Charles Duncombe, physician, politician, and a leader of the rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada; b. 28 July 1792 at Stratford, Conn., eldest of the five children of Thomas Duncombe and Rhoda Tyrrell; m. first in 1813, Nancy Haines, by whom he had three daughters and one son; she died in 1857, and he married, about 1858, Lucy Millard, by whom he had one son; d. 1 Oct. 1867 at Hicksville, Calif.
Although born in Connecticut, Charles Duncombe grew up in New York State, first in Stamford, Delaware County, and later in Middleburg, Schoharie County. After receiving his early education from his mother, he taught school and then studied medicine at the college of the One Hundred and One Members of the Medical Society of the City of New York. In 1819 he moved to the town of Delaware, Upper Canada, and on 5 October was licensed to practise by the Upper Canada Medical Board. He moved to St Thomas in 1822 and practised medicine there until 1828 when he settled in Burford Township in Brant County. There he built a large and lucrative medical practice. He had been appointed surgeon to the 2nd battalion of the Middlesex militia in 1825, and in January 1832 he became a member of the Medical Board. Always interested in medical education, he trained his two brothers, David and Elijah, before they studied for medical degrees at Fairfield Academy in Herkimer, N.Y. With Dr John Rolph, Duncombe founded the Talbot Dispensatory at St Thomas in 1824, the first medical school in Upper Canada, an effort which failed in its first term. Duncombe invested the proceeds of his large practice in land (his homestead was the site of the village of Bishopsgate), and he owned large holdings in Burford, Brantford, and, in his wife’s name, at Springfield in Elgin County.
A major interest for Duncombe was the masonic order. He was the first master of the Mount Moriah lodge at Westminster in 1820. In masonic affairs he showed both qualities of leadership and his rebellious instincts. When Simon McGillivray* was sent from Britain as provincial grand master, Duncombe led a delegation of western Upper Canadian masons to meet him at York (Toronto) in September 1822. Duncombe objected to the appointment of officials by British masons, insisting upon the right of Canadians to choose their own leaders. Temporarily reconciled by McGillivray, the doctor remained unhappy with Canadian freemasonry. Western lodges, discontented with the inactivity of the provincial organization after 1830, met at London, Upper Canada, in February 1836 to establish an independent grand lodge. Fittingly, the future rebel Duncombe was elected grand master. The grand lodge disappeared in the political and economic troubles of 1836–37, but Duncombe remained an ardent mason even after his exile; he was a founding member and first Master U.D. of Washington Lodge No. 20 in Sacramento in 1852.
The doctor turned politician in the election of 1830. He and Charles Ingersoll were returned for Oxford County to the 11th Upper Canadian parliament. In contrast to his later reputation as a radical, he was very much a moderate and an independent in his first term. Generally he voted with the Tories for public improvements such as banks and canals, and on issues involving government officers such as the granting of generous salaries to officials – not surprising positions for the representative of an area badly in need of public works to take. His own inclinations are indicated more accurately by his stand on political questions where the interests of his constituents were not at stake. He invariably voted with the advanced Reformers for such measures as vote by ballot, jury trials, secularization of the clergy reserves, independence of judges, and greater colonial autonomy. His major area of expertise was education and he advocated use of the crown lands to generate financial support for common schools.
His pragmatic and independent approach was best illustrated in the controversy over the expulsion from the House of Assembly of William Lyon Mackenzie. When the issue arose in December 1831 Duncombe agreed with the Tories that Mackenzie had libelled the house in his newspaper, the Colonial Advocate. But he opposed expulsion of the radical, arguing a reprimand was sufficient. This sensible middle ground won Duncombe no friends on either side. Mackenzie attacked him as an enemy of free speech and as a “false reformer.” Opposing the doctor’s re-election in 1834, the Colonial Advocate denounced him as “that prince royal of performers” and, in his bombastic “Legislative black list” Mackenzie placed him among “the uncompromising enemies of the peace, happiness, and welfare of the people . . . .” The refrain was picked up by radicals in Oxford who repudiated Duncombe and nominated candidates to oppose him. Their efforts were unsuccessful as Duncombe easily won re-election.
