ELECTIONS IN UPPER CANADA
History tells how it really was.
"The more broken heads and bloody noses there are, the more election-like." This cynical comment by William David Smith reflected what, in fact, often occurred at polling places during elections for the House of Assembly in early Upper Canada. Far from being the quiet climax to the political process, elections then were raucous events at which citizens expected food and drink at someone else's expense. Farmers came from miles around to enjoy the excitement and entertainment which on one occasion included a side-show at Hind's Hotel featuring "a curious creature called Sagou Brown, an orangutan for which the fascinated spectators paid one shilling." As well as fun there were often fights as tempers flaired and fists flew when emotions reached fever pitch over the best person for the job.
While debates about election issues, personalities and public policy were matters of for real concern for some voters, others were more preoccupied with the nature of the nourishment being offered. What was there to eat and drink and how much each candidate was prepared to spend to wine and dine them. One candidate spent $200 on an unsuccessful campaign, while another's victory cost him $500. Free food and drinks were basic expectations of all serious electors, and once this was accepted as a 'given,' candidates then vied for voters by improving on the quantity if not the quality of the electoral refreshments.
Smith realized this all too well, and capitalized on the insatiable appetites of the electors, whom he regularly referred to disparagingly as "the peasants." Apparently, this name never bothered Smith's supporters, for in three ridings, one of which was 3rd Lincoln, Smith's vilified voters repeatedly returned him to office between 1792 and 1802. Smith was well known by the public. In addition to holding a seat in the Assembly, he was a member of the Executive Council, a deputy surveyor-general and Lieutenant of York County. Even when he ran unopposed, Smith left nothing to chance, once spending $900 for port, cheese and roast oxen, when he was the only candidate. Later he decided to change his electioneering tactics and give away only spirits. Despite this his popularity at the polls remained high.
While their "zeal was heightened by the effects of ardent spirits," the electors were neither rubber-stamps nor pawns to be played with and controlled by the candidates. Even specially selected government candidates or nominees, no matter how important they were considered to be, were never shoo-ins. At one by-election, no less a personage than the Attorney General was put forward by the establishment and defeated. A government representative lamented his loss.In His Own Words
"Alas, the low ignorance of the Electors defeated this wise man and elected instead an ignorant young man of their own level and neighbourhood."
By today's strict standards, elections then were highly irregular and often unruly. Drinks flowed freely, fights were frequent, flagrant efforts were made to keep people from voting, religious and national prejudices were loudly proclaimed, and when all else failed, downright deception was practised. All these activities remained perfectly normal electoral procedures for a number of years. Because organized political parties were regarded with suspicion, candidates spent a good deal of time trying to convince the electorate that they represented only themselves. Each individual produced his own platform, and in one case this included the promise not to canvass for votes, which according to the candidate was "beneath the dignity of any one who sought to represent the people." He was running for office but had no intention of being so base as to appeal for votes.
Not so in the case of another candidate, one of whose supporters endorsed him with these ringing words: "Fellow electors, let us be unanimous, and for the love of our country, for the love of ourselves, our interests, our welfare, our rights, and liberties, assemble on that day when our dearest interests will be at stake and with one voice constitute Mr. Samuel Heron."
Taxes, the perennial bane of all hardworking inhabitants, always brought the standard pre-election promises. One campaigner pledged to shift the burden of taxation from "industrious farmers and mechanics" to the "more opulent classes." When another candidate was accused of promoting an increase in taxes, he denied it vigorously, loudly protesting,"It has been whispered that I have endeavoured to increase the general rate of assessments. This is a wretched misrepresentation!"
Sleazy campaign slander was denounced as "puny fabrications calculated to mislead your judgement and alienate your favour." Accusations were called "barefaced falsehoods more insidious by far than any that ever issued from the lips of malice." One candidate was quite sure the public would not be fooled by "the shallow artifice of exploded fibs."
Promises came naturally to the politicians and for some of the campaigners, the sky was the limit. One promised if elected to make the merchants sell cheaper and to purchase himself whatever the voters might in future bring to market. In close races no holds were barred. If voters were in short supply in one area, runners were dispatched to "safe" sections of the district to collect more "to whom plenty of cheer had previously been sent."
The Niagara Herald reported on one scandalous election antic "the singular unfairness of which was scarcely ever equalled." The polls had opened at 10 a.m. and during the next few hours the vote was very close. When new voters grew scarce, it appeared the election might be over. Suddenly a group of soldiers were seen approaching the hustings to vote for the "wrong" candidate. When a quick tally of the existing votes disclosed that the "favoured" candidate had a slight lead, spontaneously, a fight broke out. This scuffle caused several overly anxious onlookers "to raise a hue and cry" and call for closure of the polls. The bewildered returning officer, who was either bribed, befuddled or easily intimidated, promptly complied much to the astonished anger of those in the milling crowd who had not yet voted. Then someone in the mob bellowed, "A riot! A riot!" and within a few minutes the riot act was read and the gathering dispersed voluntarily.
A subsequent news report in the Upper Canada Gazette described the event as "a daring Riot instigated by persons inimical to Peace and Good Order and to the pure exercise of that valuable privilege - the elective franchise." The leading candidate, Mr. Henry Alcock, who was a Justice of the Court of the King's Bench, was subsequently declared "duly elected" by a two vote margin. Supporters of the "winner" then congratulated each other on their manoeuvre. One of their ringleaders boasted, "This is the way we manage elections; if we cannot do it in one way, we can in another."
Some fifty to a hundred freeholders who were waiting to vote took exception to this deception, and complained that their rights had been "infringed." They immediately signed a petition and some of their number even declared that unless they received redress for their grievances, they would "quit the country."
The House of Assembly heard their appeal. Before they started, they ordered Justice Alcock, who had already taken his seat, to withdraw until they had made a decision regarding the legitimacy of his election. Alcock vehemently refused leave, loudly declaring that he was a Member of the House and would not leave unless "thrown out neck and heels." Alcock was allowed to remain, and throughout the hearing he was observed making copious notes about everything anyone said. Evidence was given that a number of eligible voters were deprived of the opportunity to cast their vote by unfair measures. Alcock offered no opposing testimony. A whole day was spent in the examination of the many witnesses, following which the House without any debate whatsoever, declared that Alcock was "not duly elected" and ordered the Speaker to issue new warrants for another election in the East Riding of the County of York. The by-election was not contested by Alcock, who apparently decided he did not have a chance of being elected. A Mr. Angus McDonell, the former clerk of the House of Assembly, was duly elected by a majority of 80 "unquestionable" votes.
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