(Forthcoming, Winter 2016) “A Tale of Four Cities: Comparative Land Tenure of the St. Lawrence and Hudson River Valleys and the Patriot War of 1837 – 39,” Early American Studies (Fall, 2017)
Pondering the question of the origins of the uprisings in Lower Canada in 1837-39 the borderlands historian is struck by the remarkable similarities between these rebellions and New York’s Anti-Rent Wars, which erupted almost simultaneously in the leasehold districts along the Hudson River of the United States. On the surface they appear very different. Louis-Joseph Papineau and the “Patriotes” were attempting to overthrow the British Empire and establish an independent French-Canadian polity, while the Anti-Renters were attempting to gain ownership of lands they rented. But in actuality these two uprisings shared many fundamental factors in common: their timing, their economies, their land tenure regimes, their social stratification, their spatial and environmental relationships, and even their final outcomes. Indeed these two cross-border events might be considered “twinned” social phenomena. That no historian has recognized them as such testifies to the trenchancy of nationalist histories.
Yet almost as soon as being struck by this surprising realization of trans-border congruence, the same historian sees that in spite of the similarities between the two events, by mid-century the State of New York was experiencing the “best of times” while Lower Canada was experiencing “the worst of times” – at least in terms of economic development. What can account for this strange congruence and then disjuncture? This is a rather big and complex question, but one possible answer can be found in the application of borderlands theory: in understanding the emergence of these two events as the conjuncture of a series of factors produced through the longue durée of imperial rivalries in the region. While there were certainly many factors which caused both similarity and difference with the Lower Canada Rebellions and the Anti-Rent Wars, the fundamental structural reality connecting them but also causing them to diverge so dramatically was the borderland dynamic.