They weren’t. None of the family suffered anything worse than a few snubs. Ryerson himself spent the next couple of years as a missionary among some singularly dirty Indians on the Credit River near Toronto, but the Methodist elders had marked him for advancement. In 1829 they decided to have a weekly paper of their own, to spread the faith and counter the propaganda of Tory weeklies. It was called the Christian Guardian, and Ryerson was chosen to be its first editor at a yearly salary of six hundred dollars —appreciably more than he’d been paid as a missionary.
It was a welcome raise, because in 1828 he’d married pretty Hannah Aikman, whom he met when he was studying law in Hamilton. (He had been attracted by another girl from the country just outside Hamilton, but hadn’t been able to overcome his distaste for her habit of going barefoot.)
Ryerson saw to it that the Guardian had plenty of pious exhortations, Sunday-school lessons and other godly material. But he also printed news stories about murders, burglaries and the abduction of innocent young girls. There were notes on the latest fashions in bonnets. Readers could learn how to remove grease stains, carry a hive of bees without getting stung, cure themselves of stammering, and brew fine beer at home. In those days Methodists were allowed to drink beer if they wanted to but were forbidden hard liquor, and the home-brewing instructions were most popular.
The result was that in the first two years the Guardian’s circulation climbed from four hundred and fifty a week to three thousand—a big lead over any other Canadian paper. Soon the Guardian had a flourishing advertising section.
Besides editing the paper, Ryerson organized and ran a distributing centre for Methodist books imported from New York. Latei* the centre did its own printing and became Canada’s first book-publishing house. It is now operated by the United Church and is bpth the oldest and largest entirely Canadian publishing firm. Its trademark is a small shield with a drawing of Ryerson’s head. He looks like a
faintly girlish young actor made up as Samuel Pickwick, and seems happy to be a publisher. He wasn’t. The work of the book centre didn’t appeal to him, and he started it only under orders from presiding elders.
In 1833 they sent him to England on church business. Among other things he was supposed to raise money for building a Methodist academy in Canada. He also had to lobby at the colonial office against the Family Compact, which was still trying to make Anglicanism the state religion. His fund-raising was poor and he got little more than a hundred pounds, but colonial office people were much impressed by his plump self-confidence and obvious ability.
He Called the Tories Tyrants
If he impressed them, they impressed him. These super-squires wore their clothes with such an air and were so blandly reasonable. The Methodist doctrine that Jack’s as good as his master began to appear a trifle unrealistic, and when he got home he wrote a Guardian article to say he now believed the moderate Tories of England had the right political idea.
This was badly received. The few readers who agreed with his new views thought he shouldn’t have written about them in a religious paper. The majority were outraged because they thought he was implying that Methodists as a whole had been won over too, when in fact they were as anti-Tory as ever. Canadian Tories, by no means moderate, didn’t like him calling them lordlings in power, tyrants in politics and bigots in religion. William Lyon Mackenzie, who had hitherto counted Ryerson an unshakeable brother radical, dashed off an editorial comparing him to Benedict Arnold—the traitor of the American Revolution.
Ryerson flatly refused to budge from his unpopular stand and in 1835 he resigned from the Guardian.
It was a distressing time for him. His pretty young wife had died in 1832, leaving him with two small children. In 1833 he had married again, noting in his diary that he’d married only after “many earnest prayers . . . and the
advice of an elder brother,” which hardly suggests a love match.
Saddened by his troubles, Ryerson turned from editing to preaching and took over a church in Kingston. No sooner had he settled t here than he was sent to England again. The plan to have a Methodist academy in Canada had run into difficulties, mainly from lack of money. Ryerson was told to ask the colonial office to authorize the government of Upper Crfnada to grant financial help and issue a charter. A year and a half later he came home, having got what he went for. The academy had already been built, at Cobourg on the Kingston-Toronto road, and ÍE June 1836 it was possible to start teaching at last.
Ryerson returned to Kingston to preach, but wasn’t left undisturbed for long. In 1838 he was again made editor of the Guardian, which now had to snipe at fellow-Methodists who had seceded from the Wesleyans and formed sects of their own, as well aa,at the Family Compact. Certain Tory
editors at once sniped back by accusing Ryerson of disloyalty. There was absolutely no truth in the accusation, hut in the witch hunt that had followed the Mackenzie and Papineau rebellions of 1837 it was as nasty a smear as a charge of communism would be today. Ryerson defended himself so violently the presiding elders ordered him to tone down. He didn’t like that, and in 1840, when he found he couldn’t endure any more interference, he resigned from the Guardian.
