NICHOL, ROBERT, mariner, businessman, jp, militia officer, office holder, politician, and judge; b. c. 1780 in Scotland, possibly in Dumfries; m. 21 Dec. 1811 Theresa Wright in Niagara (Niagara-on-the-Lake), Upper Canada, and they had two sons and two daughters; d. 3 May 1824 at Queenston Heights, Upper Canada.
Scant references survive for Robert Nichol’s earliest years. He had, by his own account, some education although not as much care was “bestowed” on it as he would have liked. A career at sea came to an abrupt end at Montreal in 1792. “Badly used by his Captain,” Nichol left the ship and made his way to Upper Canada. Like Thomas Clark and the Dickson brothers, William* and Thomas – all acquaintances, perhaps relatives, of Nichol – Bob (as they called him) found a niche in the trading empire of Robert Hamilton*. By August 1792 Nichol had taken up residence in Hamilton’s Queenston home and was working as a sailor on one of his vessels.
Nichol worked his way up and through the extended Hamilton network, first as Thomas Dickson’s clerk at Fort Erie in 1794. The following year he moved to Detroit where, on 18 September, he signed a three-year indenture as John Askin*’s clerk. Toward the end of 1798 he returned to Queenston. For a time he traded in his own right but by February 1800 he was working with Clark, whose partnership with Samuel Street* had recently dissolved. Plans for his own establishment at Fort Erie were set aside upon Clark’s offer of a partnership.
Although he never wholly confronted the fact, Nichol was temperamentally unsuited to commercial life. His composition was, he wrote, “more of the Epicurean than Stoic.” Unlike Clark, a Scottish Uriah Heep, Nichol required more spiritual nourishment than came, from a bowl of porridge and a hard day’s work. The forwarding trade was heaviest in spring, summer, and fall, and the opening of a Lower Canadian market for flour in 1800 added to the pressure. Winter brought temporary relief, but with little leisure and few unmarried women in the neighbourhood, life was never easy. Nichol bemoaned his fate: “Solitude is to me a most insupportable State, & was it not for the few Books I possess, & now and then a visit from Some friends, I should die of Ennui.” Under the weight of his responsibilities, his correspondence suffered. “I cannot collect or arrange my Ideas – in fact I am sometimes almost in a downright lethargy.”
In 1802 Clark visited Scotland, leaving Nichol in “constant attendance” to the business. An additional strain was the “present unsettled State of the Country” and “the very unfavorable prospects for the future.” By mid September Nichol, overtaken by melancholy and “seized with a kind of languor,” began to consider “a happier Clime where the little talents I possess may be more useful to me than they are likely to be here.” When, however, on 22 Oct. 1803, he wrote to Askin informing him of the dissolution of his partnership with Clark, it was from Fort Erie where he had set up as a forwarder, determined to “embrace every Object that may appear profitable.”
The role of skinflint came naturally to Clark but not to Nichol. As conditions worsened through 1804 and 1805, he was forced to adopt a manner not to his liking. Hard pressed by his creditors and anxious to maintain his lines of credit, he had to deal bluntly with the accounts of his friend and former employer, John Askin. The relationship with Askin had been warm and friendly in spite of, as Nichol observed, the difference in age. But Askin’s seeming casualness in resolving his account with Nichol proved more than the friendship could bear; by July 1806 their long and amicable correspondence had come to a halt.
The one bright spot amid his economic woes from 1804 to 1805 was Nichol’s acquaintance with Isaac Brock*, apparently begun on the latter’s visits to Fort George (Niagara-on-the-Lake). To some, such as James FitzGibbon* who served under Brock, it was a surprising relationship. Nichol, he recalled many years later, was a “mean looking little Scotchman, who squinted very much,” and kept a “Retail Store of Small Consideration” at Fort Erie. In part it seems (and later events bear this interpretation out) that Brock recognized talents in Nichol which could be extremely useful. Indeed, Nichol was asked to prepare a “Sketch of Upper Canada, showing its resources in men, provisions, Horses &c.” FitzGibbon saw this document in 1813 “and by that time every statement was proved to be most accurate and Valuable.”
