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Sir John A MacDonald
The General Election of 1872


THE first general election after Confederation took place in 1872. The Opposition had gained coherence, their hopes of victory ran high, and the fight was keen. Despite the great work they had carried out in organizing the new federal system, Macdonald and his colleagues had many opposing influences to combat in the constituencies. Many electors were afraid of the gigantic scheme for throwing a railway across the continent, and their fears were sedulously cultivated by the leaders of the Opposition. The "better terms" granted to Nova Scotia in order to secure the adhesion of that province to Confederation were almost as sharply criticized as were the railway inducements held out to British Columbia. The supreme object of a united Canada did not appeal to the imagination of the Liberals of the day, or incline them to make such sacrifices for its attainment as it did with Macdonald. Incidentally, of course, the larger line of policy, being in accord with the dominant feeling of the country, helped to keep the Conservatives in power, a circumstance which could hardly be expected to recommend these sacrifices in Liberal eyes. But outside of mere party considerations there were serious disturbing influences. The Orangemen of Ontario were angry because the murderers of Scott at Fort Garry had not been brought to justice ; the Roman Catholics of Quebec because a full amnesty had not been granted to the rebels. Another religious difficulty had sprung up in the Maritime Provinces. Among the matters specifically reserved for provincial control in the new constitution was that of education. The provincial legislatire of New Brunswick in the exercise of its constitutional right had in 1871 passed a law which had the effect of taking away government support from separate denominational schools. These had been practically, though not by name, allowed to share in government assistance under the system which was then abolished. The new law weighed heavily upon the Roman Catholics, and a series of petitions was laid before the Dominion parliament in 1872 praying for its disallowance.

Unluckily for the Catholics of New Brunswick, it was their co-religionists of Quebec who had originally insisted upon education being placed under provincial control, and so even Cartier dared not advise disallowance. Macdonald did his best to mollify Catholic opinion by passing through the House a resolution suggesting that the law officers of the British Crown should be consulted as to the constitutionality of the measure, and urging the province in any case to modify its law so "as to remove any just grounds of discontent which now exist." The law officers of the Crown, to whom the question was preferred, promptly confirmed the constitutionality of the provincial measure, and it was only some years later that a compromise was made which alleviated the position of the New Brunswick Catholics. Meanwhile Cartier's failure to stand by his Church in defiance of the constitution greatly weakened his influence among many zealous and prejudiced voters of his native province.

He was at this time in failing health and, through various causes besides that already mentioned, had lost a large measure of his popularity in his Montreal constituency, which was rapidly assuming a decidedly Rouge complexion. It was evident from the first that he would have a severe contest to preserve his seat, and when the hour of trial came he was signally defeated.

The Washington Treaty, for the Canadian claims of which Macdonald assumed full responsibility, had been diligently represented as a sacrifice to imperial interests. Not merely had this been done by the Opposition in parliament and out of it, but even one of his colleagues, Joseph Howe, then secretary of state, had taken public occasion to criticize the treaty, and had spoken in terms of scorn of "England's recent diplomatic efforts to buy her own peace at the sacrifice of our interests." Under ordinary circumstances so great an indiscretion on the part of a cabinet minister must have entailed resignation, but on the eve of an election Macdonald could not afford to throw overboard the chief representative of Nova Scotia, a province in which the embers of discontent were still glowing and ready to burst anew into flame, and in which Howe was still a power. With admirable self-control he repressed his vexation and excused, as best he could, the utterances of his impulsive colleague.

The abandonment of the claims against the United States for the Fenian outrages in consideration of an imperial guarantee was especially unpopular in Ontario, where the raids had caused loss of life as well as much public expense and anxiety. Nor was the thought that Great Britain was meekly paying the debt due by a foreign power, and one most persistent and exacting where its own rights were concerned, altogether flattering to the British pride of the Canadian people.

