has deceived them, of their own hidden resources, and of the government's attempts to steal them from their rightful owners."
Lindsay's efforts were in vain. The Conservative Party was continuing to lose supporters to the other parties, and on election day the party lost an additional 26 seats in the Grand Council, holding on to just 23 seats. The People's Coalition, now with 45 seats, became the official opposition. With the front benches of the opposition now occupied by the Coalitionists, most of the Conservative Councilmen chose to sit behind the Liberals, although five members from the N.C. and Quebec seated themselves among the opposition.
The Conservative Fall
As McDowell's Liberal majority passed a flood of legislation, Lindsay warned, "The Governor-General will destroy our moral fibre with his nostrums, and our exchequer with his taxes." However, the Conservative losses in 1883 reduced Lindsay's influence, and his warnings went unheeded. Although the Age of Renewal programs fell far short of McDowell's promises, it was the People's Coalition that took advantage of the growing disenchantment. The leading figure in the Coalition was the Mayor of Michigan City, Ezra Gallivan. He and Minority Leader Scott Ruggles of the N.C. were unceasing in their criticism of McDowell's failures, and tireless in building up the Coalition's confederation-level organizations.
By the 1888 Grand Council elections, the Coalition was poised to overtake the Liberals. Lindsay's influence within the Conservative Party faded, and the Conservatives chose an able moderate, Abraham Reese, as their leader. However, the Conservative Party's fortunes had fallen too low to be reversed. Gamblers in Norfolk offered odds of 20-to-1 against a Conservative victory, and on election day the party lost an additional 14 seats, holding on to just nine. Gallivan led the Coalition to a 73-seat plurality, and for the rest of the nineteenth century, the Conservatives continued to lose seats as North American politics resolved itself into a battle between a Coalitionist government and a Liberal opposition.
The Conservatives held their last national convention in January 1903. There were so few delegates present that the meeting adjourned on the first day without choosing a party leader. It was the last appearance of the Conservatives in North American history.
|1843||Willie Lloyd||Southern Confederation||59|
|1848||Willie Lloyd||Southern Confederation||unknown|
|1883||Theodore Lindsay||Northern Confederation||23|
Sobel's sources for the Conservative Party include Burgoyne Garner's Origins of the Conservative Party in the Northern Confederation (New York, 1929); Edwin Doe's The Last Days of C.N.A. Conservatism (Burgoyne, 1952); Reuben Fenton's And Close the Door: The Decline of C.N.A. Conservatism (New York, 1955); Hugh Scott's Giant in Chains: Van Buren and the Conservatives (Mexico City, 1960); Francis James' Decision at Brant (Mexico City, 1967); and James McCormick's The Anti-Liberals: Their Origins (New York, 1967).
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