The Elgin-Grey Papers 1846-1852: A Triangular Correspondence

Extensively published in 1937, the correspondence between Lord Elgin (governor-general of Canada, 1847-54) and Earl Grey (colonial secretary, 1846-52) forms a major scholarly resource for studying the evolution of responsible government. In fact, the correspondence was triangular, with Britain's prime minister, Lord John Russell, an active third party.

Most letters from Elgin were routinely submitted to him, and he frequently commented on them. However, Grey controlled the correspondence, filtering Russell's contributions, sometimes summarising his arguments to Elgin without attribution, but ignoring impractical suggestions. Although never formally notified of the triangular character of their correspondence, Elgin probably guessed that he addressed a wider audience. Russell generally supported Elgin, but in 1849-50 in which he was occasionally critical. Appreciation of its triangular character is fundamental for a full understanding of the Elgin-Grey correspondence.

["The Elgin-Grey Papers 1846-1852: A Triangular Correspondence" was published in British Journal of Canadian Studies, xxviii (2015), 1-22. The version that appears here is the  text agreed with the editors. Some minor changes were subsequently made to the published version. The article was intended to supplement "'The Workings of My Own Mind': Private Correspondence of the Governor-General of Canada, 1839-1867", published in British Journal of Canadian Studies, xxi (2009), 63-86. This can be found at https://www.gedmartin.net/published-work-mainmenu-11/248-the-workings-of-my-own-mind-private-correspondence-of-the-governor-general-of-canada-1839-1867. I am grateful to Dr Barbara J. Messamore for support in this project.]

Throughout the mid-nineteenth century, the private correspondence between successive governors-general of Canada and colonial secretaries constituted a quasi-official channel operating in parallel with the official Colonial Office despatches. The secretary of state for the colonies generally controlled this unofficial channel, regulating the flow of information to bureaucrats and fellow politicians and, sometimes, sharing letters with successors in office irrespective of party. (Martin 2009) Perhaps the best-known correspondence is that between the Earl of Elgin, governor-general 1847-54 (Morton 1976; Messamore 2006, 31-70) and Earl Grey, colonial secretary, 1846-52 (Burroughs 2004/9). Extracts from Elgin's letters were published as early as 1872. (Walrond 1872) An archival edition of 1937, from the Grey family papers, included most of the correspondence, with much supporting documentation. (Doughty 1937) Some additional letters from Grey are among the Elgin Papers.[1]

            The Elgin-Grey correspondence is noteworthy not only as an intensive series of exchanges between governor and minister, but also for its disguised triangular dimension. The prime minister, Lord John Russell (Prest 1972; Prest 2004/8), was a hidden but not a silent third participant. The published correspondence between Elgin and Grey needs to be read in the context of Russell's active participation in policy-making, which only one historian appears to have suspected. (Buckner 1985, 312) Both political and personal factors explain this unusual involvement.

            Elgin was appointed to Canada because 'he had conducted the government of Jamaica ... with great ability and success', financial problems on his Fife estate having driven him to a colonial career. (Grey 1853, i, 207; Checkland 1988, 101-18) Grey later insisted that Elgin was 'personally altogether unknown to me' at the time of his appointment to Canada. Indeed, the highlight of Elgin's brief parliamentary career, before inheriting his earldom in 1841, had been a speech seconding the motion that defeated the Whig ministry, in which Russell had been the principal House of Commons spokesman. Although this achievement was 'certainly not one to give him any claims upon us as a party,' Grey and Russell had decided upon his appointment to Canada 'in preference to any of our own party or personal friends.' (Grey 1853, i, 207-8) Elgin's appointment was supported by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. (Benson 1908, ii, 94) As Russell assured Grey: 'I think you cannot have a better Governor of Canada than Lord Elgin.'[2]

            Elgin's first wife had died in Jamaica. He rapidly courted Grey's niece, daughter of the Earl of Durham, whose brief governorship of Canada had resulted in the Durham Report. Although some historians have accepted at face value Elgin's assurance to his bride that he had 'adopted frankly and unequivocally' her father's views on colonial self-government, in reality he owed neither his job nor his policy to family connections. (Walrond 1872, 36; Morrell 1930, 448). As he later wrote in exasperation to Grey, it was 'not easy ... to proclaim that when I was appointed to Canada I had not the honor of being acquainted either with you or Lady Mary Lambton.'[3] For all its wide-ranging confidentiality regarding the future of Canada, the Elgin-Grey correspondence was founded on a recent professional connection rather than upon shared family or political identification. This can be seen the form of address used by Elgin as their relationship developed: from the formal 'My Lord' in July 1846, through 'My dear Lord' in August, to the businesslike 'Dear Lord Grey' in September, before -- in response to a request via his niece in November -- the older man persuaded the younger to adopt 'My dear Grey,' with its implications of equality and trust, in December.[4] A month later, Elgin sailed for Canada.

            By contrast, relations between Grey and Russell were long-standing, and founded upon shared membership of the Whig elite, with its easy assumption of entitlement to prominence in public life. (Southgate 1962) Grey was heir to the prime minister whose ministry had carried the 1832 Reform Act; Russell, son of the Duke of Bedford, had been the principal creator of its provisions and leading tactician in carrying it through the House of Commons. Both had attempted to fill the policy-making vacuum of the Whig governments of the eighteen thirties in relation to Canada: Grey, as Lord Howick, from his 1830-34 term of office as under-secretary for colonies; Russell, as the government's leader in the House of Commons, well before he became colonial secretary in 1839. (Buckner 1985, 150-4, 221-4; Kinchen 1945; Prest, 74-5) Policies favoured by Russell were generally more restrictive and assertive than those urged by Howick. It was Russell who moved the Ten Resolutions of March 1837 which were interpreted by Lower Canadian Patriotes as the 'last straw' driving them to revolt. (Ouellet 1980, 273, 338) He was also a major force behind the decision in 1840 to unite Upper and Lower Canada. (Ormsby 1969, 48-9; Martin 1972, 47-8) Almost two decades later, a senior British official described the province as 'Lord John Russell's united Canadian Republic'.[5] By contrast, as the prime minister Lord Melbourne explained to Queen Victoria, even as the cabinet mobilised resources to repress the Canadian insurrections in December 1837, Howick argued 'that these measures of vigour should be accompanied by measures of amendment and conciliation.' (Benson 1908, i, 98) Russell evidently regarded himself as an authority on Canadian issues, a conceit that perhaps explains the choice in 1846 of Benjamin Hawes as under-secretary for the colonies. The first minister to be appointed from the ranks of Nonconformist manufacturers, Hawes was hard-working but lacked authority in the Commons where, one observer noted in 1847, 'Lord John likes defending colonial matters himself.' (Martin 2004; Reid 1890, i, 380-2). Russell's confidential correspondence as colonial secretary (1839-41) with the governor-general, C.P. Thomson, Lord Sydenham (Buckner 2004), was a forerunner of the Elgin-Grey letters. (Knaplund 1931) Given their differing emphases in response to the crisis years between 1837 and 1839, it was perhaps understandable that Russell sought to control Grey's responses to Canadian events after 1846.

