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Canadian History
Alexander Grant of Glenmorriston


THE death of Governor Hunter, creating a vacancy in that office, necessitated the appointment of an administrator to represent the Crown till the coming of the next lieutenant-governor.

At this juncture the senior member of the Executive Council was the Honorable Alexander Grant who was also Lieutenant of the County of Essex. It may seem strange at this day to speak of one as lieutenant, of a county, but at the time of which we are writing lieutenants were appointed by the Crown for each county of the Province. These lieutenants of counties had been established by Lieutenant-Governor Sirnene, to fill positions similar to those of the lord lieutenants of counties in England. To this end the Parliament of the Province, during his adrninistration, had passed an Act appointing certain individuals lieutenants of counties.

The Upper Canada Almanac, published at York in 1804, gave a list of lieutenants of counties as then existing, and in the lists is the name of the Honorable AIexander Grant. The title is now, and has been for nearly a century, extinguished, but it will not be out of place to give the full list as published in the Almanac. The names were: 14 John Macdonell, Esq., Glengarry: William Fortune, Esq., Prescott; Archibald Macdonell, Esq. Stormont; Honorable Richard Duncan, Esq., Dundas; Peter Drummond, Esq., Grenville; James Breakenridge, Esq., Leeds; Honorable Richard Cartwright, Esq., Frontenac; Hazelton Spencer, Esq., Lennox; William Johnson, Esq., Addington; John Ferguson, Esq., Hastings; Archibald Macdonel!, Esq., of Marysburgh, Prince Edward; Alexander Chisholm, Esq., Northumberland; Robert Baldwin, Esq., Durham; Honorable David Willam Smith, Esq.. York; Honorable Robert Hamilton, Esq., Lincoln; Samuel Ryerse, Esq., Norfolk; William Claus, Esq., Oxford; (Middlesex vacant); Honorable Alexander Grant, Esq., Essex; Honorable James Baby, Esq., Kent."

The Honorable Alexander Grant was one of the five members, of the Executive Council appointed in 1792, and as senior member of that branch of the Government, on the death of Governor Hunter; became temporary Governor of the Province under the name of President. In the Revised Statutes of Upper Canada, published by authority, the name of Alexander Grant. Esq., as President, is recorded as having opened the second session of the fourth Provincial Parliament in 1806. Just as the bent of Governor Hunter, the last governor, was military, the bent of the new administrator was mostly naval.

Mr. Grant, who was of the ancient and respectable family of Grant, of Glenmorristown, and who was born in the year 1734, had in his youth been first in the merchant service, and then in a man-of-war as midshipman. In 1757, during the Seven Years’ War, a Highland regiment was being raised for service in America, and young Grant received a commission in it. He served under General Lord Amherst in the war with the French in Canada, resulting in the capture of Quebec in 1759, and the surrender of the whole of Canada to the British in 1760.

Grant’s early training as midshipman in the naval service opened a door for him to promotion that he little expected when he came to America as an officer in the land forces. In the prosecution of the war against the French in Canada, it became necessary to have ships for transporting troops and supplies on the lakes dividing the French possession (Canada) from the British territory on the south of Lakes Ontario and Erie. For these ships there was urgent need for competent commanders. In this emergency the experience that Grant had in the naval service stood him in good stead. He was at once detached from the land force and put in command of a sloop of sixteen guns.

From that time forward till the time of his death he continued to be connected with the naval service, and became known to the people as Commodore Grant. Later on, he was in command from Niagara to Mackinaw, and was the first commodore of the western waters, with headquarters at Detroit, which was then one of the most important military positions on the continent of America. In 1780 the captains and crews of nine vessels were under pay at Detroit, and a large dockyard was maintained then. The Commodore was in command of all these vessels, which ranged from two hundred tons down, and carried from one to fourteen guns.

In the War of 1812, Grant did important service for the Crown, and was a conspicuous figure in all matters connected with the naval service of the lakes during the war. Altogether he was in the King’s service fifty-seven years. His administration of the government of the Province was for but a brief period, and for only one session of the Provincial Parliament.

The second session of the fourth Parliament was opened by him on the 4th of February, 1806, and closed on the 3rd of March following. Only seven Acts were passed during the session, one of the most important of which was "an Act to procure certain apparatus for the promotion of science "—an Act which was specially promoted by him and which was undoubtedly laying the foundation for higher public education, partially fulfilled in the establishment of King’s College, and followed by the University of Toronto, which now so fully supplies the means of scientific research to the earnest student.

