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Memoir of the Right Reverend John Strachan
Chapter VI

Death of the Hon. Richard Cartwright—Appointment to the Executive Council.—McGill College, Montreal.—Loss of his house by fire.

DURING the turmoil and anxieties of the war, there were occurrences of a private nature that deeply affected the subject of this Memoir.

During the summer of 1813, the health of his old and attached friend, the Hon. Richard Cartwright, of Kingston, was visibly failing, and little hope was entertained of his recovery. He was himself sensible that his end was approaching; and on the 13th of November of that year, he addressed to Dr. Strachan the following touching letter:—

“My infirmities are increasing so fast upon me, that it would be infatuation in me to expect to live long, and I may very probably be called away in a few days. To me this is no otherwise an object of anxiety, than as it may affect my family. I had once flattered myself that in the event now contemplated I should have left them under the guardianship of my son James, whose affectionate heart and honourable principles would have well supplied my place; but it has pleased God to order otherwise; and I must devolve this Trust on you, as the kindest and Warmest of my friends. I am particularly anxious that the Boys should have such an education as will qualify them for being useful to their friends and their country, and by a taste for Literature ensure them an unfailing source of personal enjoyment. Mrs. Cartwright, I am sure, will readily acquiesce in any scheme you may propose for this purpose; and Mr. Robinson, whom I have joined with you as my Executor, will, I doubt not, lend you his cordial aid.

“Adieu, my dear friend. Before this reaches you, 1 shall have finished my earthly career, which has been shortened by the afflicting events which have in the last three years prostrated my fairest hopes. I shall without dismay resign my soul into the hands of its Creator, trusting to the merits of our Saviour for all the blessing which Christianity offers to its votaries.

“I will thank you to look over the letters which I have received from different friends, and especially from my children ; and, after selecting those which you think may be useful to the survivors in inspiring them with virtuous and honourable sentiments, you will preserve them for their use and destroy the rest —Of my papers which relate to the public concerns of the Province, you are at liberty to make what use you please.—May every blessing attend you and yours.”

Mr. Cartwright was a gentleman of cultivated mind and superior abilities, with sterling integrity of character and decided, piety. His death was a serious loss to the Province, and not less so the Church of which he was a devoted member. Of those he left behind him, two at least are not likely to be forgotten in Canada,—his twin-sons, John and Robert. Both were most estimable men; the former an honest and able member of the Bar of Upper Canada, and the latter one of its most exemplary and zealous clergymen. There was something peculiarly winning in the character of both these men; guileless as children, full of innocent play and vivacity, with a fund of information and anecdote which gave always an interest and charm to their conversation. To both the best of opportunities for acquiring a finished education had been afforded; for the former completed his legal studies at Lincoln’s Inn, in London; and the latter went through the full curriculum at Oxford, obtaining there his Degree with second class in Classics, and first in Mathematics. Both died comparatively young,—Robert, in the spring of 1843, and John, in January, 1845. The attachment between these brothers was something unusually strong; each being, as it were, a part of the other’s self. In life they were rarely separated; and in death they were not long divided.

Soon after the death of his old and valued friend Mr. Cartwright, Dr. Strachan was appointed a member of the Executive Council of Upper Canada, This appointment was made upon the strong recommendation of Mr. Gore, the Lieutenant Governor, who urged it mainly on the ground of his zealous and valuable services during the late war; and so highly were these appreciated by the Ministry in England, that they sanctioned it with the greatest promptitude and cheerfulness.

In reference to this appointment, I gladly quote the words of another biographer of the late Bishop, the Rev. Dr. Scadding:

“The appointment of a person in Holy Orders under the Episcopal rank, to such a position, would scarcely have happened, had there not been a scarcity of men in the country qualified to fill such a station. The discernment and decision of mind evinced by Dr. Strachan in regard to secular as well as ecclesiastical matters, stamped him as one that might be thus distinguished by the Crown. In England, to this day, we see men in Holy Orders sitting on the Magistrates Bench. It is a relic of the policy of bygone ages, when ecclesiastics were chosen to be keepers of the Great Seal; because they, beyond the generality of their contemporaries, were fitted for the office. The policy of the present day, although it has not yet wholly discarded the. usage of the past in this respect, is in its tendency opposed to, and will ultimately exclude such appointments; the reason arising from the paucity of qualified men outside the ecclesiastical ranks, having long since been cancelled by facts.”

