By Gerald Therrien

The Canadian ‘Fathers of Confederation’ in London in 1866 helping to prepare the British North America Act for Queen Victoria’s pleasure.

The Dark Side of Canada’s Confederation (Or How Palmerston’s Zoo shaped Canada)

Part 2 – The Fenian ‘Vision’ [Click here for part one]

After the death of Daniel O’Connell in 1847, a group of revolutionaries, called ‘Young Ireland’ was launched as a part of ‘Palmerston’s Zoo’.  After a failed attempted uprising in the fall of 1848, the leaders were scattered (most emigrated to the United States), but two of the leaders, James Stephens and John O’Mahoney, instead travelled to France, where they joined the French secret societies, and where they made their plans for revolution in Ireland.

Stephens would later return to Ireland with plans to organize a force of 10,000 fighting men called the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood, while O’Mahoney emigrated to the United States, to raise the necessary financial aid for Stephens, by organizing the Fenian Brotherhood among the Irish immigrants – between 1840 to 1865, over 2 million Irish immigrants would arrive in the United States.  While the Irish branch was a secret organization (riddled with British spies and informers!) the American branch was an open fraternal organization that had its first national convention in Chicago in November 1963 – after which it would begin to be riddled with British, American and Canadian informants.

… And the Fenians, from ‘Palmerston’s zoo’, would now be set loose to save confederation.

On March 20th 1865, the British government would complain to the United States Secretary of State Seward that the Fenian Brotherhood was “an extensive conspiracy carried on in the United States having for its object to promote rebellion in Ireland and to forward from the United States assistance to the rebels in money, men, and arms.” Seward replied that the Constitution of the United States guaranteed to the people the right to assemble peacefully for discussion as long as the public peace was not disturbed and local and international law violated.

After all, this was the same British Empire that was using its Canadian colonies to launch confederate incursions into the United States, and later to assassinate the American president, that was now complaining!  Seward was later to remark that if the British had openly supported the confederacy, we’d all be Fenians!

James Stephens chose September 20th 1865 as the date for an uprising in Ireland – even though it was realized that adequate preparations could not be made by then.  Money was sent from the United States branch of the Fenian Brotherhood to Ireland, and former Irish-American officers who had fought in the Civil War were also sent to Ireland (both Union officers and some Confederate officers).  However, five days before the day of rebellion, the British raided the office of Stephen’s newspaper ‘Irish People’ and arrested those members present.  Another member was seized at his home along with all the incriminating papers concerning the Irish Brotherhood – which lead to other arrests, including Stephens who was arrested but who was able to escape from prison.

Charles Francis Adams, the American minister in Britain, reported to Seward, that :

the British government was aroused, that the big towns were garrisoned by British troops, and that the coast was guarded … the British government had little to fear from the revolutionists as they were poor and practically unarmed.”

In October, at the next Fenian national conference, a quarrel began (that later became a split) in the leadership of the Fenians between John O’Mahoney’s followers and the ‘men of action’; and a new constitution was adopted – to take authority away from O’Mahoney.

The new constitution of the Fenian Brotherhood was included at the end of a book called ‘The Fenians’ Progress’, that contained this vision

“… Walk into Canada.  There is already a strong element opposed to British dominion.  Unite with it, and let the provinces be the first slice from the British Empire.  Make that the base for future operations, and the rest will follow in good time. 

One success ever leads to another.  That immense territory in your hands, you would have a country and a flag which, I need not say, would be a powerful advantage; then, with stalwart, educated labor, and a determined will, England’s boasted wooden walls might soon be forced to do homage to the sea-going “monitors” of your young empire. 

This is no Utopian scheme.  It is a scheme that is perfectly practicable, and would be certain to receive the sympathy, if not the open support, of the American people. 

To be sure, this would be a rather roundabout way for freeing Ireland; but in this case “the long way round is the safe way home”.  Besides, if a shorter should offer, as in the event of England being drawn into a war with some first-class power, you would be in a condition to Such a position once attained, a New Ireland, well and firmly established, the movements in Old Ireland would soon result in the victory which is the desire of every heart.

Time at last sets all thing even;
And if we do but watch the hour,
There never yet was human power
Which could evade, if unforgiven,
The patient search, and vigil long,
Of him who treasures up a wrong. – Byron


“In order to prevent misconception, it is proper to state, that there is nothing contained in the fore-going views inconsistent with American theories of government, and American antecedents of action.  To give a correct impression in this regard, I need but direct attention to the events which led to the admission of Texas as a part of the American Federation.

It will be recollected that about 1835, a large American emigration set in to that country, which was then an integral part of Mexico. These emigrants united with a number of disaffected Mexicans, and, on the 2d of March, 1836, through a convention of the people, declared Texas a free, sovereign, and independent State, — a condition which, they maintained for several years after.

I need not recount the events which occurred during that period. It is sufficient for my present purpose to say, that in 1837 the independence of Texas was duly recognized by the United States Government; and, as is well known, that Texas, on the 29th of December, 1845, became another bright star in the glorious American constellation.

