Log Cabin Chronicles

Royal Orr

Marcus Child: Man of vision, man of action


The coming federal election got me thinking about our democratic representatives of the past here in Stanstead County. I dipped into Belden's outsized Illustrated Atlas of the Eastern Townships and South Western Quebec of 1881 and rediscovered that remarkable man, Marcus Child.

I think it can be argued that Child was our greatest representative ever, a model of public service and progressive politics. Now, it's entirely possible that he set out to do good in public life fully intending to end up doing well. But it's hard to judge men and women by what may have been in their hearts, and probably better to judge them by their actions.

And Marcus Child was certainly a man of action.

Born in Massachusetts in 1792, he came across the border in 1812 and set up shop as a pharmacist in the frontier village of Stanstead Plain. Some sources suggest that he made a bundle as a smuggler during the war with the U.S. However he did it, he rapidly became prosperous by local standards and also showed a youthful interest in politics and in education.

As early as 1815, at the age of 23, he was involved in the management of the local school. By the early 1820s, he had been named justice of the peace and postmaster.

Child's politics were Reformist. He was first elected to the Legislative Assembly in 1829, according to most sources (although Belden suggests it wasn't until 1834). One of his first actions was to move to secure a grant to establish Stanstead Seminary and Charleston Academy in Hatley.

Like many of his Yankee-origin neighbors in Stanstead County, he was sympathetic to Papineau and the other great Canadian Reformers of the time. When the Rebellion of 1837 broke out, Child was close enough to its leaders (some reports said he helped a number of them flee into American exile) that, in the careful words of Belden, "Mr. Child removed temporarily from the Province" to avoid arrest.

He returned and retook his seat in 1841 from the estimable Dr. Colby who had represented our riding while the "advanced Reformer" was in temporary exile. During the 1840's, Child dedicated himself to the advancement of agriculture and to educational reform. He also moved his business enterprise to Coaticook in that decade. According to one historian, it was Child who suggested the name for the bustling new town, choosing an Abenaki origin word in a rare display of 19th century cultural sensitivity.

All that is interesting enough, but Child's greatest contribution to our area probably came after he retired from active politics. In 1852, Child became the first school inspector for the St. Francis District.

Schools were in a bit of mess in those days and the government was trying to figure out how to extend quality public schooling to all children. Local traditions of school provision and control had sprung up since the earliest days of settlement and there was considerable resistance to the new centralized system that the government of the United Canadas was attempting to impose.

Child was already 60 and in failing health when he took on the task of being school inspector. He was responsible for 7400 students in 19 townships with 207 elementary schools, two model schools, six independent schools, and seven academies and colleges. By law, he was directed to visit each school at least once every three months. He was expected to implement comprehensive records-keeping systems in all of them. And he was supposed to examine and certify all teachers in those schools.

The historian J.I. Little has done great work in documenting the career of Marcus Child, including a published collection of Child's correspondence. Professor Little has shown the struggles that the man went through as school inspector. Child battled with cranky school commissioners, poorly trained and unmotivated teachers, inappropriate textbooks, angry parents, language conflicts, taxpayers in revolt, and lethargic bureaucrats in Quebec City.

But Child also found time to publish enlightened guides to good teaching. His 10 rulesfor teachers published in 1854 were, according to Little, "a striking contrast to the traditional discipline-oriented approach to teaching." Teachers, wrote Child, should "inspire their pupils with confidence in themselves" by treating them "with regard and politeness."

As his chronic rheumatism worsened, Child began to fall behind in his work as inspector of schools. In spite of ill health, he held onto the job until his death in 1859.

Thanks to his business interests, he was comfortably off - Child didn't need the money he was paid as inspector of schools. Instead, he saw his work in education as his mission in life. In 1854, he wrote to all his teachers, "You are labouring with me in a great cause."

Following the election of 2000, we would do well to be represented by someone of Mr. Child's caliber and vision.

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