Ringside reminiscences concerning some old-time political gladiators
J. LAMBERT PAYNE
‘Be at the meeting in the Town Hall next Saturday night, and dont bring your axe' handles
Old political dodger
WE ARE not taking our politics as seriously as did our forbears of half a century ago. It was a little before my time that the suggestive notice went out: 'Be at the meeting in the Town Hall next Saturday night, and don’t bring your axe-handles,’ but it was fairly indicative of the turbulence and fighting spirit which characterized the partisanship of those remote years. The change has been due to two causes: First, the issues are less provocative; and second, the battling is done to-day very largely in the newspapers.
When I say the issues are not now of a nature to arouse hot feelings, I mean that the line of cleavage between parties is not so sharply drawn as it was fifty years ago. Men talked then about their ‘political principles,’ and meant something by it, or fancied they did. As a purely personal opinion, I should say it would be difficult in these peaceful days to identify anything in the nature of a sharp-cut principle separating Grit from Tory, or either of these parties from the Progressives. It has really come to be largely a matter of ins and outs.
Certainly our campaigns are now carried on with less of warmth than were the party struggles when my experience with political warfare began. That was in 1877. It may seem a long time ago to many; but it seems like yesterday to me, and I still lack either the whiskers or the wisdom of a patriarch. I was short several months of being eighteen when the whirlgig of fate turned my life from that of a peaceful pharmacist to that of a journalist. Journalism and politics are synonymous. Eight years later I was in Ottawa as a private secretary to a Cabinet Minister, and between then and 1906 I served a number of notable men. But this is about old-time elections.
TT WAS as a -*• newspaper reporter that I made my initial contact with election methods and election gatherings.
In 1877, I joined the staff of the London Free Press, and a newworld was opened to my unsophisticated mind. The historic campaign of 1878 was taking shape, with the National Policy as the slogan of the Conservative party.
During the summer months I attended several of those florid demonstrations, euphemistically known as political picnics, the most notable of which was held at Aylmer, Ontario, with Hon. Alexander Mackenzie, Sir Richard Cartwright, Lucius Seth Huntingdon and William Paterson, of Brant, as the chief speakers. They were big men in the political realm. Mackenzie was scarcely the type of speaker who suited an open-air gathering, nor was Cartwright; but Huntingdon and Paterson were in the right place on such occasions.
Huntingdon had the best carrying voice I have ever heard, and he was at the same time fluent and effective. He also had a most attractive presence. If half a century of observation has qualified me to express an opinion on such a matter, I should be disposed to say no man can be a really good public speaker who lacks personality, clear enunciation, and a strong voice. And when I say that, I think of some of the great orators I have heard—Henry Ward Beecher, John B. Gough, T. DeWitt Talmadge, Dr. Parker, of the City Temple, London, and men of that class. As for Paterson of Brant, whom I heard speak scores of times, he was well named ‘Little Thunder,’ for in sheer volume our House of Commons has never had
his like. I have heard him roar: “Sir!” in parenthetic reference to the Speaker, in a tone that could be heard a mile away.
My next important contact was with Sir Charles Tupper, who fired the opening gun of the protection campaign in Ontario, at Chatham, Ontario, in the autumn of 1877. Nineteen years later I became his private secretary, during the hectic period, in which he was Prime Minister of Canada. He was, in 1877, a most impressive public figure—a man of dynamic force and strong individuality, with a big name in the Maritime Provinces, growing largely out of his part in bringing about Confederation.
Irishmen to the Front'
ONE of the most remarkable election meetings within my early experiences took place on the shores of Lake Huron in the early summer of 1878. I do not remember the name of the crossroads village in which it occurred; but it was some fifteen miles out from Goderich. A provincial campaign was on, and the voters at that particular point were practically all Irish. The late John J. Hawkins, of Brantford, had been sent up to represent the Conservatives, and the late Hugh MacMahon, Q. C., subsequently Judge MacMahon, had come from London to speak for the Liberals. Both were Irish Catholics, and each was suspected of having some sort of a letter from Bishop Walsh which could be turned to political account. It is necessary to remember that, as it was the key to all that happened.
It was June, and the meeting began before dark. After a good deal of wrangling about a chairman, and the order of speaking, somebody shouted that the floor, which was over a horse shed, was sinking, Everybody fled.
Then it was agreed to talk from one of the windows while the crowd listened below. MacMahon was the first speaker, and, while he was warming up, the i1 a w k i n s sympathizers formed in a body around the corner of the hall. Just at the moment when it seemed likely that MacMahon was going to produce the
Continued on page 46
Continued from page 17
suspected letter, Hawkins appeared at another window and yelled: “Irishmen to the front!” Armed with bludgeons and other fearsome weapons, the Hawkins crowd tore around the corner and drove the MacMahonites up the road. No sooner, however, did Hawkins reach the point in his speech where a letter could be read than the other crowd, shrieking the same battle cry, swept down like a tornado and took possession of the meeting.
