Tag Archives: Upper Canada

A historian’s nightmare


390p , 1979

On my shelf there are two books that I have borrowed about William Lyon Mackenzie.  I pick up the first one, The Firebrand and check out the publication date- 1956.  I pick up the second one William Lyon Mackenzie: A Reinterpretation, thinking from the title that it would probably be the more recent book.  Ah, but I’d be wrong.  Although it was published in 1979 for the first time, the text itself was written seventy-one years earlier.  And in this case, the story about this book and its troubled publication history is probably even more interesting for a 21st historian on the other side of the world, than the book itself.

A household name in one country can be greeted with a quizzical “Who??” in another.   William Lyon Mackenzie (1795-1861) is such a person.  Newspaper editor, entrepreneur, and controversial politician, he was one of the leaders of the rather disorganized and immediately suppressed Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837  (although he escaped fairly lightly compared with the rebels he led, many of whom were transported to Australia as Tony Moore’s recent book- review here-  explains).  Particularly for Canadian schoolchildren, in a historiography  that can seem (like Australia’s)  rather, well, bland, the rebellion and William Lyon Mackenzie stand out as flashpoints, rather like Peter Lalor and the Eureka Stockade might stand out in Australia’s similarly ‘colourless’ schoolroom historiography.

The first book about William Lyon Mackenzie was a two-volume ‘official’ biography written by his son-in-law Charles Lindsey and published within a year of Mackenzie’s death. As might be expected, it was a highly laudatory appraisal and set the scene for Mackenzie to be embraced as the Father of the Upper Canada Rebellion and Founding Figure of Canadian Democracy.

When, in the early 1900s,  Toronto publisher George Morang embarked on his multivolume biographical work ‘Makers of Canada Series’ to celebrate the makers of Canada’s national and independent  history (with none of that servile backward-looking Colonial stuff) Mackenzie was a shoo-in.  But William Dawson LeSueur was not originally approached to write the Mackenzie volume.  Instead, as a  recently-retired prolific essayist and historian, he was asked to review the Mackenzie biography that was originally commissioned for the Makers of Canada series.   On LeSueur’s advice, the manuscript was rejected.  Publisher George Morang asked LeSueur to take up the challenge, but he refused.  It was only when the replacement biography fell through that LeSueur was contracted for the job, commencing in 1905 .

LeSueur contacted Mackenzie’s son-in-law, Charles Lindsey (who had written the very first biography) and arranged to have access to the Mackenzie Papers in the Lindsey home- in fact, he was invited to stay at the house to work on them.  LeSueur told Lindsey that he was writing the biography for the Makers of Canada series, but did not mention that he had been responsible for the rejection of the first manuscript.  Some family members were concerned that LeSueur was rumoured to be ‘a Tory’ and were concerned that the new biography would tarnish the reputation of their much-lauded forebear.  Most concerned of all was Mackenzie’s grandson and up-and-coming politician Dr William Lyon Mackenzie King who was at the time the Minister for Labour and would just happen to end up Prime Minister. Given the family’s misgivings,  LeSueur offered to withdraw, but Morang encouraged him to keep writing.

But having handed over the single longhand manuscript, Morang rejected it.  LeSueur was keen to recover his manuscript and offered to return the $500 cash advance he had received during the two years it took him to write it.  Morang refused his offer and insisted on keeping the manuscript.  Charles Lindsey had died by this time, but his son asked LeSueur to return all the Mackenzie papers he had in his possession, which LeSueur did, but he refused to hand over his own notes.

And so the matter headed into the courts.  The first case involved LeSueur’s attempt to recover his manuscript from Morang.  Morang’s lawyers argued that because he had purchased the manuscript, property had passed to him and he could use it or not as he pleased.  The case finally ended up in the Supreme Court which found for LeSueur on the grounds that where the inducement to write a book was both pecuniary and reputational (because it was based on the prospect of publication), the mere payment of the money without publication could not convey a title to the possession of the work.  An appeal was unsuccessful. So, after three and half years, LeSueur regained his manuscript.

