Amor De Cosmos (August 20, 1825 – July 4, 1897) was a Canadian journalist, publisher and politician. He served as the second Premier of British Columbia.
Amor de Cosmos was born William Alexander Smith in Windsor, Nova Scotia to United Empire Loyalist parents. His education included a stint at King’s College in Windsor, following which, around 1840, he became a mercantile clerk in Halifax, Nova Scotia. There he joined the Dalhousie University debating club, and came under the influence of the Nova Scotia politician and reformer, Joseph Howe. In 1845, he joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and in 1852 he emigrated to Kanesville, Iowa where he established a daguerreotype gallery. But the following year the lure of the California Gold Rush beckoned, and Smith continued west, heading overland to Placerville, California. Here he set up a new studio and prospered taking pictures of the miners and their operations. Joined by his brother the pair moved northwest to Oroville, California, where they engaged in various unspecified entrepreneurial ventures. In 1854, Smith successfully petitioned the California State Assembly to have his name changed to “Amor De Cosmos” (inaccurately translated as “Lover of the Universe”), to pay tribute, as he said, “to what I love most…Love of order, beauty, the world, the universal.”
Reformer and journalist
In 1858, De Cosmos and his brother moved on again, this time heading north to British North America as they wished to live under the British flag once again. They also sensed an opportunity in the booming city of Victoria, capital of the Colony of Vancouver Island. The city, since 1843 a quiet village of about 300 until the spring of that year, was just entering an economic boom as it became a jumping-off point for miners headed to the New Caledonia (now mainland British Columbia) to participate in the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush. De Cosmos founded a newspaper, The Daily British Colonist, which survives today in its current incarnation as the Victoria Times-Colonist.
De Cosmos was the editor of the Colonist through 1863, and quickly established himself as an opponent of the administration of Sir James Douglas, governor of the colony and the former Chief Factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company for Vancouver Island. De Cosmos decried the “family-company compact” of Hudson’s Bay men and Douglas associates who controlled the political and social affairs of the colony, even after Douglas’s retirement in 1864. This group generally distrusted representative government, and believed in maintaining a hierarchical social order.
De Cosmos was a liberal reformer cast in the mold of John Locke and John Stuart Mill. He argued passionately for unrestricted free enterprise, public education, an end to economic and political privileges, and — above all — the institution of responsible government through an elected assembly. However, true to the Victorian spirit of the age, De Cosmos was also a proponent of social progress through economic and population growth. He was a tireless advocate for economic diversification, being one of the first British Columbians to argue for a policy of encouraging development of the “three F’s” — farming, forestry, and fisheries — that would underpin the region’s economy for the next century.
As the child of American refugees, who had himself lived six years in the United States, De Cosmos developed a sharpened sense of nationalism. This was expressed in a growing protectionist economic sentiment, and the belief that the colonies of British North America needed to be self-supporting, develop a distinct identity, and form a political and economic union. From such policies, emerged the two great causes of his later career: the union of Vancouver Island and British Columbia, and the merged Colony of British Columbia’s entry into Confederation. To advance the first cause, De Cosmos left journalism and entered politics, becoming a member of the Legislative Assembly of Vancouver Island from 1863 until its union with the Colony of British Columbia in 1866. He advanced the second cause through his position as a member of the assembly of the merged, larger British Columbia from 1867–68 and 1870–71, and as the leading force (with Robert Beaven and John Robson) behind the colony’s Confederation League. Through the instrumental role De Cosmos played in realizing these two goals, he earned for himself his reputation as British Columbia’s Father of Confederation.
At the time of British Columbia’s entry into Confederation on July 20, 1871, De Cosmos was the leading pro-Confederation figure in the new province. That year, he was elected to represent Victoria in both the provincial legislature and the House of Commons. Despite his prominence — or perhaps because of it — Lieutenant Governor Sir Joseph Trutch passed over De Cosmos for the job of Premier, instead asking John Foster McCreight to assume the position. Undoubtedly, De Cosmos’ reputation as an iconoclast and his infamously volatile temperament did not endear him to the establishment.
McCreight resigned in 1872 on a motion of non-confidence, and on December 23, 1872, Trutch asked De Cosmos to form a new government as Premier. De Cosmos populated his cabinet with reformers, mostly born in North America, many of whom would come to dominate provincial politics for a generation. His government pursued an agenda of political reform, economic expansion, and the development of public institutions — especially schools. De Cosmos also focused on advancing the completion of the transcontinental railway promised under the Terms of Union. It was, however, De Cosmos’ attempt to alter the Terms of Union in order to obtain monetary guarantees from the federal government to complete a dry dock at Esquimalt that eventually led to accusations of impropriety, and ended his provincial political career. He speculated heavily in land and in Texada Island Iron mines, which brought further criticism, as he was a public official. Thus he ended his tenure as Premier on February 9, 1874.
Despite this setback, De Cosmos continued to be re-elected as a Liberal Member of Parliament for Victoria City. Consistent with federal promises to place the terminus of the transcontinental railway in Victoria, in Ottawa, De Cosmos pushed for completion, especially the Vancouver Island portion. De Cosmos also became an opponent of land concessions to First Nations in the province, seeing it as a hindrance to British Columbia’s economic growth and settlement by those of European descent. It is generally conceded that De Cosmos’s tenure as a member of the dominion parliament was undistinguished.
Retirement and death
De Cosmos lost the 1882 federal election and retired to Victoria. Although widely regarded as a stirring orator, effective debater, and a man of great intellectual depth, De Cosmos had always been considered eccentric. Contemporaries paint a portrait of an isolated person (he never married and had few intimate friends) with grandiose manners, prone to public outbursts of tears, and a fierce temper that sometimes degenerated into fist-fights. He had unusual phobias — including a fear of electricity. As he grew older, his eccentricities intensified, he became increasingly incoherent, and by 1895 he was declared insane. One of his more notable eccentricities was the founding of a hot food delivery company to prospectors in the Klondike Gold Fields. The difficult logistics of this service scared away investors and ultimately provided its downfall. He died in Victoria at the age of 71.