CARTWRIGHT, RICHARD, businessman, office holder, judge, politician, militia officer, and author; b. 2 Feb. 1759 in Albany, N.Y., son of Richard Cartwright and Joanne Beasley; m. c. 1784 Magdalen Secord in Cataraqui (Kingston, Ont.), and they had eight children; d. 27 July 1815 in Kingston, Upper Canada.
Richard Cartwright’s father was a native of England who had emigrated to New York in 1742 and his mother was from a “loyal Dutch family.” By the early 1770s Richard Cartwright Sr had established himself as a pillar of the community in Albany: he owned a successful inn and a valuable tract of land near Cherry Valley; he was also deputy postmaster of Albany and active locally in the Church of England. His prosperity allowed his son to attend private primary and advanced schools where he studied “the classics and higher branches of education,” in preparation for a career in the church. Although the outbreak of the American revolution ended young Richard’s plans for the ministry, his appetite for learning remained. Despite a badly deformed left eye, he read extensively, wrote lucid and often evocative prose, and trumpeted the virtues of “Reading, Writing, Thinking or Conversing Sensibly.” In later years Cartwright – widely read, intelligent, and blessed, it was said, with a photographic memory – was a man of intellectual stature who sometimes overawed his contemporaries in the pioneer community of Upper Canada.
The life of the Cartwright family in New York was totally disrupted by the American revolution. At first Richard Cartwright Sr was able to avoid confrontation with the rebels who controlled the Albany region. In 1775 he contributed supplies to the attack on Fort Ticonderoga (near Ticonderoga, N.Y.) led by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold, and he also turned over at least two suspicious letters to rebel leaders. But with the Declaration of Independence the older Cartwright felt compelled to withdraw to a more neutral position. His neutrality, however, was challenged in February 1777 when the Albany committee of correspondence seized a letter written by Richard Cartwright Jr to his sister, Elizabeth Robison of Niagara (near Youngstown, N.Y.). The contents of the letter were obviously incriminating since Richard Jr was ordered to “enter into security for his future good behaviour.” It seems that by October 1777 Richard Jr’s good behaviour could no longer be guaranteed and his father gained permission from the committee to allow Richard Jr and his young niece, Hannah, to leave for British territory. Richard’s parents, tainted by the loyalism of their son, suffered personal abuse, had their property “destroyed & plundered,” and in July 1778 were “conveyed away by a Guard to Crown Point.”
In an account of his journey to the province of Quebec written in 1777, and also in his later writings, Richard Cartwright Jr tried to clarify the basis of his loyalty to the British empire and constitution. Shortly after his departure from New York, he explained his reasons for leaving: “The distracted Condition of my native Country, where all Government was subverted, where Caprice was the only Rule and Measure of usurped Authority, and where all the Distress was exhibited that Power guided by Malice can produce, had long made me wish to leave it . . . notwithstanding the tender Feelings of Humanity which I suffered at Parting from the fondest of Parents, and a Number of agreeable Acquàintance it gave me a sensible Pleasure to quit a Place where Discord reigned and all the miseries of Anarchy had long prevailed.” To loyalists such as Cartwright the British constitution symbolized institutions and traditions – for example, a government with an appointed upper house and executive, trial by jury, and habeas corpus – which guaranteed order, authority, and liberty under law. The other dimension of his loyalism was his belief in the “Unity of the Empire,” under “the supremacy of Parliament,” “considered as co-extensive with the British Dominions.” In other words, it was his conviction that the many different branches of the British empire should be united under the authority of parliament, which ensured order, stability, and a uniformity of interests throughout the empire’s various parts. Taken together, Cartwright’s view of the empire, his commitment to the British constitution, and his strong awareness of his loyalist origins influenced both his response to public issues and the direction in which he sought to guide Upper Canada. After journeying overland to Montreal, Cartwright eventually became secretary to John Butler*, major commandant of a loyalist regiment based at Fort Niagara. He spent 1778 and 1779 on military expeditions into northern New York and gained experience in military provisioning while making valuable commercial contacts. In May 1780 he left the military to enter a partnership with Robert Hamilton. The following year Hamilton and Cartwright with the help of their principal suppliers, James McGill and Isaac Todd of Montreal – formed a partnership with John Askin of Detroit. All of these merchants were eager to tap not only the lucrative fur trade but also the supply of British garrisons. Cartwright’s movements for the next couple of years are difficult to trace, but by 1783 he may have been looking after the firm’s operations in eastern Upper Canada from a store on Carleton Island (N.Y.). In 1784 the partnership with Askin was amicably dissolved, and that same year or perhaps in 1785 Cartwright moved from Carleton Island to Cataraqui on the mainland. Shortly after moving, Cartwright married a member of a well-known loyalist family, Magdalen Secord, sister in-law of Laura [Ingersoll*]. She would provide her husband with eight children, unflagging devotion and love, and unquestioning support.