At the request of Commodore Grant, the Legislature by this Act appropriated four hundred pounds for the purchase of instruments for illustrating the principles of natural philosophy.

The second section of this Act enacted "that the Governor, Lieutenant-Govenor or person administering the Government of this Province, is hereby authorized and empowered to deposit the said instruments (under such conditions as he shall deem proper and expedient) in the hands of some person employed in the education of youth in this province, in order that they may be as useful as the state of the Province will permit" 

On the arrival of these instruments in Canada, Administrator Grant committed them to the care of Dr. Strachan, afterwards Bishop Strachan, then a celebrated instructor of youth at Cornwall, and they were brought by him to Toronto on his appointment to the headmastership of the District School at York. From the District School, (the old Blue School) the instruments were passed on to Upper Canada College. There are doubtless old college boys now living, of the class of 1836-37, who will remember seeing this philosophical apparatus in the Principal’s room at the College, not in use, but treasured for a future day when a provincial university should be established for the teaching of higher studies than were yet reached by the College. It is possible that the instruments or some remains of them may still be lingering within the walls of "old tipper Canada," as the old boys designate their Alma Mater.

The second session of the fourth Provincial Parliament, in which this so beneficial grant of money for educational purposes was made, was, as we have seen, a short session. It was, however, as remarkable for its tempestuousness as for its brevity.

When President Grant entered on the administration of the Government, there was seated on the judicial bench a gentleman well skilled in English law, but more skilled in English politics, one Mr. Justice Thorpe, an Irishman by birth, and of the English bar. Judge Thorpe, from the time he came to the Province to the time he left it, was at perpetual war with the colonial authorities, and made himself most obnoxious to them. An examination of the correspondence, letters, papers and documents, official and non-official, which are on file in the Archives at Ottawa, and copies of which are to be found in the library of the County of York Law Association at Toronto, will enable a tolerably fair estimate to be mad of the character of this gentleman, both as a judge and a citizen. In truth, he was much more of a politician than a judge, and had a natural bent for intrigue.

On the 24th of January, 1806, Mr. Thorpe wrote a letter to Edward Cooke, Under-Secretary of State, with a postscript dated 5th of February, 1806, the day after the opening of the session; the contents of which betray the meddlesome temper of the writer of the letter, and his disposition towards the reigning powers in the colony.

This is the letter:

"24th January, 1806.

DEAR Sir,—For the last time I must trespass on your time for five minutes, as I think it my duty to inform you of the situation of this colony before the new Governor leaves you. From a minute inquiry for five months I find that Governor Hunter has nearly ruined this province. His whole system was rapaciousness; to accumulate money by grants of land was all he thought of. The Loyalist that was entitled to land without fees could not get any, but the alien that could pay was sure of succeeding; unjust and arbitrary, he dissatisfied the people and oppressed the officers of Government. He had a few Scotch instruments about him (Mr. McGill and Mr. Scott) that he made subservient to his purpose, and by every other individual he and his tools were execrated. Nothing has been done for the colony—no roads, bad water communication, no post, no religion, no morals, no education, no trade, no agriculture, no industry attended to. Mr. McGill and Mr. Scott have made a person of their own President: the same measures are followed up, and the effects will soon appear, for everything you wish will be defended and the House of Assembly will feel their power, which is always (in the colonies) a bad thing. All this and much more you will soon know; therefore, in this state of things, I think it absolutely necessary to set about conciliating the people in every way. I have had some public opportunities which did not escape me, and in private I will cultivate all that are deserving or that can be made useful, by which means I now pledge myself to you, that whoever comes out shall find everything smooth, and that in twelve months or less I will be ready to carry any measure you may desire through the Legislature. All this I state on the supposition that Lord Castlereagh will not be induced to place any one over me on the bench, but if parliamentary interest should prevail on him to neglect my exertions, I must entreat of my friends to beg of His Lordship to remove me to any other place where I can do my duty and render some service.

P.S—I hope, for the sake of England and the advancement of this colony, that the new Governor will be a civilian and a politician. It is worth four thousand a year; the Lower Province six thousand. There might be two military appointments—a lieutenant-general below, a brigadier here.

"From the gentleman having delayed who was to take this to New York, I have an opportunity oft stating that the Clerk of the Crown is dead. 

5th February, 1806

The House of Assembly are sitting, and from want of a person to direct, the lower one is quite wild. In a quiet way I have the reins, so as to prevent mischief; though, like Phaeton, I seized them precipitately. I shall not burn myself, and hope to save others."

