THOMSON, HUGH CHRISTOPHER, businessman, printer, journalist, politician, office holder, jp, and militia officer; b. 1791 in Kingston (Ont.), son of Archibald Thomson and Elizabeth McKay; d. there 23 April 1834.
Hugh Christopher Thomson’s father emigrated from Scotland to Tryon County, N.Y., in 1773 and during the American revolution served under Joseph Brant [Thayendanegea*]. By the late 1780s the family had settled in Kingston, where Archibald, a master carpenter, contracted to build a house for Sir John Johnson and also undertook the construction of the first St George’s (Anglican) Church. The Thomsons moved to Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake) in 1794 or 1795 and thence to York. Around 1807 young Hugh became a clerk in the general store of Laurent Quetton St George in York. Soon afterwards he assumed responsibility for the Niagara branch of the business, and in 1810 he was transferred to Kingston. His correspondence with his employer from 1808 to 1815 throws light on the business methods of the time and reveals his integrity of character. When St George returned to France in 1815, Thomson bought the Kingston store and soon afterwards formed a partnership with George H. Detlor. Two years earlier, he had been involved with Joseph Forsyth*, John Kirby*, and other merchants in the creation of a Kingston banking association.
On 18 Sept. 1813 Thomson married Elizabeth Spafford, who died of a “lingering illness” less than a year later at the age of 22. His own poor health kept him from active service during the War of 1812. He married as his second wife Elizabeth Ruttan of Adolphustown on 18 March 1816. They were to have ten children, only three of whom would survive infancy or early childhood. A man of many interests, Thomson was active in the community. He was a justice of the peace, a militia officer, a warden of St George’s Church, secretary of the Midland District Agricultural Society, and deputy crown clerk and commissioner of the Court of Requests for the district. He was also a freemason, an officer of the Kingston Emigration Society, treasurer of the Midland District School Society, and a generous subscriber to the Kingston Auxiliary Bible and Common Prayer Book Society.
In 1819 Thomson wound up his mercantile business to become proprietor and editor of the Upper Canada Herald, a weekly journal which began publication that September as a rival of the Kingston Chronicle, published by John Macaulay* and Alexander Pringle. By the mid 1820s the Herald had the largest circulation of any Upper Canadian newspaper, and in 1826 William Lyon Mackenzie* described it as “perhaps the most consistent, temperate, and useful periodical work in the Province.” In addition to producing his newspaper, Thomson did job printing and published a score or more of pamphlets, annual reports, and tracts, as well as two slim volumes of verse and some full-length books, including St. Ursula’s convent, or the nun of Canada, containing scenes from real life (2v., 1824) by Julia Catherine Hart [Beckwith*], the first novel written by a native Canadian and the first to be published in what is now Canada. In 1828 there appeared A manual of parliamentary practice . . . , compiled, edited, and published by Thomson. In point of fact it was a plagiarized reprint of Thomas Jefferson’s volume of the same title (1801) omitting references to American law and history, and, where practice differed, substituting Canadian for American legislative procedures. Jointly with James MacFarlane*, who took over the Chronicle in 1824, Thomson also published The statutes of the province of Upper Canada . . . (1831), a compendium of all statutes passed in the province since 1793.
Although the Herald was independent politically – Thomson described it as being “loyal and patriotic, open to all parties, but under the control of none” – it did support moderate reform measures. The Herald gave its backing to the reform agitation of Robert Gourlay* and in the 1820s it supported the two leading reformers in the eastern section of the province, Barnabas Bidwell and his son Marshall Spring Bidwell*. Thomson’s first brush with authority came in 1823 as a result of publishing a letter to the editor (probably written by Thomas Dalton*) which criticized a report of a legislative committee on settling the affairs of the “pretended” Bank of Upper Canada, or, as the writer said, on unsettling its affairs. This article was held to be in contempt of the privileges of the House of Assembly, and Thomson, as publisher, was summoned to appear before the bar of the house, where he was sternly reprimanded by Speaker Levius Peters Sherwood* for printing a “false, scandalous, and malicious libel.”
