Shared principles can overcome even profound political differences

Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte Lafontain' friendship allowed them to approach politics with moderation and principled prudence

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Political friendships

In an era of hyper-partisanship, it is worthwhile to examine a friendship that helped form Canadian politics.

Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine were the fathers of responsible government in Canada. They believed that such government must be neither English nor French, but Canadian. And the friendship of Baldwin, the Upper Canadian Anglican, and Lafontaine, the Lower Canadian Roman Catholic, transcended the ethnic, linguistic, and religious differences that troubled the age.

Through friendship, they were able to weather the political storms of the 1830s and ’40s. They led the effort to adopt, by 1849, a system of self-rule in Canada. It set out that leadership is responsible to the legislative assembly and removable from office by “His majesty’s representative at his pleasure,” especially when they lose the confidence of the assembly.

These original Reformers had to thread the needle. They opposed the republican ideology, yet they also opposed British imperial rule. They supported self-government and loyalty to the Crown – a Crown that reigned but did not rule.

In the first election of the newly unified Canada in March 1841, colonial governor Lord Sydenham gerrymandered ridings to maximize the Anglo vote in Lower Canada and organized violent gangs to intimidate Reformers from voting. Lafontaine, who had no fear of thugs and riots, nevertheless stood down when his procession of supporters of Terrebonne, on their way to vote, confronted Sydenham’s gangs. Lafontaine withdrew to avert violence and to demonstrate that French Canadian Reformers were capable of non-violent self-rule.

Despite the blow to his friend and fellow Reformer, Baldwin accepted Sydenham’s appointment to government. Then he used his position to pursue a Reform agenda. And in August of that year, Baldwin invited Lafontaine to stand for election in North York, the former seat of William Lyon Mackenzie, the leader of the rebellions in 1837. The French Roman Catholic was to represent a thoroughly Protestant and English-speaking riding.

Responsible government was predicated on a sense of the common good transcending ethnic, linguistic and religious differences. Lafontaine’s electoral victory was a great step forward in the march toward responsible government because it showed how Canadian nationhood could be practised. This was due in large part to their friendship.

The capital of unified Canada at the time was Kingston, Ont. Lafontaine, from Montreal, spent his days there or in Baldwin’s Toronto home. He became an honourary member of the Baldwin family and the two men shared their days doing what Aristotle said is most characteristic of friends of serious moral stature: “living together and sharing conversation and thinking.”

The inclusion of Lafontaine into his household was significant for Baldwin, who regarded family life supremely important – far more important even than political life. His wife Eliza died in 1836 from complications of a caesarean section and Baldwin never recovered from that blow. He mourned his entire life. In his waist coast pocket he kept a note specifying that, in the case of his untimely death, an incision be made in his abdomen that would mirror Eliza’s caesarean scar.

Baldwin dedicated his life to her memory by living with a pure heart and in self-sacrifice. This meant a life devoted to public service fighting for responsible government. He never hesitated to resign from office (he did so at least four times) rather than contradict his principles. Baldwin’s most recent biographer, Michael S. Cross, shows how Baldwin disliked politics and put no stock in political ambition. His only happiness was his nine years with Eliza.

In friendship, he and Lafontaine sustained one another. In their correspondence, they address one another as “my dear friend.” They worked to achieve common political goals, including responsible government, and their friendship is a model for the political friendship of Canadians.

Conrad Black writes: “They were unswervingly principled, tolerant of any reasonable opposition, and had no interest in public office for the mere sake of holding it. … The debt of all Canadians to them, 170 years later, is very great.”

Their friendship is testimony to their greatness – it allowed them to approach politics with moderation and principled prudence.

John von Heyking is professor of political science at the University of Lethbridge. He is the author of The Form of Politics: Aristotle and Plato on Friendship.


Robert Baldwin Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine

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