VI: Voters and Voter Management



I: Introduction

Three main questions arise in relation to voters and voter management, each of which divides into several sub-questions.

First, what proportion of the population had the right to vote? Voter qualification is not necessarily the same as voter participation, although it seems that ‘turn-out’ was usually high in Kingston. Although the precise reasons are hard to disentangle, it is clear that a steadily increasing percentage of the adult male population cast votes in elections. The implications of this broadening of the franchise require analysis. At first sight, it might appear that it was easier for John A. Macdonald to dominate local politics in his early years when only a prosperous minority voted than during later decades when something like a mass electorate emerged ─ but the detailed picture is not so simple.

         The second question relates to electoral corruption: were votes simply bought and sold, were voters merely intimidated and dragooned? If so, any attempt to discuss Kingston politics in terms of issues and personalities can only be irrelevant. For historians there is the added difficulty that corruption is easy to allege but hard to document. However, some tentative conclusions may be offered. Nineteenth-century elections certainly did not measure up to modern standards of political purity. Nonetheless, it seems that only a few votes were blatantly traded for cash, although those few may have been enough to determine the outcome of three close contests ─ each of them won by Macdonald ─ two in 1874 and one in 1887.  However, while his opponents were strong on moralistic outrage, it is likely that their hands were not entirely clean either, and it may be that corrupt practices were to some extent self-correcting, one party’s crimes being cancelled out by the other party’s sins. Overall, many nineteenth-century Kingston voters seem to have adopted something like a modern ‘expense account’ mentality. They expected candidates to woo them with hospitality, usually in form of free alcohol, and many felt entitled to receive cash compensation for taking the trouble to vote. Then as now, money was important in elections, but this is not to say that Kingston elections were merely bought and sold.

The third question focuses upon other methods by which an elected representative might build up a local power base through the use of patronage, the manipulation of political favours or by securing pork-barrel projects for the benefit of his riding. As would be expected of any successful politician, Macdonald used all three methods although, thanks to gaps in the archival record, it is not always easy to trace his fingerprints in the pre-Confederation period. Kingston had secured its biggest prize in the political lottery, the provincial Penitentiary, back in 1832, well before Macdonald entered public life. Still, he succeeded in adding a Criminal Lunatic Asylum and established such a firm grip on the appointment of warders that as late as January 1874, when he had been ousted from office, the warders turned out to vote for him en bloc. Similarly, Kingston’s status as a port and regional centre meant that it would have major customs, postal and courthouse facilities, but it was John A. Macdonald, during the mid-fifties, who made sure that these services would operate from handsomely commissioned buildings.

Although the growth of government activity throughout mid-nineteenth century Canada involved considerable growth in what we now call the public sector, opportunities for political patronage in fact became more circumscribed. In the decade prior to Confederation, the province of Canada set the foundations for the Ottawa civil service of today, so that initial employment came to be determined by examination, and subsequent promotion regulated by seniority. Furthermore, from 1854 Macdonald was both a sectional party leader, badgered by office-seekers from across the whole province, and a member of coalition ministries which had to distribute the available plums beyond his own supporters. After 1867, he had to operate within the further constraint of the division of powers, and jobs, between the newly created Dominion and provincial spheres. The railway that Kingston desired to build to the Ottawa valley would run entirely within Ontario, and so the government in Ottawa could not provide subsidies, even had Macdonald been capable of coaxing his cabinet colleagues into a generous frame of mind. Only in the late ‘eighties, when Kingston switched its hopes to the construction of a dry dock did a project with a potential for interprovincial communications enable him to re-appear as a local rain-maker. By subtly creating expectations of future favours, Macdonald no doubt managed to manipulate the scarcity of patronage posts to his own advantage, and over the years he certainly built up a network of grateful supporters. ‘His long tenure of office,’ commented the governor-general in 1873, ‘has enabled him to put thousands of influential individuals under obligations to him’.[1] ‘Thousands’ may have been an exaggeration, and they were certainly not all in Kingston. Beyond the satisfied patronage hunters, the wider population of the city imbibed the myth of John A. Macdonald the miracle worker, and came to resent the fact that he had not done more, concentrating on his alleged failure to secure the seat of government. As he bleakly observed in 1888, he had ‘long since’ discovered that ‘there is no gratitude to be expected from the public’.[2] In fact, their expectations grew almost in proportion to the shrinking of resources available to satisfy them. His six years in opposition from 1848 to 1854, when he acknowledged that he had ‘’no influence whatever’,[3] coincided with his most notable phase of electoral ascendancy, including his return by acclamation in 1851. By contrast, five years in the wilderness from 1873 to 1878 concluded with his one and only defeat at the polls. 

II: Voter Participation 

To trace longer-term changes in Macdonald’s relationship with his riding, we need to establish how many people voted, and how far the franchise changed. The fundamental point here is that steadily increasing proportion of Kingston residents took part in elections. The right to qualify for a vote was confined to male adults. Based on a rough estimate that men over the age of 21 constituted one quarter of the population, perhaps one adult male in five cast a vote in 1844, but that by 1891 the proportion had risen to three in five.[4] It should be stressed that these figures are no more than estimates given to illustrate a general trend.  Only two general elections coincided with census years, in 1861 and 1891. In 1861, three institutions ─ the British garrison, the penitentiary and the asylum ─ accounted for ten percent of the population (1369 out of 13743),[5] while in 1891 it seems likely that several hundred former Kingston residents were shipped home to vote by the Macdonald camp in a large-scale exercise in rigging the voter rolls. However, the demography of nineteenth-century Kingston was hardly volatile. Only for the election of 1887, which took place at a time when the city was experiencing a rare burst of population growth, should we suspect that the preceding census return, six years earlier, seriously underestimates the numbers. Two other reservations should be noted. First, in an age when access to the franchise was largely determined by ownership of property, there were always voters who qualified to take part in Kingston elections but lived outside the city: in 1841, there were ‘not a few’ residents of Montreal who qualified to vote in Kingston, and were apparently determined to exercise their franchise.[6] Second, it is important to distinguish between voter qualification and voter participation: people may have the right to vote but not trouble to exercise it. In 1861, it seems that just about everyone who was entitled to vote took part, but in Macdonald’s unspectacular tussle with the eccentric Stewart in 1867, the turn-out dipped sharply.[7] According to the New York Times, ‘nearly the entire vote of the city was polled’ in 1872.[8]

            Bearing in mind all the reservations, the overall trend can be sketched in a few sentences. During the first decade of Macdonald’s political career, roughly 20 to 25 percent of Kingston’s adult male population voted at general elections, with the actual numbers doubling from 324 in 1844 to 702 ten years later. The participation rate then jumped to the 35 to 37 percent band between 1857 and 1863: adjusting for the city’s institutional population, two men in every five were now voting. The general election of 1867 was hardly a contest and attracted little attention, participation dropping to about 30 percent. In 1872, as Macdonald began to come under pressure, 1339 votes were cast, not much more than the 1259 of 1861, and the participation rate edged upwards only slightly to 43 percent. But with the incumbent now appearing vulnerable, both parties evidently increased their efforts to mobilise support, and at the three elections of 1874-1878, just over half the adult male population went to the polls, 1844 of them in the year of Macdonald’s sole defeat, 1878. Participation slipped back slightly below the 50 percent mark in 1882, the sole election in the period when John A. Macdonald was not a candidate. In the decade after 1881, the city’s population grew from 14193 to 19263, an average of 507 extra people each year. Macdonald’s last two contests marked fresh jumps in numbers taking part, from 1686 in 1882 to 2719 in 1887 and 3114 in 1891, participation rates equal to 63-65 percent of the adult male population. On the further hypothesis that few men in their twenties qualified either on property or income grounds, by the late eighteen-eighties something close to an adult male franchise may have operated among the over-thirties. One of the shrewder pieces of franchise manipulation by the Mowat government, the conferring of the vote in 1877 on the sons of farmers, indicates that younger men did not always qualify under the standard criteria.

            It is not easy to account for this franchise inflation. A consolidating act in 1849 had confirmed the existing voter qualification, which in the towns was ownership of freehold property with an annual value of £5 (five pounds sterling or $20) or payment of rent at £10 (ten pounds sterling or 40) a year. By tinkering with the franchise between 1851 and 1858, politicians did not open the floodgates but they did create a muddle that considerably blurred the boundaries of qualification. In the towns, the qualifying level for owners and tenants was equalised, at an annual notional rent value of £7.10 (seven pounds and ten shillings sterling, or $30). Legislation providing for special electoral registers gave municipalities the power to determine the market value of each property, a freedom which was abused for partisan purposes. In fact it took time to compile the new registers and, for the 1857 election, an alternative procedure allowed would-be voters to take an oath stating that they were properly qualified, with predictably riotous consequences, especially in some Lower Canada ridings. A further consolidating statute in 1859 defined the qualification to vote in the towns as ownership or tenancy of a property that could be rented for $30 a year (the former seven pounds ten shillings benchmark expressed in the new decimal currency). This was equated with any property valued at $300. It is not clear whether the jump from 25 percent adult male participation before 1854 to a 35 percent rate in 1857-63 was caused by widening of the qualification or an increased local political temperature in Kingston. 

At the election of 1861, 13.9 percent of the population of Upper Canada was formally enrolled.  Since 9.1 percent of the population of Kingston took part in the hotly contested confrontation between Mowat and Macdonald that year, it would seem that the city was not in the vanguard in vote manufacture. The legislature raised the qualification for urban voters in 1866 to $600 for cities and $400 for towns. Thanks to a curious provision, the new threshold came into effect on September first 1867, so it did not apply in Kingston which polled a few days earlier. The 1866 law was expected to disenfranchise several hundred voters in Hamilton and London, but this does not appear to have affected the general trend to wider participation in Kingston: just over one third of adult males voted in the early 1860s, over half a decade later.[9] Until 1885, the Dominion franchise was set by the provinces. In Ontario, the Mowat government added an income qualification in 1874, but the premier himself believed that political virtue was mainly to be found in rural areas, and his franchise extensions had less impact in the towns.[10] Norman Ward calculated that, by 1882, 20.2 percent of the population of Ontario was enrolled to vote, and that the figure for Kingston was consistently close to the provincial average.[11] Overall, it is not easy to see how the steady and considerable increase in the numbers voting can be connected with the technical provisions of the various franchise acts. It might be that, then as now, property values tended to inflate, bringing more and more householders into the ranks of the voting public. However, inflation was not a major force in mid-nineteenth century Canada, and Kingston was not a dynamic hot-spot. The rise in participation rates in Kingston during the eighteen-seventies was probably a reflection of the increasingly marginal status of the constituency: once it became clear that Macdonald could be beaten, both parties redoubled their efforts to register voters and persuade them to vote.