The extravagant statements made in this letter ensure its condemnation. It was, indeed, a libel on the country, as well as on the officials.

The reference in the letter to President Grant is somewhat enigmatical. It is probable, however, that the writer meant to convey the impression that the officials, Scott and McGill, the one being Receiver-General and the other Attorney-General, ruled the President, and that the President was walking in the footsteps of Governor Hunter.

By the time the 5th of February came, from the expression in the P.S., "I have the reins," the worthy Judge seems to have thought that he had overcome every obstacle, and possessed more power than the President, Scott, and McGill all put together.

If we are to judge of what took place in the Legislature afterwards, and during the short time it lasted, the Judge had really wormed himself into the confidence of the Assembly in a very positive manner.

Mr. Justice Thorpe’s active mind induced him to critically examine the acts of the Government. In his performance of this assumed duty his attention fell on the expenditure of a sum of money amounting to six hundred and seventeen pounds thirteen shillings and sevenpence, which had been ordered, partly by warrant of the Administrator Grant and partly by his predecessor, Governor Hunter, to be paid to certain civil servants for services performed by them in the carrying on of the Government. Formulated in items, the schedules of these payments contained twenty separate and distinct amounts, and were for the most, payments made for services in the administration of justice or in connection with departments of the Government. In 1803, by the directions of Lieutenant-Governor Hunter, accounts of a similar nature were charged and paid out of the residue of unappropriated moneys in the hands of the Receiver-General, over and above sums specifically voted by the Legislature. For two years such payments had been laid before the Legislature and had been approved by the House of Assembly.

President Grant, recognizing the fact that he was only temporarily at the head of the Government, thought it a part of his duty in this regard to follow the practice pursued by Governor Hunter, and so ordered the payments referred to to be made.

It was, of course, not strictly correct that such payments should have been ordered to be made without a vote of the Assembly. The astute mind of Justice Thorpe quickly grasped the situation, and it gave him the opportunity of exhibiting to the unlearned Canadian Legislature his knowledge of constitutional law and parliamentary rights and privileges.

With this explanation and the address of the Assembly it will be readily conjectured what was meant by the allusion in his letter to "reins of power," and that in twelve months or less I will be ready to carry any measure you may desire through the Legislature.

The address of the Assembly passed the House on the 1st of March, 1806, two days before the close of the session, and bears the impress of the brain, if not the hand, of Judge Thorpe. Here is the address:

"To His Honor, Alexander Grant, Esquire, President, administering the Government of the Province of Upper Canada, etc., etc.:

"MAY IT PLEASE YOUR HONOR,—We, His Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects of the Commons of Upper Canada, in Parliament assembled, have, conformably to our early assurance to your Honor, taken into consideration the public accounts of the Province, and have, on a due investigation of the same, to represent to you that the first and most constitutional privilege of the Commons has been violated in the application of moneys out of the Provincial Treasury to various purposes without the assent of Parliament or of a vote of the Commons House of Assembly.

"To comment on this departure from constitutional authority and fiscal establishment must be more than painful to all who appreciate the advantages of our happy constitution, and wish their continuance to the latest posterity; but, however studious we may be to refrain from stricture, we cannot suppress the mixed emotion of our relative condition. We feel it as the representatives of a free people: we lament it as the subjects of a beneficent Sovereign; and we hope that you in your relations to both will more than sympathize in so extraordinary an occurrence.

We beg leave to annex hereto a schedule of the moneys so misapplied, amounting to six hundred and seventeen pounds thirteen shillings and sevenpence, and we trust that you will not only order the same to be replaced in the Provincial Treasury, but will also direct that no moneys be issued thereout in future without the assent of Parliament or a vote of the Commons House of Assembly."

That President Grant was willing to listen to any complaint of the Assembly on any public matter may be gathered from his reply to the address of that body. which was as follows.:

"Gentlemen of the House of Assembly:

"I learn with regret from your address of the 1st of March that a degree of dissatisfaction prevails in the Commons House of Assembly with respect to the application of a sum of money stated to amount to six hundred and seventeen pounds thirteen shillings and sevenpence. At the time of my accession to the administration of the Government, I found that various items similar to those in the schedule accompanying your address had been charged against the provincial revenue, and acquiesced in for two years preceding, and I directed the usual mode to be followed in making up the accounts, which I ordered to be laid before you during the present session. The money in question has been undoubtedly applied to purposes useful and necessary for the general concerns of the Province. As I am, however, desirous to give every possible satisfaction to the House of Assembly, I shall direct the matter to be immediately investigated, and if there has been any error in stating the accounts, take measures to have it corrected and obviated for the time to come."

