Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography, edited by James
Grant Wilson, John Fiske and Stanley L. Klos. Six volumes, New York: D. Appleton
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ELGIN, James Bruce, eighth earl of Elgin, and twelfth of Kincardine, British statesman, born in London, 20 July 1811; died in Dhurmsala, India, 20 November 1863. He was educated at Eton, and at Christ Church College, Oxford, where he was graduated in 1833. He began his public life in 1841, as a member of parliament for Southampton, and before the end of the year succeeded to the title and estates of his father, he was appointed governor of Jamaica in 1842, but found the legislature of that Island determined to disregard the rights of the recently emancipated slaves, and in 1846 was recalled at his own request. He was then appointed governor general of Canada, and arrived there early in 1847. Soon after his arrival he signed a bill providing for compensation to loyalists in Lower Canada for losses sustained in the rebellion of 1837. This bill had been bitterly opposed, and, when it became known that the governor general had signed it, a meeting was held in Montreal at which violent speeches were made. After the meeting a mob dispersed the parliament, then in session in that City, and burned the parliament buildings and their contents.
The assembly next met in Bonsecours market, and passed an address eulogizing the action of Lord Elgin. He drove into the City from Monklands, his residence, to the government house, to receive the address, and was assailed on the way by the mob with volleys of stones. His country residence was threatened, and had to be guarded, and for several weeks he remained there, that he might, not provoke an outbreak by his presence in the City. He refused to make use of the troops, saying, "I am prepared to bear any amount of obloquy that may be east upon me, but, if I can possibly prevent it, no stain of blood shall rest upon my name." He thought it right, however, to offer his resignation to the home government, but it was not accepted. The minority in Canada then made an unsuccessful appeal to the British parliament to have the obnoxious bill rescinded. Toward the end of September of the same year the arrest of some persons charged with being implicated in burning the parliament building produced a second outbreak, during which a young man was killed, and his funeral was made the pretext for a riotous demonstration. The magistrates of Montreal requested Lord Elgin to proclaim martial law, but he still refused, and the malcontents were finally quieted by a proclamation from the mayor.
During the autumn, to disprove the statement that he required protection, Lord Elgin visited western Canada, without military escort, and was received with enthusiasm, except in a few of the large cities, where his opponents were able to cause disturbances. Lord Elgin's policy of conciliation was regarded by some of his warmest friends in Great Britain as weak and nerveless, but, after the passion consequent upon these events had subsided, it was clearly perceived that it required greater courage to submit patiently to unjust reproaches than to crush opposition by a display of force. But a new trouble soon followed the commotion over the losses bill. In 1849, during a period of commercial depression, a manifesto appeared urging annexation with the United States, which was signed by many prominent men throughout Canada. This remedy had often been offered for the same evil, and to put a stop to such suggestions the governor proposed free navigation and a reciprocity treaty with the United States, at the same time assenting to the dismissal of all officials who had signed the annexation manifesto.
In June 1849, the abolishing of the imperial navigation laws resulted in greatly stimulating Canadian trade, and, after several years of fruitless diplomacy, Lord Elgin went, in 1854, to Washington, where he negotiated a treaty with Sec. Marcy, which was ratified by the senate, and continued in force till it was terminated in 1864 by President Lincoln. Other important measures of Lord Elgin's administration were the repeal of the imperim act relating to the clergy reserves in 1853, the devotion of those reserves to education and other public purposes in 1854, and the abolition of seigniorial tenure in Lower Canada in the same year. Lord Elgin never opposed the popular voice, as expressed by the majority in parliament. His principle was "to let the colony have its own way in everything that was not contrary to public morality or to some imperial interest." The constitution of the legislative council early attracted his attention, and, in a letter to Earl Grey in 1850, he expressed himself as favoring its being made elective, but the proposition met, strangely enough, with a most determined opposition from such reformers as Robert Baldwin, George Brown, and others. He deserves the credit of setting before himself the noblest ideal of free colonial government, and of having largely realized it in practice. He surrendered the government to his successor in December 1854, and on his return to England declined the chancellor ship of the duchy of Lancaster.
In 1857 he was appointed high commissioner to China during the trouble with that country, and, after penetrating with British troops to Pekin in June 1858, concluded the treaty of Tientsin with the Chinese government. He became postmaster general, and in 1861 accepted the governor generalship of India. He left England, to assume his new duties, in January 1862, and during the period that elapsed before his death was successful in his administration of the government.
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