The Governors-general: Lord Sydenham

Between 1839 and 1854, four governors-general exercised authority over

Canada, the Right Honourable Charles Poulett Thomson, later Lord

Sydenham, Sir Charles Bagot, Charles, Lord Metcalfe, and the Earl of

Elgin.[1] Their statesmanship, their errors, the accidents which

modified their policies, and the influence of their decisions and

despatches on British cabinets, constitute on the whole the most

important factor in
he creation of the modern Canadian theory of

government. In consequence, their conduct with reference to colonial

autonomy and all the questions therewith connected, demands the most

careful and detailed treatment.

When Lord John Russell, then leader of the House of Commons, and

Secretary of State for the {71} Colonies, selected a new

governor-general of Canada to complete the work begun by Durham, he

entrusted to him an elaborate system of government, most of it

experimental and as yet untried. He was to superintend the completion

of that Union between Upper and Lower Canada, which Durham had so

strenuously advocated; and the Union was to be the centre of a general

administrative reconstruction. The programme outlined in Russell's

instructions proposed "a legislative union of the two provinces, a just

regard to the claims of either province in adjusting the terms of that

union, the maintenance of the three Estates of the Provincial

Legislature, the settlement of a permanent Civil List for securing the

independence of the judges, and, to the executive government, that

freedom of action which is necessary for the public good, and the

establishment of a system of local government by representative bodies,

freely elected in the various cities and rural districts."[2] In

attaining these ends, all of them obviously to the advantage of the

colony, the Colonial Secretary desired to consult, and, as far as

possible, to defer to Canadian public opinion.[3]


Nevertheless, Lord John Russell had no sooner entered upon his

administrative reforms, than he found himself face to face with a

fundamental constitutional difficulty. He proposed to play the part of

a reformer in Canada; but the majority of reformers in that province

added to his programme the demand for executive councils, not merely

sympathetic to popular claims, but responsible to the representatives

of the people in a Canadian Parliament. Now according to all the

traditions of imperial government a demand so far-reaching involved the

disruption of the empire, and ended the connection between Canada and

England. To this general objection the British minister added a

subtler point in constitutional law. To yield to colonial reforming

ideas would be to contradict the existing conventions of the

constitution. "The power for which a minister is responsible in

England," he wrote to his new governor, "is not his own power, but the

power of the crown, of which he is for the time the organ. It is

obvious that the executive councillor of a colony is in a situation

totally different.... Can the colonial council be the advisers of the

crown of England? Evidently not, for the crown has other advisers for

the same functions, and with {73} superior authority. It may happen,

therefore, that the governor receives, at one and the same time,

instructions from the Queen and advice from his executive council

totally at variance with each other. If he is to obey his instructions

from England, the parallel of constitutional responsibility entirely

fails; if, on the other hand, he is to follow the advice of his

council, he is no longer a subordinate officer, but an independent

sovereign."[4] The governor-general, then, was in no way to concede to

the Canadian assembly a responsibility and power which resided only in

the British ministry.

At the same time large concessions, in spirit if not in letter, helped

to modify the rigour of this constitutional doctrine. "I have not

drawn any specific line," Russell wrote at the end of the despatch

already quoted, "beyond which the power of the governor on the one

hand, and the privileges of the assembly on the other, ought not to

extend.... The governor must only oppose the wishes of the assembly

when the honour of the crown, or the interests of the empire, are

deeply concerned; and the assembly must be ready to modify {74} some of

its measures for the sake of harmony, and from a reverent attachment to

the authority of Great Britain."

Two days later, an even more important modification than was contained

in this exhortation to charity and opportunism was proposed. It had

been the chief grievance in both provinces that the executive positions

in Canada had been filled with men who held them as permanencies, and

in spite of the clamour of public opinion against them. Popular

representative rights had been more than counterbalanced by entire

executive irresponsibility. A despatch, nominally of general

application to British colonies, but, under the circumstances, of

special importance to the United Provinces of Canada, changed the

status of colonial executive offices: "You will understand, and will

cause it to be generally known, that hereafter the tenure of colonial

offices held during her Majesty's pleasure, will not be regarded as

equivalent to a tenure during good behaviour, but that not only such

officers will be called upon to retire from the public service as often

as any sufficient motives of public policy may suggest the expediency

of that measure, but that a change in the person of the governor will

be considered as a sufficient reason for any {75} alterations which his

successor may deem it expedient to make in the list of public

functionaries, subject of course to the future confirmation of the

Sovereign. These remarks do not apply to judicial offices, nor are

they meant to apply to places which are altogether ministerial and

which do not devolve upon the holders of them duties in the right

discharge of which the character and policy of the government are

directly involved. They are intended to apply rather to the heads of

departments, than to persons serving as clerks or in similar capacities

under them; neither do they extend to officers in the service of the

Lords Commissioners of the Treasury. The functionaries who will be

chiefly, though not exclusively, affected by them are the Colonial

Secretary, the Treasurer or Receiver-General, the Surveyor-General, the

Attorney and Solicitor-General, the Sheriff or Provost Marshal, and

other officers who, under different designations from these, are

entrusted with the same or similar duties. To this list must also be

added the Members of the Council, especially in those colonies in which

the Executive and Legislative Councils are distinct bodies."[5]


The importance of this general circular of October 16th is that, at a

time when the Colonial Secretary was exhorting the new governor-general

to part with none of his prerogatives, and in a colony where public

opinion was importuning with some persistence for a more popular

executive, one of the best excuses for withholding from the people

their desires was removed. The representative of the crown in

consequence found himself with a new and not altogether comfortable

opportunity for exercising his freedom of choice.

It fell to Charles Poulett Thomson, President of the Board of Trade in

the Whig ministry, to carry out the Union of the two Canadian

provinces, and to administer them in accordance with this doctrine of

modified autonomy. The choice of the government seemed both wise and

foolish. Poulett Thomson had had an admirable training for the work.

