CAMERON, JOHN HILLYARD, lawyer, businessman, politician, Orangeman, and prominent Church of England layman; b. at Blendecques, France, 14 April 1817, son of Angus Cameron; d. at Toronto, Ont., 14 Nov. 1876.
Angus Cameron, a soldier in the 79th Highlanders during the Napoleonic wars, remained after 1815 with the British forces in France, where his son John Hillyard was born. In 1825, when Angus was posted to Kingston, the family emigrated to Upper Canada. Hillyard attended Kilkenny College in Ireland, then at Kingston the Midland District grammar school and a coeducational school, operated by the Reverend John Cruikshank. He was briefly a schoolmate of Oliver Mowat* and John A. Macdonald*.
Angus was posted to York (Toronto) in 1831, and John Hillyard was sent to Upper Canada College. He then began the study of law under Henry John Boulton*, a Family Compact Tory. The rebellion of 1837 broke out as his legal training was coming to an end; he was a captain in the Queen’s Rangers, and on 4 Dec. 1837 Colonel James FitzGibbon* sent him to Toronto to warn of the approach of William Lyon Mackenzie*’s forces. After serving briefly in the Toronto area he helped guard the Niagara frontier. Cameron was only 20 at the time, and the rebellion almost certainly helped to strengthen his conservative outlook.
Cameron returned to Toronto and was called to the bar of Upper Canada in 1838. He immediately formed a partnership with J. Godfrey Spragge*. In the 1840s Cameron built a lucrative law practice and a province-wide reputation. His work included criminal cases, and he produced two legal compendia. In 1840 he was a commissioner for the revision of the statutes of Upper Canada, and, as reporter to the Court of Queen’s Bench in Canada West (still popularly called Upper Canada) from 1843 to 1846, he was responsible for inaugurating the Upper Canada Law Reports; he was appointed a qc in 1846. He was chairman of the 1856–57 commission for the consolidation of the statutes of Upper Canada. In 1860 he was elected treasurer of the Law Society of Upper Canada, and was called to the bar of Quebec in 1869. In 1843 he had married Elizabeth, the third daughter of H. J. Boulton. She died in 1844, leaving a son, and in 1849 Cameron married Ellen Mallet, daughter of an American general. They had two sons and two daughters.
Politics, a sure route to public recognition, was an easy one for a lawyer to take, and Cameron entered both municipal and provincial politics in 1846. In Toronto he was elected alderman for St Andrew’s ward for 1846–47 and 1851–52, and for St John’s ward in 1854 (when his ward colleague was Ogle Robert Gowan) and 1855.
In the provincial sphere, Cameron gravitated naturally to the Conservative group. William Henry Draper, a “moderate Conservative,” was government leader, but only by maintaining a precarious balance in the Legislative Assembly. Draper was dependent upon the Upper Canadian moderates and Tories elected after Lord Metcalfe*’s emotional appeals in the election of 1844, and they were far from a homogeneous group. The moderates refused to follow the Tories, and the Tories in turn bitterly resented Draper’s support for the union of Upper and Lower Canada in 1841. The Tory faction was largely unrepresented in the Executive Council in order to retain the moderates’ support; it stood by Draper, but only because to desert him would be to betray Metcalfe and his policies. Moreover, Draper had virtually no personal following, and attracted few French Canadians.
Within this near-vacuum of leadership Cameron seemed an attractive young politician. Reasonably moderate, he was respected as a lawyer and an able administrator. His popularity in Toronto might be sufficient to check the Tories within their stronghold. Although Cameron, as counsel to the Corporation of King’s College, had opposed Draper’s university bill of 1845, he was immediately offered the non-ministerial post of solicitor general for Upper Canada. His acceptance on 1 July 1846 was a move hardly calculated to please the Tory faction: Draper had just dismissed a Tory leader, Henry Sherwood*, from that post “because he [had] not given the administration his wholehearted support.” In later years Cameron was taunted with the epithet, “extreme Conservative,” but in 1846 he clearly regarded himself as a follower of Draper, not of Sherwood. Cameron was asked to prepare two bills, one for a “uniform system of trying contested Elections,” the other for the “better administration of Justice in Upper Canada.” He had to be in the assembly in order to present his bills: the constituency of Cornwall was opened and Cameron was elected in August 1846.