Probably the most important element in the gradual broadening of the right to vote was the measure of discretion given, first to municipal officials and then, after 1885, to government-appointed registration officers, to interpret the entitlement of claimants when drawing up lists of qualified voters. Even this was not a one-way process. At Macdonald’s election in 1844, his opponent, Anthony Manahan, alleged that some of his supporters had been unfairly barred from voting. They had met the legal requirement of twelve months’ residence in the constituency and had paid the required $40 in rental, but had been ruled ineligible because they had moved house within the city during that period.[12] It is unlikely that this prohibition affected many would-be voters. The total poll in 1844 was just sixteen votes fewer than the turn-out in 1841. True, Kingston was experiencing one of its too-rare phases of population growth, and in 1847 the total number voting jumped by almost fifty percent, to 470. However, some qualified voters may not have bothered to turn out in 1844 given that it was obvious that Macdonald was coasting to victory. Overall, it seems unlikely that many Manahan supporters could have been deprived of their right to vote. No doubt there was a tendency at every election for parties to inflate the claims of their own supporters, but there was also the counter-balancing practice of challenging the qualifications of their opponents. ‘Get your own returning officer, a true man selected,’ was Macdonald’s advice to a party colleague facing a tough election contest in 1847.[13]

One feature of nineteenth-century elections was the practice of bringing Canadians working in the United States home to vote. It was alleged that control of the registration process enabled the Conservatives to ensure that their own absent supporters retained the franchise, and this ‘foreign vote’ was duly drafted in on polling day ─ to be safely back in the States and beyond the reach of Canadian jurisdiction before their participation could be challenged.[14] John A. Macdonald’s description of his 1885 Franchise Act as ‘the greatest triumph of my life’ has puzzled some historians, and it may simply be the case that this competitive personality tended to regard his latest success as also his greatest  success. But the rapidity with which he mobilised its key provision, one that allowed the Dominion government to appoint a revising officer to vet the voters’ roll in each constituency, suggests that he saw control of the registration process as they key to winning elections.[15]

            Put at its simplest, John A. Macdonald found it easier to get elected in Kingston when only a quarter of the adult male population voted than he did when the participation rate rose above one half. Yet there is no obvious explanation why this should have been so. After all, throughout the post-Confederation period, as Macdonald began to struggle in his home town, the Conservatives remained the majority party in every election except that of 1874 down to and even including 1896, when they outpolled the Liberals but failed to capture a majority of seats through a freak in the electoral system. There is evidence from the ritual show-of-hands at the hustings to suggest that Macdonald was unpopular with the non-electors even during the early phase of his career when he regularly coasted home in the formal poll. But we should hesitate before simply concluding that John A. Macdonald was more successful in manipulating a closed elite than in managing a mass electorate. Quite apart from the complication that he was three times challenged from within the Kingston elite, in 1847, 1854 and 1857, such an interpretation would imply a class-based interpretation of political allegiance, and class is not usually regarded as a major determinant of voter behaviour in nineteenth-century Canada.[16] Nor should we forget that Macdonald won two elections, at the end of his career, when the majority of the adult males of Kingston went to the polls. Serious minded artisans and farmers tended to be Reformers, but Liberal politicians were slow to embrace manhood suffrage. It was Alexander Mackenzie who proposed the raising of the qualifying level in 1866, while in Nova Scotia Joseph Howe actually rolled the franchise back from universal suffrage in line with Liberal philosophy that the vote was something to be earned by responsible conduct.[17] The expansion in voter participation created a political challenge for John A. Macdonald, and he was good at responding to political challenges. It seems that we should search for factors specific to Kingston itself to account for the gradual growth in his electoral problems. But such a conclusion assumes that the voters made a relatively free and unconstrained choice when they went to the polls. If Kingston elections were dominated by corruption and fraud, virtually all analysis based on rational explanations would become irrelevant. 

III: Bribery and corruption

In tackling this key issue, we encounter both ambiguity of evidence and ambivalence of assessment. Thus the British Whig excoriated alleged Conservative corruption during the 1874 general election, but also threatened to secure the dismissal of Dominion government employees, mostly Macdonald appointees, for voting ‘against a candidate of the government which pays them’. Conversely, the pro-Macdonald Daily News characterised the handful who switched to the Liberals as ‘miserable snakes’.[18] Low-level bribery was illegal, but much of it was apparently widely taken for granted: ‘such things take place at every election without a single exception’, Macdonald remarked, revealingly giving evidence with what opposing counsel called ‘great frankness’ when he was defending himself against corruption charges in 1874.[19] How far did it matter? Viewed from the perspective of the politicians who desperately wanted to get elected, a majority of one was enough to capture a seat. Thus in closely fought contests even a handful of corrupt votes would have been crucial. It will be recalled that on two occasions, in December 1874 and again in 1887, John A. Macdonald won by just seventeen votes. Yet when the longer-term popular vote is examined, patterns seem to emerge which suggest that voters valued their opinions, or dare one even say, their principles, above money slipped illegally into their pockets. Of course, these apparent patterns might well simply reflect a roughly consistent equilibrium of corruption. For all their hurt protests of political virtue, Macdonald’s opponents may have been just as reconciled to the sordid nature of vote-gathering if generally less effective in making their money talk. A Macdonald supporter who denied bribing voters in the February 1874 campaign helpfully explained that he could not have matched the $50 votes being paid by the Liberals.[20] 

As Creighton points out, it was ‘normal and rather routine procedure’ for the defeated side to allege foul play.[21] Thus in 1887, as noted above, the British Whig trumpeted that there was ‘ample evidence’ to unseat Macdonald for corruption, but nothing happened. The allegation was not only formulaic but almost knee-jerk. There was one arrest on polling day for an alleged bribery offence ─ over three thousand men voted ─ and that case was dismissed when it came to court. In its evening edition of 6 March 1891, within hours of the Dominion-wide results coming down the wires, the Whig was confidently explaining that the Conservatives had been ousted in London, the only urban seat they lost in Ontario, because ‘money was either not as plentiful as in Kingston, or not as potential [i.e. ‘potent’]’. Since the defeated Conservative candidate was John Carling, a wealthy brewer, the first part of the statement was implausible, while the second implied a mysterious difference in civic virtue between the two cities. Most incredible of all was the instantaneous authority with which the Whig held forth about a riding over 400 kilometres away. Indeed, in 1891 even the disgruntled Whig had to admit that Macdonald was ‘probably, the strongest candidate in the country’.[22] It is even possible that belief in the prevalence of corruption encouraged some voters to make outrageous demands which in turn became cited as evidence that malpractice was endemic. When a concerted attempt was made to deny him a hearing on the hustings in 1863, Macdonald alleged that the ringleader, ‘Bob’ Fisher,  had demanded ‘fifty pounds’ ($200) for his vote at the previous election. With Macdonald heading for a 300-vote majority, ‘Bob’ had almost certainly priced himself out of the market.[23] In 1891, the Whig alleged that one citizen had refused to sell his vote for $15 because that was below the going rate, while others held out for $25.[24] It is easy enough to assume that these alleged cases represented the tip of an iceberg of corruption – in Fisher’s case, a Himalayan summit at that – but it is also likely that they represented extreme cases where greedy voters probably priced themselves out of the market. The core problem in identifying electoral corruption is that it is a collusive crime, in which both the giver and receiver of the bribe have an interest in keeping quiet.

Outright intimidation of voters was either unusual in Kingston or, perhaps more likely, it was something that was humiliating to admit and difficult to prove. Speaking at an open-air meeting during the 1863 election, a young Liberal lawyer, Byron M. Britton, alleged that the Garden Island entrepreneur, D. Dexter Calvin, had visited the Chown and McKelvey hardware store on Princess Street and threatened to remove take his custom if the proprietor did not vote for Macdonald. The alleged victims issued an ‘unqualified contradiction’, stating that ‘Mr Calvin called on to solicit our vote for Mr Macdonald, but did not make any threats of the kind spoken of, nor was the fact of our receiving patronage from him mentioned during the conversation.’ The cynical might feel that it was not necessary for the point to be made explicit. Britton was quick to hit back. He denied that he had mentioned Chown and McKelvey by name and, with lawyer-like caution, claimed he was ‘glad that Mr. Calvin did not employ such questionable means of obtaining votes’. But something did not add up. McKelvey had initially canvassed for Macdonald, but then not only promised to vote for his Reform opponent, O.S. Gildersleeve, but even took part in his campaign, claiming that he was ‘considerably disgusted with the electioneering tactics of the Hon. John A. Macdonald’. However, ‘on the day before the election, Mr McKelvey’s zeal for Mr Gildersleeve languished, and he did not vote for him’. Britton was sure he could assert, ‘without fear of successful contradiction’, that Calvin’s visit to the premises of Chown and McKelvey had ‘prevented at least one vote from being recorded for Mr Gildersleeve.’ Calvin’s logic, he suggested in a sarcastic aside, was no doubt the cause of McKelvey’s change of heart. It is likely that the circumstances were unusual here. John McKelvey had become a partner in George Chown’s store just ten months earlier. Chown & McKelvey had then advertised itself as a new business at an old location, suggesting either that George Chown had become a sleeping partner, drawing a share of the profits, or that he had sold the use of his name along with his premises and stock. Either way, McKelvey was new in business and had probably incurred a sizeable debt to buy his way into the store, making him abnormally vulnerable to the threat of lost custom.[25] Overall, it is unlikely that many Kingston tradesmen and artisans were totally dependent upon Conservative businessmen. The candidates who ran against Macdonald were usually themselves members of the merchant elite, and three of them, Counter, Gildersleeve and Carruthers, were very wealthy indeed. A united elite might have been able to enforce its political will upon less fortunate citizens, at least until the introduction of the secret ballot, but a divided business class meant that alternative patronage could be available to any tradesman who became a political martyr.  

The one occasion on which the lid was lifted as the general election campaign of 1874, when Macdonald’s return was formally challenged and overturned. Even here the fact that the petition was filed by the eccentric Dr Stewart, his token opponent in 1867, suggests that the Liberals were prepared to walk away from confrontation. Indeed, it was believed that the two sides did indeed negotiate for a ‘saw-off’, by which the charges against Macdonald would be dropped in return for the withdrawal of proceedings against disputed Liberal victories. Technically, thanks to a change in the law the previous year, only the courts could authorise the termination of proceedings, but no doubt this would be forthcoming if complainants were suddenly struck by amnesia or incompetence in pleading their case. It was perhaps more likely that Liberal bosses demanded too high a price for Macdonald’s scalp. At all events, the case went ahead in November 1874.[26]

The plaintiffs alleged 71 cases of bribery, plus other instances of intimidation, personation and corrupt payments. If proven, these would account for an appreciable slice of the 839 votes Macdonald had polled, and certainly undermine any moral  validity in his slender majority of 37. But the arcane rituals of the court room were not ideal for establishing the full story behind the charges. True, counsel for the petitioners – effectively, the prosecution – could summon suspected Macdonald supporters as witnesses. On the face of it, the procedure allowed the complainants a legal fishing expedition, while forcing those under investigation to choose between perjury and self-incrimination. However, the side that called the witnesses forfeited any right to cross-examine them. Hence it was Macdonald’s barrister who had the right to treat Macdonald’s own supporters as hostile witnesses. This created a collusive farce in which witnesses who had been called to confess the iniquity of their own conduct cheerfully agreed that they had behaved with total innocence. No doubt everybody involved told nothing but the truth, but they certainly did not reveal the whole truth.

Indeed, it was very difficult to establish an overall picture of Conservative electioneering, as nobody seemed to know much about it. A prominent Macdonald supporter, James Shannon of the Kingston Daily News, was not even sure if there had been a formal campaign committee, despite the fact that its activities had been reported in his own newspaper. A Kingston lawyer, Ira Breck, admitted handing over $500 in cash on election day, but was unable to speculate why such a sum was required when polling was actually in progress. ‘General expenses,’ he said, ‘I have no idea how the money  was spent’. Party workers seemed equally incurious about the origins of the money they were handling: one seemed ‘as if he was in the habit of receiving election subscriptions from spirit land’.[27] Macdonald himself was on record as having urged his supporters to remain within the law, but, in an attempt at damage limitation, when proceedings opened Macdonald’s counsel conceded that his supporters had been ‘indiscreet’ in their use of money, and that he would not oppose the invalidation of the election. This pre-emptive strike offered Macdonald a triple life-line. First, he might escape the extreme penalty of personal disqualification, which would prevent him from sitting in parliament at all. Second, his acknowledgement that there had been irregularities might short-circuit the whole case, and so prevent the petitioners from lifting the lid on the seamier side of Kingston politics. Third, if the case did proceed – and as the law had been passed so recently, the court decided to pursue the matter to explore its implications – then he had a good chance of escaping the responsibility for costs which would probably have fallen on him had he contested the allegations. Macdonald at this time was not a wealthy man.