            Personality factors also explain the detailed intensity of Russell's involvement in the correspondence. Although his outward self-confidence often verged upon the masterful, a modern biographer has suggested that Russell was 'desperately unsure of himself'. (Prest 1972, 74) Insecurity probably contributed to his desire to dominate the correspondence and use it as a vehicle for emphasising his own wisdom. It may also explain a phase in 1849-50 when he became censorious of the equally opinionated Elgin. Grey, on the other hand, had established a reputation for being 'crotchetty'. As Lord Howick, he had twice resigned from the government, in 1835 and again in 1839. 'He lays down excellent principles,' wrote a commentator in 1847, 'but, unlike Lord John Russell, at inconvenient times.' (Francis 1847, 174-5, 180) In December 1845, Grey was blamed for wrecking Russell's initial attempt to form a cabinet during the Corn Laws crisis (Prest 1972, 204-8), an outcry that 'bewildered' him.[6] His inclusion in the ministry formed in July 1846 was implicitly conditional on his behaviour as a team player. (Benson 1908, ii, 84) Unluckily a combination of harsh features, a 'shrill, discordant voice' and an inherent shyness combined to create a mistaken picture of aristocratic arrogance, making Grey a particular focus for attacks on Whig exclusiveness, (Francis 1847, 177-8) while the Colonial Office was criticised for bureaucratic inertia. (Morrell 1930, 201-8, 472-504; Prest 1972, 308-9) The charges were exaggerated, but the combination left the colonial secretary unusually reliant upon prime ministerial goodwill.[7] Although he came to resent Russell's style of leadership (Prest 1972, 345), Grey had little alternative but to accept his intrusive supervision.         

            Russell read the incoming correspondence from soon after Elgin's arrival in Canada.[8] Evidently, Grey accepted the prime minister as a legitimate third party, for instance sharing with him the February 1847 account of Canadian politics which Elgin had prefaced with the plea 'that you will really consider this letter and its enclosure secret'.[9] Nevertheless, Grey was far more than the mechanical hyphen in an indirect Elgin-Russell correspondence. Although his letters to Elgin often contain allusions to the prime minister's opinions, these were invariably presented without attribution either as plausible viewpoints or as indications of public attitudes. As gatekeeper of the correspondence, Grey exploited Russell's weakness: 'prolific of "heads of measures'," the prime minister rarely drove them to conclusion. (Southgate 1962, 211) It seems that Elgin was never formally alerted to the use of his letters, but it is plausible to assume that he guessed they might be circulated. Prince Albert's 1846 request that the Queen should see 'private communications' from British diplomats, 'however unreserved they may be in their language,' illustrates the culture surrounding such correspondence. (Jagow/Dugdale 1938, 105-6) The son of a diplomat, Elgin would have been aware of these conventions, and the declamatory tone of some letters suggests an assumption that he was writing for a larger readership than Grey. Elgin invariably and Grey frequently marked letters 'Private', suggesting that they assumed some measure of confidential distribution, whereas Russell, who expected his sentiments to be forwarded but not his missives, rarely employed the categorisation.

            As prime minister, Russell controlled the bestowal of honours. Elgin's Scottish earldom did not confer an automatic place in the House of Lords, since only an elected delegation of Scottish peers took seats in the upper house. Noting that 'my admission to Parliament is contingent on the favour and support of my Brother [Scottish] Peers,'[10] Elgin hoped for an additional United Kingdom title. Grey had guardedly replied that by accepting the office of governor-general of Canada, Elgin 'might fairly expect that in the course of no very long time, you might establish a right to be recommended to Her Majesty for a British Peerage', which would admit him to the House of Lords 'upon a more independent footing than as one of the Representative Peers of Scotland'. Grey insisted that he made no promise, but added that his opinion was 'held by Lord John Russell as well as by myself.'[11] However, before leaving Britain, Elgin sought a more immediate mark of official favour, membership of the Privy Council which conferred the style 'Right Honourable'. Russell felt that Elgin ought to have been satisfied with 'a promise of a peerage' but, he assured Grey, 'if you wish that as Governor of Canada he should be in the Privy Council, the Queen will readily appoint him.'[12] In the spring of 1847, Grey and Elgin discussed the possibility that of making him a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath, but this was overtaken by a vacancy in the Order of the Thistle, Scotland's highest order of chivalry, 'a mark of confidence' which, Elgin felt, 'cannot fail to be useful to me here.'[13] As Russell commented: 'It seems quite clear from Lord Elgin's letter to you that he is anxious for some mark of distinction.'[14]

            Many policy issues were frozen throughout Elgin's first year in Canada as the embattled Draper administration clung to office: hence, Russell's interventions were few. However, in January 1848, it became clear that the Reform alliance had won the provincial elections, and Elgin resolved to work with its leaders, LaFontaine and Baldwin. (Cross 2012, 216-57) 'How I shall get on with these Gentlemen remains to be seen.'[15] Russell found Elgin's letter 'interesting,' adding that it should be sent to the Queen. 'It will require much tact on his part to deal with his new Ministry -- pray tell him from me not to oppose them except right & justice are so clearly ag[ain]st them that he cannot help it.'[16]

