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Chartered Libertine? A Case Against Sir John Macdonald and Some Answers

by Dr. Peter B. Waite
Dalhousie University

MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 32, 1975-76 Season

MHS Transactions were originally published by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make online versions available as a free, public service. As an historical document, Transactions may contain language that is no longer in common use and which may offend some readers. They should not be construed to represent the views of today’s Manitoba Historical Society.

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Amid the eulogies given to our first Prime Minister by the 11th, the Honourable Member for Prince Albert, amid the praises to Macdonald in Donald Creighton's biography, amid the admiration, not always grudging, of many Canadian historians, amid all of this, there lies an uneasy suspicion among the fair-minded and judicious that a halo sits awkwardly on Macdonald's head. Perhaps it even sits precariously. The suspicion is that if Macdonald should have a halo at all it ought to be worn at a pretty jaunty angle; that, not to put too fine a point on it, Macdonald could be downright mean and vindictive; that he loved being in power and he hated being in opposition; that he equated the fortunes of the Dominion of Canada with that of the government of Ottawa, that is, whenever that government was fortunate enough to be Conservative; that his western policies were an unstudied mixture of ignorance, neglect and incompetence; that he read everyone, Westerners, Nova Scotians, French Canadians alike, in the light of his Ontario experience. These are some of the more obvious suspicions. His drinking was legendary, perhaps exaggerated, but it was one of the accusations brought against him by his contemporaries. His drinking is now forgiven him pretty much; indeed, the stories of his drinking are part of the raffish charm that he currently enjoys. Too many of Macdonald's later contemporaries seem to have been too sober for our current tastes. We are in reaction against the Edwardian reforms that so nobly attempted to dry Canada up and make it a better place. Hence our delight in finding that our first (and perhaps our greatest) Prime Minister was a confirmed drinker. Such delight is nearly instinctive. But our pleasure in his raffishness ought not to obscure a hard realization of weaknesses in Macdonald. And it is basically to set these forth that is the main purpose of my paper here tonight. And I hope to offer some partial answers.

Look at Macdonald's political career, from the time he was first elected, in the 1844 election in the Province of Canada - the one where Lord Metcalfe campaigned on behalf of Macdonald's party - to 1891 when Macdonald fought his last election on pretty much the same theme as the first one. There are serious issues fairly to be set against him. The general ones for a start: (1) He usually believed the end justified the means. (2) He believed that patronage was an indispensable element of party government. In fact, you could not have the latter without the former. (3) He felt that the west was populated largely by people whose hard lives were only matched by their desire for a fast buck. (4) Ever since 1867 he bullied the provinces, on the assumption that the Dominion Government was Canada and knew what was best for Canada. All of this you are no doubt familiar with, and most of it can be sustained. His attitude to Manitoba is documented in Professor Creighton's address to the Manitoba Historical Society in 1967. His attitude to Saskatchewan and the Métis in 1885 was that nine-tenths of the Métis who wanted scrip and already received it in Manitoba. In any case they would sell it for money or liquor. "No sir," Macdonald told Parliament, "the whole thing is a farce." Macdonald was not altogether wrong, but he was not right either.

But as serious as these general considerations are, some of the particular events of his political career bring us closer to grips with him. It is not possible to go through them in detail, but they cannot really be burked in any assessment of Macdonald: the double shuffle of 1858, the Pacific Scandal of 1872, the Langevin Scandal of 1890-1, and the Gerrymander of 1882. And this does not exhaust the list.

