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Manitoba History: Review: R. Douglas Francis, Frank Underhill: Intellectual Provocateur

by Barry Ferguson
St. John’s College, University of Manitoba

Manitoba History, Number 14, Autumn 1987

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Frank Underhill: Intellectual Provocateur. R. Douglas Francis. Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press. 1986. x, 219 pp. ISBN 0802-0254-55.

Historian Frank Underhill (1889-1971) was one of those rare academics whose public activity and scholarly influence were equally considerable. From the 1920s to the 1960s, he exerted this influence as a social democratic thinker, activist professor and historian of Canada. Douglas Francis presents a lucid but some-what narrow study of these major themes in an intellectual biography of Underhill.

Underhill’s social democratic critique of Canadian politics and capitalism emerged as a search for an intellectually coherent and politically effective reform analysis. He had been educated at the Universities of Toronto and Oxford during the pre-1914 Indian summer of the classics-based liberal arts curriculum. The freight of his Oxford days, war-time combat as an officer in the British Army and teaching at the University of Saskatchewan during the “progressive” era of the twenties turned him from a cautious scholastic and conventional liberal towards powerful commitments to Canadian politics and history. He embraced benthamite utilitarian philosophy and fabian socialist administrative goals. He also grew close to labourite politicians like J. S. Woodsworth of Winnipeg and social democrats like law teacher F. R. Scott of Montreal. Underhill wrote the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation’s founding statement, the Regina Manifesto, and organized its research-oriented affiliate, the League for Social Reconstruction.

The goal of economic and political equality and the means of redistribution through the federal state were central to Underhill’s socialism as presented by Francis. His essays and reviews constituted stinging attacks on most aspects of Canadian society: bourgeois values, business elite dominance, unfair economic policies and party politics, even a too-moderate history. To Francis, Underhill sustained a “socialist” critique of modern society yet maintained “liberal” values. The relationship between these two approaches to politics and economics requires further discussion, partly because Underhill’s polemical strengths and analytical weaknesses are found in his political writing and partly because Francis begins to lead us away from the woolly-minded distinction between “liberal” and “socialist” found in so much Canadian historical and political writing. Like a later Toronto professor, the political philosopher C. B. Macpherson (1911-1987), although far less thoroughly, Underhill wrestled with ways in which the tenets of the liberal democratic tradition required reworking to maintain its descriptive and evaluative claims in the 20th century.

Underhill’s political activism and critical opinions continually pressed against the limits of “academic freedom” at the University of Toronto, where he taught from 1927 to 1955. Although he wrote most often for small-circulation magazines or spoke to sympathetic gatherings of intellectuals, Underhill outraged an influential and aggressive minority of Toronto businessmen and politicians, who regularly sought his resignation. They nearly succeeded in 1940. Underhill kept his job only because senior professors, who did not share his views or activism, and liberal-minded members of the business and political establishment rallied to him. Underhill’s critique of Canadian foreign policy, which emphasized the need for autonomy from British goals and recognized growing reliance on the United States, most angered his enemies. Yet his position was similar to that of senior officials in the department of External Affairs and liberal-minded members of the establishment who supported him in 1940. Underhill’s persistent goading of the Toronto elite, like his antagonistic cast of mind, remains one of the peculiarities of his make-up that the biography does not resolve.

Related to his social democracy and activism was Underhill’s search for a radical or “liberal” historical tradition in Canada. He never identified a coherent one or completed the scholarly tomes usually needed to gain high academic influence. Nonetheless, Underhill inspired his students to write on both conservative and reform political ideas and movements. Francis attributes Underhill’s influence to his inspirational teaching and intriguing historical essays, although it might be concluded equal weight should be given to Toronto’s virtual monopoly over graduate teaching in history and the expansion of professional historical training in the forties and fifties.

Frank Underhill’s intellectual make-up demonstrated a calvinist sense of authority, liberal concept of individual rights, and socialist assessment of the state. Francis ably captures Underhill’s style of thought although he might have pressed to revise scholarly consensus about Underhill as social democratic analyst and “historical thinker.” The book recommends itself highly to readers intrigued by Canadian political ideas as much as to historians curious about a mythic figure within the academy.

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