President Grant lost no time in making the investigation promised in his answer to the address of the Assembly. On the 14th of March he wrote to Lord Castlereagh, Secretary of State, giving him a statement concerning the circumstances which gave rise to the address of the Commons and his reply. After some preliminary remarks, excusing if not justifying the issuing of his warrant to cover expenses connected with the Government, he said:

"The language of that address is intemperate, especially when the bounty of Great Britain to the Province is taken into consideration. But I should be sorry if your Lordship supposed that the members of the House of Assembly for the greater part are inimical to the measures of the Government. They wish to do what is right; but sequestered from the world, and some of them not having had the benefit of a liberal education, they are ready to be influenced by the persuasion of others who, by their means, endeavor to perplex if not to distress the administration of the Government of this Province."

The concluding paragraph of the letter to Lord Castlereagh was a palpable hit at Judge Thorpe and his interference in the work of legislation, notwithstanding the fact that he was not a member of the Assembly. It gives a clue also to what Judge Thorpe had in his mind when in his letter to Under-Secretary Cooke he wrote: "I have had some public opportunities which did not escape me, and in private I will cultivate all that are deserving or that can be made useful.

President Grant’s investigation of the appropriation of moneys referred to compelled him to say to Lord Castrejeagh:

"I must, however, respecting the subject of the address, candidly confess, and since the prorogation of the Legislature I have taken every means to be informed, that I cannot discover anything by which the Governor, Lieutenant-Governor, or person administering the Government, possess the power of appropriating to specific purposes any part of the revenue raised for this Province by the Acts of its Legislature, without the assent of that Legislature to such appropriation. I therefore cannot help offering it to your Lordship, after the best consideration that I am able to give this subject, as thy opinion, that matters should be put on the same footing as they were from the establishment of the Province to the year 1803, and that the items of expenditure charged in the year 1805, mentioned in the address of the House of Assembly, and stated in the schedule, should be withdrawn as against the duties imposed by the provincial authority. This would give complete satisfaction, and I have little doubt but that in such case, as in Lower Canada, the Legislature would appropriate a sum according to its abilities for the support of the civil government of this Province out of the revenue which is raised by authority."

It is necessary only to add that the advice of President Grant in regard to the expenditure was followed. The Legislature, after his administration ceased, voted the necessary expenses which had been incurred. The right of the Assembly in the matter of expenditure of moneys was maintained, and the constitution saved from a serious wrench. In view of what had gone before, it is interesting to note that by the time it fell to the lot of the succeeding Assembly to follow the counsel or suggestion of President Grant, Judge Thorpe had succeeded in obtaining a seat in the Legislature, and was the only member of the House who opposed the resolution of the House withdrawing its claim to the appropriation, or, as Judge Thorpe would say, the misappropriation of the moneys referred to. In all this matter President Grant had but followed a precedent which had been set by a previous Government, and condoned by the passive assent of Parliament. Judge Thorpe was strictly correct in his constitutional law, and had he been a member of the Legislature no fault could have been found with his actively interfering to thwart the Government in an expenditure, however necessary, made without the assent of the House of Assembly previously obtained.

It reflects credit on the administrator of the Government, that finding the precedent which he had followed was not justified by the constitution, he quickly set about having the precedent repudiated. Happily the rights and privileges of Parliament are better understood to-day than they were in the days of Mr. Justice Thorpe, perhaps in some measure due to the acuteness of that political judge.

Commadore Grant married Miss Theresa Barthe, a French lady, on 30th September, 1774. By her he had one son and eleven daughters. The writer was well acquainted with the son, Colonel Grant, who was living in Brokville in 1828. Those of the daughters who attained maturity were married to persons of note in their day. Their names will be recognized in those of their descendants, the Nichols, Gilkinsons, Dicksons, Duffs, Millers, Woods, and Richardsons. All the children of Commodore Grant were of large frame and comely appearance. Colonel Grant, his son, was a tall man, upwards of six feet in height, and of powerful build, a good representation of a Highland chief.

Colonel Gilkinson, of Brantford, and Judge Woods, of Chatham, are grandsons of Commodore Grant; also Alexander Miller, of Detroit.

Commodore Grant died at his residence at Grosse Point, on Lake St. Clair, ten miles above the city of Detroit, sometime in the month of May, 1818. Here had he lived the most of his life, making periodical visits to York (Toronto) in the performance of his public duties.


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