Book Review: Life and Letters of Wilfrid Laurier

despite its weaknesses as an official biography and for all its whiggishness Skelton still holds the field against all challenges to date.

Book Review: Life and Letters of Wilfrid Laurier

Volume I, 1841-1896, first published in 1921

Carleton Library Edition, 1965

Edited and with an introduction by David M.L. Farr

Previous to entering Mackenzie King’s Department of External Affairs, O.D. Skelton had been an academic and a prolific writer. In writing this biography, he had a privileged position. He had known Laurier personally and had conducted long interviews with him. Skelton was also privy to Laurier’s papers. The author’s deep affection for the elder statesman and his own involvement in the Liberal Party are keys to understanding the principles by which the biography was written. Indeed Laurier can be considered an “official” biography and according to David Farr was “a charter document in the ‘Liberal interpretation’ of Canadian history,” and as such served as a guide to Laurier’s successor Mackenzie King.[1]

This initial volume, ending in 1896, is a prelude to Laurier’s reign as prime minister and thus offers us an opportunity to concentrate on the ascent to power. We can argue that Skelton’s selection of facts are carefully chosen to conform to the primary theme of an inexorable rise to power and indeed D.G. Creighton’s lament on the sad state of Canadian biography up to 1948 must have included Skelton’s Laurier, with its commemorative, official air. The affairs of history are interesting, Creighton wrote, “because they concern human beings confronted with human situations and human problems of permanent and universal importance.”[2] Laurier, in Creighton’s eyes would have been one of those unfortunate works that were mere spectacle “from one side or other of the House of Commons at Ottawa.”[3] Of course, in Creighton’s view, it would have been hard in any case to ascribe humanity to that anathema, the Liberal side of the House.[4]

Skelton saw in Laurier’s early education, including a stay with a Protestant Irish family, “admirable preparation for the work which in later years was to be nearest to his heart, the endeavour to make the two races in Canada understand each other and work harmoniously together for their common country.” (p 3) He then went on to L’Assumption where he early on displayed his ingrained liberalism, and later to McGill where he was valedictorian. He opened a law practice in the Eastern Townships and edited a Liberal newspaper. “Before five years had passed, he was marked as the destined standard bearer of the Liberals of the country,” enthused Skelton (p 9). While it is easy to admit, then as now, that a privileged education and a law practice are paths to power, it is perhaps more difficult to accept the air of anointment Skelton implies.

Laurier was a Rouge sympathizer and he shared the leadership of the Institut Canadien, but he broke with that party at Confederation. Skelton justifies these actions because the future of French Canadians “lay not in isolation, nor for that matter, in assimilation, but in full and frank partnership with their fellow Canadians.” (p 14) Hence Dorion’s opposition loses legitimacy in the sweep of Laurier’s ideal of unhyphenated Canadianism. If the transformation did not harm Laurier’s political prospects in French Canada it did relieve him of enduring support among Quebec intelligentsia—it is a bit of a shock for English Canadians to be made aware that French Canadians don’t always share their enthusiasm for leaders such as Laurier or Trudeau.

Laurier’s problem in Quebec was that of the whole Liberal Party—the opposition of the Church, especially its ultramontane wing. There were the early quarrels between the Institut and Mgr. Bourget. Of course Skelton views the Church only as an obstruction to progress, “of which the Protestants and Whigs have been perennial allies while Catholics and Tories have perpetually formed obstruction.”[5] Laurier “never regretted that that he had stood for freedom in those days.” (p 24) Later, in 1877, his speech on liberalism and Church-state relations struck a fatal blow to the ultramontanes. “At last Liberalism had found the interpreter it sorely needed.” (p 47). Later studies have toned down this crusading zeal, accepting Laurier’s eloquence while emphasizing his pragmatism.[6] They point out the political skill of Laurier in securing Quebec for the Liberals, perhaps his greatest achievement.

