“Federation in History,” The Globe (8 August 1864)

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Date: 1864-08-08
By: The Globe
Citation: “Federation in History,” The Globe [Toronto] (8 August 1864).
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A Montreal contemporary has an article to show that there have been unsuccessful federations in the world—a point which we grant most readily. There is, we may note, no evidence offered, and indeed none alleged to exist, that the political disasters which befell the countries that are quoted, were due to the fact that they had federal rather than consolidated and centralised governments. In reply, we have to say that there is no system of government which has proved uniformly successful wherever it has been applied. Monarchies, both absolute and limited, aristocracies and oligarchies, democracies and republics, representative governments and despotisms, have all furnished instances of failure over and over again. If we were to take every instance of the abandonment or violent overthrow of a particular government as evidence of the “failure” of the principles on which that government was based, French history alone would furnish evidence of the failure of three or four different political systems. If our contemporary can quote half a dozen federal leagues—some of them of the very weakest character—which have “failed,” we can quote half a hundred centralised governments, including every known country, whereof the failure has been quite as palpable. If, from the breaking up of three or four federal leagues, we ought to draw the inference that the federal principle is a vicious one, then any respectable historical library would furnish ample evidence that every form of government which human ingenuity has devised is vicious and worthy of rejection.

In deciding how far the abandonment of any system of government in any particular instance, or in half a dozen instances, should be held to show that that system was based upon unsound principles, we must understand all the circumstances of the “failure.” It may have been due to the viciousness of the general principles, or to errors in collaterals which it is possible for other people to avoid without difficulty. The circumstances of the country of the character of its people may have caused the ill-success of a system which elsewhere would be the very thing needed. In a country like Switzerland, for example, very poor success would attend the practical working of a centralised form of government. In a country whose inhabitants were of one race and creed, and where there was no wide diversity of sectional interest, much of the “cantonal” machinery of government, which Switzerland possesses might be found quite useless. In a country presenting in a very great degree those discordant elements which are held to make the federal form of government a necessary resort, a weak federation might prove an utter failure—even a tolerably strong federation might not work smoothly, if the differences with which it was designed to deal were too radical and irrepressible. But that is no evidence that the federal principle, properly applied, is not the one best calculated to secure harmony in the management of discordant sections of the same country. It is simply an evidence that there may be differences too wide to be kept in check by any constitutional system, or that there may be a federation too weak to do its proper work.

If the list of old-time federations which our contemporary has quoted were examined, we are pretty safe in saying that, in nearly every instance, the great difficultly arose from the weakness of the federal tie. The present Germanic Confederation is a conspicuous instance of the weakness of which we speak. The different German States are not, as the members of a confederation ought to be, subdivisions of the same country, but rather independent States leagued together for a common object, by an almost nominal tie. That tie is far too weak to serve the purposes which it ought to serve. It is liable to be snapped asunder at the slightest strain. A large portion of the German people see this defect, and wish it remedied. The “national” movement of 1848, was an effort to effect a closer union between the different German States. The interests of the princes, petty and great, who govern with more or less despotism the different German States, are, however, against such a consolidation of Germany as would involve a curtailment of their power; and so the German Diet remains a weak body, which can do little more than “protest” against even the acts of its own more powerful members.

This weakness of the Federal tie—the great defect in nearly all confederations—has been due to circumstances easily explained. The formation of a Federal Government has usually been by the union of previously independent States. These States have naturally striven to give up as little as possible of the previous powers and sovereignty, and the result has nearly always been that too little power has been given to the Federal authority. The framers of the United States constitution fell into the same error, and it proceeded upon the same principle of united independent States rather than of making provision for the internal government of different sections of the same country. True, they gave their central government very much more power than pertained to some of the leagues of former times or pertains to the German Diet of the present day. Still, they left the Federal authority too weak—so weak that early in the history of the country it had to be materially strengthened, and is even yet found too weak to bear well the strain of the present crisis. We believe that those who have in hand the task of [text illegible] to apply the Federal principle in our country, will easily avoid the mistake which has so often been made in framing Federal constitutions. Besides having so much evidence before them of the evil of belittling the central power, they have the advantage of being under little temptation to make such a mistake. The leagues of the old world were often leagues of states which did not really want to be one country, and which only united the better to resist foreign aggression. All parties in this country have been taught to regard these Provinces as destined to form one country, and will earnestly desire that any constitutional changes which may be made shall proceed upon that idea. There are no reasons why either Province should seek to get even prospectively a separate “sovereignty.” They have not had the attributes of independent in the past and will not ask them now. We have not, as have the little German States, petty princes who pass for sovereigns in their narrow principalities, and who will consent to no constitutional changes which might deprive them of a portion of their kingly dignity. We have, indeed, no element—certainly no important element—which should in the least begrudge to the Federation its due authority. In a colonial state of existence, perhaps, a weakness of the Federal power might not prove a very great practical evil; but so far as it would be an evil now, or might be a greater one if ever these Provinces became independent, our circumstances are extremely favourable to the avoidance of such an error. The Ministerial policy is to make the Federative Government the sovereign one, and the local Government the delegated power—and there is nothing whatever to render a change from the policy necessary.

The argument for federation in our case is a plain one. We have in these Provinces discordant nationalities, professing different creeds, and speaking different languages. We have in local interests of a national character other, though perhaps minor, causes of difference. Experience has proved to us that we cannot get along well under a centralised government, or in other words, under a legislative union. Experience in Europe has proved that it is extremely difficult for any country like ours to work a consolidated form of government. Nearly every consolidated government which has to deal with such widely differing nationalities proves to be most despotic towards some portion of its people, and if the particular nationality or nation tyrannized over be not completely enslaved, the centralised government under which it suffers is continually in turmoil, and often broken up in violence. Experience also informs us that the usual resort of countries which include such diverse elements as ours is the logical one—that of federation. Experience, too, shows that this resort is, when fairly tried, a most successful one, or if the discord be too great for absolute success, much more nearly successful than any other could be. We submit that these considerations fully make out the very strongest case in favour of the proposed federation of these Provinces.

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