About the Honourable Isaac Buchanan
Isaac Buchanan's entry in the Canadian Parliamentary Companion of 1862
Buchanan's 5700 word biography in Morgan's Sketches of Celebrated Canadians (1862) notes that "to write a history of his thirty years' life of ceaseless activity, with more than half of his time devoted to the business of others and the public, will be to write a history of Upper Canada."
Born on July 21, 1810 in Glasgow, Scotland, Isaac Buchanan belonged to the Buchanans of Stirlingshire, and was the fourth son of Peter Buchanan of Auchmar. After leaving grammar school, Isaac prepared for Glasgow College, but fate stepped in at this time and altered his life's course from college studies to business. A friend of his father's, John Ledbetter, met him on the street and offered him a position with the company of William Guild and Company, a West India and Honduras merchant. Isaac jumped at the opportunity. He went to Montreal in April 1830 to establish a local branch for the company. He was only nineteen, but already possessed strong business sense and financial ability. In 1832 Buchanan went to York (Toronto) and set up another outlet that was possibly the first and definitely the largest exclusively wholesale firm in town.
He also speculated in land and bought some steamboat shares. The longer he spent in Upper Canada, the more confident Buchanan felt about its future. He and his brother Peter bought out the Guilds' share of the York operation and opened their own business, with Peter handling finances and purchases from Glasgow under the aegis of Peter Buchanan and Company, while Isaac managed sales and credit in Toronto under the name Isaac Buchanan and Company.
Buchanan became a leading figure in Toronto's business milieu. In 1835 he helped found the city's Board of Trade, of which he was president from 1835 to 1837. Later he assisted in the formation of the Toronto Club, the city's first men's club. He became chairman of the trustees of the Presbyterian St. Andrew's Church, and, aggravated by the inferior position of the Church of Scotland in Upper Canada, published a newspaper extra in 1835 demanding that it be given its fair share of the revenues available from the clergy reserves.
When rebellion broke out in Upper Canada in December 1837, Buchanan accepted a commission in the local militia and served in Toronto and on the Niagara frontier. He vowed, "If I do get to close quarters with these infernal Rebels and Yankees I am prepared to sell my life as dearly as I can." Fortunately he never had to.
The Church of Scotland's disadvantaged situation remained a thorn in Buchanan's side. In February 1838, he published a warning that the "selfish principles of the high church party" would contribute to another rebellion unless clergy reserve funds were more evenly distributed. A month after those words reached print, he left Canada for Great Britain, to take over the Glasgow office for 18 months while his brother, Peter, came to Canada.
In 1839, after observing a trend that consisted of high profits in Toronto and low prices in Great Britain, Buchanan decided to increase the shipments being issued by Peter Buchanan and Company. To finance this move, he borrowed heavily from the company's Glasgow bank and British mercantile firms. The clientele base had to be expanded to sell these higher volumes of goods. Buchanan decided to open a new company in Hamilton, Ontario.
He went to Hamilton in the spring of 1840 and, in partnership with a leading local merchant named John Young, founded a new operation that was initially called Buchanan, Harris, and Company. A grocery department was included to initially attract customers, and a Montreal office was set up to purchase supplies. Iron, hardware, and grain, soon supplemented the grocery trade. Upper Canada expansion and the business acumen demonstrated by his partners made the venture an enormous success.
Buchanan's military service contributed greatly to his 1841 election to the first Union Parliament of the Canadas . He was active and tireless when it came to fighting for causes he was passionate about. When the new governor general, Lord Sydenham, proposed a provincial bank of issue, he worked to block it, fearing that the money supply in Canada West would dwindle and businesses in that territory be destroyed, resulting in dependence on Montreal merchants. However, as Douglas McCalla wrote, "...it was not his nature to seek or understand compromises and alliances, and he found the role of private member ultimately uncongenial." Buchanan ended up returning to Glasgow (while his brother Peter, like before, came to Canada) and resigned his seat in 1843 after missing the 1842 session.
Although no longer MLA, he remained politically active. In Toronto, he criticized the Reform ministers from resigning from the Executive Council in late 1843. a sharp correspondence between Buchanan and several Reform leaders was published in the pages of the British Colonist, and re-issued in February 1844 as a pamphlet titled First Series of five letters, against the Baldwin faction.
While in Glasgow, Buchanan married Agnes Jarvie, the daughter of a local merchant. The couple, who would have six sons and three daughters in total, returned to Canada in mid 1843. Isaac and Peter agreed to close their Toronto location and consolidate the Upper Canada business at the Hamilton branch. Isaac Buchanan quickly became a cornerstone of the business community there. He founded the Hamilton Board of Trade and became its first president in April 1845.
Buchanan was in Glasgow when the Church of Scotland entered a turbulent period of its history during the 1840s. Upon his return to Canada, he played a key role in the establishment of the Free Church of Scotland. He chaired its Sustentation Fund board and endowed Hamilton's Knox and MacNab Street churches, as well as other locations scattered throughout Canada West. He provided financial assistance when Toronto's Knox College was being built.
He was in New York, setting up a company office to buy and sell on his firm's behalf in the state, when repeal of the Corn Laws was announced in 1846. He took the next available ship to England, where he campaigned vigorously, both orally and in print, against repeal. He was convinced that it would lead to Canada's annexation to the United States. He felt so strongly about the issue that he quit the business he had worked so hard to build up and moved to Scotland, where he lived first in Edinburgh and later Greenock. In 1850 the Greenock Advertiser published a pamphlet he had written, titled Moral Consequences of Sir R. Peel's unprincipled and fatal course. In its pages, he argued that free trade would cost Britain her colonies and result in imports exceeding exports, with high unemployment rates in Britain being sure to follow.
Contrary to what Buchanan predicted, Britain experienced only prosperity during the 1850s. His personal funds drained by the crusading, Buchanan moved to Birkenhead, near Liverpool, in 1850 and went into business there for a time. After consulting with his brother Peter back in Canada, he rejoined his old company and opened two more outlets, one in Liverpool (Buchanan, Harris and Company) and the other in London, Canada West (Adam Hope and Company). He, his wife Agnes, and five children moved back to Hamilton in late 1851. The Buchanan brothers continued to expand their trade, and succeeded remarkably: by 1856, their company's total assets exceeded $3,000,000.
Between 1852 and 1854, Buchanan built Auchmar, a large and elegant house on an 86 acre estate that he called Clairmont Park. It was situated on the mountain, and offered such breathtaking views that Buchanan publicly wondered why the city of Hamilton was originally built at the foot of the mountain and not the peak. The estate was named after the ancient family seat back in Scotland, which Peter Buchanan had sold to the Duke of Montrose in 1830.
Isaac devoted a lot of energy and money to local causes. Buchanan was a leader in the "Hamilton Educational Movement", which secured a charter for a local college in 1855. Lack of funds ultimately caused the project to collapse, but he still strove to improve the city's schools. The Dictionary of Canadian Biography noted, "Although he made enemies by a somewhat high-handed manner, his generosity was legendary, and few local causes can have gone entirely unpatronized by him."
From 1853-54 he was a director of Hamilton's Great Western Railway. When, in 1854, it became obvious that Sir Allan Napier MacNab, the member for Hamilton, was planning to abandon the Great Western in favor of the Grand Trunk railway, Buchanan reneged on a promise he had made to his brother about staying out of politics, and promptly ran for election. He said later that his sole purpose in doing so was to pressure MacNab into changing his mind about the railway issue and addressing the clergy reserves, which Buchanan now felt should be secularized because equal division of funds among the churches had proved impossible. He lost the election, but was undaunted in his support of both causes.
In 1856, Buchanan pushed for the Great Western to obtain control of the "Southern route", a direct line between Michigan and Buffalo. He had learned that contractor Samuel Zimmerman was trying to take over the charters for the Amherstburg and St. Thomas Railway, and the Woodstock and Lake Erie Railway and Harbour Company, which covered this coveted route. Worried that Zimmerman, with backing from the Grand Trunk Railway, would capture the American through trade, thereby destroying Hamilton's commercial independence, Buchanan joined John Smyth Radcliff, vice-president of the Great Western, in blocking the maneuvre. In hindsight, his actions come across as headstrong and reckless: he ignored the precarious state of capital markets, the resistance of Great Western shareholders to new expenditure, and the opposition from managing director Charles John Brydges, and declined to consult his brother Peter or business partner Harris. Buchanan first obtained control of one of the Amherstburg and St. Thomas boards. Then he paid 25,000 British pounds to one or more of the directors of Woodstock and Lake Erie to induce them to resign in favor of his hand-picked nominees. He also gave a bond to the company's bank to guarantee its debts. John Radcliff issued drafts to reimburse him, but the Great Western's Board in London, England, refused to accept them. Buchanan hurried to London to persuade the board to reconsider, but failed. When Peter Buchanan and Harris learned that Isaac had committed to paying over $1,000,000, they demanded that he resign in order to protect the company's credit. Because Harris was too ill to manage the Hamilton branch alone, Buchanan remained active in the business, although no longer a partner.
Although accused of bribery when two committees of the provincial assembly examined the Southern railway issue in 1857, Buchanan's reputation for honesty and business credibility emerged unscathed. Deciding that he needed political office as a vantage point for tackling the 'Southern issue', he ran for the Assembly in 1857 and won. He secured passage of a charter for a company called the Niagara and Detroit Rivers Railway Company, which consolidated the Amherstburg and St. Thomas and Woodstock and Lake Erie Railways.
When Canada was hit with a severe economic depression in 1857, Buchanan rescued the city of Hamilton from bankruptcy: he negotiated a re-financing with the city's creditors and finally secured passage of a law that reorganized the debts and allowed payments to resume.
Buchanan was an advocate for the rights of the black population of not only Hamilton but also the rest of Canada, particularly during the American Civil War. He made the grounds of Auchmar available on an annual basis for the August celebration of Emancipation, and provided food as well as a celebration site.
In 1863 Buchanan established the 13th Battalion of the militia (now the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry). He gave the regiment its first colors, and also coined its motto "Semper Paratus". When the 13th Battalion fought in the Battle of Ridgeway in 1866, the wounded were treated at Auchmar. Almost eighty years later injured men from the RCAF would also convalesce there.
|Notice of Buchanan's illness as published in the New York Times of September 30, 1883
Politically, Buchanan was somewhat of an independent, but he aligned himself with the Conservative government and served as the President of the Executive Council in the short-lived Macdonald-Taché administration in 1864. This period of his life was also devoted to intense dissertations on the subject of economics i.e. The relations of the industry of Canada, with the mother country and the United States.
The Honourable Isaac Buchanan died in Hamilton at his residence, 95 James Street South, on October 1, 1883,(click here to see a pdf transcript of his obituary from the October 2, 1883 edition of the Spectator) but the echoes of his accomplishments can be still be felt in Hamilton's economic, military, and religious traditions.
A New Hamburg merchant's notice of asset assignment to Buchanan. December 17, 1856