The term Family Compact is an epithet, or insulting nickname, used to describe the network of people who dominated the legislative, bureaucratic, business, religious and judicial centres of power in Upper Canada (Ontario) from the early- to mid-1800s. Members of the Family Compact held largely conservative and loyalist views and were notably against democratic reform and responsible government. By the mid-19th century, immigration, the union of Upper and Lower Canada, and the pressure of various democratic reformers had diminished the Family Compact’s power. The equivalent to the Family Compact in Lower Canada was the Château Clique.
Origins of the Family Compact
The Family Compact’s roots are in a series of political appointments made to two unelected branches of government in Upper Canada during Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe tenure in the 1790s. Such wealthy and powerful men as James Baby, Richard Cartwright and William Osgoode were appointed during this time. Simcoe wanted to recreate British society in Canada and believed that an aristocratic governing class was essential to that goal. By limiting leadership positions in the colony to people with connections, it was hoped that a hierarchical class structure would arise naturally. The unelected branches of government were answerable only to the lieutenant-governor, which made the elected Legislative Assembly powerless.
I shall be happy to consult with yourself and Mr. Rolph on the measures to be adopted to relieve the province from the evils which a family compact have brought upon it.… The whole system and spirit of the present administration need to be done away with.
The term was popularized in 1833 when journalist and reform politician William Lyon Mackenzie published a list of Family Compact names in his newspaper, the Colonial Advocate. Family Compact was meant to describe the close relations between members, including marriage and business ties, and their preferential treatment of each other.
The two leading figures of the Family Compact were Chief Justice John Beverley Robinson and Anglican bishop John Strachan. Many members of the Family Compact, including Robinson, were Strachan’s students growing up. They remained closely allied in adulthood.
Above family and business ties, the Family Compact was united by its shared commitment to loyalism. Loyalism was an inherently conservative ideology rooted in the preservation of established British norms and a rejection of democratic influences. Loyalists were American colonists who supported the British during the American Revolution (1775–83). Tens of thousands migrated to British North America during and after the Revolutionary War.
For Loyalists, the American Revolution confirmed their suspicions that democracy was a dangerous form of mob rule, intensifying their belief in the supremacy of the British Crown and constitution. The American invasion of Upper Canada during the War of 1812 further strengthened this hostility towards democratic reform and the development of responsible government. In response, the Upper Canada government attempted to make it impossible for American settlers to receive land grants in the 1820s. The Family Compact’s devotion to loyalism set the political tone throughout much of Upper Canada.
Social, Political and Economic Power
Members of the Family Compact often held several social, political and economic offices simultaneously. Access to these offices was typically (although not exclusively) restricted to allies and close associates. The Legislative and Executive Councils controlled appointments to government positions as well as land grants, which they distributed along partisan lines. The Church of England, Bank of Upper Canada, the Canada Company and the Law Society of Upper Canada were organizations that formed the basis of Family Compact power. Influence over these institutions ensured that the Family Compact held financial, spiritual, legal and administrative authority over the colony.
In spite of its substantial powers in the colony, the Family Compact did not have free rein. Any decision could be nullified by the lieutenant-governor or by the Colonial Office in England. Members generally had close relationships with the sitting lieutenant-governors, who shared their interest in maintaining a connection to Great Britain and bolstering traditional institutions. The Family Compact exploited that close relationship in order to influence colonial rule while maintaining an image of absolute loyalty.
Many members of the Family Compact showed a willingness to break the law when they believed the survival of the colony was at stake. Violence was commonly deployed against political opponents at electoral polls, political meetings and marches through city streets. The Family Compact’s dominance over appointments to the magistracy and judiciary allowed for violence in defence of Family Compact interests to go unpunished.
Perhaps the best known example of conservative violence was the Types Riot in 1826, when several young law students and associates of the Family Compact broke into and sacked William Lyon Mackenzie’s Colonial Advocate offices. None of the rioters faced criminal charges, despite being clearly identified by several onlookers.
Although the Family Compact was united by common interests and goals, it was not the cohesive, reactionary body that its nickname implies. Members often came into conflict with each other over personal and political questions. Individuals such as William Warren Baldwin, who had close ties to the Family Compact, went on to become leading democratic reformers (see Reform Movement in Upper Canada). Some conservative Upper Canadians otherwise supportive of the Family Compact were occasionally critical of the privilege and conduct of organizations such as the Canada Company.
Rebellion of 1837
The reform movement that emerged in opposition to Family Compact authority in the 1820s and 1830s was never as united or cohesive as its opponent. Reformers disagreed over what was in need of reform and how reform could be obtained. One of the more extreme and well-known figures was William Lyon Mackenzie, who grew increasingly radical as his attempts at reform were obstructed. The atmosphere of conservative violence and lack of parliamentary democracy convinced Mackenzie that only rebellion could achieve tangible change in the colony. In December 1837, he led a small rising that was quickly put down by loyalist militia forces (see Montgomery’s Tavern and Rebellions of 1837–38).
Decline of the Family Compact
After the rebellion was defeated, the British prime minister sent Lord Durham to investigate its causes. In 1839, he returned his Report on the Affairs of British North America (the Durham Report). The report condemned the Family Compact and led to the union of Upper and Lower Canada (see Act of Union). The Family Compact had fewer seats in government in the unified Province of Canada, and was therefore less powerful.
By the 1840s, political reform and increased immigration from the British Isles had diluted the Family Compact’s influence over society. Immigrant-based organizations such as the Orange Order challenged the Family Compact’s monopolistic claim on loyalism. Industrialism and commercialism created a new bourgeois class, whose influence prevented the replication of traditional British class structures (see Industrialization). Savvy members of the Family Compact adapted to the changing times and maintained prominent places in society, while less-dynamic members saw their power slowly fade. At the time of Confederation, many of Canada’s leading figures had ties to the Family Compact, but the group no longer occupied the dominant societal position it once had.
Gerald M. Craig, Upper Canada: The Formative Years, 1784–1841 (1963)
David Mills, The Idea of Loyalty in Upper Canada, 1784–1850 (1988)
Albert Schrauwers, Union Is Strength: W.L. Mackenzie, The Children of the Peace and the Emergence of Joint Stock Democracy (2009)
Carol Wilton, Popular Politics and Political Culture in Upper Canada 1800–1850 (2000)