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On the Road to Ruin with Their Characteristic Speed

Waiting for the start of the American Civil War in Canada and the Caribbean.

Visit of the Prince of Wales, President Buchanan, and Dignitaries to the Tomb of Washington at Mount Vernon, October 1860, Thomas P. Rossiter, 1861. [Smithsonian American Art Museum]

During the summer of 1860, the Prince of Wales, eighteen-year-old Albert Edward, the eldest son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and heir to the British throne, visited Canada. Prince Albert explained that his son went to serve “the Canadian wish to show the Americans how happy, free, and yet monarchical it is possible to be.” Touring from Newfoundland to Canada West — now known as Ontario — the young prince attracted cheering throngs who celebrated belonging to the world’s most powerful, prosperous, and stable empire. They cherished an imperial tie that kept at bay their numerous, powerful, and vulgar neighbors, the Americans. A Toronto newspaper claimed that without the protecting empire, Canada would “at once drop to the insignificance of Illinois or that dreary state, Vermont.”

To display their progress, Canadians dressed up towns with bunting, flags, banners, and triumphal arches made of wood but painted to look like stone. In Ottawa, the Prince supervised the ceremony to place a cornerstone for the new Canadian Parliament building. Displaying their Anglophilia, the architects adopted a neo-Gothic style in gray stone, thereby rejecting the neoclassical, white capitol buildings favored in the republican United States. By impressing imperial leaders, the Toronto Globe expected that Canada would be “looked upon as of greater importance, more interest will be taken in our welfare, more attention will be paid to our desires.”

But the royal visit encountered Canada’s tensions between Catholics and Protestants. Banned in Britain for anti-Catholic rhetoric and violence, the Orange Order was legal and powerful in Canada West, where the Protestant majority resented Irish and French Catholics. Orangemen claimed that no men on earth loved the queen and empire more than they did.

The Order controlled Toronto’s city government, including the police. In 1855, an American circus visited Toronto and, after a performance, the clowns got drunk and visited a brothel claimed by Orangemen as their turf. A fight broke out, and the Americans won. Unwilling to accept defeat by a bunch of clowns, the Orangemen attacked the circus grounds, toppling tents, burning wagons, and pummeling performers. Their fellow Orangemen, the Toronto constables, looked on and claimed to know none of the rioters, who proved their prowess as the greatest clowns in Toronto.

In September 1860, the prince’s steamboat reached Kingston, where two thousand Orangemen greeted him by bellowing anti-Catholic songs. Wearing orange ribbons, rosettes, and sashes, they erected two large arches decorated with symbols of their order. By claiming public space, Orangemen asserted their supremacy in Canada West. One exulted, “No other society or body of men could turn out in such strength, or with such an amount of flags, banners, regalia, and music as the Orangemen.”

But the prince had strict instructions from the imperial government to steer clear of the Order. His chaperone, the Duke of Newcastle, directed that the prince stay on board their ship. After two days of standoff, boat and prince steamed westward, leaving behind angry Orangemen singing destruction to Catholics. At the prince’s next stop, the lake port of Belleville, hopes for a quieter welcome were dashed by two hundred persistent Orangemen arriving by train from Kingston to reenact their defiant welcome. Once again, the boat steamed away, to the dismay of local people who had prepared a lavish meal, decked houses with the Union Jack, and built ten arches “richly ornamented with garlands of flowers.” Proceeding on to Cobourg, the prince could land, feast, and dance, because the local Orangemen agreed to appear as regular, peaceable subjects without regalia, flags, and provocative songs. A train loaded with pursuing Orangemen from Kingston broke down in a remote location that defied repair until the prince had left Cobourg. Accidents will happen when a railroad company and government agree to them.

At Toronto, the Orangemen built a sixty-foot­-tall arch at a key intersection, which the prince’s party evaded upon entering the city. When the prince emerged from Sunday services, brawny Orangemen intercepted his carriage and tried to carry it and him under the arch, but the driver whipped the horses to gallop away. A day later, heading into the countryside by train, prince and duke thought they had left Orangemen behind — only to discover a bright orange arch newly erected over the rail line, which they could not avoid.

In late September, the prince and entourage entered the United States at Detroit and spent the next month traveling through the Midwest and East. Making a grand impression, the prince drew immense crowds curious to see a real, “live Prince.” Young women flocked to see, touch, and even pinch Edward, behavior that the Duke of Newcastle found “somewhat rough and vulgar.” The worst experience came in Richmond, Virginia, where the locals felt irritated because the prince’s visit led the city fathers to cancel an especially large, and much-anticipated, slave auction. They also felt offended when the prince declined an invitation to tour a plantation worked by slaves. The prince and duke did visit a statue of George Washington, but a white throng heckled, saying that Washington “socked it into you at the Revolution.”

Another irritation came in Albany, New York, at a dinner attended by Senator William H. Seward. Late in the evening and deep in his cups, Seward assured Newcastle that, for political advantage, he would insult and threaten the British with war. Newcastle bristled and replied “that if he carried it out and touched our honor, he would, some fine morning, find he had embroiled his country in a disastrous conflict.” Seward miscalculated that baiting the British lion would distract Americans from their own internal strife.

On October 22, prince and duke sailed away, headed home across the Atlantic. Their souvenirs included two gray squirrels and a mud turtle: gifts for the queen. Six weeks later, the British ambassador, Lord Lyons, wrote to the duke: “It is difficult to believe that I am in the same country which appeared so prosperous, so contented, and one may say, so calm when we travelled through it.” Americans were, Lyons reported, “going ahead on the road to ruin with their characteristic speed and energy.” The Union was unraveling because of the recent presidential election.