In the double shuffle of 1858, by some fancy legal footwork, in clear violation of the intent of the law (though not its terms), Cartier, Macdonald and their Cabinet colleagues succeeded in returning to office without the inconvenience and expense of having by-elections. The idea of the manoeuvre was, very likely, Macdonald's; but it has to be said that the exigencies that suggested it were not his so much as of his Upper Canadian ministers. Macdonald's election in the general election of December, 1857 had been a walkover; but three of his ministers had been defeated and he had had to have a laborious reconstruction of the Upper-Canadian section of the Government. It is possible here to argue that Macdonald's skill in tactics, his capacity to twist circumstances to suit his advantage, were simply placed at the service of his government and his party. One suspects, in short, that he succumbed to the importunities of friends. And it would not have been the first, nor was it to be the last time, that he would do so. Of all the forms of political pressure, that from faithful old political friends is the most insidious and the most difficult to resist, and Macdonald, like many other essentially timid politicians, took in 1858 the line least likely to damage the status quo of the party.

I have said "timid" deliberately. I think this side of Macdonald has been underplayed, or not thought of. It is brought out in his relations with Alexander Campbell, his old friend and colleague, who was his law partner from 1843 until they broke up, at Campbell's request, in 1849. In 1885 Macdonald was trying to persuade Campbell to leave the Justice portfolio and take over the Post Office. (It was part of the arrangements for the acquisition of John Thompson as Minister of Justice.) Campbell accepted the arrangement with some reluctance, for he really wanted out of the Government altogether. But, in finally agreeing to stay on, he wrote to Macdonald, "Let me say how much I hope we may get on without this eternal yielding to everyone, who has, or thinks he has, control of a few votes." That was, of course, easy counsel from a Senator. But it reflected Macdonald's reluctance to move or to act decisively. He was not called "Old Tomorrow" for nothing. In October, 1883 Campbell met Oliver Mowat by chance in Montreal, and over a late breakfast in the Windsor Hotel virtually mapped out the whole solution of the Ontario-Manitoba boundary question, including reference to the Privy Council. Macdonald did not like it. He delayed, twisted, did whatever he could do - and that was much - to put off the evil day. The Privy Council argument was heard in 1884, but the matter was not settled until 1889. Campbell was annoyed, and had a right to be. [1] He was very frank writing to T. C. Patteson in August, 1885.

Things have been going badly in the Ministry for a year or more. Macdonald has lost his grasp and does nothing he can help. Putting off, his old sin, has increased upon him until it has become an irritation to have relations with him ... he wasted months before bringing it [the 1885 Franchise Bill] in at all; simply, I believe, from a feeling that he only had a very hazy view of the subject, and a desire for more time, with his usual reliance on the hurry of the House at the last ... Tell me what you think and tear up this letter. [Note the last phrase.]

T. C. Patteson agreed with Campbell and added an illuminating comment of his own. Macdonald "was always timid and yielding, and if he has ever taken a bold stand I think it was because he had a bold man at his elbow at the time." [2]

It says something of Macdonald that he liked quiet, tough-minded, able, decisive men, who knew their own mind; and he liked to have such men around him. The men whom he relied on most heavily in his career tended to be like that - John Henry Pope, John Sparrow, David Thompson. He had other types too, of course, the bluff and lion-hearted (also something Macdonald was not), like George Cartier or Charles Tupper. As in some marriages Macdonald leaned instinctively toward the obverse, the complement of his own nature.

When the dust of the double shuffle had settled, there was Macdonald back neatly in office, with Cartier as Prime Minister and Galt and Confederation in the Cabinet. Probably only Cartier could have persuaded Macdonald to accept Confederation. Even then its significance was more than doubtful. It seems to me that one reason why Macdonald wanted Confederation - if he wanted it at all - was as a red herring to keep the opposition pack off the double shuffle. Galt had wanted it, and the Government wanted Galt, and what harm could there be in a chimera like Confederation?

