Assembly was ‘filled with friends’
The automated system on the Kingston Transit bus calls out the next street stop. Themachine puts its own spin on pronunciation, saying “Bag-ought” Street. Hmm. Iwonder if Sir Charles Ba got would chuck le or cry out in frustration at the odd articulation of hisname. Although his time in Kingston as Governor General of the Province of Canada was sadly cut short, Bagot left a lasting impression on Canadian politics.
A member of British aristocracy from birth, Bagot (born 1781 in Staffordshire, England) attended the finer schools. Spending less thana year at Lincoln’s Inn (a prestigious legal institution) in 1801, the young man found he did not enjoy law. Instead, he attended Oxford to earn a master’s degree then entered politics, elected member of Parliament of Castle Rising, a borough of Norfolk, England, in 1807.
Changing jobs, Bagot turned to foreign affairs and diplomacy. Minister plenipotentiary to France in the summer of 1814, the next year, the 33-year-old was appointed minister plenipotentiary tothe United States. “Itwas a difficult assignment,” Jacques Monet said in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, “for the Americans kept grudging memories of the War of 1812, andthe issues arising out of the hostilities were complicated.”
A novice in the diplomatic world, Bagot learned quickly in Washington, D.C., handling “the assignment with ta ct and sensitivity, won the respect and friendship of the American administration, and became well liked in the American capital.”
While there, the young Bagot’s name was forever scribed in North American history with the completion of the RushBagot Agreement. Wishing to reduce naval forces in the Great Lakes after the War of 1812, the Americans initiated discussion with the British; Bagot was the negotiator on behalf of His Majesty’ s Government and James Munroe represented the United States.
Writing letters backandforth, talks began with aproposal to end the shipbuilding race and to reduce the vessels and weapons each country had in the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain. Each wrote an accounting of their ships on the water, numberof guns, and vessels on the stocks (under construction). On April 28and29, 1817, both sides agreed:
“On Lake Ontario to one vessel not exceeding One Hundred Tons burden, and armed with one eighteen-pound cannon. On the Upper Lakes to two vessels not exceeding the like burden each, and armed with like force, and on the waters of Lake Champlain to one vessel not exceeding like burden and armed with like force.” All other ships were to be dismantled “and no other vessels of war to be there built or armed.”
The proclamation of the RushBagot Agreement (also called treaty, convention or pact) wasmade one year later, on April 28, 1818.
Participating in further negotiations on fisheries and land disputes, the now experienced Bagot returned to England in 1819. Invested as Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath on May 20, 1820, Sir Bagot was then assigned as ambassador to Russia.
The diplomat spent four years in Russia. Bagot was one of the negotiators in the Alaska boundary treaty, signed in 1825. His career took him next to the Hague, Netherlands, on to Vienna, Austria, and then in 1841, Bagot received an offer to fill the Governor General’s post for the Province of Canada in Kingston, Canada West. Gov. Gen. Lord Sydenham, whose government was struggling and about to lose the confidence of the majority of assembly members, had died after a nasty infection from a fall from his horse. Sir Bagot arrived at Canada’s first capital (1841 to 1844) on Jan. 10, 1842.
Bagot’s “appointment made sense, despite his lack of parliamentary experience,” Monet said, “for hehad the personality and sound judgment required for colonial politics.… Also, his knowledge of the United States was critical given that belligerent expansionism once more inflamed American politics.”
England’ s Lord Stanley gave his new colonial Governor General what appeared to be a simple set of orders: “Hewas to recognize no distinction of national origin or religious creed; he was to consult the wishes of the mass of the population; but hemust refuse to reopen the discussion of constitutional doctrine,” according to John Holland Rose eta lin The Cambridge History of the British Empire, Vol. 1 (Cambridge University Press, 1930). The task seemed feasible, except the colonists were already divided into factions and Reformers were vigorous ly demanding responsible government— members elected, not selected by the monarch.
The Canadian government was unsettled, trying to find solid footing among many voices, while the British Cabinet overseas wished to retain control of the colony. The Reform Party, the Family Compact, the French Canadians— Bagot’s challenge to bring unity and peace to Canadian politics seemed nearly impossible. And under no circumstances was he permitted to submit to Reformers.
Using all his skills as a thoughtful, informed negotiator, the Governor General put forth concessions and agreements with the parties. Failures led to successes. Rather than using British members, Bagot appointed Canadians to important posts in the government and courts, including a French-speaking Catholic as deputy superintendent of education in Lower Canada. “He also suspended proclamation of a decree that the Special Council of Lower Canada had passed to introduce British common law into the courts,” stated Monet. “Such gestures he knew would reassure the Canadians that their education and legal systems would be preserved.”
From his seat in England, Lord Stanley did not comprehend the position and needs of Canadians. Against his boss’s wishes, Bagot developed his own policies for the Province of Canada, attempting to conciliate while keeping responsible government at bay.
The Legislative Assembly session opened on September 1842 in Watkins Wing of the new Kingston General Hospital. Demands and arguments from every corner led Bagot to believe both he and government would fail. Over several days of threats, haggling and offers, a new executive council was formed. The executive was not built along party lines, and the fight for responsible government was put off. “With half a dozen hostile combinations possible, [Bagot] had forestalled them all, and found the assembly filled with friends, not enemies,” describes J.L. Morison in “Sir Charles Bagot: An Incident in Canadian Parliamentary History” (The Jackson Press, Kingston 1912).
However worthy the Governor General’s negotiating may have been, his British counterparts were angry. It was considered that Bagot’s concessions meant “the Canadas had been handed over to ultra-radicals and former rebels who would soon sever the British connection,” Monet said. The Governor General was defended, “and in time the cabinet came to accept the wisdom of what Bagot had called ‘his grand measure’.”
While the verve and excitement of colonial government energized the assembly, Sir Bagot was suffering with illness. Toward the end of autumn, he was too sick to participate in government and resigned his post in January 1843. For a time, he continued to contribute fromthe Governor General’ s residence at Alwington House. Unable to travel to England, Sir Charles Bagot died at the residence on May 19, 1843, after less than 18 months in Canada. (Al wing ton House was built just off King Street in 1832 by Baron Longueil. In 1958, a fire damaged the home on Alwington Avenue, and it was demolished the next year.)
Nomatter howmuch Britain wanted to avoid responsible government, there was no way to avoid the system. Bagot warned Stanley that “whether the doctrine of responsible government is openly acknowledged or is only tacitly acquiesced in, virtually it exists.”
Sharing the glories and aggravations with Bagot was hiswife, Mary Charlotte Anne Wellesley-Pole (born Feb. 5, 1786). Married on July 22, 1806, the Bagots had a large family of 10 children. On Bagot’s passing, she took his remains home to Britain.
A modern woman, “Lady Bagot was the first wife of a Governor General in Canada to assume the title of ‘Her Excellency,’ which she did at a drawing room held by her, in Montreal, Aug. 11, 1842,” according to Henry J. Morgan in “Types of Canadian women and of women who are or have been connected with Canada,” Vol. 1 (William Briggs, Toronto 1903).
Sir Bagot “was the first British statesman to bring Canadians into the government of their country,” Monet said, “and he thus put a decisive mark on the history of constitutional government in the Canadas.”
Recalling Bagot’s time in Kingston, a plaque is located on Stuart Street. Kingston Transit stops close by - just listen for “Next stop, KGH and Queen’s University.”