George Brown and Confederation

by J. M. S. Careless

MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 26, 1969-70 season

This article was published originally in MHS Transactions by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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I am exceedingly pleased to address the Manitoba Historical Society on the occasion of Sir John A. Macdonald's birthday, although my pleasure is mixed with some trepidation when I note that at these anniversary celebrations you have previously heard such distinguished exponents of Sir John as John Diefenbaker and Donald Creighton. I feel a little like a man with a solo banjo act following the Hallelujah Chorus. I am none the less grateful to be allowed equal time, so to speak, for George Brown, Macdonald's old foe, but vital partner in the building of Canadian Confederation. And I feel that if Sir John were present tonight (and who is to say he is not?), he would greet this exposition of George Brown's part with his customary good humour and genial urbanity. He might even ask Brown out for a drink afterward - and the latter now might take it.

Incidentally, it is only one of a number of misapprehensions about Brown that he was a teetotaller. He enjoyed good wine, especially champagne; and I have drunk from his own whisky decanter. It is true, however, that he took a dark view of excess; whereas Macdonald knew that sometimes nothing succeeds like excess, as when he told a political audience that he knew they preferred John A. drunk to George Brown sober any time. But I am not here to draw comparisons between Brown and Macdonald. My task is rather to try to explain and evaluate the former's role in the achievement of a Canadian transcontinental federal union without, I hope, retreading too much of the well-worn ground of the Confederation story.

Thus I want to treat Brown in the light of several major questions that inevitably arise. Was he a nation-builder at all, or a narrow sectionalist who perhaps did "one good thing" in backing the Confederation movement, as his opponents would assert? How important, indeed, was his contribution to the political accomplishment of Con-federation? And what was the personal motivation that led Brown to join forces with Macdonald in the government coalition that carried through the scheme for federal union between 1864 and 1867? Was there some sort of blinding flash of nationalism or patriotism in the Upper Canadian Liberal leader which he later regretted and got over, or was there a consistency in the man throughout? These are the kind of questions I hope to illuminate as I proceed, beginning first with the problem of Brown as sectionalist or nationalist or both.

There is, indeed, little doubt about his sectionalism. He stood essentially for the rights of Upper Canada in the 1850s and '60s, against what he and his Clear Grit Reform followers held was the unjust domination of the existing union of the two Canadas by Lower Canadian and French Canadian forces. He wanted "rep by pop" to give the western Upper Canadian section a preponderance of parliamentary seats. He denounced the Grand Trunk Railway "octopus" centred on Montreal, and attacked the economic power of the eastern section over Upper Canada, as well as the power of French Catholic interests to shape policy on separate schools for the western half of the union. Mind, much of what he then upheld has been echoed in later eras of Canadian history; and we certainly find it still respectable in our present union to champion sectional or provincial interests against "unjust" dominance from without. In fact, Brown was championing the rights of the then West, the pure West of Upper Canadian wheat farmers and the rising, ambitious centre of Toronto, against the wicked machinations of eastern bankers, railway magnates and their hireling politicians. It sounds a lot like Manitoba and Winnipeg in a later day!

Does Canadian history simply repeat itself as it spreads across the continent? I sometimes think that Premier Bennett of British Columbia, who so successfully combined righteous fundamentalism in the interior with regional business allies to resist the effete East, has more than a little in common with George Brown's conjunction of rural Grit virtue and aspiring Toronto business to combat the powers of Montreal over his own region. At any rate, provincial or regional championship is a power stance for Social Credit in British Columbia, Liberal in Saskatchewan, Conservatives in Ontario, everybody in Quebec - and I need not go on. The point is, George Brown, as a sectionalist, is in a basic Canadian tradition.

