III: 'Kingston Had Not Been A Sufferer', 1857-1864



The story of John A. Macdonald’s easy victory in December 1857 is incomplete without taking note of the disappointing sequel.

His nine-month term as premier of Canada was, at best, an anticlimax ─ so much so that it barely features in the standard biographical record.[1] In contrast to the triumph of his own return in Kingston, his party lost ground across Upper Canada in the face of what he called a ‘fanatical [P]rotestant cry’: Macdonald would subsequently take a sardonic pleasure in pointing out that two of his supporters, both former Grand Masters of the Orange Order, had been denounced as tools of the Pope.[2] With three of his ministerial colleagues defeated, and his Reform namesake Sandfield Macdonald declining to shore up the coalition, John A. seemed likely to meet the new parliament not only without an Upper Canada majority but lacking even a full ministerial slate from his own section.[3] At that moment, an already pole-axed government found itself attempting to contain a highly explosive issue.

Late in January 1858, news arrived from London that Queen Victoria had selected Ottawa as the permanent capital of Canada, in response to a charade agreed by the legislature the previous year to shunt aside that divisive issue. Macdonald manipulated the announcement to ensure victory in a crucial Valley by-election ─ itself an example of the extent to which his political priorities were no longer focused upon Kingston ─ but the choice of Ottawa (whose population, the Globe complained, was ‘nearly five-eighths Roman Catholic, and nearly half of them are of French origin’[4]) galvanised George Brown to a prolonged and determined assault upon the ministry. The resulting session was an unusually long and notably bitter example of parliamentary trench warfare, wholly out of proportion to the frankly minimal import of the government’s legislative programme. Macdonald himself, beleaguered and bereaved, cut an unimpressive figure, for politics is an unforgiving business. If we divest ourselves of the hindsight that sees him as the key Father of Confederation and towering master of Dominion politics, we have to regard his brief term as one of the least successful premierships of the Union period.[5]

            Thanks to its strong support from Lower Canada, Macdonald’s ministry enjoyed a solid overall majority: in the debate on the Address, for example, the first opportunity for a trial of strength between parties, the government had a majority of 36 ─ in an Assembly of 130. The target was the premier himself, who faced unrelenting attacks from Upper Canada Reformers out to demonstrate that he could only rule his section with French-Canadian votes. In March he was ‘very unwell’ and ‘hardly able to crawl to the House’, he reported to his sister Margaret, secretly warning her that the struggle would probably ‘end in my retiring as soon as I can, with honour.’  His zest for political infighting had evidently deserted him. ‘I find the work & annoyance too much for me.’[6] His exhaustion fuelled reports that he was drinking too much.[7] The ministry, it seemed, was too fragile to continue, but the opposition lacked the numbers to force its way into office. There was, however, one manoeuvre which had the potential to relieve the stand-off.

            Canadian politicians of the mid-nineteenth century took a much closer interest in British parliamentary in-fighting than would be the case today. Several times in preceding decades, unstable British cabinets had staged tactical resignations, in some instances forcing their opponents to admit they could not form a rival administration, and so giving the incumbents a renewed lease on office. The Globe challenged Macdonald to emulate the Westminster model and stage a tactical resignation, daring him to risk that his enemy, George Brown, might succeed in putting together an alternative cabinet.[8]

For Macdonald and his colleagues, the stratagem was attractive. While historians’ shorthand talks of governments resigning, in fact they do no such thing: outgoing ministers tender their resignations, that is to say they offer to make way, but they remain in office, even if only as caretakers, until they are replaced.[9] If their opponents in fact fail to form an alternative government, the offer to quit falls to the ground, and the existing cabinet simply carries on. This would mean that in resuming the reins of power, they would not have to fight ministerial by-elections. It seemed overwhelmingly likely that George Brown would indeed fail to install himself as substitute premier, simply because his anti-Catholic francophobia would be unacceptable to Lower Canadian politicians. Moreover, a carefully staged crisis close to the end of the parliamentary session would not only take the wind out of opposition sails during the final weeks of the 1858 session, but would leave them humiliated and discredited until the legislature met again, many months later in the spring of 1859.

            Thus the device of a tactical resignation would have seemed attractive by July 1858, once the ministry had secured its budget legislation. However, some plausible excuse would be needed to justify an offer to resign, and Macdonald’s overall majority made defeat in the Assembly unlikely. In fact, there was only one issue that might unsettle the phalanx of French-Canadian supporters upon whom his ministry depended, and that was Ottawa. On July 28, a group of them defected to help carry a motion deploring the Queen’s choice. Premier Macdonald could have shrugged of the narrow defeat, and he did indeed secure a formal vote of confidence which more than wiped the record clean. Nonetheless, he seized the opportunity to tender his cabinet’s resignation, and sat back hoping to watch his enemy Brown drop the political football.[10] In the long term, it would prove unfortunate for the member for Kingston that the issue upon which he confronted his opponents was the defence of the claims of a rival city for the coveted seat of government.

At that point, the strategy began to unravel. George Brown needed to put together an Executive Council of just ten members, and fill two law posts outside the cabinet.[11] Half of these jobs would go to Upper Canada, where he enjoyed solid support. Filling the relatively small number of Lower Canada posts proved unexpectedly easy. A-A. Dorion and two colleagues from the Rouge party seized the opportunity to demonstrate that they could defend the interests of French Canada within an administration led by the Toronto Protestant ogre. Luther Holton represented not only the Montreal business community, but had been for some months past discussing with Brown the possibility of restructuring Upper and Lower Canada on federal lines, something that could give the incoming ministry not only a new policy headline, but also a plausible reason for a prolonged honeymoon period to work out its detailed implications. Thus the Assembly could be sent packing until well into 1859 while Brown, Dorion and Company dug themselves into power.

Once it became clear that Brown would succeed in forming a ministry, so the cabinet posts he could offer suddenly became attractive commodities across a political kaleidoscope of shifting loyalties. Lewis T. Drummond was a Lower Canadian anglophone who had been one of the Baldwin-LaFontaine Reformers who had transferred to the coalition in 1854, serving as Macdonald’s sectional opposite number as Attorney-General East. When MacNab had been ousted in 1856, it was reported that Drummond claimed the premiership ‘in consequence of his seniority compared with Mr. Macdonald, and his intimate acquaintance with the French language’, which his rival had ‘has not mastered as to be able to speak in the house.’[12] Drummond had been out-manoeuvred, but now he took his revenge by joining Macdonald’s greatest enemy. Even more remarkably, Brown’s Lower Canada team was completed by the accession of the Bleu F-X. Lemieux, a ‘smart, shrewd little lawyer’ with a huge power base around Quebec City, who had sat alongside Macdonald in Taché’s cabinet only nine months earlier. John A. Macdonald, a well-informed political gossip, was sure that Drummond and Lemieux had come aboard at the last minute.[13]

Swept along by what Holton called Brown’s ‘apparently exhaustless energy’,[14] the new ministers would later publicly squabble about the policies they had agreed to pursue. But the key point was that, even though it was ‘not generally believed that Mr. Brown would be able to obtain any such support in Lower Canada as would enable him to form a Ministry at all’,[15] he had spectacularly succeeded. Even John A. Macdonald’s jibe that the arch-foe of the Pope had appointed a record number of six Catholics to his cabinet was a back-handed compliment to Brown’s finesse.[16]  On August 2, the new Executive Council was sworn in. By taking the oath of office, Brown and those of his colleagues who had been members of the Assembly automatically vacated their seats and could not return to the House until they had successfully contested ministerial by-elections.[17] But if Brown had temporarily lost his seat, Macdonald had permanently sacrificed his cabinet. Their tendered resignations had taken effect the moment their successors were sworn in, and the scheme to bounce back into office after humiliating their opponents had failed. Hastily, they came up with a clever Plan B ─ indeed, perhaps too clever. With the new premier and his lieutenants out of the House, the Brown government had no hope of surviving a no-confidence motion, and plunged to a 40-vote defeat. George Brown advised the governor-general to dissolve parliament, but Sir Edmund Head refused to authorise a second general election so soon after Canada had gone to the polls the previous winter. Blocked and baffled, the ‘Short Administration’ tendered its inglorious resignation on August 4.

            The upheaval resulted in not one, but two ex-premiers. It was clear that political leadership had moved on from John A. Macdonald. The governor-general commissioned first Alexander Galt, a Lower Canada independent who shared Sir Edmund Head’s belief in a union of British North America. When Galt failed to construct a ministry, Head turned to Macdonald’s second-in-command, George Cartier, who co-opted both Galt and his federation policy. ‘Personally I was unwilling to have anything to do with the new arrangements,’ Macdonald wrote to a friend, ‘but Cartier would not do anything without me.’[18] But although Macdonald remained head of the ministry’s Upper Canada section, he took care to disavow any notion that he was the power behind the throne.[19] John A. Macdonald’s wish to leave public life in August 1858 was public knowledge.[20] It was all a far cry from the heady atmosphere of the general election just nine months previously, when Kingston had dreamed of the ‘illimitable’ benefits that would be delivered by the ‘Prime Minister of Canada’.

Nor was the career wobble of August 1858 a passing moment of self-doubt. Throughout the closing months of the year, another issue caused him considerable disquiet and led to further examination of his own commitment to politics. The ignominious downfall of the ‘Short Administration’ was a reminder of the importance of ministerial by-elections in Canadian political manoeuvring. Thanks to the requirement that newly appointed ministers must seek re-confirmation from their constituents, the Brownites were condemned to contest by-elections to uphold their right to occupy posts from which they had already been routed. Indeed, until recently, the system had been even more restrictive, since members of an existing cabinet had been compelled to seek re-election if they shifted from one portfolio to another. However, in 1857, the law had been modified to permit internal reshuffles by exempting from the irksome by-election ritual any minister who resigned from one cabinet post but accepted another within thirty days. It seems that nobody in 1857 asked what would happen if an entire cabinet had left office in the meantime. Thus those ministers re-appointed by Cartier who were Assembly members ─ there were six of them, including the two principals themselves ─ found that the law had been inadvertently changed to spare them the inconvenience of fighting by-elections.[21]

To squeeze through the loophole, the returning ministers would have to accept new portfolios, but there was nothing to prevent them from almost immediately returning to their old ones. On August 6, Cartier and his colleagues took the oath of office on this basis: Macdonald, for instance, swore to discharge the duties of postmaster-general. The following day the six exchanged jobs and resumed the responsibilities they had held prior to July 29, Macdonald once again becoming Attorney-General West. Some said that the entire farce was played out at a single midnight ceremony, with the new ministers swearing themselves into one set of offices just before the clock chimed, before picking up their Bibles once again and changing the slate.

            The ‘double shuffle’, as the device became known, was widely condemned, not least because Victorian Canadians regarded swearing an oath on the Bible as a more solemn ritual than is perhaps the case today. ‘It was regarded as no light thing that Ministers should have taken a solemn oath to discharge the duties pertaining to certain offices, when they had no intention of holding those offices long enough to admit of their performing any official act whatever.’[22] John A. Macdonald himself had ‘insulted the Majesty of Heaven’ by promising to be a diligent postmaster-general when he obviously had no such intention.[23] Subsequent claims that Macdonald had doubted the wisdom of the double shuffle but had allowed himself to be overruled may have been an exercise in damage limitation. (The new premier, Cartier, had been Attorney-General East when the law had been changed in 1857, and so equally aware of the potential loophole as his Upper Canada colleague ─ and the whole manoeuvre is more characteristic of his expansive personality than of Macdonald’s sometimes punctilious respect for the letter of the law.) Yet even the half-apology for the episode left John A. Macdonald open to a charge of weak compliance in something he knew to be wrong.[24] Nor did he enhance his own dignity when his language in the Assembly boiled over into the normally unprintable, dismissing an allegation that he had conspired with the governor-general to lure Brown into a trap as ‘false as Hell’.[25]

            Doubts about the ethics of the double shuffle were damaging enough but, worse still, Reformers challenged its legality. In October 1858, they launched a private prosecution against Macdonald and his five confederates. If convicted, he would face not only political humiliation but also financial ruin, for the penalty for illegally occupying a seat in parliament was a staggering fine of $2,000 a day.[26] Although in mid-December the charges were dismissed, Macdonald and his co-defendants could hardly even claim a much needed moral victory. The Globe made much of the fact that the presiding judge, who had taken a surprisingly complaisant view of the defence case, was W.H. Draper, Macdonald’s political mentor in the eighteen forties. Nor did acquittal solve his financial problems. It was a measure of the increasingly vicious political atmosphere that the action was launched in the name of an undischarged bankrupt, who could not be sued to recover costs. Once again, Macdonald questioned his own commitment to public life.

By late November, it was reported to be ‘no secret’ that he was ‘on the point of retiring from the Government’ and would probably leave politics altogether.[27] The Globe reported panic among ‘the hungry, unprincipled crew who call him leader’ and intense pressure on him to change his mind.[28] Friendlier commentators reported that his health was ‘infirm’ and that ‘his private affairs’ needed his attention. Cartier was in London seeking funding for the Intercolonial railway, and his absence probably added to Macdonald’s workload. He also had a cash-flow problem, appealing in mid-November to a government official to be ‘a good fellow and get me out of a scrape’ by hurrying a promised payment.[29] A Toronto journalist offered a loftier analysis. ‘Having been First Minister, he has no higher point to reach, and therefore not the same object of ambition as a younger and only rising politician.’[30] If, as seems likely ─ since the seat of government was in Toronto at this time ─ Macdonald  was the direct source of this report, then it is revealing that he no longer expected to be seen as a ‘rising politician’.

