In an election year one hundred years earlier than the approaching national election of June 10, Lanark County found itself engaged in the selection of two members in 1857 for the sixth Parliament of the united Upper and Lower Canada. Carleton Place newspaper editor James Poole, supporting his fellow townsman Robert Bell for re-election as Reform Party candidate in North Lanark, summed the issues from his view point in a convenient editorial package. “The coming struggle,” he wrote, “is to decide whether our noble country is in future to be governed on the principles of morality, justice and equity or whether fraud and villainy shall usurp the high places of our land.”
The result of the contest in this county was the return of the seasoned campaigner Robert Bell by acclamation and in South Lanark, the defeat of two opposing candidates, Shaw and Doran, by Colonel A. W. Playfair of Playfairville, prominent early settler and veteran of the War of 1812. Colonel Playfair, identified by Editor Poole early in the campaign as a “Conservative of the old school,” negotiated successfully for the support of local Reform Party officials before the December vote.
Nominations for the south riding were held at Perth, those for the north riding at Bellamy’s Mills, now Clayton. The following is from the Carleton Place Herald’s 1857 report of the North Lanark nomination. “The nomination for the North Riding of the county of Lanark took place at Bellamy’s Mills in Ramsay on Monday last. It resulted in the re-election of our Robert Bell Esq. our late member, by acclamation. The other candidates, feeling themselves completely beaten, retired from the contest. They were George Nielson Esq., Belleville, and John Scott Esq., of the village of Almonte. Mr. ……….. spoke in language much of which was to scurrilous to appear in print. He was profuse in heaping foul epithets upon that ‘vile rag’ the Herald and its editor, but said it was not his intention to push the matter to a poll.
The Returning Officer, Sheriff Thompson, then requested the electors to divide, those for Bell taking the right and those for Scott the left. There was a large number of persons present, probably about three hundred. There appeared to be an over whelming majority for Bell, we should think about seven to one. Mr. Bell was then declared duly elected, after which he was enthusiastically cheered by the people. Mr. Wm. McAdam of Pakenham and Mr. Alex. Stevenson of Lanark, mover and seconder of Mr. Bell’s nomination, also were cheered, and our good Queen was not forgotten. Three hearty cheers were given also for the Carleton Place Herald.
The successful candidate then was chaired to the Hotel and the assembly began to disperse. Mr. N. Lavallee of Carleton Place drove his splendid team of grays and had the honor of carrying the member-elect, followed by a number from Carleton Place, Almonte and Pakenham ; the whole party driving around by Bennie’s, Sneddon’s and Almonte. The Almonters seemed highly pleased and cheered with a hearty goodwill. Having arrived at Carleton Place an illumination was made and a torch light procession was formed. First up to the Printing office where three hearty cheers were given for ‘the Press’, then to the school-master’s corner where ‘Education without Sectarianism’ was echoed far and wide. The procession then passed over the bridge, and returned to Mr. Lavallee’s hotel where Mr. Bell addressed the crowd from the steps, after which he was chaired to his house and the people dispersed highly gratified with the result of the election.”
Similar celebrations were slated to follow the voting in South Lanark, with a triumphal tour including Perth, Smiths Falls and Franktown and the chairing of Colonel Playfair in both Perth and Carleton Place. A North American commercial crisis had developed before the 1857 election but, according to Mr. Poole, “even hard times were forgotten or overlooked in the anxiety which everyone felt to return his published pos-mortems on the election are side lights presenting a local contrast between hazards of the open poll and today’s secret ballot.” He observed : “The country swarms with political gamblers who will be anything, everything or nothing, to suit the humor of the times. In one county which we wot of, the candidate himself though a zealous temperance man and pledged upon the question, winked at the proceeding of his man Friday when that trustworthy ally provided barrels of Whisky and Beer for the greater convenience of their friends at the polling places!”
Again, under the heading Petty Intolerance:
“We Protestants are fond of our freedom of thought and action. Some of us are apt to adopt the fallacy that because we to a considerable extent control the finances of our ministers we also have a right to the control of their minds and bodies, but especially of their votes. We became acquainted with a practical illustration of this sentiment a few days ago when a respected clergyman, whose vote had not been given in accordance with the views of a section of his flock, was struck on the shoulder with an egg thrown from the hand of a narrow-minded disciple who chose this cowardly, dastardly and ruffianly mode of assailing his minister while that gentleman was quietly making his way along the street. The good man wiped off the stain good-humoredly and passed on his way as unruffled as though he had encountered a feather in its flight. The spirit which dictated such an act is an intolerant one. It would kindle again the fires of Smithfield. It is the duty of the press to show up and expose to the light of day such petty atrocities.”
Of Lanark’s two elected members of 1857, the public life of Robert Bell (1808-1894) has been an essential part of much of the record of nineteenth century Carleton Place and district which has appeared earlier in this column. Colonel Andrew W. Playfair (1788-1868), an English officer of the 104th Regiment from 1810 to 1817, settled in the latter year at the site of Playfairville, Bathurst township where his mills were among the earliest in the county. In addition to his business and political position he was a lay preacher of note. The following version of a temporarily embarrassing conflict between his church activities and his new political duties appeared in 1858 in the Merrickville Star.
The Methodist Conference has decided that Col. Playfair is under some degree of censure for being present at a Sunday feast given by Mr. Cartier. We find the affair thus mildly disposed of in one of our exchanges :
Col. Playfair, MPP for South Lanark, who was charged with attending a dancing party on Sunday evening at Mr. Attorney-General Cartier’s, has been arraigned for his offense before a court of the Wesleyan Church of which he was an official member. According to a correspondent of the Globe, no evidence was brought against him. He acknowledged that he was at a dinner given by his friend the Hon. George Ettienne Cartier on the Sabbath. Dancing commenced before he was aware of it. He retired into an adjoining room, not liking to leave abruptly for fear of giving offense. He believed himself to be justified in what he did. The court on his statement of those facts did not believe they would be justified in again granting him, at the present time, license as a as a local preacher.”
The new love for the parliamentary Colonel on the part of the Reformers, as a feature of the election of a hundred years ago, was a brief one. Rreflecting sadly on the perils of political horse trading, a Herald editorial a few months later said : “We see the two representatives from Lanark voting diametrically opposed to each other. Mr. Bell is consistently opposing, and Mr. Playfair supporting, the most corrupt government that has ever ruled Canada. We can only hope that when some of the more important questions come before the House the old Colonel will fire up and show his constituents of what kind of metal he is made.” The final reply of the South Lanark member on record, in a letter addressed to the Carleton Place editor, concludes with frank and unquestionable guidance to future voters. “If the free and independent Electors of the South Riding of Lanark have sent a fool to Parliament they have to blame themselves and not me.”