WASHBURN, EBENEZER, merchant, politician, jp, and office holder; b. 8 April 1756 in Attleborough (Attleboro), Mass., son of Simeon Washburn and Jemimah Gary; m. first Sarah De Forest, and they had nine children; m. secondly 24 Jan. 1803 Hannah McBride, a widow, in York (Toronto); d. 12 Nov. 1826 in Hallowell (Picton), Upper Canada.
At the outbreak of the American revolution Ebenezer Washburn was a small farmer living in Rutland, which was then in the colony of New York but soon after became part of Vermont. Although his father had declared for the rebels, in July 1777 Washburn left his home and joined the army of Major-General John Burgoyne*. He was soon captured and kept “in Irons” for several months before being released. Early in October local revolutionary authorities in New York allowed him to visit his father in Keene, N.H., where Ebenezer spent a good part of the ensuing months. He left Keene on 18 April 1778, ostensibly to get his sister, and did not return. His land in Rutland was confiscated on 23 April. Meanwhile Washburn escaped to Quebec and enlisted in Edward Jessup*’s corps on 16 May, remaining with this unit for the duration of the conflict. He rose to the rank of sergeant and served as an assistant commissary for three years. After the war he started a new life on 200 acres of land in Township No.2 (Ernestown), in what was to become the province of Upper Canada.
During the 1780s the horizons of his life were family and farm. Washburn, however, was a man with ambitions, both for himself and for his children. By 1796 he had moved to Fredericksburgh Township, but a few years later he settled at Hallowell Bridge (Picton) in Prince Edward County. He was soon one of the largest landowners in Hallowell Township, owning 1,190 acres by 1808. He also took advantage of the opportunities provided by his location at Hallowell Bridge, which, with its good natural harbour, became the major shipping and mercantile centre of the county. By 1799 he was well established as a general merchant and forwarder and from 1800 was involved in the export of flour to Lower Canada. Between 1809 and 1811 he seems to have had minor problems paying bills, and he suffered heavily in the depression that hit the province in the late 1810s. By 1819, however, business seems to have improved, if only slightly.
Contemporaries regarded Washburn as a “man of wealth and influence” and stories illustrating his supposed riches were common. Yet to the extent that he is remembered by historians, it is as a politician. In 1800, and again four years later, he was elected to the House of Assembly for the riding of Prince Edward. There was nothing unusual about his activities during the third parliament (1801–4). He supported and often introduced legislation reflecting his regional and mercantile interests. He was concerned with the state of commerce, the condition of local roads, the revenue-sharing agreement with Lower Canada, and legislation to effect the speedy recovery of small debts. A matter of continuing interest was, as his critic Richard Cartwright* put it, “Mr. Washburn’s extravagant project for making Quebec a free port” – a project inspired by his belief that the Navigation Acts, by closing the ports of Montreal and Quebec to non-British ships, allowed a few Lower Canadian merchants to dominate Upper Canada’s import and export trade. On constitutional matters, he supported attempts to defend the prerogatives and increase the powers of the assembly.