One wonders too if it was Cartier's exigencies, as well as those of the Upper Canadian ministers, that helped to persuade Macdonald into the double shuffle. Certainly there was real danger in Montreal East in the 1872 election, a number of serious issues supravened since 1858 to make things difficult. The necessity for spending money in Quebec was real enough. The government had had forty-seven of sixty-five Quebec seats in 1867. (They were to go down to thirty-eight in 1872 and thirty in 1874.) But the pressures were also real in Ontario; indeed the position there was worse than in Quebec. It should not be assumed that it was the exigencies of Langevin and Cartier that forced Macdonald into the Pacific Scandal. Macdonald had his own. He had fifty-two supporters from the eighty-two Ontario MP's in 1867. As a result of the census of 1871 Ontario got the right to six more MP's. Of these eighty-eight members the best that Macdonald was going to do was to secure forty. Less than half. In other words, in the 1872 election, he was not only to lose twelve MP's but in effect the six new ones as well for eighteen seats in all. He was forced to campaign as never before. He had money to spend, and he was thoroughly ready to spend it. Conservative J. S. McCuaig was obviously having scruples about using money. Macdonald wrote him a deft letter, not without a certain tenderness toward McCuaig's apparently sensitive conscience, but in effect urging him to forget such scruples in the face of Liberals who were, so Macdonald confidently alleged, prepared to use money and use it ruthlessly:

... I quite appreciate your feelings about money matters. At the same time let me tell you that if Ross goes in with money he will stand a great chance of beating you. You must fight him with the same weapon. Our friends here have been liberal and I can send you $1,000 without inconvenience. You had better spend it between nomination and polling. [3]

With at least three dozen similar constituencies in hock, it is not difficult to see where Macdonald could spend thirty-six times $1,000. Thomas Greenway in South Huron asked for and got $2,000. In fact in the 1872 election Macdonald spent at least $45,000 of Sir Hugh Allan's money, to say nothing of whatever he got from other sources.

Macdonald did not then, nor in the future, regard election expenses as anything more than the sinews of war. The better armed one was, the better. The CPR was going to have to rally around the Government with friends, with funds and with trains, in 1882, in 1887, and in 1891; and if Tupper had had his way, the Grand Trunk's reluctance in 1891 to support Macdonald with hard cash would have been brought up shortly and sharply.

This money was not just used to print notices, hire hands, hire meeting halls. One can safely say that much of it went to bribe the voters. During most of Macdonald's adult life he had fought elections under the system of open voting. Here money really counted for something; and further the something it counted for could really be measured; it was one of those happier certainties of mid-Victorian Canada. By the time of ballot elections (1874 was the last federal election fought under open voting) Macdonald was too old to change. Even had he believed the ballot would, or could, make any difference, he probably believed many voters were too old to change too. When he said so dramatically in 1873, "These hands are clean!", he meant his hands had put nothing in his own pocket. It did not mean that he had not bribed the voters. One of the Grip's famous cartoons, September 27, 1873, shows Macdonald talking to an accusing Alexander Mackenzie. "I admit," says Macdonald, with magisterial aplomb, "I took the money, and bribed the electors with it. Is there anything wrong about that?" Mackenzie, it is right to say, thought that there was quite a bit wrong with that, and so did many other people.

Still, the more fundamental question, the real crime of the Pacific Scandal, was Macdonald's taking the money from the man who believed he was getting the CPR charter. And Allan had every right to believe it. (I have always thought that, given the circumstances, Allan was rather lucky not to have been able to do much with it). Edward Blake's point in 1873 was that misuse of election funds was bad enough; but worse was the fact that Sir Hugh Allan was in a position to say to the government, "Either give me the contract or give me my money back." [It is interesting that this chapter in Donald Creighton's biography is not called the "Pacific Scandal," it is called "Blackmail."]