Upon this subject it will be enough to add, that the appointment was not of his own seeking, and at first accompanied with no emolument whatever. It was accepted, as he stated in a letter to a friend, because “it gave him more influence and greater opportunities of promoting plans for the moral .and religious instruction of the people.”

In the autumn of 1813, Mrs. Strachan being in delicate health, consequent upon the frights and anxieties of the preceding spring, when York was in the hands of the enemy,—he sent her and the children to Cornwall, where, being surrounded by friends and relatives, she would have every care and attention. But the seclusion of Cornwall proved no safeguard against the alarms of war. The battle of Chrysler’s Farm, so honourable to the British arms, was fought on the 11th of November of this year; and it happened that an advanced detachment of the United States’ army encamped within two miles of Cornwall. Before the result of this battle was known, two companies of American soldiers inarched into Cornwall; and though they were generally very civil to the inhabitants, -none but women and children and a few aged men being left in the town,—they committed some depredations, and plundered two or three stores of goods which there had not been time to remove. This so alarmed Mrs. Strachan that she subsequently became seriously ill; and a special messenger (the present Dean of Montreal) was despatched in all haste to York to bring Dr. Strachan down. In those days the communication by post was about once a fortnight! He came as speedily as possible; and Mrs. Strachan was much cheered and improved by his arrival. Ho felt it necessary, however, to remain several weeks; but took the opportunity, before returning to York, to visit Montreal in view of a subject of great moment to the country, and in which he felt a deep personal interest.

The Hon. James McGill had bequeathed the munificent sum of £10,000, and the valuable property of Burnside, containing several acres, with a spacious and substantial dwelling-house, for the purpose of establishing a University in which the English youth of that city and the Province generally might have the advantage of a liberal education. As there were to be no restrictions on religious grounds, it was hoped that French, as well as English youth, would avail themselves of its advantages; and, should this prove to be the case, a greater cordiality and harmony would grow up between the two nations in Lower Canada. It was believed, too, that through this means the English language would gradually gain the ascendency ; and from this would follow the gradual abrogation of those many feudal laws and customs to which, notwithstanding their practical inconveniences, the French people clung with so much tenacity. Nor was there much, in the existing institutions of learning belonging to the French Canadians, that was calculated to enlarge the mind, and fit them to appreciate and grasp the improvements in laws and arts that prevailed in other nations, and were the result of a more advanced culture and inquiry. In their three Colleges, then existing, they aimed at little more than preparing young men for the priesthood of their Church; and in their system of general education they were, at least, a century behind the age.

Of this munificent bequest Dr. Strachan was named a Trustee by the testator, with an intimation of his desire that he should be the first Principal of the College when established. It was' long before the intentions of the founder could be realised: long before “ McGill College” could assume a shape and name. The money so generously bequeathed was refused by his heirs, and held back till the law extorted it from them; and, after this obstacle was removed, many weary years elapsed,—either from dilatoriness or the want of business capacity in those entrusted with its management,—before it could be got into practical operation. It is almost needless to say that when the College could be opened, the position of Dr. Strachan was such as to render it impossible for him to consent to become its Principal, and so meet the wishes of his departed friend.

The journey to Montreal we have reference to, was the beginning of his active thoughts upon the establishment of this College; for although his aims and projects for the advancement of education were naturally directed with more earnestness to Upper Canada, he never lost sight of the large advantages to the youth of the Lower Province, which were promised by the beneficence of his friend Mr. McGill. On his return to York from Montreal, he addressed a letter to his friend Professor Brown, of St. Andrew’s, asking him for some suggestions upon the subject, so that he might be enabled, as soon as required, to draw up a rational and useful plan of conducting a literary establishment of this character; what rules of discipline would be advisable, when the students might be composed of Roman Catholics and Protestants; and, assuming that at first it might be necessary to start on a limited and partial scale, what branches of education should at the outset be preferred. He went on to request the draft of a scheme for a University in its entireity; expressing a belief that, whilst its tendency would be to harmonize the antagonistic elements of the Canadian population, it would be so superior to any institution of the kind in the United States, that our youth need not be exposed to the contagion of the loose politics and unsound religion that were believed to be inculcated in most of the Colleges of that country.