At Carleton Island and later in Cataraqui (renamed Kingston in 1788), Cartwright found himself in an excellent position to realize his considerable entrepreneurial potential. He possessed untiring energy and a passion for detail, controlling every aspect of his growing business. Continuing in partnership with Hamilton until 1790, Cartwright was able to use the military contacts he had developed in Niagara to win supply contracts for the Kingston garrison; in the early 1790s William Robertson and Isaac Todd lobbied successfully in England to win an exclusive contract for Cartwright, Hamilton, Askin, and David Robertson to supply the Upper Canadian garrisons between 1793 and 1795. Cartwright also acted as a key link in the “commercial empire of the St Lawrence,” which stretched from London to Montreal and through Kingston to Niagara, Detroit, and the northwest. In Kingston, Cartwright received and forwarded, for a five per cent commission, goods that McGill and Todd were sending into the interior. He exported Upper Canadian products – lumber, wheat, flour, potash, and pearl ash – through Montreal, and imported, via his Montreal agents, English manufactures and other goods which he sold very profitably to the growing civilian population. The virtual monopoly that Cartwright and other Kingston merchants, such as Joseph Forsyth, Peter Smith*, and John Kirby*, had over the economic life of the region translated itself into that dependent relationship between debtor and creditor which has characterized so many frontier societies. Thus, from the mid 1780s on, Cartwright was able to take full advantage of his location and his myriad of friends and associates. Even he admitted, however, that much depended on British support and British capital. He pointed to “the numerous garrisons and public departments established amongst us” and observed that “as long as the British Government shall think [it] proper to hire people to come over to eat our flour, we shall go on very well, and continue to make a figure.”
Despite all of his early advantages, in 1786 Cartwright had found himself in a vulnerable economic situation and he therefore decided to pull back, as he put it, “into a narrow Compass.” But by 1788 the general economic situation had improved and Cartwright involved himself in shipbuilding with the construction of the 120-ton Lady Dorchester. Six years later he joined a number of other merchants in building the Governor Simcoe.
Cartwright had learned early in his business career that diversification and flexibility were absolutely essential if a reasonable profit was to be earned. His general store in Kingston has been accurately described as “the most important business centre” in the community. He also owned a blacksmith’s shop and a cooper’s shop in Kingston. In 1792 he purchased the government mills Robert Clark* had built at Napanee – 25 miles west of Kingston – and immediately enlarged them to increase the production of flour. The flour produced at Napanee was of unusually fine quality and within a few years Cartwright was sending it to Niagara and to Montreal. At Napanee, moreover, he constructed a large “Shop,” a sawmill, a fulling-mill, a distillery, and a “tavern and other buildings.” In 1815 he estimated that, for the 1806 to 1814 period, the operations in Napanee had “produced a profit of £11,011-19-8 equal to £1376-10 per Annum.” According to Cartwright, “few if any mercantile houses in Kingston have done business to equal advantage for the same time.” His profit from his Kingston businesses must have been at least as large as that from Napanee.
Flour had become by the mid 1790s such an important staple for Cartwright that he stressed, “unless we can make our payments by this means our business is likely to become very languid in this province.” In 1801 more than 25 per cent of all the flour shipped to Montreal from Kingston was Cartwright flour. The Kingston merchant was also very much involved in the salted pork trade. In 1794, for example, 800 barrels of pork were produced in Kingston – 75 per cent more than in 1793. The remarkable increase was traced to one man – Richard Cartwright.
Realizing the growing importance of the flour and pork trade to Montreal and beyond, and the disadvantages of being dependent upon bateaux, Cartwright in 1794 began “to think seriously of attempting to facilitate the Export of our produce to Montreal, by means of Scows and Rafts.” In 1801 he was busy constructing his own scows and he proposed sending them laden with flour directly from Napanee to Quebec. Despite the loss of one of his scows on the St Lawrence River in 1802, Cartwright’s enthusiasm for what he regarded as a most practical and inexpensive mode of transport never waned.
