Robert Baldwin

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Though a moderate reformer, Robert Baldwin strongly disapproved of the rebellion of 183738, and as a function of his views provided allegedly a lackluster defense of Peter Matthews (rebel), who was executed for his role in the Rebellion. Baldwin served as an intermediary, with John Rolph, between the rebels and the Lt. Governor, carrying a flag of truce to the rebel camp north of Toronto on 5 December 1837, but failed to head off an armed clash. [13] He and his father William advised Lord Durham to suggest responsible government to the British government.

The Union of the Canadas

The Temple of the Children of Peace, Sharon SharonTemple.jpg
The Temple of the Children of Peace, Sharon

In response to Durham's Report, the British Government appointed Charles Poulett Thomson (later Lord Sydenham) as Governor with two main tasks. Firstly, he was to weaken the Canadien vote in Lower Canada through the union of the provinces of Upper and Lower Canada and a strengthened Executive Council. And secondly, he was to strengthen British rule by imposing a new system of centrally controlled District Councils that would take much of the elected Assembly's legislative purview, leaving it little to do but approve the Governor's budgets. Both reforms would strengthen the central state and weaken (Canadien) legislative power.

Sydenham reformed the Executive Council, making government ministers members for the first time (i.e. Cabinet Rule). He attempted to solicit Reform support by appointing Baldwin as Solicitor General in 1840. To follow his principle of responsible government, Baldwin needed to seek election so that he, a government minister, could be accountable to the elected Assembly, not the Crown. [14]

Orange Order riots during the Toronto civic elections in January 1841 convinced Baldwin he could never win a seat in the city. Instead, he sought election in the ridings of Hastings and 4th York. The Children of Peace, who had played a large role in the pre-Rebellion Reform Movement, managed Baldwin's election in 4th York and he 'walked over the course without a contest,' thus becoming the first member to be elected to the United Parliament. [15] He was also later returned to Hastings.

Baldwin & LaFontaine

Louis-Hypolite LaFontaine, Father of Responsible Government Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine.jpg
Louis-Hypolite LaFontaine, Father of Responsible Government
Statue of Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine by Walter Seymour Allward on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Statue of Baldwin and Lafontaine.jpg
Statue of Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine by Walter Seymour Allward on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

Although Baldwin was elected in two seats in Canada West, reformers were in the minority. In Canada East, gerrymandering and Orange Order violence were used to prevent the election of Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, leader of the Canadien reformers in Terrebonne, outside Montreal. To ensure LaFontaine a seat, Baldwin proposed to David Willson, leader of the Children of Peace, that they nominate LaFontaine for the seat in 4th York. [16] Baldwin also insisted that Sydenham include LaFontaine in the reformed Executive Council, or he would resign as Solicitor General. Their alliance allowed Lafontaine to have a seat in the assembly in 1841 and for Baldwin to win the by-election in 1843.

On 3 September 1841, the Children of Peace held a campaign rally for Baldwin and LaFontaine in their Temple, where they rejoiced "to say that we have it in our power to show our impartial respect to the Canadian people of the Lower Province." Despite threats of Orange Order violence, LaFontaine was elected as representative of 4th York. [17]

However, before LaFontaine could take up his seat, Governor Sydenham died. His replacement, Sir Charles Bagot, was not able to form a mixed cabinet of Reformers and Tories, and so he was forced to include the "Canadien party" under LaFontaine. LaFontaine refused to join the Executive Council unless Baldwin was also included. Bagot was finally forced to accede in September 1842, and when he became severely ill thereafter, Baldwin and Lafontaine became the first real premiers of the Province of Canada. [18] However, to take office as ministers, the two had to run for re-election. While LaFontaine was easily re-elected in 4th York, Baldwin lost his seat in Hastings as a result of Orange Order violence. It was now that the pact between the two men was completely solidified, as LaFontaine arranged for Baldwin to run in Rimouski, a constituency in a heavily francophone area of Canada East. This was the union of the Canadas they sought, where LaFontaine overcame linguistic prejudice to gain a seat in English Canada, and Baldwin obtained his seat in French Canada. [19]

Metcalfe and the Reform Association of Canada

Lord Charles Metcalfe Charles Theophilus Metcalfe, 1st Baron Metcalfe by George Chinnery.jpg
Lord Charles Metcalfe
The Second Meeting House, Sharon, where the Reform Association met June, 1844. Second Meeting House.jpg
The Second Meeting House, Sharon, where the Reform Association met June, 1844.

The Baldwin-LaFontaine ministry barely lasted six months before Governor Bagot also died in March 1843. He was replaced with Sir Charles Metcalfe, whose instructions were to check the "radical" reform government. The relationship between Baldwin and Metcalfe soured over Baldwin's Secret Societies Bill, which sought to outlaw the Orange Order and its political violence. Metcalfe rejected the legislation and then began appointing his supporters to patronage positions without Baldwin and LaFontaine's approval. They resigned in November 1843, beginning a constitutional crisis that would last a year. This year-long crisis, in which the legislature was prorogued, “was the final signpost on Upper Canada's conceptual road to democracy. Lacking the scale of the American Revolution, it nonetheless forced a comparable articulation and rethinking of the basics of political dialogue in the province.” [20]

