Simcoe's Vision for Toronto: A City So Awesome It Would Undo The American Revolution by Adam Bunch

1791. Just ten years earlier, John Graves Simcoe had been fighting on the British side of the American Revolution. He made a name for himself in that bloody war: the unit he commanded never lost a battle, he survived months in an American prison, and he even had a chance to kill George Washington, but ordered his men to stand down rather than shoot the future President as he fled. He had his dark moments too — he was an ardent supporter of the death penalty for desertion and he once ordered the massacre of American rebels in their sleep — but it seems he had a reputation for being "brave, humane and honest." By the time the war was over, Simcoe had established himself as one of the rising stars of the British military.

So when the British decided to create a new province in Canada, they chose John Graves Simcoe to be the first Lieutenant Governor.

The province of Upper Canada was created in what we now call southern Ontario. While Qu├ębec and the Martime provinces were already well-established colonies, the British saw the land to the west as an untamed wilderness. Dismissing the First Nations who already lived here, they figured it would make a perfect new home for those who stayed loyal to the Empire during the war. Many of the Loyalists had been driven from their homes by the American revolutionaries, their lives threatened, their property burned to the ground, forced to flee north to safety. Some of them had been born in the States, to families who had lived there for generations. Some had arrived from Europe more recently — about 40% of the earliest Upper Canadians were German. Some were former slaves, promised their freedom in return for fighting against the American rebels. Others were still slaves when they got here.

As Governor, Simcoe would have tremendous power over this new province. He could veto laws, dissolve parliament and hand-pick public servants and an Executive Council. He had ambitious plans to use that power. He didn't just want Upper Canada to be a successful new colony with a thriving new capital: he wanted Upper Canada to undo the American Revolution by the sheer force of its own awesomeness.

He got to work on his plan as soon as he was named Lieutenant Governor in 1791, while he was still back home in England. One of the very first things he did was to write a letter addressed to one of the most famous men in Britain: Sir Joseph Banks.

Banks was a scientist: a renowned and respected naturalist. Twenty years earlier, he had explored the South Pacific with the legendary Captain James Cook, becoming one of the very first Europeans to see Australia and New Zealand. It was Banks who first told Europe about kangaroos, eucalyptus and acacia trees, along with thousands of other species of plants and animals. After that, he was named President of the Royal Society — a post once held by Sir Isaac Newton — and he was hailed as a national hero.

Simcoe (whose own father had also served with Cook) wanted to bounce his ideas off Banks before setting sail for Canada. So in his letter, he laid out his vision for the new province and the new city he would build as its capital.

He called this hypothetical future metropolis "Georgina" — in honour of King George III (who had recently recovered from his first bout of mental illness). The city would be built, he hoped, on the banks of the La Tranche River (Simcoe later renamed it the Thames) on the spot where London is now. But that's not what happened. Instead, the new capital would end up being built here, on the northern shore of Lake Ontario. In the end, Simcoe didn't name the city "Georgina" after the King, but "York" after the King's son, the Duke of York. Decades later, it would be renamed Toronto.

His plan, in short, was to make our city and our province so undeniably amazing that Americans couldn't help but realize how terrible America was by comparison. They would voluntarily give up their silly notions of independence and beg to be let back into the Empire.

"I would die by more than Indian torture to restore my King and his family to their just inheritance," Simcoe wrote to Banks. "Though a soldier, it is not by arms that I hope for this result... the method I propose is by establishing a free, honourable British Government, and a pure administration of its laws, which shall hold out to the solitary emigrant, and to the several states, advantages that the present form of Government doth not and cannot permit them to enjoy."

As far as Simcoe was concerned, modern democracy was a dangerous idea. He had already personally witnessed the horrors of the American Revolution committed in its name, and now those ideas had spread to France, where an even bloodier and more horrifying revolution was underway. The U.S. seemed destined for more chaos and war. "I mean to prepare for whatever convulsions may happen in the United States," he told Banks. He might be able to lure them back into the fold, or at the very least provide an attractive destination for those Americans who became disillusioned with their own government. The key would be building a peaceful Canadian province with a glorious new capital home to an enviable culture of arts, science, learning and good government.

"[T]his colony," he continued, "(which I mean to show forth with all the advantages of British protection as a better Government than the United States can possibly obtain) should in its very foundations provide for every assistance that can possibly be procured for the arts and sciences, and for every embellishment that hereafter may decorate and attract notice, and may point it out to the neighbouring States as a superior, more happy, and more polished form of Government. I would not in its infancy have a hut, nor in its maturity, a palace built without this design."

He already had some concrete ideas about how to establish this British utopia. His letter to Banks mentions a publicly-funded library "to be composed of such books as might be useful to the colony." Extracts from encyclopedias could be published in newspapers to further public education. The school-system would be an important institution and "a college of a higher class would be eminently useful." There would be an emphasis on scientific learning, too: "I should be glad," he wrote, "to lay the foundation stone of some society that I trust might hereafter conduce to the extension of science."

But he also wanted to restrict what he once called "tyrannical democracy" in favour of a powerful, British aristocracy. "There are inherent defects in the congressional form of Government, the absolute prohibition of any order of nobility is a glaring one," he wrote. "I hope to have a hereditary council with some mark of nobility." There would also be an official state church: the Church of England.

Those, unsurprisingly, would prove to be the most problematic parts of Simcoe's vision. Our province was supposed to be a British province, our city a British city. And while Simcoe never did establish an official nobility, he did leave behind the Family Compact: a ruling class of Tory Protestants determined to uphold his ideal of a monolithic Orange state. Those from the other cultures who helped build the colony faced discrimination, intimidation and violence. So did advocates for real democracy. During our city's first 40 years, Anglican priests were the only priests legally allowed to perform marriage ceremonies. Anti-Catholic riots would eventually become a familiar sight on our streets. The Orange domination of Toronto would last for more than a century, well into the 1900s.

Still, many of the positive institutions Simcoe imagined in his letter to Banks have played a vital role in the building of our city. The Toronto Public Library has the highest per-capita use of any public library system in the world. King's College was founded in 1827 and later became the University of Toronto. We do have an enviable culture of arts and science. And in the few years he was here, Simcoe laid the foundation for our court system and established trail-by-jury. We still travel along roads he first imagined.

Simcoe never did manage to undo the American Revolution. But even that dream wasn't a complete failure. Upper Canada did attract many American settlers with the promise of a better life. And Toronto has long provided a new home for immigrants from south of the border — whether they're looking for a clean, peaceful city, a stronger social safety net, or the chance to avoid fighting in American wars.

Simcoe's greatest legacy, however, is something he didn't mention in his letter to Banks. One of the first laws he passed in Upper Canada was legislation he championed himself: the abolition of slavery. He wanted to ban it entirely; slave-owners in the Legislative Assembly forced a compromise that saw it phased out instead. Even so, it was the first law to abolish slavery anywhere in the British Empire. Simcoe's new capital would eventually become a terminal on the Underground Railroad, welcoming former slaves to freedom. He might not have been able to convince every American to rejoin the British Empire, but Simcoe did ensure his new province would be a safe haven for the Americans who needed it most.


Image: Oil painting of the foot of Bathurst Street ca. 1796 by Elizabeth Simcoe (via the Toronto Public Library) and a portrait of John Graves Simcoe by John Wycliffe Lowes Forster (via Library and Archives Canada).

A version of this post originally appeared on The Toronto Dreams Project Historical Ephemera Blog.

Adam Bunch is the Editor-in-Chief of the Little Red Umbrella and the creator of the Toronto Dreams Project. You can read his posts here, follow him on Twitter here, or email him at


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