During the period of her independence, it cannot be doubted that Texas had a perfect right to build or purchase a navy, to raise an army, and for instance, if she had the wish and the strength to do so, to invade Cuba, destroy the Spanish power there, and give the people of that island a free and independent government. And all this might be done with the understanding and the fixed purpose of bringing Cuba under the benign and protecting folds of the American flag.

This is mentioned, because that which was proper to be done, and might be done by Texas in 1837, with regard to Cuba, would be entirely proper to be done, and may be done by the Canadas in 1867, with regard to Ireland; and with precisely the same purpose and understanding as above hinted at.

But, be that as it may, whatever be the plans of the Fenian Brotherhood, whatever be the fate of their movement, it is certain that the hopes, interests, aspirations, and the very life of the Irish people are indissolubly wound up with the United States.  The Irish are now thoroughly linked with, and implanted on this generous land, and both must flourish or decay together. It is not to be wondered at, then, that Irishmen love the United States with a true and abiding love …”

This ‘utopian’ scheme proposed an invasion of Canada, and that a seized piece of territory there, would be proclaimed as the Republic of Ireland – which could then be recognized by the United States; and that this territory would be used as the base of operations for war against Great Britain and for aiding the liberation of Ireland.  This was coming at a time of great anger by Americans against the British – anger at their support for the Confederacy, at the assassination of the President, and at the Alabama claims – some senators even proposed that Great Britain pay damages of $2 billion, or instead, to cede British Columbia to the United States as payment!

But, as Lincoln had correctly seen, the United States must avoid falling into the trap of a war with Britain – a war that would embroil the United States in the Empire’s ongoing conflicts in Europe and Asia, and that would interrupt any attempt at reconstruction.  This was understood, even in the American press:

The avowed object of the Fenians is the liberation of Ireland from the ‘saxon yoke’ whatever that is. The object, of course, is only to be achieved by waging war successfully against Great Britain. To organize war against Great Britain on the soil of the United States is, of course, a violation of our neutrality laws which must subject all who engage in it to the liability of arrest and punishment.” [Chicago Tribune. Nov 23, 1865]

A new conference of the Fenians was held at the beginning of January 1866, and the quarrel between O’Mahoney and the ‘men of action’ continued.  O’Mahoney succeeded in rescinding the new constitution, and in ousting the senators that opposed him – who then set up their own rival organization under William Roberts.  Both groups fought over raising money – O’Mahoney claimed that he wanted to send it to Stephens in Ireland, and the ousted members claimed to want to use it for their scheme to invade Canada.

On February 18th 1866, the British suspended habeus corpus in Ireland and a massive roundup began of suspected Irish rebels, and also of Irish-Americans who had been sent to Ireland to help with the uprising.  With more members (and money) threatening to join Roberts, O’Mahoney acted to preempt Roberts’s scheme for invasion of Canada, by launching his own invasion. 

Bernard Doran Killian proposed an expedition to seize Campo Bello Island – a British island at the entrance to Passamaquoddy Bay (the boundary between New Brunswick and Maine); and set up a provisional government of the Irish Republic.

Killian had negotiated with President Johnson for the release from prison of John Mitchell, who was charged with cruelty to northern prisoners while he was a member of the Richmond Virginia committee for the relief of the wounded.  Mitchell had been one of the most rabid members of ‘Young Ireland’ in 1848, had been exiled to Australia for 20 years, escaped after a few months, and settled in Richmond, becoming a writer for the Richmond Examiner and an ardent supporter of the Confederacy.

O’Mahoney approved the plan, and Killian purchased an old Confederate vessel that had been put up for sale at the end of the civil war, loaded it with men and 500 stands of arms, and sailed for Eastport, Maine, arriving on April 17th.  Killian issued a proclamation to the people of New Brunswick, to resist the tyranny of the Governor in his attempt to fasten confederation onto the province.

In Canada, Michael Murphy and a group of Fenians from Toronto, were on their way to Eastport, when they were arrested at Cornwall and weapons, ammunition and money were confiscated, alerting the Canadian government. 

On April 17th, the British now sent navy warships with 700 British regulars from Halifax to proceed to Passamaquoddy Bay.

In the United States, news of the plan leaked into the press, and Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, sent a steamer, the Winooski, and Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, sent a detachment of troops, to Eastport to preserve America’s neutrality. 

On the night of April 17th, a boat-load of Fenians landed on nearby Indian Island, burned a store, seized a British Customs House flag and then returned.  The next morning, the commander of the Winooski seized the Fenian vessel, and when General Meade and his detachment arrived, the 300 Fenians who were gathered at Eastport scattered.

Certain Canadian newspapers claimed that the Eastport expedition had been arranged by D’Arcy McGee in order to frighten New Brunswick into adopting the confederation plan; and that for his part in the affair, Killian was to be rewarded with a life appointment in the Canadian civil service.

