If you took a close look at Robert Baldwin as a man, it might surprise you to think of the amount of change for the good he brought to Canada in our Pre-Confederation history. And while I have encountered many exciting figures throughout this project, I took time to look at each one as a human. Each one presented not as a hero, but as a human complete with their flaws. None stood out to me more than Baldwin. Baldwin had the chance to have all the power he wanted, yet he did not wish to power for his gain but to put government power into the hands of the people which is where it belonged in the new order. Born the 12th of May 1804 in York (Toronto) the eldest son of noted Lawyer, Architect and Doctor William Warren Baldwin and Margaret Wilcocks. Robert existed in a world just below the upper crust of York society a cadre of families made up of the Baldwins, Wilcocks, and Sullivans. While remaining outside the colonial elites of the Family Compact, they were among the respected families in the city. As a child, Robert proved emotional and often suffered illness, both physical and mental. His mother and father instructed him on the core values as an upstanding citizen value of respect and duty. William ensured that Robert would get the best education and sent him to study under Reverend John Strachan until 1820, where he joined his Father’s law firm to continue to study towards becoming a lawyer.
Five years after entering his father’s law firm would be a year of note in Robert’s life. First and to him foremost he would meet the woman who finally captured his heart, Augusta Elizabeth Sullivan, his first cousin. The two would fall madly in love; their family’s fearing that it would distract Robert from passing the bar exam took Elizabeth to stay in the United States. The separation did not stop the two from staying in touch, each writing to the other always. But it did give Robert the focus needed to pass the exam on the 20th of June 1825. William proudly presented his son before the Upper Canada Law Society. And while Robert held onto his emotions, he told only his beloved Eliza of both his pride mixed with fear of failure. Despite this fear, Robert proved a competent lawyer. He spoke slowly and quietly often in a halting manner. But he worked well with other lawyers such as his father and John Rolph. His close ties to both men brought him into the fold of the growing reform movement, he learned of the Responsible Government model and quickly became a close supporter. However, he had no intentions of running for public office. Quickly earning the reputation of a fair and honest lawyer, Robert caught the attention of his old teacher, Reverand Strachan. The rector of York and mastermind of the Family Compact saw the young up-and-coming lawyer and made him the offer to support his being called to the English Bar by studying at Lincoln Inn, the same offer that had been made and accepted by John Beverly Robinson. But knowing that his Eliza would be returning soon, he refused the offer. The formal courtship would last a year, and on the 31st of May 1827, the two would marry. Robert’s work continued to thrive, and he continued to work closely with men like his father, John Rolph and his new father-in-law, Robert Baldwin Sullivan. But his first thought continued to rest on Eliza, who like himself tended to be sickly especially when she was pregnant.
Robert did his best to avoid being entangled in the growing roughness of Provincial Politics he direct connection to many reformers made his entrance into the Legislative Assembly more a matter of when than if. In 1829 he won a byelection in the 2nd York District on a reform platform. Like other reformers, he began to speak about the adoption of responsible government claiming it was possible within the 1791 Constitution Act. He often spoke out against Governor Maitland, but in taking his duties as a public officer, he maintained a respectful attitude towards the head of the government. He sat on several committees which brought him into contact with another reformer, William Lyon MacKenzie, who had begun a more radical vision of reform. Despite being well-spoken, he never dominated the conversation, unlike MacKenzie. The death of King George IV forced Parliament to dissolve and elections called. Robert stood for 2nd York but defeated by William Jarvis, who was both a Tory and had ties to the Family Compact. Despite his departure, his short tenure in the Assembly and his professional practice earned him a great deal of respect. Sir John Colborne recommended Robert for a post on the Legislative Council, which never materialised due to Compact control. When Sir Francis Bond-Head stood for appointment as the new governor, Robert would be among those who were chosen to speak at Bond-Head’s arrival. But Robert’s mind was on his ill wife who after the birth of their fourth child had fallen deathly ill, and had returned to New York to recover, but never did and shortly before the governor’s arrival died. Robert fell into a deep depression which did not help the fact that Bond-Head requested him to sit on his Executive Council. Despite his connection to the reform movement, Bond-Head saw Robert as a strong moral compass. Robert would turn Bond-Head down, but the governor persisted. Robert’s reason for refusal sat directly with his moral belief that he could not sit on the same council of men who he had spoken ill of (privately). But after much discussion with his father and John Rolph he accepted the governor’s second invitation. Baldwin would use his position to speak to the cause of Reform, only to clash with Bond-Head, it became clear the new Governor’s presentation as a Liberal Reformer had all been a sham. Robert met quickly with fellow councillors, and all agreed to resign in protest, and Robert headed for England returning in early 1837 and stayed out of the public eye, seeing how the reform movement under MacKenzie had radicalised, and the province surged towards open rebellion. The only part he played was to be a part of Bond-Head’s truce party in the days leading up to the battle of Montgomery’s Tavern in December.
