The Great and Gay John A.
Wit, roisterer, genius, here's our first Primes Minister—but not the man you heard about in school
Maclean’s Ottawa Editor
ATA yachting party on the Potomac in 1871, an American senator’s wife found herself beside a tall, thin, remarkably homely man who said he came from Canada.
“You have a smart man up there in Canada, this John A. Macdonald,” she remarked.
“But,” she went on, “they tell me he’s a regular rascal.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said the Canadian, “he is a perfect rascal.”
“Why do they keep such a man in power?” “Well, they can’t seem to get on without him.” The senator’s wife couldn’t understand it. “How is that?” she asked. “They say he’s a real scalawag—”
At this moment her husband came up, bowed to her lanky companion and said, “My dear, let me introduce the first Prime Minister of Canada, the Honorable Sir John Macdonald.”
Sir John beamed at the lady’s confusion. “Don’t apologize,” he said. “All you’ve said is perfectly true and well known at home.”
Well known it was, and it puzzled others than the senator’s wife. The Grits couldn’t understand it either. To old Sir Richard Cartwright the voters’ fondness for John A. merely proved “the utter worthlessness of so-called public opinion.” What, after all, had he done?
Confederation had not been his idea. Galt, the Quebec Protestant leader, had been first to propound it. Georges Etienne Cartier sold it to the French, Dr. Tupper rammed it past Nova Scotia. And it was George Brown, the Clear Grit leader and scorpion-tongued editor of the T oronto Globe, whose co-operation made it possible in Ontario.
Macdonald hadn’t even favored Confederation at first. When a committee under George Brown reported in favor of the scheme in 1864, Macdonald was one of three dissenting members. But once he did accept the idea he became indispensable to its achievement.
Canada’s constitution was the product of his mind more than of any other. He worked
out the subtle phrasings that dissolved deadlocks between races or regions. His charm, his unique power of persuasion, brought individuals into harmony.
It was John A., for instance, who won the seemingly implacable Joseph Howe into a Confederation Cabinet, and thus permanently damped the powder of secessionists in Nova Scotia. It was John A. whose “friendly relations with the French” had founded a great national party in 1854, and disarmed Quebec’s suspicion of Ontario in 1867. Perhaps no one region trusted him most—Ontario’s Protestants might rely on George Brown, Quebec on Cartier, the Maritimes on Howe or Tupper or Tilley. But John A. was the only man whom all regions trust ed enough to make government possible.
It was hard to explain, and to the strait-laced Grits it was scandalous, but this jaunty, bibulous, somewhat disreputable character had made Canada.
He Knew His Canada
ONCE WHEN George Brown denounced him in the Globe for getting drunk, John A. answered the charge at a public meeting. What the Globe said might be true, he said, “but I know the electors of Canada would rather any day have John A. drunk than George Brown sober.”
And so they would. Canadians felt intuitively that they needed this man. Except for the one term (1873-78), when the Pacific Scandal blew him out of office, they stood by him solidly from Confederation to his death in 1891; as he told the senator’s wife they couldn’t seem to get on without him. Maybe it was because he, more than any man of his time, knew his country—knew it not as it could have been or should have been, but as it was.
Canada in Victoria’s day was not at all Victorian. It was a raw, backward frontier land, far more like Abe Lincoln’s Illinois than like Gladstone’s Britain or Emerson’s New England.
In Ontario, until 1854, the neglected wilderness of the Clergy Reserves blocked the roads to market. In at least one township a settler had to make a 10-day return journey to get his wheat to the nearest gristmill.
Schools were for the few. In the ’40’s Egerton Ryerson’s campaign for free schools in Upper Canada was denounced by the Tories as “communism.” In Nova Scotia, even in 1864, Dr. Tupper’s law providing tax money for education provoked riots, and many a country schoolhouse was burned to the ground.
Of course it was polite to assume that everyone had a classical education. When Lord DufTerin addressed a McGill Convocation in Greek, the press report said “His Lordship spoke in the purest ancient Greek without mispronouncing a word or making the slightest grammatical solecism.”
“I wonder who told the reporter that?” Sir Hector Langevin remarked to John A.
“I did,” was the reply.
“But you don’t know any Greek,” Sir Hector protested.
“No,” said John A., “but I know a little about politics.”
