Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
July 2005

Biographies of Prominent Quebec Historical Figures


Lord Durham


John George Lambton, first Earl of Durham (1792-1840), known as "Radical Jack" because he had supported a number of causes promoted by the Whig Party in England – among them the emancipation of Roman Catholics, free trade, generalized education and the Great Reform bill of 1832 – was sent to British North America in 1838 as governor-general specifically to investigate the circumstances of the rebellions of 1837 in Upper and Lower Canada and to make recommendations for the future government of the British North American colonies. His investigation led to the publication, in 1839, of the famous Durham Report in which he recommended that Upper and Lower Canada be united, that responsible government be granted (see text below), that French Canadians be assimilated and that municipal institutions be established in Canada.

The largest part of the Report examined the situation in Lower Canada where the state of affairs had been the most serious. Before coming to Canada, Durham had had a chance to familiarized himself with the local conditions. He had read the dispatches to and from the Colonial Office and been in touch with a number of personalities such as Louis Hippolyte Lafontaine and John Roebuck. In that part of British North America, the problem, according to Durham, was not mainly political, as he had originally expected it to be. It was not a struggle of the "government against the people". Rather, it was "racial." In Quebec, Durham had found "two nations warring in the bosom of a single state." Such a situation paralyzed government in Lower Canada (see text below). It was in part to rectify that situation that he advocated the union of the two Canadas. The merger of the two provinces would lead, slowly, he believed, to the assimilation of the French Canadians. This proposal was not new as it had been raised from time to time since the early part of the XIXth century, notably in 1822. Accordingly, the Report received mixed reactions in Canada.

Durham was hailed as a statesman by the Reformers in Upper Canada for recommending the granting of responsible government and as a "racist" in Lower Canada for proposing the assimilation of French Canadians. A careful reading of the Durham Report does not support the view that the source of the recommendation for the assimilation of the French Canadians is to be found primarily in prejudice and intolerance. Although he never for a moment questioned the "natural intelligence" and superiority of the English, and described the Canadiens as a people devoid of history and literature and lacking in anything "that elevates a people", his proposal of assimilation of the French was mainly rooted in two considerations: his desire to render the government of Lower Canada more effective, by removing the "racial" antagonism that had paralysed it to this point in time, and to provide French Canadians with greater opportunities as English was decidedly the language of business and social promotion and would continue to dominate in the future on the continent. Given this fact, anyone, he argued, not possessing the English language in this part of the world would be relegated to a position of "hopeless inferiority" politically, economically and culturally. It was to elevate the Canadiens from this position of inferiority that Durham proposed the solution of assimilation. Thus, his  proposal of assimilation was consistent with basic liberal principles that require that equal opportunities be extended to all. To Durham, the patriotes had only used the language of liberalism and the ideals of democracy to defend an unprogressive order – that of feudal France and the institutions of the Ancien régime. Although this statement has received support from Donald Creighton and Fernand Ouellet, many other historians have quarrelled with these views of Durham.

Durham's stay in Canada was short-lived. Less than one month after he had arrived in the country, he banished, without trial, 8 patriotes to the island of Bermuda and issued a proclamation forbidding 16 other individuals – among them Louis-Joseph Papineau – from returning to Canada under the threat of death. His political opponents thought that he had acted illegally in taking such actions. Facing mounting criticism, the Melbourne government disallowed the decree, whereupon Durham resigned from his position of Governor-General and left for England on November 1, 1838. He wrote his Report in the next two months. On July 28, 1840, he died of tuberculosis.

In the end, the government in Great Britain could not quite bring itself to implement responsible government in the colonies, and the Union Act (1840-1841) that followed managed to dissatisfy every progressive in Upper and Lower Canada. The Durham Report remains a key document for the study of constitutional history in Canada.

Claude Bélanger, Department of History, Marianopolis College


Durham on Responsible Government:

"I know not how it is possible to secure harmony in any other way than by administering the Government on those principles which have been found perfectly efficacious in Great Britain. I would not impair a single prerogative of the Crown; on the contrary I believe that the interests of the people of these provinces require the protection of prerogatives which have not hitherto been exercised. But the Crown must, on the other hand, submit to the necessary consequences of representative institutions; and if it has to carry on the government in unison with a representative body, it must consent to carry it on by means of those in whom that representative body has confidence".

Durham on the "racial" problem in Lower Canada:

"Nor do I exaggerate the inevitable constancy any more than the intensity of this animosity. Never again will the present generation of French Canadians yield a loyal submission to a British Government; never again will the English population tolerate the authority of a House of Assembly in which the French shall possess, or even approximate to, a majority".

W. Stewart Wallace on Durham:


Durham, John George Lambton, first Earl of (1792-1840), governor-in-chief of British North America and lord high commissioner (1838), was born in, London, England, on April 12, 1792; the, eldest son of William Henry Lambton, M.P., and Lady Anne Barbara Frances Villiers, second daughter of George, fourth Earl of Jersey. He was educated at Eton, and in 1809 entered the army vas a cornet in the 10th Hussars. In 1813 he was elected to the House of Commons for the county of Durham; add he continued to represent this constituency in parliament until his elevation to the peerage as Baron Durham in 1828. He was a pronounced radical, his popular sobriquet being "Radical Jack"; and the Reform Bill of 1832 was first drafted in his house. In 1830 he became lord privy seal in the Grey administration; but in 1833 ill-health compelled his resignation of office. In 1835-7 he was British ambassador at St. Petersburg; and he had hardly returned from Russia when he was invited by the Melbourne ministry to assume the government of Canada. He at first declined the offer; but, after the outbreak of the rebellions of 1837 in Upper and Lower Canada, he yielded to the personal solicitations of Queen Victoria, and was appointed governor-in-chief of British North America, with extraordinary powers as lord high commissioner.


He arrived in Canada on May 28, 1838, and he resigned his office on September 28, just four months later, because of the disallowance by the Melbourne government of his ordinance dealing with the political prisoners in Canada. His actual departure from the country took place on November 1, 1838. Yet in these few months he and his staff instituted inquiries which resulted in his famous Report on the affairs of British North America (2 vols., London, 1839; new ed., by Sir C. P. Lucas, 3 vols., Oxford, 1912), a classic of English political literature. The recommendations made in this report led to the union of Upper and Lower Canada in 1841, the introduction of "responsible government" and municipal government in Canada, and the growth of Canadian national feeling. The report did less than justice to the French Canadians, but in view of the circumstances of the time that was perhaps not surprising.


Durham's Canadian experience undermined his health, never robust, and he had hardly completed his report when his health broke down. He died at Cowes, in the Isle of Wight, on July 28, 1840. He married, first, in 1812, Henrietta Cholmondeley (d. 1815), natural daughter of Lord Cholmondeley, by whom he had three daughters; and, secondly, in 1816, Lady Louisa Elizabeth Grey, eldest daughter of Charles, second Earl Grey, by whom he had two sons. He was created first Earl of Durham on his resignation of the office of lord privy seal in 1833.


See C. W. New, Lord Durham (Oxford, 1929), W. Smith, Lord Durham's administration (Can. hist. rev., 1927)`, S. J. Reid, Life and letters of the first Earl of Durham (2 vols., London, 1906), and R. Garnett, The authorship of Lord Durham's Canada report (Eng. hist. rev., 1902).

Source: W. Stewart WALLACE, The Encyclopedia of Canada, Vol. II, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 411p., pp. 253-254.



© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College