Throughout the early months of 1838, Baldwin had used his skill as a lawyer to defend many who stood trial for their participation in the rebellion, but the arrival of John Lambton buoyed hope among the moderate reformers. Lambton, unlike Bond-Head, proved himself an able reformer, taking the nickname of Radical Jack due to his role in pushing through the 1832 Reform Act and his extreme views towards the middle class and their involvement in the government. Baldwin spoke to Lord Durham on many occasions speaking mostly of responsible government along with fellow reformer Francis Hincks. In his report, Durham did recommend some limited form of responsible government be granted. But the Colonial Office, Parliament, and the new Governor, Sir Charles Thompson Lord Sydenham had other ideas. Sydenham believed in reasonable government, a limited cabinet rule where he (Sydenham) chose who could sit on the Council, he also began to court moderates from the conservatives and reformers to form a middle party. But he feared that Baldwin’s presence in the Assembly could harm his goals of repressing major reform, offering Baldwin the position of Solicitor General. But Baldwin had it in his mind to force his idea and refused to accept until he won a seat in the assembly. But he soon found himself facing resistance in his old district of 2nd York due to the Orange Order. He divided his options and ran for two districts, 4th York and Hastings, winning in both. Hincks would approach the reformers in Canada West with a new idea, unifying the reform movements in both Canada East and Canada West after reading an article written by a French reformer, Louis-Hypolite La Fontaine. La Fontaine faced a great deal of trouble in his home district in Canada East due to electoral violence from the Orange Order and gerrymandering from Lord Sydenham. Upon reading La Fontaine’s address, he recognised the call for responsible government and resigned his post in 4th York allowing La Fontaine to run in Canada West, winning the seat easily with the help of Hincks, Baldwin, and David Wilson of the Children of Peace. The reformers would not win a majority, but they held the conservatives under Henry Draper to a minority that even Sydenham would be forced to include them in the cabinet to form a government. Sydenham initially opposed the inclusion of the French-Canadian reformers, but under pressure from both Draper and Baldwin, he extended cabinet posts to La Fontaine. Before the government could even sit Sydenham died, and in the new elections the reformers took power and again the new governor, Sir Charles Baggot who initially resisted the inclusion of reformers had to give in to form a legitimate government. Both Baldwin and La Fontaine would be appointed as co-premieres. But Baggot’s age and illness kept him away from the work of government leaving the two men a free hand in building the new ministry. While Baggot would also die, the Colonial Office infuriated by his compromise appointed Sir Charles Metcalfe to put an end to the movement of the reformers.