Canada was a brawling country, too, and to the end of his days John A. loved a brawl. In his first court case he got into a fist fight with the opposing counsel. In the ’50’s, though he was a Privy Councillor, he came within an ace of fighting two
duels—one with Edward Blake, when the Speaker had the sergeant-at-arms arrest Macdonald to stop him from sending a challenge; once with a Colonel Rankin, who was annoyed by John A.’s procedure in appointing the postmaster in Rankin’s riding. This was settled by Rankin’s apology.
On the floor of Parliament in 1861 John A. shook his fist at Oliver Mowat, his former articled clerk, and shouted, “You damned pup, I’ll slap your chops for you.” He had a fight on the hustings in 1874 with Carruthers, his opponent in Kingston. Even in 1878, when he was 63, he tried to settle an argument in the House of Commons by physical combat.
The occasion was a quarrel between John A. and Dr. Tupper, on one side, and Donald A. Smith (later Lord Strathcona) on the other. The last recorded utterance in 1878 Hansard, jotted down as Black Rod came in to announce prorogation, is a remark by Sir John Macdonald:
“That man Smith is the biggest liar I ever met.” Hansard ends there; the incident did not. As Mr. Spçaker left the chair John A. came storming down the aisle after Smith, shouting, “I can lick you quicker than hell can scorch a feather.” Colleagues came between them and prevented him from proving his boast.
A Wide-open Country
MOST CANADIANS thought no less of John A.
for this, any more than they minded his drinking. Canada, like any frontier, was a hard-drinking country.
When the Fathers of Confederation met for three weeks in Quebec in 1864 their liquor bill ran over $1,600, with French brandy at only $1.25 a pint.
In the 1850’s a semiofficial pamphlet for immigrants called Canadian whisky a “cheap and wholesome beverage.” It was cheap, anyway—25 cents a gallon. People bought it from the grocer a jug at a time, and in many houses it was kept in an open bucket with a tin cup beside it. George Brown said Canada in 1854 had 931 whisky shops, 58 steamboat bars, 3,430 taverns, 130 breweries and 135 distilleries. The population then was about 2>2millions.
Against all this, of course, some of the people reacted strongly—to the other extreme, in fact. Especially in Ontario there were hives of reformers, Calvinist in creed and Grit in politics. But these electors were often the most demanding and the most ungrateful of voters. As one old lady said to Liberal Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie:
“We all know John A., and we don’t expect much from him, but you are a Christian man, Mr. Mackenzie.” Mackenzie lasted one term, while the genially wicked Sir John seemed to go on forever.
“Unhappily, in a contested election,” said Sir Richard Cartwright morosely, “one popular tavern keeper can often do more than a score of worthy citizens in the way of influencing votes.”
This was the society in which John A. Macdonald grew up. When his parents settled in Kingston the town had no sidewalks; the local newspaper complained that in wet weather it was “scarcely possible to move about without being in mud to the ankles.” The paper campaigned for some kind of street lighting “in the dark of the moon,” also for enforcement of the by-law prohibiting the piling of wood in public thoroughfares.
In this poor community John A. was rated a poor boy. His father was an amiable failure, and a toper to boot. Failure in Glasgow had brought Hugh Macdonald to Canada in the first place. That was in 1820, when young John Alexander was five. Then came failure in Kingston, failure as a shopkeeper in nearby Hay Bay, failure as a miller in Stone Mills, until at last he came back to Kingston to an obscure job in the Commercial Bank which he held until he died.
Somehow the Macdonalds found money to give John A. a little schooling. Not much—five years in Kingston Grammar School were all he ever got — but few Canadians had more in his day. A boy could still do as Macdonald did, sign on as'a lawyer’s clerk and become himself a lawyer at 21.
He “Filled a Gap”
WITH HIS background of Presbyterian poverty it’s odd that Macdonald ever lined up with the Tories. Tories were mainly Anglican English. As a Scots Calvinist John A. would normally have been Grit.
Maybe his mother influenced him. She was the brains of the family, the idol of her scapegrace son, and she was a Jacobite’s daughter—her father, James Shaw, had been “out in ’45” and fought for Prince Charlie at Culloden.
Or maybe it was John A.’s realism, picking the stronger side. Anyway he did go with the Tories. He carried a musket for the Family Compact in the rebellion of 1837; he won his first election to the Assembly of Upper and Lower Canada as member for Kingston in 1844, as a backer of the reactionary Governor Metcalfe and his puppet premier, Draper. But it’s doubtful if the young Macdonald gave much thought to political principles. Joseph Pope, his devoted secretary, once asked him how he came to run in 1844.