Washburn’s importance as an assemblyman derives from his association with the parliamentary opposition which originated in the fourth parliament (1805–8). Early in the first session he indicated his willingness to support, on certain issues, a small group usually consisting of William Weekes*, Benajah Mallory*, Thomas Dorland, and David McGregor Rogers. He voted with the minority on the motion of 1 March 1805 by Weekes and Rogers to take into consideration “the disquietude which prevails in the Province by reason of the administration of Public Offices.” In subsequent sessions of this parliament, the loose association of opposition assemblymen evolved into a more cohesive group under the leadership of Weekes, Robert Thorpe*, and Joseph Willcocks*. One of the issues raised by this group was the widely unpopular reforms introduced in the land-granting system by Lieutenant Governor Peter Hunter*. Washburn had suffered temporarily at least under the new regulations and he seconded Thorpe’s motion of 4 March 1807 to address Lieutenant Governor Francis Gore* on the changes in policy. For Cartwright, Washburn was on this occasion no more than Thorpe’s cat’s-paw. Cartwright insisted that on another occasion Thorpe had prepared a speech for Washburn to deliver: “But Washburn being as you know no scholar and having taken rather too deep a drink in order to animate himself . . . so mangled the Judge’s horrid language that . . . he was obliged to break off abruptly and sit down to the no small confusion of his friend.” A further instance of close cooperation with Thorpe occurred on 7 March. Washburn had been on Weekes’s committee on public accounts which had pressured President Alexander Grant* in 1806 about a sum spent by Hunter without prior authorization by the assembly. After the money was restored to the house, a conciliatory motion was put forward to relinquish the funds “as we are convinced that the same was expended for the public use, and for the benefit of this Province.” Having won its point, the assembly was disposed to accept this concession. Only Washburn and Thorpe opposed the compromise and voted against it.
As the main mover of the District School Act of 1807, which laid the foundation of the public school system, Washburn made his most lasting and significant contribution. He shepherded the bill through the house in the face of strong opposition, including Thorpe’s. Because of his initiatives and continuing support for the principle of public support for education, he may be considered as one of the fathers of the Ontario educational system. In 1808 the schools established by the act came under a stinging attack in the Bay of Quinte region. The assault in the assembly was led by Rogers and Dorland. Rogers criticized Washburn for supporting a bill that had been “universally condemned” by the inhabitants of Prince Edward. Washburn replied that, although the act was opposed initially, the settlers were now “satisfied it was a good measure,” adding, moreover, that “if every man in the County . . . was against the Bill he would vote for it!” His commitment was one of personal conviction, and it kept him either from siding with his old associates or from bowing to popular complaints. In his view schools were essential to the progress and development of society and of an individual. As for his own youngest sons, Daniel and Simon Ebenezer*, he “thought proper to Put them to School, in the best we had established in the Province.”
Cartwright was wrong about Washburn; he was undoubtedly influenced by Thorpe on certain issues but, as his leadership on the school bill proved, he was not a dupe. Nor was he an unthinking member of the opposition. In fact, his record shows him to have been an independent who supported the principle of collective opposition but departed from his allies whenever his and their views collided. In spite of officialdom’s uncomprehending and oft-times hysterical reaction to the perceived republicanism of the opposition, Washburn’s political views were simply whiggish without a tinge of radicalism. Throughout his life he remained strongly committed to British institutions and especially to a functioning constitutional system of checks and balances and separation of powers – hence the importance, nay the necessity, of opposition. It was his very loyalism that led him to become a critic of executive government.
It is not known whether Washburn ran in the election of 1808. On 10 March of that year he was appointed a justice of the peace; he served continuously until his death. He was named a commissioner to check sedition in 1812 and appointed a high treason commissioner in 1814, but attended to both duties irregularly. He continued to take an interest in politics. On 25 Jan. 1810 he had signed the petition protesting the election to the assembly of John Roblin and James Wilson on the grounds that they were Methodist “public Preachers and Teachers.” The protest was upheld and two months later their seats were declared vacant. He chaired a meeting in Hallowell on 14 Feb. 1818 to discuss Robert Gourlay*’s address to landowners; the meeting concluded that Gourlay’s proposals “would be of general benefit to this Province.” His son Daniel, a legal colleague of Barnabas Bidwell, was elected for the district to Gourlay’s Upper Canadian Convention of Friends to Enquiry. Washburn himself ran for election for the last time in the summer of 1820 but, receiving only marginal support, withdrew from the poll on the third day.
A steadfast Presbyterian (his daughter married the Reverend Robert McDowall*), Washburn was also an officer of the Midland District Agricultural Society. During the last ten years of his life he was plagued by edema, or dropsy as contemporaries knew it. Near the end his condition worsened and he “underwent the operation of tapping ten times.” Upon his death he was eulogized as a loyalist and early settler who had served in political life “to the honour of himself and the benefit and satisfaction of the public.”