Nor do I seek to condemn it. It expresses very real regional diversities and problems in this country, constantly needing recognition and adjustments to meet them, but not necessarily, by any means, opposed to a belief also in national interests, hopes and aspirations. So it was with Brown. He was a sectionalist; but a nationalist as well, believing that there was a common Canadian destiny to be achieved; that the problems of the parts could be met and comprehended in the whole, and the scattered colonies and empty expanses of British North America could be and should be shaped into a new nation on the continent. Listen to this editorial from the Toronto Globe of 1847, when he was twenty-eight, and this newspaper which he founded, edited and built into the most powerful paper in Canada was itself but three years old:

Love of country is the great want of Canada ... few seem to remember that we have a national character to win ... Oh for some power to fire the servile mass with nobility of thought or feeling! Oh that this mere animal contentment were exchanged for public - nay, for even private ambition! Oh for a Canadian nationality which would ameliorate the unmitigated personal selfishness which pervades the land! [1]

This youthful-sounding idealism still sounds pretty youthful (and somewhat unattained) over one hundred and twenty years later. But the hope of nationhood continued with Brown and his Globe. Listen to it again, some years later in 1864, when the project of Confederation was well in train, and the ideal of national status might be more confidently speculated upon:

The day may come when the United Provinces have so increased in population, in wealth and in influence that it may be no longer seemly that they should continue in a condition of tutelage; and we shall then be in a position to offer to Great Britain the friendship of a powerful and independent ally in compensation for the long years of protection she has exercised over us. [2]

About the same time, moreover, his paper expressed a particular attribute of Canadian nationalism, strong reaction to apprehensions about the United States, in this instance arising from Americans' concern that their own notions of expansion northwestward might be checked by the uniting of the British provinces:

We are here upon this continent with national feelings as strong and as fresh as the people of the United States. We hold that our institutions are better than theirs, and intend to keep them. We have as much right to existence as a nation as they have. [3]

This assertion of Canada's national right on the continent leads naturally to a consideration of George Brown's interest in the great North West as part of a vast, new continental union. This surely was more than sectionalism, even though he certainly expected his own city, Toronto, and section, Upper Canada, to benefit especially from bringing in the North West. His interest in that region went back at least to the early fifties, when he first began questioning the monopoly of the Hudson's Bay Company in the land beyond the Lakes, asserting in the Globe: "It is unpardonable that civilization should be excluded from half a continent on at best a doubtful right of ownership." [4] And in an address at Belleville in 1858, he declared:

Who cannot see that Providence has entrusted to us the building up of a great northern people fit to cope with our neighbours of the United States and advance step by step with them? It is my fervent aspiration and belief that some here tonight may live to see the day when the British American flag shall wave from Labrador to Vancouver Island and from our own Niagara to Hudson Bay. [5]

Above all, at the grand Reform Convention of 1859, when Brown brought the Grit party to adopt a scheme of federalism as the answer to the sectional problems of the existing Canadian union, he explicitly combined this proposal for constitutional change with national aims and the gaining of the North West, in a powerful speech that swept the whole Convention:

Sir, I do place the question on the ground of nationality. I do hope there is not one Canadian in this assembly who does not look forward with high hopes to the days when these northern countries shall stand out among the nations of the world as one great Confederation! What true Canadian can witness the tide of immigration now commencing to flow into the vast territories of the North West without longing to have a share in the first settlement of that great and fertile territory, and make our country the highway of traffic to the Pacific? [6]

The next year in parliament, 1860, he moved a proposal for changing the Canadian union to a federal basis: quite unsuccessfully; his own party proving divided, and uncertain of the idea as yet. But I have found in Brown's own papers what seems to be a longer fuller version of his proposal; in fact, a series of resolutions in his own handwriting which he did not actually move, perhaps because of the divisions in his own following. Marked "Resolutions of the session of 1860 on Union" they declare as follows:

Mr. Brown moves in amendment [to the Address]: A Committee of Nine be appointed to inquire and report, First, as to the expediency of changing the existing union of Upper and Lower Canada by the Subdivision of the Province into two or more divisions, each governing itself in local and sectional matters, with a general government and general legislature, in which the people shall be represented on a basis of population, for subjects of national and commercial interest. Second, as to the expediency of inviting the other British provinces to join in such a union. Third, as to the expediency of making provision for bringing within the said union such portions of the Hudson's Bay Territory as may from time to time become sufficiently settled, and Fourth, to suggest for the consideration of this house such details for carrying into effect the said union as may to the said committee seem expedient. [7]

Even though not introduced, these draft resolutions seem highly significant. To a considerable extent they foreshadow what would be done by the leaders of the Confederation movement in 1864. They indicate that George Brown was thinking about it in 1860: the Grit sectionalist was thinking nationally. Still further, they suggest the ancestry of his famous motion of 1864 for a select committee of inquiry into Canada's troubles - the committee which then did bring the federal solution squarely before parliament on a non-partisan basis, to offer the way out of growing political deadlock and repeated government crises. But this brings me specifically to Brown's role in the political achievement of Confederation. And here I can jump from his abortive effort to introduce resolutions on federation in 1860 to his position in 1863-4, by which time neither elections nor various shifts of Conservative and Liberal ministries could produce any lasting government, nor any way, indeed, of coping with the problems of a deeply divided union.

