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 Sir John Alexander Macdonald, G. C. B.


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Sir John Alexander Macdonald, G. C. B.

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



Now that old-world " imperialism " has found a doubtful footing in our common speech, half reproach, half fascination, a witch-word repudiated as a watchword, it is interesting to study its influence on the ambition and political fortunes of the man who will stand in history as the pioneer of Imperial Federation between the Colonies and Great Britain. This movement has had a fitful popularity among the people and the few statesmen of the mother country who have given it occasional support. It supplies a significant commentary on the political foresight of the Manchester school of statesmanship which dominated England half a century ago. Cobden, Bright, and their adherents regarded the Colonies as incumbrances, useless and costly. Bright hoped that " Gibraltar, that use-less rock," would soon be ceded to Spain. He held that India did not yield "a single beneficial result to the English people," except an annual profit of ten million pounds, and professional careers for thirty young gentlemen. Cob-den wrote, "we are staggering under the embarrassing weight of our Colonies . . . with Canada, Australia, India, forming Cerberus-like the heads of our monstrous empire." Bright opposed the Canadian Pacific Railway scheme in Parliament in 1867, declaring that rather than England should guarantee "a single Canadian railway I would prefer to get rid of Canada altogether." As recently as 1885 this powerful leader of public opinion ridiculed the idea that the United Kingdom and her Colonies would ever "form one country . . . for purposes of defense. The idea is ludicrous. The whole thing is childish." If the shades of these great men of their day could have secured a furlough to see the wildly enthusiastic welcome to the old home given by the people of England, from Queen to humblest subject, to the soldiers from Australia and Canada on their return from the Soudan and South African wars, they would have been impressed with the sight, and with the hard sense of the epigram of Job's comforter, "great men are not always wise."

Viewed in this light the figure of " Sir John" assumes a certain grandeur, in excess; perhaps, of the degree ordinarily acquired by statesmen of " Greater Britain." Colonial environment produces and demands a different, but not therefore a humbler, order of genius compared with the qualities that make the fame of England's proudest names. The Colonial field is smaller, its opportunities necessarily limited, and therefore its great questions, being more practical and in closer touch with the individual, have an intenser strain, which tends to localize statecraft fully equal to the duties of imperial administration if occasion offers. As a Canadian statesman Sir John Macdonald nobly earned his country's gratitude and honors, but it is by virtue of his genius for lifting his country and his state-craft outside and above the colonial limitation that his name will always rank among those of the far-sighted builders and strengtheners of the latter-day British empire.

His birthplace was Glasgow, Scotland, the date January i r, 18'15. His father settled in Canada in 1820, and put the boy to school in Kingston. When only fifteen he took up the study of law, won his right to practice at twenty-one, and earned an exceptionally high reputation before his twenty-fourth year by a defense, the ingenuity of which exceeded its merits. He was elected Alderman of Kingston, resigning that office on being returned as Member of the House of Assembly for Kingston.

Elsewhere in this work * is a sketch of the conditions of Canadian progress at the time when the embryo states-man entered on the scene. The country was politically divided into Upper and Lower Canada, and the independent provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Ed-ward Island, and Newfoundland. Lower Canada, now the province of Quebec, had the forts of Quebec and Montreal, and by far the larger population, and its people grudged the province of Toronto, then Upper Canada, the equal representation it enjoyed in the Legislative Assembly formed in 1841 to effect a union of interests and end jealousies. This was no easy task. " The differences were those of race, language, and religion, and the contest at times became exceedingly bitter." The harmonizing influence of the Crown was less potent than now. The British Government assured the newly wedded (if not exactly mated) Provinces that they were to enjoy a liberal measure of home rule. Lord Glenelg, Colonial Secretary, offered this pledge of non-interference : "Parliamentary (i. e. English) legislation on any subject of exclusively internal concern . . . is, as a general rule, unconstitutional. It is a right of which the exercise is reserved for extreme cases, in which necessity at once creates and justifies the exception." With the legacy of antagonistic interests between the French and English elements, it was inevitable that sharp friction should mark the efforts of the Crown and the House of Assembly to co-operate in peace.