It is not surprising that Nichol followed other merchants, notably Clark and Richard Hatt*, in moving from the forwarding trade into processing, locating himself by 1808 in Woodhouse Township. The following year he finished renovating a grist-mill, which after repairs in the winter of 1813–14 was capable of producing 200 pounds of flour weekly. The mill, however, was only the centre of a complex including a sawmill, a distillery with three stills, a large barn, a house, a residence for workmen, a coopery, and a flour store. Supply of the British garrisons at Fort Erie and Fort George was an important part of his business; between 1805 and 1811 he billed the commissariat for more than £2,800 worth of flour and pork. The years up to the War of 1812 seem to have been as prosperous for Nichol – his annual profit was £750 – as they were busy. The debilitating lassitude of spirit that had plagued him seems to have lifted. For one thing, local noncommercial events captured his interest; he became entangled in the factionalism so characteristic of the London District [see Benajah Mallory*]. In addition, the looming crisis in relations with the United States acquired personal meaning when on 21 May 1808 the Americans seized 17 vessels belonging to Canadian traders, including 8 of Nichol’s own. He duly reported the affair to Brock, noting also American troop movements at Detroit and Michilimackinac (Mackinac Island, Mich.).
In his private life Nichol was determined to end the lamentable want of female companionship. He was, according to one of the grandes dames of York (Toronto), Mrs Anne Powell [Murray*], “almost unobjectionable.” He was a “wealthy young Merchant Miller,” but Nichol’s “long & earnest suit” of her daughter Anne had been rebuffed owing to Anne’s “sincere repugnance to the Man.” A hitherto unknown equipoise came with his 1811 marriage to Theresa Wright. The “happy pair” set off for Nichol’s home, occasioning Mary Boyles Powell to comment: “Poor thing I dont think she has much prospect of happiness shut up in the woods all her life.”
In the 18 months or so preceding the outbreak of war, Nichol became a prominent actor on the provincial stage. His behaviour was a study in contrasts. The relationship between him and Lieutenant Governor Francis Gore* was constrained by the necessity of tact on his part. But Gore’s leave of absence and Brock’s assumption of the presidency of the administration removed that sort of control upon Nichol’s increasingly vain and abrasive personality. An early supporter of the Niagara area’s mercantile élite, Nichol evinced scant sympathy for its opponents. Even under the threat of war the political opposition, led by Joseph Willcocks*, proved more and more successful in thwarting executive initiative. Its actions prompted Nichol to crusade against, as Brock expressed it, “the machinations of a licentious faction” in his neighbourhood. The “essential good” he performed “in opposing the democratic measures of a Mr. Willcocks and his vile coadjutors” earned him, according to Brock, their enmity. Retaliation came in 1811 in the form of an assembly investigation, initiated by Willcocks, into Nichol’s handling of public funds as a road commissioner.
The house’s conclusion that Nichol had abused his trust elicited a vigorous defence of his integrity in which he blamed the affair on “Party purposes.” This slur on the assembly’s motives resulted in a motion by David McGregor Rogers charging Nichol with contempt and ordering his arrest. Forced to go to York in late February 1812 to explain himself, Nichol was incautious enough to remark that the assembly had exceeded its privileges. He promptly found himself confronted by two counts of contempt. Convicted and jailed, Nichol immediately applied for a writ of habeas corpus, which was granted by Chief Justice Thomas Scott, and launched a suit for damages against the speaker of the house, Samuel Street*. Brock had entered the fray, denouncing the assembly for its assumption of “inordinate power” and its “palpable injustice” to Nichol. The imbroglio resulting from Scott’s decision was quickly assuming the proportions of a major confrontation between the executive, the judiciary, and the assembly, but it was averted by the continuing deterioration in relations with the United States.
In early 1812 Brock had failed, almost utterly, to wring from an uncooperative assembly the measures he deemed necessary for the impending conflict. But he had managed an amendment to the Militia Act permitting him to reorganize the militia. The Norfolk unit was divided into two regiments; Nichol became lieutenant-colonel of the 2nd Norfolk. In the best of times this would have been a controversial appointment given Nichol’s bad temper and eager participation in political factionalism. In unsettled times the results were predictable. Soon rumours were spread that, in his capacity as commanding officer, Nichol had cast aspersions on the loyalty of American settlers in Upper Canada. In spite of assertions to the contrary, the damage was probably done. Meanwhile, Nichol ran roughshod over the regiment, which he considered “has been little better than a legalised Mob – the Officers without respectability without intelligence, and without Authority – and the men without any idea of Subordination.” In defence of his authority and his character he instigated a fistful of charges against his officers. An election victory in June 1812 in Norfolk gave his enemies a larger target but strengthened his own grip on events. Like Attorney General John Macdonell* (Greenfield), he had probably entered politics at Brock’s behest and almost certainly with his connivance. With two of the ablest men in the province managing the administration’s interests in the house, there was at least the hope that the contumacious opposition could be brought to heel.
