John Stephen Willison.

Reminiscences, political and personal online

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every rehearsal is a performance and every presentation
a surprise. The public seldom saw "John A." in liquor,
but occasionally there were symptoms which even Con-
servatives could not mistake. Once he was to speak at
a town on Lake Huron, but he was so long in sleeping
off the consequences that the vessel on which he was
a passenger dare not put into harbour. That was
fifty years ago but not yet have local Conservatives
discovered any humour in the incident or become
reconciled to the graceless chaffing of their Liberal
neighbours. A common story, resting upon no adequate
authority, is that a shorthand writer once undertook to
make a verbatim report of a speech which Sir John
delivered at Kingston. When he had examined the
manuscript he sent for the reporter, gravely intimated
that he had read portions of it with pain and surprise,
and with the mild austerity of a grieving father added,
"Young man, if you ever again undertake to report the



speech of a public man be sure that you keep sober."
There is an authenticated story of Macdonald in the
early sixties. He was Attorney-General for Upper
Canada, and lived in lodgings in Quebec. He had
been absent from duty for a week; public business was
delayed, and the Governor-General became impatient.
He sent his aide-de-camp, young Lord Bury, to find the
absent Minister. Pushing his way past the old house-
keeper, Lord Bury penetrated to the bedroom where
Macdonald was sitting in bed, reading a novel with a
decanter of sherry on the table beside him. "Mr. Mac-
donald, the Governor- General told me to say to you
that if you don't sober up and get back to business, he
will not be answerable for the consequences." Mac-
donald's countenance reflected the anger he felt at the
intrusion : "Are you here in your official capacity, or as
a private individual." "What difference does that
make?" asked Lord Bury. "Just this," snapped the
statesman, "if you are here in your official capacity, you
can go back to Sir Edmund Head, give him my com-
pliments, and tell him to go to h ; if you are simply

a private individual, you can go yourself." In after
years Lord Bury often told the story but with more of
affection than of censure for Sir John Macdonald.

In his time Sir Richard Cartwright was perhaps
the most caustic and scholarly speaker in the Canadian
Parliament. Too many of his speeches had the flavour
of malice and the acid of bitterness. But every word
carried its exact meaning. There was no verbiage or
redundancy. The argument was direct, deliberate,
compact and luminous. In his humour there was the
frost of Autumn, but the radiance, too, of its piercing
sunshine. Always stately and severe he relaxed nothing



of his outward austerity when he was striking at a vic-
time with biting irony or brilliant badinage. But the
irony was always corrosive and the badinage often
malicious and sometimes insolent. In social intercourse
Cartwright could be gracious and intimate. As a host
he was a simple gentleman, kindly without condescen-
sion, interesting without effort, sage without pretension.
But in political warfare he knew only the law of the
jungle. For Sir John Macdonald he had a consuming,
incurable hatred. Than his Reminiscences nothing
more sardonic and merciless ever was written. But
they reveal the author more clearly than they disclose
the qualities or establish the motives of his adversaries.
He had distinction and integrity but a brooding venge-
fulness against those who stood in the gates through
which he would pass vitiated his judgments, rilled his
days with anger and made political reverses the seed
plots of sleepless animosities.

One was often amazed at Cartwright's ferocity when
he spoke of the Conservative leader. It was commonly
believed that his hatred had its origin in a personal
humiliation. He aspired to be Minister of Finance but
was set aside for Sir Francis Hincks. But when one
changes his political relation an ignoble motive is al-
ways discovered. It is hard to believe that this could
be the only reason for Cartwright's lifelong pursuit of
Macdonald. According to Sir Joseph Pope the Con-
servative leader never understood the bitter inveterate
animus towards himself which possessed Cartwright
and could not fully reciprocate his contempt and hatred.
Very often while I was editor of The Globe Cartwright
sought to have charges made against Sir John Macdon-
ald which would have violated every tradition of