In che fall of 1841 he was appointed principal of the Methodist academy which by then was Victoria College. Although he’d had little formal education and even less teaching experience he had definite ideas about how the place should be run. So far it had been co-educational. He didn’t approve, and sent the girls away. He didn’t approve of vacations either, and announced that in future the college year would be twelve months, with no holidays except on Christmas and New Year’s Day. He recommended starting work at five in the morning, two and a half hours before the official beginning of classes. The students didn’t revolt. On the contrary, they took a liking to him. Since he was a born administrator and had laid out a good curriculum, all was well—until Ryerson suddenly changed his political position again.
Under the governor-generalship of Lord Sydenham, a liberal-minded man, Ryerson’s moderate Toryism was quite in order. But in 1843, after Sydenham’s death, Sir Charles Metcalfe was appointed governor-general. In Sir Charles’ view, Canadians were a great deal less deferential than they should be. The advisory council of the legislative assembly resigned because he wouldn’t take their advice on a couple of minor points. He wasn’t bound to do so, but the touchiness of the council struck him as showing an alarming spirit of independence. Then resignation meant calling a general election. Metcalfe, clearly a most immoderate Tory, hoped the new assembly would have the decency to remember they were only Canadians and leave him to govern the country.
With the election campaign coming up, Ryerson rushed to offer this semibenevolent despot his full support. When word of what he’d done reached Victoria College the student body split into pro-Ryersons and anti-Ryersons, and there were a few fist fights. Late one night a more serious fight broke out (one boy had his skull fractured) between some students and a gang of young townsmen at the college gate. The significance of these incidents wasn’t lost on Ryerson. His conversion to immoderate Toryism was being
even less well received than his switch to the moderate kind had been.
At the start of the campaign the great majority of the voters appeared to be against the respectful stooges Metcalfe favored as candidates. Halfway through it, rumors circulated that Metcalfe and Ryerson had made a deal. They had. If the election went as Metcalfe hoped Ryerson was to be made superintendent of education for what is now Ontario. If it didn’t the deal was off.
To counteract the rumors Ryerson issued a dignified statement. "Mr. Ryerson,” it said, "has not thought proper, under present circumstances, bo accept the office of superintendent of education.” This was the literal truth, arranged to give the false impression that Ryerson’s support of Metcalfe was disinterested. The impression reassured many voters and Metcalfe’s men won the election.
One condition of the deal with Metcalfe had been that before Ryerson took over as superintendent he was to have a year’s travel in Europe to study systems of education. About a week after the election he set out on his tour. It began in Holland, and he kept a terse record of it in his diary. "No monitors,” he wrote of a Dutch school. "Admirable construction of the seats; excellent order of the children; rod never used—shame the chief instrument of correction.” In Paris he went one Sunday to the garden of the Tuileries palace: "A paradise of a
place . . . fountains; fish; statues; amusements; but, alas! what profanation of the Sabbath!”
Home in Canada again, Ryerson wrote a report blueprinting a school system for Ontario. Until then the few common schools had taught little more than the three Rs, and the even fewer grammar schools had concentrated on Latin and Greek. The teachers had been paid an average of forty dollars a year, so it wasn’t surprising that a survey made in 1831 by a man named Duncombe described them as on the whole "transient persons or common idlers” and said they were often "vulgar, low-bred, vicious and intemperate.” Ryerson recommended that in future teachers should be trained in a special school, and that the pupils should have lessons in grammar, geography, music and drawing besides the three Rs. He further recommended the study of chemistry, mechanics, agriculture, civics, bookkeeping and physiology. The report ended by urging that "no Constitutional Government establish and render effective a system of Public Instruction without the co-operation of the people themselves.”
Since this was exactly the opposite of Metcalfe’s principles of government, Ryerson had made another sudden political turn. The latest swerve had landed him back where he belonged by nature—slightly to the right of the middle of the road, and he soon showed he meant to stay there no matter how many brickbats were thrown at him.
In 1846 the editor of the Cobourg Christian Advocate had shocking news about Ryerson. (Ryerson was still nominally the principal of Victoria College, a title he held for many years, and the editor didn’t like him.) "I am informed by a person from Toronto,” the editor wrote, "that his children are attending A DANCING SCHOOL!!!” The editor added that when Ryerson was up before the Methodist conference to explain this ungodly lapse, he "contended that it was essential to health," and that he "actually spoke of giving up preaching, rather than restrain his children from DANCING!!”
Two years later the Christian Mes-
senger printed a solemn warning to its readers. "Remember," it said, "that Mr. Ryerson . . . sends his own daughter, at a tender age, to a Roman Catholic Nunnery, where the Bible is never taught.” What he had in fact done was áfend his daughter to a convent school, where he thought the child would get particularly good training in modesty and polite manners.
His colleagues were outraged, but Ryerson went his own way regardless and worked with prodigious energy. Building up the Ontario school system would have been a full-time job for most men, but not for Ryerson. He was constantly up to his neck in some religious or political controversy, carried on by letters written between half-past four in the morning, when he got up, and half-past eight, when he had breakfast. He made several tours of Europe and spent ten hours a day buying pictures and sculpture for the schools and going to lectures. He was sent to England again and again on Methodist business, generally connected with the battle to keep the Church of England from getting too rich and powerful in Canada.
