TAYLOR, JOHN FENNINGS, author and public servant; b. 14 March 1817 in London, England, the third son of George Taylor of Camberwell (now part of London); m. first 5 Dec. 1838 in Toronto, Upper Canada, his second cousin, Mary Elizabeth (d. 1851), second daughter of Colonel George Taylor Denison I, and they had one son and two daughters; m. secondly Georgina Rosalie Nanton of London, England, and they had five sons and one daughter; d. 4 May 1882 at Old Point Comfort, Va.
Upon completion of his formal education at Radley, Oxfordshire, England, John Fennings Taylor immigrated to Upper Canada in 1836, settling in Toronto. Through the influence of his uncle, also John Fennings Taylor (1801–76), the deputy clerk of the Legislative Council of Upper Canada, Fennings Taylor, as the younger man was known to avoid confusion, was appointed 1st office clerk of the council on 4 Dec. 1836. In 1841, following the union of the Canadas, he was transferred to the office of the Legislative Council of the united province, and the next year became its 1st office clerk. He was appointed additional clerk assistant in 1846, was promoted deputy clerk and clerk assistant in 1855, and in 1856 became, in addition, master in chancery. Following confederation in 1867 he was transferred to the office of the Senate of Canada as deputy clerk, and he served there conscientiously until his death, becoming 1st clerk assistant in 1868 and later master in chancery. In addition Taylor held a ceremonial commission as lieutenant-colonel in the militia, and was, ex officio, a commissioner for administering the oath of allegiance and declaration of qualification to senators and a commissioner of the Court of Queen’s Bench in Ontario for taking affidavits. Like a growing number of Canadians in the mid 19th century, he had pursued a lifetime career as a public servant, and as such had gradually risen to a prominent position.
Fennings Taylor was best known, however, for his contributions to Canadian historical literature, predominantly as a biographer. His first and most noteworthy work was his collaboration as writer with Montreal photographer William Notman* in Portraits of British Americans. The work followed a “plan which has found favour in England” and was originally issued in monthly instalments before its publication as a three-volume work (1865–68). The writing of the 84 brief biographies of leading Canadian statesmen, divines, jurists, merchants, and, in particular, fathers of confederation, was a task for which Taylor was eminently qualified. He was in the enviable position of having both ready access to the parliamentary library and a close personal acquaintance on a non-partisan basis with many of his subjects. And, like Henry James Morgan* and Sir John George Bourinot*, his prominent position in the public service provided him with the financial means and the time to exercise his literary inclinations.
Taylor’s biographies for Portraits were strongly influenced by the nascent romantic nationalism of the confederation era, the fervent assurance that Canada was on the threshold of national greatness. The sketches, a deft blend of presentism and patriotism, were pervaded by an exuberant sense of momentous achievement, stemming from Taylor’s conviction that “events of great national importance [were] hourly passing into history.” His patriotic grandiloquence had been manifested earlier in such spirited compositions as his proposed national anthem “God bless our new-born nation.” But in his magnum opus it was tempered by judicious assessments of his subjects which reflected his belief that the sketches should be written “fairly and impartially, free alike from extravagant eulogy . . . or cynical ill-nature.” Although the collection avoided lavish sycophancy, the biographies were for the most part strongly sympathetic; in the introduction Taylor lamented the tendency among Canadians to “disparage the position . . . of our public men; . . . to discredit generally the presence of high principle, and challenge particularly any claim to patriotic motives.” He went to extraordinary lengths to maintain a balanced, if sometimes overly generous, impartiality. In discussing the chequered career of Sir Francis Hincks, for instance, he observed that Hincks was a “statesman who had the courage to utilize to patriotic ends qualities that were base as well as . . . noble, and regardless alike of covert suspicion or open censure dared to fuse good with ill for the permanent advantage of Canada.” The sketches, in general, were painstakingly researched and gracefully written in a dignified style. They revealed both a high-minded integrity and the zeal of the amateur historian.
In 1868, following the assassination of Thomas D’Arcy McGee*, Taylor expanded his biographical sketch of McGee in Portraits into a eulogistic pamphlet, The Hon. Thos. D’Arcy McGee: a sketch of his life and death. Displaying a strong empathy with McGee’s romantic prophecies of a great dominion of the north and the creation of a new nationality, Taylor approvingly incorporated lengthy quotations from McGee’s impassioned speeches on confederation. In this eloquent panegyric, McGee was portrayed as a courageous visionary whose genius for oratory had been a sacred trust bestowed by divine providence to help achieve confederation. The following year Taylor drew further from Portraits, expanding his accounts of Francis Fulford*, George Jehoshaphat Mountain*, and John Strachan* into The last three bishops, appointed by the crown, for the Anglican Church of Canada. With unrestrained admiration, at times bordering on hagiography, Taylor traced the lives and careers of the three Canadian bishops. He concentrated on their unswerving labours to consolidate the Church of England in Canada, which did much to remove religious matters from the control of parliament.
A decade later Taylor resumed his historical writing, exhibiting his accumulated parliamentary expertise in Are legislatures parliaments? A study and review. In this thoroughly researched study, rigorously documented with British and Canadian precedents, he sought to differentiate the terms “parliament” and “legislature.” Far from engaging in etymological sophistry, this work reflects the strict constructionist approach Taylor adopted in his convincing plea for semantic exactitude. The book represented a fitting summation of Taylor’s literary career, drawing upon both his vast parliamentary knowledge and his historical talents. It was largely responsible for the publication in 1880 of The powers of Canadian parliaments in which Samuel James Watson stressed the evolving, rather than the strictly constructionist, development of Canadian parliaments and legislatures.
Fennings Taylor died on 4 May 1882 in Virginia where he had gone to recover his failing health. As the Montreal Gazette observed, “his urbanity of manner, his geniality and many sterling qualities endeared him to those with whom he came into contact, and his well-stored mind and keen and humorous perception of events made him an entertaining and instructive conversationalist.” A memorial window was placed in the Church of St Alban the Martyr in Ottawa, of which he had been a devout member. He was also active in wider Anglican church matters, having been chosen frequently as a lay delegate to the diocesan and provincial synods. Both his public career and his historical interests reflect significantly much of Canada’s literary, intellectual, and historical concerns and development during the confederation era.
John Fennings Taylor collaborated with William Notman to produce Portraits of British Americans, with biographical sketches (3v., Montreal, 1865–68), and was the author of Thos. D’ArcyMcGee: sketch of his life and death (Montreal, 1868); new ed. pub. under title: The Hon. Thos. D’Arcy McGee: a sketch of his life and death (Montreal, 1868); of The last three bishops, appointed by the crown, for the Anglican Church of Canada (Montreal, 1869); and of Are legislatures parliaments? A study and review (Montreal, 1879).
PAC, MG 24, 156; RG 14, E2, 1835. Gazette (Montreal), 9 May 1882. CPC, 1881: 89. R. L. Denison, The Canadian pioneer Denison family of county York, England and county York, Ontario: a history, genealogy and biography (4v., Toronto, 1951–52). Dominion annual register, 1882: 362. Morgan, Bibliotheca Canadensis, 367–68. Watters, Checklist, 585. W. S. Wallace, “The two John Fennings Taylors,” CHR, 28 (1947): 459.