AO, ms 88, Hannah Washburn to St George, 28 Jan., 3 May 1815; ms 522, memoranda respecting the District School Bill, 5 March 1808; ms 788, Washburn to David Young, 3 Jan. 1818; MU 588, certificates, 15 Jan. 1818; MU 3104–5; RG 1, A-I-6: 2837, 2904, 3772; RG 22, ser.04, vol.6, 9 Jan. 1793; ser.54, 2; ser.131, 1: ff.53, 112, 249–51; ser.159, Ebenezer Washburn; RG 53, ser.2, 2: ff.255–57. BL, Add. mss 21826: 245; 21827: 317b; 21828: 7 (mfm. at PAC). Lennox and Addington County Museum (Napanee, Ont.), Lennox and Addington Hist. Soc. Coll., William Bell papers, pp.353–56; T. W. Casey papers, pp.11726–27. PAC, RG 1, E14, 12: 253–54; L3, 522: W2/48; 523: W3/147; 525: W8/87–88; 525a: W9/59; 527: W11/47, 54; 545: W leases/40; RG 5, Al: 2952–53, 4600–1, 7788–93, 8574–75, 11316–17; RG 8, I (C ser.), 20: 142a–44; RG 68, General index, 1651–1841: 242, 244, 419–20, 432, 435, 441, 452. PRO, AO 12/38: 331–33. QUA, Richard Cartwright papers, letter-books (transcripts at AO, 140, 214–19, 252–57, 262–67). “Assessment of the township of Hallowell for the year 1808,” OH, 6 (1905): 168–70. “District of Mecklenburg (Kingston): Court of Common Pleas,” AO Report, 1917: 241. “Early municipal records of the Midland District,” Ont., Bureau of Industries, App. to the report (Toronto), 1897: 76. “Grants of crown lands in U.C.,” AO Report, 1928. “Journals of Legislative Assembly of U.C.,” AO Report, 1909, 1911, 1914. “McDowall marriage register,” comp. [Robert] McDowall, OH, 1 (1899): 73. Town of York, 1793–1815 (Firth), 89, 99. “United Empire Loyalists: enquiry into losses and services,” AO Report, 1904: 1014. “U.C. land book B,” AO Report, 1930. “U.C. land book C,” AO Report, 1931. “U.C. land book D,” AO Report, 1931. Vt., Secretary of State, Sequestration, confiscation and sale of estates, ed. Mary Greene Nye ([Montpelier, Vt.?, 1941]), 15, 17, 345. Vital records of Attleborough, Massachusetts, to the end of the year 1849 (Salem, Mass., 1934), 279. Vital statistics of the town of Keene, New Hampshire . . . , comp. F. H. Whitcomb (Keene, 1905), 238. Kingston Chronicle, 5 May, 14–21 July 1820; 24 Nov. 1826; 19 March 1831. Kingston Gazette, 4 May 1814; 6 July 1816; 17–24 Feb., 21 July 1818. Upper Canada Gazette, 5 March 1812. W. D. Reid, The loyalists in Ontario: the sons and daughters of the American loyalists of Upper Canada (Lambertville, N.J., 1973). Rolls of the Provincial (Loyalist) Corps, Canadian command, American revolutionary period, comp. Mary Beacock Fryer and W. A. Smy (Toronto, 1981), 89. Canniff, Hist. of the settlement of U. C. Cowdell Gates, Land policies of U. C., 277. F. B. Kingsbury, History of the town of Surry, Cheshire County, New Hampshire . . . (Surry,1925), 915–16. Richard and Janet Lunn, The county: the first hundred years in loyalist Prince Edward (Picton, Ont., 1967), 89, 131. Patterson, “Studies in elections in U.C.,” 313.