Macdonald, with the instinct of a great political strategist, felt that the approaching struggle would be critical. He had convinced himself, as we are assured, that in the attitude of the Opposition on more than one question there were great possibilities of danger to the new Confederation. He threw himself, therefore, into the contest with all his energy—an energy, as the sequel proved, that carried him far beyond the bounds both of prudence and of principle. That he conscientiously thought he was exerting himself for Canada's good his friends have always strenuously maintained, and possibly even the dispassionate historian may find it not impossible to believe. Writing to Lord Monck after the election, he says: "I never worked so hard before and never shall do so again; but I felt it to be necessary this time. I did not want a verdict against the treaty from the country, and besides, I sincerely believe that the advent of the Opposition, as it is now constituted, to power, would greatly damage the future of Confederation." And again: "I had to fight a stern and up-hill battle in Ontario, and had I not taken regularly to the stump, a thing that I have never done before, we should have been completely routed. The chief ground of attack on the government was the Washington Treaty, and our submitting to Gladstone's resolve not to press the Fenian claims. Added to this, of course, were all the sins of omission and commission that gather round an administration of so many years duration as ours."

The completed election returns showed that the government was sustained, but by a significantly reduced majority. All the provinces, except Ontario, supported Macdonald and his policy. Nova Scotia, under the vigorous persuasion of Sir Charles Tupper, exactly reversed the verdict of five years before, returning twenty Conservative members out of twenty-one. The defeat of two ministers, Sir Georges Cartier in the province of Quebec and Sir Francis Hincks in Ontario, together with the notable gains made by the Opposition in the latter province, had sensibly weakened the position of the administration. Still, confident in his own ability to make the most of the material at his command, Macdonald met parliament in 1873, without any serious misgivings as to the future. He seemed, indeed, at the climax of a brilliantly successful career. He had not only accomplished Confederation, but, in spite of preliminary difficulties of many kinds, had put the new system into regular operation. His judiciously dispensed liberality had reconciled old provinces and won new; the Dominion stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the Great Lakes to the frozen pole. At Washington he had measured his strength with the diplomats and statesmen of Britain and the United States, and in tact and firmness found himself fully their equal. After a fierce struggle, the people had again expressed their confidence in him, and his triumph had been greatest where five years before the Opposition had been most overwhelming. In the hands of so consummate a tactician the majority obtained was sufficient for working purposes ; it might grow to more, but the methods by which some part of this majority had been gained had yet to be revealed, and, all unperceived, the Nemesis which attends a too devious expediency in political morals lay silently in wait for the great party leader. In less than a year after the House met he had been hurled from power, condemned by the voice of the Canadian people, his political career apparently closed, if not blasted, forever.

As a chapter in Canadian history the story of the "Pacific Scandal" is not a pleasant one for Canadians to read, or for a biographer of Macdonald to deal with. It is the unfortunate record of all democracies that the freedom of self-government, won through long and painful struggles, is ever liable to corruption at the fountain-head; that many holders of the franchise are ready to sacrifice the higher rights of citizenship for base considerations; that leaders are willing, or feel themselves constrained, to accept constituents at their own valuation and purchase a support which they see no other means of obtaining. Canada unfortunately supplied a modern instance of this fatal tendency. In the bitter struggles of party politics which had gone on ever since Macdonald entered public life, passion or conviction undoubtedly controlled the great mass of the voters, but it is also certain that party funds were used on both sides, as occasion offered, to sway that characterless and venal class that in closely divided constituencies so often turns the scale of victory. Expenditure on the vast scale familiar in English politics in the last century was unknown and impossible, but such means as were available were freely employed, and the replenishing of the party exchequer was consequently an important preliminary in every general election. The necessity for a party fund may be freely admitted, but the methods employed in its collection and distribution put a severe strain too often upon political morality.
In 1871, on the motion of Sir Georges Cartier, in the absence of Macdonald at Washington, parliament had accepted the suggestion of the Opposition that the railway stipulated for by British Columbia should be built, not by the government, but by a state-aided company. During 1871 and 1872 two such companies received charters from the Dominion government, the Inter-Oceanic, headed by Senator D. L. Macpherson of Toronto, and the Canadian Pacific, of which the leading member was Sir Hugh Allan of Montreal. In the formation of the latter company capitalists of the United States were largely interested.