During the winter of 1815, the house which Dr. Strachan occupied at York was unfortunately consumed by fire. In reference to this, he writes thus to a friend:

“I happened to be out, visiting the Hospitals, and before I got home the roof was in a blaze. Almost all my papers and manuscripts are gone; and this I consider my greatest loss, as the other things that were broken or stolen, though amounting to a large sum, may in time be replaced. I bore the calamity with my usual firmness, and we are again comfortable. Mrs. Strachan stood it wonderfully well; and, though exposed for a time to many privations to which we had not been accustomed, we all had excellent health.”

This, and- a subsequent misfortune of the same character, induced him to embark in the large expense of providing a house of his own; and there was completed in the summer of 1818, the large and comfortable residence in which he lived during the remainder of his life. This had become so familiar and endeared a spot to the Churchmen of the Diocese, that, in contemplating a suitable memorial to mark their appreciation of his worth and services, the purchase of this as the Episcopal residence in all time to come, was seriously entertained. There were obstacles, however, to the consummation of this purpose which it was found impossible at present to surmount; but it was a satisfaction to feel that the present, though only temporary, appropriation of the home of our late Bishop, is one that meets in some degree the intention of a Memorial. At present there is conducted there the Seminary for the instruction and religious training of the daughters of Churchmen in this Province, which, with his own consent, bears the name of “The Bishop-Strachan School”; a school which, from the efficiency of its management and the patronage already extended to it, promises to realize to the full, the object of its establishment.

To his friend Professor Brown, of St. Andrew’s, with whom he maintained a steady correspondence as long as he lived, he expressed himself with the freedom of intimacy on various domestic matters; giving an account of his children, their progress at school, and for what professions or other employments he designed them. Sometimes, too, he was equally free in offering his advice to his friend on these private concerns,—in relation to which we shall venture upon a short extract from one of his letters:

"I have for these two years past looked with anxiety, in the literary and philosophical columns of intelligence, for your name, but in vain: no work is yet announced of yours. But you must recollect that your ties are now much stronger than ever, and that it becomes necessary to prepare against all possible contingencies. What provision is there for Mrs. B. and the young child, in case any thing happened to you? The small annuity you possess dies with you. Why not publish some of your projected works? Your discoveries in Mathematics would, in all probability, sell well. A few volumes of your Sermons would have an uncommon sale, and might alone constitute a fund sufficient for your purpose. You will have the goodness to excuse my freedom; but your talents are so great, and the means of assisting your circumstances are so much in your power, that I know not how you can reconcile it to yourself to remain in obscurity. Are you determined to continue in retirement, or to break through the cloud, and assume your proper station on the theatre of life?”

Dr. Strachan also corresponded pretty regularly with Professor Duncan, and Dr. Chalmers. From a letter of the latter, written about the date of the present stage of this narrative, the following extract cannot fail to be interesting to our readers:

“There is almost nothing occurring here at present that is worthy of being mentioned. We expect, in time, a pretty large accession of new Churches, which, if tilled by effective men, will turn out a great blessing to our population. Every thing, however, will depend on the patronage, and the pure and right exercise of it; for unless they get ministers who will attract and influence the great mass of the people, the object of these Churches will be altogether frustrated.

“There is a popularity that is vain and transitory, and altogether contemptible as an aim. But have you never thought, that if Christianity in its true form be accommodated to the real wants and inwardly felt necessities of our nature, then a true statement of it may stand distinguished from an erroneous one, by the homage of a responding movement which it draws from human beings. This man has told me all I ever did says the woman of Samaria.  "These men" said the converts of old "know all that is in our hearts." And in like manner, he who now-a-days truly expounds the religion that was framed by Him who knew what was in man, may obtain the testimony that— ‘Here is a man speaking to me. There is something within which he has got hold of, and by which he has a hold of my attention and conviction, and finally of my entire conversion to the power of the truth.’

“I need no collateral evidence for the doctrine of Atonement, and utter depravity of man by nature, and his alienation from (rod, and his need of regeneration by the Spirit, because they flash directly upon me from the authentic result of our faith. But then I further sec that these are the doctrines which the common people heard gladly; and under the influence of them they are turned to newness of life. I cannot but look upon this as a coincidence that was to be looked for; as a proof of the wisdom of Him who has adapted the remedy to the disease, the operation to the subject.”

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