Macdonald was elected as a Conservative, that party being in power at the time. He kept his seat as Member for Kingston from 1844 until his death, though he had to fight for it frequently, but always victoriously, at the polls. He had an exceedingly delicate duty to perform when he, a Conservative, undertook to educate his countrymen and their statesmen in the fine art of steering the political ship through the seen and unseen rocks of party prejudice, sailing it now gracefully in the reaches of Liberalism, only to rush on the opposite tack when his crew showed signs of distrust. The philosophy of compromise has not yet commended itself markedly to the popular mind, if indeed it is thoroughly understood. The leader who hesitates is held to be all but lost, despite the many conspicuous examples of trimmers who have won. Macdonald had a singular natural aptitude for walking the tight-rope as safely as the floor. He was constitutionally gifted with those meta-physical arts of using words to conceal thoughts and of drawing distinctions too fine for ordinary wits to perceive on the instant, which made Gladstone and Disraeli the envy and despair of non-Canadian statesmen. It should be stated before going into the details which follow, that the lapse of years has brought general recognition of sound statesmanship in not a few of Macdonald's alleged hairsplittings of policy, for which at the time he incurred the displeasure of friends as well as of opponents. He had fixed his mind on the grand purpose to which all his zeal and adroitness were to be devoted, which was the gaining of constitutional government for Canada, with greater power and freedom for the legislature. During those early years of parliamentary apprenticeship he kept his party loyal to the Crown, and in 1847, under Lord Elgin, a broader form of responsible government was established. This much having been gained, Macdonald conceived it to be his best policy to accept and assist the new régime. It encouraged him to work for more concessions, and to this end he hence-forth chose his associates from the quarter most likely to ensure a safe working majority.

His advancement was rapid; at thirty he became a di-rector of the Commercial Bank, and at thirty-two Mr. Draper, the Prime Minister, appointed Macdonald Receiver-General of the Province of Canada with a seat in the cabinet. The lucrative office of Commissioner . of Crown Lands was soon afterward conferred on him. In 1848 the Conservative ministry was succeeded by a Reform cabinet. From 1849 to 1851 trade fell off and there was great general distress. Macdonald boldly attacked the new ministry. In the teeth of their reform professions he publicly charged them with worse than failure: they were "a corrupt body, collectively and individually," and a disgrace to the Colony.

Two ways of restoring prosperity were discussed. One was immediate annexation to the United States. This proposal was broached in an able address to the people, signed by a large number of leading men. The other was Macdonald's scheme: he urged the making of the Canadian Pacific and other railways, the subsidizing of ocean steamers, and similar practical measures calculated to promote progress. He insisted on a protective policy, and pleaded for a speedy confederation of all the provinces. The Conservatives returned to power in 1854, Macdonald choosing the office of Attorney-General for Canada West. Two years later Sir Allan McNab, the premier, and a Tory of the old school, was succeeded by Colonel (afterwards Sir) Étienne Taché. But the real leader and premier was Macdonald, who was called on to form a ministry of his own in the next year, 1857. He soon dissolved the House and returned with increased strength and reputation.

An independent party arose, led by Mr. George Brown, known as the "Clear Grits." Hostile to both Conservatives and Reformers they showed special animosity to Macdonald, who resigned on a minor issue, indignant at the treatment he was receiving. Brown being unable to form a cabinet, Macdonald resumed the leadership within a week but made Sir Etienne Cartier premier, contenting himself with the Attorney-General's post. By persistent fighting Macdonald succeeded in having Ottawa chosen as the permanent capital. The foundation-stone of the handsome Parliament building was laid by the Prince of Wales in 1860.

When the Civil War in the United States broke out Macdonald introduced a Militia Bill, to provide for the defense of the Colony in case of invasion. It was opposed by the annexationists and failed to pass, being too costly for the national finances; but the loyalty of his action was duly appreciated by the home government. The trend of ministerial policy was steadily in the direction of closer relations between Crown and colony.

The constitution of 1841 was in need of amendment to fit the times. Macdonald insisted on radical revision, or a change. The population of Toronto, then Upper Canada, — the English province, was now double that of Quebec, Lower Canada, though the latter's great ports maintained its commercial prestige. Its tenacious hold of monarchical traditions and its Catholicism were in contrast with the progressive Liberalism of Toronto, whose people were restive under the old rule which still gave Quebec an equal representation in the Assembly and also in the Cabinet. Macdonald advocated Union as the only stable remedy. His party were in and out during the few years preceding the notable conference held by the maritime provinces in 1864, to discuss confederation. Uninvited, Macdonald, with two or three of his associates, attended the conference, and at its second meeting his enthusiasm fired the delegates from Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and New Bruns-wick with a new loyalty to a united colony. He told them that his twenty years of service, seemingly spent in petty endeavors, had been inspired by the dream they were now making realizable, the forming of one great federation in which they would no longer be New Brunswickers and Nova Scotians, but British Americans, claiming the glorious privileges of common membership in the great empire of Queen Victoria. They had contemplated only a maritime union, but now Canada was included, with home rule for each section. The movement progressed, with fluctuations, until the serio-comic "invasion" of Canada by a handful of Fenians and adventurers in 1867 alarmed the colonists and precipitated the federation. Several months prior to this Macdonald and delegates from the provinces had been received by the Government in London with special honors. The outcome of this conference was the introduction and enactment of the British-North American Act, which came into effect on the first of July, 1867. The Provinces of Toronto and Quebec, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick agreed to form themselves into the Dominion of Canada. The Canadian Pacific Railway was to be completed within ten years to make the Dominion independent of the United States for traffic during the winter when the St. Lawrence is unnavigable; the vast territory of the North-West was to be opened up, and other progressive schemes were taken up. Government was to be carried on by a Viceroy and Council, the House of Assembly, a life Senate, Lieutenant-Governors, and local governing bodies. Lord Monck was the first viceroy or Governor-General, and Macdonald the first Premier of the Confederation, wearing his new title as Knight CoMmander of the Bath. He kept the office for six years. Manitoba was made a new Province and admitted in 1870. British Columbia followed in 1872 and Prince Edward Is-land in 1873. Newfoundland has remained aloof.

Sir John was appointed to the Joint High Commission to settle disputes between the United States, Canada and Great Britain arising out of the Alabama claims and other matters. The Commission met at Washington in 1870. Sir Stafford Northcote (afterward Lord Iddesleigh), Sir E. Thornton, British Minister at Washington, and Prof. Bernard Montague represented England; the Hon. Hamilton Fish, R. C. Schenck, Minister to England, Judge Nelson of the Supreme Court, ex-Judge E. R. Hoar of Massachusetts, and G. H. Williams of Oregon, represented the United States. The result was the Treaty of Washington, signed in May, 1871. It was a signal personal triumph for Sir John, whose strenuous claim that Canada should have sole right to in-shore fisheries (i. e. those within three miles of her land) was very reluctantly supported by the British Commissioners. More than this, he insisted — as a condition of his acceptance of the Commissionership that whatever might be the decision of the Commission on this point, the Treaty should depend upon its ratification by the Canadian legislature. Though his attitude provoked severe criticism from many otherwise friendly quarters at the time, it has been vindicated by the recognition of its statesmanlike motive and by its successful issue. Sir John was in 1872 made a Privy Councillor of the United Kingdom.

The construction of the great Canadian Pacific Railway in 1873 stirred a hornet's nest of scandals, involving bribery and other forms of corruption. Charges were levelled at Sir John and his associate ministers from which his grand record as a servant of the Dominion did not shield him. American capitalists were said to have secured favors for American enterprises. His cabinet fell, but public opinion generally acquitted the premier of any personal share in the dirty work alleged against his associates. The Liberals came into power in 1873 and held office until 1878. As leader of the Opposition Sir John kept pegging away at his Protection scheme, though he gave independent support to the ministry in many of their measures, especially of legal reform, and in improved commercial legislation. Country before party was his main consideration, whether in office or out. When out of office he was still in power.