Nichol found his stride in the political-military world in which he was now moving. It did not take much inveigling on Brock’s part to overcome his reasonable fear that “permanent” military employment would “Ruin” him. At stake was the post of quartermaster general of militia. His objections to acceptance allayed by Brock’s contention that he “was the only Inhabitant . . . at all adequate to the Situation,” Nichol left management of his enterprises to an employee and took up his new responsibilities on 27 June 1812. For the next three years, he was absorbed by military affairs to an extent unequalled by any other colonial. His immediate task was to clothe, quarter, and feed the province’s militia but, in fact, his activities ranged from staff work to field duty, from the militia to British regulars, and from Upper to Lower Canada. After the war he reckoned he had been “personally engaged” with the enemy “upwards of thirty times.”
At the outset Brock charged him with moving British forces to the threatened western frontier. Transport was a formidable problem which Nichol solved by pressing everything available, both civil and military, into service. In August he led 400 men to Detroit, where he was an enthusiastic supporter of Brock’s audacious plan of attack. Indeed, his knowledge of the area proved invaluable to Brock, who recognized Nichol’s services in both general orders and dispatches. The following month he acted as Brock’s personal emissary to Governor Sir George Prevost*. During his absence Brock was killed at Queenston Heights. The province lost its commander, Nichol lost his patron. Returning to the province in November, he acquitted himself well in action on no fewer than three occasions that month. More important, perhaps, was his role – he claimed to be “principally instrumental” – “in preventing the evacuation of Fort Erie . . . at a time when the moral effect . . . would have accelerated the ruin of the King’s affairs in Upper Canada.”
The burdens and pressing minutiae of his office plagued him. His running battles with the deputy commissary general, Edward Couche, whom he saw as an obstructionist, could be resolved satisfactorily only by the intervention of Brock’s successor, Sir Roger Hale Sheaffe*. On one occasion Nichol exploded to his friend Thomas Talbot*, “Couche should be hanged.” On 18 Dec. 1812 he complained that for more than a month he had not had “time even to see my own wife. . . . If I dont soon get leave to resign . . . I believe I shall go crazy.” He did not, however: he cursed his fate out of momentary exasperation, not out of despair.
Meanwhile, there was a legislative session in the new year to prepare for, to say nothing of spring campaigning. The resumption of fighting with the American advance up the Niagara peninsula added the hardships of a field officer to the duties of staff officer and drew him as well into the councils of war. On 27 May 1813 he had his horse killed under him while acting as aide-de-camp during the American attack on Fort George. It was his counsel, he later insisted, that persuaded Brigadier-General John Vincent* to retreat to Burlington Heights (Hamilton) rather than Fort Erie. The decision to remain there rather than move farther eastward also, he claimed, stemmed from his suasion with senior officers. The wisdom of the withdrawal from Fort George was borne out by later events, particularly Lieutenant-Colonel John Harvey*’s successful attack upon the Americans at Stoney Creek in early June. Nichol’s own summary of these events remains credible: “By this movement the Centre Division was placed in a strong and eligible position, its supplies were secured, and its communications with the right and left were completely re-established.”
During the summer of 1813 Nichol was called upon to replace temporarily the wounded quartermaster general of the Centre Division. He was with Lieutenant-Colonel Cecil Bisshopp*’s force which raided Black Rock (Buffalo) on 11 July. Two months later he was ordered to open a new supply route from Burlington Heights to Major-General Henry Procter’s force at Amherstburg. He did so successfully, returning to Burlington after Procter’s defeat on 5 October at Moraviantown rendered the communication line unnecessary. The following month Nichol raised serious objections to Vincent’s decision to retire with his force towards Kingston. The matter was referred to a council of senior officers who sided with Nichol. December witnessed the arrival of a successor to Vincent, Major-General Phineas Riall*, and a new commander, Lieutenant-General Gordon Drummond*. Nichol was highly recommended to both men. Drummond deliberated with him and Sir James Lucas Yeo* on the possibility of a winter campaign in the west, and in January 1814 Nichol prepared a logistical plan for such an operation.
