Sir John A. MacDonald, Empire Builder
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 18 Feb 1915, p. 66-77
Stauffer, Rev. Byron H., Speaker
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Nothing but the absorbing thought of the war that has kept Canada from remembering that the fifteenth of last month was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Sir John Alexander Macdonald. To read the biography of John Alexander Macdonald is to read a new world biography: grounded in humble origin, small beginnings, and intense struggle. Some basic facts and a description of Sir John A. Macdonald. How the speaker first saw him, and perhaps how those in the audience first saw him. The speaker's personal memories of Macdonald. A typical day in the life of Sir John. Macdonald's great life span, his official life reaching back to 1844. Sir John's contribution to Canada's Confederation. A review of Sir John's career, his enlightened statesmanship, his various policies. Sir John's Washington Treaty days as a Joint High Commissioner in 1871. Ways in which Sir John A. Macdonald was a great political leader, a born leader. Some illustrative anecdotes. Sir John's heart and wit. Dying in harness. The country in mourning.
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18 Feb 1915
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Before the Empire Club of Canada, Toronto, February 18, 1915

MR. PRESIDENT AND GENTLEMEN,--I am sure that it was nothing but the absorbing thought of the war that has kept Canada from remembering that the fifteenth of last month was the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Sir John Alexander Macdonald. Britain will never forget her Cromwell and her Pitt, and her Bright, her Disraeli, and her Gladstone, and the British Empire will never forget the hero whose name we add to our list of immortals, John Alexander Macdonald, who had much of the force of a Cromwell, some of the compacting and conciliating tact of a Pitt, the sagacity of a Gladstone, and some of the shrewdness of a Disraeli. To read the biography of John Alexander Macdonald is, essentially, to read a new world biography. It is grounded in humble origin, small beginnings, and intense struggle. No American statesman's life surpasses his in the poverty of his birth and his boyhood, the paucity of his opportunities, the swiftness of his ascent, or the permanence and majesty of his achievements. We are touched by the story of Andrew Jackson's tobacco shanty of his boyhood, by Abraham Lincoln's mud house, by Garfield's canal boat; but just as pathetic is the introduction to life of this child of the clan Macdonald, born in a lowly dwelling from which his parents with their baby boy were harshly evicted and compelled to cross the Atlantic to seek the meagre living of the pioneer. His father was but an average man, not very bright and not very industrious. Like Napoleon and Lincoln he received from his mother his physical and mental strength, and the best introduction that we can give him anywhere is that throughout his long career he almost worshipped his mother. Of his early life we know but little, and for good reason-his youth was so short. He fairly leaped into maturity. He was a lawyer at twenty-one, and bounded into fame at twenty-three. Somebody describes him as he was then, a young lawyer just admitted to the bar: Stood five feet eleven, black shaggy hair, clean shaven, liberal mouth, clear eye, big cravat, grey trousers, gay vest, black frockcoat. Now let me tell you how I first saw him, and perhaps how you first saw him. He came to our town -and it was almost high treason in our house even to stand and watch a Tory procession go by. I remember seeing him come down King Street. Spying a couple of men on top of about our only three-storey building that we had in town, and seeing them wave flags, Sir John jumped to his feet and took off his cap and answered the salute vigorously. It was enough for me; it was such an unconventional thing that I found myself in the skating rink in the afternoon well up at the front. Up rose Sir John to his feet. His rising was very deliberate; he took a long time to get square on his feet, and as he was swaying . back and. forth with his hands in .his overcoat pockets, my Grit neighbour who sat beside me whispered,; " The old man is drunk." And our Tory neighbour in the next row in front of us said, " Drunk, is he? Well, he knows more drunk than Ed. Blake ever knew sober, anyway." While the crowd was cheering, off came Sir John's overcoat, that great big fur-collared overcoat, which was so popular all over the Dominion. It was a good omen for the crowd; the taking off of his overcoat looked as though he were getting ready to lick every Grit orator in the Dominion; the crowd yelled again. He had just opened his mouth for his first word when over at the side of the platform a little girl was climbing up the stairs burdened down with a gigantic bouquet. Sir John saw her a long distance away.- Edward Blake had been in town a couple of weeks before, and he too received a bouquet from a little maiden. Edward Blake made an awkward bow, never thought of kissing the girl, made a feeble attempt at a smile, and the whole business was awkward indeed. Sir John saw the maiden coming down the line, put his hand to his chin, looked fondly at her, smiled with his mouth, with his eyes, with his brow, and even with his ears I thought at the time. Firmly planted on his feet, he lifted her up bodily, gave her a resounding smack, and put her down again. And the Tory neighbour in front said, " Now is he drunk? " Sir John watched the girl go off the platform, shaking his head a bit as much as to say, " I am sorry I haven't her sweetness and her innocence." The crowd seemed to look at it that way too, and they began to cheer anew.

