Historicist: Robert Responsible Government
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Historicist: Robert Responsible Government

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

Robert Baldwin by Thomas Waterman Wood, 1855, from the National Portrait Gallery (U.K.).

In the name of reform, nineteenth-century politician Robert Baldwin was a thorn in the side of more than one governor of Upper Canada. As a result, he has been called a lot of names. One governor, Lord Sydenham, dubbed him “the most crotchety impracticable enthusiast I have ever had to deal with.” Another called him “such an ass.” Neither seems especially fitting given that Baldwin always carried himself with an impeccable, gentlemanly demeanour in his dogged efforts to undercut the governor’s power to govern without need to consult with the local parliament.
Historian Donald Creighton later coined a more suitable epithet, Robert Responsible Government, in deference to Baldwin’s greatest achievement. The architect of Responsible Government, John Barber writes in his contribution to Toronto: A City Becoming (Key Porter, 2008), “transformed his own city, province, and nation, ultimately helping to free millions of disenfranchised people in Canada and throughout the world.” The principle allowed the eventual dissolution of the British Empire through peaceful political reform. Despite his monumental contribution to the British political tradition, Baldwin was a deeply troubled man, and is a virtually unknown member of the Canadian pantheon.

Robert Baldwin was born on May 12, 1804, to Margaret Phoebe Willcocks and William Warren Baldwin, a doctor turned lawyer who immigrated to York, Upper Canada, from Ireland in 1798. Baldwin enjoyed a privileged youth, but his parents—especially his mother, whom Baldwin once characterized as “the master mind of our family”—inculcated in him strength of character and a sense of duty.
In personality, Baldwin was shy and withdrawn, and prone to bouts of depression. Baldwin was “a man of unsuspected passions, fervidly romantic,” Michael S. Scott and Robert L. Fraser wrote in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, and one who idealized women and sought “perfect love.” He turned to poetry to deal with his emotions. His compositions and correspondence with one of his few friends reveal his melancholia and were a harbinger of the private demons he would never quite escape.

Image of Robert Baldwin from the WikiMedia Commons.

In 1820, he began training in his father’s law practice and was called to the Bar in 1825. That same year he found an antidote for his anxieties in Eliza Sullivan, a first cousin who was only fifteen when he started courting her in 1825. During a year-long separation—for her disapproving family had secluded her in New York—he wrote to her, revealing his inner most thoughts, anxieties, and his “fear of professional failure.” As he established himself in his profession, Baldwin once wrote confessing his “horror of not rising above mediocrity.” The couple was married after her return to Toronto, on May 31, 1827.
Baldwin’s reputation in legal circles grew and his practice thrived. He often closely collaborated on cases with his father and John Rolph, two of the leading reform-minded critics of the colony’s administration. Despite his active dislike of politics, Baldwin willingly accepted his responsibility to serve—as befit his station in life—out of his Christian sense of duty.
He was elected to sit in the Parliament of Upper Canada in a December 1829 byelection. In the House, he regularly participated in debates and chaired several committees, but because he was not a natural politician, he was not a charismatic or dominant figure. A poor speaker, his speeches were said to be barely audible but, as his stature grew, the respect he commanded ensured that silence fell over the usually tumultuous assembly whenever he rose to speak. Nor did his physical presence—with pallid skin and expressionless eyes—suggest leadership qualities. A tall man who slouched, Baldwin seemed shorter and heavier than he was.
His stature resulted from his strength of character and embodiment of the gentlemanly code—of honour, duty, and principle—then prevalent in the pre-industrial colony. “Baldwin lived the rhetoric of his times,” Cross and Fraser wrote, “he was a gentleman, morally courageous, utterly genuine in his willingness to sacrifice his interests to those of the institutions he revered—the constitution, the law, the church, property, and the family.” Although he was a poor political organizer, Baldwin became an indispensable leader of the Reform movement. His gentlemanly status and impeccable reputation made him harder for authorities to ignore than a piss-and-vinegar firebrand like William Lyon Mackenzie—whom Baldwin reviled.
His political beliefs were essentially Whiggish and reflected his commitment to the values of the land-owning class. A constant undercurrent of his political career was his advocacy of Responsible Government—a belief inherited from his father. At this time, the Governor General, the head of the executive branch, was accountable only to the Crown. He had the power to make policy decisions and partisan appointments to courts or the civil service without consultation with anyone (even his own hand-selected Executive Council). He could also effectively set aside or ignore any legislation from the local parliament that the Crown disagreed with. Although largely benevolent in the exercise of power, the governor ensured Crown interests superceded local Canadian interests in the conduct of government. The principle of Responsible Government sought to retain the imperial governor—and British connection—but make him exclusively accountable to the elected assembly. Seemingly minor disagreements with the governor, therefore, were magnified through this lens as an abuse of power that ignored the will of the legislative assembly. And Baldwin turned debates on every topic into discussions of Responsible Government.
Baldwin ascended the ranks of government with great reluctance. He twice refused Governor Sir Francis Bond Head’s invitation to join the Executive Council (essentially the cabinet of its day, but serving at the discretion of the governor) before eventually accepting the appointment. But Baldwin resigned less than three weeks later—along with the rest of the Executive Council—when Bond Head refused to consult them. It was a pattern that would repeat itself throughout his political career; whenever he felt he would need to compromise his convictions—even slightly—to remain in office, he resigned.
His resignation and the death of his wife in January 1836—an event that would affect his mental health for the rest of his life—prompted Baldwin to spend a year abroad just as the embers of revolution were being blown into full flame. Above all a moderate, Baldwin played no active role in the Rebellions of 1837-38, but he was one of the few willing to defend the rebels in court.

