The Four Lauriers
Being an impressionistic, but not unfriendly, view of Canada’s great men
H. Franklin Gadsby
THE Autocrat of the breakfast table calculates that there are three John Smiths—the real John, known only to his Maker, John as he thinks he is himself, and John as he appears to the world at large. The Autocrat was under rather than over the estimate, for the last John, the one that other people see, is capable of infinite subdivision. For example, there are four Sir Wilfrid Lauriers that I have met and observed, and goodness knows how many others that I only dimly suspect.
The first Laurier that holds the eye is the Laurier in a hostile Ontario. Many of us have seen him in Toronto, that twofaced city which tears the roof off Massey Hall cheering for him and then stabs him under the fifth rib when polling day comes. What sort of a figure does he cut in a province, which, if it doesn’t absolutely hate him, is cold to him, because being Ontario, it is convinced that no good thing can come out of Quebec? This is the way he does it. Listen:
Imagine a bright, sunny afternoon at Queen Victoria Park, Niagara Falls. The campaign of 1911, or is it 1912, is on. Or perhaps I’ve mixed it up with the campaign of 1908. Never mind! Sir Wilfrid is situated as he might be almost anywhere else in Ontario. He is in a Liberal riding, but he is entirely surrounded by his enemies, Welland County supports the Government, but Lincoln, Wentworth and Haldimand, which touch it on the west and south, send Conservative members to Parliament. This proportion fairly represents how the Premier of Canada stands in the good graces of the largest
and most populous province in the Dominion. Anywhere Sir Wilfrid Laurier goes in Ontario he is Daniel in the lion’s den. Or, since Ontario is so largely Scotch and Presbyterian, it may be better to change the metaphor and say that everywhere he beards the Douglas in his hall.
But Sir Wilfrid is not dismayed. He knows his Ontario better than his Ontario knows him. The address has been read, the bouquet has been presented by a little girl mostly white stockings, and the band has played “Hail to the Chief.” The Premier steps forward, bowing and smiling with French politeness. The very way he is dressed is a sign that he has read his book and learned all his lessons. There is, if you must know, a sort of likeness between Sir John Macdonald and Sir Wilfrid Laurier. The old Tory chief was clean-shaven, had a big nose, a long upper lip and a dome-shaped head, bald in front, and hair thick and clustering behind. That is Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s picture, too, but the points of difference are quite as noticeable. In detail the likeness falls apart and disappears, but in the large it is strong enough for an astute politician to make use of and score a point. The main thing is that it exists, and that Sir Wilfrid is not above adding to it the red necktie and white vest which Sir John Macdonald so often favored.
In his day they used to say that Sir John Macdonald was like Disraeli and, as Disraeli was a great man and colorful in his clothes, Sir John copied him. Nov/ Sir John is copied in his turn by Sir Wilfrid, who seeks whatever success there may be in a judicious selection of waistcoats
and cravats. Some people step into dead men’s shoes; others utilize their vests and neckties. It is an interesting reflection that Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield, is remotely responsible for all the red neckties in Canadian politics. And that the red necktie is a working force among Ontario Conservatives to-day let no one deny who remembers the campaign Sir Charles Tupper made in 1896. It was then he dug up Hugh John Macdonald, the surviving image, though somewhat weaker in the drawing, of his illustrious father. Hugh John did not have his father’s brains, but he did have his father’s easy manners and his father’s nose and he wore red neckties like his father’s, which is as near as a wise, son can come to knowing his own father, and good enough for campaign purposes anyway. Hugh John made a great hit everywhere in Ontario. He always spoke with a bust of his father on the table beside him. He wore a red necktie; so did the bust. Sometimes he would blow his nose to call attention to the patent facts; the bust quivered sympathetically. At evening meetings the committee usually had it arranged to throw red light on Hugh John, the bust, and the red neckties. The effect was extremely moving. It went down to history as the Nose and Necktie Campaign.