February and March of 1814 were given over to a critical legislative session, dominated by Nichol. While managing the government’s business in the daily sessions of the assembly, he also undertook a reorganization of the quartermaster general’s department. In May, at Drummond’s request, he drew up comprehensive plans for naval depots at Turkey Point and Penetanguishene. Nichol was again in the field during several engagements in August. On the 19th a serious shortage of flour threatened British forces in the Niagara peninsula. Drummond authorized Nichol and Thomas Dickson to use “their personal influence and exertions” to rectify the situation. Nichol later recalled that “in less than fourteen days all fears of want were removed.” He remained on full service in his various capacities until March 1815. Then, although he lost both his pay and his allowance, he was required to spend another 90 days with the militia board of claims.
For three years Nichol had worked tirelessly under the most taxing of conditions. But peace did not bring the laurels which he obviously deserved. The sparing amount of praise could be tolerated, the lack of financial compensation could not. On 14 May 1814 American marauders led by Abraham Markle had burned his home and enterprises, and his total losses were estimated at a staggering £6,684 (provincial currency). That October he had forwarded a claim to Colonial Secretary Lord Bathurst, but the home government was ill equipped to institute plans for immediate, large-scale compensation. In several other petitions and letters he depicted his plight: he had been “thrown upon the world – with his business lost – His Fortune ruined – & the means he had possessed of supporting His Family . . . destroyed.” The omission of his name from the list of recipients for the Detroit medal was a blow as grievous as it was insulting.
Nichol marshalled numerous attestations of his service in “high and responsible” situations, including one from Drummond. Gore, whose assistance he solicited in 1816, wrote to Bathurst, “I can be no Judge of his Military Merits, . . . but I can speak to his general Talents, Zeal, and Ability in the Legislature, and am assured by competent Judges, that the same Qualifications were conspicuous in the Field, and in the conduct of the important Department of Quartermaster General.” Disappointed at not receiving redress, Nichol went to England in June 1817 to petition Bathurst personally. He had “done More” than John Norton, “who has got Army Rank & a Pension.” His services had been “More important” than those of Robert Dickson, “who has got an order for lands and a Pension.” Under the circumstances – “I have Sacrificed More to my publick duty and lost More from the War than all of them put together” – he was entitled to his opinion that the imperial government’s award of a pension of £200 was niggardly.
By the war’s end Nichol had, however, attained heights equalled by only a few in the colony. In addition to pursuing his military service and his business career, he had held a number of offices including municipal tax collector at Niagara (1802), justice of the peace (from 1806), and the usual commissions associated with the war years. His most impressive contribution to Upper Canadian society – his political career – had just begun. The legislative journals for the sessions of 1812, 1813, and 1815 are missing but the surviving ones for 1814 and 1816 attest to his pre-eminence during the sixth parliament (1812–16).
These two sessions were among the most controversial in Upper Canada’s history, largely owing to the sullied reputation they acquired in William Lyon Mackenzie*’s published retrospect of 1833 upon the province’s political past. In both sessions Nichol acted as the government’s house leader, performing the task in a manner surpassed, if at all, only by John Beverley Robinson* in the 1820s. The role was probably self-appointed although a degree of consultation with the executive would have been essential to ensure a harmony of interest. The thrust of the 1814 session was defence and “every Strong Measure . . . was brought forward and Carried through,” Nichol wrote, “by Me.” Under his guidance, procedural motions, amendments, and bills were moved through the assembly with dispatch. The cooperation sought by successive administrations in 1812 and 1813 and denied by the opposition led by Willcocks and Markle was at last won. Nichol had no sympathy with constitutional niceties when the province was in peril: on 22 Feb. 1814 he introduced, without any apparent qualms, the bill suspending habeas corpus. The old opposition, bereft of its leadership (Willcocks and Markle had gone over to the enemy), withered before the tough-minded Nichol; John Willson* cast the only dissenting vote. For Mackenzie the removal “of the last barrier between civil rule and military despotism” was Nichol’s way of repaying the favours he owed the executive, a sorry chapter, he thought, in the history of civil liberties.
