Search just our sites by using our customised site search engine

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Click here to learn more about MyHeritage and get free genealogy resources

John Graves Simcoe
Chapter XIII - Non Sibi Sed Partić

TO imagine Simcoe influenced by the legend graven upon his family arms may be a quaint idea, but at the end of his life he might have pointed to it as an epitome of his motives and actions. He was in truth governed largely by his enthusiasms and his sentiments, and when this is understood it is conceivable that a family motto in such perfect harmony with his ideals and so apt to the circumstances of his chosen career would at last come to be an invisible monitor encouraging the sacrifice of self for the country's weal. His presence in Upper Canada is an evidence of how far he could be swayed by sentiment. He turned his face from the source of preferment and left the court and parliament at a time when he could have forced recognition of his abilities. In his absence ministers might change and power centre itself in men who knew him not. He exiled himself and left his interests to the chance of decay. Why? He answers the question. "To establish the British Constitution hitherto imperfectly communicated by our colonial system, among a people who had so steadfastly adhered to their loyal principles, was an object so salutary for the present and so extensive in its consequences that I overlooked all personal considerations."

He had frequent reason during the American war and his term in Upper Canada to gain admonishment from his family motto. His life was worn away in the public service. At the close of the struggle with the Americans, his constitution was undermined. The kind of warfare he followed, sudden forays, ambuscades, forced marches, stratagems, and subterfuges kept his mind in a condition of strain and excitement, and gave his body no rest. Time and again during those years he broke down but stuck to his saddle when he should have kept his pallet. And above and beyond the exhaustion of such a dashing and haphazard life there was the sense of failure, of lost opportunities, of ponderous blunders, of weak kneed strategy and palsied inactivity. These were the things that burned deeply and bitterly into this valiant and heroic soul. Could he have felt that he was responsible and had failed to conquer a more capable commander, the bitterness would have been galling, but it could not have been so unbearable as defeat brought about by the wild errors of others. As many another subordinate in that same captured army felt, and as many another has had cause to feel since, he realized in hopelessness the vast inertia of the mass of incompetence above him. This opinion, that the war was lost- by stupidity, bred in him a violence of feeling towards the United States that he was never slow 224 to express. He was a soldier with a great talent, if not a positive genius, for war; this talent he had developed by study and reflection. His mind was full of resource, he had the strategic instinct, he adapted his means to the end in view. There is abundant evidence to prove that this talent was observed and often made use of by his superiors. After he became eligible there was no board of general officers called by the king of which Simcoe was not a member. De la Rochefoucauld writes, "He is acquainted with the military history of all countries; no hillock catches his eye without exciting in his mind the idea of a fort, which might be constructed on the spot; and with the construction of this fort he associates the plan of operations for a campaign, especially of that which is to lead him to Philadelphia."

He desired peace with the United States, and peace he constantly guarded and preserved by his actions and words. Yet there is nothing irreconcilable between this desire and his expressed hostility towards the young nation. Always in a soldier's mind the desire for active service is implicit. Simcoe would no doubt have welcomed the opportunity of again crossing swords with his old antagonists. He was constantly reverting to his past campaigns and laying plans for those of the future. In 1794 he thought his opportunity had come, and he accepted the tremendous responsibility without flinching. In his dash from York to the rapids of the Miami, in his plans for intercepting Wayne and defeating him, there was all the old vigour, keen-sightedness, sureness of aim. He saw what was to be done, and in the best way, using all the natural advantages, he did it. His swiftness on this occasion alone would justify the praise of George III, that if every person had served during the American war as Simcoe had done, it would have had a different termination. The governor himself believed that he had had a passive victory at the forks of the Miami—that by a show of strength he had prevented an invasion of the province. Rut there is no equation between the terms of his gift as a soldier and the opportunity of using it in a successful issue. Fortune always meted out to him a forlorn hope/ In the American war and later in Santo Domingo adverse conditions were heaped upon him in huge bulk, immovable. He seemed to copy the broken career of his father, and pass on the example to his son.

The military cast of his mind is evident in nearly all his plans for the development of the colony. He would have had it evolve into a peaceful camp, into settlements of which the blockhouse would be the heart and head. The mainstay of loyalty, religion, and prosperity would be the garrison—and loyalty in this sentence is not written carelessly before religion. Loyalty was to be the creed of the I p-per Canadian. So familiar is Simcoe with this virtue that at last it begins to smirk and take on a comic cast. In his vision of a provincial capital there is the pure comic. Within its walls there was to be erected the palladium of British loyalty, all republicans were to be cast forth, there was to be one true church, there was to be the university as a safeguard of the Constitution, there opinion and character were to be so schooled and moulded that to consider them would be to look upon the obverse and reverse of a Georgian guinea; there was to be a sort of worship of the British Constitution, there at every street corner was to be a sentry, there the very stones were to sing "God save the King," and over it all there was to be the primness of a flint-box and the odour of pipe-clay. The vision in reality has taken on a different form, but it is easy to think that Simcoe would be satisfied with the actuality and claim it as a growth from his seedling.

