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November 16, 2012

Abraham Lincoln's Canadian encounters

Steven Spielberg’s epic film on Abraham Lincoln may cause Canadians to reflect on what the Civil War meant on this side of the border. The accepted wisdom is the sight of Americans slaughtering each other over states’ rights — one being the right to own slaves — was a wake-up call for early proponents of a federation of British North American colonies.

One of the few, perhaps the only, prominent Canadian politicians to have had a face-to-face with Lincoln while he was president was Alexander Galt, minister of finance for the province of Canada, then still a British colony combining what is now Ontario and Quebec.

Galt met Lincoln in Washington on Dec. 4, 1861, at a time when the war was escalating and tensions mounting with England because of the Trent Affair — the American navy had captured two Confederate envoys aboard a British ship.

Although Lincoln took pains to reassure Galt, the Canadian’s notes suggest otherwise:

“The temper of the public mind toward England is certainly of doubtful character, and the idea is universal that Canada is most desirable for the North, while its unprepared state would make it an easy prize. The vast military preparations of the North must either be met by corresponding organization in the British provinces, or conflict, if it come, can have but one result.”

Lincoln backed down in the Trent affair, releasing the captured Confederates, saying famously, “one war at a time.” Galt, already sold on the necessity of uniting the British North American provinces, became an even more fervent advocate of a federation with a strong central government. (See my column of Aug. 12, 2011).

Later in the war, Lincoln had another notable Canadian visitor named Alexander, one whose role in history is murkier than Galt’s. Alexander Milton Ross, raised in Belleville, Ontario, by an American-born abolitionist mother, vowed at an early age to do his part to fight slavery. In his memoirs, he describes how he moved to the United States when he was 17, studied medicine and worked for the abolitionist newspaper that first serialized Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

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