With Sherwood, his potential successor, removed, Draper turned to a personal objective – the post of puisne judge of the Court of Queen’s Bench in Upper Canada. On the anticipated death of the incumbent, Christopher Hagerman*, Draper promptly resigned as attorney general, and was appointed judge on 28 May 1847. Draper had hoped to choose his own successor and first asked Cameron to take over as government leader and attorney general west. He declined, arguing “that retaining [the] position of solicitor-general of Upper Canada will best serve the interests of the Province.” Sherwood then became Draper’s successor. Cameron consoled himself with promotion to a seat on the Executive Council, obtained on 22 May 1847.
The invitation to lead the Upper Canadian Conservatives was the peak of Cameron’s political career. But he was not, in fact, in a position to succeed Draper. Cameron was asked because Draper was reluctant to surrender to Sherwood without at least token resistance. Draper’s following was small and his choice limited to a handful of men, notably Cameron, John A. Macdonald, and William Morris*. None of these had the identification with Metcalfe’s policies that enabled Draper to exercise some control over the Tories. Led by Allan MacNab* and Sherwood, the Tory members, the largest group of government supporters, were, consequently, now in control.
The political outlook, however, was unpleasant for the Conservatives. The new governor general, Lord Elgin [Bruce*], had no intention of bolstering up Sherwood’s regime when the assembly was dissolved late in 1847. In the ensuing elections the government suffered overwhelming electoral defeat by the Reformers under Robert Baldwin* and Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine*. Cameron lost in Kent to Malcolm Cameron and retained Cornwall by only 16 votes amid “evidence of gross irregularities.” With his colleagues he left office on 10 May 1848.
Cameron was one of the few Conservative leaders to survive the election, and in 1850 George Duck described him as “the great gun of the Tories . . . .” But with the Conservatives virtually obliterated in Lower Canada and reduced to a small rump in Upper Canada, revival would require an alliance with French Canadians and policies attractive to moderate opinion in Upper Canada. Cameron could not provide this kind of leadership – he had no important ties with French Canada or its leaders, and his prominent role in the Church of England as a close colleague of Bishop John Strachan* and a strong defender of the church’s claims to the clergy reserves alienated moderate opinion in Upper Canada. Dedicated to his church’s claims to sectarian educational rights and closely identified with MacNab and Toronto conservatism, Cameron, though able, energetic, and popular in many quarters, was not palatable to most Upper Canadian moderates.
Confusion within Reform ranks after 1849, moreover, did not assist the Conservatives. Instead, new Reform leaders, Francis Hincks* and Augustin-Norbert Morin*, won an easy electoral victory in 1851. Cameron was not a candidate. He may have wanted rest, having been ill several times during the 1840s. The less taxing municipal sphere occupied him politically until 1854. In that year he obtained control of the Toronto British Colonist from Samuel Thompson*, whom he retained as editor. According to Thompson, “It had been a semi-weekly paper; he [Cameron] offered to furnish five thousand dollars a year to make it a daily journal, independent of party control; stipulated for no personal influence over its editorial views, leaving them entirely in my discretion . . . .” The arrangement continued until 1857.
Cameron contested the Toronto seat in 1854. He and John George Bowes* won, defeating Henry Sherwood, William Henry Boulton, and George Percival Ridout. Cameron was now the senior member for Upper Canada’s largest and wealthiest town. His return coincided with the formation of the Morin–MacNab–Macdonald Liberal-Conservative administration, and Macdonald, who had earlier dismissed Cameron as lacking in “general intelligence, and . . . [as] altogether devoid of political reading,” successfully excluded him from the ministry.
