WILLSON, JOHN, politician, office holder, justice of the peace, and judge; b. 5 Aug. 1776 in New Jersey, son of Ann —; m. 28 Feb. 1799 Elizabeth Bowlby (Boultby, Bowlsby), and they had nine children; d. 26 May 1860 in Saltfleet Township, Upper Canada.
In a land petition dated 16 June 1806, John Willson claimed to have been “upwards of thirteen years” in Upper Canada; other sources claim that he arrived in 1790. He settled first at Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake) before moving to Saltfleet Township in 1797. Willson quickly established himself as a prosperous farmer and a leader in local Methodist circles. His chief claim to fame was a political career that began in 1809 when a local deputation encouraged him to contest a by-election for the West Riding of York. As Willson later explained, the “parties in politics known at that time, were the ‘Government’ and the ‘Opposition.’ I was called by the latter, – which was chiefly composed of dissenting religious people.” It is also likely that Willson drew support from small farmers frustrated by the monopolistic practices of merchants such as Richard Hatt*. Willson’s election was protested, unsuccessfully, by Hatt, Richard Beasley*, and others, who claimed that he was ineligible as a Methodist “Teacher and Preacher.”
During the remaining sessions of the fifth parliament, Willson made an enduring reputation as a defender of civil and religious liberty. His voting record in 1810–11 indicates complete support for Joseph Willcocks*, the foremost opponent of the administration of Lieutenant Governor Francis Gore. Willson was elected in 1812 to the sixth parliament (1812–16). In the last years of the War of 1812 he became highly critical of the change in the climate of opinion, especially as reflected in the stern measures enacted by successive administrations, which he considered to be military despotism. On 26 Feb. 1814 he cast the sole vote against the bill suspending habeas corpus [see Sir Gordon Drummond]. In 1816 he supported a more liberal marriage bill. More important, he introduced and, with James Durand*, drafted the Common Schools Bill, which provided for public support of elementary education.
There has been some historical confusion with respect to Willson’s involvement in the seventh parliament (1817–20), but what happened is really straightforward. At the opening of parliament in February 1817, Gore asked that there be due representation for the recently established Gore District before any business was transacted. The legislature concurred, the requisite bill was passed, and parliament adjourned. Willson then opposed Durand for the new riding of Wentworth. In a handbill printed by Bartemas Ferguson* and published in the Niagara Spectator by Richard Cockrell*, Durand attacked Willson for duplicity, cowardice, and corruption, claiming that the erstwhile champion of liberty had become a tool of government in return for a magistracy in the new district. The election was held about 18 February; Willson attributed Durand’s victory to the “spirit of Radicalism” which had begun “to diffuse itself more generally.” If anything, that spirit manifested itself even more strongly in the widespread local support for Robert Gourlay*’s convention of 1818. The tide, however, was turning against Gourlay and his supporters at the Head of the Lake (the vicinity of present-day Hamilton Harbour). When Richard Hatt died in 1819, Willson won the by-election to replace him for the riding of Halton.
Local perception of Willson’s politics had been changing since his defeat by Durand. Willson, he himself later recalled, was referred to as “a thoroughgoing tory.” Elected along with George Hamilton* for Wentworth in 1820, he had the support of “the Conservative interest, both in and out of office.” He was subsequently re-elected to the ninth (1825–28), tenth (1829–30), and eleventh (1830–34) parliaments, thus emerging as the first major politician from the Head of the Lake. “Honest John,” as he was usually called, had made a local reputation from his continued advocacy of the interests of farmers, his espousal of universal education, and his unrelenting tirades against the inequity of the civil courts. From a strong regional base he moved to the front ranks of the House of Assembly. In 1824 the first issue of William Lyon Mackenzie*’s Colonial Advocate had lauded him: “Many members of our legislature get less useful the longer they are kept in parliament; but his talents appear to us the more eminent, and his knowledge the more solid and extensive, the longer he is there.”
