BULLER, CHARLES, office holder and politician; b. 6 Aug. 1806 in Calcutta, eldest son of Charles Buller and Barbara Isabella Kirkpatrick; d. unmarried 29 Nov. 1848 in London.
Described by historian Thomas Carlyle as a man of “high principle and honourable conduct” with a “cheerful, good tempered winning expression,” Charles Buller blended the “perfect probity, politeness,” and “truthfulness” of his father, an employee of the East India Company, with the wit and imagination of his “graceful, airy, and ingeniously intelligent” mother. After attending Harrow from 1819 to 1821, Charles enrolled in several sessions at the University of Edinburgh during 1821–23. From 1822 to 1825 along with his brother Arthur William* he was privately tutored by Carlyle, who had to brush up on his Latin and Greek to keep up with Charles, “a most manageable, intelligent, cheery, and altogether welcome . . . phenomenon.” After taking his ba at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1828, Charles studied law, but, although called to the bar in 1831, he did not immediately practise that profession.
Instead Buller turned to politics and journalism. In parliament he represented his family seat, West Looe, in 1830–31 and then sat for Liskeard from 1832 to 1848. A popular Radical, he supported many reform measures. In 1836 he proposed and chaired the select committee on the state of government records and later he headed a committee inquiring into the election law in Ireland. Increasingly he demonstrated an interest in colonial questions. Although sometimes criticized for his levity in parliament, he could be earnest and dignified. His verbal facility was matched by his literary ability. Not only did he write for newspapers and in 1837 even edit with Henry Cole the Guide to Knowledge (London), a weekly paper, but he also contributed to the Edinburgh Review and the Westminster Review and authored numerous pamphlets.
In January 1838 Buller was offered the post of chief secretary to Lord Durham [Lambton], who had been appointed governor-in-chief of British North America with the special mission of inquiring into the government of Upper and Lower Canada following the rebellion of 1837. After initially refusing, Buller was persuaded by Durham to accept the post. Despite his misgivings about their postponed departure, he and his brother Arthur William left for Quebec with the governor in April 1838, after the insurrection had been suppressed. The delay had undermined the urgency of the mission and the necessity for the unusual powers it had been granted. Unlike Durham, who, he thought, “had too strong a feeling against the French Canadians on account of their recent insurrection,” Buller was sympathetic, believing that the Canadians had been driven to rebellion by “long injustice” and “the deplorable imbecility of our Colonial Policy.” Although Durham was prepared to temper his justice with mercy, he had decided, Buller noted, “that no quarter should be shewn to the absurd pretensions of race, and that he must . . . aim at making Canada thoroughly British.” Otherwise Buller reported favourably on the character, actions, and accomplishments of Durham, who had been “uniformly kind . . . to me from the first” and “very amenable to good advice.”
Soon after his arrival Durham replaced the members of the Executive Council of Lower Canada and established several sub-commissions to study special problems and gather information for his final report. Appointed to the Executive Council on 2 June and to the Special Council on 28 June, Buller also headed some of these sub-commissions, but delegated the duties. Thus, although he was designated early in June head of the inquiry into crown lands and immigration in British North America, it was not he but the assistant commissioners, Richard Davies Hanson and Charles Franklin Head, who supervised the work, most of which was done by Edward Gibbon Wakefield*. Likewise, although charged with the commission on municipal institutions on 25 August, Buller had his assistants, William Kennedy and Adam Thom*, do most of the investigation and prepare the report. As chief secretary Buller’s main responsibility was to assist Durham with the internal administration of the colony. He accompanied him in July to Montreal and Niagara (Niagara-on-the-Lake), but was too ill to continue the trip to Toronto, Kingston, and Prescott. Back in Montreal Buller worked out the terms for the commutation of the seigneurial rights held by the Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice. Towards the end of October he reached an agreement with the superior of the seminary, Joseph-Vincent Quiblier*.
Buller was also responsible for advising Durham concerning the fate of the prisoners of the rebellion in Lower Canada. Because a trial might trigger a public outcry and because of the difficulty of securing impartial juries, Buller and legal adviser Thomas Edward Michell Turton suggested punishment of the leaders by an ex post facto law. Initially Durham disapproved of the idea. Obliged to rely heavily on Buller, he eventually overcame his reservations and decided on an ordinance which would banish eight of the most guilty to Bermuda once they had confessed and which would forbid them and others exiled in the United States to return to Lower Canada. The ordinance was accompanied by a proclamation granting amnesty to the remaining prisoners, with the exception of those who had committed murder. Buller was dispatched from Quebec to Montreal to secure political support there for the measure and through the efforts of John Simpson*, a government official in whom the Patriotes had confidence, to obtain the confessions. In the end, most Lower Canadians seem to have approved of the ordinance, passed by the Special Council on 28 June.
