How one of Canada’s most important leaders and a ‘man of courage’ battled depression
● Instrumental in bringing ‘responsible government’ and modern democracy to Canada
● Opposed extending voting rights, debt and interest rates above 6 per cent
● Grandfather to Oscar Wilde’s lover and Canada’s first pilot
HE was one of the most instrumental figures in Canadian history, widely respected as a great leader. His grandchildren included the first Canadian to fly an airplane and Oscar Wilde’s lover.
And yet Robert Baldwin was a troubled and tortured soul, struggling with what today might be diagnosed as severe depression; a man stuck in a world eager to move faster than his traditional beliefs would allow.
Even while leading the country he had times when he hid from the world for months, bursting into tears when his co-leader1 came to visit him. But it was the circumstances of his death, and his “cultish” devotion to his dead wife, that cements Baldwin’s place as one of Canada’s most unique leaders.
A new book out this year will detail Baldwin’s struggles with modernisers eager to push the frontiers west, as well as with his own demons.
Michael Cross, emeritus professor at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia,2 says Baldwin should be seen as “courageous”.
“He is an extremely important person,” says Dr Cross, “and a very strange person, which made the appeal [for me] all the greater – someone who was as troubled as he was his whole life, was able to accomplish, basically, laying the groundwork for our modern system of government in Canada.
“Part of the man’s strangeness was that he spent the last seven years of his life after he retired from politics almost in complete isolation, except for his family. And much of it was spent organising his papers, copying papers, living in the past – his own past and in particular the past of his dead wife.
“She was the great force in his life. For 22 years after her death he saw his life as culminating when he was able to join her, so much so that it became a death cult really.”
He helped introduce the idea of “responsible government” – self-government and parliamentary accountability – and arguably founded the University of Toronto. But above all else, Robert Baldwin was brave. Not only did he stand up for ideas that were behind the time – such as a six per cent cap on interest rates and avoiding debt – but he probably never should have been a politician in the first place, according to the forthcoming A Biography Of Robert Baldwin: The Morning-Star Of Memory3. And the “absolute devastation” at the death of his wife Eliza4 flung him over the edge.
For two decades after Eliza died, he prepared himself to be with her in death and left strict instructions about his funeral and other wishes. But his eldest daughter, bitter at being prevented from marrying as she was expected to care for her father, ignored his wishes.
It was only a month after he was buried in 1858 that his son William5 found a copy of the instructions in the breast pocket of a suit jacket – Baldwin carried them with him in case he died away from home, says Dr Cross.
“What was to happen was he was to have an operation performed on his body, a Caesarean section, so he could have the same scar as Eliza did. They were to be in the family tomb, side by side, with her coffin on the left so she was closest to his heart. The coffins were to be chained together. He was to have her handkerchief on his chest and her letters on his chest when he was put away.
“So the son got senior male members of the family together with the family physician, they opened up the tomb which was in the side of the hill which is now Casa Loma, which was where the family home was. They opened the tomb, went in, opened his coffin and the family physician performed the operation on his corpse.
“There is simply a scrawled note by his eldest son saying, essentially, ‘We found these instructions and carried them out’.”
* * *
Baldwin was born on May 12,1804 in York in what is now part of the sprawling city of Toronto, Ontario. His aristocratic family had been important Anglican figures in Cork, Ireland who had tried to resolve the clash between Irish and English, and when that wasn’t possible, they moved to Canada.
Dr Cross adds that when Baldwin was almost 23, he fell in love with his first cousin, Eliza, then only 15. The Sullivan family sent her to relatives in New York in hope “their ardour would die”. It didn’t.
“They exchanged not only letters but vibrations,” he says. “They read the same passage of the Bible at the same time every day so they would be in kind of mental contact. She came home, the family gave in. [In] 1827 they got married, they had four children, they were deliriously happy.
