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DALTON, THOMAS, businessman, author, politician, and newspaperman; b. April or May 1782, baptized 28 June in Birmingham, England, son of William Dalton and Rebecca Watson; m. first 30 May 1803 Sarah Pratt (d. 1804), and they had one son; m. secondly 9 Nov. 1805 Sophia Simms*, and they had three sons and four daughters; d. 26 Oct. 1840 in Toronto.

Thomas Dalton, the son of a Birmingham factor, claimed to possess “a portion of natural talents improved by industry, exalted to usefulness by experience,” and by intensive reading, but never professed to having received much formal education. He gained some familiarity with international commerce and finance, presumably through involvement in his father’s business at home and abroad, which included supplying the Newfoundland fishing trade with hardware and domestic goods.

In 1803, just 21 and newly married, he took over the business when his father was “unjustly detained” in France by Napoleon’s interning all British civilians of militia age. In January 1808 Thomas was forced into bankruptcy, and about 1810 he engaged himself as Newfoundland agent to prominent merchant James Henry Attwood. With his second wife, he moved his growing family to St John’s where he quickly established himself in local society. By 1814 he was back on his feet, with his own mercantile business.

Dalton soon joined forces with John Ryan, a local Irish merchant. They were successful for a year or two, but the general economic collapse that followed the wars in Europe and America left them with debts of several thousand pounds which they were unable to pay. In November 1816 Dalton found himself bankrupt for the second time in less than ten years. The following February he left Newfoundland for England, but a few months later the family, accompanied by Thomas’s father and younger brother William, came out to Upper Canada prepared to try again.

In December 1817 Thomas obtained a few acres of land on Lake Ontario just west of Kingston and, after persuading a local businessman, Smith Bartlet, to come in as a partner, set up a brewery. The partnership was dissolved amicably in June 1819 and Dalton carried on the Kingston Brewery alone. The business expanded rapidly. Historian Maxwell Leroy Magill has described the brewery as “the largest and most prosperous establishment of its kind in the province” and Dalton himself boasted that it was “one of the best that was ever established in this Province.”

In 1818, while awaiting royal assent to a charter for the proposed Bank of Upper Canada at Kingston, some local merchants set up a private bank of the same name. Dalton, a lifelong believer in the efficacy of banks in stimulating industry, subscribed for a modest ten shares. After being elected a director in June 1819, without his prior approval, he increased his participation significantly until he was the second largest investor, and he borrowed heavily from the bank to expand his business. With his considerable experience and forceful manner, he was able to help the bank over some rough patches in its first years but, when a combination of sloppy business practice, internal dissension, and finally a fraudulent conspiracy involving the president, Benjamin Whitney, brought the institution tumbling down in September 1822, no effort of his could save the situation.

In December, to cover his debts to the bank, Dalton posted a £7,000 personal bond and took a £3,600 mortgage on his brewery property. With such undertakings from the major debtors, the bank’s reserves were sufficient to cover all its obligations. However, a banking group in York (Toronto), headed by William Allan*, had appropriated the charter being prepared for the Kingston bank and had been incorporated in 1821 as the official Bank of Upper Canada. Thus, despite the adequate reserves, in March 1823 the provincial legislature stepped in with a hastily drafted bank act declaring Kingston’s “pretended” bank illegal and making its directors personally liable for its debts. Three Kingston tories, John Macaulay*, George Herchmer Markland*, and John Kirby, were appointed to a commission – “one family-compacted junto” Dalton called them in July – to take over the bank’s affairs. Hardest hit among the directors were those who were in trade, for they were prohibited from selling anything until the bank’s business could be settled. This provision was repealed in a less severe bank act passed in January 1824. Although later that year Dalton and Bartlet were successfully defended by John Beverley Robinson* in suits brought by the commissioners, the bank affair effectively ruined Dalton.