Once again, the personal crisis passed, but there could be no denying that Macdonald’s political standing was much diminished. Twice during the twelve months that followed his triumphant election at Kingston in December, he had openly talked of leaving politics. Although he later insisted that he had intended ‘keeping my seat as a private member’,[31] speculations about his career intentions probably encouraged some of his constituents to look to a time when a replacement might have to be found. Macdonald remained in office at the head of the Upper Canada section of the cabinet, but with reduced influence. In the summer of 1859, when Cartier and Galt approved a major financial transaction without cabinet authorisation, he even threatened to resign, refusing ‘to incur responsibility in matters in which I have no voice & have not been consulted.’[32] It may not be coincidence that there were no sequels to the major public works projects in Kingston of the mid-fifties, no successors to the Frontenac court house and the customs building. Overall, the Macdonald premiership, in which the voters of Kingston had invested such mercenary hopes, had proved to be a brief and barren episode.

            Perversely, the only memorable outcome that could be associated with the nine-month Macdonald ministry was the selection of Ottawa as Canada’s future capital ─ hardly the preferred choice of the 1189 voters who had supported him in December 1857.  In fact, the Ottawa issue was an example of the way that an apparently powerful politician can sometimes fail to control the political agenda and the process of decision. Although Macdonald probably knew what was going on, the choice of Ottawa and the timing of its announcement were arranged between the governor-general and the imperial authorities. With at least one member of his cabinet, L-V. Sicotte, implacably opposed to Ottawa, Macdonald had initially attempted to soft-pedal on the question.[33] Those evasions, of course, would be forgotten. What would endure was the dramatic gesture of resigning in a seemingly quixotic gesture of loyalty to Queen Victoria’s choice. Paradoxically, headship of the government had if anything reduced the support that Macdonald could give to the claims of his own city, since as premier he was saddled with the responsibility for defending the Queen’s choice.

Nor did the ministerial musical chairs of August 1858 definitively settle the question. Cartier initially announced that his government was committed to Ottawa but hedged his bets by adding that they would spend no money there until parliament made up its mind. His ministry had adopted British North American federation as a policy aim to secure the services of Alexander Galt, but it may be that an incidental advantage of embracing the scheme was to encourage Quebec City’s declared aspirations to become the capital of the united provinces.[34] In the event, the federation initiative quickly petered out, while Sir Edmund Head pressed his ministers that he regarded endorsement of Ottawa  as a ‘point of honour’ ─ a veiled threat to request his own recall to England. Sicotte saw the writing on the wall, and chose Christmas 1858 to resign from the cabinet. In February 1859, the Assembly finally, narrowly and grudgingly, accepted Ottawa as the future capital.[35]

            In terms of Macdonald’s relations with his own riding, the loss of the seat of government to Ottawa was probably a slow-burn issue. Immediately it was no doubt a disappointment, but one that only gradually matured into a deeply-felt grievance until it burst forth as part of a growing indictment of his neglect of Kingston interests in and after 1872. As early as March 1856, Macdonald had privately acknowledged that ‘we have no chance for Kingston’ and that he was only going through the motions of arguing its case.[36] Throughout the shifting factional disputes of 1857-59, the plain fact was that Kingston was never a serious candidate to become Canada’s capital, and that much was surely obvious at the time. The seat of government did not finally migrate to Ottawa until the winter of 1865-66, so it would take time to digest the full impact of its selection.  

Indeed, in February 1859, the British Whig regarded the question as ‘happily settled’ and tried to make the best of it. The projected capital city would not only stimulate settlement in the Ottawa valley but ‘the hitherto partly neglected townships between Kingston and Ottawa’ would become ‘densely filled with an industrious population, and Kingston, being their outlet to the United States and … to the more western parts of Canada, must reap the benefits of their productiveness.’[37] There is plenty of evidence that John A. Macdonald fed story lines to friendly journalists, and the similarity between this argument and his 1844 election manifesto, which also stressed the importance of opening the rear townships, strongly suggests that this was Macdonaldian ‘spin’. A less upbeat assessment might have concluded that Ottawa would probably become the focus and beneficiary of its own regional impact. Nor was it explained how Kingston could function as an outlet for the hinterland when its interior communications were still so sketchy: even the launch of the slow-maturing Kingston and Pembroke railway project lay a decade in the future.

            It is worth at this point looking a little ahead to show how the Ottawa story impacted upon the Canadian public in the next decade. On the positive side, in 1860 magnificent buildings began to rise on Ottawa’s Parliament Hill. Three years later a visiting journalist breathlessly described them as ‘surpassing in beauty anything of the kind I have ever seen on this continent.’[38] Then as now, a Canadian project that beat anything the United States could offer was something to be prized. Even George Brown, a fierce critic of the cost, thought the buildings ‘magnificent’ when made his first visit in 1865. Unfortunately, they were ‘just 500 years in advance of the time,’ a legislature more appropriate to rule the united empires of Britain, France and Russia than a confederation of colonies. There was, he said, ‘nothing in London, Paris, or Washington approaching it.’[39] Some Kingston residents probably visited Ottawa on business, since the spur line from the Grand Trunk at Brockville made the journey relatively easy for passengers. From the eighteen-sixties, cheap printing, and especially the development of lithography, encouraged the development of a visual culture, enabling Canadians for the first time to identify the faces of politicians and the townscape of distant cities. As Kingston stagnated, its citizens would have been well aware of the transformation of Ottawa.

            However, there was a seamier side to the Ottawa parliament buildings, one which might have triggered a wistful ambiguity among some sections of Kingston opinion. To say that construction came in over-budget would be to flatter the degree of financial control over the project. The contract provided for negotiation to pay for unforeseen but necessary work. (The original plans lacked detail, for instance omitting any provision for heating and ventilation.) Tenders were supposed to indicate how these ‘extras’ were to be calculated, but this information was never forthcoming from the successful contractor, Thomas McGreevy.  With officials of the Department of Public Works based in Quebec, two days’ journey from Ottawa, it was left to McGreevy to decide what work to carry out and, in effect, to name his own price. He began by digging out the site on a far larger scale than the buildings seemed to require. Not only did he bill the taxpayer for these lavish excavations but he later sold the gravel back to the government for another curiously unforeseen item, the Parliament Hill road network. The Department’s sole official inspection took place in midwinter, which is not the ideal time to examine building foundations in Ottawa. In any case, bureaucrats were well aware that McGreevy enjoyed powerful political connections. In private life, John Rose, the Commissioner for Public Works, was a shrewd and successful banker, but in his official capacity he somehow was not told what was going on, and pleaded that he was ‘but the political head of the Department.’[40]

It is unlikely that John A. Macdonald personally benefited from kickbacks, if only because by the early sixties his own finances were in dire straits. Equally, it would be straining credulity to believe that McGreevy did not safeguard his cash-cow by making political donations to Conservative election funds. In August 1864, Macdonald risked breaking up the Great Coalition, Canada’s Confederation ministry, by an aggressive (and probably alcohol-fuelled) attempt to bounce the cabinet into paying McGreevy’s by-now disputed bills.[41] Contracts let in 1859 provided for expenditure just short of $700,000. By 1867, costs had rocketed above $2.5 million, and a decade later they passed $4 million. With their own local economy in the doldrums by the eighteen seventies, Kingstonians might have been forgiven for mingling moral censure with a sense of regret that money on the scale was not cascading into their own city. By 1872, many had forgotten the political constraints of 1858 and chose instead to wallow in the might-have-beens of the lost capital of Canada. It was an ironic tribute to the political wizardry of John A. Macdonald, by then himself a permanent Ottawa resident, that so many Kingston voters persuaded themselves not that he had failed to win their battle, but rather that he had deliberately cheated them of the prize. Unfortunately, it was not a tribute that could be converted into votes. Thus it may be argued that the roots of Macdonald’s electoral difficulties after 1872 can be traced to the rapid disappointment of the hopes his fellow citizens had placed in him in 1857.

Electoral Challenge, 1860-61: ’I am on my trial’

In 1861, exactly half way through his 34 years as member for Kingston, Macdonald survived a landmark election, in which he was deserted by some of his earlier Protestant supporters. Largely thanks to the convenient intrusion of Confederation, which placed local politics in temporary suspension, the ‘Orange’ election did not prove to be an immediate turning point, but thereafter his support in the city was never as firm as raw voting figures might suggest. The 1861 election is the subject of a model riding study by J.D. Livermore, and reconsideration of his evidence within the longer context of Macdonald’s career largely confirms his findings.[42]

The immediate origin of the Macdonald’s problems can be traced to an imbroglio that prevented the Prince of Wales, the future king Edward VII, from setting foot in Kingston in 1860, during the first royal tour of the provinces. From the modern perspective, in an era when royal visits barely arouse polite interest, it is difficult to recapture the excitement generated by the impending arrival of Queen Victoria’s eldest son. The official party arrived in Newfoundland on July 23 and began a progress marked by ecstatic public welcomes as they travelled through the Maritimes and Lower Canada. On September 4, the steamer carrying the prince anchored off Kingston, and the loyal city made ready to welcome the most distinguished visitor it had ever received. It was almost certainly a visit that John A. Macdonald had intended should underline his combined status as Kingston’s representative and the dominant politician in Upper Canada. Unfortunately, the projected scenario dramatically unravelled, causing both political and personal humiliation for Macdonald himself, and triggering an earth tremor in political allegiances.

Catholic dignitaries had featured prominently in the civic processions of Lower Canada, arousing the paranoid suspicions of Upper Canadian Orangemen of a plot to persuade the eighteen-year-old prince that ‘Canada is a country where Popery has the ascendancy’.[43] They were determined to emphasise their own right to welcome the royal visitor by parading in their regalia. Again, a twenty-first century response would probably accept that any group that operated within the law ─ and, in contrast to Ireland, the Orange Order was an entirely legal organisation in Canada ─ was entitled to take part in public events, even if its aims might seem controversial. The complicating element in Orange identity was that the Order not only asserted its loyalty to the Crown but, by implication, proclaimed itself to be more loyal than anybody else ─ especially, of course, the Catholic population. Accordingly, Orangemen assumed that their superior allegiance to the Queen gave them the particular right to erect triumphal arches adorned with celebratory slogans that spanned the Queen’s highway, thereby subjecting the rest of the community to the symbolic acknowledgement of Protestant supremacy each time they passed beneath. One such structure dominated downtown Kingston. The city’s Catholic population had already held a protest meeting at which a Kingston lawyer, Daniel Macarow (Macdonald nicknamed him ‘Make-a-row’) had objected to any Orange attempt to claim a monopoly on loyalty to the Queen.[44] The royal tour was suddenly confronted by a highly sensitive political issue. The crisis would be handled, not by the teenage prince himself, but at a much higher political level.

The Prince of Wales was travelling under the guardianship of a British cabinet minister, the Duke of Newcastle, who was Secretary of State for the Colonies. Indeed, it was a welcome sign of Canada’s growing status that a colonial secretary should actually cross the ocean to see the empire’s most important colony at first hand, instead of overseeing its affairs from a desk in Downing Street. However, the duke saw himself, and his young charge, as primarily operating within the domestic politics of Great Britain ─ and its restive partner island, Ireland. Indeed, the royal tour of North America was seen in part as a rehearsal for an official visit to Ireland, where the young prince would be presented as a uniting symbol, a future king equally acceptable to Protestants and Catholics in that divided and often turbulent country.

The immediate complication, which suddenly loomed when the prince’s steamer docked at Kingston, was that, whatever its status in Canada, the Orange Order was an illegal organisation in Ireland. Through a series of acts passed in the decade after 1825, the British parliament had attempted to stamp out all sectarian mass movements in Ireland. The Orange Order had formally dissolved itself in 1836-7, but this simply meant that respectable Protestants abandoned the organisation, while the rank and file went underground. Given the generally fragile quality of public order in Ireland, they did not go very far underground. One core problem was that the Protestants, although a minority, were generally better off than the Catholics. Their minority status made them fearful of being overwhelmed, while their prosperity meant they were better armed. In 1849, members of a not-very-secret Catholic private army, the Ribbonmen, attempted to block an Orange march about forty kilometres south of Belfast. The confrontation turned into a gun battle, with a death toll of about fifty. Westminster cracked down with more coercive legislation. Eight years later, in 1857, an evangelical religious revival boiled over in the industrial city of Belfast itself, and the ensuing riots amounted to several days of urban warfare.[45] With the projected royal visit to Ireland in mind, there was no way the Duke of Newcastle was going to allow his young charge to appear to countenance an organisation that was illegal in its country of origin. As he reported to Britain’s prime minister, Lord Palmerston, the duke condemned the Orange arch in downtown Kingston because it was decorated with ‘devices the most offensive to the Roman Catholic population.’[46] According to Macdonald the duke said ‘as the Prince of Wales may visit Ireland next year, I cannot and will not advise him to take a course here that he cannot take there.’[47]

When the official party reached Brockville, John A. Macdonald headed a deputation from Kingston to argue that the Orange Order was legal in Canada, and that Canadian principles should apply on Canadian soil. Unmoved, the Duke of Newcastle decreed that that the prince would not land at Kingston unless the city removed all Orange regalia and paraphernalia. But defence of the Order’s right to exist had been, if not the reason at least the vehicle for Macdonald’s entry into politics. With the royal party anchored off Kingston and the angry Orangemen swarming on the quayside, there was, it seems, a violent row between the British grandee and the colonial politician. The prince’s ship remained in the harbour for 24 hours before leaving for Belleville, where the official party was ambushed by a fast-moving contingent of Kingston Orangemen who had travelled overland to keep up the pressure.[48] For Macdonald, who remained behind in protest, there was no way out of what even the unsympathetic Richard Cartwright would recall as his ‘desperate quandary’.[49]

It is easy to interpret the clash between Macdonald and the Duke of Newcastle through a modern-day filter and conclude that it is not unknown for two politicians from ostensibly co-operating governments to fall out in a clash of egos. This would be to miss a central fact: Newcastle was a duke, and to be a duke was to belong to the very elite of the nobility. There were about 380 hereditary aristocrats in the English peerage, but only twenty, the very apex of the pyramid, were dukes.[50] All the rest, from Marquesses down to humble Barons, were colloquially styled ‘Lord’ ─ thus the Earl of Elgin was Lord Elgin and Viscount Monck was Lord Monck. But dukes fell into a distinct category, and were never anything but dukes. They were addressed as ‘Your Grace’ and were usually fabulously wealthy, living in veritable palaces. (The Duke of Buckingham’s former London house had in fact become the city’s premier royal residence.) In an age of deference, they inspired something close to terror among ordinary mortals. It was a seismic event in British politics when, in 1909, the irrepressible Welsh radical David Lloyd George mockingly claimed that a ‘fully equipped duke’ cost twice as much as an up-to-date battleship, ‘but they are just as great a terror, and they last longer.’[51] But that act of impish defiance lay almost half a century into the future. Not surprisingly, the appearance of a duke in Canada was a very rare event.[52]

Despite his Himalayan eminence (or perhaps because of it), the Duke of Newcastle was a man of impeccable manners. He won the approval of the ebullient Nova Scotian politician Joseph Howe by not only inviting him to stay at his country mansion, Clumber Park, during a visit to England but by hosting a personal, candle-lit tour of the ancestral portraits.[53] So eminent a grandee as the Duke of Newcastle had no need to stand on his dignity. ‘It was said of him that he did not remember his rank unless you forgot it’.[54] The Kingston deputation at Brockville certainly argued its case ‘in stronger and more emphatic language than His Grace was accustomed to hear’.[55] On board the official steamer that tempestuous September day, John A. Macdonald cast aside all deference towards Newcastle’s majestic status as he unleashed an angry last-ditch ultimatum. In so doing, the politician who famously prided himself in his skill ‘to look ahead a little’[56] committed himself to a confrontation that he could not win. In 1860, a mere Canadian politician who went head-to-head with an English duke, not to mention one who was a British cabinet minister, was likely to come off second-best.

