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DAVIDSON, ALEXANDER, teacher, author, journalist, businessman, politician, and office holder; b. 1794 in Downpatrick (Northern Ireland), son of Thomas Davidson; m. Mary —– (b. in Ireland), and they had at least one son and one daughter; d. 23 Feb. 1856 in St Catharines, Upper Canada.

Details about Alexander Davidson’s childhood and youth are not known. He came to Upper Canada in 1821 under the auspices of Lord Castlereagh, secretary of state for foreign affairs, and obtained a 400-acre grant in Douro Township. The land, however, was “not at all fit for Agriculture,” and the following year he began teaching school. Davidson disliked the extensive use of American textbooks in Upper Canadian schools. He noted in June 1828 to George Hillier*, the civil secretary at York, that in his experience nine out of ten books in use were from the United States. In fact in his neighbourhood, he reported, “for several years past no English Books could be procured . . . so that I am led to believe that the supply from England is precarious, and not at all equal to the growing demands of the Province.” In any case, spelling-books from England, Davidson was to assert in 1840, were “to us necessarily defective, not being suited to our scenery and other localities.” But “books of a foreign origin [i.e. American] are liable to more serious objections.” He complained to Hillier in July 1828 that, “unless some proper elementary books be got into general circulation, common school education will continue to be little better than a mere farce, and an useless expenditure of public money.”

Intent upon correcting this lack, Davidson decided to write his own speller and in 1829 while resident in Port Hope he completed “The Upper Canadian spelling book.” He made many efforts to gain government support in aid of publication but all came to naught. Finally in 1840 he succeeded in getting the manuscript published in Toronto by Henry Rowsell* under the title The Canada spelling book, the first copyrighted book in Upper Canada. The lessons in his speller were illustrated by references to Canadian places, and the necessary connection between religion and education was maintained by ensuring that each reading lesson would “subserve the interests of religion and morality.” It was common for spellers of the day to provide moral lessons. When Egerton Ryerson* was appointed superintendent of schools for Upper Canada in 1844, Davidson tried to persuade him to adopt The Canada spelling book for use in the expanding common school system. Although Ryerson shared Davidson’s concern about the widespread use of American textbooks in the colony’s schools and praised the Canadian speller, he had decided to have published in Upper Canada the impressive Irish National Series. Therefore he wanted to give no encouragement to other publications which might interfere with general acceptance of his own scheme. None the less, by 1847 Davidson could enthusiastically report that 43,000 copies of the book had been sold, and by 1856 that figure had tripled. Although these figures were probably exaggerated, clearly the book was being widely used even without official government support and approval. Davidson added to his educational publications with An introduction to the spelling book (1843) and The progressive primer (1846). In 1847 he published The domestic receipt book, which was advertised as “A useful Compendium for Families.”

A prominent layman in the Wesleyan Methodist Church, Davidson was the first Methodist class leader in Port Hope, conducting a mid-week study session beginning in 1824, and was named “Visitor” (inspector) to the newly founded Upper Canada Academy in Cobourg in 1836. He later compiled a tunebook entitled Sacred harmony, published and distributed in 1838 by the Wesleyan Methodist conference office in Toronto. One of the most comprehensive and influential of the pre-confederation tunebooks published in Canada, it was intended to be used as a book of praise and as a textbook for singing schools, a popular social movement in what is now eastern Canada, led by itinerant singing masters who taught harmony and choral singing to volunteer classes. Sacred Harmony contained a short introduction to the rudiments of music theory and composition and a selection of British and American tunes, many of which were arranged for three voices with the melody set in the tenor line following the American custom. A few of the tunes, for example “Toronto,” were original pieces composed by Davidson himself. In its 1845 edition, Sacred Harmony was the only Canadian tunebook ever published using the tonic sol-fa system of shape notes.

By January 1837 Davidson was settled in Niagara (Niagara-on-the-Lake) as postmaster. From the post office he ran a bookshop where he sold a wide assortment of books, including his own, as well as stationery, hardware, and garden supplies. His position in Niagara was enhanced by a career as a municipal office holder which included seven years on the Niagara town council; frequent re-election as a trustee of the grammar and common schools; and several terms on the board of health, directing the accommodation of Irish immigrant families in the Niagara area. In 1849 he served as president of the Niagara Board of Police and in January of the following year was named the town’s first mayor, serving a one-year term.