“She was this idealised creature for him. If you look at her, there’s nothing there that is ideal. She was rather homely. Her letters were kittenish but nothing substantial. But to him, she was everything – this lonely young man who felt out of place among aristocrats who were sophisticated and worldly. For him, she was everything.”
Personally, he seems to have been happy – in their nine years of marriage, the couple had four children, two girls and two boys6. Politically, Robert Baldwin came last in his first attempt, in 1828. But in December 1829, he was elected in a by-election to the parliament of Upper Canada, replacing John Beverley Robinson to represent York, where the parliament was based, only to be defeated in the general election the next year.7
He then retreated to private life until 1836, when Eliza died.
“1836 is an example of this man’s courage,” asserts Dr Cross. “His wife died in January 1836. Six weeks later, a new lieutenant governor of the province, Sir Francis Bond Head8, came out with instructions from Britain to try to reconcile the differences that were tearing the Canadian political scene apart.
“So he decided to call people from all political elements together into his executive, among them Robert Baldwin.
“Baldwin was out of politics but he had this reputation of the man of not only substance but a man of great integrity. He was called to enter the executive and he felt it was his duty to do so, and six weeks after his wife’s death, he entered into the executive.
“Still grieving deeply, and yet, duty calls; he has to respond – for an experiment which lasted a couple of weeks because it was clear Bond Head wasn’t prepared to listen to the executive, so they all resigned and created a giant political crisis which contributed to the rebellion the next year.”
After the rebellion of 1837-1838, Baldwin suggested the concept of responsible government and became a member of the first executive council when Upper and Lower Canada – modern Ontario and Quebec – united to become the provinces of Canada West and Canada East in 1841. Baldwin would stay in the legislature for the next 10 years, twice as co-premiers effectively with Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, his friend and Lower Canada ally.
In the first parliament of the Canadas in 1841, Baldwin was elected in both Hastings and 4th York constituencies and chose Hastings, while LaFontaine represented York. When Baldwin was defeated in the 1842 election, he accepted a Lower Canada seat and was returned by acclamation in Rimouski the next year.
It was not until 1848, however, that the government introduced responsible government – Canada’s modern form of parliamentary rule.
Dr Cross credits this to Baldwin’s Irish heritage – it was a system that was conciliatory and would “bring political peace”.
Baldwin recognised French Canada was “central” and that “no political system could function without French Canadian support”.
Dr Cross says: “Even though he had no experience with French Canada [and] he didn’t speak French, he staked his whole political future on an alliance with French Canada, [and] sent his children to schools in Lower Canada, in Quebec.
“His daughters went to a convent in Quebec City, his sons to a school in Quebec City, so that, as he told them, they would not suffer the miserable embarrassment that he had at not being able to speak French.”
But despite his clear leadership on one level, Baldwin was far from a natural politician and had inherited a love for the law from his father, though he was not himself a particularly good lawyer.
“You have to feel sorry that he was, in many respects, cast into this role that he thought he was unsuited for – the role of political leadership,” says Dr Cross. “He wrote often that he felt that this was not the right role for him to play, that being in public was not a comfortable experience for him.
“His father was this larger-than-life character: a duellist, both a doctor and a lawyer, loved politics, loved running the law. So Baldwin loved the laws and institution and felt it was the kind of cement of society.
“I think he would have been happy serving the law. He didn’t have to work – he was wealthy. He could have spent his time running the benches of the law society. Certainly he was happy in the years between 1830 and 1836 when he was out of politics except to support interest groups, and spend his time with his wife.”
* * *
The Baldwins’ last child, Robert, was born by Caesarean section in 1834, an enormously dangerous procedure at that time. Eliza never recovered and died a year and a half later in the family’s Front Street house in Toronto.
Throughout the years he was hailed a political hero, along with LaFontaine, Baldwin battled nostalgia and anticipation of reuniting with Eliza.