During the year-long crisis, Metcalfe was to champion the Sydenham system and its conceptions of a limited, liberal capitalist government accountable to the imperial state, not the local Assembly; he continued to govern, demonstrating the irrelevance of Parliament. Baldwin now established a “Reform Association” in February 1844, to unite the Reform movement in Canada West to explain their understanding of responsible government before the expected election. Twenty-two branches were established. A grand meeting of all branches of the Reform Association was held in the Second Meeting House of the Children of Peace in Sharon. It was ultimately to serve as the springboard for Baldwin's successful candidacy in 4th York. Baldwin had been at a loss about where to run after his loss in Hastings. Orange mobs continued to rule out any chance in Hastings, or in 2nd York, where he had lost to Orange leader George Duggan. LaFontaine, in yet another act of friendship, gave up his seat representing 4th York, thus allowing the desperate Baldwin to run there. David Willson, having arranged for the Reform Association rally during the illumination ceremony, now became Baldwin's campaign manager. It was reported that over three thousand people attended this June rally for Baldwin. [21]

Responsible Government achieved

Joseph Legare, The Burning of the Parliament Building in Montreal, 1849 Incendie Parlement Montreal.jpg
Joseph Légaré, The Burning of the Parliament Building in Montreal, 1849

At the general election which followed, the Governor-General was sustained by a narrow majority. The year-long political crisis had, however, made it clear that responsible government was inevitable; even the old Compact Tories, now reshaped into an incipient conservative party, demanded some form of responsible government. [22] Metcalfe continued to govern until struck down by illness in 1846. The new Governor-General, Lord Elgin, was sent out specifically to acknowledge responsible government in the Canadas. In 1848 the Reformers were again returned to power, and Baldwin and Lafontaine formed their second administration on March 11 and carried numerous important reforms, including the Amnesty Act which offered pardons to all those involved in the Rebellions of 1837–8, the creation of a secular University of Toronto, and the introduction of municipal government. Their bravest achievement was to shepherd the Rebellion Losses Bill through Parliament in 1849. It sparked Orange riots, and the burning of the Parliament buildings as much of Europe was similarly engulfed in a wave of republican revolutions and counter-revolutions.

Reform transformed

The Baldwinite reformers were not a political party. With their primary aim achieved, the center could no longer hold. Internal dissensions soon began to appear, and in 1851 Baldwin resigned. The special struggle leading to his resignation was an attempt to abolish the Court of Chancery of Upper Canada, whose constitution was due to a measure introduced by Baldwin in 1849. The attempt, though defeated, had been supported by a majority of the representatives from Upper Canada, and Baldwin's fastidious conscience took it as a vote of confidence. A deeper reason was his inability to approve of the advanced views of the Radicals, or "Clear Grits," as they came to be called. On seeking re-election in York, he declined to give any pledge on the burning question of the Clergy Reserves and was defeated. In 1853 the Liberal-Conservative party, formed in 1854 by a coalition, attempted to bring him out as a candidate for the upper house, which was at this date elective. Though he had broken with the advanced reformers, Baldwin could not approve of the tactics of their opponents and refused to stand.

He died on 9 December 1858 in Spadina aged 54. Even those who most strongly opposed his measures admitted the purity and unselfishness of his motives. After the concession of responsible government, he devoted himself to bringing about a good understanding between the English and French-speaking inhabitants of Canada, and his memory is held as dear among the French Canadians as in his native province of Ontario.


John Ralston Saul pointed out in the inaugural LaFontaine-Baldwin symposium, that “we have killed in political strife among ourselves less than a hundred citizens – most of them on a single day at Batoche,” Saskatchewan, during the Riel Rebellion. “The first measure of any citizen-based culture” he adds, “must not be its rhetoric or myths or leaders or laws but how few of its citizens it kills.” This non-violent tradition we owe to Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, who refused to abandon principle, and who walked away from retribution. [23]

Baldwin Steps, a series of stairs from his father's Spadina House at Austin Terrace to Davenport Road, is named after Baldwin.

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  1. Saul 1997, pp. 65–66.
  2. Patterson 1989, pp. 174–191.
  3. Morgan 1903, p. 21.
  4. Smith 1995, pp. 48–49.
  5. Patterson 1989, pp. 186–187.
  6. Romney 1999, pp. 50–51.
  7. Romney 1999, pp. 61–65.
  8. Whebell 1989, p. 194.
  9. White 2001, p. 134.
  10. Saul 2010, pp. 42–45.
  11. Saul 2010, pp. 55–56.
  12. Saul 2010, pp. 57–59.
  13. Stagg 1985, p. xlvi.
  14. Schrauwers 2009, pp. 216–220.
  15. Schrauwers 2009, pp. 226–227.
  16. Saul 2010, pp. 122–123.
  17. Schrauwers 2009, pp. 229–233.
  18. Saul 2010, pp. 130–133.
  19. Saul 2010, pp. 134–135.
  20. McNairn 2000, p. 237.
  21. Schrauwers 2009, pp. 239–240.
  22. Careless 1967, p. 95.
  23. Saul 2006, p. 10.

Further reading

Robert Baldwin
Joint Premier of Province of Canada, for Canada West
In office
Political offices
Preceded by Joint Premiers of the Province of Canada - Canada West
Succeeded by
Party political offices
Preceded by
Leader of the Reform Party of Upper Canada
Succeeded by
George Brown
as de facto leader of the Liberal Party of Canada