The Election of 1891: A Question of Loyalty

“Send me better men to deal with, and I will be a better man.”

Sir John A. Macdonald was not the last prime minister who had to put scandal behind him to win an election. In 1890 Liberal hounds had sniffed out the corrupt conduct of Conservative MP J.C. Rykert, who had pocketed at least $50,000 from the shady sale of timber permits in the Cypress Hills. He denied it of course, then admitted it and finally resigned. Liberal MP Sir Richard Cartwright, an unflagging critic of Conservative chicanery, declared the affair only “the peak below which lies a mountain range of undiscovered but well-developed rapacity.”

Things got worse for the ruling party. In May a yet more dangerous detraction was unraveling. Another Conservative member, Thomas McGreevy, was accused of having accepted considerable campaign contributions and other perks in return for advancing the interests of a Quebec contractor with the Department of Public Works. The plot implicated none other than Sir Hector Langevin, a relative of McGreevy by marriage and one of Sir John A. Macdonald’s closest friends—in fact his designated successor.

Sir John A. Macdonald, 1888 (courtesy NAC).

A cartoon in the Grip showed a storm gathering around the prime minister, with a hapless supporter urging “It’s coming, Sir John, but if we can manage to reach the General Election before it strikes—that’s our only hope!” It was likely these rumblings of impending scandal that made Macdonald look for reasons to dissolve Parliament early. He lived in fear that any day the fire would reach Langevin and consume the whole government.

There were other serious problems in that long and dispiriting session of 1890, particularly the deteriorating relations with the United States. Disputes were raging over the Atlantic fisheries, sealing in the Bering Sea and in trade relations. There was even a whiff of war as a British squadron ominously took up station at Esquimault.

“I am a good deal discouraged as to our future,” Macdonald wrote “because our ministry is too old and too long in office.” He was nearly 75 years old, the “old lion,” waning but still powerful and proud. He had outlasted a whole generation of political rivals and friends. His bête noir, George Brown, was some 10 years in his grave. But Macdonald was still a man of vision with enormous sway over his party. Should he lead the Conservatives into an election one last time? He decided that despite the infirmities of his age “the battle would be better fought under my guidance than under another’s.”

The battleground was in fact chosen by the Liberals when they adopted their policy of commercial union with the United States. The new Liberal leader Wilfrid Laurier himself knew little about the arcane economics of tariffs but he wanted a clear and unequivocal idea with which to fight the old chieftain, and with commercial union he got it. So did Macdonald, for whom such talk was nothing short of treasonous.

It is said that patriotism is the last refuge of a weak cause. But Macdonald’s belief that American policy was to starve Canada into annexation was sincerely held. Leading American politicians talked openly of using punitive trade policies to force the assimilation “of the people of the Dominion of Canada and the United States under one government.” Macdonald rightly considered the American secretary of state James Blaine to be an expansionist determined to take over Canada. “Every American statesman covets Canada,” Macdonald declared. “The greed for its acquisition is still on the increase.”

The order for the election was signed on February 2, 1891. The next day Macdonald gave his famous election address, proclaiming “As for myself, my course is clear. A British subject I was born—a British subject I will die. With my utmost effort, with my latest breath, will I oppose the ‘veiled treason’ which attempts by sordid means and mercenary proffers to lure our people from their allegiance.” Macdonald brilliantly turned the Liberal economic policy into a question of national survival, reducing it to the ground of our national insecurity.

Much is made of Macdonald’s declaration of loyalty to Britain, which seems alien to us, but in his day few people in power believed that Canada could remain independent of the United States without maintaining its ties to the Empire. By “British” Macdonald really meant “Canadian” in the sense of independence from the US.

The original plan was for the elderly Macdonald to direct the campaign from Toronto. But the election was closely run and he was drawn out into the open. On February 17, at a great rally in Toronto, he revealed an ace up his sleeve. It was a half dozen press sheets from a pamphlet written by Liberal sympathizer Edward Farrer advising Americans on how they could pressure Canada into political union. After that revelation, Laurier could only watch the old master drive the point home all along the campaign trail. But the strain broke the old man’s health. On February 24, on a raw, unpleasant day in Kingston he spoke to a hall packed to suffocation. He hardly remembered what he said and ashen-faced stumbled through the door past the outstretched hands. The tour was stopped and he was unable to travel again before the poll on March 4.

The Liberals tried vainly to counter Macdonald’s “campaign of shrieking and denunciation,” in the words of Liberal newspaperman J.S. Willison. They tried to redefine their policy not as commercial union but as “unrestricted reciprocity.” It sounded less threatening but was not easy to explain to the voters. Their campaign was undermined by divisions in their own party, as former leader Edward Blake publicly denounced Laurier’s trade policy.

The election returns came in slowly, over days, and newspapers helpfully displayed them on large sheets outside their offices. The Liberals lost by 31 seats even though the party made substantial gains in Ontario, and Quebec sent more Liberals than Conservatives to Ottawa for the first time since 1874.

It is doubtful that the Conservatives would have won the election without Macdonald and the raising of the “loyalty” cry, or without the shameless gerrymandering that had taken place under the Conservative regime.

The ailing Macdonald spent the next few weeks in bed. When the new session opened on April 29 everyone, even his opponents, were saddened by how feeble he appeared. On May 12 in an interview with the governor general Lord Stanley he suffered a slight but ominous stroke. Stanley suggested that he lie down but he replied “Oh that would be of no use, the machine is worn out.” He would be dead in a month.

The election of 1891 has been widely discussed. Did Macdonald save Canada from being tossed into the greedy maw of the United States? The issue was to be fought out again in the future with the party roles reversed. Macdonald’s death so soon after the election allowed the country to reflect on his legacy and to sharpen his question, the ultimate question, of how Canada is to survive independent of its powerful southern neighbour.

“Canada is a difficult country to govern,” Macdonald famously declared. He has been much criticized for want of principle, for his temper and heavy drinking, and, as Goldwin Smith put it, for concentrating “perhaps too much on the weak side” of human nature. In understanding his time, we can doubt that a man with a stricter code of ethics could have guided the destiny of Canada. In his own defence, when purists remonstrated in regard to his sins he would reply, “Send me better men to deal with, and I will be a better man.” It is ever thus in a democracy.

James Marsh is editor in chief of  The Canadian Encyclopedia

First published in the National Post and CanWest newspaper chain, now featured on The Canadian Encyclopedia.

Leave a reply

Fields marked with * are required