HARRISON, SAMUEL BEALEY, lawyer, miller, politician, and judge; b. 4 March 1802 in Manchester, England, son of John and Mary Harrison; d. 23 July 1867 at Toronto, Ont.
Samuel Bealey Harrison grew up at Foxley Grove in Berkshire and early turned towards a legal career. At 17 he was admitted to the Middle Temple as a special pleader; he gave up this practice when he was called to the bar in 1832. He then carried on a private law practice in London and compiled Harrison’s digests, an analytical digest in four volumes of all the important cases determined in the House of Lords, the courts of common law in banc and nisi prius, and the Court of Bankruptcy from 1756 to 1834. Also important was his revision of the standard edition of William Woodfall’s The law of landlord and tenant . . . (probably published in 1837).
Harrison’s promising legal career in England was cut short by ill health, and in 1837 he dramatically altered his life. Immigrating to Upper Canada, he bought a section of the former Mississauga Indian reserve near Bronte (Oakville), where he built a grist and saw mill and prepared for the life of a gentleman farmer and miller.
Nevertheless, his legal writing was well known, and men of his ability were desperately lacking in the colony. In June 1839, “most unexpectedly to himself,” he was requested to act as civil secretary to Sir George Arthur*, lieutenant governor of Upper Canada. For the next four years Harrison was also involved in politics and renewed his legal activities. He was called to the Upper Canadian bar in September 1839 and was appointed a justice of the peace for the province in 1840.
It was his brief political interlude that proved to be the most remarkable phase of Harrison’s public life. Yet it was a role that has proved singularly difficult to evaluate. From 1841 to 1844 he acted as government leader in the assembly of the Province of Canada, rivalled Robert Baldwin* for control of the Upper Canadian Reformers, and played a critical part in the struggle for responsible government. But all this was accomplished in a “behind-the-scenes” fashion that mystified his contemporaries and left a record so sparse that historians long ignored him. He made no appeals to the public, deliberately refrained from committing himself in writing, was reluctant to do so in conversation, and was ambiguous when he did talk. The historian John William Kaye described him as “unassuming and unaffected[;] making no display of his talents, he still got through his business in such a manner as to justify a belief in their existence.”
As civil secretary Harrison conducted careful investigations and prepared several reports for the lieutenant governor and the Executive and Legislative councils on the economic and social problems facing the colony in the chaotic aftermath of 1837–38. Perhaps it was his genius for clear and unemotional analysis which commended him to the new governor general, Charles Poulett Thomson*, who in August 1840 became Lord Sydenham. After leaving Arthur’s service Harrison became a key man in Sydenham’s plans.
Once he had achieved the union of Upper and Lower Canada in February 1841, Sydenham set out to make the union work. This was not easy since the French Canadians hated its assimilationist aims, and the Upper Canadian Tories disliked it almost as strongly for wedding them to the French Canadians. The Reformers who followed Baldwin, on the other hand, hoped to use the union as a vehicle for achieving responsible government, a principle the governor was under instructions from the Colonial Office not to concede. Yet Sydenham was optimistic: “I can make a middle Reforming party I am sure which can put down both [the Tories and Baldwin Reformers].” Harrison, whom Sydenham described as “the best man I have,” was to lead this projected party.
On 13 Feb. 1841 Harrison was appointed to the Executive Council as provincial secretary for Canada West. Sydenham’s skilfully assembled council was comprised of men of every political group in Canada except French Canadians. Yet soon the Upper Canadian Tories and Reformers were in opposition. Through gerrymander, patronage, and the use of troops the governor secured in the election that spring an over-all majority of moderate Reformers and Conservatives committed to support him, but Harrison was defeated in Hamilton by the Tory leader Sir Allan Napier MacNab. An attempt in Kent led to a further defeat, but he was finally returned for Kingston on 1 July 1841.