The chief thing about Sir John's physique was his nose. I think I could draw a picture of that nose, although I lay no claim to being an artist; it was the centre and almost the circumference of his face. For fifteen years Grip had never issued a number without a picture of Sir John's nose; and when Sir John died, Grip died too. Sir John was in a barber shop in Ottawa one day, and the barber was shaving his upper lip, lifting his nose in the operation. Another statesman came into the shop and said, " Hello, Sir John, I guess the barber is the only man in Canada that can have you by the nose? " Sir John said, " Yes, and at that he has his hands full." His eyes were penetrating and twinkling, his mouth generous, his face sallow and wrinkled with strange lines playing over that countenance as much as to say, " I like you all, I have kindly feelings toward you all, and yet I do not care a straw what you think of me." So the hearer was impressed. He was lithe, slightly stooped, neatly dressed. He had an elastic constitution, which permitted him to do a day's work every day until the, month of his death. Sir John usually rose early, and after a happy morning at home, usually playing " Hearts " with his invalid daughter, left for the Parliament Buildings before noon, directed the meetings of committees, received delegations all the afternoon, began the parliamentary session proper after six o'clock, listened, perhaps, to a six-hour speech from Hon. Edward Blake until after midnight, and then rose at one o'clock in the morning, alive as a boy, cheerful as a songbird, to dissect the arguments of his opponents, and by three o'clock seemed to be lust as strong as at the beginning of the long day.

His was a great life span. His official life reached back to x844; think of that. Lord Palmerston was still Premier of England when Sir John was an active leader in Canada. When Louis Napoleon was still Emperor of the French, when John Tyler was President of the United States, when Bismarck was an obscure country squire, when Lincoln was unheard of, and when Theodore Roosevelt was yet unborn, Sir John Macdonald was well into his life task. But our wonder grows when we reflect that that career was continued through forty-seven years of parliamentary life. He was the leader of his party for thirty-six years; he was a Minister of the Crown for thirty-five years; he was Premier of this Dominion for over twenty years. The public life of the average American statesman is very short; Lincoln was before the public but nine years; McKinley was in national prominence but thirteen years, Cleveland, fifteen years; Sir John Macdonald, forty-seven years. In those early days he did Canada great service. Had he died in 1861 his name would have been in history. Constitutional government was in its swaddling clothes; he came too late to assist us in getting our citizenship, but he was always most loyal to the Crown and had a profound respect for Canadian autonomy. His first declaration in 1844 ought to be resounded through the Dominion in this fateful year of the war. " I need only state," he said, " my firm belief that the prosperity of Canada in the long run depends on the Mother Country, and I shall resist to the utmost any attempt, from whatsoever source, to weaken that union with the Motherland."

In 1847 we find the poor lad of yesterday a Minister of the Crown, and only for nine years after that date was he out of office. Who was the Father of Confederation? You remember the old picture of the Fathers of Confederation, and Sir John does not really appear in the centre of that picture. George Brown's patriotism and sacrifice, I think, made Confederation possible. You might say the same of Sir George Cartier and Sir Charles Tupper. It was probably suggested first by Sir Alexander T. Galt. But if you ask who worked out the idea, who proposed and conciliated and compromised and blended until the fragments of five provinces were welded into one there is only one answer; Sir John Alexander Macdonald was the Father of Confederation. So said Sir Wilfred Laurier on the occasion of the meeting of the House after Sir John's death. " We cannot conceive," said Sir Wilfred, " of anybody else being able to do it; Brown could not have done it; Cartier could not have done it; it needed a statesman to bring about these things." He was the Benjamin Franklin of that convention. He had a way out as a compromise at the last. The best testimony of his power was that immediately after Confederation he was Premier, and he was the over-towering figure of the Dominion from that day until his death.

Sir John's career, like a summer express train, ran in two sections. It was a Niagara, if you please, with a cataract in between. It was as if his star had an eclipse midway in its journey across the heavens. The first half ended in 1873; the second half began in 1876. The intervening three years were his eclipse. The greatest test of a life is in its power to resurrect itself after failure. Only a Mohammed can come back to Mecca; only a Napoleon can return from Elba; only a Calvin can come back to Geneva; and only a Macdonald could come back to Ottawa after what occurred in 1873. What amazes us is when a man rises phoenix-like from his ashes, and continues his career and augments his power. That is what Macdonald did. Remember, he was sixty-three years old when he came back.

