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The Canadian Scene

The Correspondence of Sir John A. Macdonald

How far does a nation succeed in really knowing its public men? No Canadian leader lived on more intimate terms with his countrymen than Sir John A. Macdonald, whose image grows vaster with the passing years. Yet I fancy some of his surviving friends learned much they did not know of him when Correspondence of Sir John A. Macdonald, 1840-1891, edited by Sir Joseph Pope, was published in 1921. The volume necessarily presupposes a running acquaintance with Canadian history, and its great importance lies in its illumination of the characters of the leading men who helped to shape the destinies of Canada as a unified Dominion, and of the vexatious problems with which they had to deal. Not even Sir Joseph's Life leaves such an ineffaceable impression of the intellectual power, political wisdom, and steadfast patriotism of Sir John Macdonald, as do the many confidential communications that here are brought to light. The union in him of political genius, with patience and tolerance, are unmistakably revealed. Though other men had also the vision of a great and unified Dominion, one cannot but feel that only by his tact, vigilance, and fixed aims was Confederation first rendered possible and later extended and made permanent.

The number of those who knew Sir John and participated in his battles is daily diminishing. For millions of Canadians he is but a legendary figure: the theme of comic stories; the arch-embodiment of political cunning; and at times the subject of oratorical rhetoric. From the pages of this Correspondence the real man emerges; he looms larger than any oratory could picture him; more kindly and human than any anecdote could typify him. The several portraits give a sense of his unique personality; noble brow, sensitive mouth, eyes and features that are alert, humorous and wise.

Personally, I saw Sir John but once, and it was the glimpse of a moment. On a summer day less than a year before his death, as I stood on a street corner in Toronto, a covered coupé drove by; and there, framed as in a portrait gallery, was Sir John. It was a perfectly toned picture; for the sun falling through the opposite window lighted the figure and profile. He was smartly attired with grey top hat and grey frock coat, leaning forward with his chin resting on strong and sinewy hands that gripped a cane,—apparently in deep reverie. It was a picture Zorn or Sargent might have desired to paint; and my recollection of it is ineffaceable. And in that glimpse the great leader gave one a sense of detachment from his fellows, almost of isolation.

As I read these letters I find in them that same atmosphere of intellectual detachment. Despite his great personal popularity and countless acquaintances, the man who desired so many and such great things for his country, who found it so hard to get things done, who was so constantly beset by the quarrels and envies of others, reveals himself, as it were, in "splendid isolation."

While the letters of Sir John himself are many, those from other distinguished men to himself are more numerous still; though Sir Joseph Pope says they represent but one per cent of the material at his disposal. "Harry, my boy," once observed Sir John to Colonel H. R. Smith, the late Sergeant-at-arms of the House of Commons, "Never write a letter if you can help it, and never destroy one." If what I have heard from old politicians is true, the first named precept was the echo of bitter experience. Sir John did occasionally write letters that he could have wished unwritten, and friends were sometimes put to considerable difficulty in recovering them. Nevertheless he, for the most part, avoided unnecessary correspondence, and abstained from epistolary controversy. Many of the letters he received were apparently "answered" by the simple process of putting them in the filing cabinet. When he did write, his style was witty, sage, and clear.

One fact that cannot fail to impress the reader is the elaborate means Sir John employed to keep himself informed of what was going on above or below the surface, that might affect the fortunes of his country and of his administration. While he encouraged a spirit of partizan devotion in his followers, he was not himself a bitter partizan. His letters reveal a keen sense of the deficiencies of some of his own associates and an appreciation of the abilities of opponents. Yet there is a pervading kindliness in his communications, even when he had reason for annoyance, which bespeaks a fine spirit. The reason some of the "Grits" hated him so much was not because he defeated them so often, but because he laughed at them. That was hard to bear. But he had much to bear from them; for these pages show that no form of libel was deemed too base to be circulated against him for political reasons. He had only to give his assent to some plan, and, no matter how deeply in the interest of Canada, a horde of traducers was immediately busy trying to wreck it. The Globe, under the regime of George Brown, seems to have been a sore offender in this respect; and its articles circulated in the West did not a little to provoke the first Riel rebellion. But Sir John Macdonald as a rule had so much information up his sleeve that he was usually prepared to confute his enemies.