This rebuke by a member of the tory élite may have influenced Thomson’s decision to stand as a moderate reformer in the general election of 1824. In this contest he headed the polls as one of the two members for Frontenac County, and he repeated the performance in the elections of 1828 and 1830. Sherwood’s reprimand may also explain why Thomson rushed to champion liberty of the press in a special issue of the Herald when, in 1826, Mackenzie’s printing-office was raided by a gang of young tories led by Samuel Peters Jarvis*. Similarly, in 1828 he protested the severity of the sentence accorded Francis Collins of the Canadian Freeman for his alleged libels on John Beverley Robinson* and Christopher Alexander Hagerman*. But Thomson drew a fine line between liberty and licence, and when Mackenzie overstepped the mark he lost Thomson’s support.
During his ten years in the legislature Thomson won a reputation as a fair-minded and judicious committee-man, but he was neither a fluent nor a frequent debater on the floor of the house. Probably because of his experience in business and his grasp of financial issues, he was appointed to many committees dealing with money matters. When investigating pork imports in 1826 he found Lieutenant Governor Sir Peregrine Maitland* guilty of exceeding his authority in allowing the importation of American pork by two prominent tories, James Gray Bethune* and Peter Robinson*. For making this accusation public in the Herald, he was indicted at Maitland’s insistence as “a malicious and evil-disposed person” who sought to bring the lieutenant governor into “great and public hatred, contempt, and disgrace.” The case was quietly dropped by Attorney General Robinson when Maitland left the province.
From 1824 to 1830 Thomson sided with the forces of moderate reform in the assembly, opposing the Church of England’s monopoly of the clergy reserves and attacking the government’s stand in the alien controversy [see John Rolph*]. In the autumn of 1827 he became a friend of John Walpole Willis*, sent out from England to fill a vacancy on the Court of King’s Bench. When Maitland dismissed Willis for declaring that the court could not sit in the absence of Chief Justice William Campbell, reformers of every stripe protested. Thomson published Willis’s lengthy defence in toto and deplored the action of the executive as “a fatal blow to the judicial independence of our Provincial Courts.” The Chronicle retorted that Willis was “wrong headed” and “weak-minded” in trying to halt the judicial process on a “dubious technicality.” The affair blew over when Willis returned to England, but it helped to ensure a reform majority in the general election of 1828.
After 1830 Thomson abandoned his reform allies and became a consistent supporter of the administration. The change in his political allegiance reflected the admiration of many reformers for Maitland’s successor, Sir John Colborne*. It also reflected the strains imposed on the reform movement by the election of Mackenzie in 1828. After taking his seat in the house Mackenzie tended to dominate the debates, and his radicalism combined with his incivility quickly antagonized some of the more moderate reform members, including Thomson. Openly critical of his colleague, Thomson voted with the tories against some of Mackenzie’s measures, an action for which he was denounced by Mackenzie in the Colonial Advocate but applauded by the Chronicle; the latter paper offered him the olive branch and welcomed him back “within the pale of civilized society.” In December 1831 Thomson seconded a motion by James Hunter Samson* to expel Mackenzie for a double libel on the executive branch and the assembly. With biting sarcasm, Mackenzie railed at him for ranging himself “among the persecutors of the Press.” Yet Thomson’s opposition to Mackenzie was not a volte-face on his part; he was exercising the same independent judgement for which, in 1825, he had been presented in Kingston with a silver cup by “the friends of free discussion” (one of whom was the engraver of the cup, Samuel Oliver Tazewell*).
Thomson’s greatest political achievement was the establishment of the provincial penitentiary in Kingston. He moved the first resolution on this subject in 1826, but no action was taken until Colborne adverted to the matter in his address to parliament in 1830. Thomson was then made chairman of a new committee, whose preliminary report was unanimously adopted. In 1832 he and John Macaulay were appointed commissioners to visit American penal institutions, procure plans, and submit an estimate of costs. Early in 1833 their detailed report was adopted and £12,500 was voted over a period of three years to buy land and erect a building. Having made himself an expert on penitentiary theory and operation, Thomson supervised the first stages of construction and drew up a comprehensive act for the administration and maintenance of the institution. Had his life not been cut short, he probably would have become the first warden of the penitentiary.