These tactics began at about eight o’clock in the evening, and were kept up until the sun was shining in the sky next morning. During those hours, not thirty minutes of actual speaking had been done. While I knew Hugh MacMahon quite intimately, I never got any confession from him; but Hawkins told me quite frankly that the letter which he from time to time had produced from his pocket, and said he would read, was not from Bishop Walsh and had no reference to the election. I was confident then, and still am, that MacMahon was no better fortified. It was all bluff As for the electors, I don’t think they cared a whoop about the matter. They were out for a night’s fun, and got it, although there were many sore heads in the morning.
The Dogs of War
"DRAUGHT with infinitely more tragic
possibilities, was the famous meeting at Port Hood, Inverness County, Nova Scotia, in the campaign of 1896. Politics were, and still are, taken gravely among the Gaelic speaking and fiery Highlanders of Cape Breton. The meeting was Sir Charles Tupper’s; but, as it progressed, Dr. MacLennan, the Liberal candidate, entered the hall and demanded a hearing. Outside of the building MacLennan’s supporters, composed of fighting men from Margaree, were gathered. Many of them were not teetotallers. Sir Charles Hibbert Tupper was speaking at the time, and finally, as MacLennan got close to the platform, he shouted: “This meeting is ours, and by God you shall not speak. So call off your dogs of war.”
MacLennan, who was being slowly pushed forward by his excited henchmen now filling the aisles, and was literally quaking, saw his chance. “Men of Inverness,” he roared, “he calls you dogs!” Sir Charles Hibbert Tupper stood at the top of the steps leading to the platform in a belligerent attitude. He never lacked courage. I have not doubted that if a blow had been struck at that instant the place would have been turned into a shambles; but the elder Tupper intervened, and declared that some arrangement would be made to permit Dr. MacLennan to speak later. What actually happened was that the meeting was then and there taken possession of by the MacLennanites and the Tupperites were forced to retire. Subsequently blood flowed freely as the partisans clashed, and Cape Breton tradition was vindicated But there often comes before my eyes the fierce faces that swarmed into that hall at Port Hood. MacLennan won the election.
The merriest election fight I ever witnessed occurred in Guelph, Ontario, during that same spectacular campaign of 1896. I was sitting on a corner of the platform in the rink where the meeting was being held on a hot afternoon in June. The building was packed. Sir Charles Tupper was speaking. In the front rows were several hundred young men, which, to me, seemed unusual; so I was watching them. As I was doing so, I observed a sudden commotion among them, a hasty effort at joining the sections of two poles, the flash of a white strip of cotton, and then pandemonium. As this strip of cotton came into view, a hundred or more men suddenly dived headlong at the group of young men, and in the next five minutes the fighting was terrific. At the end of that time the disturbers had been ejected, many of them badly battered, and the meeting had been resumed.
What was the cause of this fierce fight? To me the whole thing was most perplexing; but to nearly everybody else it was an open book. It seems that the Liberal students at the Ontario Agricultural College, in a surge of party zeal, had made the threat that they would attend the Tupper meeting and raise a banner inscribed “Hurrah for Laurier!’ A counter threat had come from the Tories, and the whole matter had been debated for days in an angry mood. I can certify that the husky young agrarians got their banner quarter way up; but they took a frightful licking for even that partial success.
The Gallery That Failed
A WAY back in 1887, when I was on tour with the Big Four, an extraordinary event occurred at Seaforth, Ontario. The Big Four, I should perhaps explain, consisted of Sir John Macdonald Sir John Thompson, Sir George Foster and Hon. Thomas White—all gone long ago except Sir George, whom I saw the other day, hale and hearty in his eightyfirst year. As campaigners, I doubt if their equal has been seen in Canada. Be that as it may, they got a shock at this particular meeting in Seaforth. It was in December, and the meeting took place in a skating rink. To make the place comfortable, stoves had been installed on the floor of the rink.
Around the rink ran a gallery for spectators, and it was occupied wholly by ladies on this occasion. In fact, it was overloaded. As Hon. Thomas White was speaking, the iron brackets supporting the gallery began to bend. Fortunately, they did not snap. A scream warned the audience below, consisting of men, standing packed like sardines in a box, and in a moment several hundred ladies landed on this human cushion. Most of them came down head foremost, with feet in the air. The principal danger was from the stoves. Strange to say, however, no one was either seriously burned or injured. It looked like a panic for a minute or two; but cool heads, removed the danger the hot stoves had threatened.
The day before, at Lucan, a temporary gallery, put up after the fashion of a
builder’s scaffold, collapsed with a crash. The space below was packed with men; yet no one seemed to be badly hurt.
The Kissing Campaign
TT WAS either in that campaign or the
one which took place in 1891, I am not clear as to which it was, and it doesn’t matter, that Sir John Macdonald did a lot of kissing. I think it began on the way westward from Ottawa, somewhere about Belleville or Oshawa. At any rate, the news had spread through the press, and by the time Toronto had been reached, the thing became a feature of each succeeding meeting. The beginning was simple. Nine little girls in white, each with a sash bearing the name of a province, had come on the platform to present the old chief with a bouquet. Then, as they stood in a row, Sir John had given each one a kiss. At every smack there was a cheer. It was a novelty, and election crowds are easily stirred to a demonstrative mood.