responsible journalism and every principle of decent
controversy. Towards other opponents he was less
malevolent. Indeed there was sometimes a sense of
equity in his judgments. When Sir John Macdonald
disappeared and the Liberal party was restored to office
he became mellow and humane, gracious and tolerant.
In Parliament thereafter he was persuasive and con-
ciliatory. Deputations which came in doubt and appre-
hension departed with glad hearts and smiling faces.
He even neglected to blaspheme the manufacturers.
One feels that he could have slept in the "Red Parlour"
with an easy head and a good conscience if Sir John
Macdonald's picture had not hung upon the wall. But
even the new Cartwright cherished the old grudge.
When a sum was put in the estimates for a statue to Sir
John on Parliament Hill he was determined to offer an
amendment requiring that the facts of the "Pacific
scandal" should be inscribed upon the monument. For
days his Parliamentary associates pleaded and reasoned
that he would injure only himself and the Liberal party
if he should actually submit such a resolution. But it
was long before he would yield and he yielded at last
to the persuasion of friends who were brought to Ottawa
to reinforce the appeals and protests of the Parlia-
mentary party. The madness broke out again in his
Reminiscenses. His final bequest to posterity was his
hatred of Sir John Macdonald.

Nothing that Cartwright ever said in Parlia-
ment better displays the quality of his humour
than his reference to Mr. J. E. Collins's biog-
raphy of the Conservative leader. Facing Sir
John in the House of Commons he said: "That
work was couched in chaste and elegant language, and



no doubt it will be very satisfactory to the honourable
gentleman's friends, because I observe from it that in all
the acts of the honourable gentleman's career which
evil-minded persons have misinterpreted, he has been
actuated by the purest and most patriotic motives, and
has even sometimes allowed his reputation to be tar-
nished for the general welfare of the country. It is a
happy association of ideas, and what a lamented friend
of mine called the 'eternal fitness of things,' that a gen-
tleman who in his life has done justice to so many John
Collinses should at last find a John Collins to do justice
to him."

It will be remembered that after the Conservative
party in Parliament had committed itself to Protection
the leaders addressed many political demonstrations
throughout the country. Referring to these demonstra-
tions Mr. Joseph Rymal said that he was reminded of
one who went to and fro on the earth many years ago,
tempted the people with false promises, took the Sav-
iour into a high mountain, showed Him the Kingdoms
of the earth and declared that He should possess these
and the glory of them if He would fall down and wor-
ship him. Failing to make the application Sir John,
who always maintained good relations with Rymal,
interrupted with the remark, "You did not finish the
story about the man who went up into the high moun-
tain." Rymal retorted, "That was not a man, that was
the devil ; the other tempter did not go to the top of the
mountain; he went round the country holding picnics
and tempting the people."

Occasionally Sir John emphasized an argument by
the experience of the old squaw who had found that a
little too much whiskey was just enough. He used to



say that he was like a certain old nag, "a rum 'un to
look at but a rare 'un to go." In a bye-election in West
Toronto in 1875 necessitated by the appointment of Mr,
Thomas Moss to the Bench, the Liberal candidate was
Alderman John Turner and his Conservative opponent
Hon. John Beverley Robinson. Speaking in behalf of
the Conservative candidate Sir John said Mr. Robin-
son had assisted and might again assist him at Cabinet
making but he was no turner. In Mr. E. B. Biggar's
very complete anecdotal life of the Conservative leader
he describes an incident in which Colonel Playfair of
Lanark was the victim. Colonel Playfair was urging
the construction of a colonization road of which he
desired to be superintendent. Exasperated by repeated
failures to get a decision he visited Ottawa and had Sir
John called out of the Council Chamber. The Prime
Minister grasped Playfair by both hands and ex-
claimed, "God bless my soul, Colonel Playfair, is that
you? I am so glad to see you. We have just been dis-
cussing in Council a military matter that we cannot
decide. Now you with your great military experience
and your memories of Salamanca and Talavera will be
able to solve the question. How many grains of powder
would have to be put under a bull's tail to blow his
horns off?" And Sir John disappeared into Council.
Colonel Playfair withdrew in disgust and anger and in
sad conviction that he would never receive the appoint-
ment. He was mail carrier between Perth and Play-
fair and the first letter he took out of the mail bag when
he got home was an official notice of his appointment as
superintendent. This military problem was often sub-
mitted for solution in the townships forty years ago,
but I cannot recollect that it was ever connected with