Once in the assembly, Harrison took control of the largest single block of members, the “Moderate Reformers,” acting as co-government leader with William Henry Draper* who commanded the small group of “Moderate Conservatives.” In practice Harrison was soon handling virtually all government initiatives in the assembly, since Sydenham disliked Draper and tended to use him only when oratorical eloquence was needed. In 1842 came the governor’s reorganization of the colony which, backed by a £1,500,000 loan from the imperial government, introduced a brief period of remarkable prosperity. To Harrison, whose administrative ability Sydenham greatly admired, and to Dominick Daly, the provincial secretary for Canada East, was entrusted, in Sydenham’s own words, “the whole internal management of the Province” for this reorganization. Most of the imperial loan was to be spent on the construction and improvement of canals, and Harrison was deeply involved in the planning. He was one of the five members of the newly created Board of Works under the chairmanship of H. H. Killaly*.
In the legislature Harrison and his colleagues introduced the Common Schools Bill which established a general system of publicly supported primary schools in the united province. In August 1841 they also introduced the District Councils Bill which first established elective municipal government in Canada West. Harrison appears to have done most of the drafting of these two bills. The rough passage of the second measure must have strengthened Harrison’s identity as a moderate, attacked as it was by the Tories for its “unprecedented liberalism” which would “pave the way for the introduction of Republican institutions” and by some Reformers as “a complete system of despotism” which, because it provided for the appointment of district wardens, centralized power to an extent “for which there is no example in the whole civilized world.”
The main political crisis of the session came on 3 Sept. 1841 when Robert Baldwin moved five resolutions calling explicitly for responsible government. Since many moderate supporters of the government were pledged to this principle, the government was endangered, but both Harrison and Sydenham were prepared. Each of Baldwin’s resolutions was parried with a counter-resolution by Harrison which sounded much the same and was accepted by the members, including Baldwin, who were committed to responsible government. Though greeted at the time as “the Magna Carta of responsible government,” the Harrison resolutions ignored the principle of a governor having to act on the advice of the Executive Council, stating only that he should listen to such advice and that the council “ought” to be comprised of persons having the confidence of the assembly – concessions well within the colonial secretary’s instructions to Sydenham.
Yet it was important that many Canadians now thought responsible government an established fact. Harrison himself, though he had helped Sydenham’s manœuvre, was willing to make more of the principles behind the resolutions when dealing with Sydenham’s successor, Sir Charles Bagot*. In a kind of double-bluff Harrison had helped to defeat Baldwin’s resolutions, yet he had actually made a move towards real responsible government at the same time. Nor did his performance damage Harrison’s reputation as a “good liberal.” Baldwin, with five to seven supporters, could not afford to offend the 19 to 21 moderates from Upper Canada who consistently supported Harrison, and had to reaffirm his political confidence in Harrison, though not in the whole ministry. In private, the “ultra” Reformers were confused and annoyed by Harrison’s performance. Francis Hincks* described him as “a spy and a traitor,” and shortly afterwards as “at heart a liberal.”
Harrison’s political importance initially declined under the administration of Bagot, because Draper, whom Bagot found more congenial, became government leader. Many moderate Reformers who had supported Harrison and Sydenham were beginning to drift to Baldwin’s party once Sydenham’s magical brilliance had been removed. Characteristically, Harrison did not appear resentful or perturbed. Perhaps he considered his practical administrative duties more important than the degree of political support he could muster in the assembly. In February 1842 he was named one of three directors of the Welland Canal which had been taken over by the government and in March one of the three commissioners superintending work on the Lachine Canal. Nevertheless, the defection of Harrison’s former supporters precipitated the crisis of Bagot’s administration.
Bagot was aware of what was happening, and attempted to counterbalance the sagging support in the centre of his ministry by strengthening the left and the right. Hincks, impressed by the practical achievements of the Sydenham régime, had broken with Baldwin and entered the council in June 1842; and in July so did Henry Sherwood*, the arch-Tory mayor of Toronto. But this apparent master stroke to broaden the government’s support did not achieve its purpose. In a letter to Bagot on 11 July 1842 Harrison had in his usual manner dispassionately analysed the stand of each member of the assembly and proved conclusively that the government would fall when the assembly met in September if it remained constituted as at present, and that neither Sherwood nor Hincks would strengthen it. Harrison added that he would feel bound to resign from the Executive Council in accordance with his resolutions of the previous September; other councillors would undoubtedly do likewise. Bagot could then govern personally, dissolve the assembly, or call on Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine to form a new ministry. Harrison felt that the only sensible course was the third one, and that if Bagot took it quickly and on his own initiative he would avoid the humiliation of having it forced upon him later.
Draper took a similar position. Like Harrison, he was convinced that the key was to abandon the original assimilationist aims of the union and invite La Fontaine’s Reform group into the government. Draper was willing to resign to facilitate matters. The joint advice from what one historian has aptly termed “the right and left bowers” of his ministry convinced the governor. On 28 July 1842 he wrote to Colonial Secretary Lord Stanley asking for permission to admit the French members. Much of Bagot’s crucial dispatch was a paraphrase of Harrison’s letter; indeed, a good deal of it was direct, though unacknowledged, quotation.
The imperial government rejected Bagot’s request. However, parliament met on 8 September, before Stanley’s dispatch had reached Canada, and it became clear that the government would soon fall. Bagot invited La Fontaine to join the ministry, but La Fontaine’s demand for four seats in the council and for the inclusion of Baldwin caused Bagot to hesitate. Harrison and Draper on 12 September called an extraordinary meeting of the Executive Council in the absence of the governor and its members threatened to resign en masse if La Fontaine’s demands were not met. Bagot acceded; the Tory councillors left, and the council was reconstructed with moderate Reformers and the Baldwin–La Fontaine group. Harrison, still provincial secretary, was named government leader in the assembly.
Although Harrison was recognized as head of the new ministry by Bagot, the council rallied behind Baldwin and La Fontaine in creating an all-Reform administration. Only the “non-political” Dominick Daly and Harrison remained independent of Baldwin’s direction. When in 1843 the capital was moved from Kingston to Montreal, Harrison, as member for Kingston, resigned in protest from the Executive Council on 30 September. Characteristically he did so after publicly stating he was in no way bound to take such a course. Equally characteristically, when Baldwin and Hincks hoped to dissuade him, they could think of no one on close enough personal terms with Harrison to approach him. During Bagot’s administration Harrison had played his most constructive role in politics, but also demonstrated his inability or unwillingness to be either a true party leader or a good follower.
Governor Sir Charles Metcalfe*, who had succeeded Bagot in March 1843, was under orders from the Colonial Office to make no more concessions to the Reformers and to keep patronage firmly in his own hands. When Baldwin and La Fontaine challenged him on the latter point Metcalfe stood by his instructions, and the whole of the Executive Council except Daly resigned late in November 1843. On 1 December the former ministers read out in the assembly the Harrison resolutions of September 1841, claiming that Metcalfe had contravened them; resolutions supporting Baldwin and La Fontaine were passed by the assembly. Metcalfe denied abrogating the Harrison resolutions and prorogued the assembly.
Harrison’s position as author of the resolutions and as the most prominent independent Reformer was pivotal, but he again acted with studious ambiguity. In the debate of 1 December he “appeared partly to approve, partly to condemn the late ministry,” supporting the ex-ministers on some divisions while abstaining on others. When Metcalfe invited him to join a caretaker government with Daly, Draper, and Denis-Benjamin Viger* he first accepted and then declined, pleading confusion in his personal finances. In January 1844 Hincks made two determined efforts to get Harrison to pledge he would not actively oppose the ex-ministers, but Harrison’s response was non-committal. Then, towards the end of the month, Harrison sounded out back-bench Reformers to see how many would support him if he formed a government himself – a course Egerton Ryerson* had long been urging on him. When this attempt came to nothing, Harrison professed a desire to retire from politics and asked Metcalfe to appoint him to the next vacancy in the judiciary. Metcalfe, though nearly as annoyed at Harrison as Hincks and Baldwin were, grudgingly acquiesced.
Harrison’s actions in the Metcalfe crisis were thus obscure and confusing, but they were significant. The fact that he contemplated joining a ministry under Metcalfe made it clear that he disagreed with Baldwin. The disagreement helped to crystallize some moderate thinking, and there were soon those who claimed that after Harrison’s resignation the Reform ministry had gone too far too quickly and no longer represented the majority of Upper Canadians, a notion often stressed in the elections in the fall of 1844 in which Baldwin’s followers were soundly defeated in Canada West. Harrison’s ambiguous position may have contributed to that defeat. Harrison himself was returned for Kent, but in January 1845 he received his appointment to the bench. At the announcement of his resignation from the assembly “there was a perfect storm of ‘Hear, hears’ from all sides” of the house, reflecting Harrison’s enigmatic conduct.
Harrison was appointed a qc and judge of the Surrogate Court of the Home District, then of York County, where he remained until his death 22 years later. In addition he was made judge of the District Court for the Home District in 1848. Some thought he would eventually become a justice of the Court of Queen’s Bench, but he was owed no political favours, and his scruples about the death penalty were a bar to promotion. Contemporaries, however, felt that his long tenure in York County did much to raise the prestige of the county courts.
Of the many fields of public welfare which had come under his purview as provincial secretary, education was the one interest he continued most actively. Appointed to the Board of Education for Canada West when it was first established in 1846, Harrison was unanimously chosen chairman in 1848 after the death of Bishop Michael Power*. In July 1851 he replaced Henry Sherwood on the senate of the University of Toronto.
Harrison’s first wife, Mary Harman, whom he had married in England in 1831, died in Canada, and in 1852 he married Ellen Humphreys, the widow of Colonel Colley Lyons Lucas Foster*. They settled in Toronto with a home on Dundas St which Harrison nostalgically called Foxley Grove after his father’s house in England. His hobby was horticulture and his garden and conservatory included a number of specimens unique in North America. He died on 23 July 1867. His wife survived him by 38 years; they had no children.
Despite his long judicial tenure, Harrison’s brief political career is more significant. Although he kept his position through changing ministries under Sydenham, Bagot, and Metcalfe, his abrupt and voluntary departures first from the Executive Council and then from politics make it clear he was no placeman. The key to his policy would seem to be that though he believed progress towards responsible government both good and inevitable, he understood it could be severely set back by a premature clash with the Colonial Office. If gradual constitutional advance was his aim, he contributed significantly to its achievement. His part in introducing the resolutions of 1841 and in sponsoring the entry into government of Baldwin and La Fontaine in 1842 certainly forwarded responsible government; his role in partially outmanœuvring Baldwin on both these occasions and in contributing to the latter’s defeat in the election of 1844 did much to avert a confrontation with the imperial government until, by 1847, the Colonial Office itself was willing to accept the concept of internal self-government for the Canadas.
Bibliothèque nationale du Québec (Montréal), Société historique de Montréal, Coll. La Fontaine. MTCL, Robert Baldwin papers. PAC, MG 24, A13; E1; RG 4, C2, 2, 24; RG 5, B30, 1–6; C1, 882–85; C4, 2–5. PAO, Harrison (Samuel Bealey) papers. PRO, CO 42/437–517; 537/140–43. Arthur papers (Sanderson). Can., Prov. of, Legislative Assembly, Journals, 1841–44. Documentary history of education in U.C. (Hodgins), IV. Hincks, Reminiscences. Scadding, Toronto of old (1873). [C. E. P. Thomson], Letters from Lord Sydenham, governor-general of Canada, 1839–1841, to Lord John Russell, ed. Paul Knaplund (London, 1931). British Colonist (Toronto), 1838–44. Christian Guardian, 1838–44. Examiner (Toronto), 1838–44. Careless, Union of the Canadas. Dent, Last forty years. C. [B.] Martin, Empire & commonwealth: studies in governance and self-government in Canada (Oxford, 1929). H. C. Mathews, Oakville and the Sixteen: the history of an Ontario port (Toronto, 1953). Sissons, Ryerson. R. S. Woods, Harrison Hall and its associations, or a history of the municipal, judicial, and educational interests of the western peninsula (Chatham, Ont., 1896). George Metcalf, “Samuel Bealy Harrison: forgotten Reformer,” OH, L (1958), 117–31.
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Cite This Article
George Metcalf, “HARRISON, SAMUEL BEALEY,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 29, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/harrison_samuel_bealey_9E.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:||George Metcalf|
|Title of Article:||HARRISON, SAMUEL BEALEY|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1976|
|Year of revision:||1976|
|Access Date:||May 29, 2023|