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Sir John A MacDonald
Deadlock, 1854 - 1864


ALTHOUGH covering a period of rapid growth, the ten years between 1854 and 1864 are, in their political aspect, among the least satisfactory in Canadian annals. It is worth pondering that in an age often accused of materialism, popular enthusiasm and a spirit of self-sacrifice are much more easily aroused over religious and constitutional questions, which affect no man's pocket but touch his convictions or sentiment, than over the prosaic details of administrative honesty and economy. With the achievement of responsible government, the secularization of the Clergy Reserves and of the University of Toronto, and the abolition of seigniorial tenure, a group of great questions passed into the background, and not for some time did new problems of equal magnitude definitely present themselves. The question of railway construction, probably the most important before the House during these years, remained in the realm of commerce, and did not rise to that vital connection with the national ideal and the national aspiration reached in later years by the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The consequence was a distinct lowering in the tone of political life, and in the political methods considered lawful or at least pardonable; a lowering of tone which did not pass away till great constitutional questions again presented themselves.

During these years of party bickering and intrigue the difficulties inherent in the legislative union of 1841 were gradually demonstrated. Brown, Macdonald and other Canadian statesmen were brought face to face with this inadequacy, and forced to search for a remedy. The problem in large measure arose from the short-sighted attempt of the framers of the Act of Union to subject the French to the English-speaking population. In 1837 the inhabitants of Lower Canada had numbered six hundred thousand as compared with four hundred thousand in the Upper Province, yet each had been assigned an equal number of members in the united legislature. Though this injustice roused deep anger among the French, by 1854 they had found that, by holding themselves together as a solid phalanx, they were able, through the divisions among the English, to obtain an equal, if not a preponderating, influence. In the end the constitutional provision contrived for their subjection proved to their advantage. Owing to emigration the population of the Upper Province increased so rapidly that in 1852 it was sixty thousand larger than that of Lower Canada, and in 1861 almost three hundred thousand, a result which the prescience of Lord Durham had foreseen. "I am averse," he had written in his famous report, "to every plan that has been proposed for giving an equal number of members to the two provinces, in order to attain the temporary end of outnumbering the French, because I think the same object will be attained without any violation of the principles of representation and without any such appearance of injustice in the scheme as would set public opinion, both in England and America, strongly against it; and because, when emigration shall have increased the English population in the Upper Province, the adoption of such a principle would operate to defeat the very purpose it is intended to serve. It appears to me that any such electoral arrangement founded on the present provincial divisions, would tend to defeat the purposes of union, and perpetuate the idea of disunion."

The increasing discrepancy allowed George Brown to fan the flame of racial and religious antagonism, and it was not long before he controlled a majority of the constituencies in Ontario. His solution of the difficulty was that proposed by Lord Durham, and adopted in1848 by Papineau, of ignoring the division into Upper and Lower Canada and dividing the members among the constituencies of the united province "as near as may be in accordance with population." Against this the French-Canadians urged that the union of 1841 amounted to a compact; that the essence of the understanding was that the two provinces should be on a legislative equality; that without such protection one province might become entirely dominant over the other; and that in any case the complaint came with an ill grace from the province which had welcomed this very legislative equality as offering their best security against French domination. Their leaders were not slow to realize the strength of their position. "Nous aeons l'avantage; profitons-en," said Mr. T. J. Loranger to his constituents, while Mr. Cartier calmly told the House that the extra sixty thousand Upper Canadians had no more right to be counted than so many codfish in the Bay of Gasp.