            Grey's reply to Elgin illustrates his handling of the triangular dialogue. Confessing 'no little anxiety' about the accession the Reformers, he offered advice which deviated subtly from Russell's formula: 'however unwise as relates to the real interests of Canada their measures may be, they must be acquiesced in, until it shall pretty clearly appear that public opinion will support a resistance to them.' Russell's criteria, 'right & justice', might imply that the governor-general retained an independent right of judgement; 'public opinion' relegated him to a monitor of internal political forces. Notably, Grey omitted Russell's injunction, even though the prime minister's 'pray tell him from me' represented a polite but forceful instruction. Yet he cited the belief of both Stanley and Gladstone, Grey's immediate forerunners at the Colonial Office, that it would be 'impracticable' to overrule the Canadian Assembly. 'If we over-rule the Local Legislature we must be prepared to support our authority by force, & in the present state of the world & of Canada, he must in my opinion be an insane politician who w[oul]d think of doing so.' Grey's warning reflected news that Paris was sliding into revolution as he wrote, and 'the political horizon here has become very much over-cast'.[17] Nonetheless, Grey clearly saw himself as the controlling filter of the triangular exchanges, and that he would not risk allowing the confident Elgin to assume that he might receive prime ministerial backing should he clash with his new ministers. Russell vetted major official despatches in draft,[18] but he did not read Grey's outgoing private letters.

            Elgin's upbeat account of the transition to Reform rule, which encouraged Grey 'rather to hope than to despond for the future of Canada,' was used by him to rebut Russell's pressure to send additional troops to Canada. The prime minister feared a recurrence of 'the reproach we were so justly liable to in 1837', when the withdrawal of regular soldiers from Upper Canada had encouraged Mackenzie's rebellion. Grey argued that in the absence of any threat of war with the United States, the garrison was sufficient for normal purposes, while 'coercing the population ... I hold to be utterly impracticable if we wished it'. Fortunately, Russell had provided an escape by commenting that 'a liberal ministry is the best safeguard -- if Baldwin is true', and Elgin's letter reported a caucus speech by the Reform leader expressing 'loyalty and attachment to British Connexion.'[19] Commenting that Elgin's letter was 'very interesting,' Russell allowed himself to be over-ruled. 'He has such good views about his future Ministry that unless they ask something which is out of his power to grant, on purpose to pick a quarrel, I trust he may be able to keep the machine going.' This exchange triggered Russell's most cogent comment on Canadian politics. 'People argue ... as if a million & a half of people were like one man, who wished for British rule, or were against it.' (Morrell 1930, 476) It was more likely, he guessed, that opinion was divided two-to-one in favour of the imperial connection. The loyalist majority would be eroded by the 'apathy, coldness, & indifference of the Home Gov[ernmen]t' but, equally, a 'friendly and determined' attitude could rapidly reduce the annexationists to minuscule numbers.[20] It was an insightful analysis, but it was a measure of Russell's mercurial thought processes that four days earlier he had wished to increase the imperial garrison as a precaution against civil commotion. Skilfully deployed by Grey, Elgin's letters were helping to frame British policy.

            One potential drawback of this indirect channel of communication was that Elgin often alluded to a range of topics within a single letter, while Russell tended to comment only on those themes which reinforced his own opinions. Thus Elgin's letter of 4 May 1848 primarily argued for supporting French-Canadian identity as a bastion against 'the most reckless, self-sufficient and dictatorial section of the Anglo Saxon race,' the people of the United States. His plea closed with the celebrated image of a French-Canadian hand being the last to wave the British flag in North America.[21] Russell, whose views on Canada were framed in the anglicising era of the late eighteen-thirties (Sturgis 1988), concentrated on defence, guaranteeing the existing level of British military support but insisting that colonists should provide militia forces to repel cross-border raids. As a tailpiece, Elgin suggested trading access to the St Lawrence by American shipping for free admission of Canadian produce to the United States market. Russell, however, was 'anxious' that Britain should retain the ultimate authority to close the St Lawrence.[22]

            In mid-August 1848, Elgin reported that the Mexican War had fostered an 'overbearing tone' in American public opinion and that paramilitary attacks were likely, especially as presidential elections loomed. American newspapers took for granted that they could seize Canada 'when they please ... the time of doing it and the mode are questions merely of convenience.' Internally, Canada was weakened by Irish revolutionaries, French Canadians still resentful of their subordination within the Union, and alienated mercantile classes 'thoroughly disgusted and lukewarm in their allegiance, if not disaffected.' Describing Elgin's letter as 'not pleasant' Russell's initial concern once again was for the size of the imperial garrison, Elgin having hoped that British regulars would demonstrate the value of Canada's cost-free defence by routing any incursion 'notwithstanding the swagger of the cutthroats from Mexico.' However, the prime minister added an unhelpful homily. 'You will of course observe to Lord Elgin that under the present Navigation Laws Canadian ships have advantages from which the Americans are debarred,' he lectured Grey. Furthermore, until February 1849, Canadian wheat was admitted to British markets at a lower duty than that imposed upon imports from the United States.[23] Canada's commercial classes were hardly likely to feel gratitude for two boons, both of which Britain's new free trade policy would shortly sweep away. On this occasion, Grey had already responded to Elgin, arguing that annexation would force Canadians to accept high United States import duties 'instead of the very moderate ones they now pay'. However, Grey admitted that he did not know 'what more we can possibly do to convince them of this.'[24] Russell's confrontational approach was quietly omitted.

            Elgin's correspondence slackened in intensity during the summer of 1848. Fears of insurrection and invasion were considerably reduced by the failure of the 1848 uprising in Ireland, although the relaxation of pressure encouraged Elgin to hope for an imperial amnesty for 'all persons who were engaged in the Rebellion of 1837 & 1838.'[25] In late October, Grey noted the brevity of Elgin's recent letters, which he hoped meant that 'there being nothing to write about shows that you have no peculiar troubles.'[26] Elgin's standing remained high in the inner circles of government. In June 1848, Russell indicated that his United Kingdom peerage, the reward half-promised two years earlier, would be conferred at once, the Queen being 'much pleased with his conduct in Canada.'[27] In the event, the announcement was deferred: the bestowing of any peerage tended to 'stimulate the eagerness of other claimants,' while its sole practical benefit, a seat in the House of Lords, was (as Grey reminded Elgin) 'of no use to you in Canada'.[28] Elgin's honour still awaited confirmation in August 1849, when its conferral necessarily seemed a direct consequence of the Rebellion Losses crisis.[29] In assuring Elgin that his claims would be heeded, both in June 1848 and August 1849, Grey specifically referred to communications from Russell, passing on a message on the first occasion, and referring to a letter on the second.[30] These punctilious allusions to the prime minister's input contrasted with the absence of any mention of Russell's overall access to their private correspondence.