Yet, in the crucial question facing the ministry, that of the clergy reserves, Cameron, striving to save as much as possible for the Church of England, differed from Macdonald only in degree. Macdonald was willing to see the favoured churches retain much of their income, and, in the settlement of 1854 whereby clergymen with recognized rights to income agreed to commute their claims, the Church of England, though losing its reserve lands, acquired a large capital fund which accrued to its benefit as the annuitants died. Cameron was given considerable credit for his church’s success; he had worked closely with Strachan, and during the protracted and delicate negotiations with many of the annuitants he represented both the government and the church. His vigour in upholding the vested rights of privilege, and his refusal to support the coalition in the introduction of an elective upper house, however, lumped him in many minds with the “old Tories.” His stand on these issues alienated Macdonald, who was further irritated in 1856 when Cameron supported George Brown in the latter’s dispute with Macdonald over the results of the committee Brown had chaired in 1849 investigating conditions at the Portsmouth Penitentiary.
The “Corrigan Incident” gave Cameron an opportunity to intensify his campaign against the coalition. In February 1856 a jury found seven Roman Catholics not guilty of Robert Corrigan*’s murder at Lotbinière, and many Upper Canadian Protestants screamed indignation. Cameron took their lead and on 7 March moved in parliament a resolution asking for publication of Judge Jean-François-Joseph Duval’s charge to the jury, which many Protestants felt had been irregular. It carried but the government, after winning a vote of confidence, refused to resign or to produce Duval’s charge. The damage had nevertheless been done: divided internally and battered from without by Cameron, Brown, Grits, and Rouges, MacNab’s government was disintegrating. MacNab was forced out as premier in May 1856 and Macdonald became leader of Upper Canada’s Conservatives. John Charles Dent* was doubtless correct when he commented that “Mr. Cameron was very willing to have greatness thrust upon him . . . .” Cameron was not, however, a viable alternative to MacNab. The considerations that militated against his success in 1847–51 remained factors of real importance. The “Corrigan Incident” indicated the extent to which he would make use of religious and racist passion to build a regional following in Upper Canada. French Canada was outside his range of potential appeal. Cameron now “went into continuing opposition” with an occasional and small following of disgruntled backbenchers. Whatever leadership aspirations he retained were smashed by the financial panic of 1857.
Like many of his contemporaries, Cameron had developed an interest in transportation ventures. He served as a director of the Toronto and Guelph Railway (absorbed in 1856 by the Grand Trunk Railway) and as solicitor for the Great Western Railway, and was part-owner of the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge Company. He was also heavily involved in insurance. He helped found the Canada Life Assurance Company in 1847 and was elected a director. He was chosen president of the Provincial Insurance Company in 1859, a position he held for many years, and later served as chairman of the Canadian board of the Edinburgh Life Insurance Company, and director of the Canadian Life Assurance Company and the Beaver Mutual Fire Insurance Association.
Among his earliest business ventures was the purchase of large tracts of land in the Toronto area, but it was heavy investments in speculative English securities, through the brokerage firm of Duncan Sherman and Company of New York, that made him a wealthy man. His paper profits in the boom of the mid–1850s were enormous. But in the fall of 1857 investment money dried up after a financial panic and an international depression followed. Canada was hard-hit because of her orgy of land and railway speculation during the early 1850s and a crop failure which coincided with the business crisis. Duncan Sherman and Company collapsed, and as Samuel Thompson explained: “Drafts on London were dishonoured, and Mr. Cameron’s bankers there, to protect themselves, sold without notice the securities he had placed in their hands . . . .”
Cameron’s losses reached the staggering sum of £100,000. Although he must have realized the futility of his decision, he promised to repay his debts pound for pound. What assets remained were liquidated or mortgaged, and much of his land was sold. Using Toronto properties as collateral, he borrowed large sums from the Church Society, in transactions later attacked as too much in his favour, and from the Commercial Bank. For the remainder of his life Cameron carried the burden of these heavy debts. All other interests suffered as he strove, chiefly through the practice of law, to raise large sums of money. When he died his liabilities still exceeded his assets by $200,000.
His political career also suffered immediate decline. The Colonist could no longer be supported; instead it became an organ of the Macdonald–George-Étienne Cartier regime. Much of his political independence vanished; within a few months he started to receive legal patronage from Macdonald.