According to his own account, Macdonald had been so busy canvassing that he had left Alexander Campbell in charge of all campaign expenditure. Campbell, however, did not give evidence. Indeed, nobody seemed to know what had become of this prominent Kingston citizen. Macdonald helpfully suggested that he had gone to Toronto ─ a coded way of saying that the prosecution had failed to secure a key witness ─ but their barrister reported that Campbell had gone to the United States on business, and a sub poena to appear in the Queen’s courts could not be served outside the Queen’s dominions. The missing Senator did indeed turn up in Toronto, and suspiciously quickly after the case, and he had indeed just returned from New York. It was characteristic of the prickly Campbell that decided to stand on his dignity even when the balancing act required acrobatic skills. He indignantly denied that he had run away, protesting that there had been ‘no intimation of any kind that my presence would be required or my evidence desired at Kingston’. The victorious petitioner, Doctor Stewart, was quick to excoriate Campbell for his evasions: the Senator’s name had featured throughout the particulars of advance evidence, and he had known for months that his presence would be required.[28]

Naturally enough, counsel for Macdonald disclaimed any responsibility to help produce a witness whom the petitioners sought to question. He also insisted that since Campbell was a barrister, he was entitled to the assumption that he was an ‘honourable man’ who obeyed the law. This high-minded claim conflicted with the widespread assumption reflected in a letter to Campbell by a Conservative activist who referred to elections ‘which you manipulate in Kingston.’[29] Historian James Eadie cites an undated letter from Campbell to Macdonald, probably soon after this election, in which he listed campaign funds received and sweetly enquired, ‘shall I send you a memo of the payments or would you rather not know just yet?’[30] Campbell’s disappearance meant that a key piece in the jigsaw of corruption was missing. Even so, there was enough for the presiding judge, Chief Justice Richards, to conclude that Campbell ‘did not take any steps whatever to prevent improper expenditure’.[31]

            The Macdonald camp used the corruption hearing to project a hazy impression of men who generously rallied round to support their champion. One supporter, Thomas Hanley, admitted that he had handed out around $150 ‘for general expenses or for treating expenses’, but he ‘did not know exactly who would pay me.’ Macdonald had made him no promises, Dr Sullivan had reimbursed him a miserly $15. ‘I may have had a chance one time of getting my money back, he told an amused courtroom, ‘but I have not a chance now.’ Macdonald himself claimed that he was ‘a poor man’ and had set a limit of $1000 on his personal expenditure, although in the event he spent almost double that from his own pocket. He claimed that Campbell had simply reported, ‘I have done all I could for you, and spent some of my own.’ He had certainly expected some financial support from outside Kingston: ‘at every contest a candidate gets assistance from friends that he does not know or never hears of’. He thought he had received some money from Toronto. In fact, he had a vague idea that there had been a contribution from the brewers, Gooderham & Worts. As to cash from Montreal ─ the question was intended as an uncomfortable reminder of the recent Pacific Scandal ─ the very idea had only occurred to him at the start of the trial. He was equally vague about the way money was spent. He thought that ‘a great deal of money was spent on treating and driving about….it is astonishing how people like to drive about at elections’. For a man on trial for his political career, John A. Macdonald seemed remarkably light-hearted, even risking his favourite device of a pun. Had he bought a sleigh from an old man called Guy, he was asked, in what was presumably a prosecution fishing expedition into a possibly corrupt deal. ‘I did not,’ the former prime minister replied, adding with an allusion to his proclaimed poverty, ‘that would “slay” me.’[32]   

            The indiscretions committed by Macdonald’s supporters included a couple of alleged cases of impersonating absent voters, and some allegations of intimidation. One man was threatened with both legal and medical sanctions if he did not vote Conservative: he would be sued and his doctor would refuse to treat him. However, straightforward bribery was the norm, apparently at a going rate of $10 a vote, with the money sometimes changing hands in the ingenious form of a non-repayable loan.

The most indulgent interpretation of all of this would suggest that in nineteenth-century Kingston, as in the twenty-first century United States, it was hard to draw a line between legitimate if indecently lavish campaign expenditure and outright corruption. For instance, it was clear that the Macdonald campaign had spent a great deal of money in hiring licensed premises. Their defence was that outdoor meetings were impossible in a January campaign, and that tavern-keepers always saw elections as an opportunity for profit, and charged accordingly. But one Macdonald supporter admitted that his orders were ‘if there were any boys out in the cold to bring them in and have a horn’ – the old-fashioned offence of ‘treating’.[33] Overall, however, Chief Justice Richards (a one-time politician himself) took a realistic view. Macdonald had openly acknowledged that it was ‘very good support to get the publican interest’ because ‘every tavern keeper is a little power in his own locality.’ The Carruthers camp were also hiring bars for campaign meetings, ‘and it was of importance to have the last word, to make the last impression’.[34] Calculating the likely cost of holding two or three meetings in each of the seven wards every night for a month, adding in cab fares and taking account of the fact that the riding contained over one thousand voters, Chief Justice Richards did not find the reported Macdonald campaign cost  of $3,000 unreasonable. Indeed, the predictable expenses hardly left much scope for bribery. ‘The hiring of rooms at the taverns was absolutely necessary, as none others could be got, and the fact that the inn-keepers might exert themselves for the respondent could not fairly be considered as bribery.’ He dismissed the argument that the practice of renting bar-rooms for $10 a night was ‘an extortionate charge’ that amounted to corrupt payments to secure publicans’ support. Landlords would have to supply heating and lighting’. If 200 people attended an election meeting, ‘they would not likely to be of that class that would necessarily take much pains to keep the place very tidy’, and the room would ‘probably require cleaning out the next day’.[35]

            One cantankerous incident may illuminate the values and pressures of the time. Expenses were paid to anyone called to give evidence, and in this case the witness fee was set at $4. Samuel Brennan, a Macdonald ward organiser, created a sour impression when he began by protesting that the money was inadequate. Indeed, he appeared ready to refuse to answer any questions at all until his fee was handed over. Given the nature of the case, this was hardly tactful, but Brennan’s point of view deserves exploration. Today, most of us operate in an employment world of weekly wages and monthly salaries. In nineteenth-century Kingston, people generally worked for hourly rates, or an agreed price for a job, or fee for service, or the profits from shopkeeping: the tax authorities in Victorian Britain classified all these forms of income as ‘precarious’. Drennan, who ran a furniture store, evidently felt that time spent in court was time away from the counter where he sold the tables and chairs that gave him his livelihood. Other men presumably felt the same about political engagement. They did not have the option of voting in the evening: in 1891, for instance, the polls in Kingston closed at 5 o’clock. Certainly before the secret ballot was introduced, casting a vote might be neither a quick nor a pleasant experience. Challenges to a would-be elector’s qualifications could cause delays, and there was always the possibility if having to run the gauntlet of hostile demonstrators from the rival party. While some men may simply have sold their votes to the highest bidder, it is likely that rather more believed that time was money and took for granted that they should be compensated for their trouble by the party of their choice. Even if Macdonald did in effect buy his way into parliament in 1874 and again in 1887, it remains the case that in nine of his twelve victories in contested elections, the margin of victory was too great for it to be credibly attributed to corruption. It would be naïve to ignore the role of money in nineteenth-century Kingston politics, but in any election, past or present, some people will vote for ignoble motives. ‘Was there much direct bribery?’, a journalist asked Sir Richard Cartwright in 1912. ‘Very much less than was supposed,’ was his reply.[36]  

IV:  Patronage and Pork 

‘Patronage is individualistic,’ writes Jeffrey Simpson; ‘porkbarrelling is communal.’[37] From his first election to the Assembly, John A. Macdonald lobbied for a share of government patronage and, in office after 1854, he set out to deliver ‘pork’ to his riding. It is worth noting that although he is conventionally hailed as the founder of Canada’s Conservative party, Macdonald himself         was never a free-market ideologue, and this is something he owed to his Kingston background. The city had benefited from public investment from the early nineteenth century, notably through such projects as the Rideau Canal. While Macdonald sometimes seems cynical in his manipulation of individual morsels of patronage, there was nothing intellectually inconsistent about his larger attempts to target government spending in his own riding.

            From his earliest years in the Assembly, as a government backbencher from 1844 to 1847, John A. Macdonald sought to advance the interests of his constituents. One surviving letter shows him supporting a Kingston applicant for a post in the customs service. ‘I have known him long and believe him to be an honest and intelligent man,’ he wrote, in conventional job-reference terms, but the more colourful addition that he was ‘endowed with a physique calculated to make him a “Terror to evil doers”.’ However, by the time a vacancy became available, the terror to evil-doers had moved to Montreal, and Macdonald curtly advised the Commissioner of Customs to ‘take no more trouble about him’.[38] To Macdonald, it was clear that the exercise of patronage conferred obligations upon the recipient. In any case, his patronage recommendations were not always successful.[39] In 1846, he lobbied on behalf of a local insurance company which was importing a fire engine from the United States. In a similar case, in Montreal, the government had granted a remission of import duty, and Macdonald asked for a $160 rebate. It was the type of special interest application that he would strongly oppose once he became a minister in the mid-fifties.[40]

            It can hardly have been through manipulation of patronage that Macdonald established such an easy ascendancy in Kingston electoral politics during his first decade in politics. As a backbench ministerial supporter during his freshman term in the Assembly, he lacked the seniority to corner control of all the public appointments in his own riding. His brief tenure of office in the second half of 1847 as Receiver-General, a kind of proto-Ministry of National Revenue, offered few opportunities to benefit his riding: his department deposited twice as much taxpayers’ money with the Bank of Montreal as with Kingston’s Commercial Bank, which ranked fourth in government confidence. During the midwinter election campaign he shifted ministries and became Commissioner of Crown Lands, clearing his desk and much of that department’s backlog in a firestorm of activity in February 1848. Since the Crown Lands portfolio mainly dealt with rural property, there were few opportunities to do favours for his own constituents. Macdonald did recommend the lease of a Lakeside block to his kinsman Allan Macpherson for use as a timber depot. Macpherson had wanted to buy the land, but the British Army authorities objected to the erection of permanent buildings close to its artillery installations, so an outright sale could not be allowed.[41] There followed those six years in opposition when the Reformers held power and handed out the jobs. At that stage, inability to control government patronage was evidently not an insuperable barrier to electoral success in Kingston. As J.K. Johnson has shown, Macdonald had quickly established himself as an effective spokesperson for Kingston interests, capable of building cross-party coalitions to carry legislation chartering local companies.[42]

            Once established in office in 1854, he certainly recognised that it was his duty to ensure that Kingston shared in the benefits of political power. In 1855, he was hoping to follow the city’s new court premises with a new custom house and post office. ‘It would be a splendid thing to see the 3 buildings abuilding at one time.’ Governments were unstable entities, he reminded his ally Henry Smith: ‘we had better lose no time as in this uncertain world no one can say, how long we are to last.’[43] The following year, when August came around and construction had not started, he fired off an irritated telegram to the civil servant in charge complaining that ‘season will be gone and community will suffer inconvenience’. Projects on this scale gave rise to incidental opportunities to benefit supporters: when the old court house was put up for sale, Macdonald lobbied to have the business assigned to ‘a respectable auctioneer’ called James Linton.[44] However, in the longer term, imposing public buildings probably generated little in the way of additional employment. Of more value to the local economy was the Criminal Lunatic Asylum, originally established in 1856 at Rockwood, a property just west of the city, and supplemented by purpose-built premises constructed from 1859. As Attorney-General West, John A. Macdonald was in a position to drive the project forward.[45] It was still reaping benefits for the local economy even when Macdonald himself went into opposition, as shown by a call for tenders in February 1864 for 600,000 bricks.[46]