Sir Wilfrid Laurier has never forgotten what a red necktie can do in Ontario. There are doubtless weak-kneed Conservatives in that crowd at Niagara Falls, sentimental old fellows, who find the road to yesterday through Sir Wilfrid’s Laurier’s white vest and are twenty-one again and cracking heads for Sir John on election day. And the red necktie lights them on their way back. And Sir Wilfrid, with that art which conceals art, says nothing on that particular point, but just lets the necktie do the speaking for him. It is art, of course, but it is a touch of nature too. It will be seen that Sir Wilfrid does not overlook any bets. He is, perhaps, more practical than his friends give him credit for.
And while Sir Wilfrid’s red necktie is making its quiet appeal to wavering Tory hearts, what is his voice doing? Oh the necromancer! He is invoking for the Grits the shades of their great Ontario dead. He is reminding them that Alex-
ander Mackenzie, the honestest man that ever breathed, was in his time reviled also. He is proclaiming himself a Baldwin Liberal. What won’t Saul do when he needs influential names to conjure with? “And Samuel said to Saul, ‘Why hast though disquieted be to bring me up?’ And Saul answered, T am sore distressed; for the Philistines make war against me.”
Outside Baldwin and Alexander Mackenzie and the red necktie, Sir Wilfrid Laurier doesn’t employ much sentiment in addressing Ontario. He is too wise to scatter +ears, or raise lumps in the throats of a hard-headed people. With Niagara Falls as his drop-scene he might say many things, which he shows, his good sense by notdoing. He might burn up a lot of rhetoric telling how his distant forbears discovered the Falls and held the fort then, just as he is trying to do, and he might blind the people and draw cataracts over their eyes that way. But he doesn’t. He might compare himself with the Falls and show how each stands about as good a chance of ever occurring again, because there will never be another French-Canadian premier in Canada. That trick can be pulled off only once. It’s not many years now when the sceptre will depart from Quebec and the West will be making premiers. He might do that. But he doesn’t. Seeing it is an open air meeting, he might ventilate the questions of the day. But he doesn’t. He leaves the tabulated statements and tedious explanations to Rodolph Lemieux and George Graham. He does what Macaulay accused Horace Walpole of doing—he chooses only the most interesting parts of his subject. Which is hard on Rodolph Lemieux, who is a word painter himself and can strew flowers.
Sir Wilfrid Laurier might argue. But he doesn’t. To tell the truth, the Premier doesn’t care for argument, in which respect he also resembles Sir John Macdonald, who was an adept at speaking beside the question. In Quebec Sir Wilfrid uses soaring thoughts and poetic fancies. In Ontario he uses something else, but it is not argument. If a speech addressed to pure reason is what voters want they will get it far better from R. L. Borden than from Sir Wilfrid Laurier. In short, Mr. Borden’s speeches are as far ahead of Sir Wilfrid’s in fact and solid substance
as Edward Blake’s used to be ahead of Sir John Macdonald’s. And the analogy goes even further. Mr. Borden’s speeches are received just as coldly as Mr. Blake’s used to be, and one word from Sir Wilfrid Laurier will do as much to make a -crowd forget what Leader Borden has been saying as one jest from Sir John would do to upset Mr. Blake’s most eloquent periods. Some people call it magnetism. It is, perhaps, a better knowledge of human nature, a gift of putting oneself in the other man’s place and telling him what he thinks himself. Mr. Borden, as Mr. Blake did, talks above people’s heads; Sir John Macdonald never did; Sir Wilfrid Laurier never does. The crowd does not warm to Robert Borden any more than it did to Edward Blake, but it takes Sir Wilfrid Laurier to its heart much as it did Sir John Macdonald.
But I am getting away from my subject. It is still afternoon in Queen Victoria Park, Niagara Falls, and Sir Wilfrid is still speaking. He has caught his second wind and is putting reciprocity forward. Reciprocity, carried or not, is his trump card. Carried, it is a putative blessing; not carried, it is at least a good intention, which leaves a “benediction spread” like the sunset. Carried or not, it is a good election play, for the question is big enough to blot out the sins of a time-worn government and to eclipse Henri Bourassa and the Nationalists. Naturally Sir Wilfrid is making the most of it. He makes the most of it by hammering away at the salient points, stripped mostly of figures, for what he wants the audience to get is the idea, not the confusing details. He is giving the people just as much common sense as they can carry away without feeling tired. For a sample of how he does it, look at almost any speech of his on the subject in Hansard, for the unemotional House is very much like unemotional Ontario when it comes to a matter of business.