But as the drift westward took place the age limit was advanced. At Berlin, as it was then called, the bouquets were borne by the prettiest young ladies in the local Tory fold, and Sir John kissed them all. Then excuses were found for lengthening the line, and by the time some of the towns west of Toronto had been reached the kissing performances had spread out to large proportions. Ladies of all ages came in for osculatory treatment, and at Chatham several buxom maidens representing the colored population were not passed over. Even our colored friends have votes, and votes constitute the object of all campaigns.
The Absent Heckler
AMID the recollections of amusing and semi-tragic events which throng into my mind, the thing which awakens poignancy is the remembrance of crowded buildings, bad air, noisy enthusiasm, unspeakable weariness, and the inseparable element of ‘make believe’. Speaking quite broadly, both sides were seeking by the sheer force of assertion and reiteration to say something like this: ‘Vote for us and our policy, because our policy is good and we are honest; do not vote for our opponents, because they and their policy are bad.’ That has been the pith of election tactics for two centuries and more; and I cannot see that any particular change has occurred in my lifetime. As a private secretary for more than twenty years, my term of service, about equally divided between Conservative and Liberal chiefs, I never saw anything to suggest that one side was better than the other.
Our campaigns on this side of the Atlantic, however, are comparatively free from what has come to be a marked feature of political meetings in Great Britain. We hear very little from hecklers, and nothing at all from the professional heckler. Thelatter abounds in such numbers in England that heckling a speaker has come to be a vocation, with profit attached. In this country a partisan audience does not take kindly to an interrupter, and I have seen some of them suffer rather rough treatment; but in Great Britain the business of asking puzzling questions is a recognized thing and is noticed by the press when so prominent a person as Lady Astor is made the subject of it. It introduces an element of variety which, as I have said, is unknown in our political campaigns.
Sir Charles Hibbert Tupper once told me a story which would seem to come in appropriately at this point. The scene was Whycocomagh, among the hot-headed Highlanders of Cape Breton. Sir Charles Hibbert said there was anxiety among the Tories when he arrived, because of threats of trouble from the other side.
“We should be all right,” said one of his friends, “if we could get Doctor Jim to come. “Doctor Jim, a graduate of McGill, was a great fighter, all muscle, and a young giant. He was approached, and consented to come. “I’ll bring my gloves,’ he said with a smile. Putting on an old suit of clothes, he went to the meeting, sat on the edge of the platform, and in full view of the audience pulled on his buckskin gloves.
Those gloves had a reputation. They stood for hard blows, backed up by courage. There were trouble-makers present; but they were as quiet as lambs. Doctor Jim had his gloves on. I had often heard of bloody fights among the partisans of Cape Breton, and, having seen a good deal of the people in that part of Canada, such stories seemed to libel them ; but I could well understand that beneath a placid exterior there lay the fierce passions of a fighting race. I got a glimpse of that fierceness at the Port Hood meeting.
A Spectacular Entry
T HAVE alluded incidentally to crowds;
and they are undoubtedly essential to political campaigns. It also seems necessary to have enthusiasm. Success, in fact, is measured by the volume of noise, much of which, I soon learned, figures in the bill of expenses later. Bands, torchlights, fireworks, banners, floats and so on, cost money. A crowd goes before everything else.
It is possible, nevertheless, to have too much of a good thing. At Stratford, Ontario, when the Big Four turned up in 1887, it seemed as if there would be no meeting at all, because of the size of the crowd. There had been a procession, in which the carriages bearing the distinguished visitors had been drawn by lines of sturdy electors—probably at so much per—and there were bands and fireworks. During this demonstration the foresighted had flocked to the hall. They had taken time by the forelock in such numbers that when the big fellows arrived the place was packed to the outer door. Every inch of the stairway leading upward was jammed. There was no rear entrance. What to do? The only thing was for the statesmen to walk on the shoulders of the crowd, from the street right to the platform; and that was precisely what they did. I can still seethe dignified and heavy Sir John Thompson making the journey, and I know he didnO like it; but Sir John Macdonald took it with his customary good nature.
A Vast Weariness
TAURING my half century of experience I have been in every constituency in the Dominion save two at the southern end of Nova Scotia, two in Ontario and three in Quebec. As I have said, the dramatic incidents were less impressive than the vast weariness of the whole business and the element of sham. The bad air was worst of all. If it was hard on me, it was no less wearing on the public men whom I accompanied. Surely the cost of keeping ‘in,’ or getting ‘in.’ is unreckonable.
I do not for a moment mean to suggest that there is an utter lack of sincerity in our political campaigns. These men, who endure such genuine hardships in order to win elections, are unquestionably in earnest. But none know better the mockery and pretence that lie at the bottom of election methods, and none know better the frightful cost of the whole business. Yet that is the way elections have been won and lost as far back as my memory goes. Perhaps my cynicism is partly due to a long life behind the scenes. That’s where the truth stands naked; and it is ugly.