            While it is likely that a project such as the Criminal Lunatic Asylum provided opportunities to appoint political supporters to jobs, Macdonald’s patronage activities leave little trace in the written record at this period. He was still a frequent visitor to the city, while the government machine of the province of Canada was compact and centralised. Thus at both ends of the patronage process, much could be achieved by word of mouth. A rare and probably revealing exception is a note to his cabinet colleague, the Postmaster General Sidney Smith in 1861, asking him to appoint a Kingston letter carrier [i.e. postal delivery worker] called Kelly to a clerkship. ‘I want him out of the way,’ Macdonald explained, ‘as I must have a man named Brock appointed Kelly’s successor’.[47] It is not surprising that notes like this. With its incriminating ‘Do this at once for me’, would normally be destroyed once the favour was discharged. More generally, Macdonald sometimes tacitly telegraphed that his formal support for a supplicant did not necessarily imply fervent endorsement. He occasionally forwarded applications for Militia commissions to the Adjutant-General, G.F. De Rottenburg, although he appears to have abandoned even this token interference after the Fenian raid of 1866 underlined the need for a fully efficient defence force. On one occasion, he was approached by a former resident of Amherst Island with an unctuous reminder of alleged friendship. ‘Perhaps you could find employment for my excellent friend,’ he wrote, ‘who has always admired me & who has enjoyed such delightful evenings in my society.’ The sarcastic tone no doubt assured De Rottenburg that he need not try too hard.[48] In fact, the increasing bureaucratisation of the Canadian civil service helped Macdonald to protect himself against the endless pressure from place-hunters. Applicants who were not from Kingston sometimes received a blunt refusal. An Ottawa man was told that ‘the vacancies are very few, and seldom occur.’ From deep in the south-western peninsula a plea from a hard-up resident of Paris was robustly rebuffed. The jobs he mentioned ‘are not in my department and therefore not under my control’, and to become ‘eligible for any of them, you would have, under the Civil Service Act, to pass the examination prescribed’ and even then an appointment could only be made ‘at the lowest grade.’ Another aspirant was reminded that ‘under the law promotion goes by seniority.’[49] John A. Macdonald even professed to welcome a hands-off approach to government appointments. Ministerial determination to uphold the Civil Service Act in 1859 meant that ‘we will be relieved of the Curse of patronage’ while ‘old & deserving servants of the public wont [sic] be passed over by New Comers whose only merits may be a big stick and a loud Voice at an Election.’[50] All these alleged obstacles, of course, would make the actual bestowal of patronage all the more precious a privilege to the recipients.

            In addition to handing out jobs, a successful politician was in a position to provide access to other favours, for instance easing the way for supporters who had fallen foul of Canada’s zealous customs service. James Morton the distiller hoped to avoid an increase in spirit duties, arguing that he was selling whiskey distilled before the new rates took effect. ‘Pray look into this,’ Macdonald urged the Commissioner of Customs, ‘as this sum would at once go to Mortons [sic] credit … & be a reasonable relief.’ He did not mention the well-known fact that Morton was a business associate, but another Kingston merchant in dispute with the Customs, James Delaney, was described as ‘a great friend of mine’.[51] Evidently, it was useful for a businessman to be a friend of John A. Macdonald. However, in one notable case, Macdonald’s support for Kingston interests cut across party lines. John Counter had not only run in 1854, but had proved to be the most formidable vote-getter to challenge him during his first decade and a half in politics. Counter was one of the most visionary of Kingston entrepreneurs, most notably in his pursuit of the Wolfe Island project, designed to make the city a major feeder into the United States transportation system. Unfortunately, his ambitions outran his capital resources, and in 1856 he went bankrupt. One venture that helped pull him down was a contract for work on the canal system for which he claimed the government owed him a massive $56,000, which an Assembly committee scaled down to $20,000. In mid-July 1857, Macdonald wrote a short note to his cabinet colleague Francois Lemieux, who held the Public Works portfolio, urging him ‘to take up Counter’s case’ and settle with him. Macdonald was seems to have been clearing his desk preparatory to sailing to England as part of a government delegation seeking railway funding, and this probably explains not only the curt tone of the communication, but the fact that he wrote at all, rather than lobbying face-to-face.[52] Perhaps Macdonald was influenced by the fact that Counter’s claims had been denigrated by George Brown for, by 1857, where Brown was concerned, Macdonald’s philosophy was that my enemy’s enemy is my friend. More likely was the obvious fact John Counter’s importance to the financial health of Kingston was akin to the legendary role played by General Motors in the economy of the United States. Even so, it is striking to note that one of the few traceable examples of Macdonald seeking to manipulate political influence (there may have been others which went undocumented or where the paper trail was destroyed) should have been for the benefit of a political opponent.[53]

            In fact, the John A. Macdonald of the eighteen-fifties was anything but a soft touch when it came to a choice between Kingston interests and the public purse. Edward Horsey, the architect in charge of the Penitentiary, was commissioned in 1847 to carry out a valuation of buildings. Eight years later, in 1855, Horsey submitted a bill for this work, claiming that it had not formed part of his regular work. As Attorney-General West, Macdonald advised the Executive Council that the claim fell to the ground because of the lapse of time in its submission, adding that it could only be allowed ‘as a matter of favour’. Horsey renewed his demand and remained undeterred when the cabinet rejected it a second time. ‘I have told Horsey that I would do what I could for him but it is desirable to avoid anything like a promise in such cases,’ commented Macdonald. The claim might slip through the Council ‘by a fluke sometime, but it does not rest with me to do it’.[54] An even more striking case concerned the misfortunes of James Hopkirk, who had failed to carry out contracted works at the Penitentiary. Arbitrators awarded a sum of just over $350 against Hopkirk, who declared bankruptcy in 1852 and subsequently claimed that insolvency wiped out his obligations. Seven years later, in June 1859, Macdonald demanded that he clear the debt by quarterly payments of sixty dollars. Evidently Hopkirk, unlike Delaney, was not ‘a great friend’ of John A. Macdonald: Macdonald had in fact been critical of Hopkirk’s judgement back in 1851 during his earlier career as a customs official. But a modern-day politician would surely hesitate before seeming to victimise a constituent, if only for fear of the negative impression such a course of action might have upon other voters. Weighed against the massive $56,000 that John Counter was claiming from the taxpayer, with Macdonald’s support, Hopkirk’s debt to the public purse seems minimal. Hopkirk died a few months after Macdonald’s demand, leaving his family destitute, and the remaining sum was promptly written off.[55] Neither in political image-making nor in common humanity does John A. Macdonald come out of the episode well. The best that can be said in his defence is that, contrary to affectionate legend, he sought to uphold the public interest even when an easier and sleazier alternative beckoned.

            Two other examples of Macdonald’s apparent concern for the interests of the taxpayer may be less straightforwardly public spirited than they seem, but he is surely entitled to some credit for the stands he took. Although he had secured the sale of the old court house for a friendly auctioneer in 1856, he advised against attempting to sell off surplus Post Office premises in the fall of 1857, when the province was in the grip of a severe recession and there was little chance of the property realising a decent price. The cynical might comment that Macdonald’s own finances were under such pressure at the time that he would have been unable to bid for downtown lots even at fire-sale prices. He certainly had no objection to acquiring property through bankruptcy proceedings: his first recorded purchases, of building lots near the Cataraqui River, had been made at such a sale back in 1842. However, since the point of his recommendation was that prices might recover the following spring ─ in other words, that he or his cronies would have to dig deeper into the pockets ─ he is surely entitled to the benefit of the doubt as a defender of the public interest.[56]

            It is possible to perceive a similar ambiguity of possible motive in another apparently high-minded Macdonald recommendation, this time in regard to his own political back yard. For administrative and judicial purposes, Kingston’s hinterland formed the United Counties of Frontenac, Lennox and Addington. In 1858, Addington demanded to be severed from Frontenac and to acquire its own local courts. The complication was that Addington was the middle of the three long, narrow north-to-south counties, and so ‘making Addington a separate county would be to force Lennox also to be a separate county.’ In Macdonald’s view, Lennox was ‘altogether too small … & would suffer from the additional expense which would thereby be entailed upon it.’ Furthermore, the creation of any new county ‘causes an additional expense for the province & should not be entertained without the necessity being proved.’[57] However, there was an alternative way of dealing with the issue: Addington could be allowed to break away from Frontenac, taking Lennox with it. This was the solution adopted by the Sandfield Macdonald Reform ministry in 1863, and it was an obvious possibility five years earlier, since the two counties had long formed a single riding for the election of an Assembly member. John A. Macdonald probably ruled out this option in deference to the feelings of a wealthy young Kingston supporter, Richard Cartwright. Although Cartwright was to break with Macdonald in 1869 to become not merely a Liberal cabinet minister but an exceptionally bitter foe, during the decade prior to Confederation he was a steady supporter. The Cartwright family owned extensive property and business interests centred on Napanee, which was in Lennox County. Richard Cartwright evidently felt that existing electoral arrangements placed the smaller county at a disadvantage. When Macdonald appealed to Cartwright to support the government candidate, Sidney Smith, at a Legislative Council by-election in 1861, he added the assurance that Smith would ‘in all matters stand by his constituency of Lennox against the Addingtonians’.[58] In refusing to split the United Counties, Macdonald probably expected Cartwright to object that a Lennox and Addington solution would mean too much Addington and not enough Lennox. Even so, we should remember that the easy-going ‘John A.’ of popular memory would have seized the opportunity to split the United Counties into three and quarter his own political apparatchiks on the public payroll.

            Thus in some episodes, special circumstances and interested parties might lead us to question Macdonald’s proclaimed concern for the taxpayer. Even so, there remain a striking number of occasions on which he said ‘no’ to applications from his own riding, where a modern politician would say probably say ‘maybe’. At an election meeting in 1861, he boasted of the government grants he had secured for various Kingston institutions, notably the city’s General Hospital, whose income from government sources he claimed to have raised to $6,000 a year.[59] But three years earlier, when the Hospital had pleaded financial difficulties and asked for its $2,000 grant to be trebled to just that amount, John A. Macdonald had simply forwarded the application to the Minister of Finance. His own response was discouraging: ‘notwithstanding the utility of the institution, and my individual desire to see its prosperity promoted, there is no chance of further pecuniary aid being granted this year by Parliament.’[60] He gave much the same response to a similar application in 1860 from the House of Industry, a ‘workfare’ project which required the poor to labour in return for food and shelter. ‘I am not sure whether the state of the revenue will allow of an increased grant… but I have little doubt of being able to secure a renewal of the old grant.’[61]

Of course it could be argued that S.J.R. Noel’s theory of politicians as ‘patrons’ who controlled access to the resources of government implies a process of rationing, so that the rejection of some requests would add impact to the granting of others. Kingston probably had larger expectations. In May 1858, at the time the Hospital asked for an increased grant, Macdonald was premier of the province, a position which one Kingston newspaper had predicted would give him ‘almost illimitable’ power ‘to do the city further good’.[62] His ‘individual desire’ to back a civic cause was of little use if he was powerless to deliver. Noel’s interpretation points to one possible explanation: Macdonald’s experience of provincial politics, he argues, had ‘taught him the necessity of transcending localism’. Patronage was to be used to construct alliances across Upper Canada, to reach out to French Canadians, and to extend the Conservative party’s power base through coalition building with biddable Reformers.[63] While the political science analysis helpfully established a framework of understanding, it does not capture the contradictory personality of John A. Macdonald himself.  One aspect of this complex man delighted in manipulating patronage and influence in support of his own political machine. But there was another side to him, the ministerial Macdonald who saw himself as the guardian of the public interest. In 1861, the manufacturer J.P. Milliner approached him to express interest in leasing the water power of the Kingston Mills. Macdonald replied that the lease would probably be offered by auction, ‘when you will have the opportunity of competing for it.’[64] The cold prose of his official letter conveyed the distinct impression of a rebuke.  Of course, we cannot know with what nudges and winks Macdonald might have signalled a more encouraging message to Milliner should they have met face to face. Unfortunately, in the years that followed Confederation, the demands of leading the new Dominion meant that John A. Macdonald and his legendary charm were less and less to be spotted on Kingston’s downtown streets.

            It is important to stress that Confederation, Macdonald’s greatest achievement at pan-Canadian level, actually exacerbated the already complex problem of his relations with Kingston. By the late ‘sixties, the city felt itself to be locked in something close to a crisis of economic stagnation. Yet at precisely that point, Macdonald’s own financial difficulties meant that he was no longer capable of investing in Kingston-related enterprises: his name is not be found alongside such local Conservatives such as Alexander Campbell, D.D. Calvin and George Kirkpatrick who figured prominently among investors in the Kingston & Pembroke railway project.[65] Moreover, his political responsibilities as prime minister of the Dominion anchored him to the rival city of Ottawa. Unfortunately, not only could he no longer play his former key personal role as an economic driver behind Kingston interests, but his apparently enhanced political status did not mean that he could deliver political benefits either. Hence it is not surprising that Jeffrey Simpson’s account of John A. Macdonald’s manipulation of patronage refers to Kingston only in connection with the 1874 trial for bribery ─ which is not quite the same thing.[66]

One major problem was that Confederation transferred important responsibilities to the provinces and, even before the Liberals captured Ontario in 1871 and mobilised its resources against him, his room for manoeuvre had become sharply limited. In 1868, Macdonald was unable to reassure even his own brother-in-law, Professor James Williamson, who was worried about public funding for Queen’s, now a provincial responsibility. Although the new Ontario government, led by Sandfield Macdonald, was officially allied to his own ministry in Ottawa, Sir John A. Macdonald professed himself ‘quite powerless in the matter’, cautious even about exercising informal influence because ‘the local Government is very jealous of anything like dictation on our part’.[67] Once Ontario passed into the hands of Liberal premier Oliver Mowat, the challenge became all the greater. ‘He created patronage, organized patronage and trusted to patronage,’ wrote one well-informed apologist. It is generally accepted that the high-minded Mowat set his face against outright corruption, but there is equally little doubt that his government allocated such benefits as liquor licences with a view to building up an electoral machine. As one Liberal provincial minister put it in 1877: ‘As long as we have party governments, the rule would be … that the Government in exercising its patronage would appoint its party supporters.’[68] The Mowat camp could no doubt claim that they were simply imitating a pattern established by the Conservatives, but by the eighteen-seventies, there was a reasonable element of self-defence in Macdonald’s use of patronage.

On the plus side, one of the city’s largest employers, the Penitentiary, remained under Dominion control, and Macdonald held on to the carefully marshalled electoral loyalty of its staff even at the election of 1874, after his fall from office. But it is probably no accident that the years of his political eclipse coincided with the diversion of the city’s communal efforts into the construction of the Kingston & Pembroke railway. Running wholly within a single province, it was a project that could not even appear on the Dominion radar screen ─ unlike the later scheme for a dry dock, which had implications for interprovincial communication and so was eligible for Ottawa funding. In constitutional terms, the K&P was a section 92 matter, one that looked exclusively to the Ontario government for support. Ontario duly voted a massive a massive $350,000 for its construction, roughly one quarter of the total cost.[69] And looking to Ontario, for what seemed an eternity after 1871, meant courting a provincial government that was firmly in Liberal hands.

As Macdonald explained to a needy Nova Scotian in 1870, ‘the patronage of the Dominion Government is limited in extent and is severely taxed by our political friends. All the local offices belong to the local Administrations.’ The prime minister himself had few appointments at his disposal. Vacancies in other departments such as the Customs or the Post Office were ‘frequently filled up without my knowing anything about them.’ Nor was scarcity of job opportunities the only restraint. ‘We are circumscribed in our patronage also by the Civil Service Act which provides that applicants for office must commence at the foot of the ladder as Probationary Clerks and be young men.’[70]

   S.J.R. Noel’s categorisation would suggest that, by becoming prime minister of the Dominion, John A. Macdonald had made the transition from being a patron, someone who could shower benefits upon a local clientele, to broker, the politician who shared out available resources among the patrons. But, in practical terms, this eminence was to some extent illusory. With the projected transfer of the Hudson’s Bay Company territories in 1869, Sir John A. Macdonald would become the master of half a continent. But when his Kingston business associate David Shaw sought a government appointment at the Red River for his brother, Macdonald pleaded that there was nothing available. ‘We are in a blissful state of ignorance as to what the requirements of that country may be,’ he wrote, adding that he did not wish to ‘excite the jealousy of the residents by sending too many outsiders among them.’[71] Business partner or not, Shaw was probably too unregenerate a Liberal to qualify for patronage ─ but, equally, most job-hungry Kingstonians would have sought employment closer to home.

With relatively few patronage appointments at his disposal, Macdonald resorted to two strategies during the early years of Confederation. The first was to try to allocate the plums in such a way as to flatter whole sections of the community. When a post office clerkship fell vacant in 1869, he commissioned James Shannon to find him a suitably qualified young Irish Protestant. ‘I have done enough in the Catholic line lately. Just look around for a young fellow whose appointment will do me most good politically.’[72] Not only was this was a cynical attitude, but there is no guarantee that it was reciprocated by the beneficiaries, let alone cheerfully accepted by those Catholics or Protestants who were passed over. The Kingston Post Office certainly could not provide enough employment to satisfy all the individual aspirants. ‘Better luck next time’, Macdonald wrote to one job-seeker, who made his interest in a vacancy known too late to be considered.[73]

The second strategy was, perforce, to say ‘No’ to those who sought favours that he could not bestow ─ and, increasingly, ‘No’ with a finality that seemed to rule out any hope of a ‘next time’. In face-to-face dealings, Macdonald was famously capable of not only refusing supplicants but even managing to leave them feeling flattered by rejection. One legendary anecdote has him dismissing a man who sought a vacant office in mock alarm that the man should throw away his impressive talents on such a minor post, and that it would be far better to wait for something more appropriate to his talents. The petitioner ‘departed a proud and self-satisfied man, content to wait for the high office of the future’  but unfortunately that day never came.[74] Unfortunately, Prime Minister Macdonald was so tied to Ottawa that he had fewer opportunities to exercise his famous charm upon his own constituents. Major issues were certainly stored up for off-the-record discussion during Macdonald’s now-occasional and hurried visits to the city. ‘I shall be in Kingston in a few days,’ he wrote to lawyer and political ally James O’Reilly in June 1872, ‘& will talk over the matter with you.’ But this particular ‘matter’ was O’Reilly’s candidature for South Renfrew in the forthcoming Dominion elections.[75] Requests for favours were lesser issues to be dealt with by letter.

And here we come to a side of John A. Macdonald that does not conform to the conventional stereotype of a jovial fix-it politician, ever ready to brush aside technicalities to serve a friend. This could be certainly true of this paradoxical personality when it came to large matters,[76] he could also be oddly formalistic and seem coldly bureaucratic when handling small matters. Four items of riding business from the months immediately preceding the general election of 1872 illustrate this side of his character. The city council sought the transfer of a piece of Dominion land. Macdonald advised them to petition for it. Samuel Muckleston received even less encouragement, for the land grant that he sought was in the gift of the provincial ministry, now a Liberal fiefdom. ‘I have no influence with the present Government of Ontario’, was the bleak reply. John Creighton wanted a militia appointment for a young friend. ‘If the opportunity offers, I will give him a good word, but I interfere as little as possible in Militia matters.’ Eliza Grimason was also interested in Canada’s defence force, for she had tendered for a supply contract and wanted to know the outcome. ‘The Minister of Militia will be obliged to accept the lowest [tender] if the security is good, about which he will make the necessary enquiries.’[77] To Muckleston, Macdonald was stating no more than the unpleasant truth, but one suspects that Creighton and Grimason knew perfectly well how militia promotions were determined and supply contracts allocated. They had contacted ‘John A.’ precisely because they wanted the normal procedures to be tweaked in their favour. Of course we cannot know what private pressures the prime minister might have exercised on his constituents’ behalf, nor whether the discouraging letter was followed by a friendly assurance next time they met on the streets of Kingston. Perhaps the most striking aspect of Macdonald’s nay-saying was that these were requests from friends and supporters. He had gone into politics to advance the interests of Kingston and its municipal authority. Muckleston had nominated him at the election of 1863. John Creighton, it is true, had already received the biggest slice of local patronage still in Macdonald’s hands, the office of Warden of the Penitentiary, but this placed him in a key position to deliver votes and so earn continuing favours. As for innkeeper Eliza Grimason, she hero-worshipped ‘John A.’[78] In 1871, Macdonald had privately defined his principle in regard to patronage as ‘reward your friends and do not buy your enemies’.[79] Some of his snubbed supporters in Kingston could have been forgiven for wondering which category they belonged to. If Macdonald, or his Ottawa office, could produce such discouraging communications to his closest supporters, it is no wonder that he was widely perceived to abandoned the city’s interests by 1872.

Macdonald continued to oversee the distribution of patronage in Kingston after his defeat in1878, but there are indications that the constraints upon its manipulation grew as government practices became more formalised. In 1879, an irate supporter demanded vengeance against Jim Pense, a high-handed Liberal activist who was employed at the Kingston post office. ‘No one here ever used meaner language towards you than this Jim Pense in the Post office here’. Conservatives wanted the offender ‘put in his proper place, viz. on the train.’ Transferring Pense to the work on night mail train would get him out of the city some of the time, and presumably leave him too tired to engage in subversive activities even when he was at home. Macdonald passed the suggestion to his cabinet colleague, Post Master General Alexander Campbell. Campbell was doubtful. Working on the night mail train would mean promotion, and Pense would probably have to be given a salary increase. It seemed an odd way to punish a political foe.[80] Even with Penitentiary matters, there was now relatively little flexibility for political decisions. In 1881, there was a vacancy in the office of Deputy Warden. By convention, the post went to a Catholic, and Macdonald’s role was simply to identify which candidate was most acceptable to the cathedral authorities and their flock: ‘as the Deputy Warden must be a Catholic we may as well please the Body.’[81] Even Macdonald’s attempts to micro-manage Penitentiary affairs only confirmed the limits on his scope for patronage. In June 1890, he took a personal interest in the tendering process for supplies. In seven areas, including coal, groceries and hardware, he approved acceptance of the lowest tender. In an eighth, dry goods, only one contractor put in a bid. Macdonald reserved three areas for further consideration, and promptly fired off a series of enquiries to a political lieutenant in the city. He listed the various tradesmen who had tendered, with the refrain: ‘are they friends?’ Thus two men called Tierney and Anglin were both bidding to supply cordwood: ‘Is Tierney a friend?’ When the desired information came back, the prime minister forwarded it to a senior civil servant in the Department of Justice, making clear that his decisions were politically motivated. ‘As to cordwood, Tierney is not a friend while Anglin is.’[82] It is striking that, for all Macdonald’s concern to cement his political base, three-quarters of the Penitentiary business had gone to the lowest bidder. Equally evident is the extent to which he was no longer sure of the allegiances of local businessmen.

It was an essential feature of the patron-client relationships that Macdonald used to build his Kingston-area political machine operated overwhelmingly to the advantage of the patron, Macdonald himself. As patron, he held the whip hand. He alone could determine when a political debt would be repaid, and in what currency of patronage or favours. Like a blackmailer, he could raise his price, leaving the disgruntled client with the choice of switching sides, with all the suspicions that would generate, or of redoubling his efforts to secure the patron’s gratitude. Some debts might never be settled, especially if death or political defeat intervened. Edmund Hooper of Napanee was an extreme and very sad example, complaining to Macdonald in 1888 that ‘after 40 years adherence and all I have done for our party, I have little reward for it.’ Hooper was no obscure party workhorse, whose contribution was confined to rounding up a few dozen votes from rural concession lines at election time. In 1878, he had ousted Cartwright (‘your Mortal enemy’) from parliament, a triumph that had encouraged his enemies to accuse him, all-too-successfully, of financial irregularities. In his last desperate appeal to Macdonald, he sought the post of caretaker at the Napanee post office, and failed to get it.[83] This paltry prize highlighted the ultimate inequality between the patron and his clients. Even if they received the full value of his services, it remained the case that the client had invested his own time, energy and enthusiasm, whereas the patron had settled the account not from his own pocket but by allocating public positions and taxpayers’ cash.