Not wishing to favour exclusively either the Ontario interest represented by the one, or the Quebec interest which was strong in the other, Macdonald endeavoured to bring about an amalgamation of the two companies, a negotiation in which his colleague, Sir Alexander Campbell, took a leading part, but this attempt finally broke down owing to the impossibility of choosing between Allan and Macpherson as presidents, neither of whom would yield precedence to the other. Macdonald then devoted himself to forming a new company, combining the chief elements of both but free from all control by foreign capital, to which there was a strong popular objection throughout the Dominion. This company was finally constituted, with Sir Hugh Allan as president of the board of directors, a position to which his wealth and great influence in the British money market fairly entitled him.

Parliament had already resolved that any company which undertook to build the road should be subsidized with a grant of thirty million dollars in cash and fifty million acres of land, and a condition was made, as a security against outside control, that the stock of the company should not be transferable for six years. The best opinion of the time, that the public support offered to the enterprise was not too great, was ratified by subsequent experience.

The first session of the new parliament opened on March 5th, 1873, and for the first few weeks business proceeded as usual and without any hint of the coming storm. But on April 2nd, Mr. Lucius Seth Huntington, member for the county of Shefford, rose in his place in the House and amid dead silence moved: "That Mr. Huntington, a member of the House, having stated in his place that he is credibly informed, and believes that he can establish by satisfactory evidence,

"THAT in anticipation of the legislation of last session as to the Pacific Railway, an agreement was made between Sir Hugh Allan, acting for himself, and certain other Canadian promoters, and G. W. MacMullen, acting for certain United States capitalists, whereby the latter agreed to furnish all the funds necessary for the construction of the contemplated railway, and to give the former a certain percentage of interest, in consideration of their interest and position, the scheme agreed on being ostensibly that of a Canadian company with Sir Hugh Allan at its head,

"THAT the government were aware that negotiations were pending between these parties,—

"THAT subsequently an understanding was come to between the government and Sir Hugh Allan and Mr. Abbott, M.P., that Sir Hugh Allan and his friends should advance a large sum of money for the purpose of aiding the election of ministers and their supporters at the general election, and that he and his friends should receive the contract for the construction of the railway,

"THAT accordingly Sir Hugh Allan did advance a large sum of money for the purpose mentioned, at the solicitation, and under the pressing instances of ministers,

"THAT part of the moneys expended by Sir Hugh Allan in connection with obtaining the Act of Incorporation and Charter were paid to him by the said United States capitalists under the agreement with him,—it is

"Ordered, that a committee of seven members be appointed to enquire into all the circumstances connected with the negotiations for the construction of the Pacific Railway, with the legislation of last session on the subject, and with the granting of the charter to Sir Hugh Allan and others; with power to send for persons, papers and records; and with instructions to report in full the evidence taken before, and all proceedings of, said committee."

This bombshell did not for the moment explode. After making his motion Mr. Huntington sat down. No one rose to reply. Sir John Macdonald sat unmoved. After a long silence a division was taken without debate, and what was practically a vote of censure supported only by the bare word of Mr. Huntington was defeated by one hundred and seven to seventy-six. Huntington's failure to bring forward any evidence was regarded as a gross tactical blunder by two such experts as Sir John Macdonald and Lord Dufferin, the new governor-general. It has been questioned whether at the time he had such evidence in his possession. He may have believed it to exist, and ventured his motion as a feeler. As such it was abundantly successful. The charges were too serious to be passed over, amounting as they did to an accusation that the government "had trafficked with foreigners in Canada's most precious interests in order to debauch the constituencies of the Dominion with the gold obtained as the price of their treachery." [Lord Dufferin to the Earl of Kimberly, August 15th, 1873.] Next day Sir John Macdonald gave notice of a motion which was carried five days later (April 8th), "that a select committee of five members (of which committee the mover shall not be one) be appointed by this House to enquire into and report upon the several matters contained and stated in the resolution moved on Wednesday, the 2nd day of April instant, by the Hon. Mr. Huntington, member for the county of Shefford, relating to the Canadian Pacific Railway, with power to send for persons, papers and records, and to report the evidence from time to time, and, if need be, to sit after the prorogation of parliament."