Willson was at the height of his political power and influence between 1825 and 1834, his prominence being reflected in his election to the speakership of the assembly for the ninth parliament. During his tenure the assembly handled some of the colony’s most important and contentious issues: the alien bill, the partiality of the judicial system, and the large-scale provincial support needed for public works, such as the Welland Canal. Increasingly, Willson associated with such men as John Beverley Robinson* and John Strachan*, the closest advisers of Lieutenant Governor Sir Peregrine Maitland. Slowly but surely, the image of Willson as he had been in opposition changed until he had become the epitome of the political turncoat and double-dealer. In 1828 Mackenzie, who described Willson as “positively ministerial” and featured him prominently on his legislative “Black List,” wrote, “The more I examined his past parliamentary conduct, the more I was satisfied that he was acting a double and deceitful part as a politician.” In his resurrection of the province’s political past, Mackenzie, looking for patterns of parliamentary compliance with unpopular administrations, singled out for particular censure the session of 1816; an impression of Willson’s role in this session stuck among the reform-minded of the 1820s and 1830s. In 1831 John Rolph* claimed the “Maitland Faction” rivalled “the ever memorable parliament of 1816: and John Willson appears to act over again the same character which at that time brought upon him the odium of the country.”
Through the latter half of the 1820s and into the 1830s, politics in Hamilton became associated in the opposition press with the abuse of civil liberties: the tar and feathering and then the dismissal, from the position of clerk of the peace, of George Rolph, an ardent reformer and John’s brother; the alleged violations of judicial principles by Judge Christopher Alexander Hagerman* during the murder trial of Michael Vincent; the failure of local magistrates to act against a tory mob in the so-called “Hamilton Outrage” in 1829 [see James Gordon Strobridge*]; and the beating of Mackenzie. In the town a distinctive local political culture was emerging, partly in response to attacks by reformers in York (Toronto) such as Mackenzie and Francis Collins*. The flashpoint was the decision by Mackenzie and Collins in 1825 to support Peter Desjardins*’s proposal to build a canal to connect Dundas and Burlington Bay (Hamilton Harbour). The scheme was derided by Willson who saw, in Hamilton’s rival Burlington Bay Canal, “the life and soul of all prosperity to the Gore, the Wellington, and the Brock Districts.” York reformers, especially Mackenzie, not only supported the Desjardins Canal, they sided with the pretensions of Dundas over those of Hamilton to become a commercial and administrative capital at the Head of the Lake. In Hamilton the cause of political reform withered as beleaguered residents, of disparate ethnic, religious, and political backgrounds, came together in common cause over local economic development. In defence of its economic ambitions, Hamilton began with John Willson to turn to political leaders who would represent its interests. Its first newspaper, the Gore Balance, begun in 1829 by Bartemas Ferguson, was hostile to radicalism (especially of the York variety), championed development, and ardently boosted John Willson.
For his part, Willson considered himself a conservative independent, a spokesman of the interests of small farmers. In 1819 he had offered himself for the office of district court judge as a mean’s of obviating the “evil” that could result from the marriage of that office to a man of commerce. Eight years later, during his speakership and at a time when he was being vilified by reformers, he criticized an assembly “composed of government officers, placemen, and pentioners.” His remedy was more farmers and fewer lawyers in government – in other words, plain, ordinary folk who would attend to useful improvements rather than spending their time “in levees, balls, and dinners with a view to procure places and pensions.” In 1832, for instance, while Marshall Spring Bidwell* was lashing him for being “opposed to popular measures,” Willson supported Peter Perry’s bill for disposing of the clergy reserves. Willson, in fact, went further and argued that the entire proceeds be appropriated to education and, much to Bidwell’s displeasure, that all denominations, including Roman Catholics, had a claim on the reserves. Willson had reservations about Perry’s attempt to reform the jury laws but sympathized with its main thrust. “I am not fond of leaving the selection of juries to the Sheriff,” Willson said in the assembly. Finally, he supported a bill to bar dower. Though wives “might not be actually employed in clearing the land,” he reasoned, “they were often called upon to assist, and they were therefore as much entitled to a property in the land, and should have the right to dispose of that title.”