Soon after the government collapsed just a few weeks after Eliza’s death, Baldwin went to England and then Ireland to examine places significant to the family history. He went to the graveyards of all the ancestors and took sod from each, carefully wrapping them up to be shipped back to Upper Canada.
This was Baldwin’s healing method. When he returned to Toronto, he kept Eliza’s room exactly as she had left it and allowed nobody to enter until his eldest daughter was 21.
And he began recreating their wedding on the anniversary annually, by first visiting the church, then back to the home, and picking a sprig of lilac from the same bush he went to on the wedding day. Baldwin would then spend the rest of the day in her room.
“Needless to say, given this mentality, he was a victim of severe depression throughout much of his adult life, and during the time he was running the government he was the victim of severe depression,” says Dr Cross.
“There is one, very vivid account of him in 1850, one of his worst depressions where he was incapacitated for several months. He was simply unable to function. He stayed in a dark room in his home. And his partner, LaFontaine, in a letter to another friend, said he came to see Baldwin, was ushered into this dark room and he was absolutely flabbergasted because Baldwin had this reputation as a very withdrawn, in many ways severe, unemotional man in public. So LaFontaine came in to see him and suddenly Baldwin burst into tears and couldn’t stop sobbing.
“And you could see through the letter that LaFontaine was absolutely flabbergasted, no idea what to do, when this monument was flowing tears. All he could do was try to urge Baldwin to at least let his family help him.
“Needless to say it damaged his government to have the head of the government unable to function for months at a time.”
Throughout this period, the public did not know what was going on, although there was speculation and rumours in the newspapers. Even his supporters wondered if Baldwin would return.
Dr Cross says the depression may have contributed to Baldwin’s final departure from politics in 1851, in a flood of tears after giving his resignation speech.
Author John Ralston Saul, in his 2011 book for the Penguin Extraordinary Canadians series9 on LaFontaine and Baldwin, credits the pair with ushering in democracy in Canada.
But Dr Cross disagrees and describes Baldwin as more of a conservative man who inherited liberalism from his family.
“He opposed the abolition of primogeniture – that system where estates were divided among children,” says Dr Cross. “He still believed that the eldest son should inherit the whole estate so that property could be maintained.
“He was opposed to extending the franchise [for voting rights] because he believed that property was the only basis for independence. If you didn’t have property, you couldn’t be independent – you owed somebody and therefore you could not exercise political judgement independently.
“He opposed modernisation in things like usury. He opposed removal of limits on interest rates. At the time, legally, no interest rate higher than six per cent could be charged. And he tried to maintain that against those that wanted higher interest rates to allow capital to be generated.
“He opposed the removal of dower rights. Dower was a system that allowed a woman to have a claim on one third of her husband’s estate. And again, those that wanted a rapid turnover of capital saw this as a barrier. Women could hold on to land that could be instead turned into capital.”
The changes Baldwin opposed increasingly brought him into conflict with colleagues in the run-up to his resignation. As Dr Cross says, Baldwin could not come to terms with the modern direction of politics, particularly the railway age, which demanded the freeing up of financial capital. There was no room for somebody like Baldwin with his old-fashioned view of land and property.
“Politically the great irony of this man is that he created in responsible government a system which allowed these modernisers to come to power and simply wipe out his class and destroy his vision of the world,” says Dr Cross. “He was driven out of office in 1851and the railway promoters, the financiers took over politics.”
Baldwin’s colleague Francis Hincks, who succeeded him as leader, was “the moderniser, the hustler, the mining promoter, the guy who was always looking for the next buck”, eventually unleashing an “orgy of railway construction” that bankrupted municipalities and the province.
“Baldwin somehow never understood what his colleague was about,” says Dr Cross, “even though as early as 1843, Hincks wrote to Baldwin and said, ‘We are fighting now, the battle of the middle class against the aristocracy’. And here’s Baldwin – who if anyone’s an aristocrat in Canada, he’s it – doesn’t respond, doesn’t recognise the import of what Hincks is saying.