But on one occasion, Macdonald’s long political career and its focus upon one small urban community placed him in a position where a client became a liability. For several years in the later eighteen-eighties, there had been thefts of money from letters passing through the Kingston post office ─ and Sir John A. Macdonald had long harvested the patronage opportunities of the city’s post service. Eventually in 1889, a trap was sprung and the culprit apprehended. It was a sad story: William Shannon was 64 and had worked ‘for a generation ... in that department’. Perhaps that explained the mysterious twenty-four interval that intervened before formal steps were taken to secure Shannon’s arrest. In a city that fronted on to the United States, to give a thief a twenty-four hour start seemed tantamount to inviting him to escape Canadian justice.

The suspect’s surname rang bells with the Liberal opposition, and they decided to have fun at the prime minister’s expense. John H. Wilson, the member of East Elgin, recalled evidence given at the Kingston election case back in 1874, when Macdonald was supported by ‘a very ardent friend’ called Shannon, ‘and whether it was this Mr. Shannon or some of his relations, it certainly was a Shannon.’ Perhaps, mused Wilson, ‘in years gone by, this man Shannon or some of his friends or relations had been then very intimately connected with the then representative of the city of Kingston.’ If the dishonest postman had been arrested, perhaps he might have ‘divulged something that would not have been very creditable to the Government of the day.’ Sir John A. Macdonald usually reacted impassively to parliamentary attempts to wind him, but on this occasion he showed his annoyance. Wilson, he replied, was ‘barking up the wrong tree’. The disgraced official was indeed the brother of James Shannon, whom historians J.K. Johnson and Peter B. Waite have called ‘his Kingston factotum’, but the two men had not been on speaking terms for years.

It was a robust rebuttal but it was not a denial. ‘Well, coincidences will sometimes occur,’ commented opposition leader Wilfrid Laurier as he twisted the knife. ‘It was, perhaps, a mere coincidence that there was a thief in Kingston by the name of Shannon, and at the same time that another man bore the same name [who] was a friend of the First Minister.’[84] The affair was potentially far more embarrassing for Sir John A. Macdonald than he was prepared to admit. The William Shannon who was pilfering the mail in 1889 was almost certainly the prominent Orangeman of that name who had taken a prominent part in blocking the royal visit in 1860.[85] Presumably the two brothers had not always been estranged and might indeed have shared some embarrassing electoral secrets in days gone by. The prime minister kept a tight control over the allocation of jobs at the city’s post office, and the fact that William Shannon was employed there was prima facie evidence that he had merited his patron’s gratitude. However, it can be said in Macdonald’s defence that it was unlikely that he was involved in any cover-up: based in Ottawa, he could only have orchestrated the affair by using the telegraph ─ and, after his experience of the Pacific Scandal of 1873, it is unlikely that he would have trusted the confidentiality of a telegram. Indeed, it soon emerged that William Shannon had not fled the country but had gone into hiding nearby: he was arrested and convicted. Throughout the summer of 1889, a whole cesspit of arrogance and abuse was uncovered in the Kingston post office and, ironically, it may have been helpful for Macdonald that he was a victim of one misdemeanour himself. Soon after Shannon’s dismissal, a letter arrived from Ottawa in his familiar handwriting and addressed to a local Conservative politician. A senior clerk guessed that it related to the appointment to Shannon’s job, and took it upon himself to open it and read it aloud.[86]  Two years later, the spotlight would fall upon the conveniently haphazard record-keeping of the post office as the political world hunted for the mysterious figure behind the dry dock contract.

By the late eighteen-eighties, the population of Kingston had more than doubled since Macdonald had fought his first campaigns forty years before. Moreover, almost ten times as many men were now voting in the city’s elections. Even if patronage appointments had been available in far larger quantities, they would have been inadequate in assembling election-winning coalitions of grateful individuals. Jobs were now far more influential in their symbolic value for honouring important groups, such as the city’s Catholic population, and for rewarding ‘friends’, a term which almost certainly indicated people who were prepared to pressurise and mobilise others to vote. With a growing population and an increasingly complex economy, ‘pork’ probably became more important than patronage. ‘The First Minister has been a good nursing father or mother, whichever he prefers to be called, to the citizens of Kingston for the last three or four years,’ his Liberal antagonist Richard Cartwright grudgingly admitted after the May 1891.[87] For instance, as prime minister, Macdonald was well-placed to help one of the city’s major enterprises, the Kingston Locomotive Works. Although it was the sole producer of railway rolling stock in Canada and, from 1883, sheltered behind a thirty percent tariff wall, the Locomotive Works was struggling by the time of Macdonald’s return in 1887. Indeed, three years later it was on the verge of closure, and the prime minister had to appeal to William Van Horne of the Canadian Pacific, appealing to him to place a rescue order. However, he had to admit that he had no leverage with Canada’s other major network, the Grand Trunk, which had passed into the Liberal camp.[88] At the outset of the 1891 election campaign, Macdonald dramatically commissioned the Locomotive Works to begin work on 120 railway cars, with the obvious implication that the order might not be confirmed should he and his government fail to secure re-election.  In a parliamentary exchange on 22 May 1891, Cartwright sarcastically attributed the order for railway rolling stock to the prime minister’s ‘anxiety to prevent the people from suffering from distress and destitution’. It would prove to be the very last occasion on which Sir John A. Macdonald appeared in the House of Commons, but ‘Old Tomorrow’ was in good spirits. In a jeering allusion to the Mackenzie Liberal government of the mid-seventies, when Cartwright had briefly eclipsed him as the dominant political figure in Kingston, Macdonald interjected: ‘You did not do much for them.’ Cartwright responded: ‘Yes; we did, in a fair and square way.[89]

The 'Bancroft Contract' and the Kingston Dry Dock Scandal

It was the Kingston dry dock project that was the key to Macdonald’s successful retention of the seat in 1891 and, in that last-ever parliamentary duel, Cartwright was signalling that there had been nothing fair and square about the way the project had been handled. At first sight, it may seem curious that the bizarre tale of the ‘Bancroft contract’ has been laundered out of the life story of Sir John A. Macdonald. Two reasons explain why the connection has never been made. First, the sordid details emerged just three weeks after his death, when Canadians were mourning their first prime minister and even his foes subscribed to the principle of not speaking ill of the dead. Second, the Kingston dry dock formed a tailpiece to, and was overshadowed by, the far larger and juicier Langevin-McGreevy scandal. To establish the context, it is to this episode that we must turn first.

We have already encountered Thomas McGreevy, in in Chapter Three, using the Canadian taxpayer as a cashpoint while constructing the Ottawa parliament buildings.[90]  By 1867, when he was elected to the House of Commons, McGreevy had become the close ally and virtual alter ego of Quebec City Conservative boss, Hector-Louis Langevin. In Quebec politics, money talked, and the more the dollars, the louder the decibels.  It was tempting for the duo to fund their political activities by continuing to cream off money from government mega-projects, especially after 1879 when Langevin became minister of public works. With McGreevy now in politics, their chosen vehicle was the firm of Patrick Larkin in partnership with the brothers Michael and Nicholas Connolly. To establish the arm’s-length connection, the Larkin-Connolly firm took aboard McGreevy’s brother Robert, whose role was to co-ordinate the builders and the bureaucrats. The chief engineer in the Department of Public Works, Henry Perley, was obviously on their pay-roll, although all that was ever proved was that his wife had accepted a gift of jewellery from the contractors. At all events, Larkin and the Connolly brothers always seemed to have inside knowledge that enabled them to submit the lowest tender, and when they subsequently discovered that hidden costs required them to charge more, Perley and Langevin invariably nodded through the increases. The Larkin-Connolly firm won the right to undertake two major dock projects, in Quebec City and at Esquimault in British Columbia. (Langevin also diversified the boodling, handing the contract for government offices on Ottawa’s Wellington Street to another and even greedier firm. Appropriately, the building is still known as the Langevin Block.)

By 1888, the McGreevy brothers had creamed off an estimated $360,000 from the two Larkin-Connolly projects at opposite ends of the country. But Thomas was coming to feel that brother Robert was something of a fifth wheel, siphoning off too much of the cash. When thieves fall out, they do well to avoid taking their disagreement to a court of law. Thomas’s decision in 1889 to sue Robert released a trickle of revelations which became a torrent during the summer following the death of Sir John A. Macdonald. Perley was dismissed, Langevin was forced out of politics, Thomas McGreevy was expelled from parliament. Both McGreevy brothers and Nicholas Connolly were sent to jail, the indictment alleging that they had defrauded the government of $3 million. In all of this, the affair of the Kingston dry dock formed an eminently believable but essentially minor detail.

The government invited tenders for the Kingston dry dock project in February 1889. Langevin had already signalled a guide price somewhere in the region of $250,000 to $400,000, and most of the twenty-odd contractors who put in for the work estimated that the cost would fall in the middle of that range.[91] On this occasion, the Connolly brothers and Patrick Larkin competed separately, the Connolly bid at around $322,000 being the fifth lowest, Larkin a few thousand more. However, one tender, from Andrew C. Bancroft, came in at a bargain-basement rate of $260,680. Unfortunately, there was a problem: to say the least, Bancroft was new to the field and nobody seemed to know anything about him. But there were fail-safe mechanisms in place to deal with such a situation. Anyone tendering for a government project had to deposit a cheque to establish their financial probity, and it was the responsibility of officials of the Department of Public Works to assess the professional standing of all contractors. These safeguards, of course, assumed that the civil servants were uncorrupted which, unhappily, was not the case.  

However, a few days after the cut-off date  for submissions, the situation suddenly changed. On 4 April 1889, Andrew C. Bancroft wrote to the Department, on the notepaper of Ottawa’s luxury hotel, the Russell House, to say that, if granted the contract, he wished to associate himself with the brothers Connolly. Writing on the same day, Michael Connolly confirmed the arrangement. The haste with which the brothers wished to form a partnership with the unknown Bancroft was suspicious, since the tendering process was still wrapped in confidentiality. ‘Who told them that Bancroft’s tender was the lowest?’, a Liberal MP would later ask. But the manoeuvre was enough to enable Perley to assure his minister that letting the contract to Bancroft would be a sound decision. True, he reported to Langevin, $260,680 was ‘much below’ his own estimate of the likely cost while Bancroft was undeniably ‘a person inexperienced in the construction of a dry dock’, but the involvement of those old hands, the Connolly brothers, removed all doubts. ‘I believe that the work in question can be executed for the amount of Mr. Bancroft’s tender.’ Thus did Michael and Nicholas Connolly, whose tender had ranked fifth, secure a slice of the Kingston project. They were not asked to explain why in April they were willing to perform the work for $60,000 less than they had estimated it would cost in February.

Of course, Henry Perley’s optimism was not borne out, and the cost steadily soared. One example of the curious haemorrhaging of public money was the decision to widen the dock gates. The original specification had been for an entrance 48 feet (14.63 metres) wide. But in July 1890 it was proposed to enlarge this to 60 feet (18.29 metres) in order to service larger vessels. Initially, it was reported that this would be cost-neutral: stronger gates, but less masonry walling.  Naturally, the government had its own engineer in Kingston to keep a watchful eye on the project. He reported that a 55-foot (16.67 metres) entrance would be sufficient to handle Lake shipping ─ but that the change of specifications would add $34,000 to the price. There was something odd about this: a four-metre enlargement would come free, but two metres would cost real money. One of the disappointed contractors who had tendered for the Kingston project, William Gibson, joined the Liberal ranks in parliament at the 1891 election. Gibson argued that the most expensive item in building a dry dock was the construction of the retaining wall: ‘there is less masonry in a 55 foot opening that there is a 48 feet one’ and so there should have been no increase in the price.  ‘I know what I am talking about,’ he assured the House and, as he was a quarry owner, his opinion carried weight. Who then was the government engineer who had nodded through this scam? His name turned out to be George E. Perley, and opposition members probed this interesting coincidence: was he related to chief engineer Henry Perley? ‘I believe he is his son’, admitted the thoroughly miserable Langevin.