But the Premier has come to the last lap of his speech. There are charges and accusations made by the Opposition. Again the shade of John A. prompts him. He laughs a thing out of court when there is no other answer. He meets it as Sir John would—with a light word. He tells an old joke or an old story. The average Ontario voter doesn’t care for new jokes
and new stories. It stretches his mind to grasp the strange face of them, but when he sees the old ones coming he begins to smile, as it were, at friends tried and true.
The Conservatives have said “Turn the rascals out; put us in.” Sir Wilfrid comes back at them with Charles II’s quip to his brother James, when that unpopular prince informed him of a plot to assassinate him, “They will never kill me to make you king.” The Conservatives have said “Scandals.” Sir Wilfrid counters, “There never was a man half so virtuous as Mr. Borden talks.” The jest is a variant of Fox’s gibe that “Nobody could ever be quite as wise as Lord Thurlow looked.” The Conservatives have said “Extravagance.” Sir Wilfrid parries out of Dickens, making use of Micawber to prove that thrift consists in living just within one’s means. Here is Mieawber’s philosophy, as applied to the spendings of the Dominion of Canada. “Annual income, £20; expenditure, £20; result, happiness. Income, £20; expenditure, £20.6.0; result, misery. This is fooling and it goes. Yes, Sir Wilfrid talks good, racy, idiomatic English to Ontario, but his attitude is French. It is to banter. In a hostile Ontario he shrugs his shoulders.
The second Laurier that claims attention is the Laurier in Quebec. He has all Tie other heroes of that hero-worshipping province—Lafontaine, Cartier, Mercier, Chapleau—beaten a mile. Leaving the navy and individual politics out of the question, he unites all the qualities the French demand of their public men— grace, distinction, eloquence and stage presence. He is a man to turn and look at on any promenade in any company in the world. He might be taken for a great poet, a great actor, a great statesman. And any guess wrould be a good one, for he needs to be all three in his business. At all events, it is Quebec’s boast that you couldn’t mistake him for a little man anywhere. He is greater than the clergy; greater than that mauvais sujet, Henri Bourassa; greater even than Quebec, for he thinks in half continents and Quebec thinks only for herself.
His name is music in the Quebec believer’s ear, for after all is said and done it is a French name and honor to Laurier is honor to the race. Envious people say that what Laurier gets in Quebec is divine
homage such as the ancient Romans paid their emperors, and that what the Quebec audiences should use at their political meetings is not benches and chairs, but prayer-mats. There are stories—manufactured, of course—to illustrate what the simple habitant is supposed to feel about his great compatriot. When it was announced that King Edward VII had ascended the throne of England, Jean Baptiste is figured as exclaiming: “What a pull he must have had with Laurier!” Another one is that Laurier’s exact size was being discussed in a little Quebec village on the St. Lawrence. The great men of all times and climes had been mentioned. It was Jean Baptiste’s verdict that Laurier’s greatness exceeded them all, as the sun outshines a candle. “But,” said the quizzer, “is he greater than the Almighty ” “Perhaps not,” was the reluctant reply, “but you mus’ remember Sir Wilfrid, he is only a young man yet.”
Sir Wilfrid himself is not without^a sense of his own value with his own people. Being twitted once by a platform opponet, he quoted the words of the French philosopher, who, when asked what he thought of himself, replied “Very little when I judge; very much when I compare.” All of which goes to prove that he is sure of his place in the hearts of his countrymen. He comes to his own and his own receive him like a god. And no other gods of the market place can put out his light. At the Quebec Ter-' centary he shared the cheers with “Bobs.” Indeed Quebec took its cue from him as to how the applause should be divided. After the addresses had been read at the King’s Wharf, where the Prince landed, there was a pause which was gracefully, heartily and diplomatically filled by the Premier of Canada, who stepped forward with his gold-laced, cocked hat in his hand, and led off with three cheers and a tiger for His Royal Highness. If Edward VII’s son was “in right” at the Quebec Tercentary, it was Sir Wilfrid Laurier who put him there. But how would visitors, innocent of Canadian politics, puzzle it out The Crown Prince would dash by, with his escort of scarlet and gold, and the crowd would dutifully cheer. The glittering calvacade would be followed, perhaps, by a plain, open carriage, in which wouíd be seated a tall, slender man
in the simple attire of a gentleman of the twentieth century—but having the grand air withal—and the sky would split with Vive Laurier! So far as Quebec was concerned, there were two royalties at these fetes—George, Prince of Wales, heir apparent of Edward VII, and Wilfrid Laurier, the reigning King of Canada.
Sir Wilfrid Laurier loves his Quebec and his Quebec loves him. And of all places in it he loves most its quaint old capital city, which was the beginning of Canada, and he has often said that when he leaves politics or politics leave him, here he would like to pass his remaining days and here die and be buried. The reason Sir Wilfrid loves Quebec is because it is soaked with history. Every foot of it is sacred ground ; every inch of it teems with sentiment. It is the experience of the ages that, when kings and statesmen have had their say, there is something beyond wisdom and right reason which determines the course of events. And that something is the feeling of the people— in short, sentiment. The world is ruled by sentiment, and there is no place in the world where sentiment is better conserved and oftener used than Quebec. Just as poets are in love with love, so is Quebec in love with sentiment, and always she asks of her orators that they speak with a full bosom. Politicians have to grasp this point at the start or they don’t go far—in Quebec. In Ontario they call it rhetoric and sniff at it; in Quebec they speak of it as the fire of genius and warm themselves at it. Sir Wilfrid is a great orator of the kind Quebec likes. Critics say that his English is better than his French. That may be. All one can tell is that the French people of Quebec hang upon Sir Wilfrid’s French and keep asking for more. At one meeting at Three Rivers, in the campaign of 1908, an old gentleman on the platform was so busy drinking in Sir Wilfrid’s words that he swallowed his false teeth, and a patriot of 1837—they call ’em patriots there—in the audience, fainted through sheer emotion.
Sir Wilfrid Laurier gives his Quebec what his Quebec wants, just as he gives Ontario what Ontario wants. He is á skillful Autolycus, and suits his wares to his customers. He never for a moment lets go his grip of some of the largest feel-
ings in the human breast. He speaks of his old age. Sir Wilfrid is not old. His eye is bright, his mind clear, his voice strong, his form erect and buoyant. His picturesque hair is turning white, it is true, but it is not a badge of senility, it is a touch of color. Sir Wilfrid was only recently sixty-nine, and Palmerston was carrying the British Empire at eighty. However, it pleases Sir Wilfrid, jus as it used to please Sir John Macdonald, to be old for campaign purposes. There is a stage in the game of politics when it’s time for a statesman to be old and to claim the privileges and affections due to age. Sir Wilfrid has judged that for him this time has come. Therefore let him be old, and let Quebec and all the other provinces be tender to his white hairs.
Sir Wilfrid asks again to be let finish his work, the National Transcontinental Railway, which will place him on the same pinnacle of fame with his greatest predecessor, Sir John Macdonald, one of whose monuments is the C. P. R. Here is a statesman who seeks a memorial more lasting than brass, a fame equal to the greatest—after which let thy servant depart in peace. Quebec understands—and feels. Sir Wilfrid speaks of the new provinces he has helped to make and the principalities he has added to Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba. These are big words and big thoughts, brother men. It is, in short—to touch chords. In Quebec Sir Wilfrid lays his hand on his heart.
The third Laurier is the one we see in the House of Commons. Without being in the least a demagogue, the Prime Minister of Canada aims to be thought the tribune of the people. He goes to some pains to preserve the tradition that he is a democrat up to the hilt, in spite of titles before and letters after his name. Sometimes in the course of duty he has to put on his privy councillor’s uniform and appear ' at state functions with his collars, ribbons and orders. But he does not choose to remain long in the public eye in such attire, and, as soon as decency will permit, slips away to his room and changes back to his everyday clothes. And what’s more, he has always refused to have his photograph taken in “that gilded harness.” Sir Wilfrid has a reputation for sunny ways. These sunny ways of his are only skin deep. Three-quarters of Sir Wilfrid’s sunniness is just Gallic
politeness, the other quarter is tact and gracefulness. It is a sun that shines, but does not warm. At bottom the Premier is cold, calculating, absolute, adamantfirm, as successful premiers have to be.
He has no great gift of comradeship like Sir John Macdonald, whose sunshine was from the heart outward. He does not mingle freely with the members of hi3 party. His little private retiring room, in the corridor off the press room, knows him oftener than Number Sixteen, where Liberals most do congregate. He rules, one would say, more by the admiration than by the affection he inspires. His temperamental inability to be a “good mixer” is all the more remarkable because Sir John Macdonald v/as such a fine hand at it. All poets have learned from Homer, and it is no derogation from Sir Wilfrid’s greatness to say that he has models. On the great British orators—Pitt, Burke, Fox, Bright—Sir Wilfrid has formed his parliamentary style, and from Sir John Macdonald he has taken his tactics in the House. If he had it in him to be a “mixer” Sir Wilfrid would have been one, because Sir John was one, and everything Sir John did in the way of political manoeuvring was right.
In the Green Chamber Sir Wilfrid shows himself a captain adroit, aggressive, alert. He misses no little points of debate and sometimes, in the finesse .of procedure, to get ahead of the Opposition, insists on what appear to be trifles. Mr. Borden’s mind moves too slowly to circumvent the nimble casuist, who knows the rules and sub-rules of Todd and Bourinot better than Mr. Speaker himself.
Sir Wilfrid Lauriers customary attitude in the House is bold and confident. The only time anyone ever saw Sir Wilfrid “rat” in the House was one afternoon when he got too far ahead for Quebec to follow him. It was only a small matter, but it proved that Sir Wilfrid would turn and go back if he had to do it to suit his pace to Quebec’s. Dr. Roddick of Montreal had introduced a bill to create a central board of examiners for medical doctors, and to issue degrees which would be good all over the Dominion. The idea had many advantages. All the doctors in the House spoke up for it, and Sir Wilfrid himself made a little speech patting it on the back. Up rose Demers, of St. Jean and Iberville, known to be the
mouthpiece of Laval University. He said little, but that little was enough. It was little, but that little was enough. It was plain that Laval did not favor the bill. And if Laval didn’t _ favor it, the clergy didn’t favor it. And, though Sir Wilfrid may have won in 1896 bv flouting the clergy on the Manitoba School question, he doesn’t make a habit of it. The long and short of it was that Sir Wilfrid ’bout faced, the bill got the six months’ hoist and was never heard of again. Only once again was Sir Wilfrid nervous about his Quebec majority, and that was when clause sixteen of the Autonomy Bill was amended to read differently but meant the same thing. However, Quebec saw through it and stood true. And so, in the House of Commons, Laurier looks over his shoulder to see if Quebec is there.
The fourth Laurier is one that not many people see outside of deputations and axe-grinders—Laurier in his private
office in the Eastern Block. He is not at home to interviewers, but the man who succeeds in piercing the cordon of private secretaries and getting past the Premier’s next friend, Mr. William Mackenzie, finds an entirely new personality from any he has been studying before. This is not the wary politican up to every move in a game full of sharp corners; this Í3 not the spellbinder nor the sunny smiler; this is not even the practical statesman. This is a reserved and god-like being— Jove in a morning coat — seated high above our judgments. What his air conveys more than anything else is a profound detachment from sordid details. He does not fit into the devious game of politics as lesser men play it. He will not stain his mind by looking at their tricks and subterfuges. This is Laurier sitting for his picture in the gallery of fame. He must bear himself as if he already belonged to history.