Cobourg's Father of Confederation

In 1848, the parliament of West Canada (formerly Upper Canada) was established and Cobourg was then part of the Riding of West Northumberland. Accepting the nomination of 350 petitioners, James Cockburn was elected into this Parliament in 1861.

Thus began a successful political career for a man of tact and courtesy who would provide a steadying influence in the turbulent years of Canada's birth.

James CockburnCockburn was born in 1819 at Berwick-on-Tweed in northern England. He attended grammar school there until 1832 when his father, a merchant, decided to emigrate to Upper Canada. On the Atlantic crossing, his father, like thousands of emigrants, contracted Asiatic cholera. He died and was buried in Montreal.

Young Cockburn's mother proceeded with her family to York (now Toronto). James attended Upper Canada College and Osgoode Hall. In 1845 he came to Cobourg to practice law and, until 1849, shared a practice with D'Arcy Boulton, another prominent politician. (See also D'Arcy Boulton's Dream - part of the Cobourg Peterborough Railway article).

Married in 1854 to Isabella Susan Patterson, Cockburn established a successful law career, began raising a family and found time and interest for public affairs. He was elected to the Cobourg town council in 1856, 1858 and 1859. During this time, when plans for Victoria Hall floundered due to lack of finances, Cockburn offered the prudent leadership and confidence which saw the project completed in 1860.

While serving in local politics Cockburn acquired a reputation for honesty, fair dealing, integrity and sound logic. It is not surprising that in 1861 he was considered a fine candidate for Parliament.

Although Cockburn was of Conservative politics, he was elected from West Northumberland as an independent candidate. As a strong nationalist he desired to see "all the parties in Upper Canada [sic] united by one common bond of interest and sympathy."

It is not surprising that Cockburn empathized with John A. Macdonald, who saw the need to unite all the British North American provinces; nor is it surprising that Macdonald recognized Cockburn as a man of "decided political capabilities." When Cockburn supported Macdonald's Military Bill of 1862 their political partnership was assured and Cockburn emerged as a supporter of the Cartier-Macdonald Coalition, the Liberal-Conservatives.

Now a recognized party politician, Cockburn won his seat in 1863 by acclamation. Whether an Independent or a Liberal-Conservative, people of the Cobourg area acknowledged Cockburn as a worthy representative. In 1864 he was elected a Bencher of the Law Society of Canada West. His political stature increased greatly when Cockburn accepted the portfolio of Solicitor - General for Canada West.

Elevation to the post of Solicitor-General demanded a re-election, and Cockburn soundly defeated the Reform candidate, securing a ministry position and the opportunity to attend the Founding of Canada Conference in Quebec in 1864, thus becoming Cobourg's "Father of Confederation." (More on the Quebec Conference by Wikipedia. )

Always aware of the social responsibilities of a statesman in fostering unity, Cockburn opened his Cobourg home on Division Street to the Maritime delegation touring Canada West after the Quebec meeting. Cockburn, like Macdonald and Cartier, realized that the union would take more than votes. Patience, persuasion and perseverance would be needed to "father" political union in British North America.

It was, then, with pride and enthusiasm that Cockburn stood on the platform at Victoria Hall on July 1, 1867 to share in reading the Confederation Declaration to a jubilant crowd. Canada was born, and James Cockburn had been part of that miraculous process, for there were many divisive issues in a country of two founding nations. Again Cockburn received the acclamation of his constituents, and on the nomination of Macdonald, with Cartier as seconder, Cockburn was named Speaker of the first Canadian House of Commons.

To his credit is the fact that the House of Commons unanimously elected Cockburn to the Speaker's Chair. His popularity as Speaker was evident when in 1872 Cockburn was again unanimously chosen for the Speaker's Chair. A contemporary writes of Cockburn "for this position not only his careful study of parliamentary procedure but his cool and imperturbable temper admirably fitted him."

Cockburn spent his last years codifying the laws of the new Dominion and died in 1883 still at this task. He was buried in the family plot in St. James Cemetery, Toronto.
In recognition of his zealous promotion of the young nation and his respectful treatment of those whose interests differed from his own, James Cockburn is honoured as the first Speaker of the Canadian House of Commons and as a "Father of Confederation." As local historian, Percy Climo, asserts, "As Speaker of the House in the first Parliament, he proved to be the right man in the right place at the right time. This was his crowning achievement."

Courtesy of Cobourg Historical Society


The above is summarized in a good video made by the Cobourg Museum Foundation: