1791. Just ten years earlier, John Graves Simcoe had been fighting on the British side of the American Revolution. He made a name for himself in that bloody war: the unit he commanded never lost a battle, he survived months in an American prison, and he even had a chance to kill George Washington, but ordered his men to stand down rather than shoot the future President as he fled. He had his dark moments too — he was an ardent supporter of the death penalty for desertion and he once ordered the massacre of American rebels in their sleep — but it seems he had a reputation for being "brave, humane and honest." By the time the war was over, Simcoe had established himself as one of the rising stars of the British military.
He got to work on his plan as soon as he was named Lieutenant Governor in 1791, while he was still back home in England. One of the very first things he did was to write a letter addressed to one of the most famous men in Britain: Sir Joseph Banks.
Those, unsurprisingly, would prove to be among the most problematic parts of Simcoe's vision. Our province was supposed to be a British province, our city a British city. And while Simcoe never did establish an official nobility, he did leave behind the Family Compact: a ruling class of Tory Protestants determined to uphold his ideal of a monolithic Anglican state. Those from other cultures who helped to build the colony faced discrimination, intimidation and violence. So did advocates for real democracy. During our city's first 40 years, Anglican priests were the only priests legally allowed to perform marriage ceremonies. Anti-Catholic riots would eventually become a familiar sight on our streets. The Anglican Orange Order would dominate Toronto for more than a century, well into the 1900s.
Simcoe's greatest legacy, however, is something he didn't mention in his letter to Banks. One of the first laws he passed in Upper Canada was legislation he championed himself: the abolition of slavery. He wanted to ban it entirely; slave-owners in the Legislative Assembly forced a compromise that saw it phased out instead. Even so, it was the first law to abolish slavery anywhere in the British Empire. Simcoe's new capital would eventually become a terminal on the Underground Railroad, welcoming former slaves to freedom. He might not have been able to convince every American to rejoin the British Empire, but Simcoe did ensure his new province would be a safe haven for the Americans who needed it most.