But then the Lindsey family sought an injunction to stop LeSueur using any of the family materials that they had made available to him, arguing that he had breached their confidence when they gave him access to the papers. There was much argument over the distinction between an ‘agreement’ and a ‘contract’ to write a fair and balanced biography.  LeSueur was ordered to hand over any papers and any extracts or copies that he had made in his own notes.  He was prevented from publishing or making public any information he had gleaned from those papers.  That’s an interesting thought for a historian. How, having read something, do you then separate out one particular idea from the whole general picture that you’ve developed?

In 1915 LeSueur rewrote the book, citing other readily available sources to support the same argument that he had mounted in the original book.  He wrote a lengthy preface, putting his side of the controversy.  This revised book and its preface, however, were never published- and remained unpublished until A. B. McKillop published Willian Lyon Mackenzie: A Re-interpretation in 1979 with his own foreword, LeSueur’s preface to the 1915 expurgated text and the original 1907 manuscript.

As for the book itself?  Yes, it certainly does challenge the Mackenzie-as-Hero characterization, and argues that the Canadian Rebellion would have occurred without him- and that, in fact, his actions cruelled it. I find it quite amazing that a family could have stopped publication of what, to me now, reads as a historical argument rather than a warts-and-all biography.

I must confess that while I’m aware of the ‘fair dealing’ approach for research and study purposes here in Australia, I haven’t really thought (or been encouraged to think) about the legal ramifications of dealing with primary documents.  Interesting, too, given that with the current push to have universities place theses online blurs the line between ‘research’ and ‘publication’ even more.

If you have a look at the articles I’ve listed below, it’s quite sobering what a law court in America could do to the writing of history/biography if a published biography ended up there.  The distinction between fact and expression, a narrow definition of ‘fair use’ for unpublished materials, privacy issues– is there any scope for primary source, critical biography at all? I have read Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman and been aware of biographer/family tensions over recently deceased biographical subjects, but reading these articles is rather chilling.  If you have a library registration that allows access to academic databases, you can find out more in these very legalistic, American-law articles:

Harvey, Cameron, and Linda Vincent. “MacKenzie and LeSueur: Historians’ Rights.” Manitoba. Law Journal  10 (1979): 281.

Bilder, Mary Sarah. “The Shrinking Back: The Law of Biography.” Stanford Law Review (1991): 299-360.

‘Muddy York Mud: Scandal and Scurrility in Upper Canada’ by Chris Raible


1992,  272 pages including appendix.

I came across this book just as I was about to go to Canada in 2011 to research the Upper Canada period of ‘my’ Judge Willis‘ career.  I began reading it and became increasingly excited that it captures the small-town, censorious attitude of a small Canadian outpost of Britishness in the 1820s so well. No wonder an English judge, full of his own importance, fell foul of this intermarried web of government officials!  But then there were bags to pack and planes to catch, and I didn’t finish it. I’ve just returned to reading it, some three years later, and almost at the end of my first draft instead of dabbling around in the shallows of my early research.   On this second and now completed reading, it doesn’t so much open up new areas (thank goodness, I must say), but it does confirm and add colour to the context of 1820s York (Toronto) in a highly readable and informed manner.

The central event of this book is what has come to be known as the Types Riot.  Late on the summer afternoon of 8 June 1826, when the editor of the Colonial Advocate newspaper was away, nine young  ‘gentlemen’ smashed their way into the newspaper office, emptied the type cases from their cabinets, strewed fully made-up printing frames across the office, then carried type cases across the road, along the wharf,  and threw them into the bay.  They were not drunk; they made no attempt to disguise themselves and they were watched without intervention by several bystanders, including two magistrates.

The argument of this book is that there is a direct link between the Types Riot and a series of satirical articles published some weeks earlier  in the Colonial Advocate known collectively as the Patrick Swift commentaries.  These articles, published at very great length over several issues, were a fictitious report entitled ‘A faithful account of the proceedings at a general meeting of the contributors to the Advocate, held in Macdonnell’s Parlour on the evening of Monday, May 1st 1826’.  These ‘contributors’ were ostensibly gathered to select a new editor for the Advocate as, supposedly, the present editor, William Lyon Mackenzie, had resigned.  ‘Patrick Swift’, [described as “a grand nephew of the famous Doctor Johnathan Swift, Dean of St Patrick’s in Dublin” and the author of Gulliver’s Travels]  was selected. The ‘report’ described the debate and ribald comments of this drunken group of fictional characters.