Davidson was also involved in the newspaper business, becoming publisher and editor of the Niagara Mail in April 1846. A reform paper, the Mail, according to a later local history, was in these years “marked by wit, vivacity, originality, [and] literary ability.” In 1847 Davidson passed the editorial post on to his son, James Alexander Davidson, who, assisted by his father and Francis M. Whitelaw, also published a short-lived temperance newspaper known as the Niagara Fountain. Shortly thereafter Alexander Davidson attracted attention to himself and the Mail by supporting the free school system that Ryerson was promoting, thus challenging the conservative views of the “aristocracy of the Town.” By October 1849 local opposition to him was such that Davidson appealed to government leader Robert Baldwin for a fair hearing in the event that “a combination against me on account of my political opinions” should threaten his coveted job as postmaster. For a few months in late 1851 and early 1852 the Mail was published by the younger Davidson in nearby St Catharines, “the centre of political influence,” but the paper had returned to Niagara, “for family convenience,” by March 1852. Davidson and his son sold the paper in June 1853 to their editorial assistant, William Kirby*.

Davidson died on 23 Feb. 1856 at the American Hotel in St Catharines. The Mail, for some unexplained reason, gave him only a one-line obituary. The StCatharines Journal was more generous in space and praise: “He was a man of superior talent, as many articles of his plainly demonstrated: could grapple with most subjects, and evinced an acute and logical mind in their treatment.”

J. Donald Wilson

[Although Alexander Davidson compiled the manuscript of his spelling-book in 1829, his first publication was Sacred harmony: consisting of a variety of tunes, adapted to the different metres in the Wesleyan-Methodist hymn book; and a few anthems and favourite pieces; selected from the most approved authors, ancient and modern (Toronto, 1838). It was republished at Toronto in 1845 with a supplement of tunes and anthems selected by Toronto musician E. W. Bliss from works by well-known European composers. Subsequent editions appeared in 1848, 1856, and 1860, published in round notation. The Canada spelling book, intended as an introduction to the English language, consisting of a variety of lessons, progressively arranged in three parts, with an appendix containing several useful tables; the outlines of geography; a comprehensive sketch of English grammar, with morning and evening prayers for every day of the week; the words divided and accented according to the purest mode of pronunciation (Toronto, 1840) was also reissued several times by various Toronto publishing houses in 1842, 1845–48 inclusive, 1856, and 1864. At Niagara (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.), Davidson published a collection of school texts under the series title Colonial School Books which included An introduction to the spelling book (1843) and The progressive primer (1846). He also published a household guide entitled The domestic receipt book (Niagara, 1847).  j.d.w.]

AO, MS 74, package 22, Alexander Davidson to W. H. Merritt, 5 Sept. 1854, 7 March 1855; RG 1, A-I-6: 6542–44. MTL, Robert Baldwin papers, Alexander Davidson to Baldwin, 6 Oct. 1849. PAC, RG 1, L3, 156, pt.1: D13/52; RG 5, A1: 49113–15, 49576–77; B11, 3, file 196; 4, file 520. Can., Prov. of, Legislative Assembly, App. to the journals, 1846, app.F. Doc. hist. of education in U.C. (Hodgins), 2: 127; 6: 172, 240, 285–86. Christian Guardian, 5 March 1856. Niagara Fountain, March 1847. Niagara Mail, 1 April 1846–15 June 1853; 27 Feb. 1856. StCatharines Journal (St Catharines, [Ont.]), 28 Feb. 1856. Nathanael Burwash, The history of Victoria College (Toronto, 1927), 491. Janet Carnochan, History of Niagara . . . (Toronto, 1914; repr. Belleville, Ont., 1973). W. A. Craick, Port Hope historical sketches (Port Hope, Ont., 1901), 19, 71–72, 84. Historical sketch of Methodism in Canada and Port Hope (Port Hope, 1925), 12–14. C. B. Sissons, Egerton Ryerson: his life and letters (2v., Toronto, 1937–47), 1: 218–19. W. R. Riddell, “The first copyrighted book in the Province of Canada,” OH, 25 (1929): 405–14. J. D. Wilson, “Common school texts in use in Upper Canada prior to 1845,” Biblio. Soc. of Canada, Papers (Toronto), 9 (1970): 36–53.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

J. Donald Wilson, “DAVIDSON, ALEXANDER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 24, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/davidson_alexander_8E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/davidson_alexander_8E.html
Author of Article: J. Donald Wilson
Title of Article: DAVIDSON, ALEXANDER
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1985
Year of revision: 1985
Access Date: April 24, 2014