As the cost of the dry dock spiralled upward, so attention was focused upon the mysterious Andrew C. Bancroft who was, after all, the principal member of the voracious consortium. In 1889, Bancroft did at least possess an address, although it was hardly one calculated to inspire confidence: Box 524, Kingston Post Office. As the William Shannon affair had revealed, 1889 had not been a stellar year for administrative probity at Kingston’s post office. Two years later, when opposition MPs sought to discover where Andrew C. Bancroft had come from and whither he had vanished, it transpired that records of box-holders were not kept from year to year. Still, the government had been content to deposit its instalment payments into Bancroft’s poste restante address, which meant that a money trail should lead all the way to the missing payee. But the trail dried up, with the cheques curiously finding their way into Nicholas Connolly’s bank account. The only other clue to Bancroft’s whereabouts in 1889 was the letter written on Russell House notepaper on the fourth of April. But when the hotel register was inspected, the signature of Michael Connolly was found checking in for that night, but not that of Bancroft. Admirers claimed that it was opposition leader Wilfrid Laurier himself who first noticed that letters signed in the name of Bancroft had in fact been written by Michael Connolly. But since Liberals were trying to project their prime-minister-in-waiting as something of a Superman figure, we can discount this, especially as it did not require ace detective work to spot Connolly’s ‘slanting, semi-schoolboy’ handwriting. When the file of Public Works documents relating to the contract was finally submitted to the House of Commons for scrutiny in the summer of 1891, it was observed that, in contrast to the rest of the well-thumbed correspondence, the Connolly letter of 4 April 1889, muscling in on the contract, was a crisp, clean sheet of paper and the product of that new-fangled machine, the typewriter. Even when the game was up, there was still a rearguard action to cover the conspirators’ tracks.

The Commons sitting of 2 July 1891 ‘threatened to be dull, commonplace and unprofitable’.[92]  It was just three weeks since Macdonald’s funeral and Ottawa still seemed oddly incomplete without his presence. As J.W. Bengough of Grip cried: ‘Can there be a House and members here / And no John A?’[93] In any case, the business was prosaic, end-of-session committee work, voting sums of money for obscure projects in out-of-the-way places, the opposition grumbling about details and the government majority blindly voting them down. It could be taken for granted that more public money was to be tipped into the bottomless pit of the Kingston dry dock. What was unexpected was the shattering of the ‘smooth atmosphere’ by a co-ordinated Liberal attack that shattered both the remnants of Langevin’s political standing and the mythic existence of Andrew C. Bancroft. Relentlessly, the opposition sliced through the deceptions surrounding the contract, until Guillaume Amyot, the member for Bellechasse, asked Langevin the direct question: who was Bancroft? Langevin’s reply, that ‘he understood him to be a member of the firm of Bancroft & Connolly’ reduced MPs to laughter. Amyot kept up the pressure. ‘I think we ought to know whether a man who has benefited so largely out of the public money of this country is a Chinaman or an African or anything else.’

Did Bancroft exist? Five days later, the issue was settled beyond all doubt. For a contract to be valid, it had signed by all the parties involved gathered together at the same time. Since Langevin had acted on behalf of the Dominion of Canada, he must have met Bancroft at the signing ceremony, and surely the principals would have shaken hands and exchanged polite words about the importance of the project? On 7 July, Langevin was confronted by his chief tormenter, Joseph-Israel Tarte. ‘Did the Minister ever see Mr. Bancroft,’ Tarte asked. ‘I will have to refuse to answer that question,’ replied Langevin.[94] There was no Bancroft, and soon after, under questioning from a parliamentary committee, Michael Connolly confirmed that there had never been any Bancroft. Bancroft was an invention to enable the Connolly brothers to glide in under the radar of competitive tendering. This was sharp practice, but was it criminal? Nicholas Flood Davin, a maverick Conservative from the prairies, was ingenious in denial. ‘If you make a document that is false without intending to defraud it does not amount to forgery.’[95] But somebody had signed Bancroft’s name to a quarter-million dollar contract and somebody must have endorsed the cheques made out to him that travelled to Nicholas Connolly’s bank account. The whole episode stank.[96]

Two questions arise. Did Sir John A. Macdonald know what was going on, and how was it that his reputation escaped untarnished, so much so that no biography has ever so much as mentioned the affair? In a political sense, the first question is almost irrelevant: if Macdonald did not know what was going on in relation to such an important matter in his own riding, then he should have done. As the Globe put it of the hapless Langevin: ‘If he is not an egregious dolt he is a rascal.’[97] Of course, the overwhelming probability is that he did indeed know. It was one thing for Macdonald to have claimed, during the 1874 Kingston election case, that he was not aware of petty infringements of the bribery laws committed by obscure supporters. But it would beggar belief that he knew nothing of the details of a major public works project that he had gifted to his own constituency to shore up his own electoral base ─ and which had so happily fallen into the hands of contractors who energetically  rounded up votes for him at the 1891 election.

It may even be suspected that Kingston received a dry dock, rather than the customs facility that was on the original civic shopping list, precisely because it chimed with Sir John A. Macdonald’s own business experience. In 1864 he had been appointed president of a dock and wharfage company in Quebec City. J.K. Johnson suggests that Macdonald may have been simply ‘a useful figurehead’, the type of arrangement that often brings a prominent politician on to a corporate board, but since he held the office for twenty-five years, it seems reasonable to assume that he acquired some knowledge of the dock business.[98] Indeed, the fact that he stood down in 1889, when the contract was let for the Kingston project, suggests the need to resolve a clash of loyalties if not an outright conflict of interest. It is highly unlikely that, after a quarter-century in the dockyard business, Macdonald would not have shown some interest in Andrew C. Bancroft. After all, this was a politician who made enquiries about the political affiliations of tradesmen supplying cordwood to the Kingston penitentiary. The likelihood that Macdonald knew all about the Bancroft scam throws new light on his response to the Langevin-McGreevy scandal. Joseph-Israel Tarte had warned him of the impending catastrophe as early as April 1890, but the prime minister took no action. In Peter Waite’s account, there is a certain nobility in his weary refusal to intervene: he would reciprocate the loyalty of a politician ‘who had stood by him through many a dark day’ and he would respect the autonomy of the Conservative party in Quebec ─ both of them worthy sentiments.[99] But a more murky interpretation emerges if we take aboard the probability that Macdonald foresaw that the unmasking of corruption in Langevin’s department would quickly expose the Bancroft skeleton in his own cupboard.

Yet throughout the censorious parliamentary discussion of the Bancroft contract during an opposition motion of censure during July and August 1891, nobody mentioned the name of the recently deceased member of parliament for Kingston. This was no accident. Macdonald had died on 6 June. Queen Victoria herself had engaged in a gesture unprecedented in any colony in her Empire, and sent condolences and a wreath.[100]  Across Canada, ‘the outburst of public feeling was remarkable’.[101] When the House of Commons met in formal session to mark his passing on 8 June, the senior cabinet minister, Hector Langevin, could barely utter a few sentences before breaking down. There can be no doubt that his grief was genuine, even if sharpened by the knowledge that the only politician who could save him from the engulfing tide of disgrace had been removed from the scene. Langevin’s emotion gave the opposition leader, Wilfrid Laurier, the tremendous opportunity to speak for Canada. His flowery oration was peppered with superlatives ─ ‘Canada’s most illustrious son ... it is almost impossible to conceive that the political life of this country, the fate of this country, can continue without him.’ Implicitly, Laurier was staking out his own claim to be Sir John Macdonald’s ultimate successor: ‘let grief be coupled with the resolution, the determination, that the work in which Liberals and Conservatives, in which Brown and Macdonald united, shall not perish, but ... still Canada shall and will live.’

Laurier’s tribute was quoted in full by three of the earliest biographies of John A. Macdonald.[102] True, the Liberal leader had the integrity to qualify his praise (‘his actions were not always the best that could have been taken in the interest of Canada’) but it would hardly have been possible, and definitely not seemly, for his party to accuse the man their leader had lauded for his ‘devotion to Canada’s welfare, Canada’s advancement, and Canada’s glory’ of conniving in the squalid manipulation of a public works contract in his own constituency. Besides, there was no point in going after the dead Macdonald when the opposition had the doomed target of Langevin in their sights. But, as so often where Macdonald was concerned, the Globe went the extra mile in bad taste. ‘The Old Man’s friends must feel in view of what is coming to light that he was fortunate in his time of dying.’[103]

The Connolly brothers may have cut corners when it came to paperwork, but they built well. Sir John Thompson’s defence of the government amounted to a plea that, whatever the cost, Canada had acquired a useful facility.[104] Enlarged in 1929-30, the dry dock gave good service until 1959 when the far larger vessels of the St Lawrence Seaway rendered it obsolete. It subsequently became a centrepiece of the city’s Great Lakes Marine Museum.[105] Liberals estimated that the Canadian taxpayer had been overcharged by about $60,000, and presumably that sum was the source of the $20,000 allegedly spent by the Macdonald campaign during the 1891 election. Written off over seven decades, it now seems one of the more benign scams in Canadian history. Its ethical weakness was, of course, that the dry dock was not constructed for the general good of Canada, as Thompson implied, but to serve the narrower interests of the city ‘where I was born and brought up, and where I have lived all my life’, in George Airey Kirkpatrick’s passionate defence of the interests of Kingston.[106] But if the Bancroft contract now strikes us as unacceptable sharp practice, we should perhaps also note the essential futility of Macdonald’s final exercise in pork-barrelling. Modern-day politicians also channel funded projects to their ridings, and in the second half of the twentieth century Kingston would become the recipient of major public-sector investment. However, in these more squeamish times, members of parliament must distance themselves from the contracts and the concrete mixers and hope that voters will record their appreciation through the ballot box. In 1889-91, Sir John A. Macdonald could not be so sure of the objective gratitude of the electors of Kingston. Hence it was necessary to finesse the contract and recycle the cash. The Bancroft contract represents a murky conclusion to Macdonald’s half century of association with Kingston and its needs. Perhaps it is for the best that the story has lain buried for so long. 


[1] LAC, Kimberley Papers, A317, Dufferin to Kimberley, private, 12 October 1873.

[2] LAC, Macdonald Papers, vol. 528, Macdonald to Stephen, private and confidential, 7 August 1888.

[3] ML I, p. 153.

[4] The 1871 census suggests that approximately 23 percent of the population of Ontario were males over 21, a proportion that rose to about 26 percent by 1891 (the census tabulated age groups over 20).

[5] TPD, p. 315.

[6] Montreal Herald, quoted Kingston Chronicle and Gazette, 8 August 1840.

[7] Daily British Whig, 2 July 1861; Wilson, ‘Eleven Years’, HK, 32, 1984, p. 47.

[8] New York Times, 2 August 1872.

[9] Kerr, CHR, 51, 1970, pp. 374-5; John Garner, The Franchise and Politics in British North America 1755-1867 (Toronto, 1969), pp. 105-17.

[10] A. Margaret Evans, Sir Oliver Mowat (Toronto, 1992), pp. 93-8, 128-9.

[11] Ward, Canadian House of Commons, pp. 214-15.

[12] Toronto Examiner, 23 October 1844.

[13]   Macdonald to O.R. Gowan, private, 22 March 1847, F.H. Armstrong, ‘The Macdonald-Gowan Letters, 1847’, OH, 63, 1971, p. 5 and see also ML I, p. 465.