In this way, ventriloquizing through the fictional ‘Patrick Swift’, the real-life editor of the Colonial Advocate, William Lyon Mackenzie launched on a tirade against the pretences of the Upper Canada ‘gentry’. In a thirty page, small-font appendix to the book, Raible reproduces the commentaries, annotating them to identify the victims of the humour:  judges, lawyers, the attorney general, prominent clergymen and even the lieutenant-governor and his wife.

As Raible says:

The notorious “Patrick Swift” satires, published by William Lyon Mackenzie a few weeks before the Types Riot trashing of his Colonial Advocate printshop, contained a number of explicit barbs intended to prick the over-inflated egos of the members of the little York elite.  That he succeeded, and thereby provided a group of men with socially acceptable justification for acting out their personal grievances against the outspoken editor, has been a theme throughout this book. (p. 229)

In the short chapters of this book, Raible ranges chronologically and episodically over a number of grievances and scandals that led to and flowed from the Types Riot.   It’s not an easy task: many of the events occurred in geographically disparate locations, across a long period of time. Although by themselves they are trivial  and petty, together they add up to the abuse of power by a puffed-up and mutually distrustful clique with the levers of judicial power in their grasp.

Raible keeps the tone light, with no apparent historiographical framework. There are footnotes (called ‘Sources’) and a bibliography, but you’re certainly not aware of them while reading the book. There’s a tongue-in-mouth jocularity that runs through the book, and it reflects the rambunctious/nostalgic tone of the antiquarian books that have provided much of the source material.  For Australian readers, there’s definitely a touch of the ‘Garryowens’ about it.

‘A Biography of Robert Baldwin: The Morning-Star of Memory’ by Michael S. Cross


Michael S. Cross A Biography of Robert Baldwin: The Morning Star of Memory, 2012, 367 p & notes

The first chapter of this biography begins with a jolt. It opens a month after the main protagonist’s death, with four men gathered around his corpse: his son, his brother, his brother in law and a surgeon. The surgeon cut across the abdomen to replicate a caesarean scar, and Robert Baldwin’s final wish was complete. His wife had died from long-term complications of a caesarean twenty-three years earlier, and Robert Baldwin was now to meet her in heaven bearing the same scar.

This opening chapter sets the tone for this biography, which seeks to unite the personal and emotional with the political. Australian readers are probably not familiar with Robert Baldwin, who is lauded as one of the founding fathers of self-government and who, along with Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine, headed the Reform party in joint Anglo-Canadian governments in Canada between 1836 and 1851 . In Australia, with an overwhelmingly British 19th century population, we are not particularly alert to the nuances of an Upper Canadian politician championing the political equality of the French Lower Canadian province. It was a luxury of mono-culturalism that Canada did not share.  Conversely, our own historiographical emphasis on self-government (in, for example Peter Cochrane’s Colonial Ambition) tends to see Canada as an example to emulate as a more constitutionally-advanced sibling, rather than a fellow colony going through much the same battles with the Colonial Office within the same time frame.

Robert Baldwin was born in Upper Canada in 1804. His father, Dr. William Warren Baldwin was one of those multi-talented colonial gentlemen who combined a career as medical doctor, school teacher, attorney and politician. W.W. Baldwin was wealthy, forthright and dominant, and Robert was very much in his father’s shadow. He was admitted to the bar and was eventually elected to  the Assembly, but he was no orator, often speaking in barely a whisper.  He married his cousin Eliza, initially against the wishes of his family, and was heart-broken when she died nine years later. Even though he had chafed against his father as a son, he became very much like him with his own children: critical, cold and domineering.

The author, Michael Cross, keeps the emphasis strongly on the psychological and emotional aspects of Robert’s personality. He was a son overwhelmed by the dominant presence of his father; he was prone to depression; he loved deeply and mourned obsessively. Each chapter begins with an italicized and imagined epigraph that counts down the years since Eliza’s death.