Never a man of robust health, Thomson was in York for a sitting of the assembly in late December 1833 when he suffered a haemorrhage of the lungs. His wife’s brother-in-law Robert Stanton* sat up with him one night during his illness, explaining to their common friend John Macaulay that “he seems low spirited & dejected unless some old acquaintance is near him.” Treated by doctors John Rolph and John King, Thomson managed to rally, and when navigation opened in April he was taken to Kingston. There he suffered a relapse and died on St George’s Day. His brother Edward William*, who was with him at the end, wrote that “he died the death of a Christian without moving a finger and praising God to the last.” In writing his obituary, James MacFarlane, his one-time antagonist at the Chronicle, extolled his devotion to public duty, deplored the calumnies he had had to endure, and said that in private life he was “universally esteemed.” He was, MacFarlane noted, “a warm and faithful friend; an obliging and kind neighbour, and a most affectionate husband and father.” His widow, Elizabeth, applied for and received from the provincial government a grant of £100 in recognition of his services. In 1824 she had managed the Herald during her husband’s absence in York, thus becoming the first woman in the province to publish a newspaper, and upon his death she again took over the paper and carried it on until 1837.
[G. [H.] Patterson, in “An enduring Canadian myth: responsible government and the family compact,” Journal of Canadian Studies (Peterborough, Ont.), 12 (1977), no.2: 3–16, assumes without any substantiation that the views expressed by A Plough-Jogger in the 7 June 1825 issue of the Upper Canada Herald were identical to Thomson’s own views and were derived from Lord Bolingbroke and David Hume; he also claims that the phrases “Court influence” and “court party” can be found in letters to the Herald from One of the People and Hampden on 26 April and 17 May 1825 respectively, whereas they actually appeared in the communication by A Plough-Jogger. As well, Thomson himself never used the term “court party,” nor did he enter into a controversy with the editor of the Kingston Chronicle over the assembly’s withholding of supplies. h.p.g.]
AO, MS 78, Stanton to Macaulay, 26 Dec. 1833, 1 May 1834; MS 88, Thomson to St George, 1808, 1815; MU 631, no.99 (Upper Canada Herald, ledger, 1829–33). MTL, Laurent Quetton de St George papers, 1810–13. PAC, RG 1, L3, 497: T10/35, T11/5; 498: T12/10; RG 5, A1: 51867–68; RG 68, General index, 1651–1841: 469. A manual of parliamentary practice, with an appendix, containing the rules of the Legislative Council and House of Assembly of Upper Canada, comp. H. C. Thomson (Kingston, 1828). U.C., House of Assembly, Journal, 1824–33. Colonial Advocate, 2 March, 6 April 1826; 26 May, 22 Dec. 1831. Gleaner, and Niagara Newspaper, 27 Dec, 1823. Kingston Chronicle, 1819–33. Upper Canada Herald, 1819–34. H. P. Gundy, “Hugh C. Thomson: editor, publisher, and politician, 1791–1834,” To preserve & defend: essays on Kingston in the nineteenth century, ed. G. [J. J.] Tulchinsky (Montreal and London, 1976), 203–22; “Liberty and licence of the press in Upper Canada,” His own man: essays in honour of Arthur Reginald Marsden Lower, ed. W. H. Heick and Roger Graham (Montreal and London, 1974), 71–92. R. B. Splane, Social welfare in Ontario, 1791–1893: a study of public welfare administration (Toronto, 1965). M. A. Banks, “An undetected case of plagiarism,” Parliamentary Journal (Chicago), 20 (1979), no.2: 1–11. H. P. Gundy, “The business career of Hugh C. Thomson of Kingston,” Historic Kingston, no.21 (1973): 62–75, and “Publishing and bookselling in Kingston since 1810,” no.10 (1962): 22–36.