“Baldwin’s resignation speech to parliament, June 30, 1851, is full of his final recognition that things have spun out of his control, the control of his class.
“He says there’s a want of first principles in politics and in economics, as he understands it, his first principles, his set of understanding of how the world ought to operate.”
* * *
Dr Cross’s biography is the first full-scale attempt since the 1930s, adding new information and papers from France. But most other volumes on Baldwin are political biographies and Dr Cross says he was keen to re-integrate the political history into social history.
After Baldwin’s death, his children had mixed fortunes. Maria, the eldest, was prevented from marrying and died a “bitter spinster” in 1866. The eldest son, William, inherited the family home but frittered away the money and had to sell it, the property eventually being torn down. Robert Baldwin Jnr became a “religious fanatic and embarrassed the family by standing on street corners preaching”.
The next generation, however, found fame in different corners. Robert Baldwin Snr’s second daughter, Augusta Maria, married a politician and had a son, Robbie Ross. He became a journalist and, allegedly, Oscar Wilde’s first male lover.
Frederick Walker “Casey” Baldwin, grandson of William, was the first Canadian to pilot an airplane, helping build the early experimental Silver Dart with Alexander Graham Bell, flown first in the US and later Nova Scotia.
Baldwin, despite Canadian “Heritage Minutes” on television over the years10, has not been as recognised as other Canadian leaders – his headstone in Toronto’s St James’ Cemetery had fallen down and was overgrown when Dr Cross visited while researching his book.
So what does the historian want readers to take away with them from the story of Robert Baldwin?
“I’m not sure people realise how complex political leaders often are in Canada,” concludes Dr Cross. “One thinks of Mackenzie King and his spiritualism, talking to his dead mother, his dead dog, and yet by consensus our greatest prime minister. John A Macdonald, desperately unhappy personal life, his excessive drinking, and yet obviously an enormously important and accomplished prime minister.
“There’s something about Canada that has given us very strange but very courageous and accomplished leaders.”
* * *
The book was published on September 20, 2012 – details here.
The National Film Board has a short cinematic telling of one of Baldwin’s most important moments during the rebellion of 1837. Robert Baldwin: A Matter Of Principle, 1961 by John Howe.
- Dr Michael Cross: “Baldwin formed the United Reform Party with LaFontaine when the Union of Canada, Quebec and Ontario, was launched in 1841. Baldwin deferred to LaFontaine to confirm his his commitment to justice for French Canada. So LaFontaine was called to form a Reform government in September 1842. However, they were really co-leaders of the ministry, as Attorneys General East and West. A similar pattern was followed when they resumed office in 1848, and they continued as co-leaders until June 1851.” ↩
- http://experts.dal.ca/expert/michael-cross-43 ↩
- Cross, Michael. A Biography Of Robert Baldwin: The Morning-Star of Memory. Oxford University Press, Canada. Expected publication, September 2012. ↩
- Augusta Elizabeth Sullivan, born in Bandon, County Cork, Ireland, June 11, 1809. Died in Toronto, January 11, 1836. ↩
- William Willcocks Baldwin, born May 20, 1830, died 1903. ↩
- In order, Phoebe Maria (February 27, 1828 – 1866), William Willcocks (as above), Augusta Maria (December 13, 1831 – 1871) and Robert (April 17, 1834 – 1885). ↩
- http://www.biographi.ca/009004-119.01-e.php?&id_nbr=3762 ↩
- http://www.biographi.ca/009004-119.01-e.php?id_nbr=5035 ↩
- http://www.extraordinarycanadians.com/subjects/lafontaine-baldwin.php and see Christopher Moore’s review of the book at http://www.christophermoore.ca/mooreSNarticle3.html#hidden ↩
- Two Heritage Minutes on Baldwin: https://www.historica-dominion.ca/content/heritage-minutes/baldwin-lafontaine? and https://www.historica-dominion.ca/content/heritage-minutes/responsible-government ↩