“To fill a gap,” said the old man. “There seemed to be no one else available, so I was pitched upon.” At first he didn’t like it much. A contemporary recalls him “looking half careless and half contemptuous” at the wrangles in the Assembly, and being absent much of the time. He spent hours in the library, perhaps laying the foundation for the great breadth of knowledge that later amazed men , who knew of his scanty schooling. He talked little— “scarcely five speeches in Continued on page 42
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The Great and Gay John A.
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five sessions” by his own account of those early years.
What drew him deeper into the political game was sheer ability. He was so obviously the ablest man the Tories had that Draper took him into the Cabinet at the age of 32, after only three years in public life.
Macdonald’s pre-eminence as a parliamentarian is not easy to define. He was not a great speaker by contemporary account, though perhaps we today might value him more highly. His were the days of pompous and flowery eloquence, of seven - hour speeches exhaustively prepared, whereas John A. spoke in a conversational style, with jerks of the head and winks and smiles, and many a funny story. He could rise to the great occasion with a great speech, as in his magnificent defense of the Treaty of Washington in ’71, but far offener he would answer a ponderous attack with a jest.
He was a worker of incredible stamina. On one day that happens to have been recorded, he left Eamscliffe, his Ottawa residence, at 9 a.m. for a series of hard committee meetings, then went to Parliament at three. Those were the days of continuous sittings until the House might choose to adjourn, and this particular sitting was a hot one—
steady attack all afternoon and all evening, while Sir John listened diligently. At midnight the great Edward Blake, ablest of Liberal debaters, got up and spoke for four hours, then John A. got up at 4 a.m. to reply.
Lady Macdonald sat in the gallery with her heart in her mouth; after such a day she thought even he must break down and make a sorry showing. But John A. spoke for two hours without notes, answered each of Blake’s points succinctly and solidly, and finished at six o’clock looking fresh as a daisy.
Even Foes Liked Him
He never squandered his energy on detail, never looked up authorities or waded through official papers. He chose his aides well and let them get him the facts. When they had put these into the briefest space Sir John would spend a few minutes absorbing their essentials. Then with a few notes— “generally on the back of an envelope,” says Pope, “which he frequently contrived to mislay”—he would deliver a short speech that was “a luminous exposition of the whole subject.”
Neither his stamina nor his intellectual brilliance, though, were as remarkable as his patience—the quality that got him his nickname “Old Tomorrow”—and his judgment.
“The great reason why I have always
been able to beat Brown,” said John A., “is that I have been able to look a little ahead, while he could on no occasion forego the temptation of a temporary triumph.”
Even a Grit historian admits that Macdonald’s “unfailing judgment led him unerringly to pursue the course most likely to succeed each hour, each day, each year.” And the course most likely to succeed was also—in all but one case—the course most likely to hold Canada together.
The one great exception was the Louis Riel rebellion in ’70 and again in ’85, when the line of least resistance led to disaster. Twice in 15 years the western half-breeds were driven to rebellion by grievances of which the Macdonald Government had been warned and of which it did nothing. Then, after shilly-shallying until the poor demented Riel had been built up into a French-Canadian martyr, the Government yielded to Orange pressure and let the miserable fellow hang, this after having paid him a dole to stay out of the country in the early 70’s, and having winked at his presence in Quebec for years between the two rebellions.
All in all the Riel business could hardly have been worse handled, and it gave a wound to Canadian unity that is not yet fully healed. There John A.’s “unfailing judgment” did fail, there “Old Tomorrow’s” faith in Time, the Healer, did betray him.
But perhaps the outstanding mark of Macdonald’s greatness was a power he delighted to use—the power of molding men to his will. He had an extraordinary gift of making men love him.
One of his inveterate enemies, a man who consistently attacked him in language as strong as the rules of Parliament allow, was asked if he had any personal dislike of John A. Quite the contrary, he answered; he found Macdonald’s personality so attractive that “Pm afraid to trust myself in his company.”
Sir John’s Little List
Partly this charm was the innate warmth of his nature, a force that could be felt but not described. But partly it was ordinary kindliness and thoughtfulness vigilantly applied.
David Thompson, an old and loyal Liberal M.P., was once laid up by serious illness for nearly a whole session. He got to Ottawa at last, and here’s his own account of his reception:
“The first man 1 met was Blake; he passed me with a simple nod. The next man I met was Cartwright, and his greeting was about as cold as Blake’s.
