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JACKSON, Sir RICHARD DOWNES, army officer and colonial administrator; b. 1777, probably in Petersfield, England, son of Christopher Jackson; d. 9 June 1845 in Montreal.

Richard Downes Jackson entered the British army on 9 July 1794 as an ensign in the Coldstream Foot Guards. He served in Ireland during the rebellion of 1798, in Germany in 1798 and 1805, and at the assault on Copenhagen in 1807. In March 1810 he joined the army of Arthur Wellesley, later Duke of Wellington, at the siege of Cadiz and at Barrosa, where he fought with distinction. He remained in the Iberian peninsula as assistant quartermaster general from 1811 to 1814, was promoted colonel in 1814, and was knighted on 12 April 1815.

Jackson was appointed colonel of the Royal Staff Corps and deputy quartermaster general in 1820. A major-general by 1825, he became honorary colonel of the 81st Foot in 1829. His first major command was the northern military district of England during the 1830s. There, in the unruly period of anti-poor-law agitation and Chartism, his qualities of balanced judgement and common sense won wide respect. Worried by the inadequacy of the resources at his disposal, he emphasized the importance of good organization and quick movement of troops to meet the threat of civil unrest. He became a lieutenant-general in June 1838.

The following year Jackson was appointed commander-in-chief of the forces in British North America to replace Sir John Colborne*. Although his nomination took effect on 16 Sept. 1839, he reached Quebec only on 17 October, in the ship that also carried the new governor-in-chief, Charles Edward Poulett Thomson. Within days of his arrival Jackson set out on an inspection of the Richelieu valley, a likely invasion route, and he immediately began to campaign for improved frontier defences. His initial appreciations, noting “the present unsettled state of our affairs” with a powerful and expansive United States, made a strong case for more men and better communications but laid greatest stress on fortifications – “bulwarks” against increased American power.

Jackson’s requests, however, were modest and his bureaucratic victories were correspondingly small. Characteristically, he saw the other point of view and could sympathize with London’s drive for economy. With the signature of the Webster–Ashburton Treaty in August 1842, Anglo-American tensions eased considerably. Jackson, who had seen regular army strength in British North America climb to over 12,000 men in early 1842, now acquiesced in substantial reductions to his forces.

There is no evidence that Jackson’s concern for the frontier continued into his later years in the Canadas. The sending of his aide-de-camp and nephew by marriage, Henry James Warre, and Lieutenant Mervin Vavasour* to carry out reconnaissance in the Oregon country in 184546 was authorized by London. The initiative for the survey of the St Lawrence and the Great Lakes in 1845 under Captain Edward Boxer* had also come from the home government, not Jackson.

In the Canadas memory of the rebellions of 1837–38 remained fresh, and fear of insurrection was still vivid. There were frequent requests for troops in aid of the civil power. Jackson voted in the elections for the Legislative Assembly in 1844, an exceptional action for a British commander in a colonial garrison, probably out of a desire to show solidarity with the voices of reason and loyalism.

Jackson served three stints as temporary head of government. In Thomson’s absence, he was twice administrator of Lower Canada, from 18 Nov. 1839 to 19 Feb. 1840 and from 8 to 31 July 1840. Then, from 24 Sept. 1841, shortly after Thomson’s death, until Sir Charles Bagot assumed office on 12 Jan. 1842, he was administrator of the united province of Canada.

Charles Dickens was Jackson’s guest in Montreal near the end of the celebrated author’s first trip to North America in 1844. Dickens, a frustrated actor, presented an evening of theatricals to the garrison, rejoicing in the “iron despotism” with which he dominated the proceedings as both actor and stage manager. It was perhaps this behaviour that led him to conclude, as he left for home two months later, that “Sir Richard . . . has blotted me out of the Calendar of his affections altogether I know.”

In stark contrast to Dickens, Jackson was thoroughly unostentatious. “My chief,” wrote Warre, “was a man of very simple habits and a perfect gentleman used to travel in an ordinary tweed suit rather loosely made.” He enjoyed the solitude of his country retreat in William Henry (Sorel), where he could rest and hunt. By 1845, tired of his long absence from England and from his daughters (his wife had died some years before), he asked to be recalled. Just as his replacement, Charles Murray Cathcart*, was arriving, an apparently healthy Jackson was struck down by apoplexy in the heat of early summer. He was buried in William Henry where he had asked, only weeks before, to be laid to rest if he should die in Canada.

Norman Hillmer and O. A. Cooke

PAC, MG 24, A17, ser.i, 2; ser.ii, 6; F71, 1, 28; MG 30, D1, 16: 358–71; RG 8, I (C ser.), 60, 174–76, 282, 305, 675, 750, 769, 827, 916, 960, 1036–37, 1194B. PRO, WO 1/536–41, 1/552–53 (mfm. at PAC). Charles Dickens, The letters of Charles Dickens, ed. Madeleine House et al. (3v. to date, Oxford, 1965–  ), 3. Gentlemans Magazine, July–December 1845: 309. Montreal Gazette, 12 June 1845. Quebec Gazette, 11 June 1845. G.B., WO, Army list, 1795–1840. Hart’s army list, 1840–45. Kenneth Bourne, Britain and the balance of power in North America, 1815–1908 (Berkeley, Calif., 1967). J. M. S. Careless, The union of the Canadas: the growth of Canadian institutions, 1841–1857 (Toronto, 1967). G.B., Army, The record of the Coldstream Guards, ed. R. J. Marker et al. (3 pts. in 1v., London, 1950). J. M. Hitsman, Safeguarding Canada, 1763–1871 (Toronto, 1968). Edgar Johnson, Charles Dickens, his tragedy and triumph (New York, 1952). Elinor Kyte Senior, British regulars in Montreal: an imperial garrison, 1832–1854 (Montreal, 1981). [Daniel] MacKinnon, Origin and services of the Coldstream Guards (2v., London, 1833), 2. F. C. Mather, Public order in the age of the Chartists (New York, 1967).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Norman Hillmer and O. A. Cooke, “JACKSON, Sir RICHARD DOWNES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 21, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/jackson_richard_downes_7E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/jackson_richard_downes_7E.html
Author of Article:   Norman Hillmer and O. A. Cooke
Title of Article:   JACKSON, Sir RICHARD DOWNES
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1988
Year of revision:   1988
Access Date:   May 21, 2024