Of the 1816 session, perhaps the most renowned in reform lore, Mackenzie wrote that it had “Scarce a single redeeming feature.” Notorious in his view for the assembly’s fawning subservience to the executive, the session passed without serious incident or unfavourable comment by contemporaries. Gore certainly had good reason to be satisfied with Nichol’s efforts: a civil list bill providing a permanent grant of (2,500, provision for a provincial agent in London and a provincial aide-de-camp, and the creation of a committee on inland navigation. With respect to the civil list bill, Nichol’s motives were as self-serving as they were ingratiating; he did not hesitate to suggest to Colonial Office officials in 1817 that his compensation could be provided for “from that fund.”
The opening of the seventh parliament (1817–20) – Nichol had been re-elected in Norfolk in 1816 – witnessed a striking reversal in his attitude towards the administration and Gore in particular. On the first day, 4 Feb. 1817, he gave dramatic notice of the change with a motion demanding that the lieutenant governor recognize “the rights and privileges of this House as amply as they are enjoyed by the House of Commons in Great Britain.” Just how serious his opposition would become was not apparent until the end of the session. In a manner by then commonplace in popular assemblies, Nichol seized upon Gore’s call for aid in defraying the costs of government to instigate a more general inquiry into the state of the province. Under his leadership the assembly went into a committee of the whole. Nichol introduced resolutions which, among other things, vilified the crown and clergy reserves as “insurmountable obstacles to the forming of a well-connected Settlement.” A particularly contentious point was the policy of restricting immigration, especially from the United States. On 7 April, two days after Nichol had undertaken his sweeping attack upon the administration and imperial policy, an appalled Gore prorogued the assembly.
It was easy to question Nichol’s motives. Mackenzie never quite believed in his sincerity, dismissing the action of this “mean sycophant” as “pretended” opposition. Gore reduced his conduct to a personal level; Nichol’s “Apostacy” stemmed from “indignation” at not having received a Detroit medal and from Gore’s refusal to provide “any special interference” on behalf of Nichol’s war claims. There was, to be sure, a personal element to Nichol’s new political direction. But, after all, there was nothing either new or unusual about his conduct. Private disappointments had a way of taking public – and moreover political – turns. This was the case with Willcocks, Mallory, and Robert Randal. And in each of these instances the transformation represented more than just an opportunity to vent, publicly, private spleen. Rather the personal experience entailed an altered perspective on the political vista. In the heat of debate contemporaries would throw up the seeming hypocrisy in Nichol’s transformation from government to opposition man. But the decision never gave him any embarrassment and a mind as powerful as his was not blind to inconsistency. His explanation was simple: “When that character [Gore] insulted the House, and violated the Constitution, he felt it his duty to reprobate him and his corrupt advisers.”
In so doing Nichol became the critical link between the pre-war and wartime opposition, which had been disgraced by the stigma of treason, and the opposition of the 1820s, associated principally with William Warren Baldwin*, John Rolph*, and Marshall Spring Bidwell*. Too little attention has been paid by historians to Nichol’s role in legitimizing parliamentary opposition. Because of his ability, his earlier pro-administration stance, and his impeccable loyalty during the war, he could not, like Barnabas Bidwell, be dismissed by opponents as a closet republican. In criticizing the administration, he adopted the traditional whiggish language of the 18th century. Ministerial responsibility had become an everyday notion in Great Britain by the 1760s. For far too long it has been assumed that in Upper Canada this idea was the exclusive property of the Baldwins and Robert Thorpe*, and that it derived from their Irish ancestors. When Nichol moved from being the administration’s manager in the assembly to its principal opponent, he was sufficiently familiar with Whig language to use it as the most appropriate justification for displacing irresponsible ministers and unpopular governors without being insurrectionary by attacking the crown.
The power of Nichol’s opposition is apparent in John Strachan*’s delicacy and tact in attempting to persuade him from it. The rector of York tried unsuccessfully to mediate between Gore and Nichol in 1817. When Nichol returned from England with his pension the following year, Strachan reported rumours that Nichol had tried to “ingratiate himself” with the new lieutenant governor, Sir Peregrine Maitland*. But other rumours were also afloat, that Nichol would move a vote of censure against Gore and a motion asserting parliament’s right to control land granting. Again Strachan intervened; this time, however, the fears were unfounded and Nichol confined his energies in 1819 to war relief, public accounts, and revenue-sharing agreements with Lower Canada, as well as to more political topics such as the prosecution of Robert Gourlay* and Bartemas Ferguson for libel. His reputation, however, had been made. Maitland wondered aloud to the Colonial Office whether Nichol’s pension was compatible with his opposition to government. In 1821 Governor-in-Chief Lord Dalhousie [Ramsay*] denounced him in his diary as “a violent opposition member.”
It is difficult to determine Nichol’s mental and emotional state from 1817 until his death. Certainly he was bitter about his difficulty with respect to his war losses and he had reason to be. His moods seemed to oscillate in a manner reminiscent of his first years as a merchant on his own. Always vain, he was even more wary of slights, real or imagined. Gore, he was sure, had in 1817 made “very unfavorable representations of My Conduct” to Bathurst; it was not true. On 2 March 1818 provincial agent William Halton wrote to a friend that “I have seen the Great Colonel Nichol once, & wished to have shewn him every Civilty in my Power, but he has cut me entirely & wont even answer my notes.”
In Upper Canadian parlance, a “great man” was a figure of the first importance and, according to the Montreal merchant Isaac Todd*, Nichol had reached that status in the fall of 1812. But increasingly he became the butt of gibes juxtaposing stature with overweening pretensions. Even friends indulged in gentle mocking: Thomas Clark observed to a Scottish friend in 1818, “I learn you have seen our little Great man, Col. Nichol. He no doubt took plenty of your wine and gave you talk in proportion. He is a clever little fellow but excessively vain.” Halton’s dismissal of him as a “very mischievous unprincipled puppy” throwing “impediments in the way of public business” may be taken for what it is, the bleating of a courtier. Yet his labelling Nichol the “Demosthenes of Long Point” was, for all its jeering tone, not far from the mark as a comment on the man’s oratorical powers.
Nichol’s two major concerns from 1817 on were the constitution and the economy. For instance, he led over the course of several sessions the assault on the “obnoxious” Sedition Act of 1804, which had been used to expel Gourlay from the colony. He zealously guarded the privileges and prerogatives of the assembly; in his view, the speaker should have sufficient income “as would make him independent of any favours from government and would keep him free of all improper influence.” He favoured the reporting of the debates but demanded controls which would “preserve the purity and dignity of the house, and the privilege of Parliament.” During the depression of 1819–21 he derided the bloated civil list, excessive government pensions, and a rather useless provincial agent (the basic legislation for all of which he had introduced in 1816). He favoured a general retrenchment, with available money going not to courtiers but to those who deserved it, such as militiamen “who were dragged from their homes to be mutilated in defending their country for 6d. a day.”
In 1820, during a stinging attack on the administration of the Common Schools Act of 1816, Nichol delivered a clear exposition of the doctrine of ministerial responsibility; in fact, he resurrected it single-handed from the disrepute in which it had been left by the pre-war opposition. According to a report of the debate in the Kingston Chronicle, he had “no intention of charging the head of the Government with malpractices, it was his advisers who were the responsible characters. He never would identify the Governor with the Executive – he had no intention to charge His Majesty, or the Prince Regent, with any such conduct; every person under them [however] was responsible. The king could do no wrong but wicked ministers lost their heads, and wicked and corrupt Governors were brought to trial. He had not the slightest intention to cast reflections upon the present Governor, whose conduct merited approbation – it was the base and wicked Executive, and the late Governor Gore.” Small wonder an astonished James Durand wondered that a man “who had passed fine eulogies on the characters of the Executive four or five years ago, should now attribute to it everything that was corrupt, wicked and unjust.”
The opening of the eighth parliament in 1821 presented Nichol with a formidable challenge in the presence of Robinson in the assembly. Undaunted, Nichol gave notice of a bill “for securing the independence of the Commons House of Assembly.” Little had changed: he pressed home the attack on the Sedition Act, assessment laws, and government revenues and expenditures. The attempt to unseat Barnabas Bidwell would, he thought, “violate the constitution,” and preserving the constitution was more important than removing an immoral member. Although his opponents occasionally found a particular argument or stance absurd, they recognized his ability and formidable intellect. These gifts, combined with his oratorical skills and sporadic bursts of energy, made him more than a match for Robinson. “Without that little animal,” Robinson moaned, “all would certainly be harmony.”