“Hardly had I passed these men when I met Sir John. He took me by the hand, gave me a slap on the shoulder and said. ‘Davy, old man, Pm glad to see you back. I hope you’ll soon be yourself again, and live many a day to vote against me as you always have done.’ ”
“I never gave the Old Man a vote in my life,” Thompson added, “but hang me if it doesn’t go against my grain to follow men who haven’t a kind word for me, and oppose a man with a heart like Sir John’s.”
That was the kind of thing that made thousands of Canadians “personal friends” of John A. Macdonald.
One of his Quebec supporters, a man named Landry, once wrote to ask for a judgeship that had fallen vacant.
“It certainly never occurred to me,” John A. wrote back, “that you would be an aspirant. You are so important to the administration and the party that I had looked forward to your career being a political one . . . Ten years hence will be time enough to set yourself aside, and make yourself a legal monk.”
Said another Conservative M.P.: “I never asked a favor of Sir John that wasn’t refused—but I could hardly ever convince myself that the refusal wasn’t a favor.”
Sir John used his power quite deliberately. At the start of a Parliament he would go over the list of members. With a red pencil he would score out the unregenerate Grits whom he could not hope to capture. Then he’d put a blue tick beside his known supporters. For the doubtfuls he had a special mark. He would go to work on these, having them to dinner and so on, and more often than not they too would have a blue tick after their names before the session was over.
From his followers he asked only one thing, loyalty. Principal Grant of Queen’s once said to him, “I’ve always supported you, Sir John, when I believed you were right.”
John A.’s reply was only half facetious: “That’s no use to me. I want men who will support me when I’m wrong.”
If he could bind them by other ties than friendship, so much the better. Cartwright, in the days when they were still friends, asked him over the dinner table what sort of Cabinet he would like if he could choose whom he wanted.
“Oh,” said John A., “they’d all be highly respectable parties whom I could send to penitentiary if I liked.”
He’d Buy Men, Too
When he was quite old his granddaughters used to come to visit him. The old man would sit down each evening, purse his lips, and hold out a nickel between thumb and finger.
“Which do you want,” he’d say, “a nickel or a kiss?”
Then he would chuckle as the two little girls fought, invariably, for the nickel. Perhaps he thought it a parable of human nature. At. any rate he had no hesitation, not only in flattering and cajoling men, but in buying them for cash.
In 1872, on the eve of an election, Sir Hugh Allan was dickering with the Macdonald Government for a contract to build the CPR. Sir Georges Cartier wrote to Sir Hugh as follows:
Montreal, 30th July, 1872. “Private and Confidential.
“Dear Sir Hugh: The friends of the Government will expect to be assisted with funds in the pending elections, and any amount which you or your company will advance for that purpose shall be recouped to you. A memorandum of immediate requirements is below:”
In the memorandum Sir John Macdonald was down for a total of $35,000, Cartier for $50,000, Sir Hector Langevin for $25,000.
Cartier died before the scandal broke, and Macdonald told Lord Dufferin he had been “quite unaware of the extent to which (Cartier) had committed himself in Montreal . . . Not until after his death were any of his colleagues aware of his insane course.” But John A. at least knew where to turn for more money. On August 26 he had wired Sir Hugh Allan’s lieutenant, J.J.C. Abbott:
“I must have another ten thousand. Will be last time of calling. Do not fail. Answer today.”
Abbott sent the $10,000.
When this came out it broke John A. —forever, Liberals thought, and many Conservatives agreed, even though they did re-elect him party leader when he offered to quit.
“If ever there was a man in low water,” said an M.P. of the day, “it was Sir John as I saw him in the winter of 1875, coming out of the House into the bitter air, dressed in a Red River sash and coat and the old historic mink-skin
cap, tottering down the hill to the East Gate alone, others passing him with a wide sweep.”
Three years later he was back in power with the biggest majority of his life. Scandal or no scandal, Canadians couldn’t get on without John A.
They knew he hadn’t taken the money for himself—he was desperately and notoriously hard up during the five years in opposition. And anyway, this kind of thing was done all the time. The Grits, for all their pious talk, were said to be just as bad.
The very evidence with which they had exposed the Pacific Scandal, they got by bribery—they bought up a secretary of J. J. C. Abbott for $5,000 and the promise of a job from the future Liberal Government. (There’s an affidavit to this effect among the Macdonald Papers in the Public Archives.) John Willison, who ought to know, says George Brown was “just as unscrupulous in elections as Sir John Macdonald.”