In a colony where trade and commerce were almost everything, he brought

not Durham's aristocratic detachment but a real knowledge of commerce,

since his was a great mercantile family. In Parliament, he had become

a specialist in the financial and economic issues, which had already

displaced the diplomatic or purely political questions of the last

generation. {77} His speeches on the revision of taxes, the corn laws,

and British foreign trade, proved that, in a utilitarian age, he knew

the science of utilities and had freed himself from bureaucratic red

tape. His parliamentary career too had taught him the secret of the

management of assemblies, and Canada would under him be spared the

friction which the rigid attitude of soldiers, trained in the school of

Wellington, had been causing throughout the British colonies for many


There were, however, many who doubted whether the man had a character

and will powerful enough to dominate the turbulent forces of Canadian

politics. Physically he was far from strong, and almost the first

comment made by Canadians on him was that their new governor-general

came to them a valetudinarian. There seemed to be other and more

serious elements of weakness. Charles Greville spoke of him with just

a tinge of good-natured contempt as "very good humoured, pleasing and

intelligent, but the greatest coxcomb I ever saw, and the vainest dog,

though his vanity is not offensive or arrogant";[6] and a writer in the

Colonial Gazette, whose words reached Canada {78} almost on the day

when the new governor arrived, warned Canadians of the imbecility of

character which the world attributed to him. "While therefore," the

article continues, "we repeat our full conviction that Mr. Thomson is

gone to Canada with the opinions and objects which we have here

enumerated, let it be distinctly understood that we have little hope of

seeing them realised, except through the united and steadfast

determination of the Colonists to make use of him as an instrument for

accomplishing their own ends."[7] With such an introduction one of the

most strongly marked personalities ever concerned with government in

Canada entered on his work.

Strange as it may seem in face of these disparaging comments, the new

governor-general had already determined to make the assertion of his

authority the fundamental thing in his policy, although with him

authority always wore the velvet glove over the iron hand. In Lower

Canada the suspension of the constitution had already placed

dictatorial powers in his hand; but, even in the Upper Province, he

seemed to have expected that diplomacy would have to be supported by

authority to compel it to come into {79} the Union; and he had no

intention of leaving the supremacy over all British North America,

which had been conferred on him by his title, to lie unused. The two

strenuous years in which he remade Canada fall into natural

divisions--the brief episode in Lower Canada of the first month after

his arrival; his negotiations with Upper Canada, from November, 1839,

to February, 1840; the interregnum of 1840 which preceded the actual

proclamation of Union, during which he returned to Montreal, visited

the Maritime Provinces, and toured through the Upper Province; and the

decisive months, from February till September 19th, 1841, from which in

some sort modern Canada took its beginnings.

The first month of his governorship, in which he settled the fate of

French Canada, is of greater importance than appears on the surface.

The problem of governing Canada was difficult, not simply because

Britons in Canada demanded self-government, but because self-government

must be shared with French-Canadians. That section of the community,

distinct as it was in traditions and political methods, might bring

ruin on the Colony either by asserting a supremacy odious to the

Anglo-Saxon elements of the population, or by {80} resenting the

efforts of the British to assimilate or dominate them. When Poulett

Thomson landed, on October 19th, 1839, at Quebec, he was brought at

once face to face with the relation between French nationalism and the

constitutional resettlement of Canada.

Durham had had no doubt about the true solution. It was to confer free

institutions on the colony, and to trust to the natural energy and

increase of the Anglo-Saxon element to swamp French nationalite. "I

have little doubt," he said, "that the French, when once placed, by the

legitimate course of events and the working of natural causes, in a

minority, would abandon their vain hopes of nationality."[8] It was in

this spirit that his successor endeavoured to govern the French section

in Canada. Being both rationalist and utilitarian, like others of his

school he minimized the strength of an irrational fact like racial

pride, and, almost from the first he discounted the force of French

opposition, while he let it, consciously or unconsciously, influence

his behaviour towards his French subjects. "If it were possible," he

wrote in November, 1839, "the best thing for Lower Canada would be a

despotism for ten years {81} more; for, in truth, the people are not

yet fit for the higher class of self-government, scarcely indeed, at

present, for any description of it."[9] A few months later, his

language had become even stronger:--"I have been back three weeks, and

have set to work in earnest in this province. It is a bad prospect,

however, and presents a lamentable contrast to Upper Canada. There

great excitement existed; the people were quarrelling for realities,

for political opinions and with a view to ulterior measures. Here

there is no such thing as a political opinion. No man looks to a

practical measure of improvement. Talk to any one upon education, or

public works, or better laws, let him be English or French, you might

as well talk Greek to him. Not a man cares for a single practical

measure--the only end, one would suppose, of a better form of

government. They have only one feeling--a hatred of race."[10]

But at the outset his task was simple. His powers in Lower Canada, as

he confessed on his first arrival, were of an extraordinary nature; and

indeed it lay with him, and his Special Council, to settle the fate of

the province. Pushing on {82} from Quebec to Montreal, he lost no time

in calling a meeting of the Special Council, whose members, eighteen in

number, he purposely left unchanged from the regime of his predecessor

On November 13th and 14th, after discussions in which the minority

never exceeded three, that body accepted Union with the Upper Province

in six propositions, affirming the principle of union, agreeing to the

assimilation of the two provincial debts, and declaring it to be their

opinion "that the present temporary legislature should, as soon as

practicable, be succeeded by a permanent legislature, in which the

people of these two provinces may be adequately represented, and their

constitutional rights exercised and maintained."[11] Before he left

Montreal, he assured the British ministry that the large majority of

those with whom he had spoken, English and French, in the Lower

Province were warm advocates of Union.[12]

Yet here lay his first mis judgment, and one of the most serious he

made. It was true and obvious that the British inhabitants of Eastern

Canada earnestly desired a union which would promote {83} their racial

interests; true also that a group of Frenchmen took the same point of

view. But the governor was guilty of a grave political error, when he

ignored the feeling generally prevalent among the French that Union

must be fought. Colborne's judgment in 1839, that French aversion to

Union was growing less, seems to have been mistaken.[13] The British

government, more especially in the person of Durham, had not disguised

their intention--the destruction of French nationalism as it had

hitherto existed. They had taken, and were taking, the risk of

conducting the experiment in the face of a grant of self-government to

the doomed community; and the first governor-general of union and

constitutionalism was now to find that French racial unity, combined

with self-government, was too strong even for his masterful will,

although he had all the weight of Imperial authority behind him. But,

for the time, Lower Canada had to be left to its council, and the

centre of interest changed to Toronto and Upper Canada.

There, although no racial troubles awaited him, the governor had to

persuade a popular assembly before he could have his way; and there for

the {84} first time he was made aware of the perplexing cross-currents

and side eddies, and confusion of public opinion, which existed

everywhere in Canadian politics. So doubtful was the main issue that

he debated with himself whether he should venture to meet the Assembly

without a dissolution and election on the definite issue of the Union;

but the need for haste, and his natural inclination to take risks, and

to trust to his powers of management, decided him to face the existing

local parliament. By the end of November he had arrived at Toronto,

and the Assembly met on December 3rd. Two plain but difficult tasks

lay before him: to persuade both houses of Parliament to accept his

scheme of Union, and to arrange, on some moderate basis, the whole

Clergy Reserve question. To complicate these practical duties, the

speculative problem of responsible government, long keenly canvassed in

Toronto, and the peculiar conditions and methods of local politics, lay

as dangerous obstacles in his path. The manners and methods of the

politicians of Upper Canada drew him even in his despatches into vivid

criticism. After a month's observation, he sent Russell a long and

very able description of the prevailing disorders. In spite of a

general loyalty the people {85} had been fretted into vexations and

petty divisions, and for the most part felt deep-rooted animosity

towards the executive authorities. Indeed, apart from the party bias

of the government, its inefficiency and uncertainty had destroyed all

public confidence in it. Under the executive government, the authority

of the legislative council had been exercised by a very few

individuals, representing a mere clique in the capital, frequently

opposed both to the government and to the Assembly, and considered by

the people hostile to their interests. In the lower chamber, the loss

of public influence by the ministry had introduced absolute legislative

chaos, and even the control over expenditure, and the examination of

accounts, were of the loosest and most irregular character.[14] In a

private letter he allowed himself a freedom of expression which renders

his description the locus classicus for political conditions before

the Union:--"The state of things here is far worse than I had expected.

The country is split into factions animated with the most deadly hatred

to each other. The people have got into the way of talking so much of

separation, {86} that they begin to believe in it. The

Constitutional party is as bad or worse than the other, in spite of all

their professions of loyalty. The finances are more deranged than we

believed even in England. The deficit, L75,000 a year, more than equal

to the income. All public works suspended. Emigration going on fast

from the province. Every man's property worth only half what it was.

When I look to the state of government, and to the departmental

administration of the province, instead of being surprised at the

condition in which I find it, I am only astonished it has been endured

so long. I know that, much as I dislike Yankee institutions and rule,

I would not have fought against them, which thousands of these poor

fellows, whom the Compact call rebels, did, if it were only to keep up

such a Government as they got.... Then the Assembly is such a House!

Split into half a dozen parties. The Government having none--and no

one man to depend on! Think of a house in which half the members hold

places, yet in which the Government does not command a single vote; in

which the place-men generally vote against the Executive; and where

there is no one to defend the Government when attacked, or {87} to

state the opinion and views of the Governor."[15]

With the eye of a political strategist, Poulett Thomson prepared his

alternative system, a curious kind of despotism, based, however, simply

on his own powers of influencing opinion in the House. It was plain to

him that the previous governments had wantonly neglected public

opinion.[16] It was also plain that the populace had regarded these

governments as consisting not of the governor with his ministers under

him, but of the Family Compact clique in place of the governor.[17]

The system which he proposed to substitute expressed very fully his

working theory. Responsible government in the sweeping sense of that

term employed by the reforming party he resisted, holding that, whether

against his ministers, or the electors, he must be personally

responsible for all his administrative acts. At the same time he

assured parliament that "he had received her Majesty's commands to

administer the government of these provinces in accordance with the

well-understood wishes and interests of the people, and to pay to their

feelings, {88} as expressed through their representatives, the

deference that is justly due to them."[18] To secure this end, he

called public attention to the despatch from Russell, definitely

announcing the change of tenure of all save judicial and purely

ministerial places, thereby making it clear that no man would be

retained in office longer than he seemed acceptable to the governor and

the community. Then he set to work to build up, out of moderate men

drawn from all groups, a party of compromise and good sense to support

him and his ministry; and finally, he claimed for himself the central

authority without any modifying conditions. Concerning the ultimate

seat of that authority he never hesitated. Whatever power he had came

from the Home Ministry as representing the Crown, and to them alone he

acknowledged responsibility. For the rest, he had to carry on the

Queen's government; that is, to govern Canada so that peace and

prosperity might remain unshaken; and as a first condition he had to

defer to the wishes of the people. But it cannot be too strongly

re-asserted that he refused to surrender one iota of his

responsibility, and that the ideal which he set for himself was a

combination of governor and prime-minister. The efficiency {89} of his

system was to depend on the honestly benevolent intentions which the

governor-general cherished towards the people, and on the fidelity of

both the ministry and the parliamentary majority established and

secured through belief in those intentions.

The new system met with an astounding success. The scheme of Union was

laid before both Houses. On the thirteenth of December the Council,

which had hitherto been the chief obstacle, approved of the scheme by

fourteen votes to eight, the minority consisting of Toronto 'die-hards'