The other major scandal was the Langevin-McGreevy that broke in 1891. The Liberals had it hot and ready to serve up to Parliament when Macdonald died. In fact, Macdonald's immediate legacy to the Conservative party, to Parliament, to the people of Canada, was that whole malodorous affair, that took most of the hot, steamy, Ottawa summer of 1891 to sort out. Macdonald knew about some of it ahead of time, and doubtless suspected more. I do not know how much he really did know; but I have a definite impression that he did not want to know too much. He refused in 1890 to countenance the charges of Robert McGreevy against Thomas McGreevy and Hector Langevin, charges that were seriously presented to him through Senator Robitaille. Macdonald remarked to Tupper in June, 1890, that Langevin was "inert and useless except in office." One could suggest that it might have been better had Langevin the decency to be inert and useless in the Department of Public Works too. By the end of 1890 it was too late. Those were virtually Macdonald's own words. Whatever Langevin had done, it could not be undone. The best thing was to have an election as soon as possible and to minimize the damage.

Perhaps the most ruthless of Macdonald's operations for party advantage was the Gerrymander of 1882. Parliament opened that year on February 9th; the bill was brought in on April 28th. This was one of Macdonald's oldest tricks, to introduce controversial legislation at the end, the very fag end, of the session, when, as Edward Blake averred, "we are wearied with our work and all are anxious to go away ..." [4] Under the pretext of adding four seats to Ontario's representation, fifty-four of Ontario's eighty-eight constituencies had their boundaries changed. A deliberate set was made at the constituencies of Ontario Liberal leaders. Cartwright's constituency, Huron Centre, just disappeared. Mackenzie was known to be shifting to York East from Lambton, so York East was manipulated in the hope of defeating Mackenzie. Bothwell was arranged so that Mills was defeated. Rymal was driven from Parliament for good. Sir Robert Cartwright is not a reliable witness of Sir John Macdonald, especially in these circumstances, but his remarks in the House of 1882 gave some idea of the bitterness of the Liberals:

... of all his [Macdonald's] dishonourable acts none are more dishonest and more treacherous to the interests of Canada [read here, the Liberal party] than this measure. The measure shows what the hon. member is ready to do when he thinks he has power ... Have four years of the hon. gentleman's rule so debased and degraded what was once a good and honest party ...

An Hon. MEMBER. There is not a Minister in the House.

Sir Richard J. Cartwright. I do not wonder at it. [5]

G. W. Ross, Middlesex West, said the purpose of the bill could be stated more frankly. He offered an amended bill to the House:

An Act to bull-doze the Liberal Party of Canada and for other purposes ... And whereas it is desirable to secure, if possible, the defeat of the Liberal Party of Canada ... therefore, Sir John Macdonald, by and with the advise of party wire pullers and Tory deputations from the province of Ontario ... enacts as follows:

1. The House of Commons shall consist of 211 members, of whom a majority shall [always] belong to the Conservative party. [6]

As Macdonald said privately and all too plainly to Joseph Rymal, "We meant to make you [Liberals] howl." [7] They did howl.

Altogether, the Gerrymander of 1882 was an example of Macdonald at his worst, following the behests of the more exigent and greedy of his supporters, carving up Ontario in the most ruthless fashion for party advantage, and what is worse, taunting the Opposition at nearly every stage of the process. "Every new constituency," said Macdonald wickedly, "is a Grit constituency." [8] Everyone knew what that meant. It meant putting as many Grits as possible in as few constituencies as possible. Macdonald was never very scrupulous when it came to making the most of party advantage. And far from weakening him with his own followers, this made him more admired and liked. It is a pity that Macdonald was too often admired for the wrong reasons. But the best part of the story is that it did not, in the long run, do much good to the Conservatives. Cartwright said it did, that Ontario constituencies for years afterward did not fairly reflect the Liberal vote; but I am more inclined to trust MacGregor Dawson's magisterial article on the subject in May, 1935; he argued that the constituencies themselves resented much partisan outrages on their traditions and 'esprit de corps,' and they tended to vote Liberal out of sheer resentment.

