- Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC
- The Indians of Northeastern North America
- The Northern Approaches to Canada
- The Atlantic Region
- New France, 1524—1713
- The Administration of New France
- The French Forces in North America during the Seven Years’ War
- The British Forces in North America during the Seven Years’ War
- The Acadians
- The Integration of the Province of Quebec into the British Empire, 1763—91
- The Colonial Office and British North America, 1801—50
- Provincial Justice: Upper Canadian Legal Portraits
The Colonial Office and British North America, 1801–50 (cont.)
Sir James Stephen was a child of the evangelical revival. His father was prominent in the movement; his father’s second wife was a sister of William Wilberforce. Stephen was brought up within the confines of the “Clapham sect,” the name he gave to that group of prominent evangelical families who congregated in the fashionable London suburb of Clapham, and his close friends were drawn almost entirely from the inner circle of the evangelical movement. Naturally shy, “sensitive beyond what was reasonable,” “a man without a skin,” in later life he became something of a recluse. His aloofness was reinforced by asceticism. He never went to the theatre or dances, was uninterested in food, seldom drank, and once smoked a cigar but never repeated the experience because he enjoyed it so much. Involvement in the affairs of the world was implicit in the evangelical creed and Stephen entered the Colonial Office to perform God’s work, to assist in the movement to abolish slavery. He was, in Henry Walter Parris’s felicitous phrase, “a zealot.” His dedication to his work was almost total. Stephen’s superiors, his colleagues, and his subordinates might break down under the pressure of a constant influx of dispatches and retreat from London, but Stephen remained at his post “to give an example.” He rose early and worked late. Almost his sole diversion in later years was to devote part of the morning or evening to the preparation of articles for the Edinburgh Review.
Evangelicals drew a distinction, which was not merely casuistical, between temporal evils, intrinsic in a society of sinners, and moral wrongs, which fly in the face of God’s laws. With the latter there could be no compromise. This moral absolutism had both a positive and a negative side. Evangelicals led the crusade against slavery; they also led the crusade to destroy non-Christian systems of belief among native peoples in British North America and throughout the empire. The energy of the movement was focused on the Church Missionary Society (of which Stephen was a member for many years) and the British and Foreign Bible Society, organizations represented in British North America by such men as William
Stephen’s disdain for partisan politics, as well as his intense dedication and his acute intelligence, made him far more suitable than Hay for the position of permanent under-secretary. His legal training was another advantage. The vast expansion of the empire during the Napoleonic Wars had created complex constitutional and legal problems for the Colonial Office and in 1813 Stephen was retained on a commission basis to examine colonial laws. He gradually came to occupy a position of unique importance in the Colonial Office as “the single student and Professor in England of my art – the art of understanding everything connected with the Constitutions, Charters and Written Laws, of some 40 Colonies.” In 1824 Wilmot-Horton wrote to assure the West Indian lobby that Stephen’s duty was to report whether colonial laws were compatible with the laws of England, not whether they were “expedient” or “inexpedient.” Wilmot-Horton was not quite honest. Since the law itself is crystallized policy, legal advice inevitably involves some statement concerning that policy and from there it is no distance to discussing the merits of a policy. Stephen did not adopt a narrow interpretation of his responsibilities and it soon became “something of a fiction to regard as mere legal opinions Reports which embrace or advert to every topic which seems to me to demand the notice of the Secretary of State.” His work grew rapidly in scope and complexity and he was consulted whenever a legal or constitutional question was involved. Yet even after becoming a permanent employee in 1825, he held only “an obscure and secondary Place” in the official hierarchy and he began to work, perhaps subconsciously at first, to replace Hay as permanent under-secretary.
When Hay entered the Colonial Office in 1825, he did not think of himself as a civil servant in any modem sense. As Henry Parris has pointed out, the “permanent civil service” in the early 19th century was neither permanent nor civil nor a service. Entry was by patronage, did not require any particular expertise or even a high level of administrative competence, and conferred financial rewards but limited intrinsic social status. Since the duties of government were few and simple and the business in most departments was conducted by the ministers themselves, a large number of highly qualified, well-motivated public servants was hardly necessary and the civil service could be staffed by men appointed because of their influence. Hay had emerged from precisely the right background. The grandson of an archbishop of York and the nephew of the 10th Earl of Kinnoull, he had attended Christ Church College, Oxford, had been appointed in 1812 private secretary to Lord Melville, first lord of the Admiralty, and had subsequently become a commissioner of the Victualling Board. His transfer to a higher position at the Colonial Office he owed primarily to his close personal friendship with Wilmot-Horton. There is little doubt that he found his duties at the Colonial Office tedious. Stephen was cut from a different cloth and it was considerably less purple. Although he owed his initial appointment at the Colonial Office to his father’s influence, thereafter he advanced through his own merits. Firmly entrenched in the Victorian upper middle class and sharing the evangelical disdain for idle aristocrats, he found subordination to a dilettante like Hay increasingly irritating.