            In November 1848, Elgin cogently argued that the core political issue for Canada was not, as in Britain, protection versus free trade, but the more basic demand for consistency. Stanley's Canada Corn legislation in 1843, which had directed provincial exports towards Britain, 'attracted all the Produce of the West to the St Lawrence', sucking capital into milling and transportation facilities; Peel's repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 'drives the whole of this Produce down the New York channels of communication, destroying the Revenue which Canada expected to derive from Canal dues, & ruining at once Mill owners, Forwarders, & Merchants.' Naturally, 'Canadians feel more bitterly how much kinder England is to the children who desert her than to those who remain faithful', but the underlying problem remained: 'it is the inconsistency of Imperial legislation, and not the adoption of one Policy rather than another, which is the bane of the Colonies.'[31] His argument impressed Russell, who briefly wondered whether to delay the removal of tariff protection on British North American timber. He considered consulting the Executive Councils of Canada and New Brunswick, the two provinces most which would be most affected. However, since it was unlikely that the two colonial cabinets would welcome repeal, nothing came of the suggestion.[32] Nonetheless, this was one instance where Elgin's pleas briefly made some impact on Russell's doctrinaire free-trade views.  

            In December 1848, Elgin argued against requiring Canadians to contribute to the cost of their own defence, primarily because the colony could not afford additional expenditure, but basically for fear that any such demand might seem to signal a British wish to end the connection. There were 'two ways in which America may give us serious annoyance here,' either by formal invasion or by unofficial 'desultory warfare' across the border. Elgin felt 'little apprehension' regarding the success of the latter, 'unless there be wide spread disaffection in the Colony itself.' A declaration of war would involve not merely British troops and Canadian militia, but also -- so Elgin hoped -- naval attacks on Atlantic seaboard cities, and the invasion of the Deep South by British West Indian troops.[33]

            The letter illustrated both Elgin's strengths and his drawbacks. Focused and relentless in argument, it was also characterised by his tendency to robust, even reckless, over-statement. As the unseen third participant in the correspondence, the head of government might have been expected to express some reservations. Free trade, the central purpose of Russell's ministry, would hardly gain from the sacking of New York and Boston, while Elgin's barely veiled suggestion that Afro-Caribbean soldiers might stir up race war in the Southern States was unusually explicit. In fact, Russell, an assertive personality himself, responded positively. 'Lord Elgin's letter is sensible, & I shall be glad to take counsel of so able a Governor.' Certainly, 'if the Americans make war for Canada, we must meet them with war.' On the other hand, attacks by 'volunteer pirates' would clearly be undertaken 'with a view to confiscation, & the confisquees ought to form a ready & zealous militia.' However, 'the real & great danger is that the people of Canada should become disgusted with our rule. We should therefore avoid any measure which may bear unfairly or appear to bear unfairly upon Canada.' Once again, Russell wondered whether the timber duties, 'the remaining rag of protection,' should reprieved for 1849.[34]

            Nonetheless, the prime minister's enthusiasm for Elgin's judgement did not imply flexibility regarding questions on which Russell had firm views of his own. In June 1847, he had dismissed Elgin's complaint that his salary was 'really not sufficient for the charges upon it': it was impossible that 'that the salary of the Gov[erno]r-Gen[eral] ought much to exceed that of the President of the United States.'[35] Elgin continued to argue that it would be 'expedient' for Britain to assume responsibility for the governor-general's salary: he doubted that 'the people generally grudge much what they pay to the Governor', but 'being higher than the Salary of the American President, and paid to one not elected by themselves, it is a mark to be aimed at by mob orators'.[36] Commenting, Russell displayed his obtuse skill at listening without hearing. 'I am glad to see that L[or]d Elgin says there is little or no feeling about the Governor's salary. Surely when we pay an Army or Navy for their protection, to which they would contribute if annexed, we may ask them to pay one civil Officer £7000 a year.' The real objection, of course, was that 'foolish Radicals' in Britain would object to the additional burden on the domestic taxpayer. Rather than admit the political impossibility of asking parliament to bear the expense, Russell argued Elgin's proposal would weaken his successors because it 'would have the air of making them independent of the people they govern. A Governor would thereby be much unpopular in the Colony.'[37] The argument was ingenious, but ignored the possibility that a future Canadian ministry might undermine the Crown's representative by reducing his income.

            In the spring of 1849, the private correspondence channel -- but not its contents -- became public knowledge during the controversy over Rebellion Losses, the Reform ministry's proposal to pay compensation for damage caused during the suppression of the Lower Canada uprisings of 1837-8. (Cross 2012, 258-81; Martin 1977, 6; Martin 2009, 68-9) Publicly, the prime minister gave no clue that he read the correspondence himself, but he defended the practice, telling parliament in May that Grey had received 'several private communications' from Elgin, who 'did not think it expedient to write any public despatches' since their publication would only further raise the temperature in Canada. (Hansard 1849) This provocative defence ignored the alternative of confidential despatches which would remain on permanent official record. Ministers preferred that the events and arguments should first be rehearsed through private correspondence. Thus Elgin wrote to Grey on 14 March 'to put you in possession of the facts' in the event of hostile questioning about Rebellion Losses.[38] Russell regarded Elgin's letter as 'a complete defence of himself, & truly wish that when he assents to the Bill, he will put on record in a formal dispatch the reasons for bringing it forward, & for its assent.'[39] Subsequently, he delivered 'capital speeches' in support of Elgin's handling of the Rebellion Losses crisis,[40] which was challenged in the Commons in June. (Martin 1977, 15-16) As an accomplished parliamentary performer, Russell was adept at mastering a brief but access to Elgin's correspondence probably reinforced his effectiveness in debates on Canada.