with the Bishop, recalcitrant as usual, at their head. Ten days later,

the governor-general was able to assure Russell that the Lower House

had, after some strenuous debates and divisions, assented also; the

only change from his own outline being an amendment that "such part of

the civil list as did not relate to the salaries of the judges, and the

governor, and the administration of justice, which are made permanent,

should be granted for the lifetime of the Queen, or for a period of not

less than ten years."[19] On one point, not without its influence in

embittering opinion among the French, {90} Parliament and Governor were

agreed, that while the debates in the Union parliament might be

conducted in either English or French, in the publication of all

records of the Legislature the English language only should be


Swept on by this great initial success, Poulett Thomson determined if

possible to settle the Clergy Reserve trouble out of hand. As has been

shown above, this ecclesiastical difficulty affected the whole life of

the community; and its settlement would mean peace, such as Upper

Canada had not known for a generation. The pacificator, however, had

to face two groups of irreconcilables, the Bishop of Toronto with his

extremist following, and the secularizing party resolute to have done

with any form of subsidy to religion. As he himself confessed, he had

little hope of succeeding in the Assembly, but he trusted to his new

popularity, then at its spring tide, and he won. Before the end of

January the question had been settled on a compromise, by a majority of

28 to 20 in the Assembly, and of 14 to 4 in the Council. It was even

more satisfactory to know that out of 22 members of Assembly who were

communicants of the Church of England, only 8 {91} voted in favour of

the status quo. There was but one set-back. Legal opinion in

England decided that the local assembly had not powers to change the

original act of 1791; and in the Imperial legislation which this check

made necessary, other influences crept in, and the governor-general

bitterly complained that the monstrous proportion allotted to the

Church of England, and the miserable proportion set apart for other

churches, rendered the Act only less an evil than if the question had

been left unsettled.[21] Still, the settlement retained existing

reserves for religious purposes, ended the creation of fresh reserves,

divided past sales of land between the Churches of England and of

Scotland, and arranged for the distribution of the proceeds of future

sales roughly in proportion to the numbers and importance of all the

churches in Canada. It was not an ideal arrangement, but quiet men

were anxious to clear the obstacle from the way, and through such men

Poulett Thomson worked his will. It is the most striking testimony to

the governor's power of management that, as a politician stated in

1846, three-quarters of the people believed the arrangement unjust and

partial, and acquiesced only because their political head desired it.

But {92} the end was not yet, and the uneasy ambition of the Bishop of

Toronto was in a few years to bring on his head just retribution for

the strife his policy continued to create. Nothing now remained but to

close this, the last parliament of Upper Canada under the old regime,

and the governor, who never suffered from lack of self-appreciative

optimism, wrote home in triumph: "Never was such unanimity. When the

speaker read my speech in the Commons, after the prorogation, they gave

me three cheers, in which even the ultras joined."[22] It was perhaps

the last remnant of this pardonable exultation which swept him over the

360 miles between Toronto and Montreal in thirty-six hours, breaking

all records for long-distance sleighing in the province.

The primary duty of the governor had now been accomplished, for he had

persuaded both local governments to accept an Imperial Act of Union,

and it might seem natural to pass over the intervening months, until

Union had been officially proclaimed, and the first Union parliament

had been elected and had met. But the interregnum from February,

1840, to February, 1841, must not be ignored. In these twelve short

months he turned {93} once again to the problem of Lower Canada,

hurried on a short visit to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to settle

constitutional difficulties there, returned in a kind of triumphal

procession through the English-speaking district of Lower Canada known

as the Eastern Townships,[23] and spent the autumn in a tour through

the Western part of the newly united colony. It was only fitting that

a grateful Queen and Ministry should bestow on him a peerage;

henceforward he must appear as Baron Sydenham of Sydenham and Toronto.

But apart from these mere physical activities, he was preparing for the

culmination of his work in the new parliament. It must be remembered

not only that he distrusted the intelligence and initiative of colonial

ministers too much to dream of giving place to them, but that his

theory of his own position--the benevolent despot, secured in his

supremacy through popular management--forced on him an elaborate

programme of useful administration. He must face the new Parliament

with a good record, and definite promises. The failure of the home

ministry to include the local government clauses, which formed a

fundamental {94} part of the Union Bill, made such efforts even more

necessary than before. It had been plain to Durham and Charles Buller,

as well as to Sydenham, that, if an Act of Union were to pass, it could

only be made operative by joining to it an entirely new system of local

government. Accordingly, when opposition forced Russell to omit the

essential clauses from his Act of Union, Sydenham penned one of his

most vigorous despatches in reply. "Owing to this (rejection), duties

the most unfit to be discharged by the general legislature are thrown

upon it; powers equally dangerous to the subject and to the Crown are

assumed by the Assembly. The people receive no training in those

habits of self-government which are indispensable to enable them

rightly to exercise the power of choosing representatives in

parliament. No field is open for the gratification of ambition in a

narrow circle, and no opportunity given for testing the talents or

integrity of those who are candidates for popular favour. The people

acquire no habits of self-dependence for the attainment of their own

local objects. Whatever uneasiness they may feel--whatever little

improvement in their respective neighbourhoods may appear to be

neglected, afford grounds for complaint against the executive. All

{95} is charged upon the Government, and a host of discontented spirits

are ever ready to excite these feelings. On the other hand, whilst the

Government is thus brought directly in contact with the people, it has

neither any officer in its own confidence, in the different parts of

these extended provinces, from whom it can seek information, nor is

there any recognized body, enjoying the public confidence, with whom it

can communicate, either to determine what are the real wants and wishes

of the locality, or through whom it may afford explanation."[24]

Nothing could be done to remedy the evil in Upper Canada, until the new

parliament had met, but the temporary dictatorship still remained in

French Canada, and at once Sydenham set to work to create all that he

wanted there, recognizing shrewdly that what had been granted in the

Lower Province to the French must prove a powerful argument for a

similar grant to Upper Canada, when the time should come for action.

About the same time, he established by ordinance a popular system of

registry offices, to simplify the difficulties introduced into land

transfers by the French law--"all {96} the old French law of before the

Revolution, Hypotheques tacites et occultes, Dowers' and Minors'

rights, Actes par devant notaires, and all the horrible processes by

which the unsuspecting are sure to be deluded, and the most wary are

often taken in."[25]

Curiously enough, although his love of good government drove him to

amend conditions among the French, Sydenham's relations with that

people seem to have grown steadily worse. He had made advances to the

foremost French politician, La Fontaine, offering him the

solicitor-generalship of Lower Canada; but La Fontaine, who never had

any enthusiasm for British Whig statesmanship,[26] regarded the offer

as a bribe to draw him away from his countrymen and their national

ideal, and declined it, thereby increasing the tension. Thus, as the

time for the election drew near, the French were still further

hardening their hearts against the governor-general of United Canada,

and Sydenham, his patience now exhausted, could but exclaim in baffled

anger, "As for the French, nothing but time will do anything with them.

