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Sir John Beverley Robinson

Sir John Beverley Robinson: Bone and Sinew of the Compact

Copyright Date: 1984
Pages: 344
  • Book Info
    Sir John Beverley Robinson
    Book Description:

    In this biography, early Toronto comes alive through the eyes of a powerful man-firm in his beliefs, attractive to women, respected by his fellows-who sought to mould society to his own ideals.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-5981-0
    Subjects: History, Law

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
    Brendan OʹBrien and Peter Oliver

    The purpose of The Osgoode Society is to encourage research and writing in the history of Canadian law. The Society, which was incorporated in 1979 and is registered as a charity, was founded at the initiative of the Honourable R. Roy McMurtry, Attorney-General of Ontario, and officials of The Law Society of Upper Canada. Its efforts to stimulate legal history in Canada include the sponsorship of a fellowship and an annual lectureship, research support programs, and work in the field of oral history. The Society will publish (at the rate of about one a year) volumes that contribute to legal–...

  4. Preface
    (pp. ix-2)
  5. 1 The Loyalist Tradition
    (pp. 3-12)

    John Beverley Robinson was born into a family that keenly felt its exile from kin and country. Although the Robinson name was to become synonymous with established power and influence, John Robinson would not forget the meanness of his early life and the circumstances that caused it.

    Ensign Christopher Robinson, the father of the future chief justice of Upper Canada, left his studies at William and Mary College in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1780 to join the loyalist forces in New York. Through three years of war, Robinson fought with the First American Regiment, commanded by Colonel John Graves Simcoe. The...

  6. 2 ‘This Outpost of England’
    (pp. 13-27)

    For Upper Canada, the American declaration of war on Great Britain on 18 June 1812 signalled the beginning of a desperate struggle for survival. In view of the overwhelming numbers of the American forces, the commander-in-chief, Sir George Prevost, advised the administrator (in Gore’s absence) and military commandant of Upper Canada, Isaac Brock, to avoid all offensive action. This seemed appropriate advice, for Brock had a mere 1,600 regular soldiers at his disposal. But Brock was not content to wait. He realized the need for quick thrusts in order to inspire confidence in a largely defeatist population, and he resolved...

  7. 3 Gentleman of Lincoln’s Inn
    (pp. 28-37)

    In London, as he had in Upper Canada, Robinson attracted influential patrons and allies. Shortly after arriving in England he called on Sir Samuel Shepherd, the solicitor-general. With Shepherd’s approval, and with the bond of Sir William Garrow, the attorney-general, Robinson was admitted as a student to Lincoln’s Inn Hall. His formal legal training began in November 1815 with a dinner at Lincoln’s Inn. Throughout his English narrative¹ Robinson made little reference to time spent at the Inn. This is hardly surprising, given that the four Inns of Court did not teach their articling students any of the intricacies of...

  8. 4 Public Life
    (pp. 38-60)

    Soon after his arrival in York in November 1817, John Robinson purchased the pre-war residence of D’Arcy Boulton and renamed it Beverley House, a somewhat pretentious name for little more than a stone cottage. In the coming years, however, Robinson would construct a west wing on the house and erect a veranda and stables, transforming Beverley House into a mansion and one of the social centres of little York.¹ Enlargement of the house was all the more necessary since within a year of the couple’s arrival in Upper Canada their first child, James Lukin, was born.

    Robinson was bursting with...

  9. 5 Parliamentary Life
    (pp. 61-76)

    ‘Politics I am not fond of,’ Robinson yawned to Macaulay before the opening of the Eighth Parliament, ‘and as to anything very abstract, I have neither time nor talent for it.’¹ The attorney-general’s spirited activity on behalf of the government made that disclaimer difficult to believe. Events would prove Robinson’s fondness for debate and his aptitude for solving problems.

    In January 1821 the new session began in the Parliament buildings on Front Street. Built to replace the structures destroyed by the American invaders, the plain brick buildings overlooking Lake Ontario reflected the austere tastes of the province’s settlers. Yet, despite...

  10. 6 An Advocate in England
    (pp. 77-99)

    Commissioner Robinson’s voyage to England in the spring of 1822 was marred by bizarre and tragic events. In the society of Little York, Robinson was renowned not only for his political accomplishments but also for his suave and distinguished manner. His education and travel had given him a savoir faire which in Upper Canada passed for Continental charm. Anne Powell’s infatuation with the young ensign of the York militia had not abated during the years following his marriage. Miss Powell had little use for the usurper of John Robinson’s affections, and in her letters she referred to Emma’s ‘romantic history’...

  11. 7 ‘He Serves the King, Sir’
    (pp. 100-117)

    After an uneventful Atlantic crossing, the Robinsons arrived in New York to a warm welcome from their friends in the British community. Families like the Robinsons regularly passed through New York on their way to or from England, and the British residents of the city welcomed their company and, of course, their gossip. The Robinsons travelled by steamboat up the rivers of New York State, while their baggage was sent via the slower Erie Canal. John Robinson arrived at the Niagara, and called on Sir Peregrine Maitland at Stamford Park.

    During the summer months the lieutenant-governor all but abandoned the...

  12. 8 The Alien Debates
    (pp. 118-141)

    Unfortunately for the chronicler of the period, political life in Upper Canada during the 1820s was not so sophisticated as to consist of interparty struggles. Although it is possible to speak of government and reform factions the terms are somewhat misleading, since members were usually independent of actual party affiliations. Patterns did exist in assembly voting; some members consistently supported the government and some voted against any administration proposal. But there was no cohesive organized group of reformers. Many members, for diverse reasons, could be classified as opponents of the government. The motives for their opposition ranged from indignation at...