In 1863 a newly married and mellowed - George Brown took up an obviously different political line; not as a vehement party leader urging his cohorts on to parliamentary warfare, but almost as a private member (though still highly influential in Grit circles), seeking an approach to settlement of Canadian difficulties by joint investigation and negotiation instead of victory through battle. In any event, in parliament that autumn, he announced his intention of moving for a joint constitutional inquiry. Quoting the Conservatives' own government dispatch of 1858 to the Colonial Office, reporting Canada's sectional ills, he asked simply for a committee drawn from the whole House to examine those recognised ills and report on the best means of remedying them. Temperately handled, based on his opponents' own statements, the proposal was well calculated to avoid partisan heat and intransigence on either side.

Because of the political turmoil, however, with Conservatives and Liberals in virtual balance in the House, it was not until March, 1864, that he could actually move his committee of inquiry. He wrote to his devoted wife, Anne Nelson Brown, "I feel a very great desire to carry my motion. I would give a good large sum to carry it. It would be the first vote ever carried in parliament in favour of constitutional change, and even that would be some satisfaction after my long fight for it." [8]

He did carry it at last. The Select Committee that was consequently set up in May, representing all the major party factions, laboured seriously and steadily under his earnest chairmanship. At length, on June 14, it issued a progress report, declaring that, "A strong feeling was found to exist among members of the Committee in favour of changes in the direction of a federative system applied either to Canada alone or to the whole British North American provinces." [9] The Committee would have looked further, except that, the same day it reported, the latest in the series of short-lived ministries, the Macdonald-Tache Conservative regime collapsed. Canada was again in crisis. But Brown's committee had indicated the way out.

He seized upon it himself by letting his Conservative opponents know that he would work with them if they would use this very moment of crisis to find a constitutional settlement at last. It was thus through his initiative that Macdonald, Cartier and Galt opened conversations with him on constitutional changes in the union, at his room in Quebec's St. Louis Hotel. And it was highly significant that they told him, "Unless a basis can be found in the federative principle suggested by Mr. Brown's Committee [italics mine], it did not appear that anything could be settled." [10] They arrived, of course, at an agreement to try for a general British North American federal union first, and a federation of the two Canadas alone if that failed.

On June 22, 1864, this all-important decision was announced to a wildly cheering House. Now a strong majority government could at least be formed, solidly backed by the major Liberal and Conservative forces led by Brown and Cartier, as well as the smaller Upper Canadian Conservative contingent that looked to John A. Macdonald. Now the Great Coalition that achieved Confederation could take shape. And Brown had been the key initiator, whose Committee had supplied the vital proposal, whose offer to join forces for settlement had broken political deadlock, and whose support of the Confederation project, along with that of Cartier, ensured that the government which sought it would have overwhelming strength. Lord Monck, the Governor-General, who himself played no small part in promoting Confederation, later hailed George Brown as "the man whose conduct in 1864 had rendered the project of union feasible." [11] It was a thoroughly sound verdict.

But why had Brown done so? Why had he played his crucial role in making Confederation politically practicable - the point where John A. Macdonald would so successfully take it up? Plainly, this had been no momentary effusion of noble feelings, no sudden seeing of the light or transformation on the road to Damascus. It is evident that Brown's motivation ran far back in his national hopes and aspirations, as well as in his desires to settle Canada's internal problems and promote the rights of his own section. He had, moreover, been developing the line of policy he took at least since 1863. It had even been foreshadowed in 1860, and might be traced still further beyond.