For the administration, Nichol was at his most productive when dealing with his second great interest, the economy. Commercial depression, the strangulation of government finances as a result of the collapse of the revenue-sharing agreement with Lower Canada, and the lack of internal development gave a bleak cast to the future. With the province on the verge of bankruptcy, Nichol became a ruthless advocate of retrenchment, particularly in government offices. In 1821 he chaired the select committee on internal resources, struck at Baldwin’s insistence, to examine the agricultural depression and collapse of British markets. Tabled on 31 March and printed on 4 April, this important report, the first of its kind in the province, provided a framework for the sort of provincial economic development espoused by men such as John Macaulay*. In the report, timber and furs were neglected in favour of wheat and flour production and a commercial strategy aimed at giving these products preferred entry to British and West Indian markets. More important, Nichol, who wrote the report, recommended “permanent measures” for relieving the stricken economy, especially the “improvement of our inland navigation . . . In an extensive scale, a scale commensurate with the increasing power and rapidly accumulating commercial resources of the Province.” Unobstructed navigation from Lake Erie to the ocean was the ultimate goal. Robinson considered the report “comprehensive,” and urged Macaulay to use the columns of the Kingston Chronicle to commend it.
One of its far-reaching consequences was the establishment of a commission on the improvement of internal navigation. This body, which began its work in the spring of 1821, would have been a natural appointment for Nichol. He declined it, however, with the “utmost regret.” His finances were on the verge of collapse, so much so that he had accepted a position to settle the affairs of Robert Hamilton’s estate and was totally preoccupied by that duty. Early in 1822, however, he proferred his services and was appointed a commissioner on 25 February. Nichol threw himself into the effort, making a singular contribution to the commission.
Late that year he came out in support of the British government’s plan for a union of the Canadas. This measure offered, he thought, the “only constitutional remedy” to the upper province’s economic plight. Unlike most of the project’s advocates, he was alive to the political need to preserve the parliamentary rights contained in the Constitutional Act of 1791. He exclaimed that “Money in comparison with constitutional right was a dross,” and hoped that the assemblymen would not “barter their liberty for a mess of pottage.”
Nichol never recovered from his war losses – the award of £4,202 10s. for his claim came too late; it was only announced a month after his death. The milling complex was rebuilt (some of it in his lifetime) but the loss of income was a permanent blow to his fortunes and probably to his emotional state as well. In March 1824 he was reduced to imploring Maitland for the petty appointment of surrogate judge of the Niagara District. The government complied. But the job which he hoped would be his salvation would in fact be his end. On 3 May 1824 Nichol left his residence at Stamford (Niagara Falls) – he had moved there by 1821 – to travel to Niagara on the business of the court. As he was returning late that night his horse and wagon went over the precipice below Queenston Heights. “A more ghastly spectacle could not well be conceived,” one witness testified to the coroner’s jury, the foreman of which was Mackenzie, who thought that Nichol was drunk at the time. The jury ruled out the possibility of foul play. Nichol was buried three days later in the Hamilton burying ground at Queenston in an unmarked grave. The funeral oration was delivered by Robert Addison, who eulogized Nichol as a man whose “general acquaintance with the usages of Parliament, with commerce, and the policy of nations, gave him a weight which few possessed; nor will we soon see his like again.”
It is difficult to gauge the ability of a man in another time but there is no doubt Nichol had few peers. In a commemorative ceremony at Vittoria, with full masonic honours, Rolph extolled Nichol as a tribune of the people, “alive to every encroachment upon public liberty and the zealous advocate of religious freedom.” Strachan was dumbfounded: “Poor Nichols dreadful fate shocked me exceedingly and his death at this time I consider a public loss he was returning to a better feeling and it was in our power to have made him useful – he had good parts and at times great industry and if his judgment was deficient yet it was easy to set it in many things right.” Robinson could “scarcely persuade myself he has ceased to be – and that all his Canal projects and other speculations supported . . . by piles of papers & volume of calculations are cut off short.” The most compelling testimony was written by Robinson in 1846. Nichol was a “singular little man – [who] squinted horribly . . . & had but a slender portion of personal beauty . . . He was really an extraordinary person – naturally eloquent – possessing a prodigious memory – [and] great spirit. . . . He had foibles enough too poor fellow, among which was the most egregious vanity, which however impelled him . . . to do many useful and brilliant things. . . .he became the leader of the opposition & gave infinite trouble – to no one more than to myself . . . but his good qualities out-numbered his faults.”