According to a report quoted from the now-vanished Kingston Advertiser (‘a special organ of John A.’), Macdonald had ‘urged in the strongest terms, even up to the verge of giving offence to the Duke of Newcastle’ that it would be unjust to punish the loyal people of Kingston because of objectionable conduct by a minority. When his pleas failed, he resorted to a threat: ‘if they passed Kingston by, they should also pass him by, as in that case he should not accompany the Royal party further!’[57] Even to issue such a threat was a violation of the arcane protocol that buttresses the majestic aura of royalty. Actually to carry it out ─ and once his bluff was called, Macdonald had little choice ─ was to place himself in the invidious position of insulting Queen Victoria’s son. Worse still, he had suffered a very public humiliation on his political home turf. On September 5, Kingston had arranged a gala ball in honour of its royal visitor. Of course, the event was an anticlimax, with barely one hundred guests bothering to show up. Proposing the health of the absent prince, Macdonald sought to rescue what he could from the disaster, claiming that ‘His Royal Highness had expressed his sincere regret at the unfortunate misunderstanding which prevented him from participating in the pleasure of the evening, that it was not his fault or that of the provincial government’.[58] Macdonald’s political ascendancy in Kingston was based in depended upon the confidence he engendered as the politician who could bring benefits to his home town. Now, at a crucial moment, he had placed his political standing on the line but failed to deliver the goods. The man described as ‘the soul of every social assembly at which he was present’[59] was reduced to defending himself to his own people with a highly implausible and apparently telepathic message from the absent prince whom they had been agog to welcome. Perhaps on that late summer evening the dancing couples did choose to believe that ‘although His Royal Highness was absent in person his heart was with them’,[60] but there could be no doubt that Macdonald’s standing had been dented in the face of his own people.

By threatening to boycott the royal tour himself if Kingston was passed over, Macdonald had painted himself into a corner from which there was no dignified escape. Unfortunately, alternative forms of political protest were impractical, if not utterly unthinkable. In a speech at Brantford later in the year, Macdonald tried to make light of the possibility that the ministry might have resigned over the issue. In Canada’s coalition politics, forming an alternative government might take weeks. The lesson of the most recent upheaval, the ‘double shuffle’ affair of 1858, was that the most obvious premier-in-waiting, the Reformer George Brown of the Toronto Globe, would probably fail to sustain a majority government. ‘Was the Prince of Wales to remain in the harbor [sic] of Kingston for a fortnight, having his meals conveyed to him in a small boat, till Mr Brown had succeeded in making an Administration?’ In any case, the Duke of Newcastle would not have bowed to pressure from Premier Brown either, and so ‘the Prince of Wales would have been at Kingston till the present day.’[61] In any case, nobody wanted a ministerial crisis in the middle of a royal tour. Nor was the premier, the francophone Catholic George-Etienne Cartier, likely to resign in solidarity with the Orange Order.

Was Macdonald honour-bound to leave office himself? In the immediate aftermath, his friends were reported to be predicting that ‘he would show his loyalty to Kingston by resigning his seat in the Cabinet’. Quickly, however, the prediction was modified: Macdonald would delay his resignation until the prince had left Canada. The longer the issue was postponed, the more likely it was that that affair would end, as the Globe contemptuously predicted, in a ‘fizzle’.[62] Macdonald’s resignation would either constitute a useless sacrifice on behalf his Orange friends, whose behaviour even he had to admit ‘may not have been in good taste’[63], or it would  prove fatal to Cartier’s ministry and perhaps leave the political world with no option but to accept George Brown. Meanwhile, Brown’s own newspaper poked fun at Macdonald’s hurt dignity. ‘Where is John A?’ it asked, as he remained secluded in Kingston while the official party travelled on to Toronto.[64] His cabinet colleagues added their private pressure. ‘Your absence is very much remarked,’ wrote his friend John Ross, who wanted Macdonald to return to the tour but seemed also to hint that if he was going to resign it would be better to act immediately.[65] Another cabinet ally, Philip Vankoughnet was characteristically forthright. ‘We cannot afford just now to imitate the conduct of the rowdies and kick up a row. … I think that till the visit is over you should be here.’[66] Macdonald had little choice but to climb down. ‘John A. Turned Up!’, chortled the Globe as it reported the prince’s arrival in Hamilton, adding that the ‘lost Attorney-General’ was ‘looking very hard’.[67]

The fact that Macdonald felt it necessary to embark upon an unprecedented speaking tour around the province soon after the royal visit was itself a measure of the damage he had suffered from the episode. He censured ‘the injudicious and dictatorial conduct of the Duke of Newcastle’ but acknowledged that the duke had been within his rights to act as he did: ‘we are in a state of Colonial dependence; and long may the connection between this and the mother country exist.’[68] The obvious response to this line of argument is that Macdonald should have accepted the situation when the tempest first arose, and either charmed the Orangemen into backing down or registered his protest in a less confrontational manner. The quality of his political judgement had been further undermined when Hillyard Cameron, the Conservative party’s perennial leader-in-waiting, succeeded in persuading the Toronto Orangemen to foreswear their regalia and abandon their protests during the royal visit. As Vankoughnet had bluntly written to Macdonald, ‘you are to blame a good deal yourself.’[69] Caught between the irresistible force of the Orange Order and the immoveable object of the Duke of Newcastle, Macdonald would have been better advised to have tried to coax the former rather than confront the latter. The fact that he apparently did not even try may suggest that ‘the Boys’ were already less solid in his support than they had been in the previous decade.

It is possible, too, that the damage to Macdonald’s political standing reverberated beyond the formal sphere of registered voters: as Richard Cartwright recalled, the prince’s departure was ‘to the intense disgust of the feminine portion of the population of Kingston more especially’.[70] It is almost impossible to explore a gendered analysis of contemporary electoral politics simply because the recorded public arena was male-dominated, while female influence was principally confined to the domestic sphere where, almost by definition, it is difficult to trace. None the less, we may suspect that the wives and daughters of Kingston cared a great deal more about losing the opportunity to set eyes upon a genuine royal prince than perhaps they would have felt about less glamorous public events and issues. If John A. Macdonald’s standing was damaged among the women of Kingston, it may have been easier ─ and perhaps even a required response ─ for husbands and fathers to switch allegiance at the polls.

No specific reports seem to survive about Macdonald’s own activities during those two weeks when he stood on his shrinking dignity and boycotted the royal tour. Creighton was probably correct to assume that he remained in Kingston, where he probably attempted to repair his damaged political base. But there is another element that should be confronted, and taken into account as a possible contributing explanation for the determination of the opposition he was to face at the polls a year later. John A. Macdonald had moved into a phase of his life when he was drinking too much and too often. In an era when alcohol was indulgently regarded as a social, business and political lubricant, he had long enjoyed a reputation for conviviality. Commenting on his low profile during the formal debates of the British American League’s convention in Kingston in 1849, the Globe had remarked that ‘he never says much anywhere except in bar rooms’.[71] He had good-humouredly cited himself as an example of the effects of over-indulgence in wine during an Assembly debate on temperance in 1853.[72] ‘Another glass of champagne and a story of doubtful moral tendency’ was Alexander Campbell’s light-hearted summary of Macdonald’s style of caucus management two years later.[73] Thereafter, the jokes seem to have stopped, as he passed beyond amiable conviviality to bouts of binge drinking.[74]

From September 1854, Macdonald was in office, and his private correspondence at this period reveals ─ both by its brevity and its complaining content ─ that he was over-burdened with work. As the scope of government activity broadened, there was an increasing tendency for every issue with either legal or political implications to be referred to the two Attorneys-General.[75] Not only was his workload multiplying, but his personal finances were under strain. In 1853-54, he had invested heavily in an anticipated property boom, making down payments on purchases and expecting to clear the balance by making quick profits ─ in other words, investing money that he did not possess. ‘I will be next year a rich man,’ he had assured a friend in 1853. Unfortunately, the investments did not all prosper as rapidly as he had hoped, and by March 1855 he was pleading with a creditor that he did not have ‘a shilling to jingle on a tombstone.’[76] Worst of all was his wife’s illness. While Canada’s alternating capital was far downriver in Quebec City, Isabella Macdonald had remained in Kingston in the care of relatives. The transfer of the seat of government to Toronto in the fall of 1855 seemed to create the opportunity to reunite the family. Macdonald probably brought his wife and child to their new home sometime after Christmas 1855. The effort almost proved too much for his ailing wife. In mid-January, her doctor thought she was going to die, and she remained ‘desperately ill’ for at least a week.[77] Perhaps her Toronto doctor over-reacted to the terrible suffering and total prostration engendered by Isabella’s mysterious condition, for she seems to have recovered, insofar as she ever recovered, quickly enough, with Macdonald reporting in mid-March that she had been ‘tolerably well for some time and is in good spirits.’[78] However, even if her neuralgia had come under control, it is likely that she had by this stage also contracted tuberculosis ─ likely enough for someone confined to overheated and poorly ventilated bedrooms ─ the affliction that almost certainly killed her in December 1857.

Whatever the combination of causes, from early in 1856, John A. Macdonald was intermittently drinking more than was good for him. Twice in March his private secretary noted that he had been on a ‘spree’. He had probably been drinking intermittently for several weeks.[79] On 26 February he shocked the Assembly by launching a violent verbal attack on George Brown. The next few months were spent in damage limitation, with Macdonald forced to make humiliating withdrawals of allegations that he could not substantiate.[80] The problem recurred during his brief premiership in 1858, as he struggled to cope with Isabella’s death and hold together a ministry that was permanently on the defensive. His behaviour in the Assembly one evening in May was notably embarrassing. Soon after, the Reformer and temperance campaigner Malcolm Cameron, apparently speaking on Macdonald’s behalf, announced that the premier ‘admitted that he had not been altogether free from blame had taken the pledge’, that he had taken the pledge and ‘for as long as he was in public life, he was determined to be a tee-totaller’. It was a striking admission from the head of a government, and the Globe called the story ‘the funniest thing which has occurred for some time.’[81] John A. Macdonald’s drink problem was now in the public domain.