Brown was, in short, a consistent, and largely uncomplicated, personality. He might indeed have prided himself too much on the sometimes limited virtue of consistency: but he was a man of forthright emotions, direct and single-minded: a good friend and a strong enemy. He was, consequently, often too rigid in politics, and so he assuredly could be outplayed - though he was still far from being a novice at political tactics. In general, he drove hard for his goals, putting first things first with firm determination. He had sought constitutional change in the Canadian union ever since the early 1850s, and by the summer of 1864 he wanted beyond everything else to get matters settled and go home. He was urged to do so by his own strong devotion to his marriage, not two years old, and his heartfelt wish to be able to drop active politics at last and be with his wife and new daughter, Margaret, born just in January, 1864.

One can see his feelings fully displayed in the warmly affectionate letters he wrote to his wife in Toronto from parliament's session at Quebec through the earlier months of 1864, when events were building towards the grand excitement of that June. "Already I long to be back with you," he wrote Anne Brown, shortly after his arrival at Quebec in February, "and will grudge every day I am kept from your side .. . Don't fail to write me every day, if only a single line to tell me you and baby are well. Tell me all about your doings and baby's, the smallest incident will be anxiously perused." [12] Again he wrote, "I hate this parliamentary work - I think what a fool I am to be here." [13] And again:

Near three o'clock and Anne's letter not come! That horrid Grand Trunk ... I have a very comfortable room indeed, with a glorious view of the St. Charles. I read a little, write a good deal, look out a little and muse about darling Anne and our little baby all the while. [14]

As the weeks went by, George Brown graphically reported to Anne the course of events that led directly to the great decisions of June, the passage of his motion, the establishment of his Select Committee, the critical negotiations with his Conservative opponents - all in terms which made very plain his ardent hope and wish to settle things at last, and his awareness that the moment was finally at hand. As he entered the negotiations he was clearly under strain. He felt "very nervous and stupid," he told Anne. "But never mind, I will try to do my duty to the country in such a manner as you my dearest Anne, will not be ashamed of." [15]

He was particularly reluctant to enter the Coalition government that was to seek Confederation, preferring to support it from the outside himself; but Macdonald and his allies quite reasonably insisted that their former Grit foe should prove his commitment by entering into the new ministry as one of three Liberal members there. Again putting first things first, and to get them done, Brown overcame his own desires to end his political burdens and his worries over sitting at the cabinet table with his former enemies. "... there was no help for it," he wrote, "and it was such a temptation to have possibly the power of settling the sectional troubles of Canada forever!" [16]

Hence, before the end of June, the new government was constituted, and it could begin to plan for negotiations with the other colonies of British America to shape a federal union. By August, 1864, Brown could happily write to his wife of the progress being made by the ministry in drafting a federal constitutional scheme:

It will be a tremendous thing if we accomplish it. I don't believe any of us appreciate its true importance, the immensity of the work we are engaged on ... There is no other instance on record of a colony peacefully remodelling its constitution - such changes have always been the work of the parent state, not of the colonists themselves. Canada is rightly setting the example of a new and better state of things. [17]

Thereafter, in September, Brown played a leading role at the Charlottetown Conference, where the representatives of the Maritimes agreed in principle to the idea of joining in union with Canada. He was no less prominent at the Quebec Conference of October, 1864, that worked out in detail the terms and structure of union. Here, in fact, he moved the key resolution that it be a federal system, with provision for the North West and British Columbia to enter also. After the Quebec meetings, he was the first to carry the proposed plan of Con-federation to England that December, for successful discussions with the imperial government. And in February of the next year, when the Quebec scheme was laid before the Canadian parliament for its approval, Brown gave one of the most effective of the speeches that have come down to us as the famed Confederation Debates:

For myself I care not who gets the credit of this scheme - I believe it contains the best features of all the suggestions that have been made in the last ten years for the settlement of our troubles, and the whole feeling in my mind now is one of joy and thankfulness that there were found men of position and influence in Canada who, at a moment of serious crisis, had nerve and patriotism enough to cast aside political partisan-ship, to banish personal considerations, and unite for the accomplishment of a measure so fraught with advantage for their common country. [18]

In the summer of 1865, he joined with Macdonald, Cartier and Galt on a major mission to England to ensure continued British support of the Confederation movement, now stalled by opposition in the Maritimes. Among other things, the mission reached agreement with the imperial authorities on the transfer of the North West to the forthcoming federal union. And that autumn he was in the Maritimes, working to advance the reviving fortunes of Confederation there. By this time, however, strains had inevitably emerged within the Canadian ministry itself, which contained two such strong-minded leaders and enduring rivals as Brown and Macdonald. The strains were overcome several times, in the interest of the great project; but Brown, chafing in double and triple harness, and no less anxious to be done with the job and off home, was increasingly approaching the point of deciding that he had definitely had enough.

