How Sir John A. passed out patronage and built a nation all at once

Beneath the surface of the statesman was the wily, careful politician. So from his cluttered study poured an astounding avalanche of petty messages as revealing of the man as the history he was making


How Sir John A. passed out patronage and built a nation all at once

Beneath the surface of the statesman was the wily, careful politician. So from his cluttered study poured an astounding avalanche of petty messages as revealing of the man as the history he was making


How Sir John A. passed out patronage and built a nation all at once

Beneath the surface of the statesman was the wily, careful politician. So from his cluttered study poured an astounding avalanche of petty messages as revealing of the man as the history he was making



I must apologize for not having answered your note before.

When an opportunity offers l shall be glad to do what l can for your son. but at present we are all in confusion endeavouring to get the new enormous machine in motion.

Very faithfully yours.

The “new enormous machine" was Confederation.

The writer was John A. Macdonald, Father of Confederation.

The date was July 1, 1867, birth of Confederation.

For Macdonald it was a day of triumph. For the nation he had done so much to create it was a day of history. But he still found time not only to answer the anxious Mrs. Benson, but also to write four other letters (out of 14 he sent on Canada's first Dominion Day) in answer to routine requests from favor-seekers.

Like most other politicians in those days of open patronage, Macdonald's correspondence during almost half a century in office often read like that of a government employment agency. And Macdonald was unusually conscientious. courteous and quick in answering the humblest favor-seekers.

Nowhere does this meticulous trait show up more strikingly than in the busiest and most momentous 1 2-month period in his life. The pages of his Letterbooks (large volumes of tissuethin, waterpress copies, part of a formidable stack of 569 portfolios of Macdonald’s papers in the Public Archives in Ottawa) show/ that almost a third of his correspondence between July I. 1X66. and July 1. 1867, dealt

with routine requests and recomnlendations that today's politicians woerd relegate to a fifth-assistant secretary:

TO FRANCIS ABBOTT. OF OTTAWA: "Dear Sir. I have to acknowledge the receipt of your memorial of the Xth instant, on the subject of an increase of wages to you as operator on the Rideau Canal. I shall speak to Mr. Chapais the Commissioner of Public Works, in your behalf. Yours truly."

TO MRS. E. D. S. W it KINS. OF BRESCO II : “Madam, i regret to say that at present I can hold out but little hope of Mr. Wilkins being employed in the public service.

“The Government of Canada is coming to an end, and no appointments are made except those that are absolutely required. It will be for the future Government of British North America and the local government of Upper and Lower Canada to make appointments. I remain. Madam. Your very obedt servant."

TO RIC HARD WRIGHT. ESQ., OF GODERICH: "Dear Sir, I have yours of the 10th. 1 have mentioned your name

favorably to the Commissioner of Public Works, as it rests with him to make the appointment of lighthouse keeper. Yours faithfully.”

IO I I INI I. KEKGER, ESQ.. OF JERSEY V11.1. e: "Sir. I have your letter of the 9th instant, and have the honor to inform you that 1 will not be able to undertake to introduce any measure for the alteration of the law respecting bastardy and affiliation during the present Session. I am. Sir. Your obedient servant.” / continued on page 29

SIR JOHN A. continued from page 19

For a would-be briber a bristle, for spies small handouts


“Dear Sir, Mr. Richard Cartwright is calling upon the Government to see a proper wall is erected between the Asylum and his premises. I think he has a right to insist upon such a wall being built and not to be liable to the intrusion of lunatics. Will you be good enough to obtain a report or estimate of the cost of an inexpensive but sufficient wall between the two properties as soon as possible and oblige. Yours faithfully.”


SIMCOE: “My dear Sir, 1 omitted to answer your question about a wreck.

I think when a dead body is driven ashore from a wreck, an inquest ought to be held and the cause of the wreck incuired into. The body should of course be buried under the instructions of the Crown after the inquest. Your very truly.”