One of Cameron’s strongest political bases had been his connection with the Church of England. Deeply committed to its welfare, and through it to education, he had served both causes in a variety of ways. With an early law partner, James McGill Strachan, the bishop’s son, he represented the missionary service and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Upper Canada. A representative Church of England leader, he was appointed to the first senate of the University of Toronto in 1850, and served on the University Visitation Commission in 1850, “to report a code of proper Statutes, Rules and Ordinances for the Government of the University [of Toronto],” and on the endowment board of the university and of Upper Canada College in 1850; he was a member of the council of the latter. When John Strachan established an Anglican university in the province following the creation of the University of Toronto, Cameron introduced Trinity College’s incorporation bill in the assembly in 1851. After several years on the council of Trinity College (and as a professor of law from 1852), he was elected to succeed Sir John Beverley Robinson* as second chancellor of the college in 1863, a post he held until his death. Cameron took these educational duties seriously; he founded scholarships and involved himself in financial management. Cameron was also sufficiently influential within the church to overcome Strachan’s reluctance to have a successor bishop appointed in the see of Toronto; at the diocesan synod in 1865 he moved the resolution that in 1866 permitted Alexander Neil Bethune to be elected coadjutor.
But grief as well as satisfaction came from his church connection. Division had been growing within the Church of England between the low church and high church parties. The rupture was made open in the election of the bishop of the new diocese of Huron in 1857. Trinity College became a focal point of accusations from the low churchmen, especially Bishop Benjamin Cronyn of Huron; in 1863 Huron College was founded in opposition to Trinity. Cameron’s close identification with Trinity College, and his association with Strachan and Bethune, both regarded as high churchmen, linked him with that group, and he lost his position as a representative churchman.
His association with the church’s investment fund also proved damaging. In 1861 the Toronto Globe charged that he could not account for the money from the clergy reserves commutation fund entrusted to him by the Church Society for investment. It claimed that he handed over instead “a quantity of land which though not of the full value of the monies placed in his hands was apparently accepted by the Church Society.” J. W. Gamble, chairman of the committee which administered the commutation fund, and C. J. Campbell of the executive committee, immediately issued “a flat denial” of the charges. The Globe, doubtless influenced by the fact that Gamble and Campbell were well-known Conservative stalwarts, stuck by its charge.
More serious was the accusation in May 1865 by W. H. Boulton, a cousin of Cameron’s first wife, that large sums administered by the Church Society had been manipulated by Cameron for his personal benefit, and that the Church Society, leading members of which were Cameron’s friends and political colleagues, camouflaged the situation through an inadequate auditing arrangement. The society’s management committee exonerated Cameron, but nonetheless his reputation suffered. The Globe pointed out that the Church Society refused to approve a full and competent audit, and it in fact established a strong case that Cameron had borrowed more than $40,000 from church funds on “insufficient” security.
With this series of reversals in business and church connections, and Macdonald confirmed as Conservative leader, Cameron, to retain any independent political authority, needed another power base. He had found it in the Orange order. During the 1840s and 1850s the Orange order had gained both in numbers and in respectability. It had moved, under Ogle R. Gowan’s leadership, into a continuing alliance with Conservative moderates like Macdonald. But George Benjamin* became grand master in 1846 and he tended towards Upper Canadian sectionalism, suspicious of any Conservative alliance with French-speaking Catholics and not unwilling to work with Reformers. A schism occurred in 1853 when Gowan attempted to unseat Benjamin as grand master. Cameron, who joined a Toronto lodge, no.507, in 1856, was given much credit for the reunion in that year of the two grand lodges, under George Lyttleton Allen. Cameron was a follower of Benjamin, but, although willing to oppose the Cartier–Macdonald government on regional and racial issues, he was not in favour of an alliance with the Reformers. He was elected grand master in 1859 and served until 1870, when he was succeeded by Mackenzie Bowell*.
The Orange order became the backbone of lower class support for the Conservative party. Although Cameron’s role as leader of this group has sometimes appeared to be anomalous, he was doing what the Duke of Cumberland, a grand master of the British lodges, had done earlier in Britain. He might be using the order for his own political ends, but Orangemen would also benefit in obtaining a leader who was a member of the social élite – a man who combined prestige with organizational ability. As grand master, Cameron quickly undertook a major reorganization, establishing three grand lodges in the Canadas, for Western Canada, Central Canada, and Eastern Canada, in 1859. A grand lodge was provided for each of the Maritime colonies, and each of the three western districts of Saskatchewan, British Columbia, and Vancouver Island was given permission to form a separate grand lodge as soon as it had ten primary lodges; by 1863 organizational work was under way in both Newfoundland and British Columbia. Cameron also involved himself in international Orange activities.