The failure of the bank and the legislature’s interference were heatedly debated in the newspapers of Kingston, York, and even Montreal, as well as in many privately published pamphlets. Using the pages of the Upper Canada Herald of Kingston and the Free Press and the Scribbler of Montreal, Dalton turned out many pieces, in a wide variety of styles. Some appeared over his own signature, and several anonymous articles clearly suggest his hand. In one of the best of the latter, published in the Upper Canada Herald of 11 Nov. 1823, he ridiculed the bank commissioners in a full front-page satire purporting to be their long-awaited first report. In 1824, believing that the author of the Draconian 1823 bank act had been Christopher Alexander Hagerman, a fellow director and the bank’s solicitor, and finding himself singled out by Hagerman for much of the blame for the failure, Dalton published a long pamphlet fiercely attacking Hagerman while stoutly defending his own position.

Dalton decided that the best place to fight his battle was in the House of Assembly. He was known to have radical sympathies and, when he stood for Kingston in 1824, there was much nervous closing of ranks by tories to block his election; he dropped out at the last minute to ensure Hagerman’s defeat. When he did manage to take one of the two Frontenac seats in the reform wave of 1828, he was seen by many tories as the worst of a bad lot. In March 1829 he managed to get a new bank act passed which provided for arbitration of all the old debts; but, in Dalton’s case, the new commissioners (including his erstwhile friend and fellow freemason Hugh Christopher Thomson*) refused to accept the arbitration award (which had reduced Dalton’s obligation to a fraction of the original amount). At this point Dalton turned his back on the whole business, claiming that the commission owed him more, for expenses and lost business, than he had ever owed the bank. Dalton left politics in 1830 but the controversy surrounding the bank continued for nearly 20 years.

To keep his brewery going, Dalton had placed it in other hands in July 1823. The less severe 1824 bank act had permitted him to take it back that July, but the interim arrangement had been costly and the manager had absconded with the books, so that many of the outstanding accounts could never be recovered. Short of capital, Dalton struggled on desperately for a few more years but in November 1828 the brewery was badly damaged by fire and he closed it down permanently. In December 1830 the bank commissioners finally released his brewery land and four months later he sold it to Thomas Molson*.

For some years Dalton had had an interest in publishing. It first appeared in 1824 when he approached Macaulay about buying the Kingston Chronicle, but, according to Dalton, his career as a “writer for the public” had begun around 1820 with some anonymous articles in the Upper Canada Herald. Nothing has been identified for this early date but within a few years, in addition to the numerous publications concerning the bank, he had produced two long Hudibrastic poems (An address, to the liege men of every British colony and province in the world appeared in 1822 and “Kingston” was offered for subscription in 1823). In 1824 he published A warning to the Canadian Land Company, a pamphlet in which he pointed out flaws, and the consequent risks for investors, in the prospectus of the Canada Company [see John Galt]. Sensing that his advice might be largely ignored if he used his own name, he signed the pamphlet “An Englishman resident in Upper Canada.”

On 12 Nov. 1829 Dalton launched his most important project, the Patriot and Farmer’s Monitor Although this weekly newspaper seems to have quickly gained a fair share of popularity, profits were slow in coming. In October 1830, in collaboration with Bishop Alexander McDonell, Dalton began printing the Catholic, an official Roman Catholic weekly edited by William Peter MacDonald, but it lasted for only one year. Dalton tried, unsuccessfully, to sell the Patriot in April 1832 (offering to stay on as editor until the end of the year) and that autumn he gave up on Kingston. He moved his paper and his family to York to reach a larger and, he hoped, more generous market and, of course, to be closer to the centre of political activity in the province. Publication at York began on 7 Dec. 1832 and within a year the Patriot was a semi-weekly.

Thomas Dalton, the editor of the Patriot, was not the man many thought they knew. Tom Dalton, the brewer, had supported Robert Gourlay*, joined William Lyon Mackenzie*’s circle, and counted the notorious Bidwells, Barnabas* and Marshall Spring*, among his friends. His literary assaults on the administration of Lieutenant Governor Sir Peregrine Maitland*, on the tories generally, and on the bank commissioners particularly had certainly done little to ingratiate him with either the Kingston establishment or the government leaders at York. In fact, his independence, truculent manner, and plain speech, as well as his politics, had gained him enemies in high places. Several petitions sent by him to the legislature in the 1820s, seeking redress and compensation for injuries financial, legal, and physical, received little more than the formal recognition required by official etiquette. But with the beginning of the Patriot in 1829, a change seemed to take place. With Common Sense as its motto, the paper had a reform, but hardly radical, editorial tone. As implied by its name, allegiance to the crown and respect for British tradition were fundamental to its policy and, though strongly critical of perceived shortcomings of the administration, it cultivated the loyal element of the population.