They hate British rule--British connection--improvements of {97} all

kinds, whether in their laws or their roads; so they will sulk, and

will try, that is, their leaders, to do all the mischief they can."[27]

Meantime he had prepared two other politic strokes before he called

Parliament: the regulation of immigration, and a project for raising a

British loan in aid of Canadian public works. Immigration, more

especially now that the current had set once more towards Canada, was

one of the essential facts in the life of the colony; and yet the evils

attendant on it were still as obvious as the gains. Most of the

defects so vividly portrayed by Durham and his commissioners still

persisted--unsuitable immigrants, over-crowded ships, disease which

spread from ship to land and overcrowded the local hospitals, wretched

and poverty-stricken masses lingering impotently at Quebec, and a

straggling line of westbound settlers, who obtained work and land with

difficulty and after many sorrows.[28] Sydenham had none of Gibbon

Wakefield's doctrinaire enthusiasm on the subject; and, as he said, the

inducements, to parishes and landlords to send out their surplus

population were already {98} sufficiently strong. But much could and

must be done by way of remedy. It was his plan to regulate more

strictly the conditions on board emigrant ships, and to humanize the

process of travelling. Government agents must safeguard the rights of

ignorant settlers; relief, medical and otherwise, should be in

readiness for the destitute and afflicted when they arrived; sales of

land were to be simplified and made easier; and a system of public

works might enable the local authorities to solve two problems at one

time, by giving the poorer settler steady employment, and by completing

the great tasks, only half performed in days when money and labour

alike were wanting.[29] The final achievement of these objects

Sydenham reserved until he should meet parliament, but he had laid his

plans, and had primed the home authorities with facts long before that


In the same way he had foreseen the need of Canada for Imperial

assistance, both in her public works, and in her finance. Assistance

in the former of these matters was peculiarly important. Colonists,

more especially in the Upper Province, had undertaken the development

of Canadian natural resources, but poverty had called a halt {99}

before the development was complete, or, by preventing necessary

additions and improvements, had rendered useless what had already been

done. Conspicuous among such imperfect works were the canals; and

Sydenham realized the strange dilemma into which provincial enterprise

seemed doomed to run. The province, he told Russell, was sinking under

the weight of engagements which it could only meet by fresh outlay,

whilst that outlay the condition of its credit preventing it from

making.[30] He was therefore prepared to come before the United

Parliament with a proposal, backed by the British Ministry, for a great

loan of L1,500,000 to be negotiated by the home government, and to be

utilized, partly in redeeming the credit of the province, and partly in

completing its public works. "It will therefore be absolutely

necessary that Her Majesty's government should enable the governor of

the province of Canada to afford this relief when the Union is

completed, and the financial statement takes place; and I know of no

better means than those originally proposed--of guaranteeing a loan

which would remove a considerable charge arising from the high rate of

interest payable by the province on the debt already contracted, or

{100} which it would have to pay for raising fresh loans which may be

required hereafter for great local improvements."[31]

There remained now the last and greatest of Sydenham's labours before

his stewardship could be honourably accounted for and surrendered, the

summoning, meeting, and managing, of a parliament representative of

that Canada, English and French, which he had restored and irritated.

His reputation must depend the more on this political adventure,

because he had already determined that 1841 should be his last year in

Canada--he would not stay, he said, though they made him Duke of Canada

and Prince of Regiopolis. And indeed the Parliament of 1841, in all

its circumstances, still remains one of the salient points in modern

Canadian history.

The Union came into force on the tenth of February, but long before

that time all the diverse political interests in Canada had organized

themselves for the fray. Sydenham himself naturally occupied the

foremost place. He was acting now, not merely as governor-general, but

as the prime minister of a new cabinet, and as a party manager, {101}

whose main duty it was to secure parliamentary support for his men and

his measures by the maintenance of a sound central group. By the

beginning of the year he thought he had evidence for believing that, in

Upper Canada, a great majority of the members would be men who had at

heart the welfare of the province, and the British connection, and who

desired to make the Act of Union operate to the advantage of the

country.[32] But even in Upper Canada there were doubtful elements.

The Family Compact men, few as they might be in number, were unlikely

to leave their enemy, the governor-general, in peace; nor were all the

Reformers prepared to acquiesce in Sydenham's very restrained and

limited interpretation of responsible government. Late in 1840, and

early in 1841, the Upper Canadian progressives had organized their

strength; and additional significance was given to their action by

their communications with Lower Canada.[33] There, indeed, was the

crux of the experiment. The French Canadians, already organized in

sullen opposition, had just received what they counted a fresh insult.

But Sydenham may be allowed to {102} explain his own action. "There

were," he wrote to Russell in March, 1841, "attached to the cities,

both of Montreal and Quebec, very extensive suburbs, inhabited

generally by a poor population, unconnected with the mercantile

interests to which these cities owe their importance. Had these cities

been brought within the electoral limits, the number of their

population would have enabled them to return one, if not both, of the

members for each city. But such a result would have been directly at

variance with the grounds on which increased representation was given

by Parliament to these cities. On referring to the discussions which

took place in both houses when the Union Bill was before them, I find

that members on all sides laid great stress on the necessity of

securing ample representation to the mercantile interests of Canada....

Feeling myself, therefore, bound in duty to carry out the views of the

British parliament in this matter, I was compelled in fixing the

limits of Quebec and Montreal to transfer to the county a large portion

of the suburbs of each."[34] Whatever Sydenham's intentions may have

been, the actual result of his action was to secure for his party four

seats in the very heart of the enemy's country; {103} and the French

Canadians, naturally embittered, resented the governor's action as a

piece of gerrymandering, which had practically disfranchised many

French voters. Already, in 1840, under the active leadership of

Neilson of Quebec, a British supporter of French claims, an anti-union

movement had been started.[35] In July of the same year La Fontaine

visited Toronto, to canvass, said scandal, for the speaker's chair in

the united assembly; and in any case he was able to assure his

compatriots that they had sympathizers among the British in the West.