A crisis involving the order was occasioned in 1860 by the visit of the Prince of Wales to Canada. Because the Orange order was banned in Britain, the prince was advised by the Duke of Newcastle to give no official recognition to the order in Canada. Orangemen were infuriated by what they regarded as a slur on their loyalty. In a series of comic-opera incidents at Kingston and elsewhere, Orangemen strove to have the prince pass under an Orange arch or to recognize the order in some equivalent manner. Newcastle was generally successful in avoiding official contact with the Orangemen, who directed much of their anger at the Canadian government, and at Macdonald in particular. Cameron muted Orange fury with Macdonald while collecting signatures for a petition, protesting Newcastle’s advice and affirming Orange loyalty, which he took to London in 1861. His motivation is difficult to assess. Perhaps it was to prevent the “Orange Order from breaking completely away from Sir John Macdonald,” as Richard Cartwright* thought, but his massive petition has been seen by a modern historian, D. G. Creighton*, as a threat to the Conservative ministry: “Acclaimed once more, brought suddenly back to something like his old prominence, Cameron was virtually leading an anti-ministerial wing of Conservative Orangemen . . . .” Certainly Cameron sought more influence, which would add to his prestige and give him additional patronage power and a voice in making policy. Consistent with his Benjaminite views, he was a strong supporter of representation by population, and by advocating regional policies he was strengthening his political position in Upper Canada. But his personal financial struggles precluded the accepting of office. What Cameron wanted was influence, not formal leadership. His new base could possibly give him such influence within the Conservative party as Macdonald’s ally, if Macdonald could accept the fact that Cameron was no threat to his leadership.
Cameron ran against George Brown in the Toronto by-election resulting from the accession to power of the Reformers in 1858, but lost in this endeavour, which was probably not very serious. In the general election of 1861, with his finances improving, he successfully contested Peel, an Orange stronghold, and held the seat until 1867. Back in the assembly after an absence of four years (he was not a candidate in 1857), he found a troubled ministry. The cabinet underwent chronic reorganization in 1861–62, and Macdonald had difficulty maintaining his position. Representation by population had become so popular in Upper Canada that many Conservatives espoused it in spite of Macdonald’s stubborn refusal to endanger his alliance with the French Canadians by it. Conservative advocates of rep by pop would have to be admitted to the cabinet, but Macdonald would not have Cameron. There is no conclusive evidence, however, that Cameron wanted to enter the cabinet in 1861. The next year he claimed that he was asked but this claim too is unsupported. Cameron did cooperate with Macdonald in the delicate task of cabinet reorganization in 1862, as intermediary between Macdonald and Thomas Clark Street, a rep by pop Tory from Welland.
After the fall of the Cartier–Macdonald government in 1862, Macdonald overcame his old suspicion that Cameron was a rival for leadership, and Cameron in turn was willing to accept a minor position in Canadian public life. Their rapprochement was sealed at a public dinner in February 1863, when Cameron affirmed his loyalty to Macdonald and assured Conservatives that their differences had been resolved. Differences of view could now prove useful rather than harmful; in 1863, for example, when Cameron voted against third reading of Richard Scott*’s education bill, he helped soothe militantly Protestant Conservatives who saw the bill as a manifestation of “French domination.” So firm was the reconciliation that Macdonald attempted to bring Cameron into the short-lived Macdonald–Sir Étienne-Paschal Taché* government of 1864. Unable to have the attorney generalship, Cameron refused, “as I would never take any office in any Ministry which was outside of my profession.” Yet Cameron knew that as leader Macdonald must be attorney general west; he himself could not give up the full-time practice of law. But he would support the ministry: “I must show myself in the House . . . or my friends here will think that there is something wrong, and that I am not giving the government the support which they ought to receive.”