In Canada, the 1861 census revealed that Anglophone Canada West had grown to a majority of 300,000 over Francophone Canada East. Because each province had an equal number of seats in parliament, a member of parliament from Canada West represented 20,000 constituents compared to 17,000 for an MP from Canada East. Led by George Brown, the Reform Party prevailed in Canada West by crusading for greater representation for their province. When rebuffed in parliament, Reformers threatened to rupture the Canadian Union. In a fiery speech of 1859 in parliament, Brown noted “the immense difficulties of governing two peoples, with two languages, two creeds, two systems of local institutions, under one general government.” Weary of the “sectional and sectarian jealousy” (which he had done so much to promote), Brown thought it “better—­a thousand times better [to] dissolve the connection.”

Fearing domination by the Anglophone Protestants of Canada West, Francophones rejected constitutional change as a threat to their language and Catholic faith. A newspaper editor explained: “We will consent to no compromise whatever on a principle so closely bound up with the existence of our nationality, of our religion, of all that remains of our heritage from our fathers.” If denied equality in representation, they would dissolve the Canadian Union. Although he was an Anglophone from Canada West, John A. Macdonald sided with the Francophones as essential to his governing coalition. Angry Reformers cast him as a Judas who sold out his own province for selfish power.

On April 17, a leading Reformer, William MacDougall, rose in the Canadian parliament to warn that Canadians of the “Anglo-Saxon Race” would “Look to Washington” for redress, which implied inviting American annexation. Macdonald pounced on these hasty words, making “No Looking to Washington” the slogan of his Conservative party in the next election. In July, voters rewarded Macdonald’s Conservatives with a landslide victory in Canada West. MacDougall kept his seat, but the primary Reform leader, George Brown, suffered defeat in Toronto.

Macdonald agreed with Lincoln that the American Civil War was a test of republicanism. But unlike the American president, the Canadian prime minister expected and hoped American republicanism would fail: “The fratricidal conflict now unhappily raging in the United States shows us the superiority of our institutions and of the principle on which we are based. Long may that principle — the Monarchial principle — prevail in this land.”

Indeed, American misfortune might become a Canadian windfall. Although Canadians disliked slavery, they feared American power even more. If the Union dissolved, the two (or more) new nations would be weaker, increasing the relative power of Canada in North America. In mid-1861, Macdonald dared to dream big: “that in consequence of the fratricidal war, Canada had every prospect of being the great nation of this continent.” That seemed a tall order for a country of 3.1 million people, a tenth of American numbers. And Canadian leaders had to save their own faltering union.

Canadians feared Seward’s influence because he long had championed an American annexation of Canada. In early 1861, Canadian newspapers reprinted a column from the New York Herald declaring that the North, “being cut off from a Southern field of enterprise, must, by the law of their nature, expand northward and westward. Such is the decree of manifest destiny, and such the program of William H. Seward, Premier of the President elect.” With the Republicans disavowing abolition, Canadians looked at the Union cause as an amoral drive for continental power. Most Canadian leaders hoped that the Confederacy would win and thereby divide the fearsome might of Americans.


The American rupture affected all surrounding countries, including Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic), a former Spanish colony on the eastern two-thirds of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. In 1859, the Buchanan administration had sent William Cazneau, a committed expansionist from Texas, back to Santo Domingo as a special agent charged with reviving the American bid to buy Samana Bay, the great port on the northeast shore. Cazneau brought along his influential and talented wife, the journalist Jane Cazneau, who had coined the concept of an American “manifest destiny” to expand. The couple also served themselves by speculating in Dominican mines and plantations, which would soar in value after an American annexation. But their dreams crumbled as Dominican rulers rejected American overtures by instead inviting the Spanish to resume their colonial rule.

During the early nineteenth century, Spain had lost almost all of her American colonies to republican revolutions. The Spanish retained only Cuba and Puerto Rico. During the 1850s, however, imperialists began to rebuild Spain’s military might and colonial ambitions in hopes of joining Britain and France as a leading European power. By reclaiming Santo Domingo, the Spanish hoped to bolster the security of nearby Cuba against American aggression. Better still, they might use Santo Domingo as a base to rebuild their empire in Central and South America. Seward warned that Spain was “creeping out of her shell, and anxious to weave her web once more over her former possessions in America.”

In 1861, General Pedro Santana governed Santo Domingo on behalf of a light-skinned elite that dominated the poorer and darker peasants. Fearing invasion by Black-ruled Haiti to the west, the Dominican elite sought an external protector. Unable to sustain his bankrupt government, Santana favored submitting Santo Domingo to Spanish rule, provided he could remain as governor. In April 1861, 3,000 Spanish troops from Cuba occupied the capital of Santo Domingo and, a month later, the Spanish monarchy formally accepted Santana’s gift.

Preoccupied with civil war, neither the Union nor the Confederacy could interfere with Spain’s intervention in the Caribbean. By doing little, Union leaders sought to keep Spain from recognizing or assisting the Confederacy, while southerners cultivated Spain as a potential ally that could provide munitions and, perhaps, deploy naval power to break the Union blockade. The Spanish ambassador to the United States, Gabriel García Tassara, welcomed disunion for sapping American power: “The Union is in agony, and our mission is not to delay its death for a moment.”

Excerpt adapted from American Civil Wars: A Continental History, 1850-1873 by Alan Taylor. Copyright © 2024 by Alan Taylor. Used by permission of W.W. Norton.







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