            Russell read Elgin's letter of 23 April in the wake of alarming news from Montreal of the burning of the Parliament buildings. Reporting the formation of the British American League, Elgin derided its 'furiously loyal' programme as 'a step towards annexation,' part of a gloomy picture of a 'downward progress of events.' Free trade was forcing 'a large proportion of the exportable produce of Canada ... to seek a market in the States,' where it paid a twenty percent import duty. 'This duty would remain in the pocket of the producer if we were republicanised. How long can such a state of things be expected to endure?'[41] 'Lord Elgin naturally leans to the Canadian view,' commented Russell, 'but those who estimate the balance of profit & loss on annexation should not forget that the consumer in Canada will have to pay high duties on English Manufactures the moment he belongs to the United States & have to pay the taxes for Army & Navy which he now gets for nothing.'[42]

            Grey echoed Russell's arguments but softened his tone. 'It certainly is impossible that such a state of things as you describe sh[oul]d continue without leading to a desire for change wh[ich] w[oul]d be irresistible,' he soothingly agreed. However, he hoped that the problems were 'only temporary' and urged 'patience' upon the people of Canada. The value of their produce would ultimately be determined by the price it would fetch in Canada's principal external market, Britain, and the St Lawrence provided the cheapest export route. Ultimately, Canadians would not 'materially suffer' from obstructed access to American markets, '& on the other hand it is not easy to estimate the advantage to a rising Agricultural people of escaping being taxed by the high American tariff to force forward prematurely in the Union Manufactures for wh[ich] it is not yet prepared.'[43] Where Russell bludgeoned, Grey sought to persuade.

            Throughout 1849, there was extensive British press coverage of Canadian issues. The private correspondence was thus not the sole source of ministerial information. Indeed, at a crucial moment, the arrival on 15 May of news of riots in Montreal, the channel briefly failed because 'Elgin's letters by the mail were of an earlier date,' meaning, as Grey admitted, 'my anxiety was the greater'.[44] On this occasion, Elgin had 'not time for a word' in his hurried private note[45] because he had concentrated on writing a formal despatch.[46] 'Just what was wanted for publication here,' Grey gratefully replied, as he circulated copies to The Times and to an appreciative Queen Victoria.[47] Elgin's emphasis upon the official channel in this moment of crisis did not lead to any reappraisal of the overall reliance upon private correspondence.

            Russell was swayed in different directions by the range of sources of his information. He saw 'nothing alarming' in Elgin's letter of 3 June, and regarded the removal of the legislature to Toronto as 'very wise'. He was untroubled by Elgin's warning that 'unless reciprocity of trade with the U[nited] States be established these colonies must be lost to England.' Russell doubted whether the United States could be induced 'to admit Canadian produce & manufactures at lower duties than other foreign produce.' Nonetheless, he advised Grey, 'you might as well see MacGregor' and ask whether 'there is anything in which we could do any good to Canada.'[48] John MacGregor, pioneer statistician and MP for Glasgow, had spent his early life in British North America. (Parris 2004) A dogmatic free trader, MacGregor was unlikely to have offered much respite to Canada's hard-pressed merchants. Russell's casual reference is a reminder of the weak role of the formal bureaucracy in policy-making.

            Early in August 1849, Russell abruptly contemplated a major initiative, a federation of Canada with New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, 'to give our fellow-subjects there something to look to, which shall be above & beyond the miserable party struggles in which they have been so long engaged.' He was motivated by press reports of the 'pressing danger' of annexationist sentiment and, more specifically, by a conversation with Sir Allan MacNab, the Canadian Tory leader lobbying in Britain against the Rebellion Losses Bill, who had 'hinted' at the option.[49] Grey's handling of this suggestion was revealing. Forwarding Elgin's letter of 23 July, with its reassuring news that 'things seem to be improv[in]g in Canada,' he reminded Russell of Elgin's opinion that a railway from Halifax to Quebec was 'an indispensable preliminary' to any union of the provinces.[50] However, Russell expected Grey to urge Elgin to action on the matter: 'I think you might write to Lord Elgin again about a Federal Assembly of the British American Provinces.' He was unconvinced by Grey's emphasis on communications. 'An officer in Canada wrote home that he thought a military road to Halifax which would cost £60,000 would be better than the railroad.' This reliance upon a convenient but unidentified military source illustrated Russell's tendency to argue backwards from domestic constraints: 'it will be very difficult to get any aid from the House of Commons for the railroad.'[51]

            Grey was too shrewd to provide imperial endorsement for an objective currently espoused by turbulent opponents of responsible government. However, he needed confirmation of Elgin's opinion that a railway from Halifax to Quebec was 'a necessary preliminary' to federation in order to direct Russell's support towards the railway project. Hence, on this occasion Grey reported that 'Lord John in a letter I had from him yesterday expresses a good deal of anxiety as to the prospects of Canada,' and he summarised the prime minister's arguments for federation.[52] Grey's attempt to manipulate the private correspondence channel was undermined, partly by an unusually long interval before a reply arrived, but also because, while Elgin agreed 'that the Quebec and Halifax Railway is the first step towards it,' he was critical of the wider union.[53]

            Equally, as gatekeeper of the correspondence, Grey could ignore inconvenient proposals from the prime minister. He provided no summary of Russell's lengthy review of colonial issues in his letter to Grey of 19 August because the prime minister had embraced yet another visionary idea, 'that the Colonies might be admitted to send members to the House of Commons, in proportion to their contribution to the general expense of Troops, Barracks & Fortifications.'[54] Russell's scheme, effectively allowing colonies to purchase seats at Westminster at around £30,000 per MP, provoked coded disapproval from Grey: 'startling ... requires much consideration ... many difficulties occur to one.' His reply also enclosed Elgin's letter of 6 August, probably as a routine gesture, but undeniably convenient in its portrayal of Canadian politicians in terms that hardly made them an attractive addition to British public life.[55] When Grey next wrote to Elgin, he forwarded a letter from free trade leader Richard Cobden voicing the 'growing impatience' of public opinion towards colonial expenditure, but pointedly passed over Russell's colonial representation scheme.[56] Nor did Grey mention the subject when Russell returned to it in October and November.[57]

            When Elgin's letter of 20 August reported further disturbances in Montreal, triggered by the arrest of rioters who had destroyed the parliament buildings four months earlier, Russell was mildly critical.[58] The Whig grandee Edward Ellice had complained of Elgin's 'want of energy' and Russell agreed that 'the rioters should have been arrested imm[ediatel]y after burning the Parliament House.'[59] Although Elgin had consistently demonstrated the difficulties of law enforcement in Canada's largest city, Grey also felt it 'only right' to inform him that 'an opinion begins to be very generally entertained in this Country' that he had given free range to 'the miserable ruffians' who dominated Montreal.[60]