            Even now, it may seem distasteful to highlight a tragic personality flaw in so notable a public figure. However, to begin to appreciate how contemporaries viewed Macdonald’s political actions, we need to take account of their perceptions not only of his strengths but also of this regrettable weakness. A little over a year before the planned royal visit, Macdonald had reportedly taken the pledge and foresworn alcohol. Now he had entangled himself in an angry confrontation with an imperial grandee, a battle that he might have foreseen he could not win, and had compounded the embarrassment by storming out of the official party and going to ground in his home town for two whole weeks. Given that Macdonald was prone to ‘spree’ or binge drinking, the question has to be asked whether he reacted to his failure to deliver the Prince of Wales by taking to the bottle. Historians should avoid guilt-by-association, but it would be naïve not to recognise that, at this phase in his life, Macdonald found it difficult to cope with severe pressure without taking to drink.[82] At the very least, he made the tactical error of adopting a course of action which could give colour to malicious interpretation. The Globe, never scrupulous in its handling of an enemy, built a damaging innuendo on the Orange Order’s ceremony of toasting the memory of the seventeenth-century Protestant monarch, King William the Third. ‘As he mingled his sympathising tears with those of his brother Orangemen, and drank to the glorious and immortal memory, he, no doubt, meant to do something plucky and decisive,’ it commented, mocking Macdonald’s threat to resign. ‘But sobriety comes at last’, and among the ‘sober realities’ were ‘the whisperings of prudence’.[83]

The Globe, it should be noted, offered no specific evidence, no eye-witness exposé, although in Kingston the British Whig did report that Macdonald was ‘a good deal cut up’ by the debacle.[84] However, at that stage even the normally outspoken Globe was reticent in its allusions to Macdonald’s weakness. Eight years later, it abandoned all restraint and launched a ferocious attack, listing previous episodes of alleged inebriation, one of them during the stand-off at Kingston back in 1858.[85] Macdonald’s friends were certainly uneasy at the time. ‘It is difficult for you and for us to explain your absence’, wrote Vankoughnet.[86] Evidently the argument that he had withdrawn as an act of principled protest did not seem to tell the whole story. If John A. Macdonald did resort to alcohol during that missing fortnight, it would probably have been the first occasion when he took to drink on his own home patch. Previously he had been vulnerable to over-indulgence precisely because political life took him away from home, to the boarding-house and locker-room world of Canada’s migratory parliament. Any such lapse on home turf would have doubly damaging to his standing in Kingston, particularly among women, who were notably active in campaigns against the demon drink. We need to penetrate the curtains of Victorian reticence to recover the strong possibility that contemporary assessments of Macdonald’s handling of the debacle of the royal visit were perhaps influenced by awareness of his increasing personal weakness for alcohol. All this may help to explain why Oliver Mowat was imported to run against him at the upcoming election of 1861. Although Kingston-born, Mowat had been a Toronto resident for many years. He was, however, a noted teetotaller. A head-on political attack on Macdonald’s drink problem might have been politically counter-productive and even defamatory. Mowat’s candidacy may have been a way of symbolically dramatising the issue without making it abusively explicit.[87]

            The issue of Macdonald’s alcohol problem is one that cannot be ignored although it should not be exaggerated in a historical attempt to assess the impact of the row over the failed visit of the Prince of Wales upon local politics. It was, after all, the extreme Orangemen, the faction whom he had tried to champion, who most vehemently denounced him during the election the following summer. The imbroglio of 1860 represented a political landmark for a more fundamental reason. It was the first time that Macdonald’s ministerial career at provincial level had come into conflict with the local interests of his constituency. ‘He has to maintain his situation as a Minister and as a law Officer of the Crown,’ explained the British Whig, ‘and also to maintain his position as Member for the City that has been so grievously treated.’[88] Its rival, the Daily News, was less circumspect, warning that John A. Macdonald’s ‘hold on the suffrages of the citizens of Kingston will be seriously jeopardized’ unless he could clear himself of the suspicion that he had connived at the insult to the city.[89] 

Worse still, Macdonald was not even facing a simple confrontation between the coalitionist imperatives of parliamentary politics and the triumphalism of Kingston Protestants. His own support base within the city was evidently fractured. His former law partner, Alexander Campbell, had been part of the deputation to the Duke of Newcastle at Brockville. At the end of September, when the official reception committee for the prince held its own post mortem on the affair, Campbell had considered releasing his own memorandum of what had passed, but had decided that it was ‘more prudent to be guided by your wishes’ on the strategy involved. ‘Reading it would certainly have put your conduct in a most favourable light before the Orangemen and Protestants generally, and would have done you good service amongst them through Upper Canada, but I was unable to judge the effect on the Catholics’.[90] J.D. Livermore described Macdonald as ‘a genius at understanding and manipulating the varied forces of a pluralistic society’,[91] but this time he faced a challenge that defied the most supple and subtle of political skills. To regain the esteem of the Orangemen, John A. Macdonald had to demonstrate that he had taken an extreme line in defence of their right to parade in a manner which everyone accepted was offensive to Catholics. But he pleaded in vain that he had joined the Order himself back in the early eighteen-forties, despite his lack of any Irish background, because if ‘men of intelligence and sterling worth … were to be proscribed and hounded down merely because they were Orangemen, I would go in with them and submit to the same obloquy, the same prescription.’[92] But the man who claimed he had entered politics to defend the right of the Orange Order to exist had eventually decided not to resign office in defence of their right to parade.  An irreconcilable faction carried a censure motion on the government at the meeting of the Grand Lodge of Western Canada in October 1860, and a similar motion was passed at Kingston in November, when Alexander Campbell courageously but unavailingly confronted Macdonald’s angry critics at a public meeting in the City Hall. The following year, when an order of nuns opened an orphanage in Kingston, many Orangemen suspected that their member of parliament had helped them acquire the property.[93] Macdonald could hope to gain compensating support only from the local Catholic community, and this at the very moment when he was attempting to assure the Orangemen that he had done all he could to uphold their right to insult their fellow citizens. Hence he strongly opposed any public declaration of confidence by the Orangemen of Kingston, explaining that he had denounced the Duke of Newcastle ‘so strongly’ in his private explanations that any public allusion to his opinions ‘would lose the Catholics.’[94] Fighting a polarised election in the short term, he might harness some Catholic votes merely as the lesser of two evils, but such support would hardly be firm and unconditional. At one level, Macdonald’s dilemma was and remains a standard challenge for all politicians: how to mobilise a core vote while simultaneously reaching out for uncommitted support? It was the religious divide that made it particularly difficult to ride both horses at once. At best, Macdonald might hope to broaden his support base, but he would do so only at the cost of making it much shallower overall. That, it seems, is what happened in Kingston when the province went to the polls in June and early July of 1861.

            In law, there was no need for fresh elections until the winter of 1862-63. However, since 1841 the five previous parliaments of the Canadian Union had averaged little more than three years of life. The Cartier-Macdonald ministry appears to have contemplated calling elections in the wake of the royal tour, to capitalise on what would now be called the ‘feel-good’ factor. Writing to Macdonald at the end of September, Alexander Campbell had pleaded against an early dissolution, for the obvious reason that any feel-good factor had vanished in a haze of sectarian animosity on the Kingston waterfront and there was ‘no room whatever to anticipate a result favourable to the existing Government’.[95] However, as in modern politics, once the prospect of an election is in the air, the process gathers a momentum of its own, and a ministry that hesitates to go to the polls can easily be branded as fearful of the people’s judgement. Early in November, Macdonald began a four-week speaking tour of Upper Canada, defending himself and mobilising his supporters at a series of twelve public banquets.[96] The tour was unprecedented ─ and, if Macdonald appears to have been responsible for the introduction of the rubber chicken circuit into Canadian public life, it can at least be pleaded in his defence that he did not attempt anything like it again until the remarkable series of spontaneously generated political picnics across Ontario in the summer of 1876.[97] One of Macdonald’s aims was to force the voters to face a polarised choice between himself, ‘the pilot that weathered the storm’, and the divisive George Brown, the ‘Protestant Pope’ who split the opposition, treated his own followers like ‘whipped spaniels’ and who wanted only to be ‘a little King in Upper Canada’.[98]

            Despite this gutsy campaign, it was still hard to avoid the feeling that there was something of Mr Micawber, the happy-go-lucky fictional character invented by Charles Dickens, in Campbell’s advice that Macdonald and his ministerial colleagues should ‘reserve to yourselves the chances which the future always has in store’.[99] Unexpectedly, something did indeed ‘turn up’. Early in March 1861, George Brown fell desperately ill,[100] leaving his followers in disarray and providing the beleaguered ministry with a sudden window of opportunism. Macdonald privately explained to the Methodist leader Egerton Ryerson at the end of May, that the general election was to be held while Brown was ‘hors de combat & the Grits disorganized’. Moreover, a politician who needed to win votes from rival religious groups was particularly conscious of the need to get the voting over before the annual festival of Orange supremacism: ‘Unless the elections come off before 12 July, the Orangemen & RC’s will be breaking each others heads.’[101]

            Overall, the tactic worked relatively effectively: for instance, the still convalescing George Brown was defeated in Toronto. But for Macdonald in his own riding of Kingston, the timing was not ideal. First, he was seeking endorsement from his fellow citizens barely nine months after the debacle of the aborted royal visit. Second, the election came hard on the heels of the 1861 census, which had been enumerated in mid-January. Throughout May and into June, Canada’s newspapers collated the unofficial preliminary returns which showed that the population of Upper Canada now outnumbered that of Lower Canada by over a quarter of a million.[102] This marked and now indubitably proven demographic disparity added considerably to the case for representation by population, the demand that by virtue of having more people, Upper Canada should also have a plurality of seats in the Assembly.[103] The census not only gave Reformers a rallying cry, but the representation question also provided a respectable cover for discontented Orangemen to rally to their ranks. To modern ears, representation by population sounds like a plea for democratic fair play. However, to contemporary Protestant zealots, it offered an effective riposte to ‘the alarming increase of Popery in our midst’,[104] a new and unanswerable device for ensuring the subordination of Catholics. Thus a traditional and regressive struggle for status between rival religious groups metamorphosed into a seemingly modern contest between alternative political philosophies. Back in 1847, Macdonald had been opposed by an explicitly Reform candidate, Kenneth Mackenzie, and Counter’s bid for parliament in 1854 had probably been supported by Reformers. But the 1861 election in Kingston was the first of a more modern series of contests between defined parties of Conservatives and Reformers. As early as the fall of 1858, Macdonald himself had foreseen a serious challenge, which he expected to come from O.S. Gildersleeve, who had contemplated running the previous December. ‘I … must beat him as best I can,’ he reflected, adding with his habitual tendency to talk up his own prospects, ‘I have beaten more formidable opponents’.[105] 

            The general election of 1861 was a classic example of the inability of a political leader to impose his chosen issues upon a campaign. ‘The Cry is “Union” “no looking to Washington” and “University Reform”’, Macdonald advised the Methodist leader Egerton Ryerson.[106] ‘Union’ (meaning the union of Upper and Lower Canada) was a nebulous attempt to paper over the cracks in a Conservative party that was itself split over the demand in the upper province for representation by population. From a Kingston point of view, Macdonald seemed to be on strong ground, since ‘rep. by pop.’ would not only involve shifting political power from French to English Canada, but also from the sluggish districts east of Toronto towards the booming region to the west. However, the British Whig admitted that ‘his resolute opposition to Representation by Population has made him unpopular with the working classes.’[107] ‘No looking to Washington’ was an attempt to capitalise on overheated remarks by a Reform politician who had threatened to seek American intervention to secure constitutional change. Then as now, ‘University Reform’ aroused little public interest, and was in any case endorsed by Oliver Mowat, Macdonald’s former law student, now drafted in to spearhead a high profile Reform attempt to drive him out of politics. Mowat had lived in Toronto for nineteen years, but his father had remained a respected citizen of Kingston until his death the previous year. Initially, at least, Mowat’s candidacy was regarded as a serious threat.[108] Put bluntly, the central issue was whether the angry Orangemen could punish Macdonald for his failure to support them. As a virtual outsider, Mowat helpfully obscured the depth of those passions, while his often-derided claim to be a ‘Christian statesman’ ensured, as even critics noted, that his own team fought the campaign ‘manfully and like gentlemen’. Indeed, it was a Macdonald supporter who lowered the tone by branding Mowat a ‘time-server’ from ‘Muddyopolis’.[109]

            The decision to draft a big-name candidate from outside probably reflected the disparate nature of the opposition to Macdonald. There had been an indication of this in the 1858 Legislative Council election for Cataraqui, the upper house constituency centred on Kingston, when Alexander Campbell had defeated a split challenge from Thomas Kirkpatrick, who had attempted to run against Macdonald as a Tory in 1847, and O.S. Gildersleeve, who had considered a challenge in 1857 and did in fact come forward as the Reform candidate in 1863. In November 1858, the Prescott Telegraph smugly deplored reported disorder on the streets of Kingston. The paper was probably referring to the Legislative Council contest when it alleged that ‘[d]uring the late election it was dangerous for a person to be out after nightfall.’[110] Just six years later, in designing the blueprint for Confederation, the Canadian political elite was practically unanimous in abandoning the elective principle for the upper house as a failure. For a Legislative Council contest to arouse such passions further suggests that Macdonald’s apparent ascendancy at the polls in December 1857 only thinly masked deep political divisions within the community. As an outsider, Oliver Mowat stood to some extent above local factions, but as a member of an elite Kingston family, he might appeal both to old-style Kirkpatrick Tories and to Gildersleeve’s Reform supporters. In addition, as previously suggested, Mowat’s well-known repudiation of strong drink offered an unstated symbolic strategy that highlighted Macdonald’s problems with alcohol without formally dragging the issue into the campaign.

            The campaign got off to a violent start, when the Macdonald camp lost control of a meeting at the City Hall, and his critics around the province were encouraged by the thought that ‘John A. has got a hard road to travel’.  Two months earlier, his ally, George Cartier, had ridiculed the notion that Upper Canada was entitled to more political power because it contained more population. The codfish off the Gaspé, Cartier was reported to have sneered, were as entitled to representation as the surplus quarter million ‘Clear Grits’ (radical Reformers) in the western peninsula. Protestant and Anglo-Saxon Upper Canada did not see the joke, and at a City Hall meeting Macdonald was challenged in a face-to-face confrontation to explain why he had ‘stood tamely by’ when Cartier so grossly insulted his own people. His explanation that Cartier had been joking was not well received, and the altercation was only terminated when stewards threw the questioner off the platform. A local doctor, John R. Dickson, valiantly but largely inaudibly proposed a pro-Macdonald resolution which was declared carried amidst much confusion. Order was restored by playing the National Anthem and calling for three cheers for Queen Victoria, giving Macdonald an opportunity to withdraw with some dignity. The Mowat forces then tried to take possession of the platform and a free fight developed, during which serious damage was inflicted on a canvas backdrop to the platform. ‘The scene of the Queen of Sheba at the Court of Solomon … will require to be wholly repainted in order to repair the damage.’[111]

            Worse violence was to ensue the following day, and the siege of the Grammar School marked a long-remembered low point in Kingston politics. The Macdonald campaign was built around a series of neighbourhood meetings, indoor gatherings organised on a ward-by-ward basis. By contrast, the Reformers concentrated their city-wide support in a few outdoor rallies, intended to demonstrate a groundswell of protest. Unfortunately, Mowat’s first rally, in the Park, was not only all-too-effective in stimulating the anger of the Mowat supporters, but it broke up just as Conservative voters in two downtown wards were assembling nearby. Fired up with outrage by their own orators, Reform activists subjected the hapless Tories to a prolonged barrage of violent assaults. From the Conservative point of view, the redeeming feature of the episode was that their opponents had sacrificed any claim to the moral high ground during their hour-long struggle to capture the main staircase in the entrance hall of the Grammar School. The episode was still being thrown in their faces two years later, during the election of 1863, a campaign in which leading Reformers went out of their way to discourage their wilder supporters.[112]

            Although Macdonald shrewdly claimed to be on the defensive ­– ‘Gentlemen, I am on my trial’, he had proclaimed at the City Hall meeting[113] – not only was his campaign in the city tightly organised through active ward committees, but he also launched a counter-strike into Frontenac that ousted Henry Smith, never an easy ally and now an open defector over ‘rep. by pop.’[114] All the same, while the Kingston Daily News remained ‘confident’ that Macdonald’s ‘place in the affections of a majority of the electors is still unimpaired’, it predicted that ‘a good deal of the support which he has hitherto received is about to be withdrawn from him.’ The ‘excitement’, said the News, was ‘never equalled in Kingston’ at any previous election.[115]  Despite the passions aroused, the election passed off peacefully enough, thanks perhaps to the sheriff’s precautions: 150 special constables were sworn, and the soldiers of the British garrison placed on stand-by.[116] After the first day of polling, the British Whig exultantly proclaimed that the Reformers were ‘getting pretty well licked’.[117] ‘The agony is over’, it announced in significantly chosen language the following day, ‘and the Hon. John A. Macdonald is once again Member for Kingston,’ by 785 votes to 474 – a comfortable enough majority.

‘In such a constituency,’ a Hamilton Reform paper sourly remarked, ‘anything else was not to be expected.’[118] The result, it seems, came as no surprise once it became clear that Macdonald had secured a slice of the Catholic vote. Daniel Macarow had tried one last ploy to win his co-religionists to the Mowat cause, by inviting D’Arcy McGee to speak in the city. McGee had only arrived in Montreal in 1857, but he had promptly secured election to parliament and even, albeit briefly, a seat in George Brown’s ill-fated cabinet during the double shuffle. Although an effective spokesman for Montreal business, McGee owed his prominence on the wider Canadian scene to his claim to represent the Irish Catholic community. Hence Macarow’s initiative in persuading one hundred members of the local Irish community to invite McGee to come and speak ─ on the disingenuously mild topic of ‘the state of the Province’ ─ represented a last-ditch move to rally the Irish vote to the Reform camp.

It was a high-risk strategy, if only in terms of public order, for McGee’s appearance at such a sensitive time would almost certainly trigger a violent backlash from the city’s paranoid Orangemen. Indeed, the appearance of such a prominent Catholic in the Mowat campaign might send disgruntled Orangemen rebounding into the Macdonald camp, while it might also be counter-productive in terms of Kingston sensitivities to have a Montreal politician urging them to vote for a Toronto candidate. It was perhaps fortunate that McGee flatly refused to co-operate. His refusal began in polite and reasonable terms. ‘I am sure my Kingston friends will not blame me for deciding that my first duty lies in the city and district of Montreal.’ But McGee’s tone quickly descended into a querulous and pompous denunciation of the ‘double dealing folly’ of Irish voters, including signatories to the lecture invitation, who were backing John A. Macdonald. ‘Do these gentlemen take me for a fool, who can rejoice at the restoration to power of a man whom I have honestly opposed to the very last?’ A week before polling, McGee was obviously well-enough informed to know that Macdonald was going to be re-elected, and on the basis of Irish votes too. To Macarow, he wrote that ‘if our compatriots in Kingston had only the self-respect, the political stability, the true manliness of the true men of Griffintown [the Irish ghetto in Montreal], of South Lanark, of North Wellington, of Perth County, and a few other reform constituencies I could name, how honorable a mark might they not make at this election in Canadian politics!’[119] McGee’s claim to speak for Canada’s Irish Catholics would obviously have been badly dented had he gone to Kingston and failed to deliver the vote.

            ‘It would have been a sad and lasting disgrace to the good old city, had an inhabitant of another place been elected’. The British Whig thought it ‘lamentable’ that 474 citizens should have defected to an outsider. ‘None but a dirty bird fouls its own nest.’ More soberly, it concluded that in opposition to a local candidate, ‘the battle might not have terminated so favourably for Mr. Macdonald’.[120] No doubt there was an element of hurt pride in the resentment expressed against a candidate from the rival and indecently successful city, but there were probably practical considerations as well. ‘No canal tolls’ was one of Macdonald’s slogans, and a representative based in Toronto, the hub of Upper Canada’s railway network, might not have seemed sound on this issue.[121]    

            Evidence marshalled by Livermore points persuasively to two movements of opinion behind the 1861 result: Macdonald was deserted by former Orange supporters and saved by the adhesion of Catholic voters. The Kingston Daily News argued that the fall-out from the ‘Orange difficulty’ had triggered a seismic change in political allegiances.[122] However, an examination of the result in a longer context may tend to minimise the switch-over of support in 1861. Since Macdonald’s 1189 to 9 victory in 1857 was obviously aberrant, the appropriate comparator is the election of 1854. Here, the striking point is that in both contests Macdonald polled 62 percent of the vote. There are many difficulties in a straight comparison between the two elections: almost twice as many people voted in 1861, and some at least of the voters of seven years earlier must have fallen by the wayside.[123] However, if we were to assume an electoral steady state, then one simple hypothesis will suggest that major shifts in political support were unlikely. Suppose that in 1861, Macdonald had lost the equivalent of twenty percent of his 1854 support. From his 62 percent share of the vote, this would equal 12.4 percent of the whole electorate. To recoup himself by winning over a countervailing share from his opponents would have been a huge task, since 12.4 percent of their 38 percent represents almost one third of the 1854 Reform baseline. Of course, speculative arithmetic cannot prove that such a massive two-way trade did not occur. None the less, the fact that Macdonald registered almost identical support in both elections may suggest that the actual exchange of supporters in 1861 was much smaller. It may be that the haemorrhaging of Orange support had started before 1854, when demands for representation by population began to establish the Reformers as the voice of Upper Canadian Protestantism. John Shaw had apparently turned against Macdonald by 1854, and in 1857 Orange votes had helped sweep George Brown to the top of the poll in Toronto. One clue may be found in Alexander Campbell’s impressive Legislative Council by-election victory in 1864, when he polled 840 votes in Kingston. Compared with the 785 votes for Macdonald at both general elections in 1861 and 1863, this might suggest a hard core of around fifty Orangemen who could not forgive their member of parliament for his perceived treachery in 1860 but would vote for a fellow member of their own Order.[124]

Similarly, Macdonald’s attempts to attract countervailing Catholic support, albeit clumsily, may also be traced as far back as 1847.[125] Yet one point in Livermore’s analysis seems incontestable: Macdonald owed his election in 1861 to Catholic votes. There is only one minor ‘blip’ in the correlation between the percentage of Catholics in each of the city’s seven wards, and the hierarchy of support for the winning candidate. Livermore’s table is here re-presented, with the addition of a hypothetical calculation in column D of Table Two. The hypothesis assumes that Catholics and Protestants qualified to vote in identical proportions, and that Macdonald received the support of 90 percent of the former but only 50 percent of the latter. Column E indicates that the difference between the actual and the imaginary Macdonald vote is relatively close.


Table Two: The 1861 election


A                     B                     C                     D                     E


Ontario            45                    72                    (68)                  +4


Cataraqui         39                    60                    (65.6)               -5.6     


Sydenham       37                    64                    (65.3)               -1.3


Frontenac        30                    59                    (62)                  -3


Victoria           29                    66                    (61.6)               +4.4


St. Lawrence   29                    58                    (61.6)               -3.6


Rideau             17                    54                    (56.8)               -2.8


A: Ward names; B: percentage Catholic population in the 1861 census; C: percentage voting for Macdonald in 1861; D: hypothetical Macdonald vote (90% Catholic; 50% Protestant); E: variance from real result. Source for Columns A-C, Livermore, TPD, p. 377.


For hypothesis here, read ‘guess work’: other calculations would give similar results. This one is striking in providing a consistently close approximation to the actual Macdonald percentage in each ward, while reminding us that there were probably localised factors which explain why the hypothesis marginally out-performs reality in five wards but understates performance in two. One potential variable, voter turn-out, can be ignored for 1861. The city’s tax assessment roll for 1860, the basis of the electoral register, was reported to have included about 1200 names, indicating a voter turnout of at least 100 percent![126]

            One John A. Macdonald legend almost certainly belongs to the 1861 election campaign. Following the poll, Macdonald arrived at a victory rally held by James Morton in the gardens of his home. Morton was building an industrial empire on the basis of his successful distillery. He and Macdonald were obscurely connected through the affairs of the projected Southern Railway, and their collaboration was at its height around this time. Macdonald responded to congratulations on his election by theatrically kissing the daughter of a prominent Catholic supporter, let us hope with her consent. ‘Nothing can stand against us when we blend the orange and the green’, he proclaimed. There was a message behind the slogan. Macdonald was conjuring memories of the Upper Canadian election of 1836, when Orange and Green had indeed rallied to the support of the governor, Sir Francis Bond Head, to deliver a massive Tory majority. That alliance had been shaped by two men: Alexander Macdonell, the Catholic bishop of Kingston, and the Orangeman Ogle R. Gowan, Macdonald’s onetime political ally. Macdonald was seeking to portray the accidental alliance of 1861 as a return to a golden age of political normality, where the Catholic and Protestant populations of the province had co-operated for the common good.[127] Unfortunately, this large claim could not disguise the awkward fact that victory in his 1861 rested upon a convergence of disparate elements within divided communities of the Orange and the Green. The young lady, it would seem, was kissed under false pretences.       

1863: ‘your old and tried friends’

The Cartier-Macdonald ministry staggered to collapse in May 1862, unable to carry a major reform of the provincial militia despite the atmosphere of continental crisis engendered by the American Civil War. The replacement government headed by John Sandfield Macdonald maintained a feeble grasp for almost two years thanks to a curiously triangular political tag-fight. In Upper Canada, the Conservatives were in retreat, but the Reformers were also divided. With his power base at the eastern end of the province, Sandfield (as the Cornwall Macdonald was generally known) preached flexible compromise to maintain the political union with Lower Canada. Concentrated further to the west, ‘Grit’ followers of the inflexible George Brown continued to demand representation by population, and all the more fervently given the results of the 1861 census.

         A decade later, John A. Macdonald looked back on the opposition he had offered to his namesake Sandfield, portraying their parliamentary combat as the gentlemanly jousting of healthy politics. ‘We hit him as hard as we could, and he defended himself as best he might, but there was no hitting below the belt.’[128] That was a remarkably rosy recollection of a period of sterile factionalism. In the summer of 1862, he was even tempted by the cynical theory that my enemy’s enemy might become my friend: since the John A. Macdonald Conservatives and the George Brown Reformers were both opposed to Sandfield Macdonald, could they perhaps form a common front and turn him out? There were, unfortunately, two obstacles to the striking of a political deal. The first was that Brown was about to leave for Scotland, his first ‘home’ visit since he had emigrated as a lad of eighteen twenty-five years earlier. Since he was still convalescing from his recent illness, he was likely to be absent for some time. More serious was the problem that John A. Macdonald and George Brown had not been on speaking terms for six years. The origin of the feud lay in Brown’s energetic role in exposing the mismanagement of the Kingston penitentiary during an official enquiry in 1848-49. Warden Henry Smith had accused the Toronto newspaper proprietor of conducting a vendetta, and the Warden’s son, Henry junior, was Conservative member for nearby Frontenac. The Smiths were not always palatable or indeed easy allies; Henry junior had broken with Macdonald, and been broken by him, at the election of 1861. But year by year, John A. Macdonald denounced Brown’s handling of the penitentiary enquiry. During an Assembly debate in 1856, he precipitated a major political incident by delivering a massively slanderous attack on Brown’s personal probity. When it came to personal attacks, George Brown operated a dual standard. It was the reluctant duty of his newspaper to abuse the intelligence and denigrate the integrity of its numerous victims, but any reflection on the honour of the Globe’s proprietor was tantamount to blasphemy.[129]

Into the vacuum stepped, apparently unbidden, a Kingston businessman called David Shaw. In July 1862, Shaw and John A. Macdonald were engaged in a substantial property development in the city ─ an experience which had left Shaw alarmed by his partner’s erratic attitude to money matters.[130] However, Shaw apparently decided that alliance between Macdonald and George Brown represented the way forward for provincial politics, and he had the Reform party contacts to get his idea launched. Shaw secured a brief interview with George Brown who passed through Kingston in the middle of the month. It seems clear that the idea of a coalition government came from Shaw, and that he broached it with Brown before trying it out on Macdonald. As he later described his business partner’s response to Brown, ‘the possibility of a Brown Macdonald or a Macdonald Brown administration took him as much by surprise as it did yourself’. Brown’s response was evidently cautious, but sufficiently positive to encourage Shaw to pursue the matter. After ‘several conversations’, Shaw reported to Brown that Macdonald ‘instructed me to tell you that he accepts your proposition viz. that you were willing to act with him on the basis of Representation by Population or any other question which may be agreed upon you bringing the best men on your side & the best of his forming therefrom one strong party’ which would unite behind a premier to be selected by the governor general. Macdonald was already working on his friends to ensure that a common front would be secured by the time Brown returned to Canada.[131]

Weeks later, writing from Edinburgh, Brown rebuked and disavowed Shaw. He had ‘entirely misconceived’ their original conversation. As an adherent of the sternly Calvinist Free Church, Brown welcomed sinners to repentance, but he expected that they should beg for forgiveness. If Macdonald and the Conservatives had seen the light on representation by population, the best way solution would be for one to support the other ─ it did not much matter which formed the government ─ until the measure was carried. He ruled out a formal coalition as ‘demoralizing’. This was part of the rigmarole of mid-century Canadian political rhetoric: our coalition is a disinterested alliance of high-minded public representatives who have agreed to set aside minor differences for the common good; your coalition is a discreditable grab for office by corrupt politicians who cannot possibly unite to provide the principled leadership the country deserves. In any case, there was a deeper problem. Shaw had assured Brown that Macdonald was ‘animated by the most friendly desire to co-operate with you in every possible way’. Not good enough, was Brown’s response. ‘Mr. Macdonald has made charges against me of a character that until entirely withdrawn must debar any other than parliamentary intercourse between us.’[132] It is striking that none of the three plotters asked how they might secure Lower Canadian support for the change they contemplated pushing through.

If David Shaw was, to use political slang, hung out to dry, it was largely because he had rushed in where the more angelic might have paused to reflect. Still, it was a Kingston property developer who can claim the credit for the germ of the idea that flowered as the Great Coalition in 1864. Unfortunately, in 1862 it was not only untimely, but evidence of the cynical depths of factional manoeuvring to which provincial politics had descended. Historians have often argued that the political leaders of British North America joined together to carry Confederation from 1864 because they were shaken out of their parochialism by the continental crisis of the American Civil War. This may have been so by 1864, but during the first two years of conflict between North and South, party warfare continued unchecked north of the border. Early in May 1863, as Union and Confederate armies savaged one another on the battlefield of Chancellorsville, John A. Macdonald narrowly carried a motion of no-confidence against his namesake, and Sandfield in turn persuaded the governor general to dissolve parliament. There are elections in which voters go to the polls knowing that they must make a decision that will affect the future of their country for years ahead. The Canadian general election of 1863 was not such an event. Indeed, it is hard to determine whether any principle was at stake at all.

            In the event, the Kingston election of 1863 was almost a replay of the contest two years earlier. After his hesitation in 1857, O.S. Gildersleeve finally came forward as a candidate. A Macdonald supporter mocked ‘Gildersleeve’s vanity in supposing that he could rob you of your old and tried friends’[133] but the hustings were exceptionally lively. The Macdonald forces sought to create an impression of strength, staging a procession headed by no fewer than three bands. The candidate himself marched in the midst of his supporters: he came before the voters, he insisted, ‘as he had first offered himself, a simple citizen of Kingston.’ He was nominated by the mayor, John Creighton, with the enigmatic praise that ‘no charge of corruption could be fastened upon him.’ Macdonald himself indulged in his now-familiar plea that ‘public life had not been to his pecuniary advantage; his balance at the bankers would have been larger had he kept to the honors [sic] of his profession’. (Two years earlier, Henry Smith had circulated allegations about Macdonald’s involvement in a land deal at Sarnia, and Smith was attempting a come-back in Frontenac.) Gildersleeve, however, ‘had not a word to say against Mr. Macdonald as a private gentleman.’ But opposition partisans had plenty say about his public record. They used the device of nominating and seconding two phantom candidates, who later refused to run, to deliver four more anti-Macdonald speeches. One speaker delivered ‘a tirade to the effect that John A. Macdonald had helped Lower Canada to rule Upper Canada with a rod of iron.’ Since he was now in opposition to a ministry led by Sandfield Macdonald, he had little difficulty in brushing aside such charges. His rivals, he pointed out, had taken no action to bring about representation by population, and he invoked the perennial loyalty cry by describing Sandfield’s French-Canadian Liberal allies, the Rouges, as ‘the sworn enemies of the British connection.’ Informal content analysis of the hustings speeches would suggest that the voters of Kingston were thought to be much more concerned about canal tolls.[134]

            As in 1861, Macdonald built his campaign around a series of ward meetings, usually organised in hotels or public halls although at least one was held in a private house, and the crowds that he drew were sometimes too large to be accommodated indoors. Presumably he delivered a set speech, since he generally spoke for about an hour, ‘although labouring under a severe cold.’ Unlike 1861, there was virtually no disorder. Some of Gildersleeve’s ‘tag-rag-and-bobtail’ infiltrated one Macdonald meeting ‘and occasionally amused the electors by howling and yelling,’ and that night his supporters were subjected to some egg-throwing on their way home. An anonymous correspondent of the Daily News promptly invoked memories of the 1861 battle of the Grammar School and challenged Gildersleeve to repudiate the ‘rowdyism’ of his supporters. ‘Does he believe that this line of conduct will bring him friends, or return him to Parliament? … It is a poor cause that requires to be bolstered up with such tactics’. But at the hustings, Gildersleeve ostentatiously appealed for Macdonald to be given a fair hearing. Indeed, it was suggested that he was conducting himself not so much like an opposition candidate as an heir-in-waiting who would eventually succeed to the seat. Macdonald’s well-publicised career wobbles had evidently sowed seeds of doubt about his permanence.

            It is worth attempting to reconstruct how Macdonald ran his 1863 campaign in the light of the important thesis advanced by W. Michael Wilson that his electoral problems in the following decade stemmed from failures of organisation on the ground.[135] While there was no official and continuing structure such as a riding association backing Macdonald in 1863, all the indications point to a robust if informal organisation with firm roots in the various neighbourhoods of the city. Assembling voters at ward level enabled the candidate himself to meet them in small groups, which not only encouraged Macdonald supporters to declare themselves but also made it possible for them to identify each other, thus creating implied community pressure upon individuals to turn out and vote. Every nineteenth-century public meeting required not only a chairman but a supporting cast of worthy citizens to propose and second resolutions and move votes of thanks. Ward-by-ward meetings ─ and in 1863 Macdonald went twice around the seven wards ─ made it possible to allocate a niche of brief self-importance to a substantial number of people, thereby harnessing their energies so that they would mobilise friends and neighbours.

            Thus the proliferation of meetings created a host of quasi-official speakers, who might voice sentiments that the candidate would tacitly accept without formally endorsing them. Edwin Chown, who manufactured ploughs and stoves, praised the protectionist policies of the Cartier-Macdonald ministry which had benefited ‘a large number of mechanics, who were thus enabled to find remunerative employment.’ In a phase of his career when John A. Macdonald was still attempting to straddle free trade and protection, he probably preferred to have that argument advanced on his behalf rather than emphasise it himself.[136]

In an election that was contested between gentleman-like candidates, it could be useful to have supporters who were prepared to dip into the gutter. Unfortunately, it was difficult to discredit the character of Overton S. Gildersleeve. Not only was he a prominent merchant and ship-owner, but his commitment to the city had been proved in the two terms he had served as mayor. But ‘he had the Mayor’s Chamber supplied with furniture from Toronto’ ─ clearly an act of civic treachery, made worse by his claim that nobody in Kingston could provide the quality he required. Even more heinous had been Gildersleeve’s treatment of the Orangemen and their plans for a holiday excursion on one of his steamers. He had actually insisted that they pay the hire charges before he would allow the boat to sail. (Gildersleeve, it should be said, had his own attack-dog, Councilman Thomas Flynn, a venomous orator who peppered the Cartier-Macdonald with dreadful allegations.)

            The advantages to Macdonald of entrusting his cause to the amateur oratory of his supporters were to some extent balanced by the risks. At one meeting, a resolution was moved calling for his election ‘by such a majority as will secure him from further annoyance from his political opponents.’ In the tactical short term, the sentiment had the advantage of implying that Gildersleeve, like Shaw in 1857, was just a nuisance to be brushed aside. But in the strategic longer term, it suggested an arrogant complacency, an attitude that in the next decade would lead critics to complain that Macdonald regarded the representation of Kingston as his private property. We know that he worked hard to retain the seat in 1863, not least because we have an unintended tribute to his hard work from none other than the vitriolic Councilman Flynn. Macdonald, he told a Reform party rally, was ‘trembling in his shoes. He is out at night till eleven o’clock trying to scrape up a vote, while we are sleeping in our beds.’ It may be that this single sentence tells us why Macdonald won and Gildersleeve lost.[137]

            Polling was spread over two days. Macdonald was well ahead at the close of the first, when the Gildersleeve camp settled for the modest aim of equalling the Mowat vote of 1861.  They came within one vote, while Macdonald exactly equalled his 1861 tally. The result, 785 to 473, was indeed a ‘remarkable coincidence’, for Macdonald gained support in three wards, lost votes in three and came out level in the seventh.[138] There was no easily decipherable pattern in the local break-down. For instance, in the two of the most Catholic districts, he dropped from 72 percent in Ontario Ward to 62.6 percent two years later, while in Cataraqui he increased from 60 to 67.7 percent.

The raw figures are a reminder that we simply do not know the reasons why individual voters made their choices. If we were to attempt the admittedly dangerous experiment of imposing a hypothesis from modern-day general elections, we might assume that the Reformers would have gained some support since they were not only the incumbent ministry but had only come into office the previous year. When Canadians went to the polls in the late twentieth century, they usually proved willing to give governments a second term, especially if they were not long in power. Voter behaviour was less clear-cut in the mid-nineteenth century, but if some Kingstonians switched to supporting Sandfield Macdonald (who, being based downriver in Cornwall, could at least be seen as a regional asset), then to achieve a dead-heat with the 1861 result, his namesake John A. must have recovered countervailing personal support. What does seem clear from the contests of 1861 and 1863 is that Kingston was now electorally divided into two organised camps, each affiliated to a province-wide political party. Polling 62 percent on each occasion, John A. Macdonald’s seat was apparently comfortable even if no longer rock-solid safe. On the one hand, it could be said that he had brushed aside the appearance of a concerted Reform party challenge, since he had also polled 62 percent against John Counter in the conflict of personalities that underlay constituted the 1854 election. However, on the other hand, a three-to-two majority, especially one founded upon the rival aspirations and prejudices of Protestants and Catholics, was small enough to be vulnerable to erosion.

There was a pleasant and amusing tailpiece to the 1863 campaign in Kingston. Formally, the election was over not at the close of polling, even though that was when everybody knew and some celebrated the outcome. Technically, the process concluded a day or so when the sheriff publicly proclaimed the result to the citizens. On the morning of the ceremony, the Daily News predicted ‘a large attendance of the friends of both gentlemen’, but it proved to be one of those days, too common in mid-century Kingston, when the downtown area was bereft of people. When the regulation noon hour arrived, only the two candidates and an unusually unprepossessing stray cow were on hand for the formal announcement. Not to be cheated out of his moment of glory, the sheriff discharged his duty with a rather more florid display than the circumstances warranted. Then, according to time-honoured custom, he invited the successful candidate to address his constituents. Thereupon, John A. Macdonald, the member for Kingston, bowed theatrically to the cow and invoked the equally hoary formula that he was unaccustomed to public speaking. The story went around the province and a Montreal paper thought it ‘gratifying to record that this hotly contested election, where two gentlemen were in the field, instead of creating bad feeling between them and their supporters, ended in a joke.’[139] Sad to relate, this would be the last occasion in Macdonald’s lifetime on which a Kingston election contest contained such a light sporting touch.

John A. Macdonald was to submit himself once more to the electors of pre-Confederation Kingston, when he was returned by acclamation in a ministerial by-election in April 1864. The proceedings were brief, but the election itself was arguably an important moment in Canadian history. It should be stressed that the government Macdonald had joined was not the Great Coalition, celebrated in Canadian history for launching Confederation, but an insecure, predominantly Conservative administration formed by Sir Etienne Taché following the collapse of the Reform cabinet and a week of instability as various politicians, including Alexander Campbell, had struggled to put together alternative ministerial combinations. It was the defeat of the Taché ministry after just eleven weeks that triggered the cross-party reorganisation that immortalised it in the pages of the history textbooks. But the Great Coalition was essentially a deal between Cartier’s Lower Canada Conservatives and the section of the Upper Canadian Reform party that looked to George Brown. If John A. Macdonald had not already been a member of the government, it is not likely that a place would have been found for him ─ not, at any rate, by his sworn enemy Brown. And Macdonald had hesitated before he came aboard late in March. As discussed in Chapter Seven, the terminal illness of his law partner, A. J. Macdonell, had revealed the confusion of his business affairs. Death, it seemed, had intervened to force John A. Macdonald out of public life.

In deciding whether to accede to the pleas of his friends and take office, John A. Macdonald would have weighed the hazard that an incoming minister must return to his constituents and seek their approval. Although Macdonald had twice been returned in such contests, in 1847 and 1854, it had been necessary for him to out-manoeuvre a potential opponent on the first occasion to ensure his own return by acclamation. With parties as evenly balanced as they were in 1864, ministerial by-elections could not be taken for granted as mere formalities. The Reform government had suffered a serious blow back in January when a newly recruited cabinet minister, A.N. Richards, had gone down to defeat in South Leeds in the face of a whirlwind campaign by John A. Macdonald himself. (Richards became a judge, and a decade later tried Macdonald for electoral corruption.) Macdonald was taking an enormous risk in subjecting himself to a similar ambush so soon afterwards. If he had to fight a by-election, his opponents could concentrate campaigning resources from across the province in the hope of unseating him at Kingston. Even if he were victorious, a contested election would be an expensive burden at a time when his finances were in disarray.