The Tory paper in Sydenham's new capital, Kingston, in a review and

forecast of the situation, settled on this Anglo-French co-operation as

one of the serious possibilities of the future;[36] and Sydenham as he

watched developments in the Lower Province, found himself growing

unwontedly pessimistic. "In Lower Canada," he wrote, "the elections

will be bad. The French Canadians have forgotten nothing and learnt

nothing by the Rebellion, and the suspension of the constitution, and

are more unfit for representative government {104} than they were in

1791. In most of the French counties, members, actuated by the old

spirit of the Assembly, and without any principle except that of

inveterate hostility to British rule and British connection, will be

returned without a possibility of opposition."[37]

The elections began on the 8th of March, and the date on which

parliament was to meet was postponed, first from April 8th to May 26th,

and then, in consequence of the continued lateness of the season,[38]

from May 26th to June 14th. The result of the elections, known early

in April, gave matter for serious thought to many, Sydenham himself not

excluded. Absolute precision is difficult, but Sydenham's biographer

has tabulated the groups as follows:

Government Members - - - - 24

French Members - - - - - - 20

Moderate Reformers - - - - 20

Ultra Reformers - - - - - 5

Compact Party - - - - - - 7

Doubtful - - - - - - - - - 6

Special Return - - - - - - 1

Double Return - - - - - - 1




In the confusion of groups, Sydenham still trusted to the centre--a

party almost precisely similar to that which in 1867 was called

Liberal-Conservative. This centre he hoped to create out of moderate

Conservatives who had enlarged their earlier views, and moderate

Reformers who anxiously desired to see Sydenham's proposed improvements

carried out.[40] A shrewd observer, himself a member, and

appreciatively critical of Sydenham's work, counted at least five

parties in the new parliament. Three of these groups came from Upper

Canada--the Conservatives under Sir Allan MacNab; the Ministerialists,

that is the Reformers and moderate Conservatives, under the

Attorney-General Draper, and the Secretary Harrison, and the

ultra-reformers who looked to Robert Baldwin for guidance. From Lower

Canada came the French nationalists, with some British supporters,

under Morin, Neilson, and Aylwin, and the defenders of the Union

policy, chiefly British, but with a few conservative French allies.

"The division lists of the session 1841," writes the same observer,

"cannot fail to strike anyone acquainted with the state of parties, as

extraordinary. Mr. Baldwin on several occasions voted with

considerable {106} majorities in opposition to the Government, while as

frequently he was in insignificant minorities. There was a decided

tendency towards a coalition with the Reformers of French origin, on

the part of Sir Allan MacNab and the Upper Canada Conservatives. The

Ministerial strength lay in the support which it received from the

British party of Lower Canada, and from the majority of the Upper

Canada Reformers."[41] Well might Sydenham speak of the delusive

nature of the party nicknames borrowed by his legislators from England.

Whatever were the characteristic faults of the parliament in 1841,

sloth was not one of them. All through the summer it worked with

feverish energy. Writing to his brother at the end of August, Sydenham

boasted--"The five great works I aimed at have been got through--the

establishment of a board of works with ample powers; the admission of

aliens; a new system of county courts; the regulation of the public

lands ceded by the Crown under the Union Act; and lastly the District

Council Bill. I think you will admit this to be pretty good work for

one session, especially when superadded to half a dozen minor measures,

as well {107} as the fact of having set up a government, brought

together two sets of people, who hated each other cordially, and

silenced all the threatened attacks upon the Union, which were expected

to be so formidable.... What do you think of this, you miserable

people in England, who spend two years upon a single measure?"[42]

But the chief significance of the session lies in the persistent

warfare waged between Sydenham and the advocates of a more extended

system of autonomy. The result, as will be shewn, was indecisive, but,

under the circumstances a drawn battle was equivalent to defeat for the


Sydenham had never before flung himself so completely into the fight.

"I actually breathe, eat, drink, and sleep nothing but government and

politics," was his own description of life in Kingston. He had

accomplished with little resistance from others all that his opening

speech had promised. His ministry owned him as their actively

directing head. His power of managing individuals in spite of

themselves passed into a jest. Playing with men's vanity, tampering

with their interests, their passions and their prejudices, placing

himself in a position of familiarity with those from whom {108} he

might at once obtain assistance and information--such, according to an

eccentric writer of the day, were the secrets of Sydenham's

success.[43] Few men ever played the part of benevolent despot more

admirably, and his achievements were the more creditable because he

could count on no allegiance except that which he induced by his

persuasive arts, and by the proofs he had given of a sincere desire to

promote Canadian prosperity.

Nevertheless, throughout the summer months, there occurred a series of

sharp encounters with a half-organized party of reform; and the end of

the session, while it saw Sydenham successful, saw also his adversaries

as eager as ever, and much more learned than they had been in the ways

of political opposition and agitation. The opposition leaders massed

their whole strength on one fundamental point--the claim to possess as

fully as their fellow-citizens in Great Britain did, the cabinet and

party system of government. In other words, if any group, or coalition

of groups, should succeed in establishing an ascendency in the popular

assembly, that ascendency must receive acknowledgment by the creation

of a cabinet, and the appointment of {109} a prime minister, approved

by the parliamentary majority and responsible to them; and Sydenham's

ingenious device of an eclectic ministry responsible to him alone was

denounced as unconstitutional. The first encounter came, two days

before the session started, and Robert Baldwin of Toronto was the

leader of the revolt. In February, 1840, Sydenham had invited Robert

Baldwin to be his Solicitor-General in the Upper Province. Baldwin,

although his powers were not those of a politician of the first rank,

was perhaps the soundest constitutionalist in Western Canada. He had

been from the first a reformer, but he had never encouraged the wild

ideas of the rebels of 1837. Sir F. B. Head had called him to his

councils in 1836, as a man "highly respected for his moral character,

moderate in his politics and possessing the esteem and confidence of

all parties,"[44] and only Head's impracticability had driven him from

public service. There is not a letter or official note from his pen,

which does not bear the stamp of unusual conscientiousness, and a very

earnest desire to serve his country. So little was he a self-seeker,

that he earned the lasting ill-will of his eldest son by passing a bill

abolishing primogeniture, and thus {110} ending any hopes that existed

of founding a great colonial family. The Earl of Elgin, who saw much

of him after 1847, regarded him not merely as a great public servant,

but as one who was worth "two regiments to the British connection," and

perhaps the most truly conservative statesman in the province.[45] In

his quiet, determined way, he had made up his mind that responsible

government, in the sense condemned by both Sydenham and Russell, must

be secured for Canada, and Sydenham's benevolent plans did not disguise

from him the insidious attempt to limit what he counted the legitimate

constitutional liberty of the colony. It cannot justly be objected

that his acceptance of office misled the governor-general, either in

1840 or in 1841. "I distinctly avow," he wrote publicly in 1840,

"that, in accepting office, I consider myself to have given a public

pledge that I have a reasonably well-grounded confidence that the

government of my country is to be carried on in accordance with the

principles of Responsible Government which I have ever held.... I have

not come into office by means of any coalition with the

Attorney-General,[46] or with any others now in {111} the public

service, but have done so under the governor-general, and expressly

from my confidence in him."[47] In the same way, when Sydenham chose

him for the Solicitor-Generalship of Upper Canada in the Union

Ministry, Baldwin, who had no belief in Sydenham's cabinet of all the

talents, wrote bluntly to say that he "had an entire want of political

confidence in all of his colleagues except Mr. Dunn, Mr. Harrison, and

Mr. Daly."[48] In view of his later action, his critics charged him

with error in thus accepting an office which placed him in an

impossible position; but Baldwin's ready answer was: "The head of the

government, the heads of departments in both provinces, and the country

itself, were in a position almost anomalous. That of the head of the

government was one of great difficulty and embarrassment. While he

(Baldwin) felt bound to protect himself against misapprehensions as to

his views and opinions, he also felt bound to avoid, as far as

possible, throwing any difficulties in the way of the governor-general.