It was suggested that a special Act should be passed empowering the committee to examine witnesses on oath. Macdonald doubted the legality of such a course, but suggested that the same end, which he approved, might be attained by issuing, as he offered to do, a royal commission to the committee. His opinion was over-ruled and the Act giving power to examine under oath was passed. On being referred to the law officers of the Crown in England, the Bill was disallowed as ultra vires.

Meantime, the committee decided to adjourn till July 2nd on account of the absence in England of witnesses so essential as Sir Georges Cartier and the Hon. J. J. C. Abbott; while parliament adjourned till August 13th on the clear understanding that its meeting would then be a formal one—merely for the reception of the report. It was considered that this arrangement would give time for the completion of the investigations.

When the committee met in July the proclamation of disallowance consequent upon the decision of the law officers of the Crown had been made, and as the committee did not feel free to depart from the instructions of the House of Commons to take the evidence under oath, Macdonald again offered to issue a royal commission. But Messrs. Blake and Dorion, the Liberal members of the committee, believing that the enquiry should be conducted under the direction of the Commons and not of the Crown, refused to act upon the commission, so the enquiry was for the moment blocked. But in the interval between these events and the time appointed for the meeting of parliament, new developments arrested public attention. On July 4th a Montreal paper published a number of letters and telegrams sent by Sir Hugh Allan to capitalists and others in the United States, pointing strongly to the existence of a corrupt bargain between Allan and the government in connection with the charter for building the Canadian Pacific Railway. A statement on oath by Sir Hugh Allan denying the charges made by Mr. Huntington of a corrupt bargain, or indeed of any bargain, was published on July 5th. This quieted public anxiety and excitement for the moment, but on July 18th further documents and telegrams, surreptitiously obtained in some way from private offices, and apparently authentic, were published, showing that Sir Georges Cartier and Sir John Macdonald had, during the progress of the election, called for and received from Sir Hugh Allan, large sums of money with the manifest purpose of influencing the constituencies.

When the House met according to arrangement on August 13th, vehement efforts were made by the Opposition to change the form of meeting agreed upon into a regular session, in order to deal at once with the charges that had been made. To this Macdonald could not agree, as a large body of his supporters were in the more distant parts of Canada and some in Europe, so that the Opposition, whose strength lay in Ontario, would probably have secured a majority on any vote of censure in a parliament so called together. Great pressure was brought upon the governor-general, the Earl of Dufferin, by petition and through the press, to induce him to insist upon parliament proceeding to deal with the question at once. When the governor-general announced his decision that by the constitution he was bound to follow the advice of his ministers in regard to prorogation, the House broke up amid scenes of great excitement. On the day following the prorogation, a royal commission was issued, on Macdonald's advice, to three judges, empowering them to investigate and report the evidence bearing upon the charges.

The commission began its sittings on August 28th. It examined Macdonald and several members of the government, together with Sir Hugh Allan, Mr. Macpherson and many others. Mr. Huntington refused to assist in the inquiry, averring that to do so would be a breach of the privileges of parliament. Parliament itself was summoned on October 23rd to receive the report. Meanwhile on October 9th, Macdonald had addressed to the governor-general an elaborate statement, confidential at the time, but since published, of the circumstances connected with the formation of the Canadian Pacific Railway Company, and a defence of his position in relation to the charges made. The expenditure of money on the elections was freely admitted, and was justified, partly as legitimate expense, partly as the custom in party contests, partly as an offset to Opposition expenditure and influence, especially in the province of Ontario, where a local Liberal administration threw its whole weight against his government. That there was any corrupt bargain between Sir Hugh Allan and himself he utterly denied. The inducement to large expenditures made by that gentleman was explained by his extensive steamboat and other interests, the future of which depended to a great extent on the success of the government policy. In this statement, confidential at the time, but since published, Macdonald admitted that Sir Georges Cartier had, at an early stage of the proceedings, made arrangements with Sir Hugh Allan which he could not approve and had felt bound to repudiate, attributing the error of judgment to the failing health and weakened mental powers of his colleague.