Rather than try and fight Metcalfe, Baldwin and Hincks decided to show how well the responsible government model worked. Baldwin was clear to his fellow councillors that they should not speak ill of Metcalfe. Baldwin openly invited him to see the excellent work being done by the reformers. Despite the softer approach, Metcalfe saw Baldwin as inflexible, intolerable and fantastical. And while he did not dissolve the government, instead he waited for the right moment. When Baldwin approached the governor to speak out against electoral violence from the Orange Order, Metcalfe returned with the desire to have a formal law written to ban such groups from influencing elections. Baldwin agreed and with the help of Hincks began to draft the bill, on the day it stood for debate in the assembly the Orange Order burned Baldwin and Hincks in effigy in front of Baldwin’s Toronto home. And while the bill passed the Assembly, Metcalfe refused to sign the bill. A heated exchange ensued, and both Baldwin and La Fontaine resigned as Premiere, Baldwin out of principal, La Fontaine out of loyalty. Baldwin planned to retire from public life entirely if it had not been for the actions of Hincks, who despite having distanced himself, brought Baldwin back to a leadership role fearing that without his leadership reform would fail. Baldwin took a renewed look at things and decided to reorganise the movement, breaking past the ideas of racial and language divides and beyond political ideology. He spoke at great length on the subject, ensuring each member of the movement knew it chapter and verse. But when the elections came, a great deal of manipulation by Metcalfe saw a Conservative minority take control of the assembly. And while many would not return to the assembly, Baldwin was among the few who retook his spot in the assembly, and while he spoke as he always did, he took every chance to speak on reform, he made it makes sense, that to Metcalfe’s disgust even members of the ruling conservatives began to think as Baldwin did. The arrival of democracy and responsible government was now only a matter of when. In 1848 the first responsible governments started to show up in British North America, it seems even the colonial office had seen the light. When the 1848 elections returned the reformers to power and the arrival of Sir James Bruce Lord Elgin to grant Canada Responsible government, Lord Elgin would appoint Baldwin and La Fontaine as co-premieres. The two men got to work, Baldwin would work on two significant bills, the first would reform municipal governments to allow for a democratically elected council to all cities, towns, and villages in the province, the second would be an act to remove control of universities from the church, specifically King’s College in Toronto. Churches could reestablish their schools, but they took a secondary role to public universities. King’s College took on the new name of the University of Toronto. These bills met with some resistance but nothing compared to the opposition faced by La Fontaine’s Rebellion Losses Bill. Such a bill had passed in Canada West during the previous term, but it restricted repayments to only those who were loyalists. La Fontaine’s version for Canada East allowed for anyone to claim losses and seek compensation from the government. In the riots that followed the signing of all the bills into law, Baldwin would oversee the police response, he purposefully used the militia to defend government structures and guard the governor-general as well as La Fontaine and himself. He ordered the police to round up the rioters without the use of violence in return. In the aftermath, he continued this measured response and spoke out against Tory fearmongering standing up to the likes of Sir Allan Napier MacNab, and moved the capital back to Toronto. The sheer effort had begun to weigh heavily on Baldwin, and it did not help that with by 1851 many in government were tired of the slow pace of Baldwinite reform, he now faced attacks for his methods and actions by George Brown and the recently returned William Lyon MacKenzie. He stepped down from the premiership that same year, allowing Francis Hincks to replacement and returned to private life. When Hincks asked to dissolve Parliament, Baldwin would run for a seat but would lose and retire. He would live a quiet retirement in Spadina House until his death on the 9th of December 1858. He was buried next to his only love, Eliza in Toronto’s St. James Cemetary in the Baldwin family plot.
As in life, Robert Baldwin, despite his huge impact on our form of government and quiet persistence there is little to memorialise one of the father’s of democracy. However, there is a lasting legacy to the influence of Baldwin’s actions while in government. He saw his role as head of the elected government as a duty rather than for personal gain, and he did so despite having what could be considered today as depression or anxiety. He feared failure, public speaking, yet when he held onto his single-minded goal, he spoke well although in a quiet halting style. This single-mindednesses turned Baldwin into an inflexible man leading to his eventual retirement in 1853. The model of responsible government first put in place by Baldwin remains in use today in our modern Parliamentary system, a modified form of the Westminister System from England. His system of a three-tier government and municipal government also remains in place (with some modification thanks to William Lyon MacKenzie). And finally, the University of Toronto still stands as a premier post-secondary institution today. The Austin family would purchase the Baldwin Home of Spadina House in 1866, and they would begin to upgrade and renovations. When the last Austin passed in 1982 the home became a museum dedicated to life in Toronto in the 1920s and 1930s. Although if you have not heard of Spadina House, that’s of no surprise given the home’s famous neighbour, Casa Loma. However, the steps leading up to Austin Terrace takes the name the Baldwin Steps, and are featured in the film Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Robert Baldwin School in Milton, Ontario also takes its name from Robert. However, the greatest monument is the Baldwin-La Fontaine memorial on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario. The monument was designed by Walter Allward who is better known for his work that stands on Vimy Ridge.