At the time he was called to a seat in the Executive Council, he was

already one of those public servants, the political character {112}

newly applied to whose office made it necessary for them to hold seats

in that Council. Had he, on being called to take that seat, refused to

accept it, he must of course have left office altogether, or have been

open to the imputation of objecting to an arrangement for the conduct

of public affairs which had always met with his most decided

approbation."[49] At worst, the Solicitor-General can only be blamed

for letting his abnormally sensitive conscience lead him into political

casuistry, the logic of which might not appear so cogent to the

governor as to himself, when the crisis should come. How sensitive

that conscience was, may be gathered from the fact that his acceptance

of office in 1841 was accompanied with an avowal of want of confidence,

made openly to those colleagues with whom he disagreed. It was further

illustrated when he made a difficulty with Sydenham over taking the

Oath of Supremacy, which, in a country, many of whose inhabitants were

Roman Catholics protected in their religion by treaty rights, declared

that no foreign prince, person, prelate, state or potentate hath or

ought to have any jurisdiction, {113} power, superiority, pre-eminence

of authority, ecclesiastical or spiritual within this realm."[50]

The crisis came, as Baldwin expected it to come, when parliament met.

Already, as has been seen, the French Canadians had organized their

forces and formed the most compact group in the Assembly, while the

little band of determined reformers from Upper Canada made up in

decision and principle what they lacked in numbers. Hincks, who was

one of the latter group, says that, before parliament met, the two

sections consulted together concerning the government, and although La

Fontaine had lost his election through a display of physical force on

the other side, Baldwin was able to lead the combined groups into

action. On June 12th, he wrote to Sydenham stating that the United

Reform Party represented the political views of the vast majority of

Canadians, that four ministers--Sullivan, Ogden, Draper, and Day--were

hostile to popular sympathies and ideals, and that he thought the

accession of Lower Canada Reformers absolutely essential to a sound

popular administration. It was a perfectly consistent, if somewhat

unhappily executed, attempt to secure {114} the absolute responsibility

of the Executive Council to the representatives of the people; and a

week later, in the Assembly, when no longer in office, he defended his

action. He believed that when the election had determined of what

materials the House of Assembly was to be composed, it then became his

duty to inform the head of the government that the administration did

not possess the confidence of the House of Assembly, and to tender to

the representative of his sovereign the resignation of the office which

he held, having first, as he was bound to do, offered his advice to his

Excellency that the administration of the country should be


It was the directest possible challenge to Sydenham's system.

Baldwin's claim was that, once the representatives of the people had

made known the people's will, it was the duty of the ministry to

reflect that will in their programme and actions, or to resign. As for

the governor-general, he must obviously adjust whatever theories he

might have, to a situation where colonial ministers were content to

hold office only where they had the confidence of the people.

The action of the governor-general was {115} characteristically

summary. His answer to Baldwin reproved him for a "proposal in the

highest degree unconstitutional, as dictating to the crown who are the

particular individuals whom it should include in the ministry";

intimated the extreme displeasure of his Excellency, and assumed the

letter to be equivalent to resignation.[52] To the home government he

spoke of the episode with anger and some contempt: "Acting upon some

principle of conduct which I can reconcile neither with honour nor

common sense, he strove to bring about this union (between Upper and

Lower Canadian reformers), and at last, having as he thought effected

it, coolly proposed to me, on the day before Parliament was to meet, to

break up the Government altogether, dismiss several of his colleagues,

and replace them by men whom I believe he had not known for 24

hours--but who are most of them thoroughly well known in Lower Canada

as the principal opponents of any measure for the improvement of the


The crisis once passed, Sydenham hoped, and not without justification,

that Baldwin would carry few supporters over to the opposition, and

{116} that the Assembly would settle quietly down to enact the measures

so bountifully set out in the opening speech. The first day of

Assembly saw the party of responsible government make a smothered

effort to state their views in the debate on the election of a speaker.

On June 18th, an elaborate debate, nominally on the address, really on

the fundamental point, found the attorney-general stating the case for

the government, and Baldwin and Hincks pushing the logic of responsible

government to its natural conclusion. Baldwin once more grappled with

the problem of the responsibility of the members of council, and the

advice they should offer to the governor-general. He admitted freely

that unless the representative of the sovereign should acquiesce in the

measures so recommended, there would be no means by which that advice

could be made practically useful; but this consideration did not for a

moment relieve a member of the council from the fulfilment of an

imperative duty. If his advice were accepted, well and good; if not,

his course would be to tender his resignation.[54]


The government came triumphantly out of the ordeal, and all amendments,

whether affecting the Union, or responsible government, were defeated

by majorities, usually of two to one. "I have got the large majority

of the House ready to support me upon any question that can arise,"

Sydenham wrote at the end of June; "and, what is better, thoroughly

convinced that their constituents, so far as the whole of Upper Canada

and the British part of Lower Canada are concerned, will never forgive

them if they do not."[55]