It was a little different with patronage. Here Macdonald tended to take a more controlled position. Not that he was against Conservative party patronage: far from it. But he did not want any MP, or group of MP's to think they had a categorical right to control patronage in their ridings. Custom was different. As he told Hector Langevin, in 1886:

I would never admit ... that any member of Parliament has a constitutional right to be consulted as to appointments to office. It is merely a practice that has grown up from political expediency and from a desire on the part of the Government to strengthen the hands of those who support them. [9]

But as to the practice, Macdonald was fairly consistent, both in opposition and in power. If an MP had confidence in the Government, if, in other words, he supported it, he was entitled to be consulted about patronage. If not, he was not. Macdonald put it quite frankly in 1890: "... a member of Parliament in opposition, having no confidence in the Government, is in the position of any other Canadian." [10] In other words, nowhere. At the same time, Macdonald would not have MP's being passed over, when they should be at least consulted. Alexander Campbell, being in the Senate, was, in Macdonald's view, too cavalier in such matters. Some appointment came up in 1884, when Campbell was Minister of Justice. Campbell consulted the most convenient and knowledgeable source he knew about the best man for the appointment. This, for some reason that I do not know, was Andrew Onderdonk (of all people). Macdonald did not like it.

I don't think you should have asked Onderdonk. The patronage should belong to the local Members that is - they should be consulted. You are not half sufficiently alive to the expediency - nay the necessity - of keeping well with our friends in the Commons.

Our Government may be attacked at any time by combinations among the Quebec people that were nearly successful last Session and we can't afford to offend a man. However as you have committed yourself to Onderdonk there is no help for it. [11]

There was a certain cheerful hypocrisy in all of this. Macdonald always liked to make sure that a suitable front was preserved. H. H. Smith, the Conservative organizer for Ontario, wrote in 1882 that a prominent lumberman was willing to make a substantial contribution to party funds in return for a fat timber licence. No doubt this might have been done very quietly for very quiet and well established Conservatives, but the decent appearances had certainly to be preserved in this case. It might be a Liberal trick. Macdonald wrote back, "It won't do that the slightest suspicion get abroad that Timber licences to Govt. lands could be got in return for political support or election subscriptions. The offer to subscribe for the next elections if a Timber limit were granted should be pooh-poohed by you as impossible." [12]

Patronage has also its amusing side. One of Mackenzie Bowell's old Belleville friends was Lewis Wallbridge, who had once been MPP for Hastings in the old Province of Canada days, and had been Speaker of the Assembly in 1863. Wallbridge wanted a job on the Bench, as many old MP's did. Finally he got one. In 1882 he was made Chief Justice in a part of the world, it is probably safe to say; he had never laid eyes on: the Province of Manitoba. Wallbridge was appointed all right. The difficulty was, however, that he had very bad teeth. Some were missing. Too many others looked as if they should be missing. Macdonald was concerned with the appearance and the dignity of the Manitoba Bench. As well he might. So he set Mackenzie Bowell to work: devise some way of approaching Wallbridge about those teeth. It was not easy. Bowell tells the story:

The great question of teeth or no teeth, I find, is somewhat difficult to solve.

Whilst I agree with you that it would add much to the appearance, and perhaps dignity, of the Bench, if the Chief Justice had a mouth of good teeth, still when you consider the extreme egotism of the [new] Chief Justice of Manitoba, and the difficulty of approaching him upon a subject of such gnashing importance, you will see the difficulty of accomplishing the object you have in view.

However I set three or four at him, our friend Dan Murphy among the number - who said that he would induce Wallbridge to consent provided I would "pledge a quarter's salary in advance which of course I did; still I have very great doubt of his succeeding."

The people, and the Bar, of Belleville gave him a very flattering reception last night, presented him with a gold watch and other articles to adorn his western Wigwam; and he was as proud and strutted about the platform like a Peacock with his tail spread. [13]

Perhaps it should be added that Wallbridge ended up being apparently well liked in Winnipeg, and his death in 1889 much regretted by the Winnipeg Bar.

A concomitant of Macdonald's party was loyalty, even blindness, toward old friends, some of whom might have been chastised instead. Of course Macdonald was capable of doing that too. To young Charles Hibbert Tupper's importunities, he wrote, "Dear Charlie, skin your own skunks." But with old friends it was different. Langevin is one example. Tilley is another. There is a letter from Tilley in April, 1891, a month or so before Macdonald's death, saying how hard up he is, and that after he steps down as Lieutenant governor of New Brunswick (his term was already due up), he would have to live on his capital, not having sufficient income. And this, though Tilley was too proud to say so, after a dozen years of service to his native New Brunswick before Confederation, and another twenty-four years to the Dominion after Confederation. Macdonald sent the letter on to George Foster, the cabinet minister from New Brunswick, writing on the back, "My dear Foster, This is a sad letter ... We must leave him in Govt. House as long as possible." [14] And he was, until September, 1893, when Tilley was seventy-five years old.

Macdonald's centralizing proclivities are so well known as hardly to require elaboration from me. It was his disallowance policy that drew the most ire, and that started virtually at Confederation. In June, 1868 he made it quite clear that disallowance (which, by the way, is ingeniously hidden in the BNA Act as an analogous reference in both Sections 55 and 90) was going to be exercised much more frequently in future. And it was exercised, as Macdonald reiterated in 1886, not just against unconstitutional legislation, but against "any Act passed by any Legislature which is detrimental to the interests of the whole Dominion." [15] The constitutionality of such legislation was irrelevant. The issue was simply whether the Dominion Cabinet chose to say that a provincial act was detrimental to the interest of the country as a whole. In Macdonald's view certain railway charters established by the provincial legislature of Manitoba fell plainly into that category. The Jesuits Estates Act of Quebec in 1888 did not.

Macdonald's feelings about judicial decisions are not always made evident, but in the case of Russell vs. the Queen (1882) it is quite clear that Macdonald was pleased, and that his own view about the invalidity of the Ontario Liquor Licence Act of 1887, and about the extent and meaning of the words "Trade and Commerce" in Section 91 in the BNA Act, was sustained. This decision, said Macdonald, "will be a great protection to the Central Authority. A contrary one would have greatly disturbed the integrity of the Dominion. Armed with that judgment we can go at Mowat & the Secession party at the rate of a hunt." [16] It is not difficult to extrapolate Macdonald's view of Canadian federalism from this argument.

Perhaps the most severe charge against Macdonald is his incapacity with the West. Part of this problem was that he had not wanted the West in the first place. Besides, even in the '80s, the West had no political power. In the 1882 election there were only five seats at stake between Lake Superior and the Rockies, less than mighty Prince Edward Island had. (In 1886, the Northwest Territories got four seats, which, by the way, promptly went Conservative in the election of January, 1887.) But up until 1887, with nothing but five seats to win, there was no reason why the West should not have been thought of as a monumental inconvenience mitigated only by being a place for rewardable Conservatives. But probably the central core of the problem was Macdonald's own role as Minister of Interior (1878-1883) and Superintendent-General of Indian Affairs, (1878-1887). In 1884 he told the Commons he had taken those offices because "the country was going to be scene of large operations, and that system had to be laid down for immigration, settlement ... and opening-up of the North-West generally; and this involved large principles for which the First Minister must be held primarily responsible. For this reason I accepted double duty." [17] More than once in Mackenzie's regime (1873-8) Macdonald had said publicly what many of Mackenzie's followers were saying privately, that Mackenzie was sacrificing his role as Premier to that as Minister of Public Works. In Macdonald's case it was the other way round. His energies were directed at the Premiership, and what he had left over went into his department. Yet, if ever there was a department in which it was imperative that the responsible Minister should have a personal knowledge of the territory he administered, it was the Department of the Interior between 1878 and 1883. [18] Not only had Macdonald never been west; that can happen to anyone. But what was worse, he never appears to have set himself out to acquire the knowledge that he ought to have known he lacked. Macdonald was able enough to have seen at once, had only he gone west, something of the real nature of its problems. Cartwright, one evening in the House, was making some statements about the West that Sir John violently contradicted, and insisted upon knowing upon what authority Cartwright made them. Cartwright, nothing loath, replied that his, authority was a source on which he, for his part, would have hesitated to place much reliance, but it was corroborated from other sources. Cartwright's authority was a statement and report signed by one John A. Macdonald, as Minister of the Interior. At this shot Macdonald took refuge in humour. He replied jocularly that he had not had the time to read that report before signing it. His followers burst into laughter, and it was taken as answer sufficient by the Macdonald Conservatives. Perhaps it may have been amusing enough at the time, but it ought not to have been. It led Cartwright to remark in his Reminiscences that "Sir John was a chartered libertine in more ways than one." [19]