Late in the fall, a contentious issue emerged in the cabinet over the manner of conducting negotiations for a new reciprocal trade agreement with the United States. Brown disagreed with Galt's and the government's approach, arguing that it gave away too much, too readily, to the Americans. He failed to change their minds, however; and when he could not, resigned from the cabinet on December 19, 1865. The issue was a real one for him; it was by no means an excuse. Yet, undoubtedly, it also arose when George Brown had become virtually ready to withdraw from the ministry, and so made this the occasion. There was thus real meaning in the telegram he sent his wife on his resignation: "Thank Providence - I am a free man once more." [19]

Confederation had not yet been achieved, but all the main lines had been set. By now the movement was well on its way to successful completion. Brown did not share in its later stages, as a new conference of Canadian and Maritime delegates met in London towards the end of 1866, and proceeded to draft the measure that was put into effect in 1867 as the British North America Act. But still a leading Liberal figure and still master of the authoritative Toronto Globe, he continued to give Confederation his cordial and powerful support. Moreover, the Act of 1867 very largely embodied the federal plan he had shared in making at the Quebec Conference, the London Conference having produced only a relatively few additions or revisions. And all the work that Brown had done earlier - that had done so much to make possible a Quebec Conference, in fact - remained as fundamental as ever to the Confederation of 1867.

In these later stages of the making of Confederation, John A. Macdonald had decisively come to the fore, becoming the real head of the Canadian Coalition government, the master politician, diplomat and statesman of the federal union finally achieved. In the earlier crucial stages, however, he had very much shared the honours with Cartier, Galt and others; but above all, with George Brown - "the man" who had made a union feasible. It is not necessary to try to apportion the honours of Confederation precisely. There is praise enough to go around all the leaders involved. Yet in any case, George Brown still stands out as nation-builder as well as sectional champion; as the man who made Confederation practical polities by bringing forward the federal principle on a joint-party basis and transforming deadlock in 1864 into a solution; and as an individual of whole-hearted, consistent purpose, who drove to get a settlement, and got it - that settlement being Confederation.

Let him, then, have the last word in a letter to his wife which he wrote, still eager for home, late at night when the Confederation Debates had just come to a triumphant conclusion:

... perhaps we should be happy that our sacrifices have had so much effect on the welfare of half a continent. Is it not so, dearest Anne? ... Could I possibly have abandoned the trust that has gradually grown up and now rests upon me? Would you not like that darling little Maggie should be able twenty years hence - when we may be gone - to look back with satisfaction to the share her father had in these great events? For great they are, dearest Anne, and history will tell the tale of them. [20]


1. Globe (Toronto), January 2, 1847.

2. Ibid., August 2, 1864.

3. Ibid., September 15, 1864.

4. Ibid., November 12, 1850.

5. Ibid., January 25, 1858.

6. Ibid., November 11, 1859.

7. Brown Papers, Public Archives of Canada.

8. Ibid., George to Anne Brown, May 18, 1864.

9. Journals of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada, (Quebec), 1864, p. 384.

10. C.0.42 (microfilm, Public Archives of Canada), v.641, Ministerial Explanations of June 22, 1864.

11. Brown Papers, Monck to Brown, November 13, 1868.

12. Ibid., George to Anne Brown, February 22, 1864.

13. Ibid., February 29, 1864.

14. Ibid., March 4, 1864.

15. Ibid., June 20, 1864.

16. Ibid., June 23, 1864.

17. Ibid., August 26, 1864.

18. Parliamentary Debates on the Subject of Confederation of the British North American Provinces (Quebec), 1865, pp. 112-3.

19. Brown Papers, George to Anne Brown, December 21, 1865.

20. Ibid., March 14, 1865.

Page revised: 22 May 2010