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Elora's 'radical' thinker influenced pre-Confederation politics

Charles Clarke owned a store, served in various political roles and worked with Fathers of Confederation
In pre-Confederation times, Elora's Charles Clarke was considered a radical by many.

People today often use the word “radical” to describe extreme political beliefs, without knowing the context in which it first became a political term.

In early 19th century England, radicalism was the name given to a political movement that called for social change. Its followers demanded the right to vote, freedom of speech and the press, parliamentary reforms, lower taxes for working people and an end to special privileges for the upper class.

Their liberal ideas were considered “too radical” by the conservative defenders of the status quo.

One zealous supporter of radicalism was a young man who would make a name for himself in Elora.

Charles Clarke was born in Lincoln, England, in 1826. His father was a municipal corn inspector who might have been involved with the radical movement. Young Clarke was educated by outspoken radicals George Boole, who would one day give the world Boolean Algebraic Logic; and Thomas Cooper, later a leader of the working-class political movement called Chartism. Clarke was apprenticed to a draper named John Norton who was also a radical.

Meanwhile, Clarke’s father died. His mother remarried and emigrated with her new husband to a farm in the Niagara region of Upper Canada. Clarke joined them there in 1844. A few years later the family moved to Elora.

In 1850, Clarke and his stepfather, John Kirk, formed a partnership as merchants. They prospered, and in 1861 built a three-storey business block called Kirk & Clarke on Elora’s main street.

By that time Clarke was already involved in local politics. He was well-known for his advocacy of radicalism, which in the Canadian colonies was called Reform (no association with the 20th century Reform Party).

Clarke wrote for a Hamilton reform publication called the Journal and Express, and eventually became an associate editor. He also wrote for two other reform newspapers, the Toronto Mirror and the Dundas Warder. Under the pseudonym Reformator, Clarke argued for democracy, an expanded voter franchise, a secret ballot, complete separation of church and state and the abolition of class privilege and monopolies.

Clarke’s writings drew the attention of William McDougall, publisher of a liberal newspaper called The North American (and a future Father of Confederation); and Charles Lindsay, editor of The Toronto Leader and son-in-law of the Reformer firebrand William Lyon Mackenzie. They were associated with the reformers known as the 'Clear Grits,' who in post-Confederation Canada would form the basis for the Liberal Party.

At McDougall’s invitation, Clarke wrote a series called “Planks of Our Platform,” published in The North American in 1851, that outlined their ideas for radical democratic reform. McDougall offered him a partnership in the newspaper, but Clarke turned it down. Even though he was a journalist at heart, he couldn’t give up the economic security of his retail business in Elora.

However, he was a founder of the Elora Backwoodsman, a newspaper that served him as a writing outlet and a political stump.

Charles Clarke’s editorials in the Backwoodsman earned him the animosity of the conservative establishment, which looked upon the reformers as disloyal seditionists. One of the leading conservatives, Dr. William Clarke (no relation) of Guelph called Charles Clarke “a low, malicious, lying scoundrel.”

Dr. Clarke also called Charles Clarke a “contemptible quack” because Kirk & Clarke sold patent medicines that claimed to be remedies for a long list of maladies, but in fact had few, if any, health benefits.

In the words of Canadian historian John Charles Dent, Charles Clarke was “a liberal of the Liberals.”

In the 1850s Clarke served as the secretary of the Reform Association of the North Riding of Wellington. He became known for his skills as an organizer and for his ideological enthusiasm. To Clarke, a political party was meant to embody the will of the people and not just the interests of the few. But there were divisions among the reformers.

He clashed with prominent businessman Charles Allan, who had also served as reeve. Clarke found himself in opposition to Toronto Globe publisher and future Father of Confederation George Brown, and was disappointed with what he considered shortcomings in the party’s goals. Clarke’s political foes often called him “The Elora Wire-Puller" because they considered him the puppet-master who controlled party policy not only for Wellington County, but for Canada as a whole.

Clarke held office as a member of the Elora village council in 1858 and 1866. He served as reeve from 1859 to 1864, and again in 1867 to ’68. He was also a member of the school board.

During the Fenian troubles of 1866, when Canada was invaded by an Irish-American army determined to free Ireland from British rule, Clarke commanded a local militia unit, the Elora Rifle Company, as a lieutenant-colonel. He would eventually become a colonel in the Wellington Rifles.

One of Clarke’s most controversial stands was his opposition – in the great age of railroad-building in what is now Ontario – to the coming of the railroad to Elora. Clarke felt a railway would ruin the village. He believed a good, well-maintained gravel road connecting Elora to larger centres like Guelph and Galt (now part of Cambridge) was sufficient for the community’s prosperity.

He held that conviction for over 20 years.

After Confederation, Clarke was a MPP representing the riding of Wellington Centre from 1871 to 1886, and Wellington East from 1886 to 1891. To his disappointment he was never given a place in the cabinet of Liberal Premier Oliver Mowat. However, he was speaker from 1880 to 1886, chairman of the public accounts committee from 1886 to 1891, and clerk of the legislature from 1892 to 1907.

A high point of his political career was his part in the introduction of the secret ballot in provincial elections.

Among his other journalistic endeavours, Clarke published the Elora Satirist, a newspaper that used humour and wit in its commentary on the political issues of the day.

In his last years, Clarke wrote Sixty Years in Upper Canada, in which he reflected on his life in politics. Charles Clarke died in Elora on April 6, 1909.