The general election of 1878 restored Sir John to the premiership. Lord Dufferin was succeeded by the Marquis of Lorne as Governor-General. In 1880 Sir John went to England to share in forming a syndicate to complete the Canadian Pacific Railway. He was accompanied by the ministers of Agriculture and Railways. Against formidable opposition he defended the new scheme as being safer, cheaper, and in every respect more practicable than any alternative proposal. In a famous speech to the Assembly Sir John displayed a breadth of view and a mastery of complex questions that sufficed to establish his reputation as a true statesman. Its tone of lofty patriotism over all minor issues moved its hearers and the people at large. It carried conviction, the ministerial programme was accepted and the Bill received royal assent the next day. Among the members of the syndicate were Lord Mount Stephen, and his cousin Sir Donald A. Smith (now Lord Strathcona), two of the greatest benefactors of Canada as founders of educational and beneficent institutions.

The Assembly dissolved in 1882. Sir John again returned to place and power, some of his most powerful Liberal antagonists being defeated at the polls. In 1884 he visited England, in quest of medical advice. He was received with signal honors by the Queen, the Prince, Gladstone, Lord Salisbury, the Universities, and the English people. The foremost publicists crowned him with laurels as for forty years the champion and planner of Canada's remarkable progress, and its rescuer in dilemmas of momentous significance. On his return he was welcomed home with unstinted tributes of praise and goodwill by all, party animosities being forgotten in the common pride over the "old chieftain," and his completion of forty years of public service. On the dissolution of the Assembly in 1891 Sir John issued an elaborate and powerful manifesto in the form of an Address to the people of Canada. In it he took a retrospective review of the progress so largely due to his foresight and ability. He was able to point to a long series of triumphs, personal and party, in upholding what he proudly called his National policy. There were agitations for bringing about free trade with the United States, commercial union, a half-way house on the road to annexation. With proposals of this kind the old leader would not dally. Protective policy had brought prosperity, any weakening of it would mean disaster. He bade his people look at the completed Canadian Pacific Railway, reaching from ocean to ocean, "an imperial highway to the East, over which the trade of the Indies is destined to reach the markets of Europe," and a line of strong defense and offense in time of war. By the policy of subsidizing ships and extending the railway system, the rate of interest on the national debt had fallen lower than when he entered public life forty years before. The movement for "unrestricted reciprocity " with the United States, fathered by his Liberal opponents, he characterized as "a treasonable conspiracy." The election resulted in the return of his party to power, his personal majority being increased over four hundred per cent. This was "the old chieftain's" last address, dated Feb. 7, 1891. Its closing passage may be quoted as an example of his general style.

The question which you will shortly be called upon to determine resolves itself into this : shall we endanger our possession of the great heritage bequeathed to us by our fathers, and submit ourselves to direct taxation for the privilege of having our tariff fixed at Washington, with a prospect of ultimately becoming a portion of the American Union? . . . As for myself, my course is clear. A British subject I was born, a British subject I will die. With my utmost effort, with my latest breath, will I op-pose the veiled treason which attempts, by sordid means and mercenary proffers, to lure our people from their allegiance."

Sir John Macdonald died on the sixth of June following. His widow was made a peeress in her own right, and a bust of the loyal Canadian was unveiled in St. Paul's Cathedral by Earl Rosebery, then Foreign Secretary, and still the standard-bearer of Sir John's Imperial Federation movement.

He was sinewy, alert, elastic in mind and body. Tenacious of purpose, he gained his end as much by the gift of pliability as by pugnacity. He knew how to use the arts of suasion when to dictate would have meant disaster. These are the marks of the true-born statesman, whether in imperial affairs or local. His geniality endeared him to his opponents and helped in no slight degree to effect his triumphs. Time will enhance the fame of the steadfast pioneer who, through good and evil report, achieved his grand aim, the unification of his country.

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