[Robert Nichol has been poorly served by historians. When he is mentioned at all, references have almost always been incidental. The first serious notice of him was E. A. Cruikshank*’s “A sketch of the public life and services of Robert Nichol, a member of the Legislative Assembly and quartermaster general of the militia of Upper Canada,” OH, 19 (1922): 10–18. More comfortable with printing documents than with analysing them, Cruikshank prepared two compilations, “Some letters of Robert Nichol,” OH, 20 (1923): 41–74, and “Additional correspondence of Robert Nichol,” OH, 26 (1930): 37–96, which remain the starting-point for historical inquiry.
To date, no collection of private papers has come to light. References of varying degrees of importance are found scattered through many manuscript and record groups for the period. The most pertinent to this study are the following: at the AO, the Macaulay papers (ms 78) for 1821 to 1824; the Rolph papers (ms 533), ser.D; the F. B. Tupper papers (MU 3027); and Nichol’s will in RG 22, ser.155. Although fewer references are to be found in the James Givins and W. D. Powell papers at the MTL, they are quite interesting. The collections of the Norfolk Hist. Soc. at the Eva Brook Donly Museum in Simcoe, Ont. (mfm. at PAC and AO), contain several mentions of Nichol, but, in general, they are disappointing. Much richer, indeed fundamental, for his career are the government records at the PAC. Here, RG 1, L3; RG 5, A1; RG 8, I (C ser.); RG 9, I; RG 19, E5(a), 3747, claim 509; and RG 68 are the most important; the Clark(e) family papers (MG 24, B130) are also worth consulting. PRO, CO 42 is essential. For Nichol’s early career the John Askin papers in the DPL, Burton Hist. Coll., are without equal. Much of this material has been published in the John Askin papers (Quaife).
Of published primary materials, next in importance are the “Journals of Legislative Assembly of U.C.” for 1814 to 1824, in AO Report, 1912–14. Heretofore unused for Nichol’s political career are the newspaper reports of the assembly debates. Newspapers consulted for this as well as other aspects of his career include: Colonial Advocate, 1824–33; Gleaner, and Niagara Newspaper, 1824; Gore Gazette, and Ancaster, Hamilton, Dundas and Flamborough Advertiser (Ancaster, [Ont.]), 25 Aug. 1827; Kingston Chronicle, 1819–24; Kingston Gazette, 1816–18; Niagara Herald (Niagara [Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.]), 6 March 1802; Upper Canada Guardian; or, Freeman’s Journal (Niagara), available issues; and Weekly Register (York [Toronto]), 1823. Strachan’s Letter book (Spragge) is useful. Docs. relating to constitutional hist., 1791–1818 (Doughty and McArthur), 425–27, and 1819–28 (Doughty and Story), 1–5, 159–60, highlight Nichol’s political forays of constitutional interest. Other references may be found in 1812 Woodhouse Township census, with related documents (1814–1836) . . . , ed. W. R. Yeager (2nd ed., Simcoe, 1978), 4; Ramsay, Dalhousie journals (Whitelaw), 2: 74; and “Claims for losses, 1812–15,” PAC Report, 1897, note B: 47–56.
Bruce G. Wilson’s study, Enterprises of Robert Hamilton, is the best work on the political-economic world in which Nichol first found his niche. R. L. Fraser, “Like Eden in her summer dress: gentry, economy, and society in Upper Canada, 1812–1840” (phd thesis, Univ. of Toronto, 1979), places Nichol’s critical report on internal resources within the framework of an emerging strategy for provincial economic development and assesses its importance to that strategy. For the 18th-century background of Nichol’s constitutionalism, John Brewer’s Party ideology and popular politics at the accession of George III (Cambridge, Eng., 1976) is required reading, particularly the chapter on ministerial responsibility. A useful discussion of that concept and of responsible government in the context of Lower Canada and the career of Pierre-Stanislas Bédard is J. L. Finlay, “The state of a reputation: Bédard as a constitutionalist,” Journal of Canadian Studies (Peterborough, Ont.), 20 (1985–86), no.4: 60–76. r.l.f.]