Photo of the Baldwin-Lafontaine Monument on Parliament Hill, Ottawa, by dugspr from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Afterward, Baldwin and his father met privately with Lord Durham—who had been sent by the Crown to sort out a solution to the grievances of the Rebellions—during his 1838 Toronto visit. This meeting, and Baldwin’s subsequent correspondence, was instrumental in convincing Durham to recommend the principle of Responsible Government be adopted in Canada.
In 1840, Baldwin was sought out by Lord Sydenham, the new governor, to join the Executive Council as solicitor general. Baldwin accepted but resigned soon afterward over a question of Responsible Government in 1841. He took exception to the governor’s refusal to appoint a fair number of French Canadians to cabinet, despite the fact that Upper and Lower Canada were now united—as per Lord Durham’s second major recommendation. Perhaps the earliest proponent of Canada as a bicultural country giving equal importance to French and English, Baldwin was embarrassed at being unilingual so he sent all his children to be schooled in Lower Canada.
Baldwin’s closest political alliance was forged with Sir Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine, a Lower Canada reformer of similar political ideals who helped Baldwin build support for reform from the opposition benches. In 1842, the two formed an administration to become, in essence, the first real premiers of a united Canada. They were ostensibly co-leaders of equal stature, but Baldwin willingly receded a step to concentrate on duties as attorney general. Around this time, his debilitating depressive illness began to re-appear, and he would seek solace in solitude away from the hub-bub of political activity. The government resigned en masse in November 1843, when the governor refused to consult his cabinet before making partisan appointments.
In the general election of 1848, supporters of Baldwin and Lafontaine won such a majority of seats that by turning the passage of the Speech from the Throne into a vote of non-confidence, they prompted the resignation of the Executive Council. Appointed as replacements, Baldwin and Lafontaine formed their second administration—often called the Great Ministry—and would remain in power until 1851. Over his career, Baldwin also had a hand in establishing the system of municipal government, reforming the school system, and founding the University of Toronto as a non-denominational institution.
The Great Ministry’s greatest achievement was the passage of the Rebellion Losses Bill, which granted a general amnesty to the rebels of the 1837-38 and compensated those who had suffered financial losses in the rebellions. The Crown opposed it. The governor, Lord Elgin, opposed it. And many in Canada opposed it. When it passed, riots occurred across the province, and Baldwin’s lodgings in the capital of Montreal were attacked. But the moment Elgin signed the bill into law marked the moment that Responsible Government in practice arrived in Canada. The culmination of a generation-long, but unglamourous struggle, it was, in Barber’s words, “an epochal gesture of conciliation that secured Canadian democracy.”
The second Baldwin-Lafontaine administration came at a tumultuous time. The colony was in the grips of an economic depression; the annexation movement was rising to prominence; Baldwin’s land-owning class were being surpassed in the new capitalist age; and, more radical reformers, the Clear Grits, grew increasingly powerful as Baldwin’s star faded. Faced with criticism over the judicial reforms he’d initiated, Baldwin resigned from office in an emotionally charged speech given with tears running down his face in June 1851.
Out of office, his mental health deteriorated. He had never recovered from his wife’s death. Now his continued veneration turned ritualistic, with their anniversary and the date of her death observed annually. Her room was preserved exactly as she’d left it, becoming a shrine to which Baldwin would retire to read and re-read her letters. He always carried some of the same on his person, just in case he died away from home. Severe depression precipitated further health problems, and by his death in December 1858 he was likely deranged. Few at his well-attended funeral likely suspected, but his undying love for his lost wife took a final, bizarre turn with his dying request that his body be surgically scarred just as she had been scarred by a caesarean in the childbirth that led to her death.
Robert Baldwin’s reluctant but duty-bound excursion into politics and his hard-fought stuggle for reform on the imperial margins transformed his country and the British Empire by providing the blueprint for achieving political reform through conciliation rather than conflict. For his affection and cooperation with French Canadians, Baldwin remains revered in Quebec, and he is immortalized in stone on Parliament Hill. But in a city that mythologizes Mackenzie, a dangerous, erratic, almost comical jackass, one who achieved actual, far-reaching reform is barely remembered. Baldwin is little commemorated in his hometown—apart from the street that bears the family’s name and a couple schools in the suburbs. His greatest legacy here is perhaps his most intangible. As “the original genius of Toronto’s indigenous liberalism,” Barber argues, Baldwin provided a strain of “muscular liberalism” that subtly permeated the city’s political consciousness until, over the course of generations, Tory Toronto transformed into today’s multicultural metropolis.