Not only was Cartwright interested and active in almost every aspect of trade; he also encouraged local manufacturing. He was involved in making canvas for the British navy during the War of 1812 and also in distributing knitted products made locally. Moreover, together with other members of the Kingston élite such as Peter Smith, Lawrence Herchmer, and Allan MacLean*, he felt obliged in 1811 to keep the Kingston Gazette alive by purchasing it for a time from its disenchanted owner [see Stephen Miles*]. Cartwright considered the Gazette to be an influential means whereby he and his fellow leaders could mould the attitudes and values of the inhabitants of eastern Upper Canada. It is, therefore, not surprising that, under the pseudonym “Falkland,” Cartwright contributed many articles to the Gazette on the eve of and during the War of 1812. In these he underscored the loyalist and British traditions which he felt were at the core of Upper Canadian society.
When Cartwright died in 1815 he left to his wife and children not only all of his valuable business enterprises and his houses and personal property in Kingston and York (Toronto) but also more than 27,000 acres of land to be found throughout much of Upper Canada. He obviously was an unusually gifted and successful entrepreneur. One of the major reasons for his commercial success, without question, was his scrupulous honesty and his remarkable eye for detail. He took no unfair advantage of his clients and he expected the same treatment in return. Another reason was his flexibility and his commercial diversification. He had succeeded, as he had once expressed it in 1815, in making all his enterprises “mutually to assist to play into each other.”
Cartwright’s economic views coincided with his economic interests. He opposed “Interference in the Management of Private Property” – whether stringent laws regarding bankruptcy and financial disclosure or restrictions on trade – as being “inconsistent with Civil Rights.” But he also advocated that government should encourage the production of certain cash crops by providing bounties and by inspecting Upper Canadian exports to ensure their high quality. He was especially opposed to restrictions on Upper Canadian trade with Lower Canada or the United States and used his influence (as one of three Upper Canadians on an interprovincial commission) to obtain in 1798 free trade with the United States. This reciprocity agreement ended only when the United States imposed restrictions in 1801. Cartwright argued that free trade would benefit Upper Canada since the northern United States would become integrated into the St Lawrence commercial system and English manufactures and Canadian produce would reach American markets through Canadian ports, such as Kingston, and through the hands of Canadian merchants, such as Richard Cartwright. Early in his life Cartwright had pondered the difficulty of distinguishing between schemes “set on Foot” for the good of one’s country and those advocated from “some private consideration.” His conclusion, that it was impossible even for the individuals involved to distinguish between them, might aptly summarize the relationship between the interests of Upper Canada and those of Richard Cartwright.
Cartwright’s stature in the community and his sense of duty to serve and promote the “good of the society” led to his appointment as a justice of the peace some time in the mid 1780s, and he served as chairman of the magistrates in his district once the Court of Quarter Sessions began meeting in 1788; in that year he was also appointed a judge of the Court of Common Pleas. He was regarded as a conscientious, astute judge who added “dignity to the court.” In 1797, and again in 1800, Cartwright was named with Joshua Booth, Hazelton Spencer, and Joseph Forsyth to the first Heir and Devisee Commission for the Midland District. In 1800, as well, Cartwright was appointed one of the commissioners in the Midland District for administering the oath of allegiance to settlers claiming land. His other appointments included: member of the Mecklenburg land board (established in 1788), militia officer (1793), county lieutenant (1792), and, most important, legislative councillor (1792). Moreover, he actively encouraged the improvement of Upper Canada’s educational facilities. In 1799 Cartwright brought to Upper Canada a young Scottish teacher, John Strachan*, who was destined to educate many of the next generation of Upper Canadian leaders. A few years later, in 1805, Cartwright wrote a memorandum on education which resulted in a decision by the legislature to appropriate £400 for the purchase of scientific instruments for Strachan’s Cornwall school.
