Essays and Reviews

by Archibald Lampman

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley


The Life and Times of Sir John A. Macdonald


Having read through more than once with great delight the proof-sheets of the Life and Times of Sir John A. Macdonald, by Mr. J. E. Collins, of Toronto, published by the Rose Company, I should like here to give some slight descriptions of it—no severe and critical review—but a few rambling observations, which may serve to give my readers a general idea of a very able and delightful work. To begin with it is not so much a biography of the great conservative leader as it is a rapid and sketchy history of his times, written in a very clear, nervous, English style, not too crowded with rugged dates and facts, but abounding in vivid picturesque descriptions of scene and event, strong downright painting of character, powerful imagery and apt illustrations. Mr. Collins has done all that a wide acquaintance with general literature and a teeming fancy of his own can do to give interest to a subject which does not afford much to excite the imagination. The calm and peaceful flow of events in our time and country does not offer a very promising field for the power of an imaginative historian and considerable art is required to make such an attempt acceptable to the general unpolitical reader. Ours is too happy a country to have a history.

The main body of the work opens in the second chapter with the story of the family compact and the troublous days, which immediately preceded the first appearance of Sir John upon the political scene. It is told simply and strongly—for one of Mr. Collins’ chief merits is the clearness and precision of his narrative—detailing impartially the struggles and misunderstandings, bitterness and heart-burnings of that restless time. He may be said to sum up the differences of party feeling and party illusion in the following plain sentences: "It was a battle between prerogative and the power of the people. In prerogative the times saw the stability of our institutions, and the maintenance of our connection with the empire. In the power of the people they saw a democracy, that to-day might rush into republicanism and to-morrow into chaos. In prerogative the reformers saw the most baleful engine of political oppression, the evil which had convulsed the province in rebellion and blood, a something which was not even a prerogative, but a system by which a large majority of the people were ruled according to the interests of a favoured and irresponsible few. In the power of the people they saw not a privilege but only a birth-right and went to the polls to defend that right." During a stormy transition period like this, the character of a governor-general was a matter of vast importance—and Mr. Collins has drawn with a vigorous hand the portraits of four of those rulers who helped either to smooth or foment the disturbances. He speaks affectionately of the "great, the high-minded Earl of Durham" whose name, he says, is one of the foremost in our affections and our history, and describes vividly his brave efforts, his disgrace and death and how in the end "while he lay gasping away his last breath by the seashore at Cowes, came the tidings, but all too late, that even his bitterest foes bore tribute to the wisdom and broad statesmanship in his report." With Sir Charles Metcalfe he deals roughly, but we think fairly. The "man who looks upon reformers as he did upon rebellious negroes," whose "contact with the wiles and treachery of oriental craft," had made him so "incurably suspicious," that he "trusted any man who differed from himself as he would an adder-fanged" who "knew nothing about the governing of a colony under responsible government’[’] was surely but ill-fitted to soothe the heart-burning of a country, suffering under the assumptions of a tyrannical and privileged class. ["]The sanguinary Sir George Arthur suffered under a like disqualification. Armed with the experiences of Honduras and Tasmania, be began to rule Upper Canada. In tumult, he stamped every rebellion splutter out with the heel of a Claverhouse; in peace he was busy with the halter." Sir Francis Bond Head, who "came among us with the pomp of an Alexander and the attitudes of a Garrick," is not very highly spoken of.

The brave and clear-sighted Lord Elgin, Mr. Collins calls the "greatest of Canadian governers [sic] up to that day, Durham excepted." "He had studied carefully the doctrines laid by his illustrious father-in-law (Lord Durham) and found they were good. He frankly and heartily assisted the effete and unrepresentative body he found in office, but plainly told them that he should as cheerfully and not less heartily assist their opponents. The Governor was doubly tied to his duty. Canada had long been looked on as a stormy sea, studded with breakers, where administrators were as likely to meet with shipwreck as to win laurels and he was determined to avoid the rocks. Then as dear to him as his own success was the reputation of his father-in-law, Lord Durham, which still trembled in the balance, and must so remain until the principles he had laid down had been worked out for weal or woe. He was here to win a reputation for himself by following out the principles laid down by the father of his absent bride. We may be sure most earnestly did he set himself to his duty. His manly form was seen at several public meetings, exposed to the fierce winds of our Canadian winters, and he had not appeared upon many platforms before it was learnt that he was the most eloquent speaker in Canada."

It was in the latter days of Metcalfe’s government that Sir John A. Macdonald first appears upon the scene—and our author vigorously describes the circumstances attending that stormy election, which but barely supported the "Government of Sir Charles Metcalfe" by a majority of three votes, the questionable success which made him a peer. There was an intensity and coarseness of party violence which Canadians have now happily forgotten. "Some of the most brazen demagogues had gone about the country for two years before the election pluming themselves on their disloyalty and the aid they had given to rebellion. They openly declared that henceforth the Government should consist of men who had been either rebels in act or sympathy."

"It was not unusual to see proceeding to these meetings, a hundred teams, each carrying a dozen stalwart voters, to stirring music with flags flying and every man armed with a club. Violent collisions often occurred, and the polling places were frequently the scenes of the maddest and most brutal party strife.["] In the midst of the tumult of this election we find the future premier face to face with the bullies of Monahan in Kingston. Mr. Collins describes one of Sir John’s first speeches, one of those simple genial bits of straightforward talk, which have gained for the great leader the peculiarly affectionate place which he holds in the hearts of most Canadians. He addressed meetings, "composed of riotous men inflamed with whiskey and the worst passions of party. At one of these meetings he had much difficulty in getting an opportunity to begin his speech. * * When silence was restored he said he knew most of the electors and they were all manly fellows—too manly, indeed, to refuse another fair play. They were opposed to him, he said, and they had a right to be and he would not give much for them if they would stand not up for their own candidate; but if they had a right to their opinions—and he would be glad to listen to them at another time—he had also a right to his. He only wished to present his side of the case, and if his hearers did not agree with him, they might afterwards vote for whom they choose. Here was something more than soothing speech; here, indeed, was the genius of a Mark Antony—that could by the very force of subtle knowledge of character turn a hostile mob into friends on the spot."

We have a fine description of the young member’s first speech in the House—a calm and masterly one, unlike the speeches of most young aspirants, and involving a daring passage of arms between a novice and the long-lived leader for form [sic]. "It is not to be wondered at that the austere reformer glanced darkly from under his brows at this young man whom he had not seen till yesterday, who now stood up coolly rebuking him and exposing his errors as if the ex-minister were the novice, and the novice the veteran. But the speaker spoke on indifferently." Here we may take the opportunity of quoting a few sentences from our author relative to the many contradictions, which are to be found in the public life of Sir John. After making a brief extract from one of his early speeches on behalf [of] the law of Primogeniture, he adds: "How ashamed of him his party would now be to hear him from his place in the Dominion parliament defend what Gibbon calls the ‘insolent prerogative of primogeniture.’ How ashamed of him his party and the country now would be to hear him oppose a measure here for the very reason that it was adopted in the States. But these openings [sic], held for some years later, were as the vapours which hung about the face of the morning, but which are hurried away as the strength of the day advances. We know that Mr. Macdonald’s public life has been described as [‘]a series of contradictions,[’] but in what statesman do we find [‘]the morning song and the evening song always correspond?[’]" and instances startling changes of view in the careers of Gladstone, Beaconsfield and Peel. "A man who first sets foot in the bewildering paths of public life is like one who has just begun to learn a trade. Experience is his school and there must be many a defective blow dealt, many a wrong step made before the apprentice comes out a master of his craft."

In describing the riotous and disgraceful scenes which accompanied the furious discussions on the Indemnification bill, brought in by the Baldwin and Lafontaine ministry of 1849, Mr. Collins has done some of his best work. He makes a glorious quotation from Mr. Blake’s speech against the Tories in the House, "the long pent-up stream of manly wrath and contempt" under which the unfortunate Sir Allan writhed, tortured to the quick and which nearly produced a collision between the two gentlemen. The disgraceful sack of the Parliament buildings is described with great strength and vividness. In his chapter on the "Lights of ‘44" our author gives us brief, rapid descriptions of his chief heroes of the Compact troubles, affixing to each in a few downright touches, strong and impressive sketches of character. We must quote his sketch of Dominick Daly, that "political Norman," perpetual secretary under Metcalfe and one of the fantastic figures of the period. "If ever benchman [sic] deserved reward at the hands of his [sic] Crown, Dominick Daly did. His idea of political duty was to show unswerving fealty to the Crown and support every government that came to power. He was a body upon which the political sun never set. When a government of which he was a member waxed strong, Dominick became full of party sinew and vitality; but as that party waned and the end drew near, the colour faded out of him; he became a sort of political jellyfish, and calmly awaited the change of parties, when he developed new affections, a new frame and fresh marrow and muscle. * * In the best of nature he assisted the successor of Burton and his clique to thwart and oppress the French majority; and he aided Durham in laying the broad foundation of an enduring liberty. He strove with Sydenham to found the bases of an equitable political system; and he aided Metcalfe in strangling popular rights. * * He would be an odd figure upon the scene now and even in his own day was a curiousity. He was the amarantus of the Cabinet, its never-fading flower. * * His preferment in after days to high place and title, is an eloquent commentary on the wisdom and discrimination of Downing street." After this Mr. Collins traces clearly and racily the struggles of the reform ministry, its decline, the defection of the Globe and the clear-grits, the retirement of Lafontaine to Baldwin, the final collapse of the weak and ill-supported ministry of Francis Hin[c]ks, the leadership of the now incompetent Sir Allan M[a]cNab, whom Mr. Collins compares to the albatross, hanging about the neck of the tories, and the final triumph of Sir John, with the first loose formation of the modern liberal conservative party. During these changes we catch the first glimpse of the political character and influences of Mr. George Brown. Mr. Collins’ description of the many sturdy efforts of the great reformer to gain firm ground in the Cabinet, his vigorous wheeling charges on the various ministers who ignored him, his luckless one day’s administration under the Globe-hunted Sir Edmund W. Head, form very amusing passages in his book. Let us quote a few sentences from his estimate of George Brown, in which he endeavours, as he says, though little admiring the sturdy man, to do him simple, naked justice. "He never moved without noise; and whether it was his entry into the legislature, or that he addressed a meeting in a school-house; introduced a bill or presented a medal to a school girl, the fact was announced by a clatter of kettle-drums and a bray of bugles." "He was ambitious, and had a great deal of honest, worthy ambition too, we may be sure, but under his brusqueness, which was the result of a lack of refined atmosphere, during the formative period of his character and manners, he was inordinately vain of his powers and his position." His first speech in the House revealed ["] all his strength and not a few of his defects. He had a prodigious capacity for getting facts together, and these he flung with tremendous force in the face of his audience. Only the one qualification of an orator had he, however, and that was this force, a quality which was, perhaps, made better by having to it a nervous side. It was a homely, blunt speech, strongly made, and that was all." "Duty to some men is as the fixed star, that the mariner sailing over the unknown main, follows with unfaltering faith till it leads him to his heaven; but it is clear in the record that with all the robust honesty and sense of right which Mr. Brown possessed, this higher and moral duty was not to him a constant star." We leave these extracts in the hands of the reader, as he will probably in any case judge of them in the light of party prejudice. Mr. Collins vigorously condemns Mr. Brown’s onslaught upon Roman Catholicism, which was, to say the least, intemperate. His chapter on the "Running Questions" of clergy reserves and seigne[u]rial rights is well worth reading as it contains an uncommonly clear and succinct estimate of the question in issue. Sir Edward Head’s treatment of the great Brown ministry is ably and justly defended from the assaults of the Globe and Mr. Mackenzie. We do not so thoroughly sympathise with our author’s justification of the famous "double shuffle" manoeuvre, which facilitated the conservative return to power, though it is done with much skill. The movement was not a strictly honourable one. In the question of "representation by population’[’] the position taken by the ministry, is, we think, justly and logically upheld. "The very virtue of the union consisted in the quality [sic] of political power held by each section of the united province; whereas the moment that balance was destroyed, a larger representation given to one portion of the province, than to the other, the virtue departed, and one section became bound neck and heel to the will of the greater for ever."

Chapter XVI. describes in Mr. Collins’ best manner the final deadlock between parties and the unexpected adhesion of Mr. George Brown, which set the ministry upon its legs and gave sudden facility to the union scheme then in hand. Of Mr. Brown’s action in this matter, he says, while questioning the reformer[’]s motives and his subsequent conduct, "what he did do we shall endeavour to regard as a bright spot in a career of noisy and unscrupulous ambition and peace-disturbing demagogism." In the same connection we find the following observations upon Sir John’s conduct in this as in other cases, "Not alone in his attitude toward this great question, but to many other important political events, the birth of his time, in which he has felt the deepest interest, has he been regarded hostile. * * * The truth is Mr. Macdonald has not pretended to be wiser than his time or sought to move faster than the people. He showed then, as ever since, that he regarded it to be his duty in the governing place, not to create but to obey public opinion. * * * Brown’s proposal of a coalition he saw was a favourable turn to the tide, which had up to that hour set adversely. Because his efforts for union before would only have been energy wasted, and a defeat tarnish on the project, he had, up to that hour, held aloof, because, his exertions now could be turned to triumph, he not alone joined hands with the unionists, but with heart and head became the leader of the movement, halting not, or flagging not, as we shall see, till his ideal victory had been won." Mr. Collins’ account of the meetings of confederation delegates at Charlottetown and Quebec is rendered the more interesting to us from his intimate acquaintance with the maritime provinces and their political aspirations. He is able to give some delightful touches of sectional feeling and character, as he describes the impassioned speeches that were made and the vanity of sentiment with which the all-absorbing topic was regarded. The reception of the Hon. Ambrose Shea in his Newfoundland constituency after his unpopular connection with the famous conference, Mr. Collins describes with a humour, which the solemnity of history does not always enable him to restrain. The anecdote serves as an indication of the violence of feeling, with which this "solitary virgin out in those cold Atlantic waters resented the proposal for political wedlock."

It would be impossible to speak too highly, from a literary point of view, of the admirable chapter "The First Dominion Cabinet," in which Mr. Collins draws a brilliant set of portraits of the distinguished statesmen, who are still most of them living, and fresh in our hearts. Of George Cartier, who so indefatigably supported the Union in Quebec, he draws a strong picture, which, however, as it is somewhat heterodox, we shall leave without comment in the hands of our readers. ["]Mr. Cartier had many faults; for some of these, however, he was not responsible, as they were the inheritances of his birth. * * * He had an unbounded ambition, a profusion of nervous force, an unflagging perseverance, an activity as restless as the winds of heaven; and, to crown these invincible tools in the hands of a man who sets excelsior for his motto, he had an aggressiveness that pushed aside obstacles and all-opposing pretensions, and a capacity for organization that always astonished and sometimes bewildered those who are not given to analysis, but who are charmed by flash. No political leader could ignore M. Cartier, for he would prefer being matched against half a dozen strong men, to feeling that they had arrayed against them a tireless energy that never slept, never paused, that drilled on and would work its way through iron walls till it reached its end." Mr. Collins places Sir H. Langevin above Cartier as a statesman.

After this the narrative passes on to the Red River troubles, which are discussed with our author’s usual clearness and vigor, the fisheries question and the great Pacific scandal. Mr. Collins tells this last story in his own way, with admirable skill and gives us vivid pictures of the peculiar scenes in the House, during the first disclosures. The administration of Mr. Mackenzie is pass[ed] rapidly over and the political character of that leader thus briefly described, "We differ from Mr. Mackenzie in our view of many public questions * * * but nevertheless we do not hesitate to say that his influence upon the political life of Canada has been good; that he was faithful to his trust and strove to do his duty. We should like to be able to say that he was a popular administrator; but we cannot. He was, and is, out of sympathy with the spirit of our time; and the robust judgement of the young country is against him. Cast-iron theories always hedged him in and set bounds to his every impulse and plan; at last they grew so narrow as to become his coffin." Mr. Collins is an admirer, warm and at the same time regretful, of Mr. Blake whom he calls: "Opportunity in ruins" and considers "intellectually as great an orator as Gladstone" and superior to him "in showing cold indifference to petty annoyance."

Before finishing his book, Mr. Collins introduces a long chapter on the "Thought and Literature" of the time, which to us is the most interesting part of the work; for here he appears to us peculiarly at home, and as he passes in review the scanty ranks of our past and present authors, he is master of his subject; his criticism is warmly appreciative, and almost always just. A great part of the chapter is devoted to glowing and masterly examination of the works of the two first of Canadian singers, Roberts and Frechette, in his unbounded admiration of whom we entirely agree. In this chapter will be found what charms us most in the whole work, the author’s perfect and loving patriotism—patriotism, as we understand it, devoted wholly to Canada no longer as a child in leading strings, but as the apportioned home of a people who have accumulated a peculiar feeling and character of their own, who are in truth rapidly becoming one of the distinct upon earth, self-dependent, jealous of their manhood. There is a feature in Mr. Collins’ writing which will doubtless and on good grounds be unacceptable to most of his readers, but which we must state here as it is the key note of his whole work, and that is his earnest advocacy of Canadian independence—a principle which he urges with an energy and eloquence, which whether we agree with him or not, cannot fail to impress us. The book closes with a warm and genial picture of Sir John’s home and family.