After the Whigs came to power in 1830, Stephen had an important ally in the new parliamentary under-secretary, Lord Howick. Early in 1832, having persuaded the secretary of state, Lord Goderich, to agree, Howick took charge of the North American department, and he began to work for Hay’s dismissal and Stephen’s promotion. When Howick resigned from the Colonial Office in March 1833, however, Hay resumed control over North American affairs. In April 1835, with the Whigs back in power, Howick entered the cabinet as secretary at war, and in February 1836 he coerced the colonial minister, Lord Glenelg, into dismissing Hay and appointing Stephen permanent under-secretary.
Under Stephen’s direction, the reorganization of the Colonial Office, begun in the 1820s, was completed. No fundamental changes were introduced until the 1870s and the significance of the later innovations is easily exaggerated. Immediately upon becoming permanent under-secretary, Stephen introduced a comprehensive system of minuting and brought to an end the division of business on a geographical basis between the two under-secretaries. Henceforth, every letter, every dispatch, with the relevant enclosures, was sent from the senior clerk of the geographical department concerned, or his assistant, to the permanent under-secretary, then to the parliamentary under-secretary, and finally to the secretary of state. In the vast majority of cases Stephen indicated in a minute the answer that should be given or the course of action to be adopted. Usually the parliamentary under-secretary and the secretary of state needed to do little more than to note whether they agreed with Stephen’s recommendation. The papers were then returned to Stephen, who prepared the draft of any letters that were necessary to implement the decision taken or indicated to a clerk the form which should be followed in preparing these documents. All drafts were circulated to both under-secretaries and to the secretary of state for revision and approval.
In theory, little distinction was drawn between the duties of the two under-secretaries. In practice, a dichotomy was established. The parliamentary under-secretary became a political adviser to the secretary of state with a special responsibility for dealing with questions that were likely to arouse comment in parliament, while the permanent under-secretary became increasingly anonymous and apolitical with the primary responsibility of supervising the work of the clerical establishment and all routine business. In the past, parliamentary under-secretaries such as Wilmot-Horton and Howick had overshadowed the permanent under-secretary and occasionally even the secretary of state. But after 1836 the parliamentary under-secretary no longer kept the detailed business of half the empire, frequently the more important half, in his own hands. His work had increased immensely, since he was expected to read all the dispatches and letters that came into the Colonial Office. His ability to influence the decisions of the secretary of state had declined, his advice having to compete with that of the permanent under-secretary whose knowledge was inevitably greater.
Yet in the formulation of North American policy even Stephen’s role was extremely limited after 1836. Between 1828 and 1830 he had been one of the principal architects of government policy. Following Stanley’s resignation as under-secretary in January 1828, William Huskisson turned to him for assistance in formulating a policy to meet the crisis in Lower Canada and that year Stephen appeared as a witness before the select committee on Canada, where he defended the legal claim of the Canadian legislatures to the revenues in dispute. His views carried weight with the committee and were embodied in its report. Moreover, Sir George Murray assigned Stephen the duty of preparing the Colonial Office’s response to that report, although he followed Stephen’s advice only on minor issues. After 1830 Stephen exercised considerable indirect influence over policy because of his direct influence over Lord Howick, who derived many of his views from Stephen. When Stanley became secretary of state in 1833, he deliberately relegated Stephen to a minor role in policy-making, but during the rapid turnover of ministers in 1834 and 1835 Thomas Spring-Rice, Lord Aberdeen, and Lord Glenelg all looked to Stephen for guidance. Over his fellow evangelical and boyhood friend, Glenelg, Stephen had a particularly strong influence and from 1835 to 1837 a number of Stephen’s memoranda were circulated to the cabinet and formed the basis of its discussions. None the less, as the situation in the Canadas deteriorated and Canadian issues moved to the centre of British politics, the real focus of decision-making shifted from the Colonial Office to the cabinet, where Stephen’s voice was only one among many. Moreover, after Glenelg was forced out of office in 1839, he was replaced by a series of strong secretaries of state who required little instruction from their permanent under-secretary on the major questions of Canadian policy. Stephen, under increasing attack from his critics in Britain and in the colonies, was pleased to play a less prominent role in formulating policy. On routine matters his advice still carried great weight. When the issue was whether to approve an appointment or any administrative or financial decision taken by a governor, or if it involved essentially a legal or technical question, Stephen’s minute on the incoming dispatch normally formed the basis of the secretary of state’s decision. If the dispatch raised a more general issue of policy, his minute usually outlined the alternatives available and subtly pushed the secretary of state in the direction he preferred. Occasionally but rarely was Stephen’s advice on such matters challenged by the parliamentary under-secretary and even more rarely would the latter’s opinion be favoured by the secretary of state. Because of his own reorganization of the Colonial Office, Stephen had neither the time nor the inclination to prepare those lengthy and comprehensive memoranda on general issues which had accounted for much of his influence before he had become permanent under-secretary. But next to the secretary of state, whose voice remained decisive, Stephen exercised the greatest control over the decision-making process within the Colonial Office.
Another shift of power within the Colonial Office is discernible after 1836. In the 1820s and during the first half of the 1830s a number of the more able clerks had been doing the work of statesmen. After 1836 Stephen absorbed many of their duties. He decided what functions the clerks should perform and what information should be given to the secretary of state. With his extensive knowledge, long experience, and truly remarkable memory, he seldom had to call upon his subordinates for assistance. Even when Stephen was in error, the clerks were reluctant to point this fact out to him.
The significance of this change is clearly observable in the North American department. When Wilmot-Horton arrived at the Colonial Office in 1821, North American business was handled by Adam Gordon, the son of an American loyalist, who had been appointed to the Home Department in 1795 and then transferred along with responsibility for the colonies to the secretary of state for war in 1801. For several years the agent for Lower Canada, Gordon had been a friend of Sir George Prevost, knew many of the officials in British North America personally, and was related to Jonathan Sewell, the chief justice of Lower Canada. Gordon regularly corresponded with his friends across the Atlantic and looked after their interests in London. In 1824 he became chief clerk and George Baillie became senior clerk in charge of the North American department. Appointed to the Colonial Office in 1810, Baillie was one of Lord Bathurst’s favourites and secured a position in the office for his brother
Although Gordon and Baillie undoubtedly had some influence upon the decisions taken on questions relating to British North America, much of the correspondence in the North American department, which remained small in volume, was too important to be delegated to a clerk. In any event, Gordon and Baillie were clerks of the old style. They were useful in dealing with procedural questions, in remembering precedents, and in supplying a certain amount of background material when decisions had to be taken. But they seldom wrote lengthy memoranda and they showed little desire to take the initiative in the formulation of policy. As the political crisis in the Canadas grew more serious during the 1830s and parliament began to take a greater interest in the affairs of British North America, there was an obvious need for more energetic and able clerks. For this reason Lord Howick persuaded Lord Goderich to appoint Baillie one of the agents general for the colonies in 1833 and to place Thomas Frederick Elliot in charge of the North American department.
The son of a colonial governor, a cousin of the 2nd Earl of Minto, and a future second cousin by marriage of Lord John Russell, Elliot had entered the Colonial Office in 1825, became précis writer in 1827, and served as secretary to the emigration commission of 1831–32. In 1833 he succeeded to the first vacant senior clerkship, much to the chagrin of some of his more senior, but less able, colleagues. Under his direction the North American department was run with a new sense of purpose. In 1835 he was appointed secretary to the commission headed by Lord Gosford that was to inquire into the political impasse in Lower Canada, and he went with it to Quebec. In effect, he became a fourth commissioner. His letters to Henry Taylor, another senior clerk in the Colonial Office, were circulated to the cabinet and on his return he published a pamphlet defending the government’s policy in British North America. In April 1837 he became agent general for emigration, in 1840 one of the colonial land and emigration commissioners, and in 1847 an assistant under-secretary.
