Robert Baldwin

The Canadian politician Robert Baldwin (1804-1858) played a decisive role in articulating and applying the concept of "responsible government" that underlies the constitutional development of the Commonwealth.

Robert Baldwin was born on May 12, 1804, in York, Upper Canada, the son of a well-to-do physician. He studied law and was called to the bar in 1825. In 1829 he was elected to the House of Assembly of Upper Canada but was defeated in another election in the following year.

Responsible Government

For most of his political career Baldwin was a man of a single idea—responsible government. This principle alone, he felt, could cure the evils of the existing system of government in the British North American colonies. The root of the trouble lay in an irresponsible executive. The British-appointed governor was surrounded by a group of advisers and hangers-on who filled most of the offices in the colonial administration and controlled all aspects of policy. Their privileged position allowed them to acquire large holdings of public lands and to obtain valuable bank and transportation charters for themselves. As a power elite, they were arbitrary and self-perpetuating, accountable only to the governor and, through him, to the British government in London.

Against this system, which was creating dangerous tensions in the colony, Baldwin proposed the simple principle of responsible government. By this he meant the British cabinet system, whereby a ministry or cabinet holds office only so long as it commands the support of the majority of elected members in the legislature. The ministers are thus responsible to the people's representatives and must leave office if their policies lose popular favor. Baldwin felt that the adoption of this form of government in the Canadas would ensure the loyalty of the majority of people to the British connection and at the same time would allow the colonies to develop along lines of local autonomy.


Political Struggle

Baldwin asserted the principle of responsible government unsuccessfully in 1836, when, after a difference of opinion on the workings of the principle, he resigned a position in the Executive Council, to which he had been appointed by the governor, Sir Francis Bond Head. The same year Baldwin submitted a memorandum on the subject to the Colonial Office in London which, if it did not impress the colonial secretary, was read and digested by Lord Durham, soon to be sent to the Canadas as a special commissioner to look into the breakdown of government after the rebellions of 1837.

Baldwin had no sympathy with the resort to arms undertaken in Upper and Lower Canada in a desperate effort to remedy grievances. At Bond Head's request he negotiated with the leader of the rebels at York, William Lyon Mackenzie, but took no part in the unpleasant aftermath of the uprisings. Baldwin was cheered when Lord Durham recommended the establishment of responsible government as an essential political reform in his famous Report on the Affairs of British North America (1839).

A member of the new parliament for the united Province of Canada that came into existence in 1841, Baldwin became solicitor general for the western part of the province. When the new governor general, Lord Sydenham, refused to include French-Canadian reformers in the ministry, Baldwin again resigned and went into opposition. He introduced resolutions in favor of responsible government into the Assembly in 1841 and gained a thorough debate on the issue. A year later Sydenham's successor, Sir Charles Bagot, asked Baldwin to take office again, this time in association with French-speaking reformers from Canada East led by Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine. The attempt to establish responsible government was frustrated once more when another governor, Sir Charles Metcalfe, refused to accept his ministers' advice on political appointments; 9 of the 10 ministers resigned in 1843, and for the next 5 years Baldwin and Lafontaine acted in opposition to the governor and his measures.


Achievement of the Principle

Finally, in 1847, a new governor, Lord Elgin, was sent to Canada with instructions to apply the principle of responsible government in its full implications. With a majority of members of the legislature behind them, Baldwin and Lafontaine were invited in 1848 to from a second ministry, the so-called Great Ministry. The test came the following year when, in spite of hesitations, Elgin endorsed a controversial measure which had been recommended by his ministers and passed in the legislature, indemnifying those who had suffered property losses in the recent rebellion. The Rebellion Losses Act created an intense storm in which the parliament buildings in Montreal were burned to the ground by a furious mob. But the principle of cabinet government was now established in Canadian constitutional practice.

The ministry headed by Baldwin and Lafontaine went on to further reforms: the provision of new municipal institutions to Canada West, a new system of financial guarantees to aid in the building of railroads, and a scheme to secularize the Anglican King's College as the University of Toronto. In 1851, feeling out of temper with the impatient mood of younger reformers, the conservative-minded Baldwin resigned office. He left public life after an electoral defeat later in the year. Subsequently he gave his blessing to an alliance between his followers and another group led by Francis Hincks, a political merger which produced a liberal-conservative party and eventually the Conservative party.

Baldwin died in Toronto on Dec. 9, 1858. He was a man of serious purpose and outstanding integrity. During his lifetime he did not receive due recognition for his determined struggle to establish in Canada a great constructive principle for the management of public affairs.


Further Reading on Robert Baldwin

The best biography of Baldwin is George E. Wilson, The Life of Robert Baldwin (1933). An earlier study, which treats the three reformers of the period, is Stephen Leacock, Baldwin, Lafontaine, Hincks: Responsible Government (1907; revised and enlarged as Mackenzie, Baldwin, Lafontaine, Hincks, 1926). The achievement of "responsible government" in British North America is fully described in Chester Martin, Empire and Commonwealth (1929).