Cartwright’s reminiscences are full of self-righteous wrath against John A.’s “malversations in office.” But when Mercier’s Liberal Government in Quebec was dismissed for precisely similar graft, Cartwright tried to have John Willison fired for printing the story in the Liberal Globe.
These were the political customs of the time. The Pacific Scandal was not John A.’s only departure from propriety, though it was the only one he ever bothered to defend.
He was unseated in Lennox County after the 1882 election. The petitioner alleged that John A., or his agents, had bribed 110 voters, all duly named—43 sold their votes for $5 apiece, four got $100 each, others got anywhere from $1 to $50 or were corrupted by “intoxicating liquors and refreshments.” John A.’s counsel confessed judgment on condition the Grits would withdraw the personal charge against him. He then ran again in the by-election and won easily.
John A. in His Cups
Once when he was Attorney-General for Upper Canada he was away from his office for a week. Sir Edmund Head, the Governor-General, sent his young aide-de-camp, Lord Bury, to Macdonald’s lodgings to root him out and get him back to work.
Lord Bury found the AttorneyGeneral in bed reading a novel, with a decanter of sherry beside him.
“Mr. Macdonald,” said Lord Bury, “the Governor-General asked me to tell you that if you don’t sober up and get back to business he will not be answerable for the consequences.”
Macdonald gave him a Highland scowl. “Are you here in your official capacity,” he said, “or as a private individual?”
“What difference does that make?”
“Just this,” said John A. “If you are here in your official capacity give my compliments to Sir Edmund Head and tell him to go to hell. If you’re here as a private individual you can go yourself.”
There is in existence a memorandum, never published, by one of Sir John’s colleagues in the ’70’s. I haven’t seen it, but I’ve talked to two men who did see it and their recollections coincide very closely. Here, for what it’s worth, is the story:
When the Pacific Scandal was being debated Sir John went incommunicado for a while by the familiar method. His followers decided the Old Man would have to come out and defend them, and Hon. Peter Mitchell was sent down to get him. He found Sir John in bed with a towel round his head, reading a French novel.
Somewhat unwillingly Sir John came forth. When he got up to the House he said, “Now, Peter, this is going to be a great effort, and I may need some refreshment. If I beckon for a glass of water, I want you to send the water in—and put some gin in it.”
After a quarter of an hour or so, Sir John beckoned for water and Peter Mitchell sent in the gin. This happened two or three times. As the fourhour speech wore on Mitchell could see the effect of this sustenance.
Finally Sir John signalled for another tot which he quite evidently didn’t need. Peter Mitchell mixed a very weak gin and water. The Prime Minister downed it at a gulp, remarked “Too weak” in an audible mutter, and went into his famous peroration. That marked the end of his tether; he sat down rather suddenly, and the great speech ended in a gurgle.
When it was over Thomas White of Montreal came over to Mitchell. “I saw you sending glasses of water to the Chief,” he said. “Was that just water you were giving him?”
“No,” said Mitchell, “it was partly gin.”
“The old rascal told me to do the same thing,” White said. Between them, they figured, they’d sent him about a dozen gins.
He Knew Personal Tragedy
Just why Macdonald drank so heavily no one knows, but it was more than mere conviviality. It may have been the effect of a tragic life, full of bereavement.
When he was seven years old he saw his little brother killed—scared and beaten into convulsions by an old sot who had been hired to look after the children for an evening. His first wife died after years of illness, leaving him with a seven-year-old boy. Their elder son had already died at two, fatally hurt in a fall. Thirty years later Lady Macdonald found an old box that her husband had kept by him, filled with “Little John A.’s” toys.
Worst blow of all,his daughter Mary, the only child of his second marriage, was helpless all her life—she had hydrocephalus (fluid on the brain) and though she outlived him many years, never really grew up. Sir John and his wife used to take Mary everywhere, in a wheel chair or carried in arms. They spoke of her as if she were normal, had parties for her, gave her an affection both noble and pathetic to see. Men now living can remember the aged couple, taking their daughter about when she was so big it took a sturdy man to carry her, and still treating her as a beloved child.
Sadness like that would have to scar a man somewhere, and no other scar showed on John A. All the chronicles speak of his ever - ready wit, his jaunty and flippant air. Even his clothes had a suggestion of gay mockery about them—in a day of sober dignity he indulged a fondness for bright ties, and coats of odd cut. Such gaiety could only flow from strength.