Elliot’s place at the North American department was filled in 1837 by Thomas William Clinton Murdoch, another exceptionally able public servant. The son of a fellow of the Royal Society, Murdoch was first employed by the Colonial Office in 1826 as a copying clerk. Promoted to the establishment in 1828, he served his apprenticeship in the West Indian department before transferring to the North American section to assist Elliot. Although still very junior he was allowed to perform the duties of a senior clerk during Elliot’s absence in Lower Canada and on 20 Jan. 1836 was promoted from the fourth class in the clerical hierarchy to the second. Those clerks in the office who had been passed over vigorously complained about Murdoch’s rapid advancement and in 1839 he was demoted to the third class, although given the salary of a higher rank. Since he could no longer serve as senior clerk of the North American department, he agreed to become civil secretary to Charles Edward Poulett Thomson, when the latter was appointed governor-in-chief of British North America; he served with distinction under Thomson in 1839–41 and then in 1841–42 under Sir Charles Bagot, who praised him as “nearly the best man of business I ever knew.” Bagot tried to persuade Murdoch to settle in Canada but could not promise him secure employment so Murdoch returned to the Colonial Office. His return was not a happy one. Because of his lowly status in the official hierarchy he could not be given a position commensurate with his abilities. Eventually he became senior clerk in 1846 and had a new department created for him. He held this position, and performed in addition the work of a précis writer, until 1847 when he was promoted to the colonial land and emigration commission to succeed Elliot. In 1850 he was offered but declined the position of lieutenant governor of Prince Edward Island.
From 1833 to 1835 Elliot had virtually performed the duties of an under-secretary, and Murdoch continued to undertake important and responsible work from 1835 to 1839, although his influence declined after Stephen became under-secretary. Their successors played no such active role in the formulation of policy. In 1839 Edmund Thomas Harrison took charge of the North American department. Already twice passed over by men who were his junior in the official hierarchy, he was conscientious – so conscientious that he apparently died of overwork in 1840 – but without intellectual distinction. His successor was Arthur Johnstone Blackwood, the son of an admiral and a graduate of Harrow, who, like Harrison, had entered the Colonial Office in 1824. His promotion was also overdue. He was to hold his position until 1867 and to perform his duties diligently. Occasionally he took the initiative, and longevity in office inevitably gave him a grasp of the details of his department that few men could rival. Yet he too was to have an extremely limited impact upon the larger issues of colonial policy. Elliot and Murdoch had done work equal to that of an under-secretary; Harrison and Blackwood remained useful clerks.
The waning importance of the senior clerks in the North American department can in part be attributed to the personal qualities of the individuals who held the post. But even Henry Taylor, the senior clerk in the West Indian department, whose ability cannot be doubted, found that the atmosphere of the office changed after Stephen became under-secretary. The formal system of written minutes and the channelling of all papers through the permanent under-secretary tended to isolate the clerical staff from the secretary of state. Stephen had complained in 1832 that “the senior Clerks have virtually become under-secretaries, and are often drawn into personal and direct communication with the secretary of state.” After 1836 he discouraged the clerks from having private interviews with the head of the Colonial Office and, when Murdoch returned from Canada in 1842, he found that he had restricted access to Lord Stanley, the secretary of state.
One has the feeling that during Stephen’s years as permanent under-secretary the Colonial Office became a less happy place in which to work. Because of the extensive hiring of new clerks in the 1820s, promotion was extremely slow and many of the junior clerks were confined to the drudgery of menial work, such as copying. Moreover, Stephen inspired little devotion, since he brought to his work a degree of moral earnestness that left little room for light-heartedness and he was critical of his subordinates. There was good reason for Stephen’s attitude. The Colonial Office appealed to a “better class” of candidate than departments such as the Board of Customs which engaged in work that was considered less suitable for a gentleman. Not all of the clerks were as highly connected as Elliot but all of them came from the respectable ranks in society. The atmosphere within the Colonial Office resembled that of a gentlemen’s club. The duties of most of the clerks were seldom onerous: each clerk had an office to himself or shared one, his hours were short, and he worked under inadequate supervision. There were a handful of able and an even larger number of conscientious clerks, and the senior clerks in particular had heavy responsibilities. However, since clerks were appointed because they were well connected and rose through the ranks by seniority, there was no guarantee that they would be conscientious or capable of taking on ever more responsible duties.