            In November 1849, Grey introduced a new element to the correspondence in November, an 'extract from a letter of L[or]d John's'. Unfortunately, this unique transcription does not survive, so we do not know whether Grey included the provocative sentence, 'Lord Elgin must have more courage, & not talk of the loss of Canada as depending on the duty on corn.' Grey strongly agreed with Russell's 'remarks on the unreasonableness of those who represent the loss of Canada as the necessary consequence of the continuance of the American duty on corn,' adding that 'the substance of what he says ought to be inculcated on the minds of Canadians.' Unfortunately, Russell had characteristically boasted of his wisdom in blocking an Upper Canadian attempt to tax American grain imports while he was colonial secretary in 1839-41, a tariff accepted by his Conservative successor, Stanley.[61] Elgin responded sarcastically. 'However creditable it may be to Lord John's foresight that he anticipated the disastrous effects of Lord Stanley's legislation on Canadian Interests, rely upon it this fact will not reconcile Canadians to the consequences.' His British detractors might regard Canada's problems 'as the consequence of having a fool for a Gov[erno]r Gen[era]l' but 'there is a lull rather than a cessation of the trade wind which is driving this Colony to the States.'[62] Russell swallowed the sneer. 'A Scotch nobleman is apt to be proud & sensitive,' he patronisingly commented. Elgin was 'an excellent Governor, & his main direction of affairs has been right. We have shown our sense of it.'[63]

            The gesture of support to which Russell referred, Elgin's United Kingdom peerage, briefly brought the two into direct contact. Describing the honour as 'a blow to his enemies,' Russell had expressed surprise at receiving no letter of thanks.[64] Pleading ignorance of the protocol and explaining had not wished to 'take the liberty of writing without being written to,' Elgin duly forwarded his appreciation via Grey (Walrond 1872, 103-4), apologetically adding that he had 'been betrayed in writing to Lord John into making some remarks on our politics, with reference more especially to Reciprocity with the States, which I trust you will not be indignant with me for doing.'[65] Canadian disaffection, he told the prime minister, 'whatever be the forms with which it may clothe itself, is due mainly to Commercial causes. ... The plea of self-interest, the most powerful weapon perhaps the friends of British Connexion have wielded in times past, has not only been wrested from my hands but transferred since 1846 to those of the adversary.'[66] Russell's responded with irritation: 'the Canadian politicians should recollect that they, only a few years ago, when I was Sec[retar]y of State, were calling out for protection against United States corn,' he said, repeating the point that Elgin had so recently disparaged. Canadians should accept 'that they obtain British manufactures at a moderate duty, that they have not to pay for Army, Navy, Ordnance, or General Government, & that the real obstacle to their improvement lies in their own want of energy & their foolish factions.' Russell's only positive sentiment was the hope that 'now that the seat of Gov[ernmen]t has left Montreal Canada will make rapid progress to prosperity.'[67] The sole direct exchange between Elgin and Russell had generated a curt re-statement of entrenched positions. It was soon followed by an explosive but fortunately indirect confrontation.

            In February 1850, Russell rebutted critics of his ministry's colonial policy in a major parliamentary debate. (Prest 1972: 309-10) Since the prime minister's speech covered many disparate territories, Elgin would have been perhaps better advised to regard its peroration as merely a high-sounding invocation of the distant future. Eventually, 'some of the colonies may so grow in population and wealth that they may say ... "The link has become onerous to us -- the time is come when we can, in amity and alliance with England, maintain our independence."' Russell did not believe 'that time is yet approaching,' but, he urged, 'let us give them ... the capacity of ruling their own affairs' so that 'whatever may happen, we have the consolation of saying that we have contributed to the happiness of the world.' (Hansard 1850)

            In an outspoken letter to Grey, Elgin vigorously denounced this 'sting in the tail', adding that it had disheartened the Reformer Robert Baldwin, specifically praised by Russell as the theorist of responsible government. Elgin claimed that the peroration encouraged separatists and annexationists by implying that 'the difference between them and the Prime Minister of England is only one of time'. Russell's prediction risked becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. 'You must renounce the habit of telling the Colonies that the Colonial is a provisional existence.' Yet Elgin himself contemplated dynamic innovation within the 'elastic' framework of the British constitution: 'the time may come when it may be expedient to allow the Colonists to elect their own Governors ... England withdrawing all her forces except 2000 men at Quebec & being herself represented in the Colony by an Agent -- something like a Resident in India'.[68] These ruminations were so radical that they were omitted from the first edition of Elgin's correspondence published in 1872. (Walrond 1872, 116)

            Russell's barely legible comments to Grey indicate his furious response. 'I have been for a long time endeavouring to counteract Lord Elgin's despondency about Canada ... & now because I say that a time may come when the two countries may amicably dissolve their ties, he turns round, & holds me up as encouraging separation.' Elgin did not realise that the views of anti-colonial politicians 'had gained strength in this country, & how much I have done to counteract them.' Russell insisted that 'the whole tendency of my speech was ag[ain]st annexation & for the connexion.' Separation was not an immediate possibility but 'when British North America has ten millions of Inhabitants they will probably wish to form a Separate State.' Elgin's speculations outraged him: 'any thing would be better than an elective Governor & an English garrison of 2000 men. Better blow up Quebec & all our fortifications in Canada!' Contemptuously, he concluded that 'with more courage Lord Elgin may still do well.'[69]

