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Nineteenth-Century Society, English-Speaking Society

lewd literature, Reciprocity Treaty, moral uprightness, colonial society, great authority

The Union period saw great changes in British North America. Population growth continued and was particularly rapid in Canada West. Commerce and industry encouraged urban growth. The cities, and colonial society generally, came to be dominated and defined by a confident, prosperous middle class.

The first Canadian passenger railroad was built near Montreal in 1836, and in the 1850s thousands of kilometers of track and telegraph lines were laid. The Reciprocity Treaty of 1854 reduced customs tariffs and increased trade between British North America and the United States.

The midcentury period was Atlantic Canada’s golden age, when it prospered from building wooden ships and sailing them in overseas trade. British North America’s shipping fleet was exceeded only by those of Britain and the United States. Shipyards all over the region produced a quarter of the British Empire’s merchant fleet and helped launch careers like that of Sir Samuel Cunard, the Halifax-born founder of the Cunard shipping line. The merchant elite, with ties to London, Boston, and other major cities, became wealthy and supported schools and universities. Nova Scotia saw itself as the cultural capital of British North America.

Most of the English-speaking population was proud of its connection to the British Empire and wished to maintain it, although aspiring at the same time to move from colonial status to greater self-rule. It was generally believed that hard work, industrialization, and attention to commerce would inevitably achieve the progress that would bring this about. The symbol of the era to English speakers was Britain’s monarch, Queen Victoria (reigned 1837-1901), whose personal stability and moral uprightness seemed to personify British virtues.

Protestant churches were important in English-speaking society; most people belonged to the Church of England, the Methodists, or the Presbyterians. The churches provided social services, a role that the state had yet to take on. Middle-class citizens embarked on moral crusades to defeat the liquor traffic, protect the Sabbath, eliminate prostitution and gambling, ban lewd literature, and improve the moral education of schoolchildren and the poor.

Women of English-speaking society in that era were expected to restrict themselves to domestic concerns. They were excluded from most fields of commerce and higher education as well as from politics. Men and women were expected to operate in so-called separate spheres. This meant, however, that women had great authority in the home and over the young, and also in defining public morals and social standards. Women gradually came to dominate elementary teaching and many areas of social and charitable work, and they were crucial leaders and supporters of religious campaigns and temperance crusades.

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