PHILIPS, JAMES, businessman and Patriot; b. c. 1800 probably in Yonge Township, Upper Canada; m. 19 March 1823 Salome Brown, and they had two daughters; d. 13 Nov. 1838 at the battle of Windmill Point, near Prescott, Upper Canada.
The early life of James Philips is cloaked in obscurity. Although he was a native Canadian, his birthplace can only be deduced from circumstantial evidence; he may have been the son of Philip Philips, an American Baptist who had located in Yonge. In 1825 James settled on a farm occupying the site of present-day Philipsville, in Leeds County. In addition to developing his farm, he opened a store and a tavern within a few years, and entered into an agreement with James and Jonah Brown which permitted them to build saw- and grist-mills on his property. Together with a tannery and a potashery, constructed later, these improvements made Philips’s farm the focus of a village, which was later named in his honour.
Philips became involved in politics at least as early as 1831. A reformer, he circulated petitions, served on committees, and demonstrated his interest in other minor ways. Such casual involvement, however, soon became difficult in a county which experienced turmoil and violence unparalleled in Upper Canada. Local politics, already marked by a bitter tory-reform split, were enlivened further by the Orange order, which, under the aggressive leadership of Ogle Robert Gowan*, succeeded in organizing recent immigrants from Ireland and in transferring the turbulence of Irish politics to Leeds. Gowan and other Orangemen used their influence and tactics of intimidation on the side of the tories. The resulting violence drew Philips into an increasingly active and conspicuous role in the reform movement.
During the campaign leading up to the general election of October 1834, he was a township delegate to the nomination meeting for the county and served on a committee formed to draft an address to the voters on behalf of the reform candidates, William Buell* and Matthew Munsel Howard. Violence and intimidation reached such levels during the polling that the House of Assembly overturned the election of the “Constitutional” candidates, Gowan and Robert Sympson Jameson*, on the grounds that freedom of election had not existed. A by-election was held the following March but again violence erupted at the poll and the re-election of Gowan and Jameson was quashed. This by-election was of special significance for Philips, for the county’s single poll was located at Beverly (Delta), not far from his home. On 3 March some of the voters, including a number of Orangemen, stopped near his tavern. A dispute between the reform and tory factions quickly escalated into an attack on the tavern and on Philips’s home. One of the Orangemen was killed and a charge of murder was brought against Philips. He was acquitted in September but the reformers pointed to the accusation and trial as an example of the extremes to which Gowan and his supporters would go to ruin an opponent.
The prominence into which Philips was catapulted by the trial added greatly to his stature within the reform movement. Proposed in January 1836 as a candidate for the next election, he lost the nomination to Buell and Howard, who were returned in a by-election in March. He assisted in organizing the reformers of the region into local committees of vigilance and management and on 11 July he was elected a vice-president of the newly formed Johnstown District Reformers’ Society. The constitution which he and its other members drew up called for the introduction in Upper Canada of “responsibility in the Administration of Government,” vote by ballot, and “the modification of the Legislative Council so as to ensure its sympathy with the wishes of the people.” However, the return of Gowan and Jonas Jones in the general election earlier that month had effectively checked the exertions of the area’s reformers, including Philips. He seems to have turned his attention more to his business affairs. In May 1837, for example, he was promoting a scheme to improve the navigation of Whitefish (Morton) Creek from Beverly to the Rideau Canal.
After William Lyon Mackenzie*’s uprising failed in 1837, Philips and several other prominent local reformers departed for the United States. He joined the Hunters’ Lodge, a secret organization formed in the United States professedly to free the Canadas from British domination. Philips was accused of taking part in the Hunters’ raid on Hickory Island in the St Lawrence River, but this claim was not substantiated. In early July 1838 Philips, allegedly heavily armed, made a scouting expedition through the townships along the Rideau. Later that year, on 11 November, he was a member of the Patriot army of Hunters that invaded Upper Canada near Prescott [see Nils von Schoultz]. Two days later Philips was killed in repelling an attack by British soldiers and militiamen under Colonel Plomer Young*.
AO, RG 1, A-II-5, 3 (report book, 1811–24); C-IV, Bastard Township; RG 21, United Counties of Leeds and Grenville, Bastard Township, census and assessment rolls, 1826–37; RG 22, ser.12, tavern licences; ser.176, 2, James Philips, 1842; RG 53, ser.2, 2: ff.129–32. PAC, RG 1, L3, 410A: P22/29; 412: P3/2. QUA, 2247, letter-book 1, Benjamin Tett to Major Young, 8 July 1838. “A record of marriages solemnized by William Smart, minister of the Presbyterian congregation, Brockville, Elizabethtown, Upper Canada,” ed. H. S. Seaman, OH, 5 (1904): 195. Brockville Recorder, 13 Oct. 1831; 31 Jan., 21 Feb., 14, 21 March, 4, 11 April, 19 Dec. 1834; 2 Jan., 6, 13 March, 11, 18 Sept., 25 Dec. 1835; 5 Feb., 15 March, 8, 15 April, 6 May, 17 June, 1, 22 July 1836; 20 June 1837; 14 June, 15 Nov. 1838. Chronicle & Gazette, 5 Dec. 1838. Statesman (Brockville, [Ont.]), 24 Feb., 7, 14 July 1838. D. H. Akenson, The Irish in Ontario: a study in rural history (Kingston, Ont., and Montreal, 1984). Ian MacPherson, Matters of loyalty: the Buells of Brockville, 1830–1850 (Belleville, Ont., 1981). Patterson, “Studies in elections in U.C.,” 210.