By the time of his move to York in 1832, Dalton had pretty well given up his former radical associates and was courting, and to some extent being courted by, many of his old adversaries. In fact, this process seems to have begun during his stint in the assembly, where he had voted against many reform amendments and obstructive riders following the passage of the revised bank act in March 1829. Mackenzie, the most visible radical, was increasingly criticized by Dalton. Perhaps surprisingly, one of Dalton’s new supporters was an old enemy, John Strachan*, and fellow editors, such as Egerton Ryerson*, began to notice in print that the Patriot had been granted the right to speak for the Church of England. Even the breach with Hagerman was mended in 1833 when Dalton found out that it had been Henry John Boulton*, then solicitor general and a stockholder in the bank, who had drawn up and promoted the 1823 bank act, seemingly to deflect liability from himself.

Dalton’s apparent political conversion has given rise to considerable speculation and comment. His detractors insisted then, as they do today, that it was a matter of self-serving opportunism rather than of principle; Mackenzie claimed that “the Editor of the Patriot had been hired and brought to York for the express purpose of putting down the Advocate.” On the other hand, Dalton’s friends and the contributors to his columns commended his loyalty to British traditions and his firm belief in British freedom as the “light of the world.” On balance, his conversion would seem to have been no more than a growing disenchantment with old radical associates. In fact, Dalton had no objection to being labelled a reformer for, as he said, that was surely the role of every concerned citizen. So, as editor, Dalton embraced conservative principles throughout his short career, while never abandoning his rather quixotic reforming zeal, and the Patriot became the most influential conservative newspaper in the province.

Something of a visionary, Dalton foresaw a great future for his adopted country and he did his utmost to make his fellow citizens see it too. For example, he is credited with being, in 1834, the first to dream of a British North America spanned from sea to sea by a transportation network driven by steam. Despite his experience in Kingston, Dalton continued to believe in the value of banks and he was active in encouraging their growth; his perpetual shortage of personal funds, however, ultimately prevented the publication of his much-advertised book “Money is power.”

Dalton was the sworn enemy of American Methodists and fought Ryerson’s Christian Guardian tooth and nail from its inception in 1829. Never an admirer of the American “democratic” way of life (considering it “rule by the mob”) and constantly worried about the influence it could have on the young colony, he complained that Methodist circuit riders from the United States were spreading political doctrine not far short of sedition. Perhaps more than any other subject, however, the continuing “intransigence” of the French Canadians kept Dalton’s blood boiling. He saw “the perpetuation of the French language” as the “bitterest curse to the Lower Canadians . . . , the great political error of the time.” By 1831 he was supporting a union of the two Canadas, to allow Upper Canada to escape from the lower province’s stranglehold on customs revenue and to bury the troublesome French vote under a much larger British one. With time his vision grew wider. In October 1836 he wrote that consolidation of all five North American provinces was “the only union that ought to be considered for a single instant, and this should be effected with all possible speed.” He was optimistic about the mission of Lord Durham [Lambton], viewing it as recognition at last of the importance of the North American colonies to the empire, but he was disappointed with the final proposals. He launched salvo after salvo at the “Base, imbecile, treacherous, profligate Whig Govt” in London until, finally, late in 1839 the new governor-in-chief, Charles Edward Poulett Thomson, ordered the cancellation of the Patriot’s contract for publishing government advertisements, thus greatly exacerbating Dalton’s financial problems and adding to his frustrations.

