Robert Baldwin Born 200 Years Ago
This month marks the bicentenary of the birth of Robert Baldwin, the first Ontario-born Treasurer of the Law Society. Although best known for his contributions to Canadian political life as one of the fathers of responsible government, Baldwin also made significant contributions to the Law Society itself as a student, Bencher and Treasurer.
Born in Toronto (then called York) on 12 May 1804, Robert was the son of William Warren Baldwin, a prominent lawyer and political figure, who also served for several years as Treasurer. The younger Baldwin was admitted as a student-at-law in 1820 at the age of 16. At that time, the system of legal education was informal and consisted of self-study, practical experience gained in apprenticing with a lawyer and attending court, and passing examinations. Only "gentlemen" could enter into legal practice and Baldwin certainly met that qualification.
As a law student, Baldwin was one of the founding members and leading lights of the Juvenile Advocate Society, formed in Feb. 1821 to provide fledgling barristers the opportunity to hone their debating skills. The Juvenile Advocates were keen, often meeting more than once a week, sometimes on Friday evenings. Members suggested questions for debate. Within the first few months, Baldwin put forward two questions: "Is civil or political liberty most necessary for the happiness of mankind?" and "Is the Law of Nations the Law of the World?" In contrast, his fellow members offered more prosaic questions that reflect the preoccupations of most young men of their class, such as: "If a man has a bastard son and that son dies seized of property in fee simple and has no issue to whom does the property descend?"
Robert Baldwin was called to the bar in 1825 and began to practice with his father at the firm of W. W. Baldwin & Son, which they built up into an extensive and lucrative practice. Just five years later, Baldwin was named a Bencher of the Law Society. As a new Bencher, Baldwin was keen to establish the Society on a business-like footing, bringing order to what had been a rather haphazard organization. He headed a committee that collected the Law Society's Rules into a single volume that was made available to lawyers. He spearheaded the development of accurate and complete membership lists or Rolls, documents that are still used regularly for historical research. He also drafted early discipline procedures. In each of these tasks he was aided by his earlier experience with the Juvenile Advocate Society: as its Secretary and Treasurer, he had kept detailed rules, one of which governed the expulsion of members, and had maintained membership rolls.
Robert Baldwin was Treasurer of the Law Society from 1847 to 1848 and from 1850 until his death in Dec. 1858. In increasingly ill health for much of that time, he nevertheless attended meetings regularly and as Treasurer oversaw the reconstruction of the centre range of Osgoode Hall. When he died, a lengthy obituary was published in The Upper Canada Law Journal that began: "As a politician and as a lawyer, his memory will long be cherished in Canada. Distinguished as he was as an able and honest politician, no less distinguished was he as an able and upright lawyer." The Law Society has indeed remembered Baldwin. On the centenary of his death in Dec. 1958, the flag in front of Osgoode Hall flew at half-mast. Two portraits of Robert Baldwin continue to hang in the building, one of them alongside that of Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine, reminding all who see them of the legacy left by the founders of responsible government in Canada.