Robert Baldwin

“Father of Municipal Government.”

Yesterday (March 11th, 2014) marked the 166th anniversary of responsible government in Canada. It followed decades of struggle against British rule, the rebellions of 1837 and 1838 being foremost examples. Power passed from colonial elites to citizens when a Reform government headed by Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine was sworn in that day by governor-general Lord Elgin. The Reformers had won an election over conservative forces aligned to the monarchy

RobertbaldwinRobert Baldwin (May 12, 1804 – December 9, 1858) was a Canadian lawyer and politician who, with his political partner Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine, led the first responsible ministry in Canada. “Responsible Government” marked the country’s democratic independence, without a revolution, although not without violence. This achievement also included the introduction of municipal government, the introduction of a modern legal system and the Canadian Jury system, and the abolishing of imprisonment for debt. Baldwin is also noted for resisting a decades-long tradition of Orange Order terrorism of political reform in the colony, that went so far as to burn the Parliament buildings in Montreal in 1849.

Robert Baldwin’s grandfather, also Robert Baldwin (“Robert the emigrant”) moved to Upper Canada from Ireland in 1799. His father William Warren Baldwin (April 25, 1775 – January 8, 1844), though wealthy and a devoted member of the Church of England, opposed the religious and political oligarchy known as the Family Compact, and brought up his son in the same principles.

The Baldwin family was a prominent one. Robert Baldwin counted among his cousins such influential Upper Canadians as the Anglican bishop Maurice Scollard Baldwin, Toronto mayor Robert Baldwin Sullivan and the Irish-Catholic leader Connell James Baldwin. The Russell-Willcocks-Baldwin family formed an elite “compact” much like the infamous “Family Compact” led by John Beverley Robinson against whom they fought.

Robert Baldwin, Esquire, Barrister, of York (now Toronto) married his cousin Augusta Elizabeth Sullivan, daughter of Daniel Sullivan, on May 3, 1827. The couple had four children, two sons and two daughters. Augusta Elizabeth died January 11, 1836. Robert Baldwin died December 9, 1858.

Robert Baldwin is the grandfather of Frederick Walker Baldwin, a Canadian aviation pioneer and partner of the famous inventor Alexander Graham Bell. Robert Baldwin is also the grandfather of Robert Baldwin Ross, a French born journalist and art critic probably best known for being a cherished friend to Oscar Wilde.

Political principles

Balwin’s principles embodied a civic humanism that drew on ancient Greek and Roman conceptions of citizenship, and the value of selfless political participation for the public good; those selfish few who placed their personal private interests before the public good threatened the moral commitment of all citizens to political participation. The civic humanism of the Country party (Baldwin’s affiliation) rejected the commercial ideology of the royal “Court” party. The Country party had a (small-R) republican emphasis that sought to preserve the power of a democratic parliament from the encroachments of the crown during the vast expansion of state administration, public credit, and the financial and commercial revolutions in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth centuries. It was similar to American conceptions of “civic republicanism” as they developed after the revolution among Jacksonian Democrats, as well as in the Chartist movement in Britain in the late 1830s.

Municipal government

Prior to 1849, local government was in the hands of a largely appointed District Council; which itself was under the control governor and his executive council (the so-called “cabinet” of today). Baldwin opposed this, and in 1849 he passed his own Municipal Act that is largely in effect to this day. It provided for citizen-elected councils, and indirectly elected county councils, as well as Cities, counties and townships and villages. It is probably the greatest contribution to grass-roots democracy since the Greek polis.

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