An important event in Cartwright’s political career was his quarrel with Upper Canada’s first lieutenant governor, John Graves Simcoe. At stake were two different perceptions of Upper Canada as a British colony. Simcoe wanted Upper Canada to become a miniature of England with a landed aristocracy, an established church, and institutions which would be replicas of those in England – as Cartwright said, “he [Simcoe] thinks every existing regulation in England would be proper here.” In contrast, Cartwright believed that, although colonial institutions should be modelled on those of the mother country, the stress should be on “the spirit of the constitution,” not “on copying all the subordinate establishments without considering the great disparity of the two countries in every respect.” On these grounds, Cartwright, though an Anglican, opposed the exclusive privileges given to the Anglican clergy in the Marriage Act of 1793 since there was inadequate “provision for the marriages of Dissenters,” who comprised a majority of the population. Similarly, he opposed the Judicature Act of 1794, whereby Upper Canadian courts were centralized as in England, because the scattered population along with the shortage of lawyers made such centralization impractical. Not only did Cartwright think that British institutions had to be adapted to Upper Canadian needs and conditions, but he also felt that the independent views of colonial leaders, such as himself, should be respected by British lieutenant governors. He believed that he had been appointed a legislative councillor because of his “Knowledge of the country and legislation to be most applicable to the situation of the colony; not merely to show my Complaisance to the person at the head of the Government.” Besides, Cartwright felt that he, unlike Simcoe, had made a long-term commitment to the colony. “All my prospects, as well for myself as my family,” he wrote, “are confined to this province: I am bound to it by the strongest ties, and with its welfare my interest is most essentially connected.” It is understandable why he was convinced that it was his right and duty to oppose policies that would jeopardize the colony’s future.
Moreover, Simcoe’s land policy – to encourage American emigrants to settle in Canada challenged Cartwright’s vision of Upper Canada as an “asylum for the unfortunate Loyalists reduced to poverty and driven into exile by their attachment to Britain.” This was the issue that upset Cartwright the most since, unlike Simcoe, he felt that Upper Canada was primarily a loyalist colony. “Loyalists heard, with astonishment and indignation, persons spoken of as proprietors of townships whom they had encountered in the field under the banners of the rebellion,” Cartwright stated. Also, by opening Upper Canada to American settlers, Simcoe had “dispel[led] the opinion fondly cherished by the Loyalists, that the donation of lands to them in this country was intended as a mark of peculiar favour and a reward for their attachment to their Sovereign.” Cartwright argued that it was important in Upper Canada to “lay a solid foundation” and stress the character of immigrants, not their numbers. Americans, though resourceful, intelligent, and capable farmers, held subversive “political notions,” such as an “affection of equality,” and lacked “habits of subordination.” They thus threatened the stable, peaceful, and ordered community which was Cartwright’s Upper Canada.
Another challenge to Cartwright’s Upper Canada came in the first decade of the 19th century from a group of government critics, one of whom, John Mills Jackson*, wrote a pamphlet, A view of the political situation of the province of Upper Canada . . . (London, 1809), which was very critical of the authorities. Cartwright responded in his Letters, from an American loyalist (1810) by denouncing critics such as Jackson, Robert Thorpe*, Joseph Willcocks, and William Weekes, in terms reminiscent of his earlier denunciations of the American rebels, as a “Faction” of demagogues and “turbulent Spirit[s]” who were making “indecent aspersions against the Government,” “throwing obloquy” on it, and “cabal[ling] against” it. Like the rebels, argued Cartwright, these demagogues’ “seditious exertions” were undermining the authority of government and law and disrupting the peace, order, and good government of Upper Canada. Jackson and his friends had offended Cartwright’s loyalist sensibilities when they suggested that the loyalists had acted from mercenary motives. Aroused, Cartwright replied that “they were animated by no mercenary motives,” and encouraged the 19th-century myth about the upper class origins of the loyalists by asserting “that the generality of those gallant men, so little known, and so much undervalued by their pretended Advocate, were men of Property; and some of them the greatest Landholders in America.” Obviously, Cartwright’s most deeply held preconceptions about himself as a loyalist had been challenged. And like other loyalist leaders, he became increasingly concerned about preserving the judicial and political status quo. By 1807 it was virtually impossible to distinguish Cartwright’s views from those expressed by the government élite in York. In fact, Cartwright had become part of the élite. He was a particularly close associate of Lieutenant Governor Francis Gore* and one of his principal advisers.
Yet another significant threat to Cartwright’s adopted colony came with the outbreak of the War of 1812. As a militia officer, he was active as early as 1807 in inspiring Upper Canadians to resist the anticipated American invasion. He viewed the war – with Britain and Canada aligned against France and the United States – as a cosmic struggle in which Britain represented order and freedom and her opponents the “Horrors of Anarchy” and the “Fetters of Despotism.” Upper Canadians, according to Cartwright, should “not shrink from the trial should it occur.” Inspired by the pride “that must glow in the Brest of every Man to be numbered among a Nation so renowned as Great Britain,” they should show their gratitude and do everything possible to turn back the invader, mindful of the “abuse and degradation” that loyalists especially would suffer at the hands of the Americans. In his “Falkland” articles in the Kingston Gazette, Cartwright showed that he was proud of the achievements of the colonial militia, meagre as they may seem to the critical historian. This pride was also evident in a letter of 1813 in which he discussed the victory at Crysler’s Farm: “Notwithstanding General [James] Wilkinson’s schemes of conquest . . . the reception he met with at Chryslers farm [from] our little band of Heroes is a foretaste of what he is to expect of his further progress.”