On Macdonald the influence of this period was both for good and for evil. It increased in him that laxity of political methods noted by Sir Alexander Campbell; it led him to think "fighting fire with fire" a venial political sin; but it also brought out to the full his marvellous adroitness, his power of managing men and shaping coalitions. The skill with which he guided the tangled negotiations from 1864 to 1867 was won in the conflict of the previous ten years. When he said, as he frequently did in later life, that his greatest triumphs were achieved before Confederation, he must have been thinking of the days when, with George Brown dominant in Ontario and Cartier supreme in Quebec, he was yet the most prominent and the most powerful man in the House. Mr. Pope has well described his appearance at this epoch:-

"Without pretension to oratory in the strict sense of the word, the intimate knowledge of public affairs, joined to the keen powers of argument, humour and sarcasm, the ready wit, the wealth of illustration and brilliant repartee, gave to his speeches, set off as they were by a striking presence and singularly persuasive style, a potency which was well-nigh irresistible. Those of us who knew Sir John Macdonald only when his voice had grown weak, his figure become stooped, his hair thin and grey and his face seamed with lines of anxious care, and remember the power which under these disadvantages of age he exercised over the minds and hearts of men, can well understand how it came to pass that, in the days of his physical prime, he inspired, not merely his followers with a devotion which is almost without parallel in political annals, but drew to his side first one and then another of his opponents, until he could truly say at the end of his days that he had the proud satisfaction of knowing that almost every leading man who had begun political life as his opponent ended by being his colleague and friend."

To show how with all his brilliancy, his adroitness, his sometimes excessive fertility of resource, he was gradually forced to acknowledge the union of 1841 unworkable, is the object of this chapter.

The political events of these years, which in some ways read like a series of secondary and disconnected incidents, nevertheless compelled public men to look beyond party intrigue for some firm foundation of constitutional principle.

In January, 1855, Mr. Morin accepted a seat upon the bench. A reconstruction of the cabinet followed. [The MacNab-Tache ministry was constituted as follows: The Hon. Sir A. N. MacNab, president of the council and minister of agriculture (first minister); the Hon. W. Cayley, inspector-general; the Hon. Robert Spence, postmaster-general; the Hon. Joseph Cauchon, commissioner of Crown lands; the Hon. Francois Lemieux, chief commissioner of public works; the Hon. G. E. Cartier, provincial secretary; the Hon. E. P. Tache, receiver-general; the Hon. J. A. Macdonald, attorney-general (Upper Canada); the Hon. L. T. Drummond, attorney-general (Lower Canada); the Hon. John Ross, (without portfolio)] Mr. Morin's place was taken by Colonel (afterwards Sir E. P.) Tache, an honest and dignified country gentleman, chiefly remembered to-day as the author of the saying that "if ever this ceases to be a British country, the last shot in the maintenance of British rule in America will be fired by a French-Canadian." Though Colonel Tache had been in the cabinet since 1848, his heart was never wholly given to politics, and hence it was all the more easy for Macdonald, who held the portfolio of attorney-general west, to become the real leader of the party. The most significant addition to the cabinet was that of Georges Etienne Cartier, who now for the first time became associated with Macdonald in a ministry. The cooperation of these two men was to be a principal factor in Canadian politics for many a year.

Sir Allan MacNab in saying "ours is a policy of railways," outlined the chief work of the session, during which numerous railways were incorporated. The year 1855 was also marked by the removal of the seat of government from Quebec to Toronto and by the renewal of violent discussion on the question of where it should be permanently fixed, a question destined to cause much heartburning ere it was settled. During 1856 a bill was passed making the legislative council elective, a constitutional change which had been rendered possible by the passing of an imperial Act, in accordance with the prayer of an address from the legislative assembly in the session of 1853. A similar bill had been passed by the assembly the year before, but had been rejected by the council. It is an interesting fact that while Macdonald supported this measure, George Brown opposed it. Macdonald's judgment as to the value of an elected council had changed before the time of the Confederation conference in Quebec in 1864, when he argued vigorously for a nominated Upper House.

In the next year it became evident that the coalition could not be held together under the leadership of Sir Allan MacNab. The dissatisfaction of the Reform wing of his party—,, Baldwin Reformers" as they were called—grew deeper and deeper. Though advancing years had modified his opinions, Sir Allan was emphatically a Tory, his ideal of government was that of a strengthened and purified Family Compact, and he had a penchant, unhappily not confined to Tories, of giving vacant positions solely to his own numerous hangers-on. Against this unequal distribution of patronage the Reform wing of the coalition loudly protested. Sir Allan was further handicapped and sometimes incapacitated by violent attacks of gout. But nothing was further from his thoughts than resignation, and the problem of superseding him was not easily solved. It would serve no useful purpose to detail the involved intrigues of this period. When Sir Allan had been displaced he inveighed both in public and in private against his successor. Had there been sufficient foundation for his attacks, the opponents of Macdonald would no doubt have been justified in taunting him with ingratitude, and there would have been some excuse for George Brown when he bitterly told him that his political path was marked out by gravestones. Yet the charge was unfounded, and the part which Macdonald played was really considerate and generous. His virtual leadership was universally recognized; he doubtless felt in himself powers far greater than those possessed by Sir Allan MacNab even at his prime; he saw that the party was going to pieces, and felt that no one but himself had the power to hold it together; but neither in word or deed was he untrue to his old chief, nor did he prompt or assist the intrigues against him. A confidential letter written in 1854 to his most intimate party friend makes this clear. "You say truly that we are a good deal handicapped with 'old blood.' Sir Allan will not be in our way, however. He is very reasonable and requires only that we should not in his 'sere and yellow leaf' offer him the indignity of casting him aside. This I would never assent to, for I cannot forget his services in days gone by." There is nothing to show that Macdonald departed from this view. He would have preferred to wait till advancing years and infirmities rendered Sir Allan's resignation necessary, but events forced him to the front.

During the session of 1856 Sir Allan's gout grew worse, and so too did the temper with which he repelled all suggestions of resignation. At last the vexed question of the seat of government gave to the malcontents their chance. In April an Act was passed providing that after 1859 Quebec should be the permanent capital. In May, when an item of $200,000 for the construction of buildings at Quebec was included among the supplementary estimates, the majority of the members from Upper Canada supported an amendment stating "that the course of the administration with reference to the seat of government and other important public questions has disappointed the just expectations of the great majority of the people of this province." Though the government was sustained by the votes of its Lower Canadian supporters, Messrs. Morrison and Spence, the Upper Canadian Reformers in the cabinet, at once resigned on the ground that they were not supported in their own province, and were followed by the Conservatives, Messrs. Cayley and Macdonald. In this resignation was involved the question of the "double majority." "It is worthy of note," says Mr. Pope, "that while almost every member of a government forty years ago regarded an adverse sectional vote as a serious blow to the existing administration, few could be found to affirm directly the soundness of the ,double majority' principle—that is, that no ministry should be held to possess the confidence of parliament unless it could command a majority in each section of the province."

There can be little doubt that in a legislative union, such as was that of Upper and Lower Canada, an adverse vote of one section no more entailed resignation than would an adverse vote of Scottish or Irish members involve the resignation of a British premier. When Robert Baldwin resigned in 1851 he did so, not on the ground of the "double majority" principle, but because in a question affecting the interests of Upper Canada alone and especially those of the legal profession, he, the attorney-general, had been put in a minority by the legal members from Upper Canada; and he distinctly advised his colleagues in the cabinet, who were not so deeply interested in the bill, not to follow his example. The only prominent upholder of the "double majority" as a constitutional theory was Mr. Sandfield Macdonald, who, regarding the union as a compact, held that the consent of a majority of the representatives of both sections of the compact was necessary to its continuance. But even he, when premier, threw overboard this theory. Yet in practice the social, racial, religious and historic questions involved made it impossible to rule permanently a united Canada without a majority in both sections. Hence while none of the four ministers who resigned admitted the constitutional necessity of the "double majority," and while Macdonald expressly saved his face by declaring "that he did not think that the 'double majority' should be adopted as a rule," all gave reasons for their action practically admitting it. Mr. Spence and Mr. Morrison explained their course on the ground that the wing of the coalition which they represented had withdrawn its support from the government; Mr. Cayley and Mr. Macdonald on the plea that after the defection of so large a body as the "Baldwin Reformers" "any attempt to carry on the government would be futile." Unable to fill their places, Sir Allan MacNab resigned. The governor-general, Sir Edmund Walker Head, called upon Colonel Tache to form a government, which the assistance of Macdonald alone enabled him to do, and on May 24th, 1856, the TacheMacdonald administration assumed control. The stop-gap of 1844 was now leader of his party in Upper Canada and premier of the province in all but name.

Shortly after this, but during the same session, occurred the dramatic quarrel between Macdonald and George Brown. The editor of the Globe had been reproached for inconsistency in attacking the government after supporting the election of Mac-Nab and Macdonald, as opponents of Hincks, in 1854. To this he replied that his change was justified by their subsequent conduct. Swinging his long arms, his characteristic gesture in moments of vehemence, he made a fierce attack upon what he termed the "kaleidoscopic politics" of Macdonald. It was the last of a long series of provocations, and for once the hot-tempered Highlander forgot alike his caution, his courtesy and his regard for truth. Springing to his feet he poured out a torrent of invective, stating that in 1849 Brown, while secretary of a commission appointed to investigate the condition of the penitentiary at Kingston, had "falsified the testimony of witnesses, suborned convicts to commit perjury, and obtained the pardon of murderers confined in the penitentiary to induce them to give false evidence." These charges Brown passionately denied, amid frequent and furious interruptions from Macdonald. On the request of the accused a commission was appointed, which presented two reports, of which that of the majority found that irregularities in the compilation of evidence had been committed by the penitentiary committee, but refused to decide how far responsibility for this attached to the secretary; for the graver charges against him no justification was alleged. The minority report was a complete exculpation of Mr. Brown. After long and passionate debates, in which Sir Allan MacNab bluntly declared that there was no evidence against Mr. Brown, [This opinion was vehemently maintained also by William Lyon Mackenzie, Sir Allan's antagonist of former days and Mr. Brown's successful opponent in the Haldimand election.] and that the committee should have had the manliness to say so, the House was prorogued without coming to a definite decision, and the matter was not again brought up. To Macdonald, who seldom lost control of his temper, this lapse into the region of elemental passion gave a severe lesson, and one which he did not forget; but the atmosphere of the session must have been peculiarly electric, for towards the end of June an altercation with Colonel Rankin, the member for Essex, grew so hot that after the close of the session a challenge was sent by Macdonald. "I need hardly say," he writes to his second, "that circumstanced as I am, any meeting must take place out of Canada, but I am sure you will pay every regard to Mr. Rankin's convenience in the choice of the place of meeting." The encounter was averted, Mr. Rankin, recognizing that he had spoken on wrong information, made a frank apology, and lived to become one of Macdonald's warmest personal and political friends. It would seem that an equally frank apology from Macdonald to Brown might have gone far to mitigate the bitterness of personal hostility which long marked the relations of the two combatants.

Another question on which Macdonald and Brown came into strong opposition and on which his opponent for some time commanded a majority in Upper Canada, was the claim made by the Roman Catholics of Upper Canada for a separate system of schools. This Brown denounced as flat popery, while Macdonald, though theoretically opposed to the concession, supported it as necessary to ensure harmony, and also in view of the liberal treatment extended by the Roman Catholic Church to the Protestant minority in the province of Quebec. After years of controversy the Roman Catholics won their claim, and separate schools were finally established in 1862-3 by the Reform administration of Sandfield Macdonald.

In 1857 the first step was taken in a movement big with consequences for Canada. The imperial government had appointed a committee to investigate the claims of the Hudson's Bay Company to the northern and western parts of what is now the Dominion of Canada, and invited the Canadian government to send a commissioner to take part in the enquiry. The acquisition by Canada of these vast regions had for some time been urged by prominent men of both parties, and at Macdonald's instance Chief-justice Draper was sent to uphold the Canadian claims before the committee, which he did with boldness and skill. For some years nothing more was done, but even amid the clash of party warfare neither George Brown nor Macdonald forgot the vast area of wood and prairie between Lake Superior and the Rocky Mountains.

Towards the end of this year, 1857, failing health forced Colonel Tache to resign. The governor-general at once sent for the attorney-general west, who soon succeeded in forming a government in conjunction with his friend Georges Etienne Cartier, henceforth his constant ally, and on November 26th, 1857, John Alexander Macdonald became premier of the Province of Canada. Little could he then have dreamed that thirty-three years later he would still be prime minister of Canada, but of a Canada which had expanded into a great Dominion stretching from ocean to ocean. He at once dissolved the House and appealed to the people on the issues, forced on by Brown, of separate schools and representation by population. His views on the school question have already been stated; on that of representation by population he argued that the union of 1841 was of the nature of a compact, and that so fundamental a change could not be carried without the dissolution of the union. He was also opposed to it as being a tacit recognition of the principle of universal suffrage, which he always opposed, contending that property was an essential condition of the right to vote. In this view he was supported by his colleagues, though not without great searchings of heart. As early as 1855 one of them had written to him protesting against "the leeching process going on toward Upper Canada," and all his skill was taxed to hold them faithful to his ideas of toleration and of compromise.

The government fared badly in Upper Canada, where the Liberals obtained a large majority, but Cartier and the Church swept Quebec, and only a handful of the Rouges, on whom were visited the sins of George Brown and his party, survived the storm. But though thus sustained, Macdonald felt keenly the difficulty of governing Upper Canada by the French vote, and made overtures for a coalition to a band of moderate Reformers headed by John Sandfield Macdonald, who had grown tired alike of the policy and of the personality of Brown. To his namesake Macdonald offered a choice of positions in the cabinet, with the right to appoint two colleagues, provided neither was a Grit. But Sandfield Macdonald was aiming at higher things, and the next day his refusal came in the characteristic telegram, "No go."

Later in this year, 1858, occurred the two memorable events known as "The Short Administration" and 16 The Double Shuffle." The vexed question of the seat of government had been referred to Her Majesty, who, at the suggestion of Sir Edmund Head, chose Ottawa, then known as Bytown. Great was the dissatisfaction of Quebec, Montreal, Kingston, and Toronto, and when the ministry accepted the queen's award, the Opposition succeeded in carrying the motion that "in the opinion of this House the city of Ottawa ought not to be the permanent seat of government of this province." Though sustained later in the day on a motion of want of confidence, the government announced that they felt it their duty to resent the slight put by the assembly upon Her Majesty, and resigned. Called on to form a government, Mr. Brown accepted the task, and got together a ministry which lasted rather less than forty-eight hours. The refusal of His Excellency to grant to the new government a dissolution as a means of testing public opinion was bitterly criticized by the Reformers, but under the circumstances was probably justified, since there was little likelihood that the previous verdict of the electors would be reversed. Then followed a curious incident.

On the defeat of the Brown-Dorion government, His Excellency summoned Mr. (afterwards Sir A. T.) Galt, the member for Sherbrooke, well known as an authority on finance, and as an advocate of the federal union of the British North American colonies. But Mr. Galt, though personally popular on both sides of the House, had no immediate following, and wisely declined the task. Cartier was then sent for, and in connection with Macdonald, formed an administration practically the same as that which had recently resigned, but with Cartier as premier, and including, as finance minister, Galt, who accepted office on the express stipulation that federation should be actively supported by the new ministry. As a result of the well-known rule by which a newly-appointed minister is compelled to resign and to seek reelection from his constituents, Brown, Dorion, and their colleagues were now not in the House. But in order to facilitate temporary changes of portfolio, it had been enacted that no minister should be obliged to seek reelection who resigned one portfolio and in less than a month accepted another. Of this the incoming ministers took advantage. During the evening of August 6th they took the oath of office, each assuming a different portfolio from that which he had before held. Cartier became inspector-general and Macdonald postmaster-general. Early in the morning of the next day they resigned their portfolios, and resumed those formerly held, Cartier becoming attorney-general east and Macdonald attorney-general west. By this altogether too clever trick they avoided the expense and uncertainty of an election. But though some endeavoured to defend it, and though it has been ingeniously compared to the well-known device by which a member of the imperial House desiring to resign his seat accepts the stewardship of the Chiltern Hundreds, there is no doubt that the better judgment of the community was shocked, and the law has since been amended so as to render a repetition of the manoeuvre impossible.