A very interesting phase of this correspondence is the evidence it presents of the elaborate use Sir John made of the press. There are many letters to editors, giving them friendly tips on matters of policy; and even cautions against extreme partizanship. He held that he could be best supported by fair statement, rather than one-side argument. When, in the late sixties, he resolved to make Sir Francis Hincks, who had been abroad for years as governor of the Windward Islands, Finance Minister, he realized that he would be in hot water with the old Tories. Hincks during his earlier residence in Canada had been a strong Reformer, and consequently Sir John devised an educational campaign in the press to make the appointment acceptable to his own party. Again we find him cautioning a friendly journalist to withhold comment on a public question until George Brown in the Globe had committed himself in the way he hoped he would. On one occasion he drew up a skeleton editorial for the Mail and asked its editor, the late Martin J. Griffin, to develop it. It was a severe criticism of his own supporters because some of them were importuning him for judgeships and senatorships. In it he laid down the dictum that judges should not be appointed on the ground of political service, and that it was improper for a lawyer to urge his own appointment. He also held that appointments to the Senate were a matter of such grave consequence that mere party expediency should not prevail. Most of these precepts have since been honoured rather in the breach than the observance.

It is quite clear that Sir John liked working below the surface; but his diplomacy was far from malevolent. He sought keep in touch with the best thinkers of the country, and, like his friend Sir Charles Tupper, enjoyed especially happy relations with certain of the Roman Catholic clergy. The correspondence shows that he actively used his influence through the Marquis of Salisbury and the Duke of Norfolk to secure the Cardinal's hat for Mgr. Taschereau, the first Canadian Prince of the Church. Among the bitterest of his letters are those of 1887 censuring C. W. Bunting, editor of the Mail, for alienating the Roman Catholic vote. His tolerance was not shared by Goldwin Smith, his close and intimate friend in the seventies. In one letter, "the Oxford Professor" says the name of priest is perfidy. Goldwin Smith's letters to Sir John are peculiarly interesting. He even then believed that the destiny of Canada lay in union with the United States; but in 1878 he strongly supported Protection with his pen and on the platform. He was particularly indignant because the Globe intimated that his advocacy was due to a desire to foment differences between Canada and free-trade Great Britain. Goldwin Smith at that time seems to have thought that the only way Canada could strengthen herself to meet the United States on equal terms was by Protection.

There were matters which Sir John deemed more important than the policy of protection. One was, to use his own words, "making Canadian confederation from gristle into bones". He worked early and late for his nursling, by diplomacy, by reconciling quarrels and jealousies, by the use of patronage, and by open argument. The other was the necessary complement of Confederation, the linking up of Canada by a chain of railways from the Atlantic to the Pacific. He must have been a happy man, when, on September 14, 1880, after ten years of negotiation, contracts were signed for the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. In reality his troubles were just beginning; but nevertheless the railroad was finished long before May 1, 1891, the date set for its completion. The initial acts of the great drama of the opening up of the Canadian West give an epical character to these letters. It was a sore struggle for Sir John; but he had strong helpers in his most intimate friends; in Sir John Rose, a great English banker, born in Canada, who had once been a member of his cabinet; in Sir Charles Tupper, a man less tactful than he but of equal vision; and later in George Stephen (Lord Mountstephen) and Donald A. Smith (Lord Strathcona). The drama began with the acquirement of the western territories from the Hudson's Bay Company. It was deal consummated in London; and interrupted by the first Riel rebellion. Sir John's fear was that this defiance by Riel's "republic" would be treated as an imperial matter and that "some over-washed Englishman" would be sent out to spoil everything. He was badly served by bungling subordinates; but finally, by force of will and continuous diplomacy, he got things settled in his own way, and despite carping opposition, railroad construction proceeded. Sir John in one letter emphasize his conviction that the United States coveted the Canadian West. In 1884, when the C.P.R. was nearing completion, rumours of Riel's activities were again to the fore. A Toronto promoter named Pew planned to have Riel declare the West an independent territory, and then sell it to the United States for two million dollars, half a million dollars more than Canada had paid for it fifteen years previously. Sir John induced Erastus Wiman to pose as sympathetic, and get full details of the plan. Pew claimed that Edward Blake and Sir Richard Cartwright were with him in the deal, but this Sir John rightly refused to believe, and it stamped the whole scheme as fantastic in his eyes.

Riel's second rising in March, 1885, came at a very unhappy moment for the C.P.R. project. Five million dollars was needed for its completion, but some of Sir John's colleagues, including Sir Mackenzie Bowell, refused to countenance the loan. The tone of Sir Charles Tupper's letters from England clearly indicated a desire to come over and physically chastise them into submission. The loyalty of two men of no eloquence but much wisdom, Sir Frank Smith and Hon. John Henry Pope, saved the day. Now it is almost incredible to think that in 1885 the C.P.R. nearly went into liquidation for the lack of five million dollars to complete it. But how real was the danger is shown by the note of bitterness and almost brief in the letters of George Stephen. In this episode the greatness of Sir John, in comparison with opponents and colleagues, proved paramount. Opposition was ever but a spur to his valour.

[Public Domain] Copyright/Licence: The author or authors of this work died in 1960 or earlier, and this work was first published no later than 1960. Therefore, this work is in the public domain in Canada per sections 6 and 7 of the Copyright Act. See disclaimers.