  13. 9 ‘Politics I Am Not Fond Of’
    (pp. 142-152)

    The phrase ‘family compact’ was first used in 1824 by Thomas Dalton, the failed banker and reform sympathizer, in reference to the tory oligarchy of Kingston, whom he labelled ‘a family compacted junto.’¹ By 1828, the term took on a wider meaning and was used in reference to the York government itself. M.S. Bidwell wrote to Dr Baldwin, ‘I shall be happy to consult with yourself and Mr. Rolph on the measures to be adopted to relieve this province from the evils which a family compact have brought upon it.’²

    ‘Compact,’ in its original meaning, refered to an agreement or...

  14. 10 Tory Twilight
    (pp. 153-165)

    The reform faction progressed in strength and cohesion, and their authority became evident in the winter session of 1828. Rolph took charge of introducing a number of reforms, including measures to abolish the right of primogeniture and imprisonment for debt. Robinson played little part in the ensuing debates, but his few interjections were carefully timed for effect. One of Rolph’s proposed revisions had been to reduce the number of militia training days to one a year. The attorney-general countered that this would dangerously weaken the province’s defences, and for once succeeded in defeating one of Rolph’s proposals.¹

    Although the opposition...

  15. 11 A Love of Order
    (pp. 166-178)

    The chief justice of one of His Majesty’s smallest but most dynamic colonies required a substantial dwelling; consequently, work was begun on a front porch, a balcony, and the impressive fanlight over the front door of Beverley House. The entire structure was elevated and a west wing attached to it. While the chief justice familiarized himself with his new duties, Emma Robinson redesigned the mansion and supervised the workmen. Despite this activity, she never forgot her duties as hostess. A visitor to Beverley House found the entire household undergoing renovation, Yet Emma herself ‘received us in a little back room...

  16. 12 Chief Justice, Speaker, and Confidant
    (pp. 179-187)

    During the 1830s Upper Canada experienced significant demographic changes, changes that eventually altered the province’s political complexion. Between 1830 and 1836 destitute British immigrants poured into the province. Lieutenant-Governor Colborne made every effort to encourage this influx and to steer the newcomers to counties settled by Americans so that republican sentiment could be diluted. The newcomers were awed by Upper Canada’s vast spaces and puzzled by the egalitarian society of the frontier. One recent arrival, James Coleman, wrote to his sister in England: ‘We are a strange mixture of nations here, English, Welsh, Scotch, Highland Scotch, Irish, Germans and Indians,...

  17. 13 Rebellion and Reaction
    (pp. 188-207)

    ‘He is a strange person, restless and bent upon some object or other to such a degree that he cannot control himself.’¹ John Robinson’s portrait of Sir Francis Bond Head leaves us a vivid sketch of the turbulent individual who presided over the most severe civil strife ever to beset Upper Canada. The new lieutenant-governor had had an undistinguished military career, and was so apolitical that, as he readily admitted, he had never voted in his life. His knighthood and his notoriety he owed to his dexterity with the lasso, which peculiar talent had caught the admiration of William iv....

  18. 14 The Canada Debate
    (pp. 208-226)

    The ocean voyage took its toll on Robinson, and on his arrival in England he was forced to rest at Clifton before taking up residence in Cheltenham with his in-laws, the Merry family. Merely being in Engand seemed to work therapeutic wonders, for within a week the chief justice was ‘almost free from pain, & early next week I hope to be in London.’¹ Wasting little time on doctors or medical treatment, he wrote to the colonial secretary, Lord Glenelg, advising him of his presence in the country. By then, it was common knowledge that Lord Durham would return to Britain...

  19. 15 Lord Chief Justice
    (pp. 227-249)

    During the chief justice’s prolonged absence from Upper Canada the spirit of reform underwent a remarkable revival. With the benevolent assistance of the governor, the reformers regained much of their respectability. An incident occurred shortly after Robinson’s return that confirmed this turnabout.

    Justice Jones resigned the speakership of the legislative council on the understanding that Robinson was to resume the office. Governor Thomson thought otherwise; in his opinion there was no need to appoint a new Speaker since the old legislative council of Upper Canada would cease to exist in a few months. Moreover, he was convinced that the chief...

  20. 16 ‘If I Am Right, Thy Grace Impart’
    (pp. 250-269)

    ‘This is a strange state now,’ Robinson mused to Lord Seaton in 1850; ‘Canada has never since 1827 been an easy or a satisfactory colony to govern … but its natural advantages are rapidly raising it to prosperity.¹ Robinson dated the beginning of political decline from the Colonial Office’s betrayal of the government during the alien debates. Despite this decline, the chief justice had lived to witness Canada’s development into one of the most prosperous nations within the British Empire. The vision of New Albion had long since faded, however. Although the population of Canada West was now almost a...

  21. Epilogue
    (pp. 270-276)

    When John Beverley Robinson first travelled to England in 1815, he amused the children of the Merry family by showing them the old and curious coins that were in circulation in Upper Canada. English coinage had been updated and no longer resembled the currency of that isolated colony. Similarly, the political views of the loyalists were, in the early nineteenth century, cut off from the changes occurring in Britain and the American republic. Just as the coins of former monarchs disappeared, the pillars of loyalist society – a frontier oligarchy, an established Church, and a docile yeomanry – eventually succumbed...

  22. Abbreviations
    (pp. 277-278)
  23. Notes
    (pp. 279-314)
  24. Index
    (pp. 315-326)
  25. Back Matter
    (pp. 327-327)