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THOMSON, WILLIAM ALEXANDER, railway promoter, author, and politician; b. November 1816 in Wigtownshire, Scotland; d. 1 Oct. 1878, near Queenston, Ont.

William Alexander Thomson attended school in Wigtownshire before emigrating to the United States. He went to Buffalo, New York, then came to Upper Canada in 1834, settling in Queenston. He was active in arranging for the incorporation, financing, and development of railways in western Ontario beginning with the Fort Erie Railway (later the Erie and Niagara Railway), and then the Erie and Ontario Railway, which was purchased by the Erie and Niagara in 1863. He became president of the Erie and Niagara Railway and a senior officer of the Canada Southern Railway; the Toronto Globe reported that the latter appointment was “largely the result of his determination, perseverance, and energy.” He was an enthusiastic advocate of western expansion, and at his death was said to have been “engaged in the promotion of railway enterprises in Manitoba.”

Thomson was an unsuccessful candidate at the federal general election of 1867, standing for Niagara, but was elected to the House of Commons as a Liberal in a by-election on 19 Nov. 1872 for Welland, and was re-elected in 1874. He was prevented by ill health from being a candidate for re-election in 1878. A man of advanced views, enterprising spirit, and “a bold speculative turn of mind,” Thomson was also called “a large-hearted, liberal man, of kindly and social sympathies, a loyal member of his political party, and true to his convictions.”

Thomson was an effective advocate of radical agrarian economic doctrine in the years just before and after confederation. He set forth most of his ideas for the first time in 1863 in a long pamphlet entitled An essay on production, money, and government; in which the principle of a natural law is advanced and explained. Thomson believed that Canadian laws and institutions had been formulated to advance mercantile rather than productive interests and were not conducive to national development. He told the House of Commons in 1876: “The cause of our troubles has been that our laws have been made to suit the merchants instead of the producing classes.” He recommended more public works, lower tariffs, and above all an issue of irredeemable government notes to assist farmers and other producers of real goods. Like many other radical spokesmen before and since, he tended to overstate his case and to confuse his economic theory with religious and moral doctrine. He explained: “Nature laid the foundation, Adam Smith and his successors built the columns, and, I believe, it has been given to me to place the keystone in the arch of Political Economy.”

Public management of the currency, Thomson argued, could eliminate depressions, stimulate growth, help to finance government expenditures, and bring about the reign of Christian principles on earth. “The present money,” he said, “never moves production, it only exchanges products.” Thomson’s ideas are strikingly similar to those of Canadian Social Credit theorists in the 20th century, and he even used the term “social credit” in presenting his case. He described an economic crisis as follows: “When the collapse happens, apart from the increase of human wretchedness that will arise, there will be a depreciation of fixed properties just equal to the amount of social credit withdrawn.” He expressed his views often to parliament, and he proposed a series of resolutions in 1878 asking that a system of “Agricultural Banks” be established on his model. Though there is little evidence that his ideas were influential beyond a few contemporary advocates of a “national currency,” he is remembered as one of Canada’s first agrarian radicals and as a pioneer advocate of government monetary policy.

Craufurd D. W. Goodwin

W. A. Thomson, An essay on production, money, and government; in which the principle of a natural law is advanced and explained, whereby credit, debt, taxation, tariffs, and interest on money will be abolished; and national debt and the current expenses of government will be paid in gold (Buffalo, N.Y., 1863). PAO, Misc. 1946, “Historical sketch of Canada Southern Railway Company.” Canada, House of Commons, Debates, 1875–78. Globe (Toronto), 2 Oct. 1878. Can. parl. comp., 1878. Can. directory of parliament (Johnson), 570. Morgan, Bibliotheca Canadensis, 372. C. D. W. Goodwin, Canadian economic thought: the political economy of a developing nation, 1814–1914 (Duke University Commonwealth-Studies Center pub., 15, Durham, N.C., and London, 1961); “A forgotten forerunner of Social Credit: William Alexander Thomson,” Jof Canadian Studies (Peterborough, Ont.), IV (May 1969), 41–45.

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Cite This Article

Craufurd D. W. Goodwin, “THOMSON, WILLIAM ALEXANDER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 1, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/thomson_william_alexander_10E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/thomson_william_alexander_10E.html
Author of Article:   Craufurd D. W. Goodwin
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1972
Year of revision:   1972
Access Date:   April 1, 2023