Cameron supported confederation in 1865, but with reservations. He was enthusiastic about transcontinental expansion and anxious to see rep by pop effected; he also felt that the alternative to confederation was annexation to the United States. He preferred legislative union, but he was confident that it would come. His main objection was to the lack of public involvement in the confederation movement. He wanted “a constitutional appeal . . . to the people,” but was resigned to the failure of a resolution to that effect. When the new constitution for Ontario was debated, Cameron moved for a two-house legislature; this motion too was lost.
The Fenian troubles of 1866 illustrated Cameron’s usefulness to the regime; Lord Monck* asked him to assist in muting Orange–Catholic hostility, as “there is a certain amount of bad feeling beginning to exhibit itself between Protestants and Roman Catholics . . . in connection with the late Fenian raids . . . .” Later in 1866 and in 1867 he was associated with Robert Alexander Harrison in the prosecution of many Fenian invaders. In 1868 he displayed his professional independence by defending Patrick James Whelan*, the murderer of D’Arcy McGee*.
In 1867 Cameron contested Peel for the House of Commons. He was out of the country for most of the campaign, attending the founding meeting of the Imperial Grand Orange Council at London, and he needed assistance from Macdonald in a contest so doubtful that Macdonald postponed it for as long as he could (a practice made possible by not holding simultaneous elections). Cameron ultimately won a narrow victory.
Cameron’s political standing declined rapidly after 1867. In 1856 Macdonald had offered Cameron a judgeship; when a judicial appointment for Cameron was mooted in 1867, Macdonald dismissed it. Later in 1867 Cameron wanted the speakership of the House of Commons and “pressed” his claims “vigorously”; James Cockburn* obtained the post. As his independence declined, Cameron’s loyalty to the ministry increased. He sometimes assisted the prime minister in drafting legislation, and often acted for Conservatives in contested election cases. Liberal leader Edward Blake* regarded Cameron as a ministerial tool, describing him in 1873 as “the gentleman who had never hesitated to come to the front on doubtful and desperate issues . . . .”
Cameron’s involvement in the Pacific scandal dramatically reveals his political decline. In 1873 he became chairman of the parliamentary committee appointed to investigate Lucius S. Huntington*’s charge of a causal tie between the grant of the transcontinental railway charter to Hugh Allan* and Allan’s massive contributions to the Conservative campaign in 1872. Cameron assisted the ministry’s delaying tactics by moving on 5 May 1873 the postponement of the committee’s proceedings until 2 July, when parliament would be in session. The grounds he gave for the delay were specious: the impossibility of proceeding with the investigation in the absence of Cartier and John Joseph Caldwell Abbott*. The Liberals regarded him with suspicion, and Alexander Mackenzie* believed that Cameron himself had obtained a $5,000 “indefinite loan” from Allan – “such is the Chairman of the investigating Committee.” Macdonald claimed that he had not consented to Cameron’s appointment to the parliamentary committee, and had not suggested his name.
Cameron had in fact obtained $5,000 from Allan, through Macdonald, to finance his 1872 election campaigns in Peel and Cardwell. He lost Peel in 1872 but was elected for Cardwell, a safe Orange and Conservative seat, where he had asked for Macdonald’s assistance to obtain the nomination. He retained Cardwell in 1874 in spite of the Liberal sweep, and was still a member when he suffered a heart attack and died at “The Meadows,” his Toronto home, on 14 Nov. 1876.
Well educated, a gifted lawyer, and with close ties to the provincial élite, John Hillyard Cameron showed considerable promise during his early career. His initial political base – Toronto conservatism, the Church of England, and the business community – was not strong enough to propel him into a position of power in a party dominated after 1856 by John A. Macdonald, and his situation was badly compromised when his large fortune vanished in 1857. His later association with the Orange order and with sectional and regional policies such as representation by population failed to overcome the crippling effects of these losses. Thus his political position was never strong, and has probably been overestimated by both his contemporaries and historians. He was nevertheless essentially a political man, who remained in parliament until his career there had come to involve both pain and humiliation.
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Cite This Article
Donald Swainson, “CAMERON, JOHN HILLYARD,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 31, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cameron_john_hillyard_10E.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:||Donald Swainson|
|Title of Article:||CAMERON, JOHN HILLYARD|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1972|
|Year of revision:||1972|
|Access Date:||May 31, 2023|