As a group, the clerks at the Colonial Office were probably no less capable than their counterparts in other departments. But the “appropriate functions” of a clerk were changing. Those who entered government service in the 1820s expected to perform relatively simple tasks. Increasingly they were criticized for not undertaking duties for which they were equipped neither by experience nor by training. Not surprisingly they resented this criticism and opposed the changes that were taking place within the office. Since the clerks were a highly cohesive body who considered themselves gentlemen and the social equals of Stephen, they resisted his efforts to enforce more stringent regulations governing their hours of attendance, the work they performed, and their holidays. They were not afraid to protest decisions that hindered their chances of promotion, adversely affected their emoluments, or infringed upon the freedom to which they believed they were entitled. Stephen could issue orders. He could not necessarily enforce them and many of the reforms introduced into the procedure of the department in the mid 1830s were ultimately abandoned.
To some extent Stephen was obliged by the strong resistance to change within the Colonial Office and by his inability to promote more able men to positions of responsibility to concentrate the work in his own hands. Under his direction the Colonial Office became more centralized than it had been in the past or would ever be again in the future. The parliamentary under-secretary had been largely excluded from effective control over the routine business of the office. Stephen remained legal adviser, a position he had made second in importance to that of the permanent under-secretary. The senior clerks seldom had contact with the secretary of state and the junior clerks were largely confined to purely clerical tasks. Stephen could hardly conduct all the detailed work of the department himself and he frequently had to call on his colleague or on the clerks for assistance. But if ever there was a “Mr Mother Country” (a title Stephen loathed), it was during this period.
Yet Stephen accepted that there must be limits to the undoubtedly considerable influence he possessed in the formulation of policies. He was not a member of that “heroic generation” of civil servants, so vividly described by George Kitson Clark, who were prepared to work through sympathetic members of parliament, the press, and public opinion to achieve their goals, even if it meant ignoring or opposing the wishes of their superiors. Stephen never sought to influence public opinion by releasing confidential documents or by writing articles on colonial affairs. Many civil servants eagerly sought to appear before select committees of parliament in order to promote their views but, when Stephen was interviewed by the select committee on Canada in 1828 and defended the financial claims of the Canadian legislatures, his evidence aroused so much antagonism among colonial conservatives such as John Strachan and Lord Dalhousie’s supporters that he wished to avoid a repetition of the experience.
Partly because he was the subject of virulent abuse by a number of pressure groups in Britain and partly because of his own personality, Stephen was one of the first senior civil servants of his generation to accept that to hold a permanent position a civil servant must be prepared to remain anonymous. As early as 1829 he wrote to friends in the colonies to ask them not to correspond with him unofficially and to burn any of his confidential letters they possessed. When he became under-secretary, he not only tried to end the habit of officials in the department of corresponding privately with officials overseas, but enthusiastically endorsed the rule, apparently laid down by Stanley in 1833–34, that no under-secretary should write a dispatch to a governor on any private business. He ensured that all the relevant documents on any matter, important or trivial, were laid before the secretary of state. For the execution of a decision made by his superior Stephen was prepared to accept responsibility, but only for the details, never for the “substance.” In this way he hoped to “obviate the reproach of undue interference” in the formulation of policy.
In fact, Stephen’s appointment as under-secretary made it even more difficult to maintain the impression of bureaucratic neutrality. Prior to 1836 there were several officials against whom disgruntled pressure groups could vent their dissatisfaction. After 1836 the only visible and logical subject for these attacks was Stephen – “Mr Mother Country,” “Mr Oversecretary Stephen,” “King Stephen” – even though Stephen’s influence on policy was not at its highest in these years. Sir John Colborne and Sir Francis Bond Head condemned Stephen for the failure to end popular agitation in Upper Canada. The Conservative opposition in parliament laid much of the blame for the government’s policy at Stephen’s feet. In 1838 Sir William Molesworth attacked Lord Glenelg for allowing his subordinates to make policy. The following year Bond Head published in London an account of his administration in Upper Canada which included disparaging comments about Stephen. Ironically, the appearance of Bond Head’s A narrative may have saved Stephen from removal to another department. After the rebellions in the Canadas, the government of Lord Melbourne was eager to find a scapegoat for the ostensible failure of its policy. Glenelg, the colonial minister, was sacrificed early in 1839 and Stephen had become a distinct political liability. But to remove Stephen immediately after the publication of Head’s book would have created the impression that not only were his attacks on Stephen legitimate, but also his criticisms of the government’s policy. Fortunately for Stephen, Lord John Russell, who took charge of the Colonial Office in 1839, came to appreciate his worth. So Stephen remained at his post, although the volume of criticism did not abate.