The compact bureaucracy that rose and flourished and was cut down after his day must be traced to the official system that he inaugurated. It was designed to prevent sedition, and to destroy the very seeds of republicanism as with a penetrating frost. But the error at the heart of this system was, that democratic principles and practices could not be enwrapt with the practice and principles of the British Constitution. Simcoe had unearthed many of the roots that nourished the tree of the American Revolution, but the tap-root he had not traced. It must be said that he was made of the same metal as many of the colonial governors, and in their positions he would have opposed a like stubbornness to the new, restless, over-eager undercurrent that was running strongly in colonial affairs. Instead of delving a wider channel m which it might run safely and spend its energy usefully, he would also have built the dams and barriers that fretted the current which finally rose and swept them out into the ocean. He would have failed to appreciate the new conditions that free life had formed in the western air. Desire for constitutional changes and outcry against taxation and monopoly he would have endeavoured to crush as subversive and contumacious; for Simcoe had the defects of his qualities. Against his vivacity, his power of incentive, his courage, his intrepid uprightness, we must place impatience, stubbornness, suspicion and lack of self-restraint. When lie was opposed he gave his adversary no credit for sincerity, he imputed unworthy motives, and in expressing his case in rebuttal he went beyond all bounds in the extravagance of his language. These petulant outbursts, in which sentences are swollen and turgid with a sort of protesting rhetoric, sometimes cancel sympathy. Against Lord Dorchester one is prone to take the side of Governor Simcoe, seeing how earnest and zealous he was, but there is much in his correspondence with his superior officer that is not of perfect temper. Many of these letters, fluttering often upon the borders of pure impertinence, gain support for the old warrior, whose replies did not fail in dignity and a sort of amiable condescension. When it is comprehended how fine a gentleman Simcoe could be, some of his expressions are often inexplicable. But he was supersensitive in the region of personal and public honour, particularly when the attack pierced also his sense of duty. It was when so stricken that he made the loudest outcry.

With all these minor faults, faults of a sanguine and buoyant temperament, he yet was a great gentleman. Twice at least during his stay in Upper Canada he was called upon to occupy positions that required the utmost tact, and in neither was he in the least wanting. In the summer of 1793 for many days he entertained three American commissioners to the Indians at a time when he suspected early active hostilities and when his civil position was involved and complicated with military preparations and the nervous and tricky diplomacy of Brant and his confederates. One of his guests was that General Lincoln who capitulated to Clinton at Charleston, and the past must have contained bitter memories for both guest and host, but the general in his memoirs has nothing but praise for the consideration shown him. Simcoe's dislike of the new republic, his fear of American politics, and his sympathy with the Indian demands were carefully cloaked and nothing appeared but a tine hospitality that placed his guests at ease.

The second occasion was when he entertained the French Royalist, the Duke de la Rochefoucauld, at a time when republican France was at war with England. The duke during all the days of his stay was in the country under sufferance, but was made at home in the large simple manner that won his admiration. In Simcoe's relations with his people he showed a like consideration, and although lie was criticized, misunderstood, and disliked, it was not often so. These cases oftenest arose from the opposition of his honesty, brusque but open and fearless, to the small plots for gain and preferment that he discovered. To persons thus engaged he seemed like a withering fire, he burned them with scorn. He had none of the finesse that can measure faults and adjust rebuke in degree. He used the same sledge-hammer to break the mill-stone of some great public abuse and the hazel-nut of a private peccadillo.

But his character held in happy combination traits that made him an almost perfect governor for the place and the time. He treated his people as a nobleman might treat his tenants if his temper were magnanimous and progressive. In Upper Canada he appeared as an urbane landlord upon a huge, wild estate. Any attitude other than the one he adopted would have made him the most unpopular man in the province. His genius for exhibiting personal interest in the individual concerns of his little people made him beloved and respected. His stern sense of duty and his military prowess gave a feeling of security to scattered settlements in a troubled and uncertain time.

After all is said the essential quality of this man's mind and temper was integrity. Every thought and action rose from that deep, pure spring. It was the perception that the man was filled with lofty patriotism, that the sense of duty was inherent in him and unassailable, that led Pitt to remark that he was needed in Santo Domingo by reason of his integrity, not for his military exertion. And in closing a review of his character and aims it is this quality more than all others that comes into prominence, aud remains massed, large and luminous. For in the end it comes to be a question as to what this man's work in our country is to stand for, what we are to think of when we bring into our minds him and those early days that he filled so full with untiring energy. He has all the advantage and all the disadvantage that clings about his position as a pioneer of government. He could do but little in his five years of power to direct the future of the province, and from many of his ideals and aims we have swung far away. But he possessed the advantage of having no forerunner, and even what he did has a larger value than the acts of those who may have had richer, fuller opportunity. Certain waterways and highways, very many place-names, and a few great centres of population will always be associated with his memory. These are material things, and in a country where the interests of trade and the minutia* of barter and exchange must perforce receive an undue prominence, it is well that some character, some utterance of an ideal position may exist which we may uplift for guidance, to which we may turn when wearied by the sordidness of the time and the garishness of party aims and mean local ambitions. In Simcoe's character and utterance we have such a possession. He had in abundance, and used to the full, that great quality of integrity which is the corner-stone of public and private usefulness, that quality without which both acts and words sound as brass and tinkle as a cymbal. We might choose more widely and not choose so well if, in a search for ideals, we passed by the worth of the first governor of Upper Canada. It is by his purity of purpose and his lofty rectitude that he may be of abiding use to us. His words are now as cogent as they were in his day. They may look as dim to the eyes of a practical politician as an old-fashioned lanthorn, but they shed an honest light. And we might all profit exceedingly by a close observation of the group of virtues that, in the following words, our exemplar has brought together that he considers the prime qualities to assist at the founding of a nation: " It is our immediate duty to recommend our public acts to our fellow-subjects by the efficacy of our private example; and to contribute in this tract of the British empire to form a nation, obedient to the laws, frugal, temperate, industrious, impressed with a steadfast love of justice, of honour, of public good, with unshaken probity and fortitude amongst men, with Christian piety and gratitude to God."

It would be well in reading them to remember that they were written of our country and spoken to our forefathers, and that by direct inheritance they belong and appertain to our national life and to ourselves. This recollection might lead us to return to them with profit again, and yet again.

Return to our Book Index Page

This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus