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

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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.

 

 

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