HOPKINS, CALEB, farmer and politician; b. 1785 or 1786 in New Jersey, ninth of 13 children of Silas Hopkins and Mary Swayze; d. 8 Oct. 1880, in Toronto, Ont.
Of “late Loyalist” parentage, Caleb Hopkins farmed in Nelson Township, Halton County, Upper Canada. With three brothers, he founded the settlement of Hannahville. He played a major role in local affairs, establishing the area’s first school in 1828, chairing the first township meeting for Nelson in 1836, serving as a district councillor in 1842, and as a prominent layman in the Wesleyan Methodist Church. He married Hannah, daughter of John Green, uel, of Grimsby, Upper Canada; they had several children, and one of their daughters, Rachel, married Anson Green.
Halton County was a radical stronghold by the late 1820s and Hopkins was returned there in 1828 as a Reform member of the Upper Canadian House of Assembly. He was one of the few members consistently radical enough to be endorsed by William Lyon Mackenzie*’s Colonial Advocate, but he chose not to stand for re-election in 1830. However, he was again returned for Halton in 1834. Unlike so many of his radical colleagues he was not implicated in the rebellion of 1837; as a result, he rose by elimination, along with a number of other second rank Upper Canadian politicians, to a position of leadership in the Reform party. In the first election under the union of the Canadas, in 1841, he was one of the few to resist the pressure of the new governor, Lord Sydenham [Charles Poulett Thomson*], and was returned as an anti-Sydenham Reformer for the East Riding of Halton.
In Canada West the only effective parliamentary opposition to Sydenham was offered by six “ultra-Reformers” led by Robert Baldwin*. Hopkins was one of this obstructive six, but already he was demonstrating the maverick quality which would mark his later career. His first break with the Reform leadership came in 1841. As chairman of the house committee on the municipal corporations bill for Canada West, he consistently supported the measure against the vigorous opposition of Baldwin and other Reform leaders.
Hopkins returned to liberal orthodoxy and supported the Reform administration of 1842–43. However, when Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine* and Baldwin proposed moving the capital from Kingston to Montreal, the staunch Upper Canadian Hopkins in November 1843 joined the Tories in opposing the measure. More serious was his public disapproval of the resignation of the Reform ministers after their dispute over patronage with the governor, Sir Charles Metcalfe*, in November 1843. Hopkins’ behaviour isolated him from the Reform party at both the local and the provincial levels, and in the election of 1844 he was rejected by the Reformers of East Halton who nominated John Wetenhall at a highly disputed convention. But Hopkins refused to withdraw from the campaign. To avoid a split in the Reform vote Baldwin had to intervene. He sent two agents to East Halton in October 1844, George Brown and Thomas Ewart. Far from neutral in the local dispute, they were there to dispose of the troublesome Hopkins. As Brown reported to Baldwin, “. . . we found it necessary to blackball Mr. Hopkins . .. .” It was all to no avail. Hopkins stayed in the race, splitting the Reform vote and allowing a Tory to be elected in this liberal stronghold.
Hopkins was now an enemy of the party. His sense of grievance was strong but he would wait five and a half years to find his revenge. The opportunity came with the rise of a splinter group of radical Reformers, the “Clear Grits.” Although there is no evidence that Hopkins was involved in the founding of the Grit movement, he was one of a group of “old Reformers” – men with lingering, if fading, reputations from the glamorous period before 1837 – whom the young Grit intellectuals adopted both as symbols and as political instruments. When Malcolm Cameron, another pre-union radical, bolted the “Great Ministry” of La Fontaine and Baldwin in 1849 and joined the new movement, he was replaced in the cabinet by Wetenhall. Required by law to seek re-election, Wetenhall faced a by-election in Halton County in March 1850. Hopkins announced that he would run against him, and Cameron and the Grits rallied to Hopkins, in hope of embarrassing the government. Under attack for its conservatism since the achievement of responsible government, the ministry found itself in serious difficulty in Halton. The task was further complicated by Wetenhall’s poor health and apparent mental instability. To buttress the cause, James Durand, former member for West Halton, was drafted to manage Wetenhall’s campaign, and the party press, notably the Globe of Toronto, was mobilized on his behalf. The candidates were shoved to the side as Cameron and Durand fought it out. The Globe description of the campaign was savage but accurate: “. . . Mr. Cameron . . . pinned this wretched Caleb to his coat-tails, and told off ex cathedra a catalogue of the iniquities of which his late colleagues had been guilty.” Cameron’s effective campaigning and the voters’ resentment against the Globe’s vicious abuse of Hopkins settled the issue: on 11 March 1850 Hopkins won a resounding victory. The shattered Wetenhall came out of the contest completely mad, and finished his days in an insane asylum.
The Halton by-election further embittered relations between the Grits and the Baldwinites. Hopkins was a special target of Reform abuse “. . . that old Hypocrite Hopkins” as James Durand called him. Picturing him as a doddering old fool, the Globe derided the Grits as the “Calebites.” But the ministry would find that there was much vigour yet in the “wretched Caleb.” One of five Clear Grits in the assembly, Hopkins helped harass the government at every turn. Never a true leader, he nevertheless made an effective follower. Joining with Henry John Boulton*, W. L. Mackenzie, and Cameron, Hopkins in 1850 and 1851 helped put before the house a series of resolutions demanding basic democratic reforms and the separation of church and state.
The high point in the career of the Grits, and of Hopkins, came on 26 June 1851. Mackenzie moved a resolution, seconded by Hopkins, for the abolition of the Court of Chancery in Canada West. They had chosen their target well, for the recently restructured court was dear to lawyer Baldwin’s heart. The resolution was defeated but a majority of members from Canada West had voted for it. Weary and angry, Baldwin resigned from the government, soon to be followed by his colleague La Fontaine.
It was the last hurrah for the Grits, who moved into an alliance with the new premier, Francis Hincks*. And for Caleb Hopkins. He did not contest the election of 1851, retiring into respectable obscurity on the farm in Nelson. About 1870 he moved to more comfortable surroundings in the city of Hamilton, Ontario. Time would heal the wounds of 1850 as the Reform party gladly accepted the once hated sobriquet of Clear Grit, and Hopkins lived long enough to become a grand old man of Ontario Liberalism. He died, aged 95, on 8 Oct. 1880 at the Toronto home of his son-in-law, lawyer and author William Leggo*. The party leadership, once so hostile, attended his funeral in strength: this congenital independent was carried to his grave in Toronto by a group of pall bearers which included the recently retired national Liberal leader, Alexander Mackenzie*, and the premier of Ontario, Oliver Mowat*.
Caleb Hopkins was a political curiosity. Never a leader, innovator, or thinker, he nevertheless played a significant role in many of the major political controversies of the Province of Canada. His career was, in microcosm, the story of the cross-currents in Upper Canadian Reform, and a vivid demonstration of the rugged independence, the maverick quality, which so often split the Liberal party in 19th-century Canada.
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