"Paint me as I am," said Cromwell to his artist. " If you leave out the scars and wrinkles I shall not pay you a shilling." Sir John has been charged with many offences, and I think he would say if he were here, " Paint me as I am." Some of the charges were true. Now all absolve him from receiving personal benefit from his mistakes. He died poor, and that is the best testimony that you can give a preacher or a statesman, that he died poor. Commissioner Starr, I believe, left an estate of $500; Sir James Whitney could not pay his doctor's bill. A statesman should die poor. Sir John Macdonald was also charged with drinking, and I would be afraid to deny it, but this ought to be said, that he married a wife who watched him, nursed him, kept him from temptation, and brought his life to a sober and triumphant end. The faults of some great men look great because their souls are great. Warts appropriate for a giant would deface a baby. The knots on a California redwood are greater than the entire trunk of a spindly poplar; and big men's faults are often more attractive than the sum total of the little negative virtues of their critics. What happened in 1873? This; it was charged that Sir Hugh Allan had contributed to the campaign fund of 1872 on the promise of getting the C.P.R. contract. Sir John admitted the contribution, but denied the consideration. I like his frank speech to the House in which he said, " I throw myself upon this House and upon the country. If mistaken in that, I confidently appeal to the higher court, the court of my own conscience and the court of posterity." The country said Guilty, and hurled Sir John's government from office. Alexander Mackenzie swept the country and Sir John retired to Toronto, discouraged and cowed. His enemies and many friends thought that he was fallen to rise no more. In those unfortunate days it has freely been said that Sir John took more and more to drink. He called a caucus of his party at the beginning of the next session of the House, and begged them to choose another leader. They adjourned the caucus and he said he would give an answer tomorrow to their urgency in asking him to continue. The next day at the time of meeting there was no one in sight in the caucus room; Sir John was there alone. He looked about, but no member of his party could be found. He walked out into the. House and found on the opposition side his forty-five followers present, ready to give him a rousing cheer. It touched his heart; he was as jaunty as ever, and in five short years he marched back to power, hurling his enemies from the ramparts and leaving them scattered remnants. That closed the case; the country had forgiven him, and as he said in 1881 when the case came up again in some man's speech, "There is the record; there is the appeal to the country, and I am Premier of Canada." How did he do it? As he would have played a game of checkers! The greatness of the man is here; he watched his chance, he took advantage of hard times. General Hard Times has defeated many a man; he wrecked Cleveland and may wreck Wilson for all we know. Eggs were ten cents a dozen, butter twelve cents a pound, chickens 45 cents a pair. You could buy a great many things in Canada with a $5 bill in those days; the only possible difficulty was in getting the $g. This is not the place to discuss the tariff problem, and yet England's answer yesterday to the German statement as to what they would do if we would let food go into Germany, seems to be applicable. Britain said yesterday that when her enemy broke the rules of naval warfare, there was nothing left but for Britain to break the rules too. That seems to be the case with the tariff. Canada seems to have been from tradition a free trade country, but when the American tariff went up it was necessary to put up the tariff here. I have no doubt in the world that if this country and the United States could from the first have had unrestricted reciprocity with a tariff against the goods of Europe, perhaps we would have every bit of the prosperity that we have had; but that was impossible after we got started. The American tariff was a reality, and Sir John's only answer to that tariff was the National Policy proposition as he brought it before the country. The country was carried by storm in favour of his remedy. Sir John was again the Premier. Good crops followed, and the farmers really thought that Sir John made the weather. He wittily helped along these notions. A little while after the introduction of the National Policy he said when he made a speech in 'Toronto, " A citizen of Toronto assures me that his Conservative cow is giving three quarts of milk more now than she did before the election. And a good Conservative lady told me that her hens lay more eggs, bigger eggs, fresher eggs, and more to the dozen than they ever did before."

He was great in his political sagacity. He declined a place in the British House of Commons because, he said, " I am helping to build an empire here." Take any of his great notions and they show that he possessed the far-reaching ken of enlightened statesmanship. His policies are ours of today. His divorce policy, for example; he absolutely refused to consider putting a divorce court into the Canadian constitution after the fashion of the United States. He held to the idea that divorces should be hard to get. Take his Canadian Pacific Railway policy. Were we to do it over again I have no doubt that public ownership of that railroad would be our programme, but it is hardly possible to imagine that in those days a government ownership proposition could have been carried. It seems almost unreasonable to us now to think that the Canadian Pacific Railway venture was ever flouted, ridiculed, laughed at. Sir John was the one optimist in the pessimists' innings. When the Canadian youth were going into the United States by thousands he said the time will come when we shall get them back into our west with compound interest. It was a bright moment in 1886 when he began his trip across the just completed Canadian Pacific Railway to the Pacific coast. He then prophesied they would need a second and even a third transcontinental line; and even if, for the moment, we consider now that perhaps the National Transcontinental line has been premature, tomorrow after all will justify all the railroad building that Canada has done. When Sir John was in Regina a little example of his shrewdness and caution appeared. A real estate man (for Regina was ambitious in a real estate direction then, just as western cities are now) wanted to draw out Sir John and get just a little testimonial from him as to what he thought of Regina-possibly to put on his letter head. So he walked up to Sir John as the statesman was looking out over the prairie, rather a barren prospect at that time from the depot, and asked, " Sir John; how do you like the prospect? " " Well," said Sir John after thinking a moment, " if you had just a leetle more hill, and just a leetle more water, and just a leetle more tree, I think it would be very good."

May I say also concerning our Confederation scheme that Sir John A. Macdonald had this thought that it should be the inverse of that of the Republic to the south of us. That is to say, instead of leaving everything to the States except what is precisely committed to the authority of Congress, we should have everything left to Ottawa that was not definitely put under the control of our provincial capitals. So our constitution is the exact inverse of that of the United States. Consequently we have avoided a great deal of the States' rights clatter on account of his sagacity in that direction.

No talk on Sir John would be complete without referring to his Washington Treaty days, when he was a joint High Commissioner in 1871. He gave Canada its first launching toward nationhood; before that time no treaty had ever been submitted for ratification to the parliament at Ottawa. Britain had always done that without any reference to us. The Treaty of Washington, of course, was hardly satisfactory to the Canadian people; there were a great many things that we would have had otherwise. Sir John A. Macdonald made a bitter fight on some of the propositions of the American Commissioners. I suppose that it is an open secret, and in this body it need not be avoided, that the attitude of England at that time was not at all satisfactory to the Canadian envoys. They were ready to use Canada as a pawn in the interests of the United States. Sir John was told plainly that there was a growing party in England that was in favour of turning Canada adrift, and that if Canada continued to embarrass the British government in its relations with the United States, that that party in favour of turning Canada adrift might be in control. Sir John replied that he was grieved to think that Canada was an embarrassment to England; inasmuch as these men took that attitude he must insist that the Treaty should be ratified first of all by the Canadian Parliament. He said in closing, " I hope that the day will come when Canada will be the strong arm of the Empire, and not a source of worry or embarrassment."

Ire was great as a political leader; he was known as the Old Chieftain. He was born a leader; he had that peculiar quality which we call magnetism, which I suppose is another word for love.--Magnetism is that quality which compels a man to walk ten blocks out of his way in order to meet you, instead of walking ten blocks out of his way in order to avoid you. Magnetism was the quality which Sir John held. A country member of Parliament--I think his name was David Thompson of Haldimand--said, " I was sick nearly all the session, and at the last I went back to Ottawa. The first man I met was Blake; he passed me with a simple nod as if he had forgotten I was away. Then I met Cartwright, who was just as cold. Then I met Sir John, who rushed across the chamber, slapped me on the shoulder, grasped my hand, and said, ' Davy, I am glad you are back again; I hope you will live many a day to vote against me.' It was pretty hard not to follow a man like that." He had a prodigious memory; he could recall names and faces after a lapse of thirty or forty years. In Vancouver in 1886 a man came up and said, " Sir John, you don't remember me." " Oh, yes," said Sir John, " in the picnic in 1856 out yonder in Lindsay you held an umbrella over me on a rainy day while I made a speech; " and he recalled the man's name. He compacted his friends into a unit. He could take a heterogeneous mass of Orangemen and Roman Catholics, of Irish and English and Scotch, down-east free traders and Ontario high protectionists, of farmers, manufacturers, and labouring men, and consolidate it into one fighting body as Oliver Cromwell could with his prayer-meeting soldiers. He could put every man to work. He was a great maker of cabinets; as he said, " I am somewhat of a workman myself; I am a cabinet maker." The Tuppers, the Tilleys, the Carlings, the Haggarts, were nearly all the creation or the development of his power as a cabinet maker. Alexander Mackenzie could not develop great men. He was a stone mason, and he wanted to put in every stone, and every stone would have been well laid if he had had an eternity to do it. But this was Sir John's great gift; he knew how to select men and how to let them do the work. He said in late life that the first fight that he had in a law case was a physical one with the other lawyer. He said the old Court Clerk was his great friend, and while Sir John was hitting the other fellow he would shout out, " Order in the Court, order in the Court," and then whisper, " Hit him, John." And Sir John said whenever he entered a political campaign he could hear the voice of his old friend the Court Crier saying, " Hit him, John."

I suppose he would not be regarded as an orator quite of the class of Bryan or Laurier. I think he had several men in his party during his last years who were more finished orators than he would claim to be. And yet, if holding and arousing and convincing and persuading people is oratory, he was an orator. He was a stump speaker of the Lincoln type. He said that during his first session he decided to change his mode of speaking in Parliament to extempore speaking, and he prepared carefully, stored the facts in his mind, and as a result was very quick at repartee. He had the art of adapting himself to his audience and usually spoke briefly, although some of his great speeches were somewhat lengthy. Everything he said bubbled over with wit, as you well know. Somewhere back in northern Ontario he was making a speech, and ventilation and other conditions seemed to be against his making very good progress in the meeting. Back at the end was an Irishman, evidently a Grit, that finally bawled out, " Aw, you go to H ." Sir John looked a moment and said, " Gentlemen, -I have been in public life for thirty-five years, but this is the first time I ever was invited to Grit headquarters." The meeting, of course, went on then with a new buzz.

He had a great heart, as big a heart as ever beat within a human breast. He was always thoughtful of the feelings of the other fellow. He had an old lawyer named McIntosh in his office in Kingston, who was getting so old that he was absolutely useless, and yet he came down every morning and went through the motions; until one day, knowing that he could not earn his money, he went to John A. and said, " Mr. Macdonald, I will have to give up, I know I am useless to you." And he put his arm around the old lawyer and said, " Why, Mr. McIntosh, I couldn't open the office without you in the morning; you look after the law students, you see that they do their work right; you open the office; you get the newspapers ready for me, and show me the leading legal news in the morning. You must stay here, and if you insist on it I will just raise your wages a bit; I don't want any other lawyer in town to get you." Even his rebukes were cushioned with kindness. D'Arcy McGee was a member of a coalition government in the early days. D'Arcy was going around town and stopping at nearly all the taverns, and once in a while of a Saturday night would have to be carried out of a bar room. The temperance folks in Parliament said McGee's actions were a disgrace, and they said to Sir John, " You are the man to call him to time." Sir John felt it would hardly be consistent for him to do this, of course, and so he put it off from time to time, until by-and-by they were more insistent and said, " You must rebuke Mr. McGee. So he took D'Arcy to one side one morning and said, " My boy, this is a small government we have, you know, here in Canada, and they think it is hardly large enough for two drunkards, and I guess you will have to quit."

He had a tender heart that was easily touched. When David Mills exonerated Hugh John, Sir John's son, in connection with some corruption charges after his name had been bandied a good deal, the veteran Premier, his eyes full of tears, crossed the House to thank his adversary. When Thomas White died, Sir John arose to speak, and after saying, " Mr. Speaker," sank to his chair, threw his head on his desk, and sobbed with unutterable sorrow.

He died in harness. The country went into mourning; the voice of angry debate was hushed. Upon his casket was a wreath from the Queen, who, shortly afterwards, made his widow a Baroness. He had three funerals; one in Ottawa, a stately solemn pageant; one in Kingston, a loving expression of the affection of his neighbours; and one across the sea in Westminster Abbey, with the Sovereign and the Princes of the blood for mourners. In the crypt of St. Paul's you will see his face in marble, and underneath the bust his words, which are the conclusion of the whole matter,

" A British subject I was born; A British subject I will die."

A vote of thanks to the speaker was moved by A.

Wright, Esq., and seconded by Dr. Clouse. '

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Sir John A. MacDonald, Empire Builder

Nothing but the absorbing thought of the war that has kept Canada from remembering that the fifteenth of last month was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Sir John Alexander Macdonald. To read the biography of John Alexander Macdonald is to read a new world biography: grounded in humble origin, small beginnings, and intense struggle. Some basic facts and a description of Sir John A. Macdonald. How the speaker first saw him, and perhaps how those in the audience first saw him. The speaker's personal memories of Macdonald. A typical day in the life of Sir John. Macdonald's great life span, his official life reaching back to 1844. Sir John's contribution to Canada's Confederation. A review of Sir John's career, his enlightened statesmanship, his various policies. Sir John's Washington Treaty days as a Joint High Commissioner in 1871. Ways in which Sir John A. Macdonald was a great political leader, a born leader. Some illustrative anecdotes. Sir John's heart and wit. Dying in harness. The country in mourning.