But the enemy was not so easily routed. There had been much violence

at the recent elections; and, among others, La Fontaine had a most just

complaint to make, for disorder, and, as he thought, government

trickery had ousted him from a safe seat at Terrebonne. Unfortunately

the protests were lodged too late, and a furious struggle sprang up, as

to whether the legal period should, in the cases under consideration,

be extended, or whether, as the government contended, an inquiry and

amendments affecting only the future should suffice. It was ominous

for the cause of limited responsibility, that the government had to own

defeat in the Lower House, and saved itself only {118} by the veto of

the Legislative Council. Nor was that the end. A mosaic work of

opposition, old Tories, French Canadians, British anti-unionists, and

Upper Canada Reformers, was gradually formed, and at any moment some

chance issue might lure over a few from the centre to wreck the

administration. Most of the greater measures passed through the ordeal

safely, including a bill reforming the common schools and another

establishing a Board of Works. The critical moment of the latter part

of the session, however, came with the introduction of a bill to

establish District Councils in Upper Canada, to complete the work

already done in Lower Canada. The forces in opposition rallied to the

attack, Conservatives because the bill would increase the popular

element in government, Radicals because the fourth clause enacted that

the governor of the province might appoint, under the Great Seal of the

province, fit and proper persons to hold during his pleasure the office

of Warden of the various districts;[56] and, as Sydenham himself

hinted, there were those who regretted the loss to members of Assembly

of a great opportunity for jobbery. One motion passed by the

chairman's casting vote; {119} and nothing, in the governor-general's

judgment, saved the bill but the circumstance of his having already

established such councils in Lower Canada.[57]

There was one more attack in force before the session ended. On

September 3rd, Baldwin, seconded by a French Canadian, moved "that the

most important as well as the most undoubted of the political rights of

the people of the province, is that of having a provincial parliament

for the protection of their liberties, for the exercise of a

constitutional influence over the executive departments of the

government, and for legislation upon all matters, which do not on the

ground of absolute necessity constitutionally belong to the

jurisdiction of the Imperial parliament, as the paramount authority of

the Empire."[58] The issue was stated moderately but quite directly,

and there are critics of Sydenham who hold that his answer--for it was

his voice that spoke--surrendered the whole position. That answer took

the form of resolutions, moved by the most moderate reformer in the

Assembly, S. B. Harrison:

(i) That the head of the provincial executive {120} government of the

province, being within the limits of his government the representative

of the Sovereign, is not constitutionally responsible to any other than

the authority of the Empire.

(ii) That the representative of the Sovereign, for the proper conduct

and efficient disposal of public business, is necessarily obliged to

make use of the advice and assistance of subordinate officers in the

administration of his government.

(iii) That in order to preserve the harmony between the different

branches of the Provincial Parliament which is essential to the happy

conduct of public affairs, the principal of such subordinate officers,

advisers of the representative of the Sovereign, and constituting as

such the provincial administration under him ... ought always to be men

possessed of the public confidence of the people, thus affording a

guarantee that the well-understood wishes and interests of the people,

which our gracious Sovereign has declared shall be the rule of the

Provincial Government, will on all occasions be faithfully represented

and advocated.

(iv) That the house has the constitutional right of holding such

advisers politically responsible for every act of the Provincial

Government of a local {121} character sanctioned by such government

while such advisers continue in office."[59]

Of Sydenham's own doctrine of colonial government the outlines are

unmistakeable. A governor-general existed, responsible for his actions

solely to the imperial authority. Under that government the people had

full liberty to elect their representatives, through whom their desires

could be made known. It was the duty of the governor-general to

consult, on every possible detail, the popular will. Sydenham

therefore held it essential that the governor-general in Canada should

be one trained in the Imperial Parliament to interpret and to guide

popular expression of opinion; and he believed that in such

parliamentary diplomacy the governor-general would have to make many

minor surrenders. But he never recoiled from a position, which was

also that of Durham, that, as the proclamation of Union asserted, the

grant of local autonomy was subject to certain limitations, and that

these limitations no action of the Provincial Legislature could affect.

Nor did he admit that his own responsibility to the Crown could be

modified by the existence of a responsibility on the {122} part of his

ministers to the Canadian people. Moreover, his own imperious temper

and sense of superior enlightenment made him act in the very spirit of

his doctrine with a resolution which few imperial servants of his time

could have surpassed. It may be then that the final resolutions, and

especially the last of them, were marked by a gentler mode of

expression than before, but they were actually a reaffirmation of

Sydenham's early views, and were quite consistent with the initial

despatch of the colonial secretary.

The end was now near. Sydenham had already applied for and received

permission, first to leave Canada, should his health require that step,

and then, to resign. He had delayed to act on this permission, until

he should see the end of the session, and the accomplishment of his

ambitions. But, on September 4th, a fall from horseback inflicted

injuries which grew more complicated through his generally enfeebled

condition, and he died on Sunday, September 19th. On the preceding

day, one of the most useful and notable sessions in the history of the

Canadian Parliament came to an end.

Both by his errors, and by his acts of statesmanship, Sydenham

contributed more than any other {123} man, except Elgin, to establish

that autonomy in Canada which his theories rejected. Before

self-government could flourish in the colony, there must be some solid

material progress, and two years of incessant legislation and

administrative innovation, all of it suggested by Sydenham, had turned

the tide of Canadian fortunes. It was necessary, too, that some larger

field than a trivial provincial assembly with its local jobs should be

provided for the new adventure in self-government; and Sydenham not

only engineered a difficult Act of Union past all preliminary

obstacles, but, of his own initiative, gave Canada the local

institutions through which alone the country could grow into

disciplined self-dependence.

But even his errors aided Canadian development. Acting for a

government in whose counsels there was no hesitation, Sydenham

expounded in word and practice a perfectly self-consistent theory of

colonial government. It was he who, by the virility of his thought and

action, forced those who demanded responsible government to test and

think over again their own position. The criticism which Elgin passed

on him in 1847 is final: "I never cease to marvel what study of human

nature, or of history, led him to the conclusion {124} that it would be

possible to concede to a pushing and enterprising people, unencumbered

by an aristocracy, and dwelling in the immediate vicinity of the United

States, such constitutional privileges as were conferred on Canada at

the time of Union, and yet restrict in practice their powers of

self-government as he proposed."[60] Yet he had raised the question,

for both sides, to a higher level, and his adversaries owed something

of their triumph, when it came, to the man who had taught them a more

spacious view of politics.

But it may be urged that he roused the French, insulted them, excluded

them, and almost precipitated a new French rising. Undoubtedly he was

an enemy to French claims, but, at the time, most of these claims were

inadmissible. The French had brought the existing system of local

government to a standstill. Few of those who took part in the

Rebellion had any reasonable or adequate conception of a reformed

constitution. As a people they had set themselves to obstruct the

statesmen who came