By 7 September, however, public criticism in England and Lower Canada was mounting over a number of issues connected with Durham’s mission. Buller urged his chief, sick and discouraged, not to resign. Given the high expectations everyone had entertained for his mission, Buller wrote to Durham, “the reasons which you regard as justifying failure or withdrawal . . . will not be considered sufficient.” With political realism, he pointed out that Durham could not count on the support of the Tories in Britain or of Lord Melbourne’s administration. Later that month Durham went ahead with his resignation on learning that his ordinance had been disallowed and that he had not been supported by the British government over the issue. Buller blamed the lack of support on Durham’s failure to provide the government with adequate information. He approved of the resignation “as an act done in compliance with a stern and sad necessity.” Moreover, he realized that Durham’s ill health and “nervous agitation” necessitated his return to England. But he regretted his superior’s decision not to return via the United States, where he would have been honoured and given greater political credibility.
Buller stayed behind in Lower Canada to collect materials for the reports of the various sub-commissions and arrived in England on 21 December. An attribution of the final report to himself, possibly by Lord Brougham, Durham’s antagonist, was dismissed by him as a groundless assertion. Even though he had ably assisted his chief in compiling material and perhaps in drafting sections, the report remained Durham’s. Eager to rectify the wrongs done to Durham, Buller none the less abided by his superior’s wish not to imperil the interests of Canada and did not pursue a defence of Durham on his return.
Buller resumed his political career and began practising law before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in cases dealing with colonial and Indian appeals. He held the post of secretary to the Board of Control for part of 1841, and was appointed judge advocate general by Lord John Russell’s Whig government in 1846. In 1847 he became chief poor-law commissioner, “with the hope of doing good.” He spoke out in parliament on the ballot, the Irish question, church rates, national education, poor laws, corn laws, income tax, and the depreciation of gold coin.
His interest in the British colonies remained. In 1843 he spoke eloquently on colonization as “a way for colonies to enlarge at home and abroad the field of employment for capital and labour,” and argued that “extensive colonization is one appropriate remedy for the ills of our social state, and a remedy which tends to promote and give efficiency to every other remedy.” Possible political arrangements for the colonies were discussed in Responsible government for colonies (1840); for Buller “the union of the Canadas carried responsible government with it as a necessary consequence.” Published anonymously so that he could be frank and outspoken, the pamphlet elaborated on those of Durham’s ideas which had been most misunderstood and misrepresented. In addition to explaining and defining the role of the colonial governor under responsible government, he vigorously attacked the Colonial Office. Through his writings and parliamentary speeches Buller helped to bring about reforms in colonial policy.
When the “blunderings of a surgeon” followed by typhus cut short his life, Buller was missed by leading liberals and reformers. Carlyle eulogized him as “a fine honest fellow” and “the genialest radical I have ever met.” Buller’s bust was placed in Westminster Abbey and in 1860 he was commemorated in Sir Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton’s St. Stephens: a poem, “Farewell, fine humorist, finer reasoner still, / Lively as Luttrell, logical as Mill.”
Charles Buller is the author of “Sketch of Lord Durham’s mission to Canada” in the Buller papers at the PAC (MG 24, A26); it has been published in “The Durham papers,” PAC Report, 1923: 341–69. He also wrote Responsible government for colonies (London, 1840), which appeared first in the Colonial Gazette (London) from December 1839 to February 1840; it was reprinted in Charles Buller and responsible government, ed. E. M. Wrong (Oxford, 1926); chapters VI and VII were also reprinted in E. G. Wakefeld, A view of the art of colonization, with present reference to the British empire; in letters between a statesman and a colonist (London, 1849). Other works by Buller are listed in the British Library general catalogue. His correspondence with British North American figures is at PAC (MG 24, A2, A17, B2, B14 (mfm.)).
[J. G. Lambton, 1st Earl of] Durham, Lord Durham’s report on the affairs of British North America, ed. C. P. Lucas (3v., Oxford, 1912; repr. New York, 1970). Desjardins, Guide parl. DNB. H. J. Morgan, Sketches of celebrated Canadians. C. W. New, Lord Durham; a biography of John George Lambton, first Earl of Durham (Oxford, 1929). S. J. Reid, Life and letters of the first Earl of Durham, 1792–1840 (London, 1906).
© 1988–2023 University of Toronto/Université Laval
Cite This Article
Heather Lysons-Balcon, “BULLER, CHARLES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 1, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/buller_charles_7E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Heather Lysons-Balcon|
|Title of Article:||BULLER, CHARLES|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1988|
|Year of revision:||1988|
|Access Date:||April 1, 2023|