A lifetime of struggling against all sorts of real and imagined adversaries finally proved more than even Dalton’s stubborn spirit could resist and in March 1840 he suffered a serious stroke. By August he was able to resume his place at the newspaper, but he was a broken man. On 26 October a second massive stroke brought his earthly troubles swiftly to an end. The Patriot was carried on by his wife for another eight years and then was sold to Edward George O’Brien*.

Thomas Dalton was described in an obituary as “friendly, amiable and cheerful.” In his public life he was an enthusiastic, forceful writer who took a bold stand on all the issues of the day, often using such excessively strong language that even his family objected. John George Bourinot* was to remark that “if his zeal frequently carried him into intemperate discussion of public questions, the ardour of the times must be for him . . . the best apology.” Yet he was sued for libel only once during his career, for an item inserted in the Patriot during his absence following his stroke. A political as well as an editorial adversary, Francis Hincks* of the Toronto Examiner, spoke of him as “a vigorous political writer, tho’ inclined to express himself with too much bitterness towards his opponents,” but blamed others for that and added, “We are unconscious of having ever entertained towards him any feelings of animosity.” In reporting Dalton’s death, the Cobourg Star called him “assuredly one of the ablest and most strenuous supporters of conservative principles the provincial press has exhibited,” one “whose loss is truly to be deplored by every loyal British subject.” Toronto’s Commercial Herald called him “a man of strong and fervid mind . . . an Englishman in heart and mind as well as by birth.” A modern historian, Sydney Francis Wise, maintains that Dalton “had an importance in forming the conservative consciousness in Upper Canada that has never been appreciated.”

Ian R. Dalton

[Thomas Dalton’s pamphlet attacking Hagerman is entitled “By the words of thy own mouth will I condemn thee”; to Christopher Alexander Hagerman, esq. ([Kingston, Ont.?, 1824]); a copy of it is available at the MTRL. Much of Dalton’s correspondence with government officials, and their responses, can be found in PAC, RG 1, E3; RG 5, A1; and RG 7, G16C; and in PRO, CO 42. Dalton’s name appears in a large number of private collections, including the Macaulay family papers (ms 78), the Mackenzie–Lindsey papers (ms 516), and the journal of Matthew Teefy (MU 2113, 1858, no.16) at the AO; the W. D. Powell papers at the MTRL; and the Egerton Ryerson papers at the UCC-C.

Dalton’s early years in Kingston are best described in I. R. Dalton, “The Kingston Brewery of Thomas Dalton,” Historic Kingston, no.26 (1978): 38–50; a revised copy of this study (typescript, 1979) is available at AO, MU 7598, no.8. His connection to the bank is thoroughly covered in the same author’s manuscript, “Thomas Dalton and the ‘pretended’ Bank” (Toronto, 1987); the surest way to follow the complicated trail in published sources is through newspapers, especially the Upper Canada Herald and the Kingston Chronicle, and through the Journal (and appendices) of the House of Assembly. His years as a publisher are best investigated by studying the Patriot itself.  i.r.d.]. St James’ Cemetery and Crematorium (Toronto), Record of burials. Bytown Gazette, and Ottawa and Rideau Advertiser, 12 Nov. 1840. Cobourg Star, 29 Oct. 1840. Commercial Herald (Toronto), 28 Oct. 1840. Examiner (Toronto), 28 Oct. 1840. Toronto Patriot, 27 Oct. 1840. J. G. Bourinot, The intellectual development of the Canadian people: an historical review (Toronto, 1881). Patterson, “Studies in elections in U.C.” Adam Shortt, “The history of Canadian currency, banking and exchange . . . ,” Canadian Bankers’ Assoc., Journal (Toronto), 8 (1900–1): 1–15, 145–64, 227–43, 305–26. S. F. Wise, “Tory factionalism: Kingston elections and Upper Canadian politics, 1820–1836,” OH, 57 (1965): 205–25.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Ian R. Dalton, “DALTON, THOMAS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 3, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/dalton_thomas_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:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/dalton_thomas_7E.html
Author of Article:   Ian R. Dalton
Title of Article:   DALTON, THOMAS
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1988
Year of revision:   1988
Access Date:   December 3, 2023