The Brains of the Compact
The chief Anglican champion was John Strachan, by now Bishop of Toronto. Ryerson had met him for the first time in 1842 on a journey from Toronto to Kingston. In an article written for the Christian Guardian Ryerson said later the coach was so crowded his legs "were locked in with His Lordship’s,” but that he hadn’t minded the enforced intimacy because he couldn’t wish to meet "a more affable, agreeable man.” Strachan was a Presbyterian turned Anglican, Ryerson an Anglican turned Methodist. Roth were gifted businessmen. Neither
was conspicuously gentle and unworldly. With so much in common they felt mutual liking and respect, only slightly dampened by mutual distrust.
For this there was considerable justification. Strachan was one of the shrewdest politicians in the country, and had been the brains of the Family Compact. Ryerson, equally shrewd, was perhaps rather more devious. In 1850, when Lord Elgin was governorgeneral, Ryerson went to England in the pious hope of undermining Strachan’s influence at the colonial office. Elgin gave him a letter of introduction to the colonial secretary, Lord Grey. The letter was unsealed, and described him among other flattering things as "a gentleman of great intelligence.” But in a private dispatch that went by the same ship Elgin warned Grey that "he is accused by many of being somewhat cunning, which is not altogether improbable.”
In 1856 Ryerson was accused by many of something worse than cunning. At that time he kept some school funds on deposit with the Bank of Upper Canada, credited to him as superintendent. The bank didn’t pay interest to the government on deposits of public money, but did pay it to the official in whose name they were made. Ryerson had been getting three percent for several years, and by 1856 it amounted to about three thousand dollars. That year John Langton, the new provincial auditor, ordered Ryerson to return the money. When this leaked out there was a widespread belief that he’d been caught stealing.
Ryerson repaid the money. But at the height of the scandal he had an unnerving and faintly grotesque experience of what it was like to be under a cloud. He went one night to a Methodist camp meeting, where the faithful sang and prayed in the open
air. He arrived at a moment of silence and everyone stared hard. To ease the awkwardness the preacher called for a hymn to be sung, giving the first number that came into his head. Unfortunately it was a wrong number, and Ryerson was greeted by these tactless words:
“The dying thief rejoiced to see The fountains in his day;
And there may I though vile as he, Wash all my sins away.”
At the beginning of the trouble Langton had written to his brother saying he wouldn’t be surprised if Ryerson came out of it with flying colors. He was right. Ryerson was able to explain that his arrangement with the Bank of Upper Canada was entirely legitimate and in accordance with that bank’s normal practice. He paid back the money Langton had asked for, and the interest on it as well, however. Then he demanded and got a retroactive raise in salary, some expense money that had been disallowed and he wound up four hundred dollars richer than he would have been if he’d kept the interest.
He got to be distinctly popular and strengthened his already great influence among rural Methodist ministers by his readiness to preach guest sermons on request. This popularity was unexpectedly useful to him in his running fight to keep the University of Toronto free of what he considered Anglican domination. In the early 1860s John A. Macdonald, who had an election coming up and was well aware of how Ryerson stood with his country brethren, made him an offer. John A. said that of course Ryerson couldn’t properly do any actual campaigning for him, but that he might perhaps suggest to the rural preachers the desirability of supporting Macdonald’s candidates. If he felt able to do that Macdonald, then prime minister of preConfederation Canada, would see that certain key appointments to the university would be given to men Ryerson approved.
Ryerson did feel able to lend his influence on those terms, and Macdonald’s candidates won. John A. then kept his promise—with one exception. That was the appointment of a man named Buchan to be bursar. Ryerson knew Buchan was opposed to all he stood for and his letter of reproach to Macdonald was like the outraged bellow of an elephant sinking into a quicksand he had taken for solid ground.
In 1876 he retired from the Ontario department of education. The provincial government paid him many compliments on the way he had built it up from scratch into one of the best elementary school systems in the world, but wasn’t prepared to go on paying him his full salary in retirement. To nobody’s astonishment except the government’s, Ryerson soon managed to persuade them it was the least they could do, and left for England to achieve his crowning ambition. With the immense resources of the British Museum library to draw on, he began to write a history of the Loyalists in America.
The book appeared in 1880. It was politely reviewed in the press, and Ryerson was happy in the belief that he had now made his literary mark.
In that belief he died in Toronto in the winter of 1882. It was characteristic that death took him hy surprise. A lesser man would have realized after the last lingering weeks of pain and weakness that his end was near. Ryerson didn’t. Full of confidence to the moment his heart finally stopped, he had no intention of being bested by the Grim Reaper. ★