O.S. Gildersleeve had had his eye on the seat since 1857 and had pressed him hard enough in the previous year’s general election. Gildersleeve, who was estimated to be worth $80,000 in real estate alone, would have had no problem in financing another campaign. But once again, death had taken a hand in the career of John A. Macdonald, for suddenly there was no Gildersleeve to block his path back to office. On a Tuesday evening he had felt unwell and sent for a doctor who packed him off to bed. The next morning, 9 March 1864, Overton S. Gildersleeve was killed by a heart attack. He was just 39 years of age.[140]

Thus by the time of the ministerial crisis in the last week of March, Macdonald knew that, even if his opponents did make him fight for his seat yet again, he would face a candidate less well-known, less prominent and very much less wealthy than the potentially formidable Gildersleeve. Even so, it seems that the Reformers kept him guessing up to the very last minute. The Montrealer Luther Holton, finance minister in the outgoing government, ostentatiously turned up on nomination day. His daughter was married to a young city lawyer, Byron M. Britton, who had taken a prominent part in the Gildersleeve campaign the previous year. His family connection gave Holton a reason for being in the city, but it was not enough to explain his bizarre decision to claim a seat on the platform when nominations were called. Holton insisted that he was there to demonstrate his belief that incoming ministers should not face electoral opposition, but it rather looked as if the Reformers were keeping their options open to the last minute.

In the event, the proceedings were concluded in twenty minutes. ‘This was now the tenth occasion on which he had appealed to the electors of Kingston, and they had always generously supported him,’ Macdonald observed. He was flanked by another incoming minister, Alexander Campbell, and by the Conservative member for Frontenac, William Ferguson, and Macdonald claimed that the three of them ‘would make a pretty strong team … to take care of the interests of this part of the country.’[141] The reason why the three were hunting as a political pack soon became clear.

The introduction of the elective principle to the Legislative Council in 1856 meant that the pernicious burden of ministerial by-elections now applied to members of the upper house as well. Campbell was member for the Cataraqui division, which covered Kingston and the nearby counties of Frontenac and Addington. When nominations were called a week later, providing a moment of glory for the tiny community of Odessa, the Reformers nominated Byron M. Britton. Britton was denounced as ‘a cats’ paw in the hands of wily men’, a relative newcomer put forward by ‘a little coterie of Kingston wire-pullers’ who hoped to buy the voters of Cataraqui with cash raised from ‘a few wealthy adherents of the ex-Ministry’. This was presumably a shy at Luther Holton, but in fact even the ex-finance minister disapproved of his son-in-law’s venture into politics. ‘He is too young and can’t afford it.’ Britton himself apologised that his party could not offer a candidate ‘of more years and experience’. The death of Gildersleeve, who had run in Cataraqui in 1858, was clearly a major blow.

Campbell had been targeted in the hope that the opposition could capitalise on discontent in the country districts, which may explain why this fastidious urbanite was given the portfolio of Commissioner of Crown Lands. But it is likely that the move was also a surrogate attack on John A. Macdonald, designed to position Britton to run for the Assembly at the next provincial election ─ an event that was to be overtaken by the as-yet unforeseen coming of Confederation. Responding to Campbell on the Cataraqui hustings, Britton acknowledged his inability to equal his opponent’s oratory, ‘for he [Britton] had not the leader of the government at his elbow to put words into his mouth.’[142] The result, declared after a mercifully short campaign on 30 April, was interesting. Not only did Campbell hammer his opponent by over 1300 votes across the whole division, but in Kingston he ran ahead of Macdonald’s vote in the two previous general elections. On both occasions, in 1861 and 1863, Macdonald had polled 785 votes. Campbell, in 1864, won 840 votes within the city, suggesting that some Kingston voters, maybe a hard core of over fifty disgruntled Orangemen, regarded themselves as Conservatives but refused to vote for Macdonald.[143] Perhaps equally noteworthy was the fact that, even with a straw candidate and what was probably a token campaign, the Reformers collected 361 votes in the city: the unknown Britton had hung on to three-quarters of the Gildersleeve votes in an obviously hopeless contest.[144]

Had John A. Macdonald proceeded to fight a ‘normal’ Province-of-Canada general election sometime around 1867 or 1868, he might well have encountered even stiffer opposition in his home town than he had encountered in the tough fight of 1863.[145] As it was, the arrival of Confederation enveloped the electoral politics of Kingston in a temporary cocoon, and it would not be until 1872 that he faced a serious contest. The Macdonald of the April 1864 by-election was still essentially a roads-and-bridges, loaves-and-fishes politician. He had emerged, he said, from ‘the cold shades of opposition’ and when he thanked the voters for backing him ten times in the previous twenty years, he reminded them that ‘if they looked around them they would see Kingston had not been a sufferer for lending him that support.’[146] A few months later, the march of events would re-brand and re-launch him as a nation-building statesman. This transmutation to a notionally more elevated political status came during precisely the time when the citizens of Kingston felt a sense of crisis about the stagnation of their city. They found it hard to understand why the knighted Sir John A. Macdonald, prime minister of the Dominion of Canada, seemed able to deliver less after 1867 than the ‘Hon. John A.’ had claimed to do for them prior to Confederation. By 1874, he was paying the price of the disappointed hopes he had traded upon through the previous decade.


[1] YP, pp. 261-66 says little about his term as premier. One of the best overviews of his career and personality, J.K. Johnson, ‘John A. Macdonald’, in J.M.S. Careless. Ed., The Pre-Confederation Premiers: Ontario Government Leaders, 1841-1867 (Toronto, 1980), pp. 197-245, barely mentions the premiership that qualified him for inclusion in the volume. This paragraph draws upon Ged Martin, ‘John A. Macdonald: Provincial Premier’, British Journal of Canadian Studies, 20, 2007, pp. 99-122.

[2] ML I, p. 470; Macpherson, I, p. 345; Address, p. 39.

[3] ML II, p. 14; B.W. Hodgins, John Sandfield Macdonald 1812-1872 (Toronto, 1971), pp. 36-37.

[4] Quoted. Knight, p. 279. Speaking in parliament, Cartier also claimed that Ottawa ‘was far more a Lower Canada than an Upper Canada city because it was part French’ (Knight, pp. 282-83). Unfortunately, throughout successive seat of government controversies, Canada’s local power brokers spoke almost exclusively to their own supporters, oblivious of the impact of their arguments in other regions.

[5] The failure of his premiership is masked by the fact that Union ministries reflected the basic duality of the province, and are usually referred to in hyphenated form by the names of both sectional leaders. Thus, in a longer perspective, with the exception of the brief hiccup in 1858, Macdonald was Upper Canada leader for six years, from 1856 to 1862. But the order of names was significant: Taché-Macdonald, Macdonald-Cartier, Cartier-Macdonald, and contemporaries certainly referred to Macdonald as ‘the Premier’.

[6] Macdonald to Margaret Williamson, March 20 1858, ML II, p. 33.

[7] Ged Martin, ‘John A. Macdonald and the Bottle’, Journal of Canadian Studies, 40, 2006, pp. 162-85, esp. p. 166.

[8] Globe, 31 May 1858.

[9] The ruling principle is that the Queen’s (or King’s) government must continue. It was an outrageous violation of the unwritten constitution when Mackenzie King in 1926 put pressure on the governor-general by not merely tendering his resignation but also withdrawing his ministers and declaring that Canada had no government at all.

[10] The succeeding episode of the ‘double Shuffle’ is outlined in the standard accounts: e.g. YP, pp. 264-72, J.M.S. Careless, Brown of the Globe, I: The Voice  of Upper Canada 1818-1859 (Toronto, 1959), pp. 263-80. For a recent re-examination, Barbara J. Messamore, Canada’s Governors-General, 1847-1878: Biography and Constitutional Evolution (Toronto, 2006), pp. 78-93. The interpretation of events offered here differs from the received versions, and is based upon Ged Martin, ‘John A. Macdonald: Provincial Premier’.

[11] While ministers in Canadian governments needed administrative skills and a capacity for hard work, qualities in which John A. Macdonald excelled, no cabinet post demanded the level of experience and judgement required for a major office in Britain. Thus Lord Monck was regarded as qualified for the post of governor-general on the strength of having held a post as junior lord of the Treasury in Britain, a non-cabinet appointment on the lowest rung of the ministerial ladder. 

[12] Canadian News, 25 June 1856, pp. 22-23 (Toronto correspondent, 9 June).

[13] Careless, Brown of the Globe, I, pp. 298-99; ML II, p. 84.

[14] Henry C. Klassen, Luther H. Holton: A Founding Canadian Entrepreneur  (Calgary, 2001), p. 120.

[15]  J.C. Dent, The Last Forty Years: Canada Since the Union of 1841 (2 vols, Toronto, 1881), p. 381.

[16] Address, pp. 25, 79.

[17] Holton had lost his Montreal seat at the previous election, while another incoming minister was an appointed a member of the upper house.

[18] Macdonald to O.R. Gowan, private, 10 August 1858, ML II, p. 70.

[19] J. Boyd, Sir George Etienne Cartier Bart.: His Life and Times (Freeport NY, 1971 ed.), p. 120n.

[20] Boyd, Sir George Cartier, p. 118; Pope, Memoirs, I, p. 199; Globe, 5 August 1858.

[21] Two newcomers to the ten-man Executive Council could not evade by-elections, and two more were members of the Legislative Council appointed for life.

[22] Dent, Last Forty Years, II, p. 386.

[23] Canadian Presbyter, September 1858, quoted R.W. Vaudry, The Free Church in Victorian Canada (Waterloo, Ont., 1989), p. 76.

[24] Dent, Last Forty Years, II, p. 387.

[25] YP, p. 269.

[26] Careless, Brown of the Globe, I, pp. 288-89.

[27] Canadian News, 8 December 1858 (Toronto correspondent, 21 November), p. 398. Macdonald’s hopes to improve his finances possibly hinged upon a shadowy project known as the ‘Morton contract’, a joint bid with a Kingston entrepreneur to construct a railway from Fort Erie to Windsor. The Globe hinted that his cabinet colleagues threatened to torpedo its charter if he abandoned them.

[28] Globe, 30 November 1858.

[29]  ML II, p. 100 (15 November 1858).

[30] Canadian News, 22 December 1858 (Toronto correspondent, 6 December), p. 413.

[31] ML II, p. 588 (20 January 1860)

[32] ML II, Macdonald to Cartier, 11 July 1859, p. 141.

[33] Ged Martin, ‘John A. Macdonald: Provincial Premier’.

[34] In its 1857 claim for the capital, the Quebec petitioners had argued that a union of the provinces ‘will ultimately become necessary’ and theirs was ‘the most central city of British America’. Knight, p. 208. Cf. A. Désilets, Hector-Louis Langevin: un père de la confédération canadienne (Québec, 1969), p. 105.

[35] Ged Martin, Britain and the Origins of Canadian Confederation, 1837-1867 (Vancouver, 1995), pp. 100-8; D.G. Kerr, Sir Edmund Head: A Scholarly Governor (Toronto, 1954), pp. 200-1; Knight, pp. 307-26.

[36] ML I, p. 356.

[37] Kingston British Whig, 17 February 1859, in Knight, pp. 321-22. When the question of moving the capital from Quebec back to Toronto for a four-year term arose in 1863, the Daily News (23 May 1863) objected to any renewal of ‘the vexatious squabble about the Seat of Government’, and made no mention of Kingston’s claims.

[38] Montreal Gazette, 16 November 1863.

[39] Brown to John A. Macdonald, confidential, 15 August 1864, in Pope, Memoirs, I, p. 266; J.M.S. Careless, Brown of the Globe, II: The Statesman of Confederation 1860-1880 (Toronto, 1963). p. 150.

[40] J. E. Hodgetts, Pioneer Public Service: An Administrative History of the United Canadas, 1841-1867 (Toronto, 1955), pp. 198-204; DCB, xiii, p. 627. McGreevy clouded the last year of Macdonald’s life as fresh scandals broke around his connection with Langevin.

[41] J.M.S. Careless, Brown of the Globe, II, pp. 151-52.

[42] J.D. Livermore, ‘The Orange Order and the Election of 1861 in Kingston’, TPD, pp. 245-59, 377.

[43] TPD, p. 257.

[44] I. Radforth, Royal Spectacle: The 1860 Visit of the Prince of Wales to Canada and the United States (Toronto, 2004), p. 170; Biggar, Anecdotal Life, p. 114.

[45] J. Bardon, A History of Ulster (Belfast, 1994 ed.), pp. 302-7.

[46] F.D. Munsell, The Unfortunate Duke: Henry Pelham, Fifth Duke of Newcastle, 1811-1864 (Columbus, Missouri, 1985), p. 240. It was later claimed that the enraged Orangemen were determined to seize the prince’s carriage and force it to drive under their arch. Richard Cartwright, Reminiscences (Toronto, 1912), p. 29.

[47] Address, p. 35. The prince did indeed visit Ireland the following year. Some army officers helpfully arranged for him to lose his virginity. His father, Prince Albert, was deeply shocked when the story leaked out. He died soon afterwards, and Queen Victoria blamed her eldest son for breaking his heart.

[48] Radforth, Royal Spectacle, pp. 164-88. Almost the only person to come out of the affair well was the prince himself. When Richard Cartwright was presented to him in England years later, he overcame any embarrassment about the visitor’s Kingston origins with the remark: ‘it looks very well from the water.’ Cartwright, Reminiscences, p. 30.

[49]  Cartwright, Reminiscences, p. 29. Address, pp. 27-46. .

[50] Technically the English peerage was that of the United Kingdom. In addition, there were six dukes in the Scottish peerage, one in Ireland and three royal dukes. The Prince of Wales was automatically Duke of Cornwall in England and Duke of Rothesay in Scotland. Peerage statistics from British Almanac and Companion 1865 (London, 1865), pp. 40, 44.

[51] B.B. Gilbert, David Lloyd George: A Political Life, I: The Architect of Change, 1863-1912 (Columbus, Ohio, 1987), p. 394.

[52] A French emigré, the Duc de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, had visited the province in 1795-6 after escaping from the Revolution of 1789. The Duke of Richmond had served as governor-general in 1818-19 to rescue his personal finances, but his early death from rabies hardly encouraged others to risk their noble persons in the colonies.

[53] J.M. Beck, Joseph Howe, II: The Briton Becomes Canadian 1848-1873 (Kingston and Montreal, 1983), p. 157.