In his second parliament Duncombe was much more of a Reform regular, perhaps because the issues had altered, with the political and humanitarian questions on which he held advanced liberal ideas at the forefront. He was one of the busiest and most productive members of the house. During the 1835 and 1836 sessions he chaired most of the committees on financial affairs and dominated debate on social questions. On 10 April 1835 the assembly established a select committee to plan a lunatic asylum and to investigate school systems and other social issues. Three doctors, Duncombe, Thomas David Morrison*, and William Bruce, were named commissioners. All the investigation, however, much of it carried out during a tour of the United States, and the writing would be done by Duncombe and the report would represent his most important contribution to Canadian public life.
His report on lunatic asylums, in February 1836, drew heavily on the experience of the Massachusetts Lunatic Hospital. The suggestion of constructing an expensive hospital, to operate on the theory that insanity was an illness, was radical in a province which locked lunatics in jails. Equally progressive was his report on prisons the same month. He called for the operation of the Kingston penitentiary along the lines of the Auburn Prison in New York, instituted in 1825. Its rigid ban on communication among prisoners was harsh but the Auburn system with its individual cells and meaningful work was a considerable advance over previous systems. Duncombe’s own views were more liberal yet. He rejected revenge as a suitable social goal and opposed flogging of prisoners. He stressed the environmental causes of crime, especially in relation to juvenile offenders, who, he said, must receive sympathetic treatment and must be segregated from hardened criminals. Some of Duncombe’s ideas would be implemented a decade later when the Kingston penitentiary was reformed; similarly the 1840s would see his basic suggestions for the insane introduced in the Toronto Lunatic Asylum.
The Reformer’s greatest impact was made by his report on education of February 1836. He was thoroughly convinced of the necessity of an educated population: education reduced the tendency to intemperance and crime, it taught people to live and work together, and it alone made the population capable of governing itself. The education of which he spoke was practical; the classics were of limited use in the real world for which education should prepare students. Crucial was adequate financial support for common schools and teacher education, and he recommended the appropriation of £15,000 annually, a sum to be supplemented by property taxes on freeholders.
A bill embodying Duncombe’s views on education passed the assembly on 4 April 1836, only to be rejected by the Legislative Council. Many of its provisions, however, would be introduced under the administration of Egerton Ryerson* in Canada West and would form the basis for Ontario’s education policy until the act of 1871: local assessment, elective school boards, regular inspection of schools, female education, creation of normal schools, female teachers, prescribed textbooks, and non-sectarian religious instruction.
Favouring such political reforms as an executive responsible to the elected house, Duncombe had returned to the good graces of the radicals by 1836. Now supported by Mackenzie for re-election, Duncombe was one of the few Reformers that year to withstand the Tory sweep of the province. And he was then chosen by the Constitutional Reform Society, a group of moderate Reformers, founded in 1836 with William Warren Baldwin* as its president, to carry to England its complaints against alleged corruption and interference in the election by Lieutenant Governor Francis Bond Head*. Arriving in London in September 1836, Duncombe had the Reform charges laid before the House of Commons by Joseph Hume. But the colonial secretary, Lord Glenelg, would not even see the Canadian delegate. It was a devastating experience for the moderate Duncombe. Along with many Reformers, he had held a naïve faith in British justice, and he had been convinced that the troubles of Canada stemmed from domestic misrule which Britain, if aware of the true situation, would rectify. In Duncombe’s sharp disillusionment can be read a major cause of the rebellions. As he wrote to Robert Baldwin*, he now felt that the people of Canada, “if ever they have good government . . . must look among themselves for the means of producing it . . . .” His bitterness, and resultant radicalism, was heightened by personal tragedy: a fire devastated his property and, while he was on his way to England on his futile mission, his only son was thrown from a horse and killed, aged 14.