When parliament met on October 23rd to receive the report of the commission, an amendment to the address was immediately moved by Mr. Alexander Mackenzie, the leader of the Opposition. This amendment said: "We have to acquaint His Excellency that by their course in reference to the investigation of the charges preferred by Mr. Huntington in his place in this House, and under the facts disclosed in the evidence laid before us, His Excellency's advisers have merited the severest censure of the House."

A week of fierce discussion followed, during which it gradually became clear to Macdonald that he could not hold his majority together in the division which was approaching. On the fourth day of the debate he rose to make his fuller defence before the House, and in a speech of five hours in length reviewed all the circumstances of the election, and of the subsequent investigation. But it was with the knowledge that he was confronted with defeat that he made his final appeal. "I commit myself," he said, "the government commits itself to the hands of this House, and far beyond the House, it commits itself to the country at large. We have faithfully done our duty. We have fought the battle of Confederation. We have fought the battle of Union. We have had party strife, setting province against province; and, more than all, we have had in the greatest province, the preponderating province of the Dominion, every prejudice and sectional feeling that could be arrayed against us. I have been the victim of that conduct to a great extent, but I have fought the battle of Confederation, the battle of Union, the battle of the Dominion of Canada. I throw myself upon this House; I throw myself upon this country; I throw myself upon posterity; and I believe that I know that, notwithstanding the many failings in my life, I shall have the voice of this country and this House rallying round me. And, Sir, if I am mistaken in that, I can confidently appeal to a higher court—to the court of my own conscience, and to the court of posterity. I leave it with this House with every confidence. I am equal to either fortune. I can see past the decision of this House, either for or against me, but whether it be for or against me, I know, and it is no vain boast for me to say so, for even my enemies will admit that I am no boaster—that there does not exist in Canada a man who has given more of his time, more of his heart, more of his wealth, or more of his intellect and power, such as they may be, for the good of this Dominion of Canada."

It was evident, however, as the debate progressed, that the time for special pleading and excuse was past. The conscience of the country had been shocked by the revelation made of the methods by which the late election had been won for the Conservative party, many of Macdonald's own followers were in painful doubt, and independent members who had hitherto supported his great lines of policy were falling away. Early in the morning of November 5th, the member for Winnipeg, Mr. Donald A. Smith (now Lord Strathcona) spoke amid great excitement in the House, as neither party knew what course he would take. In the early part of his speech he dwelt favourably upon what the government had accomplished. But he concluded by saying that:-- "With respect to the transaction between the government and Sir Hugh Allan, he did not consider that the first minister took the money with any corrupt motive. He felt that the leader of the government was incapable of taking money from Sir Hugh Allan for corrupt purposes. He would be most willing to vote confidence in the government—could he do so conscientiously. It was with very great regret that he felt he could not do so. For the honour of the country, no government should exist that has a shadow of suspicion of this kind resting on them, and for that reason he could not support them."

It has been generally believed that it was this speech which decided Macdonald's course. Recognizing that defeat was inevitable, without awaiting the result of the debate he placed his resignation in the hands of the governor-general and on the same day (November 5th, 1873) announced in the House that the government had resigned and that Mr. Alexander Mackenzie had been called upon to form a ministry. So ended under a dark cloud of public suspicion the great administration under which Confederation had been inaugurated and the country launched upon the flood of its larger destinies.

On the dissolution of parliament and the appeal to the electors which soon followed the formation of a new administration, overwhelming defeat at the polls fell upon Macdonald and his party. He himself narrowly escaped rejection in his old constituency of Kingston, and his whole following in the new parliament barely numbered forty-five in a House of two hundred and six members. As with Palmerston in 1858 opponents thought and loudly proclaimed that his political career was ended. Confident in his own integrity of purpose, and in the strength of his hold upon the popular mind; confident too in his plans for the future of the country, and convinced that the country would yet have need of him, Macdonald bowed to the storm, faced the situation with undaunted courage, and took up with cheerfulness the work of leading the Opposition. To this task he was called by the absolutely unanimous vote of his small band of followers in parliament.


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