            The indirect Russell-Elgin relationship soon recovered. By April 1850, Elgin was concerned about Upper Canadian pressure to reopen the clergy reserves issue, which the British parliament had attempted to resolve by compromise in 1840.[70] Russell suggested that it might help to explain that the 1840 settlement had resulted from an agreement he had struck with the Conservative opposition leader, Sir Robert Peel. Grey tactfully doubted whether Elgin's opinion would be altered by the inner history of the deal.[71] The ministry's decision to pass enabling legislation transferring responsibility for the clergy reserves to the Canadian legislature was obstructed by the Archbishop of Canterbury during the 1851 session. (Wilson 1968, 204-7) 'I fear Lord Elgin will be disappointed about the Clergy Reserves,' Russell commented sympathetically, 'but there is no help for it.'[72] The ministry fell, in February 1852, before it could tackle the issue, leaving Russell to 'view with alarm' the attitude of their successors.[73] Another unsuccessful imperial initiative was what Elgin called the 'very liberal offer' to guarantee funding for the Halifax-Quebec railway. (Beck 1983, 41-52) 'I conclude from what L[or]d Elgin & the papers say that the railroad plan will be rejected,' commented Russell, agreeing that it was 'a handsome offer nevertheless'. In a passing comment, Elgin had also regretted an allusion in a despatch from Grey 'to the early colonial policy of the Empire inasmuch as that led to separation'. Russell, inspired by the crusades of eighteenth century Whiggery, pounced approvingly upon this sentiment. 'Like him I do not fancy allusions to our old policy in regard to the United States as a model for emulation.' The results had been the Seven Years War, the American War of Independence and the loss of the Thirteen Colonies.[74] Russell was alarmed by Elgin's broad hint in July 1851 that his term of office would shortly expire, and that he would prefer to avoid a midwinter Atlantic crossing. 'This letter of Lord Elgin's looks as if he wished to come home this autumn. I hope you will induce him to stay till next May at all events', he urged Grey.[75] In October 1852, six months after the fall of his ministry, he expressed concern to Grey at reports that Elgin was leaving Canada. 'Has he resigned?'[76] Russell's last comment on Elgin, like his first in July 1846, was one of approval.

            Grey's passing allusion, in November 1850, to 'Lord Elgin's letters which you have seen'[77] suggests that their submission to Russell was routine procedure, even at relatively quiet phases in the British-Canadian relationship.[78] Ironically, Russell was poor at managing paperwork (Prest 1972, 345-8): on one occasion, Grey had to request the return of a letter from Elgin so he could answer it by that day's mail.[79] Only rarely did Grey reply to Elgin without awaiting Russell's comments if, for example, the governor-general had 'no fresh difficulties to report'.[80] Overall, Russell's involvement in the Elgin-Grey correspondence made it effectively a three-way dialogue.

            This triangular correspondence on Canada was atypical, both of the Grey-Russell relationship and of the overall use of private letters between governor and minister. Russell's interest in Canada was not matched by his involvement with other colonial issues. Grey only occasionally forwarded letters from elsewhere in the Empire.[81] Grey also maintained an extensive correspondence with Lord Torrington, governor of Ceylon, where an uprising in 1848 provoked parliamentary scrutiny. (da Silva 1965; Morrell 1930, 528-32) Yet Russell's only comment on Ceylonese affairs was based on newspaper reports.[82] Russell's close supervision of his colonial secretary contrasts sharply with his failure to control the foreign minister, Palmerston, who was eventually dismissed for his unauthorised endorsement of Louis Napoleon's 1851 coup in France. (Southgate 1966, 243-97; Prest 1972, 303-38) There is a bizarre contrast between the prime minister's attempt to micromanage the construction of barracks in Montreal,[83] while Palmerston almost casually swung the European balance of power in favour of a Bonapartist dictatorship in Paris. Grey felt Russell was 'much to blame' for allowing Palmerston's assertions of autonomy to drift to a crisis. 'Had he for the last 3 years exercised the proper & steady control which a prime minister ought over our foreign policy this never w[oul]d have happened.'[84] Publicly, Grey defended his tenure of the Colonial Office in a book whose title vindicated 'Lord John Russell's Administration'. (Grey, 1853) Privately, he resolved never to serve under Russell again. (Prest 1972, 345)

            No other prime minister was so closely involved in relations between colonial secretary and governor general. The interpersonal dynamics surrounding the correspondence between Russell himself, as colonial secretary between 1839 and 1841, and the governor-general, Sydenham (Knaplund 1931) were very different. Lord Melbourne was not an interventionist prime minister. Sydenham, a former cabinet minister, felt able to write to both of them, assuring Melbourne in June 1841 that 'Lord John will have communicated to you anything which was of interest in my proceedings here'. (Sanders 1889, 448-50) Stanley, Conservative colonial secretary from 1841 to 1845, shared private correspondence when consulting his prime minister, Peel, on major issues. (Martin 2009, 64-6) Subsequent prime ministers appear to have seen incoming letters from governors-general only rarely and for specific reasons.[85] Russell's insistence on his role in the unofficial channel of communication with Canada was probably unique, and is perhaps primarily of significance in demonstrating its flexibility. However, only by understanding the triangular character of the correspondence can we fully appreciate the functioning of the Elgin-Grey partnership.

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ENDNOTES 

[1] Library and Archives Canada, Elgin Papers [cited as EP], A-397.

[2] University of Durham, Grey Papers [cited as GP], Russell to Grey, confidential, 30 July 1846.

[3] EGP, i, 346-50, Elgin to Grey, private, 23 April 1849.

[4] EGP, i, 1-5.

[5] Hertfordshire Record Office, Lytton Papers, D/EK 01, H. Merivale to Lytton, Immediate, 12 August 1858.

[6] GP, Grey Journal , C3/12, 19 December 1845, 30 June 1846.

[7] GP, Russell to Grey, 24 September 1849.

[8] GP, Russell to Grey, 19 March 1847.

[9] EGP, i, 12-14, Elgin to Grey, secret, 24 February 1847; GP, Russell to Grey, 19 March 1847.

[10] EGP, i, 1-2, Elgin to Grey, private, 18 July 1846.

[11] EGP, i, 3-4, Grey to Elgin, 4 August 1846.

[12] GP, Russell to Grey, 3 December 1846.

[13] EP, A-397, Grey to Elgin, private, 2 April 1847. This version appears to be a copy ; EGP, i, 45-47, Elgin to Grey, private, 27 May 1847.

[14] GP, Russell to Grey, 3 June 1847.

[15] EGP, i, 118-20, Elgin to Grey, private, 22 January 1848.

[16] GP, Russell to Grey, 15 February 1848.

[17] EGP, i, 120-1, Grey to Elgin, private, 22 February 1848.

[18] e.g. GP, Russell to Grey, 30 October 1846, 27 January, 12 April, 4 October 1847, 31 October 1850.