Sir John Macdonald. Mr. Biggar has another story
which I have not found or heard elsewhere. Visiting
the Provincial Fair at Kingston Sir John was attracted
by the performances of a troupe of female acrobats and
remarked that no doubt it was the custom to show the
calves first. A Scotch Liberal in Parliament he de-
scribed as "Mackenzie and water." Of another mem-
ber, erratic but brilliant, he said the world never would
have heard if God Almighty had given him common-
sense. Once Hon. Robert Watson, then the only Lib-
eral in Parliament from West of the Lakes, urged Sir
John not to allow party feeling to affect the considera-
tion of a proposal he had submitted to Parliament. The
Prime Minister put his hand upon Watson's shoulder
and whispered, "You are right, Watson, you are right,
it would be far better for the country if every member
of the House were as free of party feeling as you and
me." When he "hived the Grits" in a group of con-
stituencies in Ontario by the redistribution of seats in
1882 he scoffed at their righteous protest and with
jaunty insolence suggested that they could not hope to
get on with Tories when they could not live with them-
selves. He said it was not men who voted for him when
he was right but those who voted for him when he was
wrong who had the stronger claim upon his favour and
gratitude. The humour in his insolence and the laugh-
ter in his levity exasperated his opponents but delighted
his adherents and predisposed to lightness and leniency
many people who held their political opinions loosely.
In The Canadian Magazine, twenty years ago, Mr.
W. F. Maclean, M.P., described Sir John Macdonald
as "The Canadian Themistocles." Nothing else that
anyone has written about the Conservative leader is so



frank, so faithful and so penetrating. In a few rapid,
comprehending sentences he reveals the man and illum-
inates his whole career. "Sir John," he said, "had a
wonderful influence over many men. They would go
through fire and water to serve him, did serve him, and
got, some of them, little or no reward. But they served
him because they loved him, and because with all his
great powers they saw in him their own frailties. He
abounded in the right kind of charity. And speaking
of the love his friends and followers had for him, Mr.
Pope dwells on the 'old guard' and the old loyalty to
the chief. So it was, but there were dark days also,
when even those who afterwards enrolled themselves in
the guard, passed by on the other side. If ever there
was a man in low water, it was Sir John as I saw him
one day in the Winter of 1875, coming out of the House
into the bitter air, dressed in a Red River sash and coat,
and the old historic mink-skin cap, tottering down the
hill to the eastern gateway alone, others passing him
with a wide sweep. The lesson of Sir John's life is that
he pulled himself out of those days and trials into higher
and more solid footing. But Sir John's real 'old
guard' were not the men who stood with him at Ottawa,
but the greater old guard who stood and fought for
him in every township, year after year, and to whom a
call by name or a nod of the head was all the recom-
pense they got and yet the recompense they most prized.
Sir John has been praised for his statesmanship, and
for this I, too, give him all praise. But his statesman-
ship was limited to two things : carrying on the govern-
ment when no one else could do it, and do it so well and
so continuously, and forging the country together. He
originated no great principle. He appropriated, how-



ever, freely from others when an opportunity offered,
or when he thought another's idea would lead to or
keep him in office."

Interesting, but far less searching and fundamental,
is Mr. Nicholas Flood Davin's appreciation. It has
value as a contemporary judgment for it was written
nearly forty years ago. Davin had often heard Disraeli,
who was said to have a physical resemblance to Sir John
Macdonald and in language as brilliant as ever was
spoken by any man in Canada he would describe the
likenesses and differences between the two leaders.
"Sir John Macdonald," he said, "is a type of politician
which has never failed to delight the English people
the man who, like Palmerston, can work hard, do strong
things, hold his purpose, never lose sight for a moment
of the honour and welfare of his country, and yet crack
his joke and have his laugh, full of courage and good
spirits and kindly fun. . . . Sir John Macdonald
in the English House of Commons would have been
equal, in my opinion, to Mr. Disraeli in finesse, in the
art of forming combinations and managing men. He
never could have equalled him in invective, or in epi-
gram, or in force as an orator. Sir John Macdonald
brings up his artillery with more ease. He is always
human, even in his attacks. Lord Beaconsfield, as Mr.
Disraeli in the House of Commons, approached his
opponent like some serpentine monster, coiled himself
ruthlessly round him, fascinated with his gaze, and
struck out with venomed fang. But Sir John is prob-
ably the better debater of the two. His delivery is
lively, natural, mercurial; Lord Beaconsfield's is
labored. The power of making a statement is not the
forte of the author of Endymion. Sir John Macdonald



makes a luminous statement, and his reasoning faculty
is at least as high as Lord Beaconsfield's. He has very
little, comparatively, of the latter's curiosa felicitas, in
coining phrases, but his humour is more spontaneous.
Lord Beaconsfield has the charm which is inseparable
from genius, but it may well be doubted if his power of
conciliating men and fixing their affections surpasses
that of the Prime Minister of the Dominion. I am sure
that in sober strong sense the balance is in favour of the
Canadian statesman. There is nothing viewy about Sir
John Macdonald. Though a man of imagination, rea-
son is lord every time."

From my seat in the Press Gallery for four or five
Parliamentary sessions I looked across at Sir John
Macdonald. I was so placed that I could sometimes
see shades of expression cross his face, the defiant jerk
of the head when he was angry, the shrug of contempt
for a mean gibe that was meant to wound, the quick,
natural, human manifestation of pleasure over a gener-
ous word from an opponent or a tribute of affection and
confidence from an associate. I think he liked best to
have the word of praise come from the back benches as
he was most attentive to those who spoke seldom and in
sweat alike of brow and brain. Few men have had
such charm for his kind, or such power to inspire sacri-
fice and devotion. Mr. James F. Lister; of LamDton,
often attacked Sir John Macdonald in language as per-
sonal and violent as was permitted under the usages of
Parliament. I once asked him if he had any active dis-
like or actual hatred for the Conservative leader. He
confessed that he was so attracted by the man's person-
ality that he dare not trust himself in his company. I
was told by a Conservative member of the Commons



that he had never sought a favour for his constituency
from Sir John Macdonald that was not refused and yet
could hardly ever convince himself that the refusal was
not a favour. I have known gray-haired Liberals who
had persuaded themselves that the Conservative leader
was the favourite offspring of the father of evil forever
disarmed by a few quick, happy, spontaneous sentences,
spoken carelessly enough, but which, as he intended they
should, penetrated to the very marrow of their self-
esteem. I think of a Liberal member, dull but fluent,
who died in the conviction that he was among the most
effective debaters in Parliament because Macdonald so
insinuated in language just deft enough to conceal the
motive and effect the object.

There is reason to think that few men had his com-
plete confidence. He never had any real affection for
Sir Charles Tupper. He often distrusted his judgment
and his motives. It is said that he was always uneasy
when Tupper was under attack and often disturbed by
the rash courage of his colleague from Nova Scotia.
But when there was a great battle to be fought in Parlia-
ment or in the constituencies he relied upon Tupper as
a commander in jeopardy relies upon a reserve army.
Whatever may have been the judgment of his contem-
poraries there were the roots of greatness in Tupper.
He was bold, tempestuous, and audacious. In debate
he was often imaginative. In action he could be un-
scrupulous. But he could sacrifice for a great object;
he could be loyal and he was steadfast. In constructive
genius he has had no equal among the public men of
Canada. Thus he was the natural complement of Sir
John Macdonald. For Sir John was not naturally con-
structive nor had he any such reserve of courage as Tup-



per possessed. The Conservative leader waited upon
opportunity; Tupper made opportunity and by the
energy of his character seized the vital position before
the opposing forces could organize and occupy.

Not long before his death Tupper said a thing which
faithfully illustrates his temper and method. Discuss-
ing the trade agreement with Washington negotiated
by Mr. Fielding and Mr. Paterson, the situation which
developed in Parliament and the defeat of the Laurier
Administration, he said the facts afforded final evidence
that Laurier was neither a politician nor a statesman.
If he had been a politician he would have dissolved
Parliament and gone to the country as soon as the agree-
ment was negotiated, while if he had been a statesman
he never would have made the agreement. Whether
or not Tupper would have made the agreement it is cer-
tain that he would have taken an immediate appeal to
the constituencies and probably have secured a favour-
able judgment before the Opposition could have ad-
justed itself to the situation. It may be fair to soften
this hard judgment upon Laurier for which I am not
responsible with a hostile estimate of Tupper. Once
when Sir Charles was speaking in Parliament with
characteristic vigour and vehemence a Liberal member
said to his deskmate, "What a d liar that man Tup-
per is." "Yes," was the reply, "he just wastes lies."
But as happens so often in these reminiscences this is a
digression which perhaps even the irrelevant material
brought into the story may not justify. There can be no
doubt that Tupper was a valuable and powerful ally of
Sir John Macdonald and that without this alliance some
of the more striking achievements of Conservative Gov-
ernments would neither have been conceived nor exe-
cuted. 190


The alliance with Cartier was fortunate for Sir John
Macdonald and fortunate for Canada. Without Car-
tier the union of the Provinces could not have been
accomplished. While it is true that George Brown
made greater sacrifices for Confederation than any
other political leader Cartier was beset by greater poli-
tical dangers and among all the statesmen who co-oper-
ated to establish the union had the most difficult per-
sonal position. We often forget that the career of Sir
John Macdonald in United Canada was a preparation
for the alliance with Cartier, that his infusion of liberal-
ism into McNab toryism was a vital element in the
alliance and that his wise, sagacious, deliberate cultiva-
tion of Quebec provided the necessary assurances that
the movement for Confederation was not a conspiracy
against French Canada. When all is said Sir John
Macdonald was the only statesman in the Quebec Con-
ference who had a personal constituency in both Upper
and Lower Canada and whether or not he fashioned his
career to that result federation became feasible because
of the character which he had developed and the
authority which he exercised.

No successor to Cartier arose in the Conservative
party after Confederation. Masson was scholarly and
gifted, but he was a churchman before he was a states-
man. Langevin was dull but faithful; Chapleau was
neither. In political practice Chapleau was of the
school of Mercier and he was even more brilliant on
the platform. There is, however, no more striking
illustration in Canadian history of the failure of the
orator in the House of Commons. In mastery of men's
emotions when he spoke in French Chapleau was in-
comparable and invincible in Quebec. He was hardly



less effective in English when he spoke to great public
meetings in the other Provinces. When he came to
Ontario in 1886 to defend the execution of Kiel, affirm
his allegiance to Sir John Macdonald, and denounce
the agents of mischief in his own Province, his vibrant,
moving, passionate speeches held men breathless or
brought them to their feet in a tumult of cheering. He
was tall and erect, his face lean but mobile, his hair
gray and long and shaken by the energy of his deliver-
ance, his gestures free and appropriate to his language,
his sentences eager and rapid. He had the fire of a
prophet and the unction of a deliverer. But at best he
was a great performer without continuous purpose or
depth of conviction. In Parliament he was compara-
tively futile, perhaps even unequal to Langevin, who
had greater industry and no pretension. Once perhaps
Chapleau was equal to himself in the Commons. In
the wide, eager, hungry searching for scandal during
the session of 1891 Chapleau was assailed. In defence
of his reputation he held the House to silence and
respect and fought at least an equal battle with his
accusers. But when one remembers that Mr. Tarte
was in daily association and conference with Mr. Chap-
leau while he was formulating the charges that were
designed to destroy Langevin and McGreevy and that
Chapleau and Langevin sat in the same Cabinet one
feels that Tarte should have been left to his own devices
or that Chapleau should have withdrawn from the

According to Sir Joseph Pope there was a time
when Sir John Macdonald thought of Langevin as his
successor in the leadership of the Conservative party.
The statement would not be accepted if the authority




were not so unimpeachable. But apparently that was
Sir John's judgment in 1888 when he professed to be
willing to retire and when it was believed that Sir
Charles Tupper would prefer to remain in England
as High Commissioner. As surprising as his choice of
Langevin is the statement that when Pope suggested Sir
John Abbott, Macdonald declared he had not "a single
qualification for the office." But in this connection
there is some conflict. While the Conservative leaders
were considering who should succeed Sir John Mac-
donald, Mr. C. H. Cahan, K.C., of Halifax, was stay-

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Online LibraryJohn Stephen WillisonReminiscences, political and personal → online text (page 13 of 25)