The truth about Macdonald and the West is perhaps suggested by a prescient remark of Cartwright's: that Macdonald had privately a superstitious idea that the West had never done him any good. It had brought him nothing but bad luck. Macdonald's very first venture west, in July, 1859, had nearly cost him his life. He was wrecked in the steamer Ploughboy with a crowd of other passengers on the way across Georgian Bay to Sault Ste. Marie. In 1869 his reluctant acquisition of the Hudson's Bay territory was dogged both with bad management and bad luck. Some of it was certainly not his doing, and to describe him as an easterner utterly indifferent to the fate of Metis and English half breeds alike is a savage and unfair distortion. This perceptive letter is written to Cartier in November, 1869:

No explanation, it appears, has been made [by the Hudson's Bay Company at Fort Garry] of the arrangement by which the Country is handed over to the Queen-and that it is Her Majesty who transfers the country to Canada with the same rights to settlers as existed before. All that these poor people know is, that Canada has bought the country from the Hudson's Bay Co., and that they are handed over like a flock of sheep to us; and they are told that they lose their lands and everything they value. Under these circumstances it is not to be wondered at that they should be dissatisfied, and should show their discontent ... Please show this letter to Chapais and Langevin. [20]

Nevertheless, despite these sympathies, before 1885, Macdonald nursed the private hunch that the Canadian west would produce no good for him. He adopted a half-hesitating way of describing his bailiwick, as if never being quite sure of it, or of its future. Sir Charles Tupper, on the other hand, was an uncritical enthusiast, anticipating the West's possibilities by at least twenty years before it was possible to realize them. Somewhere between these positions lay the real truth, that the West was after all, like everything else, both good and bad.

So too was Macdonald, good and bad. A man wise in the ways of the world, with intelligence and infinite patience. He' believed not much that was good was ever done in haste, and a great deal that was not good. Like most lawyers, he liked to be careful where he put his feet. There was a cat-like quality about him; one had the feeling that if he were thrown into the air by any exigency, he would land on his feet. His recovery from the disasters of 1873-4 is remarkable tribute to his dexterity and toughness, and it cheered his followers as much as it baffled his opponents. Macdonald was both timid and tough at the same time. He endured much. He was capable of enduring much more. He lived with and nursed an invalid wife for fourteen years. In 1869 his second wife gave birth to a deformed daughter, Mary, who was never able to look after herself, and who was to live in a wheelchair until she died in 1933. 1869 was also the year that Macdonald discovered that, as the result of a bad partnership, instead of his being worth $125,000, he was not worth a cent. He mortgaged all he had, borrowed $3,000 from Senator Macpherson, and started all over again.

