This Week in History


Goldwin Smith asks, “Should the United States annex Canada?”

For the week of Monday August 8, 2011

On August 13, 1823, Goldwin Smith was born in Reading, England. His future, however, would bring him to North America. An opinionated man who from his early years was a prolific writer and, for a time, an Oxford professor, Smith wrote on issues such as religious reform, education, and politics. In 1867, he travelled to the United States for a two-year teaching stint at Cornell University, before moving to Toronto in 1871. In Canada, he rapidly established a reputation as a public intellectual, publishing in prominent periodicals such as the Canadian Monthly, the Week and his own Bystander.

Goldwin Smith at 40
© Library and Archives Canada / C-008964

Harbouring racial and religious prejudices, Smith was in some ways a man not ahead of his time. However, he was a natural thinker and writer who provoked national debates on a range of subjects. Perhaps none were as fiery as that about Canadian nationalism and identity. Independence from Great Britain, he first argued, was inevitable and it required the cultivation of a sense of nationhood. His efforts, however, received a cool reception. Frustrated, Smith began to despair that Canada would never be able to forge a national identity. In Canada and the Canadian Question, published in 1891, Smith pondered the question of union with the United States. Annexation, he concluded, was a good idea. Why? His reasoning pointed to regional differences within Canada that hindered national unity, the relative ease of north-south trade as compared to trade across the vast Dominion, and the country’s already close relationship with the Americans.

George Monro Grant: minister, intellectual, and critic of Goldwin Smith
© Royal Society Portraits / Library and Archives Canada / C-037819

The argument did not resonate among most Canadians, but it did force reflection. A prominent contemporary critic of Smith’s, George Monro Grant, countered that technological advances would render domestic trade more practical, and rejected the notion that Canada’s regions were too dissimilar to unite for a common purpose. Was not Confederation, entered into willingly by the provinces, a remarkable act of unity? Grant asked. A sense of nationhood, he said, was still developing in Canada, but key differences with its southern neighbour, such as lasting ties to the British Empire, would ensure its growth.

Smith thrived on debates like these and, although his controversial views were not always popular, he left behind his powerful writings as an enduring legacy when he died in 1910. Goldwin Smith was designated a person of national historic significance in 1975, as was George Monro Grant in 1937. For further information about Grant, see the Queen's University story in the This Week in History archives.

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