By all accounts Laurier’s move to Ottawa as M.P. was natural and he was soon a Cabinet minister under the stalwart PM Alexander Mackenzie. Skelton hardly mentions Laurier’s portfolio or his efficiency or his relative silence until his noted speech advocating amnesty for Louis Riel. For Skelton, Laurier’s speeches were of great impact because of their solid moral ground, but this is difficult to credit without further study. Laurier himself wrote, perhaps from a less exalted position, that “we took this Riel question and kindled the enthusiasm of the people for him and his friends, in order to damage the old Administration.” (p 57)

The climax of the Riel affair revealed Laurier’s powers and made him a national figure. Dafoe emphasizes this affair as the “accident that restored Laurier to public life and opened for him an extraordinary career.”[7] This is certainly a different, and perhaps more credible, perspective from Skelton’s, which describes a more ineluctable process. The few writings that exist on Edward Blake (notable exception those of Frank Underhill) suggest that he played a decisive role in Laurier’s ascent—his choice of his French colleague was a great surprise.

The issue preceding the Conservative fall from power was the intricate Manitoba School Question, which in Skelton (everywhere?) makes boring reading. Skelton maintains Laurier’s unshakable moral stance throughout, but Dafoe emphasizes the tactical considerations and the careful planning and political skills of Israel Tarte, who was vindicated, as Laurier held Quebec at the same time as opposition to the Remedial Bill won converts in Ontario.

Skelton’s Laurier is still valuable on two counts: its usefulness as a personal observation by a devoted and intelligent friend, presenting first-hand evidence and much primary material, and as a key document in whig historiography—one might even say hagiography. Laurier’s greatness is almost unquestioned and his view of Canada nonpareil. No-one reading Skelton today, even should they accept his view of Canada, can help protest that his was a singular view, and that history cannot prove any man right in the long run.[8] If an historian’s function is to approximate in his imagination the complexity of things as they were, giving each element its proper place in its original setting, not in view of later events, we must declare Skelton’s book a lesser success. The great man’s rise to power bravely overcomes the obstacles of a pretentious and adamantine Catholic hierarchy, the scheming, treacherous Tories, the bigoted Orange Lodges, the rebellious Métis, the French nationalists and disbelievers in his own ranks.

Alexander Mackenzie’s administration fell in 1878 before the adroit Macdonald, who held off the new Liberal leader, the intelligent but uninspiring Edward Blake, in subsequent elections as well. Skelton’s description of the Conservatives in power reveals, in Creighton’s words, that “easy imputation of unworthy motives” characteristic of nationalist historians.[9]

Such is the fate of historiography as one approaches a book written some fifty years ago. When it first appeared Laurier was considered to be a “work of quite exceptional importance.”[10] Since Creighton’s lament in 1948, several biographies have been written by eminent historians, including Creighton’s own on John A. Macdonald, J.M.S. Careless on George Brown, McNaught on J.S. Woodsworth and Kilbourn’s on W. L. Mackenzie as well as some excellent short studies such as Fernand Ouellet’s Papineau, purporting to use physiological insights unavailable to historians 50 years ago. The more recent biography of Laurier by Joseph Schull is more colourfully written and perhaps more “human” but still presents the same affecting picture of a saintly Sir Galahad.[11] So, despite its weaknesses as an official biography and for all its whiggishness Skelton still holds the field against all challenges to date.

James H Marsh

[1] Farr, D.M.L., “Introduction,” p. ix.

[2] Creighton, D.G., “Sir John A. Macdonald and Canadian Historians,” in Berger, Carl, Approaches to Canadian History. (Toronto 1967) p. 56

[3] IBID.

[4] The writings of Carl Becker are instructive about the role of the historian in creating his history. This kind of reflection would not have been common in Skelton’s day. See Carl Becker: On History & the Climate of Opinion (1956) and his superb The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers (1932)


[5] Butterfield, H., The Whig Interpretation of History (London 1930) p 12.

[6] Neabty, H.B., “Laurier and a Liberal Quebec,” unpublished thesis; and Stevens, Paul, “Wilfrid Laurier: Politician,” Les Idées Politiques des Premiers Ministres du Canada, M. Hamelin, editor (Ottawa 1969).

[7] Dafoe, J.W., Laurier: A Study in Canadian Politics (Toronto 1922) p 25 (written as a response to Skelton as a sort of extended review).

[8] Butterfield, op. cit.

[9] Creighton, op. cit.

[10] Short, Adam, Review of “The Life and Letters of Sir Wilfrid Laurier,” CHR, Vol III, No 1, March 1922, p77.

[11] Creighton, D.G., Review of “Laurier: The First Canadian,” by Joseph Schull, CHR, Vol XLVII, No 4, December 1966, p 357.

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