D’Arcy McGee had been one of the ‘Young Ireland’ers who emigrated to the United States in 1848, and he started a weekly newspaper, ‘The American Celt’ that was more in favor of parliamentary reform than of revolution.  During a 3-month visit to Ireland in 1855, McGee gave speeches, that asserted that Canada was a more favorable choice than the United States for Irish emigrants.  He was invited to move to Canada, and in 1857, he moved to Montreal to start ‘The New Era’, advocating confederation of the British North American colonies to avoid the American system of government, in favor of the British system.  Killian had worked as a writer and assistant editor for McGee’s ‘American Celt’ in New York City.

[A question arises: How had Killian changed so radically from his days with McGee as an anti-revolutionary and supporter of parliamentary reform, to become an advocate for armed invasion against the British?!]

When talks in early 1866 between British North American colonies and the United States had proved to be hopeless, and, at the request of the United States, the Reciprocity Treaty had expired in March, a new economic crisis had seized the colonies.

In April, at the same time that the Fenians were gathering in Maine, the New Brunswick Governor Gordon forced the resignation of the provincial government, adjourned and dissolved the legislature, and called for new elections.  In the aftermath of the panic caused by the Fenian raid, the pro-confederates won 33 of the 41 seats.  A resolution in favor of confederation now passed the legislature.

In Nova Scotia, Tupper now introduced a resolution that authorized the government to continue negotiations for a federal union of the British North American colonies that was passed by the legislature.

There were to be two more unsuccessful Fenian raids in the first week of June. 

In Canada East, 1,000 Fenians crossed from Buffalo to Fort Erie, and fought battles against the Canadian militia, but when the American steamer, the USS Michigan, arrived and cut off any supplies and reinforcements, the raid ended and on their return crossing to the United States the raiders were arrested. 

In Canada West, 700 Fenians crossed the border from St. Albans, Vermont (the same route as the confederate raiders in 1864!), and seized 4 small villages.  The US marshals seized the Fenian’s supplies and ammunition in St. Albans, and the raiders fled back into the United States before the arrival of the Canadian militia. 

These small invasions into Canada didn’t accomplish anything, except to arouse fear and anti-American resentment, that could be used for the rush to confederation.

With Nova Scotia and New Brunswick now back on board, it was decided to immediately send delegates to London to have a confederation bill passed before the present session of the British parliament ended.  Discussions began in December and a draft of the British North America Act was finished by the first week of February and was given Royal Assent by Queen Victoria on March 29th 1867.

The Fenian fiasco had caused the dead letter of confederation to rise from the ashes.

But what did Canadians get out of this confederation?  Whereas the American constitution was established “in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity”, the British North America Act gave Canadians “a constitution similar in principle to that of the United Kingdom” [whatever ‘similar in principle’ means about an unwritten British constitution!?!], and “would conduce to the welfare of the provinces and promote the interests of the British Empire” !

The fallacious Canadian constitution of 1867 (besides promoting the ‘interests of the British Empire’) continued :

“The executive government and authority of and over Canada is hereby declared to continue and be vested in the Queen” [and] “all powers, authorities, and functions … shall … be vested in and exerciseable by the Governor General, with the advice or with the advice and consent of or in conjunction with the Queen’s privy council for Canada.”

“The command-in-chief of the land and naval militia, and of all naval and military forces, of and in Canada, is hereby declared to continue and be vested in the Queen.”

“There shall be one parliament for Canada, consisting of the Queen, an upper house styled the Senate, and the House of Commons … to make Laws for the Peace, Order, and good Government of Canada” [and] “where a bill passed by the houses of the parliament is presented to the Governor General for the Queen’s assent, he shall declare, according to his discretion, but subject to the provisions of this act and to Her Majesty’s Instructions, either that he assents thereto in the Queen’s name, or that he withholds the Queen’s assent, or that he reserves the bill for the signification of the Queen’s pleasure.” 

And the oath of allegiance: “I do swear, that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Victoria.”

This act established the rights of the Queen!!! not of her subjects!!!

It simply changed 4 separate colonies into 1 large colony – not a nation, but a colony, called the ‘Dominion of Canada’!

[Note: When I was a child, May 24th was called ‘Victoria Day’, in honor of Queen Victoria’s birthday. But we kids called it ‘Firecracker Day’, because that was the day when we could set off firecrackers – not on July 1st, like today – but on May 24th. ‘Victoria Day’ was considered way more important than ‘Canada Day’.]


For those who wish to support my continuing the work on ‘The Unveiling of Canadian History’, you may purchase my books, that are available as PDFs and Paperback (on Amazon) at the Canadian Patriot Review :

  • Volume 1 – The Approaching Conflict, 1753 – 1774.
  • Volume 2 – Forlorn Hope – Quebec and Nova Scotia, and the War for Independence, 1775 – 1785.

And hopefully,

  • Volume 3 – The Storming of Hell – The War for the Territory Northwest of Ohio, 1786 – 1796, and
  • Volume 4 – Ireland, Haiti, and Louisiana, and the Idea of a Continental Republic, 1797 – 1804,

may appear in print, in the near future, while I continue to work on :

  • Volume 5 – On the Trail of the Treasonous, 1804 – 1814.

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