The last five years of Cartwright’s life were clouded by personal tragedy. He was a kind and loving father and husband, but he was also a patriarch who expected and received devotion and obedience from his wife and eight children. His ambitions for his children were lofty and he carefully planned and guided their careers. He therefore suffered a crushing blow from which he never really recovered when his two eldest sons – James and Richard – died in 1811, only to be followed to the grave by his daughter, Hannah, whom he loved dearly, and his third son, Stephen. Cartwright died himself on 27 July 1815 from what may have been throat cancer. He was only 56.
Despite his personal afflictions, Cartwright had many reasons to regard his life as a successful one. Besides achieving considerable personal wealth and exerting great influence in his community, he had witnessed and participated in the development and maturing of his adopted colony. Five years before his death, Cartwright summarized in a very personal way Upper Canada’s accomplishments: “I have been a resident in this country before there was a human habitation within the limits of what is now the Province of Upper Canada. . . . I have seen this wilderness in the course of a few years, converted into fruitful fields, and covered with comfortable habitations. I see around me thousands, who without any other funds than their personal labour, began to denude the soil of its primaeval forests, in possession of extensive and well cultivated farms. . . . I see this property unincumbered with feudal burdens, undiminished by quit-rents or taxes, guarded by the wisest laws, equally and impartially administered. I see the proprietor himself protected from vexatious arrest or arbitrary imprisonment. I have seen the benevolent intentions of the British Government towards the Colony, exemplified in every measure that could tend to promote its prosperity; and crowned, by imparting to it, its own unrivalled constitution, as far as it was practicable to impart it to a dependent Province. I have seen the foundations laid of institutions and establishments for the promoting of knowledge, and diffusing religious instruction, which however weak and humble in their present state, will ‘grow with our growth, and strengthen with our strength.’”
Not only had Upper Canada grown and prospered, but the loyalists had repaid the “paternal care” of their sovereign, for their settlement “in this remote corner of his Empire, has been crowned with such complete success.” Looking back over these achievements, Cartwright concluded that “this is a scene on which the benevolent mind must dwell with peculiar complacency.” Richard Cartwright in 1810 was evidently very much at peace with himself about the wisdom of his 1777 decision. And so would be his wife and the four children – Mary Magdalen, Thomas Robison, Robert David, and John Solomon* – who survived him. Mary had married Captain Alexander Thomas Dobbs of the Royal Navy in 1814; Thomas would die at the age of 27 in 1826, a year before his mother’s death. Robert became an Anglican minister and the father of Sir Richard John Cartwright*, and John a distinguished Kingston lawyer and politician.
[The authorship of Letters, from an American loyalist in Upper Canada, to his friend in England; on a pamphlet published by John Mills Jackson, esquire: entitled, A view of the province of Upper Canada (Halifax, ) has usually been attributed to William Dummer Powell*. However, a letter from Cartwright to Powell in 1810 proves conclusively that Cartwright was the author. In this letter Cartwright wrote: “You will by this Time have seen my two last Letters on Jacksons Pamphlet which the Govr took with him for your Perusal. As we are soon to have a printing Press set up here it is his Excellency’s Wish that they should be published seriatim in the Kingston Gazette. On further Consideration however I am inclined to think they would be better under the Form of a Pamphlet at first, that those who incline to read may have the whole at once before them; and be afterwards more widely circulated through the Medium of the News Papers if it should be thought expedient.” See QUA, Richard Cartwright papers, Cartwright to Powell, 29 July 1810. g.r. and j.p.]
© 1983–2023 University of Toronto/Université Laval
Cite This Article
George Rawlyk and Janice Potter, “CARTWRIGHT, RICHARD,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 28, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cartwright_richard_5E.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:
|Author of Article:||George Rawlyk and Janice Potter|
|Title of Article:||CARTWRIGHT, RICHARD|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1983|
|Year of revision:||1983|
|Access Date:||May 28, 2023|