In 1847 Stephen fell seriously ill. He was forced to accept a six months’ leave of absence and then to resign in 1848. No one person could replace him and his duties were apportioned between Frederic Rogers, who gave legal advice to the colonial department, Elliot, who was promoted assistant under-secretary, and Herman Merivale, who became permanent under-secretary. After a relatively undistinguished career at the bar, Merivale had become professor of political economy at Oxford, published a series of lectures on colonies and colonization, and frequently contributed articles to the Edinburgh Review. These publications brought him to Stephen’s attention and Stephen put Merivale’s name forward, although he knew him only by reputation. At first Merivale made little impression upon the policies of the department. The secretary of state from 1846 to 1852, the 3rd Earl Grey, had a much greater knowledge of colonial affairs than his new under-secretary and when he needed help he still turned to Stephen. During the political instability of the 1850s, when Grey was replaced by a series of less able and less knowledgeable politicians, Merivale’s influence undoubtedly grew. But Merivale was no Stephen. He was conscientious but without Stephen’s masochistic devotion to duty.
In his formative study of the Colonial Office, Ralph Bernard Pugh has argued that by his emphasis upon regular, written minutes “Stephen decelerated the machine and brought some discredit upon his Department.” Both Pugh and John Semple Galbraith have criticized Stephen for failing to develop an adequate system of inter-departmental liaison. Yet these criticisms simply do not bear up under careful scrutiny. By contemporary standards the Colonial Office had evolved by the end of Stephen’s career into a relatively efficient government department. With only slight additions to the strength of the establishment, it dealt with a rapidly increasing volume of business in an age when technological advances were narrowing the distance between London and the colonies and leaving less time for leisurely deliberation. The staff of the Colonial Office dispatched their business as quickly as their political superiors would allow, and the overall impression one takes away from a detailed study of the records during this period is of an accelerating, not a decelerating, administrative machine. One can still find evidence of the occasional delay, the misplaced document or memorandum, but by the 1840s examples of administrative confusion are progressively more difficult to uncover.
In the area of inter-departmental relations Stephen’s work has been particularly maligned. Following his retirement there does seem to have been considerable improvement in the degree of coordination between those departments in London with responsibilities in the colonies, but Merivale did not change the administrative structure he inherited and his approach to the question of inter-departmental liaison was not fundamentally different from Stephen’s. If improvements took place, they were due to external factors which neither Stephen nor Merivale controlled. The abolition of the protective system and the navigation laws made it impossible for the Board of Trade and the Treasury to justify retaining their own officials in the colonies or to interfere on the same scale with colonial legislation. The grant of responsible government to the more mature colonies gradually reduced the potential areas of friction. Increasingly, departments could not pursue their own policies without any concern for the impact those policies had upon the affairs of other departments. If Merivale had more successful informal contacts with officials in other departments, it was because devolution had begun to place greater authority in the hands of subordinate officials. Moreover, the gradual growth of a sense of corporatism among civil servants in all departments, as the higher civil service became a more homogeneous group with close social and cultural affinities, created an environment in which cooperation was more easily achieved.
A more sophisticated critique of the mid-19th-century Colonial Office, advanced by John Whitson Cell and David John Murray among others, is that it was not well equipped for the formulation of long-term policies. This criticism is not wholly without foundation. As structured by Stephen, the Colonial Office did become the slave of a routine, but the routine itself prevented every decision from being taken on a purely ad hoc basis. The primary function of any bureaucracy must be to narrow the range of questions upon which an individual decision must be taken and to establish precedents which remove the need to consider each case in isolation as it occurs. No one who has examined in depth the records of the Colonial Office during this period can fail to be impressed with how efficiently the department performed this function under Stephen’s direction. The secretary of state might consider every dispatch and letter, but usually he had only to initial the document to indicate his concurrence with the routine course of action recommended by his subordinates. This is why the Colonial Office minutes can be so misleading. It is the extraordinary, the unusual, or the unique problem which consumes the bureaucrat’s time, once a body of precedents and clearly understood procedures have been established. Those who criticize Stephen as an administrator do not recognize how successful he had been in establishing a routine which minimized the labours of the decision-making process.
In one sense the critics of the 19th-century Colonial Office are undeniably right: the office was best suited for handling current and routine business. Yet those modern critics who condemn the Colonial Office for not becoming a more dynamic administrative agency have missed the point. The Colonial Office was organized, and functioned, on the principle that power ought to be centralized in the hands of the politicians placed by parliament in charge of the office. It was also organized on the assumption that the initiative in colonial government would and ought to come from the colonies.
When Sir George Murray declared in 1830 his belief “that to abstain from any extraordinary activity in the measures to be carried into effect with respect to the Colonies was a merit rather than a defect,” he was stating what had long been an axiom of British colonial policy. Regardless of appearances to the contrary, it remained an axiom of British policy. What creates the opposite impression is the fact that while the Colonial Office assumed few new responsibilities after 1830, it was able to perform its traditional duties with increased efficiency. The land and emigration policies of the Colonial Office, for example, are usually seen as the ingredients of a new imperialism that led the British government to adopt “an interfering spirit” after 1830. But interference with colonial land-granting procedures was not new, although in the past such interference had been neither coordinated nor consistent. Nor was there anything new in laying down regulations in London concerning emigration. Before 1815 there had been legislative restrictions to hinder emigration; after 1815 various efforts were made to encourage and assist emigrants. In the cases of both emigration and land policies there was a shift in the purpose of British regulations, but what was unusual was the systematic way in which a vastly improved administrative machine sought to bring order out of chaos and to lay down policies in London that could be applied with a degree of consistency impossible in the past.
Although these tasks involved the Colonial Office in a more detailed and careful supervision of colonial activity in certain areas, they are not indicative of any fundamental change in the prevailing attitude of the British authorities in regard to their proper role in the conduct of colonial government. Essentially a regulatory rather than an executive agency, the Colonial Office was neither well designed nor well equipped to handle land and emigration policy, and because of the complexity and sheer volume of the business the work was devolved upon a separate division in the department in the 1830s and upon the colonial land and emigration commission in 1840. By 1850 the staff of the commission – 3 commissioners, 11 established clerks, and around 30 temporary clerks – was approximately as large as the Colonial Office had been two decades earlier. Much of its work, such as the preparation of emigration returns and the supervision of the passenger acts, had little to do per se with the colonies and, when the commission was abolished in 1878, this business was transferred to the Board of Trade, where it more properly belonged. Moreover, the staff of the Colonial Office did not enthusiastically assume these responsibilities. The supervision of land-granting policies in the colonies, in particular, was viewed as a transitory duty to be transferred to the colonies when they were mature enough to deal with such problems themselves. By the 1840s the North American colonies controlled their own waste lands and disposed of the funds arising from their sale.
The other area where historians have seen “an interfering spirit” at work within the Colonial Office after 1830 was in its efforts to protect the welfare of non-Europeans overseas. Although negotiations with native peoples had always been considered an imperial rather than a colonial problem, the pressure of the humanitarian lobbies and a growing concern for the well-being of native peoples among the rulers of the empire did lead to greater activity in the Colonial Office and the broadening of the imperial government’s responsibilities. But the commitment of the department to what has been glorified as the doctrine of imperial trusteeship was not consistent. Only Lord Glenelg of the secretaries of state of the period took more than a passing interest in such questions unless they had immediate political implications. Although Stephen and some of the clerks within the office were more deeply concerned about the plight of native peoples, they accepted that there were severe limitations upon what they could do in colonies with representative institutions. Attempts were made to ensure that colonial legislation did not discriminate against non-Europeans and occasionally overtly discriminatory acts were disallowed. Exhortations were frequently sent to governors and to local legislatures to encourage them to improve the condition of the non-Europeans. Yet direct interference in the internal affairs of the colonies was undertaken only with great reluctance.
In fact, the whole trend of Colonial Office policy in the decades following 1815 was in the direction of a clearer definition and therefore a limitation of imperial responsibilities. Long before Lord Durham recommended in 1839 a division between matters of imperial and colonial responsibility, the Colonial Office was already acting upon a similar, although more flexible, division. It was this flexibility that enabled the Colonial Office to endorse, with mounting enthusiasm, the introduction of the principle of responsible government into the British North American colonies and the gradual extinction of its responsibilities in those colonies. Too much of the literature dealing with British policy in British North America during the first half of the 19th century implies that it was a disastrous failure. If so, the failure seems curious, since the policy laid the foundation for a continuing connection between Britain and Canada which persists – even if only in unimportant ways – to the present. The British ministers and the departmental officials upon whom they relied for advice frequently made errors in judgement but in the end they did succeed in reconciling the desire for greater colonial self-government with the imperial need to exercise some measure of control over the colonial legislatures. When viewed from this perspective, the Colonial Office does not merit the bad press it was accorded by contemporaries and has received from most historians.