[19] GP, Grey to Russell (copy), 14 March 1848; Russell to Grey, 12 March 1848; EGP, i, 127-9, Elgin to Grey, private, 2 March 1848.

[20] GP, Russell to Grey, 16 March 1848.

[21] EGP, i, 148-50, Elgin to Grey, private, 4 May 1848.

[22] GP, Russell to Grey, 19 May 1848.

[23] EGP, i, 223-5, Elgin to Grey, private, 16 August 1848; GP, Russell to Grey, 7 (?9) September 1848.

[24] EP, Grey to Elgin, private, 6 September 1848.

[25] EGP, i, 226-8, Elgin to Grey, private, 24 August 1848.

[26] EGP, i, 244-5, Grey to Elgin, private, 26 October, 1848.

[27] GP, Russell to Grey, 24 June 1848.

[28] EGP, i, 184-5, Grey to Elgin, 30 June 1848.

[29] GP, Russell to Grey, 3 August 1849; EGP, i, 437-8, Grey to Elgin, 8 August 1849.

[30] EGP, i, 184-5, Grey to Elgin, 30 June 1848; i, 437-8, Grey to Elgin, 8 August 1849.

[31] EGP, i, 256-7, Elgin to Grey, private, 16 November 1848.

[32] GP, Russell to Grey, 7 December 1848.

[33] EGP, i, 266-9, Elgin to Grey, private, 6 December 1848.

[34] GP, Russell to Grey, 1 January 1849.

[35] EGP, i, 38-9, Elgin to Grey, secret, 18 May 1847; GP, Russell to Grey, 4 June 1847.

[36] EGP, i, 266-9, Elgin to Grey, private, 6 December 1848.

[37] GP, Russell to Grey, 1 January 1849.

[38] EGP, i, 307-9, Elgin to Grey, private, 14 March 1849.

[39] GP, Russell to Grey, 9 April 1849.

[40] GP, Grey Journal , 3/15, 18 June 1849.

[41] EGP, i, 346-50, Elgin to Grey, private, 23 April 1849.

[42] GP, Russell to Grey, 20 May 1849.

[43] EGP, i, 350-2, Grey to Elgin, private, 18 May 1849.

[44] GP, Grey Journal, 15 May 1849; EGP, i, 350-2, Grey to Elgin, private, 18 May 1849.

[45] EGP, i, 350, Elgin to Grey, private, 30 April 1849.

[46] EGP, iv, 1458-64, Elgin to Grey, 30 April 1849.

[47] EGP, i, 350-2, Grey to Elgin, private, 18 May 1849.

[48] GP, Russell to Grey, 19 June 1849; EGP, i, 361-3, Elgin to Grey, private, 3 June 1849.

[49] GP, Russell to Grey, 6 August 1849.

[50] United Kingdom National Archives, Russell Papers [cited as RP], PRO 30/22/8A, fos 62-5, Grey to Russell, 8 August 1849.

[51] GP, Russell to Grey, 13 August 1849.

[52] EGP, i, 437-8, Grey to Elgin, 8 August 1849.

[53] EGP, ii, 463-6, Elgin to Grey, private, 3 September 1849 (received 20 September).

[54] GP, Russell to Grey, 19 August 1849.

[55] RP 8A, fo. 99, Grey to Russell, 23 August 1849; EGP, i, 440-4, Elgin to Grey, private, 6 August 1849.

[56] EP 397, Grey to Elgin, 22 August 1849, enclosing Cobden to Hawes, copy, private, 6 August 184 and cf. EGP, i, 448.

[57] GP, Russell to Grey, 13 October, 20 November 1849.

[58] EGP, ii, 449, Elgin to Grey, private, 20 August 1849.

[59] GP, Russell to Grey, 14 September 1849.

[60] EGP, ii, 451, Grey to Elgin, 12 September 1849.

[61] EGP, ii, 543-5, Grey to Elgin, private, 23 November 1849; GP, Russell to Grey, 19 November 1849.

[62] EGP, ii, 557-9, Elgin to Grey, private, 17 December 1849.

[63] GP, Russell to Grey, 11 January 1850.

[64] GP, Russell to Grey, 8 November 1849, and cf. EGP, ii, 527-8, Grey to Elgin, private, 16 November 1849.

[65] EGP, ii, 553-4, Elgin to Grey, private, 10 December 1849.

[66] RP 8C, fos 627-34, Elgin to Russell, 10 December 1849.

[67] RP 8C, fos 840-1, Russell to Elgin, copy, 9 January 1850.

[68] EGP, ii, 608-13, Elgin to Grey, private, 23 March 1850.

[69] GP, Russell to Grey, 19 April 1850.

[70] EGP, ii, Elgin to Grey, private, 7 April 1850.

[71] GP, Russell to Grey, 8 May; Grey to Russell (copy), 9 May 1850.

[72] GP, Russell to Grey, 5 July 1851.

[73] GP, Russell to Grey, 13 April 1852.

[74] EGP, ii, 819-21, Elgin to Grey, private, 23 April 1851; GP, Russell to Grey, 14 May 1851.

[75] EGP, ii, 851-2, Elgin to Grey, private, 26 July; GP, Russell to Grey, 13 August 1851, and cf. GP, Russell to Grey, 1 October 1852.

[76] GP, Russell to Grey, 1 October 1852.

[77] GP, Grey to Russell, copy, 18 November 1850.

[78] Cf. GP, Russell to Grey, 6 October 1848.

[79] RP 8B, fos 937-8, Grey to Russell, 8 February 1850; EGP, ii, 577-81, 583, Elgin to Grey, private, 14 January [received 4 February], Grey to Elgin, 8 February 1850.

[80] EGP, ii, 852-3, Grey to Elgin, private, 11 August 1851, EGP, ii, 591-2, Grey to Elgin, private, 18 February 1850.

[81] e.g. GP, Grey to Russell, copies, 14 March 1848, 15 May 1850.

[82] GP, Russell to Grey, 9 October 1849.

[83] GP, Russell to Grey, 25 April 1850.

[84] EP 397, Grey to Elgin, 26 December 1851.

[85] e.g. UK National Archives, Carnarvon Papers, 30/6/138, fos 91-3, Derby to Carnarvon, private, 5 September, probably commenting on 30/6/131, fos 900-5, Monck to Carnarvon, private, 18 August 1866.

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