But in politics had I been a Liberal, I should have often been angry with Macdonald. I should have hated him for the Gerrymander of 1882, or the Franchise Bill of 1885. I do not like trickery and I do not like patronage, and Macdonald was excessively adept at both. I prefer his political ends to his political means. I especially enjoy his versatile mind and supple intelligence, and I think that on balance it was applied to ends worth-while. I like his humour. G. H. Ham has a story he heard from the Press Gallery about 1886. Mounted Police estimates were on in the Commons. Sir Richard Cartwright, with eyes like a lynx, spotted a suspicious item in the Mounted Police annual report. He rose. "I note," he said sternly, "in the report of the officer commanding the detachment at [Fort] Macleod, an extraordinary statement regarding the disappearance of stores. Will the right hon. gentleman deign to inform the House how he accounts for this extraordinary paragraph: '2,000 bushels of oats, 10 kegs of nails - eaten by rats.'" Macdonald rose to his feet with a smile. "The explanation which I offer to my honourable friend, for what he considers an extraordinary circumstance, is a very simple and reasonable one. The rats, having gorged themselves upon the 2,000 bushels of oats, evidently felt that they were in need of an iron tonic." Even Cartwright joined in that laughter. [21] I ran across a reference just the other day, typical of Macdonald, in the 1884 debates. A conservative, George Taylor, MP, Leeds South, was talking seriously about agriculture pests. "I presume the bugs in Elgin County are the same as they are in Leeds and Grenville, a small insect that bores a hole into peas; and I fancy there are other kinds of bores besides the bugs."

"Humbugs," said Macdonald, "humbugs." [22]


1. PAC, Macdonald Papers, Vol. 35, Campbell to Macdonald. Oct. 30, 1883 (confidential) from Montreal; PAO, Campbell Papers, Mowat to Campbell, Nov. 28, 1883 (private); Macdonald Papers, Vol. 35, C. Robinson to Campbell, July 24, 1884.

2. PAC, Macdonald Papers, Vol. 197, Campbell to Macdonald, Sept. 9, 1885; PAO, Patteson Papers, Campbell to Patteson, August 8, 1885 (private and confidential); PAO, Campbell Papers, Patteson to Campbell, Aug. 11, 1885 (private).

3. PAO, Alexander Campbell Papers, Macdonald to J. S. McCuaig, August 14, 1872 (private), from Toronto.

4. Canada, House of Commons, Debates, 1882, p. 1205 (April 28, 1882).

5. Ibid., 1382-3 (May 8, 1882).

6. Ibid., 1409 (May 9, 1882).

7. Ibid., 1489 (May 12, 1882).

8. Ibid., 1392 (May 8, 1882).

9. APQ, Langevin Papers, Boite 17, Macdonald to Langevin, April 2, 1886.

10. Canada, House of Commons, Debates, 1890, 1866 (March 13, 1890).

11. PAO, Campbell Papers, Macdonald to Campbell, July 3, 1884.

12. PAC, H. H. Smith Papers, Macdonald to Smith, Sept. 29, 1882 (private).

13. PAC, Macdonald Papers, Vol. 189, Bowell to Macdonald, Dec. 27, 1882 (private).

14. PAC Macdonald Papers, Vol. 272, Tilley to Macdonald, April 20, 1891, from Saint John.

15. Canada, House of Commons, Debates, 1886, 1348 (May 18, 1886).

16. PAO, Alexander Campbell Papers, Macdonald to Campbell, Aug. 28, 1882 (private) from Riviere du Loup.

17. Canada, House of Commons, Debates, 1884, 29, (Jan. 22, 1884)

18. It was no better between 1883 and 1885, when the Minister was Senator David Macpherson. He spent May July, 1884 in London, and the rest of the summer in St. Moritz, Switzerland.

19. Sir R. C. Cartwright, Reminiscences (Toronto, 1912), p. 207-8.

20. APQ, Langevin Papers, Boite 18, Macdonald to Cartier, Nov. 27. 1869, (private) Part of this letter is also Quoted by Donald Creighton, John A. Macdonald, the old chieftain, (Toronto, 1955), pp. 46-7, who picked it out from the Macdonald letterbooks, which are quite complete for this period.

21. G. H. Ham, Reminiscences of a Raconteur (Toronto, 1921), 197.

22. Canada, House of Commons, Debates, 1885 694 (March 6, 1884).

Page revised: 22 May 2010

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