From 1858 to 1862 the Cartier-Macdonald ministry succeeded in avoiding defeat, no small accomplishment considering the complications and perturbations of the time, and the general absence of steadying influences. The legislative records of this period have little to interest the reader of to-day. In the summer of 1859 the seat of government was removed from Toronto to Quebec. In the autumn of 1860 the country was visited by H. R. H. the Prince of Wales (now King Edward), who with much pomp opened the Victoria Bridge which spans the St. Lawrence at Montreal. Throughout the country there was universal rejoicing, and the loyalty of the Canadian people was abundantly displayed. The popular pleasure was, however, somewhat marred by an unseemly contention, in which Macdonald was unwillingly involved. The Duke of Newcastle, colonial secretary at that time, and the prince's mentor during the visit, became embroiled with the powerful Orange order through his refusal to allow the prince to land at Kingston, Macdonald's constituency, in which the Orangemen were so strong that it was known as "the Derry of Canada," and where special Orange decorations had been prepared for the occasion. All Macdonald's tact was needed to keep on good terms both with his aggrieved constituents and with the imperial minister.

In 1862 the government was unexpectedly defeated on a militia bill introduced by Macdonald for the better organization of the Canadian forces, and rendered advisable by the war then raging in the United States. He enjoyed the unwonted sensation of being in a majority in Upper Canada, but Cartier could not on this occasion keep his followers in line, the measure being distasteful, on the whole, to the French-Canadian constituencies. Its defeat caused much surprise and a certain degree of irritation in England, and undoubtedly furthered the movement of feeling, which culminated about 1870, in favour of allowing the colonies to shift for themselves.

There is evidence that Macdonald had for some time been becoming less pronounced in his opposition to representation by population. In the reconstruction of the administration early in 1862 this had been left an open question, and three colleagues had been introduced into the cabinet who were known to be in its favour. It is probable that had not a wider solution been found, in which representation by population had its due place, he might have devised a combination for carrying it, embracing safeguards for the rights and privileges of Lower Canada. Before the finding of that wider solution, two years were to elapse, during which the wheels of government drave yet more heavily.

During 1860 and 1861 the influence of George Brown, whom the country was beginning to regard as an agitator rather than as a statesman, had declined, and a distinct body of moderate Reformers had been formed under the leadership of Sandfield Macdonald and Mr. L. V. Sicotte. To these the governor-general now appealed, and the Sandfield Macdonald-Sicotte ministry came into being on a policy of retrenchment and of strict observance of the "double majority." They were opposed at once by Brown and by the Conservatives, and so were defeated on a vote of want of confidence moved by Macdonald. Sand-field Macdonald, instead of resigning, promptly joined forces with Brown, Dorion and the Rouges, and the government, thus reconstructed, tottered on till March, 1864. Then, as an important election had gone against them, and reduced their dubious majority, the government resigned without waiting for a formal dismissal by parliament. After much embarrassment the governor-general, Lord Monck, finally succeeded in inducing Sir E. P. Tache to leave his retirement, and to form a government in connection with J. A. Macdonald, whose objection to taking office at all was only overcome with difficulty. This new administration was in its turn overthrown early in June. Thus in three years four ministries had been defeated and two general elections had failed to ease the strain. The two parties were at a deadlock; the wheels of the union compromise had become clogged beyond remedy. To these political embarrassments were added financial difficulties, largely connected with the Grand Trunk Railway. Faced with complications so various, Canadian statesmen showed that, in their country's need, the leaders of both parties could waive their political and personal differences, and seek in a higher and wider sphere of action the solution of the problems which in existing conditions had proved so hopeless.


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