My Venture In Politics
( Originally Published 1924 )
I HAVEalways been interested in public affairs. To my mind every citizen owes it to himself and his country to take an interest in them, for, after all, the country's business is his business. It is not always possible for a man to run for a seat in Parliament or in a city or town council, but he should have an eye to what his representative does, because the action of the Government affects him directly, sooner or later. In my case the interest I took, and still take, in public affairs, may be hereditary, for my grandfather, Colonel Joseph Ryerson, was an unsuccessful candidate in Norfolk in 1806 against the notorious Mahlon Bidwell, who was a rebel in 1837 and a refugee thereafter. My father was also an unsuccessful candidate in 1826. My maternal grandfather, judge Sterling, was eleven times elected to the Assembly of Connecticut and twice to Congress. Hence I constantly heard of elections from my earliest childhood.
My debut, if such it may be called, was as a vice-chairman of a public dinner given in honor of Sir John A. Macdonald in the Horticultural Pavilion, Allan Gardens, Toronto, in 1881. This building has since been burned down. It was a tremendous affair. Sir John was his jaunty old self and bubbling over with quaint humor. He told two stories which have always remained in my memory.
The Liberals were attacking him for some Government expenditure and to illustrate how unimportant their criticism was, in his opinion, told the following story. A young Jew stole a piece of pork and wandering out to eat it unobserved, was overtaken by a thunderstorm. The boy looked up at the sky and murmured "What an awful row about a little piece of pork. " Again, to illustrate his ideas of false economy he related a story of a farmer who, to save candles, went to bed as soon as it was dark, and next summer became the father of twins.
It was on this occasion that Mr. George E. Foster (now Sir George) was introduced to a Toronto audience as " one of my boys." Sir George, who had recently entered the Cabinet, made one of those fine speeches for which he is remarkable.
The gallery was filled with ladies, foremost among whom was Lady Macdonald. Dark haired, olive complexioned, she was a striking personality.
In those days prohibition was unknown, almost everybody drank some kind of liquor, but the quantity of champagne drunk at this dinner was enormous. Many bottles which had been opened stood about on the tables and under them, undrunk. The " boys" could drink no more and remain sober.
I continued to take an interest in politics and was surprised when in the fall of 1892 my name was mentioned for a seat in the Ontario Legislature made vacant by the sudden death of Mr. N. G. Bigelow. I accepted the invitation to go before the Conservative convention and received the nomination. It was a time of depression, almost of despondency, in the local Conservative party. Mr. Bigelow had defeated Mr. Herbert Kent and my candidature looked almost like a forlorn hope. Toronto had at that time minority representation, that is to say the two candidates receiving the largest number of votes were declared elected and one candidate of the opposing party who received the largest number of votes of his party was also declared elected. It was a scheme to get at least one Mowat member in Conservative Toronto. Thus we had for the whole city of Toronto, three members, two Conservative and one Liberal. The Mowat Government hoped for two Liberals and one Conservative. It was a strenuous fight. It was won by me by persistent personal canvassing, for I spent six to eight hours a day canvassing and attending meetings, large and small. Fortunately for me the Government were so cocksure of electing their man that they delayed the issuance of the writ for six weeks. In that time I had gotten the disgruntled Conservative electors into line and was declared elected by 596 votes. Thus I became a member for the whole City of Toronto in the Legislature, Mr. E. F. Clark being my Conservative colleague, Mr. Joseph Tait being the minority representative. Whether Sir Oliver had a twinge of conscience regarding this mode of representation or whether he found it was not the success he had anticipated, I do not know, but the system was abolished before the close of the session and Toronto was divided into four constituencies. At the election of 1894 I was elected for East Toronto by a large majority.
When I entered the House, William Ralph Meredith was Leader of the Opposition. He afterwards became Chief Justice of Ontario and was knighted. He was a remarkable man, for while posing as a Conservative he was a democrat at heart and was in reality a real Liberal, almost a Radical, while Mowat was a Conservative in the proper acceptation of the word. Sir William was the leader of the Conservative party in the Legislature for twenty years and under his leadership the Provincial wing of the party went down to defeat at each succeeding election. This was not clue to any inherent lack of political acumen in him or to weakness in the policies of the party, but to the fact that Sir Oliver Mowat had intrenched himself in power with the assistance of hordes of office holders who, on occasion, used all their power to secure the election of his candidates.