Macdonald’s strength was manifold. Compared to the violent and vindictive Brown, who quit the Confederation Cabinet in pique when someone else was sent to Washington; to the hypersensitive prima donna Blake; to Alexander Mackenzie, wracked to his dying day with a torture of regret that he had dissolved Parliament in September instead of June—beside these men John A. stands like a giant.
“We are all mere petty provincial politicians at present,” he wrote to a Governor-General soon after Confederation. “Perhaps by and by some of us will rise to the level of national statesmen.” More than any man of his
time Sir John did rise to that level. He had a concept of Canada as it was to be, and of what it needed.
An example is the transcontinental railway, the occasion of his disgrace and yet perhaps his greatest service to the nation. John A. saw the railway not as a means of making money—his contempt for money was profound— but as a means of making Canada.
“Until this great work is completed,” he told the Colonial Secretary, “our Dominion is little more than a ‘geographical expression.’ We have as much interest in B. Columbia as in Australia, no more. The railway once finished we become one great united country with a large interprovincial trade and a common interest.”
His Vision of Canada
Macdonald is commonly labelled an Imperialist—“a British subject I was bom, a British subject I shall die” was the slogan of his last campaign. But to him the Empire, too, was primarily an instrument of making Canada a nation. The alternative, in his view, would have been absorption by the United States.
For the English as such he had small regard. He wrote to Sir John Rose about the Red River trouble: “To send out an overwashed Englishman, utterly ignorant of the country and full of crotchets, as all Englishmen are, would be a mistake.”
Negotiating the Treaty of Washington in 1871 he was furious at British disregard of Canadian interests. “The British Commissioners seem to have only one thing in mind,” he wrote home; “th'at is, to go home to England with a treaty in their pockets, settling everything, no matter at what cost to Canada.” Canada had wanted compensation for the Fenian Raids, and got none; it also felt that the settlement of the B. C. boundary was unfair.
When Gladstone wanted Canadian aid in putting down the 1885 rebellion in the Sudan, Macdonald told Tupper to say no.
“The Suez Canal is nothing to us,” he wrote to his High Commissioner, “and we do not ask England to quarrel with France or Germany for our sakes . . . Why should we waste money and men in this wretched business? England is not at war, but merely helping the Khedive to put down an insurrection, and now that Gordon is gone, the motive of aiding in the rescue of our countrymen is gone with him. Our men and money would therefore be sacrificed to get Gladstone and Co. out of the hole they have plunged themselves into by their own imbecility.”
John A. saw Canada’s role as something bigger. “I hope to live to see the day,” he told Parliament, “and if I do not, I hope my son will be spared to see Canada the right arm of England, a powerful auxiliary to the Empire and not, as now (1871), a cause of anxiety and danger.”
But above all, he saw Canada’s nature and her need at home. In the 1850’s he wrote to Brown Chamberlain, owner and editor of the Montreal Gazette:
“The trouble is that you British Canadians can never forget that you were once supreme, that Jean Baptiste was once your hewer of wood and drawer of water ... You struggle for Ascendancy. If a Lower Canadian Britisher desires to conquer he must ‘stoop to conquer.’ He must make friends with the French. Without sacrificing the principles of his race or his lineage he must respect their nationality. Treat them as a nation and they will act as a free people generally do—generously. Treat them as a
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faction and they become factious.”
No other leader of that day had such a vision of a united Canada. As late as 1887, 20 years after Confederation, four provincial premiers met in conclave with the object, virtually, of dissolving Canada into its component parts. Mowat of Ontario, Mercier of Quebec, Norquay of Manitoba and Fielding of Nova Scotia formally demanded changes in the Constitution
that would have turned Canada back into a loose federation of sovereign states. And they were the leaders of their time, the coming men. Until Laurier took over the Liberal Party and made it his own, nobody stood against them but the Old Man.
People said of him that he always followed the popular will, that his one principle was to give the voters what they wanted. In small ways that was true. But he never betrayed his vision
of Canada, and he made that choice with his eyes wide open.
“Had I but consented to take the popular side in Upper Canada,” he wrote to a friend in ’69, “I could have ridden the Protestant horse much better than George Brown, and could have had an overwhelming majority. But I willingly sacrificed my own popularity for the good of the country, and did equal justice to all men.”
Let that be his epitaph. ★