Stacks of similar trivia jostle the affairs of state in Macdonald's correspondence just before Confederation. And yet at this crucial point in Canada’s history he was leader of the Upper Canada Coalitionists, Attorney General for Canada West and Minister of Militia, which left him carrying the load of the recurrent Fenian crises that plunged the country into a nervous state of near-war. He was also working miracles of Machiavellian mediation to bring about some agreement in the chaos of conflicting

personalities, plots, and counterplots that vexed pre - Confederation Canadian politics. And he was chairman of the contentious London Conference on the British North America Bill, which took him out of Canada for several months.

On top of all this, he married for the second time, after a whirlwind courtship in England, cramming his wedding ceremony and honeymoon into a long weekend break during debate on the first reading of the BN A Bill in the House of Lords.

Throughout these hectic times. Macdonald's copious correspondence with favor - and - job - seekers showed amazing patience and politeness — which is more than can be said for some of the applicants, who often hounded him unmercifully.

Only once did he lose his celebrated temper, and this was when George Stevenson, of Sarnia, offered him a bribe of $1,000 a year for four years if he'd see to it that Stevenson’s son was appointed Registrar of Lambton.

Macdonald’s answer to this “great insult" fairly bristled with indignation: "... If I did my duty I should not only publish your letter but take legal proceedings against you. 1 shall, however, abstain from doing so as at present advised. I must, however, inform you that the fact of your having written me such a letter must prevent me from submitting your son's name

at all to His Excellency for that office.”

Although he was amazingly conscientious about forwarding favorseeking requests to the proper authorities. some of the applicants wouldn't have been too happy if they'd seen his candid comments on their qualifications or lack of them. A typical Macdonald recommendation is this letter to Colonel MacDougall, Adjutant General of Militia:

"My dear Colonel. I have yours of the 27th. All right about Pope and Cirant. Steers will do for the third clerkship. Hurd is smart enough, but he is not honest, and not the person for a storekeeper.

"1 think that Col. MacDougall Ianother officer of the same name| had better be appointed District Paymaster ... I don't understand the duties of paymaster, but presume they merely involve accuracy in accounts, coupled with undoubted integrity. Would not this be a good opportunity of employing Sir James Hay? He is an old officer and thoroughly red tape, so that his accounts would be all correct.” (A month later. Macdonald was still writing MacDougall about the job for Steers, one of his regular suppliants.)

These personal and detailed instructions about paymasters and third clerkships were written on August 30. just three days after the Fenian invasion threat had reached a point that caused

Canada to send an urgent appeal to England for reinforcements. At the same time Macdonald was under a vicious newspaper attack which accused him of having been too drunk to know what he was doing during the summer's Fenian raids. He was also trying desperately to get his affairs in order to leave for the muchpostponed BNA talks in London, where the fractious Maritimers had gone in mid-Julv.

As the border situation worsened, Macdonald was bombarded by requests for various military posts, including positions in a Mounted Force that didn't yet exist. He also received numerous offers from Americans to spy for the “secret service of Canada” for a suitable monetary reward. An efficient system operated in several border points, and Macdonald — always a great believer in knowing what the enemy, either military or political, was up to — usually authorized “small sums of money” for any useful information.

By September 17 the strain finally caused Macdonald’s urbanity to slip a little. In a letter passing along a request for promotion to Colonel MacDougall, he wrote plaintively: "... I cannot get people to understand that these communications should he made to the Adjutant-General's Dep't. and you must come out with a new Militia general order and notice on the subject.”

Nevertheless, he managed to carry on a lively correspondence with an excitable Irish jail surgeon. Thomas W. Johnston, who wrote to ask him if

Help for “a rather fast gent”

he knew' a young man by the name of Shibley, charged with murder along with his alleged mistress Kate Davis after her three-year-old daughter was found beaten to death.

" ... Ele seems to he a rather last gent." wrote the doctor, who thought he might he related to Shibley’s mother-in-law and wanted Macdonald's help in finding out more about the family. "Do please write me if only a few words, of who and what he is. if his wife wuis a daughter oí my old relation and dear friend Mary Greer the wife of James — I would do all in my power for him as a Christian man and a relation ..."