Duncombe virtually withdrew from public life on his return to Upper Canada in November 1836. That, in his melancholy, he was prepared for independence is clear. When he decided upon rebellion is more difficult to determine. The traditional interpretation is that he was involved in the rising agitation in the autumn of 1837, that he was informed by Mackenzie in November that an uprising was planned, and that he then raised an army in the London District to join the Yonge Street forces. The interpretation appears to rest upon two sources: John Charles Dent*’s 1885 history of the rebellion and a deposition given to London District magistrates on 17 Dec. 1837 by Peter Coon, a Burford blacksmith. Other depositions, and impressionistic evidence, cast doubt on this interpretation. Certainly meetings were being held in the London District from the beginning of December, but none of the participants placed Duncombe at any of them until 8 December, after the rising on Yonge Street led by Mackenzie. The doctor’s friend Elisha Hall, of Oxford County, wrote to him on 6 December advising him to avoid involvement in the rebellion; it seems likely that Hall would have known if Duncombe had been committed to action by that date. Donald M’Leod*, the Patriot general in the border war of 1838 and another close associate of Duncombe, reported in a book published in 1841 that Duncombe had held back from agitation until 8 December, when he heard a warrant had been issued for his arrest. He then took arms in despairing self-defence. Adding force to this argument is the tension which existed between Mackenzie and Duncombe in 1838. Mackenzie felt his compatriot had never been fully committed to the cause, and correspondence in 1838 makes it clear that Mackenzie had not taken Duncombe into his confidence during the agitation in October 1837, though they had spent a week together at Niagara in that month. Although the evidence remains slight, General M’Leod’s account now seems the most plausible.
With its reluctant leader, the virtually unplanned rising in the London District was fated to fail. Gathered at Scotland village, southwest of Brantford, the rebel force of 300 dispersed on Duncombe’s orders when, on 13 December, they received news of Mackenzie’s defeat at Toronto and of the approach of a loyalist army under Allan Napier MacNab. Hiding with relatives and supporters, Duncombe made his way out of the province over the next two weeks, crossing to Detroit disguised as a woman.
Duncombe’s movements in the United States are difficult to follow. Certainly he was at Detroit in February 1838 when he helped plan and supply weapons for the Patriot raid led by M’Leod on Fighting Island. In March he lectured on the Patriot cause at Cleveland and while there joined in planning a full-scale invasion of Upper Canada on 4 July, plans which were still-born. Later that year he helped shape tactics for the attacks on Sandwich (Windsor) and Prescott. Despite this activity, Duncombe wavered at times in his commitment to the cause. By June 1838 he was ready to join Marshall Spring Bidwell* in disillusioned retirement. In September, however, he had recovered his ardour and took a leading role in the Cleveland convention of the Hunters’ Lodges. Although some, including Mackenzie, suspected him of being a secret agent for the United States government, his commitment at Cleveland seemed genuine enough. Applying the knowledge he had gained in the Upper Canadian assembly, he proposed to the convention the formation of a “Republican Bank” which would both finance the Patriot war effort and, by its radical example, democratize banking in the United States. It was an idea he would pursue for the next three years through memorials to the United States Congress and through his book, Duncombe’s free banking, published in 1841.
As the Patriot cause collapsed Duncombe wandered the northern United States lecturing and practising medicine. Although he was pardoned on 20 April 1843 he showed no interest in returning to Canada. Rather, he went west, to gold-rush California in 1849, settling in Sacramento. Successful in his profession and serving on the town council, he remained in Sacramento until 1856 when he purchased a farm near Hicksville in Sacramento County. His passionate interest in emancipation of the slaves drew him into Republican politics. Elected to the state legislature in 1858, he was unseated because he was an alien – a nice touch of irony for a politician from Upper Canada, so long torn by its own alien question. By the time he was elected again, in 1863, Duncombe had taken American citizenship and he served a term in the California house. He was prosperous and happy, feeling the American Civil War had vindicated his life-long confidence in free institutions and the cause of human liberty.
In 1867 Charles Duncombe was partially paralysed by sunstroke. He never recovered. On 1 Oct. 1867 he died.
He was interred in the masonic plot of the Sacramento City cemetery under a headstone which read, fittingly, “A Friend of Liberty.” He was that. He was, as well, one of the most dedicated, intelligent, and progressive of Upper Canada’s politicians. Remembered, if at all, as the leader of the fiasco at Scotland, he should more properly be recalled as the father of 19th century social legislation in Ontario and as a public figure of rare integrity.
Source: Library and Archives Canada
Researched by Wor. David Cameron, PM