[54] G.E. Marindin, ed., The Letters of Frederic Lord Blachford (London, 1896), p. 225.

[55] Address, p. 35.

[56] OC, p. 126.

[57] Globe (Toronto), 17 September 1860, quoting Kingston Advertiser, undated.

[58] Globe, 10 September 1860, quoting Kingston British Whig, undated.

[59] Canadian News (London), 5 January 1859, p. 11.

[60] Globe, 10 September 1860, quoting Kingston British Whig, undated.

[61] Address, p. 37.

[62] Globe, 17, 18 September 1860.

[63] Address, p. 35.

[64] Globe, 17 September 1860.

[65] LAC, Macdonald Papers, vol. 260, Ross to Macdonald, September 10 1860.

[66] Vankoughnet to Macdonald, undated, Pope, Memoirs, I, pp. 226-27.

[67] Globe, 20 September 1860.

[68] Address, pp. 36, 29. There was to be a curious sequel to Macdonald’s condemnation. During the parliamentary session of 1887, the British railway entrepreneur Edward Watkin presented a bust of the Duke of Newcastle for display in the Library of Parliament. (Newcastle had died in 1864.) On the last day of sitting, while waiting for Black Rod to summon the Commons to the Senate for the prorogation ceremony, Macdonald announced that he wished ‘to retrieve an omission of mine’ and record thanks for the gift. He claimed that ‘Canada had no better friend… when he was Colonial Minister’ than the duke. It is a reminder that we should not always take Macdonald’s public utterances at face value: his timing suggests a desire to avoid a formal motion of thanks which might have provoked uncomfortable questions about the past. The bust, by the sculptor Boehm, has long since disappeared from the Library of Parliament. Debates of the House of  Commons of Canada, 18, pp. 1273-74, 23 June 1887.

[69] Pope, Memoirs, I, pp. 226-27.

[70] Cartwright, Reminiscences, p. 29.

[71]Globe, 4 August 1849.

[72] Debates of the Legislative Assembly of United Canada, 11, part 4, pp. 2674-76, 13 April 1853.

[73] YP, p. 217.

[74] Macdonald’s alcohol problem is discussed in Ged Martin, ‘John A. Macdonald and the Bottle’, Journal of Canadian Studies, 40, 2006, pp. 162-85.

[75] Although formally headed by Sir Allan MacNab, an exotic figure from political yesteryear, the ministry formed in 1854 carried forward the process of Baldwin-LaFontaine process of administrative reform and bureaucratisation, and can reasonably be described as having helped to lay the foundations of the impressive Canadian civil service of today. The extent of their achievement is masked in the key study of the growth of government bureaucracy, J.E. Hodgetts, Pioneer Public Service: An Administrative History of the United Canadas, 1841-1867 (Toronto, 1955) because Hodgetts adopted a department-by-department approach. Major changes in the mid-1850s included the 1855 Audit Act (p. 101), improvements in government accounting and control of expenditure (pp. 105, 99, 100, 112), reform of Crown lands administration (pp. 66-7, 159-60, 167) and a shake-up in the Department of Agriculture (pp. 233, 237). Two French-Canadian ministers, J-E. Cauchon and L-V. Sicotte, were the most active administrative reformers. The process of bureaucratisation was ongoing. A school inspection system was in place for Upper Canada by 1850. Substantial improvements were made to the compilation of official statistics from 1853 onwards, resulting in a census in 1861 that incontrovertibly demonstrated a population imbalance between the two sections of the province. Thus a more efficient civil service helped raise the political temperature over representation in the Assembly, a key issue that helped trigger Confederation. Bruce Curtis, True Government by Choice Men? Inspection, Education, and State Formation in Canada West (Toronto, 1992); Bruce Curtis, The Politics of Population: State Formation, Statistics, and the Census of Canada, 1840-1875 (Toronto, 2001). For the centralisation of decision-making in the Attorneys-General offices, Hodgetts, Pioneer Public Service, pp. 83-84.

[76] ML I,  pp. 191, 260.

[77] ML I, pp. 343-44, 348-49. A historian lacking medical qualifications should be cautious in suggesting diagnosis of an affliction that clearly mystified practitioners at the time. Although Dr James McSherry ruled it out in his study of Isabella’s illness, it does seem that a case can be made for trigeminal neuralgia (‘tic douloureux’), an unbearable (and untreatable) pain in the facial nerve. (J.K. McSherry. ‘The Illness of the First Mrs John A. Macdonald’, HK, 34, 1986.) Dr McSherry’s diagnosis appears to rest on a misreading of symptoms described in heartbreaking detail in family letters from 1845-48 in J.K. Johnson, ed., Affectionately Yours: The Letters of Sir John A. Macdonald and His Family (Toronto, 1969), pp. 31-62. Dr McSherry’s opinion is shared by A.A. Travill, ‘Sir John A. Macdonald and His Doctors’, HK, 29, 1981, pp. 85-108.

[78] ML I, pp. 355-56. Isabella’s Toronto doctor was William Telfer.

[79] Oliver, ed., The Conventional Man, pp. 126-27 (March 8, 25 1856). Robert Harrison also referred to Macdonald as ‘unwell’ soon after the crisis in Isabella’s health, p. 124 (February 16 1856).

[80] YP, pp. 228-29; Careless, Brown of the Globe, I, pp. 218-27.

[81] Globe, 26 May, 16, 17 June 1858. Macdonald repeated the ploy, taking the pledge afresh in 1862 after accusations that he had been drinking heavily during debates on the Militia Bill.

[82] There is a marked gap in his known correspondence for most of September 1860. However, this is not conclusive: the survival of his private correspondence is haphazard, while most official business would naturally have been suspended during the royal tour. ML II, pp. 533-34.

[83] Globe, 20 September 1860.

[84] British Whig, undated, quoted Globe, 10 September 1860.

[85] Globe, 5 September 1866.

[86] Pope, Memoirs, I, pp. 226-27. It may be significant that the generally friendly Montreal Gazette reported the Kingston episode but made no mention of Macdonald’s subsequent absence from the official party.

[87] The suggestion that Mowat ran against Macdonald out of ‘sheer spite’ cannot be sustained. Phenix, Private Demons, p. 150. In 1861, George Brown regarded Mowat as too friendly with Macdonald, although this was before an incident in the Assembly in May when Macdonald had threatened to slap Mowat in the face. Careless, Brown of the Globe, II, p. 42.

[88] British Whig, undated, quoted Globe, 10 September 1866.

[89] Quoted, J.A. Roy, Kingston: The King’s Town (Toronto, 1952), p. 267.

[90] Campbell to Macdonald, 30 September 1858, in Pope, Memoirs, I, p. 342.

[91] TPD, p. 259.

[92] Address, p. 38.

[93] TPD, p. 250; Roy, Kingston: The King’s Town, p. 268.

[94] ML II, p. 269 (13 October 1860).

[95] Pope, Memoirs, I, pp. 342-43.

[96] YP, pp. 304-7.

[97] To give them greater impact, his speeches were thematically edited and published in the volume cited here as Address.

[98] Address, p. 84.

[99] Pope, Memoirs, I, p. 343.

[100] Careless, Brown of the Globe, II, pp. 42-45.

[101] Macdonald to Ryerson, confidential, 29 May 1861 in ML II, pp. 331-32. ‘Grits’, originally a nickname for  radical Reformers, was often used by Conservatives like Macdonald to discredit the entire party.

[102] Curtis, Politics of Population, pp. 222-25.

[103] Under the Union Act, the two sections, Upper and Lower Canada, were given equal representation in the Assembly, at first 42 seats apiece and then, after enlargement in 1854, 65. The historical irony is that the British parliament had imposed this artificial equality on the province at a time when Upper Canada contained fewer people than the lower province, as a device to enable Upper Canadian representatives to unite with Lower Canada’s anglophone minority and outvote the French. This scheme fell apart thanks to the solidity of the Baldwin-LaFontaine Reform alliance. By the mid-1850s, equal representation, originally designed to privilege Upper Canada, had become a grievance in that rapidly growing section.

[104] The Lambton County Orange Lodge in October 1860, quoted by Livermore, TPD, p. 250.

[105] ML II, p. 91.

[106] ML II, pp. 331-32, 344.

[107] Daily British Whig, 3 July 1861.

[108] Daily News, 8 June 1861, cited by Livermore, TPD, p. 254.

[109] Daily British Whig, 3 July, 29 June 1861. James A. Roy takes a different view, arguing that the Macdonald forces behaved in an orderly fashion in the face of violence from the Mowat camp. Roy, Kingston: The King’s Town, pp. 268-69.

[110] Quoted, KBP, p. 138.

[111] Hamilton Evening Times, 14 June 1861, quoting Kingston Daily News; Careless, Brown of the Globe, II, p. 42.

[112] YP, p. 312; Daily News, 4 June 1863 (‘Observer, 3 June).

[113] YP, p. 311.

[114] D. Swainson, ‘Sir Henry Smith and the Politics of the Union’, OH, 66, 1974, pp. 161-79, esp. 171-75.

[115] Daily News, 11 June 1861, quoted YP, p. 312; Roy, Kingston: The King’s Town, p. 269.

[116] Daily British Whig, 1 July 1861.

[117] Daily British Whig, 2 July 1861.

[118] Hamilton Evening Times, 2 July 1861.

[119] Perth Courier, 5 July 1861 (letter of 26 June).

[120] Daily British Whig, 3 July 1861.

[121] E.g. Daily British Whig, 1 July 1861. Macdonald also used the slogan in 1863, Macpherson, I, p. 457.

[122] Daily News, 11 June, 3 July 1861, quoted Livermore, TPD, p. 256.

[123] The exact figures are 62.25% and 62.35%. If it is assumed that most men did not become independent householders until about the age of 30, and recalled that many died in their sixties, then death alone could have removed three percent of the voters’ roll each year, so that more than one fifth of the 1854 cohort would no longer have been around in 1861. However, since political allegiance was often inherited father-to-son, the political effects of such a turnover may have been mitigated.

[124] See below for discussion of the 1864 Cataraqui by-election.

[125] Macdonald evidently felt he could influence the Catholic vote in the Kingston area in 1857. ML I, p. 467.

[126] Daily British Whig, 2 July 1861. 1259 votes were cast.

[127] Biggar, Anecdotal Life,  p. 233, and cf. TPD, pp. 160-61. Morton died in 1864. Cf. W.B. Kerr, ‘When Orange and Green United 1832-9: The Alliance of Macdonell and Gowan’, Ontario Historical Society Papers and Records, 34, 1942, pp. 34-42. Biggar named the supporter as Machar.

[128] The Mail (Toronto), 17 November 1873.

[129] Careless, Brown of the Globe, I, pp. 78-87, 121-22, 220-26.

[130] ‘Young Non-Politician’, p. 140; LAC, Macdonald Papers, vol. 188, Shaw to Sir Henry Smith (copy), 25 June 1861.

[131] LAC, Macdonald Papers, vol. 188, Shaw to Brown, 28 July 1862.

[132] LAC, Macdonald Papers, vol. 188, Brown to Shaw, 3 September 1862; Careless, Brown of the Globe, II, pp. 69-70.

[133] YP, p. 343.

[134] Daily News, 13 June 1863. For other examples of his plea of poverty, Address, pp. 1,5. Swainson, ‘Sir Henry Smith’, p. 175 for rumours about the Sarnia land deal. The importance of canal tolls is discussed in Chapter Seven.

[135] W.M. Wilson, ‘Eleven Years of Dissention: The Conservative Party in Kingston, 1867 to 1878’, HK, 32, 1986, pp. 46-56.

[136] In his 1861 speaking tour, Macdonald had claimed it was ‘useless to discuss the abstract principles of free Trade and Protection’, managing to convey the impression that he favoured both. Address, p. 61. Edwin Chown had been in business, as part owner of the Eagle Foundry on Bagot Street, since c. 1845. Directory of the City of Kingston, 1855, p. 77.

[137] This compilation of campaign sidelights is taken from Daily News, 23 May, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 23, 17, 18, 22, 23 June 1863.

[138] Daily News, 20, 22 June 1863.

[139] Daily News, 23 June, 6 July 1863, quoting Montreal Transcript.

[140] Daily News, 10 March 1864; DCB, 9, pp. 314-15.

[141] Daily News, 12 April 1864.

[142] Daily News, 19, 21 April 1864; Klassen, Luther H. Holton, p. 155.

[143] This may explain a curious incident during the Cataraqui by-election, when Macdonald was ‘literally hooted from the hustings’ at Odessa. ‘As far as I know,’ Sir Richard Cartwright recalled forty years later, ‘this was the only occasion on which such a thing ever happened to him.’ An eye witness and then an ally of Macdonald, Cartwright was surprised by the incident, since the crowd ‘was perfectly quiet with the other speakers’ and ‘the great bulk of those present knew Sir John well personally’. Globe, 18 April 1864; Cartwright, Reminiscences, p. 35.

[144] Daily News, 2 May 1864. Although it seems to have been a low-key (and certainly a short) campaign, the Cataraqui by-election attracted almost as large a voter turn-out in Kingston as the 1863 general election: 1201 compared with 1259.

[145] The theory that Byron M. Britton was being groomed to become an effective challenge to Macdonald in his own constituency is supported by an episode  in 1868, when D. Dexter Calvin ran in a by-election in Frontenac County. Richard Cartwright, still a Macdonald ally, hoped that Britton would run against Calvin, ‘and get well thrashed, which will effectually dispose of him in future.’ J. Pope, ed., Correspondence of Sir John Macdonald (Garden City NY, 1921), p. 74 (24 September 1868). Britton was elected as Liberal MP for Kingston in 1896, and held the seat until he was made a judge in 1901.

[146] Daily News, 12 April 1864.