“Dear Sir.” Macdonald wrote in reply, “. . . Schuyler Shibley who is now confined in your gaol on a charge of murder I know very well. He is a smart active fellow, a great speculator and a good man of business, though, as you say rather fast. From old acquaintance sake 1 am much interested in him and hope he may come safely” [Macdonald had first written "creditably,” then crossed it out anti inked in "safely” instead] "out of this scrape that his folly lias brought him into. I am not sure w'ho his wife is. hut 1 have a sort of recollection that he married a daughter of Mr. Thos. Greer formerly of Kingston. the cousin, not the brother, of the Registrar at Hamilton, and a most respectable man. This discreditable affair of Shibley’s will cause great distress to his father-in-law’s family and to a large circle of most respectable connections. If you can do anything for him I shall be much obliged. Yours faithfully.”

A few days later Johnston wrote to tell Macdonald that the murder charge against Shibley had been dropped. Johnston blamed the Davis girl for getting Shibley into his predicament (according to newspaper reports at that time she told police that Shibley had told her to beat the child if she cried) and added this epitaph on the affair: ". . . His eyes poor fellow are now open, if he tries another it wall not be Miss Davis.”

Shibley turns up again in Macdonald’s mail. About a year later he wanted Macdonald’s help in a claim he was making against a Macdonald estate in Kingston: two years later he was asking Macdonald for a job as lighthouse inspector (Macdonald regretted it was already promised to another). By 1873 Schuyler Shibley’s affairs apparently had taken a turn for the better — he was a member of parliament, and Macdonald was writing to assure him he would "be glati to do what 1 can for Mr. Fid Shibley,” apparently a relative of Schuyler’s.

It was November 14, 1866. before Macdonald finally sailed from New York for the BNA talks in England. On his last three days in Ottawa he wrote some 60 letters clearing up his affairs: nearly half of them dealt in some way with jobs, including one to the omnipresent Commissioner of Public Works: "My dear Chapais,

Young Morgan a messenger of the Executive Council is an exceedingly deserving and well educated young

man. It is a pity to see him serving in that capacity and I should be glad to sec him promoted to be a clerk.

1 understand that there are some vacancies in your Department and will be personally obliged if you can give him a lift. Yours faithfully."

On his last day in Ottawa, November 8, he wrote to Finance Minister W. P. Howland, who had recently undertaken the organization of Customs and Excise affairs: "In the disposition of your patronage I desire very much that you should look after the following parties . . There followed four pages recommending six different people, including a former distiller, for Customs jobs. “This ends my budget.” Macdonald wrote, but later that same day he was writing to Howland again to add the name of another "most respectable young man."

Macdonald’s Fetterbooks are blank until May 15. 1867. soon after he returned from the successful BNA conference in London to be greeted by a cheering throng of 2,000 who waited in a chill spring rain to welcome him anti his new "estimable lady" to Ottawa.

In the last few weeks before Confederation his Fetterbooks show he somehow found time to keep up his usual quota of reassuring notes to wives seeking jobs for their husbands, to friends and strangers who wanted the "gift” of everything from clerkships to judgeships, and even to clear up a little long-standing family business with an obliging Customs officer who had helped Macdonald’s son out of a momentary embarrassment: "Dear McHugh, In the hurry of leaving for England I am afraid 1 neglected to pay the amount which you kindly advanced my son. I have forgotten the exact sum, but I believe the Post Office order for $19 will cover it . . .”

After July 1. 1867. when he became first prime minister of the new Dominion of Canada, he still wrote or dictated personal replies to an amazing number of the people who sought his help. It was a habit Macdonald, who believed wholeheartedly in the importance of the human being and, in the Macdonald maxim of askand-ye-shall-receive-at-lcast-a-friendlyanswer, kept to his last days. ★