Mowat, moreover, was a moderate man, of dean personality, which appealed to thousands of independent voters and indeed to many lukewarm Conservatives. The idea had taken root that it was in the interest of the Province to have a Conservative government in Ottawa and a Liberal administration in Ontario. So long as Mowat remained in office as Premier the Liberal party was safe. When he retired the break-up began, which goes to show that Mowat was the key-stone of the arch. Hence, in my political activities I endeavored by " featuring" his nepotism to break his hold on the people. I never had any personal animosity towards Sir Oliver, a fact which, on his retirement, I took pains to let him know. He had a strong Cabinet, which worked well so long as he was leader. There was a "wicked partner," but he was a genial soul, so much can be forgiven him. Hardy, Ross and Gibson were men of ability. The two former were strong debaters and very astute politicians. I had many tilts with them, but our personal relations outside of the House were pleasant.
When Sir William Meredith retired to the bench, he was succeeded by Mr. James Pliny Whitney (afterwards, Sir James), who became leader of a little band of sixteen or seventeen men who represented the Conservative party in the Legislature. He was the most honest politician I have ever known, so much so that he would rather lose a political advantage than do anything which was the least bit doubtful, not to say shady. Eventually the people discovered that the Ross-Hardy administration was overripe and that it was time for a change and placed Sir James Whitney and his party in power. They soon recognized his sterling qualities and with his sound judgment and knowledge of public affairs he would have remained in power to the present day had not death removed him. He certainly would have avoided the error of compulsory prohibition with a direct appeal to the people for a referendum, and we would have been saved the sorry exhibition of the Farmer-Labor combination and the waste of public moneys under the Drury regime.
Sir James Whitney went to his rest honored and respected by all classes of the people, irrespective of political affiliation.
Then came the Conservative debacle, the Drury misgovernment and the revival under the leadership of Mr. G. Howard Ferguson, from whom we expect much.
During my second term in the Legislature we had in the House a group of men who called themselves Patrons of Industry, who were the forerunners of the United Farriers and Labor combination. They, like the Farmers, accomplished little for the class they were supposed to represent and they died a natural politieal death at the next election.
During the winter of 1897-98 I suffered from three attacks of influenza, the real grippe. It left me a physical wreck. So much so that while I was able to take my seat in the House on two or three occasions H was unable to speak, or to do any professional or political work. Therefore, when I was again offered the nomination in East Toronto, I felt obliged to decline, to my great regret.
It was quite three years before I regained my health ; in fact, H do not think I would have ever done so had I not lived in the open air as much as possible. My cure was completed by going to the South African war. The ship in which I sailed took four weeks to do the journey from Halifax to Capetown, after which I spent several hours a day on horseback, the fine dry air of the high veldt being just what I needed to restore me to my pristine health.
In 1902 I was offered the nomination for the constituency of North Toronto, which I accepted subject to the action of the convention. When went before this body I was defeated by a notorious person who afterwards brought discredit on himself and his party and only escaped prosecution in a serious financial scandal by his sudden and unexpected death.
Thus ended my short political career. It was a disappointment to me because I was most anxious to be of service to my native province.
To close this chapter I will relate two anecdotes which may be of interest to my readers.
A well-known Liberal politician wore a wig. He took the stump on one occasion and as he was as mendacious as he was verbose told some tall stories about the doings of the Conservative party in the Legislature. The opposing candidate listened in silence to this Munchausen and when his turn came to speak refuted his statements, and, to emphasize it, seized the gentleman's wig and holding it up said, " Mr. So and So's statements are false as this." Discomfiture of the Munchausen.
A prominent Conservative politician looked only too often upon the wine when it was red, with disastrous results. He had been invited to address a large political picnic and before going to the picnic grounds had refreshed himself considerably, so much so that his friends were alarmed and endeavored to dissuade him from going on the platform, but with the obstinacy which characterizes some men when "under the weather" he insisted on mounting the dais. He became horribly sick and his friends were in despair. It should be stated that the Opposition candidate had a harsh and discordant voice, which he used in strident tones. Our bibulous friend's speech was held back so that he was the last to speak. By this time he had sobered up considerably, so that when he arose he was quite steady on his legs and he said: " Ladies and Gentlemen, I suppose you are quite disgusted with the exhibition I made of myself this afternoon, but the fact is, I can never hear this man Smith (the Opposition candidate) speak without being sick at my stomach.