Willson did not contest the election of 1834, a date that marks the ascendancy of Allan Napier MacNab* as chief advocate of Hamilton’s interests. None the less, Willson continued to be a major force. On 11 Dec. 1839 he was appointed to the Legislative Council, just in time for the critical debate on the proposed union with Lower Canada. Willson, who had opposed the scheme when it first came up in 1822 because of the differences between the two colonies in law, language, and religion, voted with the minority against union. That vote cost him the chance of reappointment to the council after the declaration of union on 10 Feb. 1841. He had had enough of politics and decried the rise of party, “a grasping power exerted to confine . . . the whole patronage of the government.” Thereafter, he retired from public life to his farm in Saltfleet.
Locally, Willson served for many years as a justice of the peace, surrogate court judge, road commissioner, inspector of licences and stills, trustee of the Gore District Grammar School, commissioner for the Burlington Bay Canal, and member of the district board of health. He also served as a commissioner for the Welland Canal but was removed in 1840 by Lieutenant Governor Sir George Arthur for urging completion of the work on “a scale of expence” which Arthur regarded as “quite improper.” As well, Willson was active in the Gore District Emigrant Society and in the Agricultural Society of the Gore District.
John Willson died in 1860 at his farm and was buried in St Andrew’s churchyard in Grimsby. He left a modest estate worth about $6,000; he had sold off most of his lands in the early 1850s to his sons. A Methodist and then a supporter of Henry Ryan*, he seems to have become an Anglican in later life. Contemporary political language serves no useful purpose in coming to terms with “Honest John.” There was a measure of continuity to his politics and it was this continuity that best defines the man. To his mind, it was the times that had changed, not he himself. He was, as he put it, a “plain farmer,” self-educated, and ever concerned “to reap the advantages of the country,” by which he meant a due regard for the farmer, moderate constitutional reform, liberal marriage laws, cheap justice, universal and decentralized elementary education, and economic development. In the combination of moderate conservatism and unabashed support for development, one finds the defining characteristics of Hamilton’s political culture to the present day. Willson was its first spokesman.
John Willson is the author of Address to the inhabitants of the district of Gore, and speeches upon the Trade Act, upon the bill for compensating the losses of sufferers by the late rebellion, upon the Bank Restriction Bill, and an extract from a speech upon the union of the provinces (Hamilton, [Ont.], 1840).
AO, MS 74, package 12, Willson to Papineau, 17 Feb. 1827; RG 22, ser.94, 2: 81; ser.205, no.107. HPL, Arch. file, Willson papers. MTL, Robert Baldwin papers, unbound misc., Willson to Baldwin, 4 Sept. 1843; W. W. Baldwin papers, Rolph to Baldwin, 24 March 1831. PAC, RG 1, L3, 525: W8/9; 527: W11/10, 98; RG 5, A1: 3868–79, 9953, 21787–94, 21884–87; RG 68, General index, 1651–1841: 182, 403, 426, 432, 438, 446, 459, 463, 474, 510, 539, 671. Wentworth Land Registry Office (Hamilton), Abstract index to deeds, Saltfleet Township, 4–6, 41–42 (mfm. at AO, GS 1627). Arthur papers (Sanderson), 3: 32, 40, 390. “Journals of Legislative Assembly of U.C.,” AO Report, 1911, 1912. Canadian Freeman (York [Toronto]), 18 Jan. 1827; 21 July, 8 Sept. 1831. Colonial Advocate, 18 May 1824; 29 May, 6, 12 June, 31 July 1828; 14 Oct. 1830; 13 Jan. 1831; 16 Oct. 1834. Gore Balance (Hamilton), 12 Dec. 1829, 3 June 1830. Gore Gazette, and Ancaster, Hamilton, Dundas and Flamborough Advertiser (Ancaster, [Ont.]), 13 March, 1 Sept. 1827. Hamilton Spectator, and Journal of Commerce, 31 May 1860. Liberal (St Thomas, [Ont.]), 22, 29 Nov. 1832. Western Mercury (Hamilton), 7, 28 June 1832. DHB. “Loyalist and pioneer families of West Lincoln, 1783–1833,” comp. R. J. Powell, Annals of the Forty (Grimsby, Ont.), 9 (1958): 65–69. D. R. Beer, Sir Allan Napier MacNab (Hamilton, 1984). Charles Durand, Reminiscences of Charles Durand of Toronto, barrister (Toronto, 1897). R. L. Fraser, “Like Eden in her summer dress: gentry, economy, and society: Upper Canada, 1812–1840”