The triumph that the first Reform government had seemed to represent was melting away. He was beset on all sides as death had gain reached out and into the family. Only in memory could he find relief. Eliza had been dead for eight years. It was April 1844 (p.158)

Or another one:

It would be prudent and fitting to stop here, now that responsible government was accomplished. Little more was needed than to fill up the great achievement with the few institutions of national culture that would complete it. How proud Eliza would be. She had been dead nearly twelve years. (p. 230)

I can see what Cross is doing here, chapter after chapter, (using Eliza as a touchstone; using Eliza’s death as a tethering-point to the chronology) but it does become rather contrived and mawkish. He makes a good case for this extended grieving for Eliza being a bedrock emotion, fundamental to Baldwin’s personality, by keeping it running throughout the narrative, rather than consigning it to an early chapter and not referring to it again. But I think I would have appreciated a widening of context here. To our eyes his obsession with Eliza’s death seems morbid and bordering on phobic. Was it? I’ve been aware of similar, disabling, obsessive grief expressed by fathers in World War I- was that a new phenomenon or was there an older tradition of overwhelming masculine grief? Was Baldwin’s grief another (albeit earlier) version of that exemplified by Queen Victoria in 1861? Or was it aberrant even at the time?

Alongside this ongoing drum-beat of Baldwin’s emotional and psychological state, Cross writes a political biography that traverses many of the big issues of 19th century Canadian history: the 1837 Rebellion, the Durham report, the Montreal Riots of 1849, Irish immigration after the famine and the rise of the Clear Grits. I must admit that most of my reading about Upper Canada has petered out at 1841 with the Act of Union that combined largely- English Upper Canada with largely-French Lower Canada, but I was able to follow the political narrative fairly easily (if uncritically).

As an Australian historian, I’m interested that in the lead up to responsible government, Baldwin was so comfortable with what we would call party politics. In Australia at the time, there was still an aversion to ‘party’ as being something disreputable and compromising.

I have the advantage, I suppose, of familiarity with both Canadian and Australian history of the time that enables me to detect the empire-wide issues that each government had to grapple with. I found myself surprised that Canada was not, as I had believed, constitutionally streets ahead of New South Wales, which still felt itself hampered by its ‘penal colony’ origins. Instead, politicians in both colonies were tussling with the same Colonial Office personnel who had far more of an empire-wide perspective than can be detected when dealing with one colony alone.

I came across Robert Baldwin in my own work through his friendship with my research interest, John Walpole Willis. Cross does not spend a great deal of time on the 1820s, which preceded Baldwin’s election to the Assembly, although Willis’ dismissal became a rallying cause to the reform-party dominated government in the early 1830s.  The chronological weaving of this book is interesting and unconventional, with the 1837 Rebellion dealt with rather cursorily at first, but referred to several times in retrospect in later chapters.

Willis did not appear to make many firm friends in his life.  In Upper Canada, his main friendships seemed to be with John Galt and Robert Baldwin,  although Willis tended to downplay his social connection with Baldwin later. Although of a similar social background and education to the ‘Family Compact’ elite, Robert’s politics put him firmly in the Reform camp, and his actions as a barrister in Willis’ courtroom during his brief tenure in Upper Canada, meant that they were both oriented towards the same political direction. I was interested to see whether there was a similarity in political beliefs between the two men beyond the convenience of a common cause at the time. There probably was. Although Baldwin was staunchly in favour of responsible government, and devoted his whole political career to its attainment, he was no democrat. He was firmly committed to British institutions and declared that he hoped to die a British subject (p. 314). Like many of the British reform politicians who had supported the 1832 Reform Bill, he found that his Upper Canadian colleagues were not content to stop at responsible government, but wanted to push further.   He wanted change, but not rapid change; he wanted popular participation but not democracy, and he wanted to preserve the best of the gentry-dominated past (p. 284).

I find myself indulging in a flight of–‘if history’. If Willis had stayed in Upper Canada, would he have gone on to voice many of the political opinions that Baldwin later did? I suspect that he would have.