MacDonald's Greatness in His Times
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 28 Jan 1965, p. 184-195
Morton, Dr. William L., Speaker
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The greatness of John A. Macdonald. Canada's reluctance to recognize its own. The "cautious mediocrity" that is Canadian. Seeing Macdonald in relation to his times. An exploration of Macdonald's times. A greater understanding of why he brought to the work of Confederation the large and national view that he did. Tasks accomplished and how he did so. World events effecting those tasks. Macdonald's victories. Honouring our history and avoiding the cynicism of the shallow and the glib by maintaining, by renewing and recreating this country that Macdonald more than any other made.
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28 Jan 1965
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Full Text
JANUARY 28. 1965
MacDonald's Greatness in His Times
CHAIRMAN, The President, Lt. Col. Robert H. Hilborn


Gentlemen, last Monday on your behalf I sent the following message to Lady Churchill and her family: "All members of The Empire Club of Canada join us in sorrowful tribute to Sir Winston Churchill, proud in the memory of the day he honoured us with his presence and remembering above all his inspiration in those days when we lived by the faith he gave us."

I ask Past President John Griffin to pay our tribute to his memory.


This is a sad week for Canada, for the British Commonwealth, and indeed for the entire world. Sir Winston Churchill has become more than a hero and more than a legend. He has become the symbol of what history may call "the Age of Transition." To use his own expression, he has been the linch-pin between the past and the present,between the old and the new. The life of no one else in our time has spanned such a breadth of years as this man's, who was grown to maturity and well known when Queen Victoria still sat on the throne. This same man took part in the last great charge the British Cavalry ever made, and lived long enough to play a major part in the building and the use of the first atomic bomb.

Whatever his passing may mean to each of us individually, his death means the same to all of us, collectively-it means that we are growing old. I am going to read to you a short tribute to Sir Winston written by my father in 1943 when the free world, in Churchill's own words, stood at a point which was, "not the beginning of the end but the end of the beginning."

When those who know not what liberty means were threatening to destroy that which decent men had worked for and had cherished-when the fires of human freedom were burning low and despair had taken root, a light appeared on the horizon of hope -a light fueled by the essence of truth and frankness, and reflected to the four corners of civilization by the most amazing man of our time.

The world was dazed. Few men, if any, knew what to believe. We stood on the brink of a precipice of political slavery. It was the darkest hour ever faced by free men. We

knew not which way to turn. And then a man appeared. And never before in time has one man done so much for so many. Study this man, my friends, and see if you can find another like him in the pages of the history books. Weigh him well in the balance of your best judgment. Compare him with all our erstwhile "Men-of-the-Hour' with all their panaceas for producing plenty-with their rosy pictures of unearned ease. He did not promise to make the poor man richer, neither did he threaten to make the rich man poorer; but to him belongs the credit for the decent world we shall live in tomorrow. His value to us is incalculable and not to be spoken of in the same breath with the exploits or ideological notions of our self-anointed saviours of civilization, living or dead. But if honesty, frankness and courage are still virtues, his is the pattern which others may follow with enduring profit.

Fortunate indeed, are those of us who live in the same world at the same time with such a man. Long may he remain hereabouts after his work shall have been finished. May he be pleased with the world he has done so much to save for all men for all time.

It is inevitable that, for generations to come, our children and their children will read the story of Winston Churchill and thrill with pride because father or grandfather had heard his voice-had heard him say those ten words that shook the earth, and the like of which no man before him had ever dared to utter: "All I can promise is Blood, Sweat, Toil and Tears."

Let us all stand for a moment's silent tribute to his memory and as we do so let us remember that Sir Winston, like all men, has an immortal soul.


First let me say that as one of the separated brethren I was delighted to extend to our speaker of last week, now His Eminence Maurice Cardinal Roy, the warm and sincere congratulations of the Empire Club on his elevation. If our speaker of today would care to confide in us as to his aspirations, while I cannot guarantee results as dramatic as last week, we will certainly do what we can.

Now, a quotation: "It is precisely from these things that we are suffering, from a loose journalism, from a vague geography, from an excitable smattering of everything, from an officious interest in everybody, from a loss of strong national types, of strong religious restraint, of the sense of memory and the fear of God." As apt today as it was when G. K. Chesterton said it, in the year this Club was founded. While I cannot comment on our speakers propensity for imposing strong religious restraints and instilling the fear of God, he is here to alleviate our suffering, for as an historian he has tightened our journalism, clarified our geography, focused our comprehension, broadened our interest, paid fitting tribute to our strong national types and thus stimulated our sense of memory.

Dr. William Lewis Morton, a native son of Manitoba is Chairman of the Department of History and Provost of University College, University of Manitoba. A Rhodes scholar, graduated by the Universities of Manitoba and Oxford, he has been honoured subsequently with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Toronto; the Governor General's Medal for non-fiction and the Tyrrell Medal for Canadian History from the Royal Society of Canada.

Dr. Morton is Executive Editor of the Canadian Centenary Series, a history of Canada in seventeen volumes being published by McClelland & Stewart. Dr. Donald Creighton, another eminent historian who honours us with his presence today, is the Advisory Editor of the series. Dr. Morton's latest book "The Critical Years," dealing with the Union of British North America and the twelfth in the series, was published yesterday.

He is not a prophet in retrospect but a wise historian, gifted with an eye and a soul, whose many volumes of history are just tribute to the intrepid pioneers and the inspired builders of our land.

Most of us here were denied the opportunity of attending Sir John A. Macdonald's 150th birthday party in Kingston on the 11th of this month as we were not invited, and we welcome this occasion to honour his memory. I cannot, of course, speak for any who, having been invited, denied themselves the opportunity of being present.

We are chosen by opportunity and bound by duty to pioneer for generation to come. The vision of our founding fathers must be with us to inspire and challenge us, for where there is no vision the people perish. We can best learn to value our heritage by reflecting on our history. We can best appreciate the present in the light of the past. I am proud to ask Dr. William L. Morton to bring us this light in speaking on "Macdonald's Greatness in His Times."


It is a great honour to address the Empire Club of Toronto on the theme of the greatness of John A. Macdonald. It is a special pleasure to do so at this particular time. Macdonald's birth a hundred and fifty years ago was commemorated earlier this month at his own city of Kingston. On that occasion Professor Donald Creighton, biographer of Macdonald and one of the greater historians writing in English today, happily and appropriately spoke. The event was celebrated with dignity and distinction. But, from this commemoration of the first and greatest of Canadian prime ministers, the present Prime Minister of Canada was deplorably absent. And a distinguished Canadian journalist, Mr. Charles Lynch, ended his comments on the celebration by remarking that despite our best efforts we should have a hard time to make a Lincoln of Macdonald. What indifference to history itself by a former historian, what a glib and casual cynicism by an influential writer! Gentlemen, what pass has this country come to, that we cannot give serious attention to recognizing our own for what it is, that we cannot take the measure of a Canadian statesman without the blasé comment that he does not come up to some American standard?

Any student of Canada knows that Canadians have a peculiar gift for cautious mediocrity, and a special esteem for it in those to whom we entrust leadership in our affairs. But it was not a cautious mediocrity that produced Confederation, nor was it prudence and precaution that characterized Macdonald. The Confederation of the British North American colonies was one of the great events of the nineteenth century, as its revision and renewal will be one of the important events of the twentieth. Macdonald was always at the centre of the Confederation of a century ago; he was its informing mind, and I am sure that recreation of Confederation must be infused with the same spirit and the same heart as Macdonald brought to the work a century ago. For it is only if we put off our provincial pettiness, and see Macdonold in relation to his times, that we can hope to understand him for the great creative statesman that he was. This is how I invite you to take his measure, as a politician working in a decisive decade of a century that saw the western world reorganized by the idea of nationality and the fact of railway transport. That was the decade of the 1860's, the decade of the unification of Germany and of Italy, of the American Civil War, and of the Confederation of British North America, the decade of Bismarck, Cavour, Lincoln and Macdonald.

When I invite you to see Macdonald amidst these events and in this company, I am doing something very strange for an English Canadian historian to do. I know you may think me both presumptuous and absurd. It is, therefore, a matter of pleasure for me as a Canadian to say that in doing so I am in a large part modelling myself on my friend and professional colleague, Professor Michel Brunet, Director of the Institute of History in the University of Montreal, who has had for some years a lecture on the four great unifiers of the nineteenth century, Bismarck, Cavour, Lincoln and Macdonald. What a French Canadian historian had the boldness to do some years ago, an English Canadian may do today. I have not heard Professor Brunet's lecture and I do not borrow from it, but I applaud and accept its spirit. Canada and Canadians do live in this world, and we must produce men as great as the world's occasions demands, or we cease to be Canadian.

That is in essence what Macdonald did. He lived in his world, and he matched the occasion with which it confronted him. His great contemporaries did no more, and with no greater measure of success. The relative difficulties they faced, the magnitude of the particular victories they won, these we must consider, if we are to measure justly the proportion of Macdonald relative to his peers. The more important in consequence of the two great European unifications of the 1860's, the Italian and the German, was the German. It was the work pre-eminently of one man, Count Otto von Bismarck. We need not recite a piece of history so well known. Rather let us look at it as a set task, as Bismarck himself saw it and performed. He had to unite Germany with the acquiescence of Russia, by the exclusion of Austria and against the resistance of France. This he did in three planned strokes. He quietly helped Russia in the strangling of the Polish revolt of 1863. In the tangled affair of Schleswig-Holstein he found occasion first for co-operation with Austria in 1864, and then for war with that state in 1866. Note the years: in Canada the years of the Quebec Conference and the Fenian raid at Ridgeway. The North Germany Federation was created the same year as the Dominion of Canada, and faced a France which realized that the hegemony of Europe was in the balance. While Wolseley's troops were struggling over the rapids of the Winnipeg River to make sure the West should be peaceful and Canadian, the German armies of both the Federation and the southern kingdoms were marching towards Paris and the German Empire of 1871.

The Austria Bismarck excluded from Germany was an Austria already defeated by the other of the great unifiers, Emilio Cavour. He faced a task infinitely more delicate than that of Bismarck. The task for Cavour was give Italian opinion the voice Austria had suppressed, to exclude Austria from Italy, and to bring Italy into unity despite the complication of the Papal States. He obtained, at the price of Savoy and a royal marriage, a war between France and Austria. The shock of war set the avalanches sliding. Garibaldi and his thousand raised the south and ended the Kingdom of Naples. Plebiscite after plebiscite in the northern states brought them into union. But there the play, so carefully contrived, broke down. Not until 1870 was Rome to become part of the Italy Cavour had united. Canada was not, we may note, remote from these events. Garibaldi's attempt to seige Rome at the battle of the Mentana in 1869 drew French Canadian volunteers to the Papal Zouaves in 1869, and in 1870 Bishop Taché of Red River was at the General Council which proclaimed the doctrine of papal infallibility.

The same forces that drew Germany and Italy together worked to the same end, but more violently, in the United States. There the idea of democracy expressed as human equality and the idea of nationality expressed as the selfdetermination of peoples who felt themselves one, played upon the existence of slavery and industrial backwardness in the Southern States to bring about not unity but secession. Lincoln, when he became president, had to deal with the fact of rebellion while asserting the continuation and supremacy of the Union. To do so he had to find soldiers, and still more, generals who could lead them to victory over the splendid leadership and superb soldiery of the South. To find the moral will to make this effort, Lincoln moved from his lawyer's position that the Union was older than the States and secession illegal, to the seer's position that the cause of the federal government was the cause of democracy and of oppressed humanity everywhere. It was this grim struggle that brought on Canada the Trent crisis, the rush of British reinforcements to the organization of its militia, and the pressing of Confederation. As background to all the planning of federation from Gettysburg to Appomattox, the cannon of the Civil War kept up a distant but menacing rumble. And Lincoln, his task of asserting the Union done, was martyred as the task of restoration began.

We have, then, the ruthless mind of Bismarck, the fine hand of Cavour, the steady vision of and lucid words of Lincoln. What has Macdonald to bring to this company? No diplomat, no believer in machtpolitik, no moulder of prophetic phrases, what has this Kingston lawyer, of little reputation in his profession, this politician who left no memorable speech, this statesman best known for what he evaded doing, what place has he in such company? Macdonald's is indeed a different story from that of the other great unifiers. No task was set him, no tool, no Prussian army, no Piedmont, no federal government, lay ready to his hand. He had to find the task and make the tools to accomplish it. He was, however, a singular man. Born poor and brought up simply, he nevertheless trained his mind and acquired a simple good breeding that kept him a gentleman of easy bearing and direct humanity all his days. From the time he entered politics in 1844 to his death in 1891, he never lost his easy lanky grace, or found in Toronto, Quebec. London, or Washington, any company where he was not accepted as a man of parts and distinction. He met none of Lincoln, Bismarck, or Cavour, but he would not have been out of place with any of them, or have failed to take their measure. Macdonald was, odd as it may seem, a man who might well have been as great in a larger role as he was in the actual one he played. His was a native virtue, nourished only by the moral standards of his own people, and by the sense all his contemporaries had of being citizens of the world's leading state. Macdonald was neither provincial in outlook nor thought himself confined to a constricted colonial life. He never doubted that he belonged without reserve or limitation to the world of his day.

We can, therefore, see why he brought to the work of Confederation the large and national view he did. He alone of the many able men who contributed to Confederation, Brown, Galt, McGee, Tupper, Tilley, had a clear, central view of what was necessary to the future of British America, and what was possible to ensure it. For he had found the task to which his life was committed. It was to preserve the union of the Canadas and to include the other colonies in a national unity that would ensure independence on the continent of North America.

To accomplish this task he had to forge a tool for the purpose, and this he did in the Liberal-Conservative party in 1854. When Brown of Upper Canada and Dorion of Lower Canada began to have success in their endeavours to make the Canadian union a federal one, he with Cartier took up Galt's proposal of a general federation. A general union would contain, would make less headlong, less violent, the clash of French and English majorities in the valley of the St. Lawrence.

It was the coming of the Civil War in the United States and the rise of Gladstonian liberalism in England that forced this natural procrastinator-this Old Tomorrow as men came to call him-to strike out to complete a task become suddenly urgent. The first shock of war the reinforcements brought by the Trent crisis had met. But his failure in 1862 to carry his militia bill; the shock of Lee's repulse at Gettysburg in 1863; the Schleswig-Holstein crisis early in 1864 and the British wish to call the reinforcements home, all these things made his task as clear as it was urgent.

He had first to ensure that there should be union, and a general union of British North America, not a federal union of the Canadas. There can be little doubt that the plan of general union sketched at Charlottetown and carried at Quebec was in its final form largely his work. Next, he had to ensure British support until the union was formed and established. This meant resisting the clamour in the British Parliament to withdraw the British garrisons from the St. Lawrence. Next, he had to find money to build the Intercolonial pledged to the Maritimes and the Pacific railway planned for the West. This meant British capital, as American capital would strangle a railway line that would be tellingly competitive. Finally, he had to resist those encroachments on Canadian life in the fisheries, in manufacturing, in transport, that American special interests always felt free to make and always sought to have their government support.

In nearly all these issues, with no army, no great government service, with an unruly Parliament to persuade and a new country to govern, he won sufficient victories. He got the central government with all the great powers of government that he desired. He kept the British garrisons until the West was annexed in 1870-by a stroke of luck until 1871. He got imperial guarantees for his railway projects. And in 1871 at Washington, alone and thwarted by British pressure, he saved a great deal for Canada, and saw the United States accept as its northern neighbour the continental union he had created.

In short, out of the convulsions of the 1860's he brought the Canadian union that organized the northern half of the continent. When every great power, France, Russia and England itself had withdrawn from North America before Lincoln's reconstituted union, Macdonald by firmness and conciliation had preserved the independence of the British American colonies in the Dominion of Canada. That was his masterpiece.

In his own lifetime, his work was to triumph in the nation he had made and led. That it was no match for its great neighbour, or for imperial Germany, or for historic Italy, is no comment on the magnitude of Macdonald's task, the difficulties he overcame with scant resources, the skill he displayed amid petty distractions. Among the four he stands first in personal resource. No one used so little power to so great an effect. He was superb as a combiner of men and ideas. There were few men of note in his day, even opponents, who did not become his colleagues. A man of few ideas but a strong central purpose, he could use the idea of others in a creative whole that was wholly his own. Finally, he was liked, however grudgingly, by nearly all his opponents, and loved by his followers. "You'll never die, John A."-what acclaim for any man to win!

This I like to think suggests his measure. Macdonald can keep company with his great contemporaries, and bring to that company his peculiar qualities of moderation in the quest of power and of humanity in its use. He is not to be placed first or last; he is to be grouped with them, with his easy grace and his enigmatic half smile.

And if we are to leave him with his peers, it surely means that this country may look with respect to the memory of a man who was great in his own time and whose work, if it is to be re-done, might well be done again in the same spirit of reason, moderation and good humour with which it first was done. Let us in any event honour our history and avoid the cynicism of the shallow and the glib by maintaining, by renewing and recreating this country that Macdonald more than any other made.


Thanks of this meeting were expressed by the Rt. Rev. E. M. Howse, a Director of the Empire Club.

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MacDonald's Greatness in His Times

The greatness of John A. Macdonald. Canada's reluctance to recognize its own. The "cautious mediocrity" that is Canadian. Seeing Macdonald in relation to his times. An exploration of Macdonald's times. A greater understanding of why he brought to the work of Confederation the large and national view that he did. Tasks accomplished and how he did so. World events effecting those tasks. Macdonald's victories. Honouring our history and avoiding the cynicism of the shallow and the glib by maintaining, by renewing and recreating this country that Macdonald more than any other made.