[14] R. Cartwright, Reminiscences (Toronto, 1912), pp. 233-34.

[15] OC, p. 476; G.T. Stewart, ‘John A. Macdonald’s Greatest Triumph’, CHR, 63, 1982, pp. 3-33.

[16] The re-election of Liberal William Robinson in the Ontario general election of 1875 was celebrated by a triumphal procession of working men through the city: Robinson had been a house-painter before turning to politics. The demonstration included some categories such as grocers who might equally have been regarded as lower middle-class. It was intended to project the idea that working men backed the Liberals but this may not invariably have been the case. Globe, 25 January 1875. In 1887, the defeated Liberal candidate, Alexander Gunn, carried the three downtown wards but lost the outer fringe of the city to Macdonald. This may have reflected social divisions in their support, but the city was too small and the ward boundaries too artificial to sustain more than guesswork, especially given the fact of a secret ballot.

[17] Kerr, ‘1867 Elections’, CHR, 51, 1970, pp. 374-5; J.M. Beck, Joseph Howe: II, The Briton Becomes Canadian 1848-1873 (Kingston, 1983), pp. 169-70.

[18] Brady, ‘Sinners and Publicans’, OH, 76, 1984, p. 82.

[19] Globe, 19 November 1874.

[20] Brady, ‘Sinners and Publicans’, OH, 76, 1984, p. 74.

[21] YP, p. 99.

[22] Daily British Whig, 6 March 1891.

[23] Daily News, 13 June 1863.

[24] Daily British Whig, 6 March 1891.

[25] Kingston Daily News, 22, 23 June 1863.  The reorganisation of the Chown & McKelvey business can be traced through advertisements in the Daily News. John McKelvey recovered from the humiliation and became mayor of Kingston in 1876.

[26] This account follows Brady, ‘Sinners and Publicans’, OH, 76, 1984, pp. 65-87. See also Jeffrey Simpson, Spoils of Power: The Politics of Patronage (Toronto, 1988), pp. 81-3, and Globe, 18, 19, 23 November 1874.

[27] Brady, OH, 76, 1984, pp. 72, 86.

[28] Globe, 23, 27 November 1874.

[29] Swainson, ‘Alexander Campbell’, HK, p.88; DCB, 12, p. 153.

[30] Eadie, ‘Federal Election in Lennox’, OH, 76, 1984, p. 369. There was nothing conspiratorial about the fact that the letter was undated. It was simply one of Campbell’s quirks.

[31] Globe, 23 November 1874.

[32] Globe, 19 November 1874.

[33] Brady, ‘Sinners and Publicans’, OH, 76, 1984, p. 73.

[34] Globe, 19 November 1874.

[35] Globe, 23 November 1874.

[36] Cartwright, Reminiscences, p. 21.

[37] Jeffrey Simpson, Spoils of Power: the Politics of Patronage (Toronto, 1989 ed.), p. 13.

[38] ML I, Macdonald to Daly, 15 January 1845; Macdonald to Dunscomb, 9 July 1846, pp. 15, 38.

[39] ML I, pp. 37, 41.

[40] ML I, p. 34 and cf. p. 297.

[41] ML I, p. 92.

[42] J.K. Johnson in TPD, pp. 141-55.

[43] ML I, pp. 228-29 (letter to H. Smith, 27 January 1855). The question of the city’s influence was posed by Donald Creighton in ‘Sir John Macdonald and Kingston’, Canadian Historical Association Annual Report, 1950, pp. 72-80. His answer turned into a sermon against continentalism.

[44] ML I, telegram and letter to T.A. Begley, 4 August, 28 July 1856, p. 370.

[45] ML I, pp. 249-50, 371-72; ML II, pp. 148-49.

[46] Kingston Daily News, 27 February 1864.

[47] ML II, p. 301.

[48] ML I, p. 315.

[49] ML II, pp. 353, 310, 366.

[50] Macdonald to McCarroll (facsimile), 7 November 1859, in James McCarroll, ‘Some Social and Other Characteristics of the late Sir John A. Macdonald’, Belford’s Magazine, August 1891, p. 405.

[51] ML II, pp. 223, 216.

[52] ML I, p. 441.

[53] In January 1861, Macdonald wrote to the Napanee backbencher David Roblin: ‘I really could find no hole to put John C. into when I was at Kingston & I am at a loss what to do. I cannot make an office for him & he must be employed some way. Cant [sic] you suggest a road out of the difficulty[?].’ J.K. Johnson tentatively suggests that this refers to Counter. However, it is not clear why Macdonald would have sought help from Roblin in regard to Counter. The reference may be to a business associate of Roblin called Cameron. Either way, this enigmatic note confirms that Macdonald did not enjoy unlimited patronage in his own riding. Counter lived his final years in obscurity and died in 1862. ML II, pp. 294, 177; DCB, 9, pp. 162-63; TPD, pp. 144-52.

[54] ML I, pp. 231-2, 410.

[55] ML II, pp.156, 192; ML I, pp. 181-82.

[56] ML I, p. 455; ‘Young Non-Politician’, p. 179.

[57] ML II, p. 69.

[58] ML II, p. 367.

[59] James A. Roy, Kingston: The King’s Town (Toronto, 1952), p. 268. At an election meeting in 1861, John R. Dickson, a local medical practitioner, credited him with the establishment of the Queen’s medical school, of which he was a member: ‘it is to Mr. Macdonald  that we are indebted for that which has been the means of spending thousands of pounds in Kingston.’ But Dickson noted that Macdonald had ‘made no allusion’ to this in his own speech, and Hilda Neatby’s history of the University is also silent on the point. At the time, the Queen’s Medical Faculty was riven with personality clashes, and a local politician might well have preferred to keep his distance. Hamilton Evening Times, 14 June 1861, quoting Kingston Daily News, 11 June 1861.

[60] ML II, p. 54.

[61] ML II, p. 215.

[62] Daily British Whig, 8 December 1857.

[63] S.J.R. Noel, Patrons, Clients, Brokers: Ontario Society and Politics, 1791-1896 (Toronto, 1990), p. 211.

[64] ML II, p. 318.

[65] KBP, p. 181.

[66] Simpson, Spoils of Power, pp. 64-97. Noel, Patrons, Clients, Brokers: Ontario Society and Politics, 1791-1896 also makes few specific allusions to Kingston.

[67] J.K. Johnson, ed., Affectionately Yours: The Letters of Sir John A. Macdonald and His Family (Toronto, 1969), p. 106 (13 January 1868). The provincial sphere tended to grow. In 1878, control of the Asylum was transferred to the Ontario government. Evans, Mowat, p. 116 (KBP, p. 266 gives the transfer date as 1877).

[68] J. Willison, Reminiscences: Political and Personal (Toronto, 1919), p. 93; Evans, Mowat, p. 110.

[69] KBP, pp. 180-81.

[70] LAC, Macdonald Papers, vol. 517, Macdonald to C.D. Randall, 19 March 1870.

[71] LAC, Macdonald Papers, Vol. 516, Macdonald to Shaw (copy), 2 November 1869.

[72] LAC, Macdonald Papers, Vol. 516, Macdonald to Shannon (copy), 1 December 1869.

[73] LAC, Macdonald Papers, Vol. 518, Macdonald to Leven, 3 February 1871.

[74] Biggar, Anecdotal Life, pp. 200-1.

[75] LAC, Macdonald Papers, Vol. 521, Macdonald to O’Reilly (copy), private & confidential, 19 June 1872; TPD, pp. 269-70..

[76] Some hair-raising examples were alleged by a disillusioned former cabinet colleague, Peter Mitchell, in a letter published in CHR, 62, 1962, pp. 209-27.

[77] LAC, Macdonald Papers, Vol. 520, Macdonald to S.J. Drennan, private, 1 April; to S. Muckleston, 8 April; to John Creighton, private, 8 April; to Mrs Grimason, private, 15 June, all copies, 1872.

[78] TPD, p. 255; DCB, 11, pp. 216-17; Biggar, Anecdotal Life, pp. 237-41.

[79] LAC, Macdonald Papers, Vol. 518, Macdonald to T.W. Anglin, private, 10 January 1871.

[80] LAC, Macdonald Papers, Vol. 195. J.H. Metcalfe to Macdonald, private, 8 December 1879, and note by Campbell.

[81] OA, Alexander Campbell Papers, F23, Macdonald to Campbell, 20 May 1881. Macdonald quoted the opinions of the Vicar-General of the Regiopolis Diocese, Mgr Farrelly: the formidable Bishop  Cleary had only just arrived from Ireland.

[82] LAC, Macdonald Papers, Vol. 531, letters to Robert Sedgewick, 26 June, 2 July 1890, and to J.H. McIntyre, 26 June 1890.

[83] DCB, 11, p. 422.

[84] Debates of the House of Commons of the Dominion of Canada, 26, pp. 1012-18 (26 April 1889). DCB, 12, p. 604 for James Shannon.

[85] TPD, p. 247.

[86] Globe, 4, 5, 8, 16, 17, 22 July 1889. At the first hearing of the Macdonald  letter case, post office officials mysteriously failed to appear to give evidence, creating suspicion of a further cover-up. Globe, 18 July 1889.

[87] Debates of the House of Commons of the Dominion of Canada, 31, 22 May 1891, p. 432.

[88] LAC, Macdonald Papers, Vol. 530, Macdonald to Van Horne, 5 July 1890; TPD, pp. 162-63.

[89] Debates of the House of Commons of the Dominion of Canada, 31, 22 May 1891, p. 432.

[90] The account of the Langevin-McGreevy scandals that follows is based upon Waite, Canada 1874-1896: Arduous Destiny, pp. 231-35 and DCB, 12, pp. 626-30.

[91] The leading article in the Globe, 9 July 1891, provides a good summary of the affair, and see also its parliamentary report of 3 July 1891, and the debate on the opposition censure motion, Debates of the House of Commons of the Dominion of Canada, 32, cols. 4159-213 (20 August 1891).

[92] Globe, 3 July 1891.

[93] C. Cumming, Sketches from a Young Country: The Images of Grip Magazine (Toronto, 1997), p. 115.

[94] Globe, 8 July 1891.

[95] Debates of the House of Commons of the Dominion of Canada, 32, col. 4209 (20 August 1891).

[96] Why ‘Bancroft’?  Possibly not after Bancroft in Hastings County, so named in 1879 by the Liberal politician Billa Flint after his mother-in-law (DCB, 12 ,p. 322). It was the surname of a prominent American historian, and of the 17th Archbishop of Canterbury who had presided over the translation of the King James Bible. Its respectability was attested by the fact that the English actor manager Squire Butterfield had adopted it as a stage name.  The reassurance was probably subliminal, sounding a combination of ‘bank’ , which suggested financial probity and ‘croft’, which recalled the sturdy simplicity of life in the Scottish Highlands. ‘Andrew’ was a characteristic Scottish name.

[97] Globe, 9 July 1891.

[98] ‘Young Non-Politician’, p. 147.

[99] P.B. Waite, The Man from Halifax: Sir John Thompson Prime Minister (Toronto, 1985), pp. 287-88.

[100] Queen Victoria had privately described her Canadian prime minister as ‘an interesting, agreeable old man’ when he visited Windsor Castle in 1885. G.E. Buckle, ed., The Letters of Queen Victoria: Second Series, 3 (London, 1928), p. 583.

[101] Martin J. Griffin, ‘Sir John Macdonald’, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, August 1891, p. 158.

[102] Pope, Memoirs, II, pp. 339-43; Collins, pp. 531-34; Macpherson, II, pp. 455-59.  The phrase ‘shall not perish’ suggests an echo of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

[103] Globe, 9 July 1891.

[104] Debates of the House of Commons of the Dominion of Canada, 32, cols 4170-77 (20 August 1891).

[105] Research note by Earl Moorhead,, consulted 11 March 2008.

[106] Debates of the House of Commons of the Dominion of Canada, 32, col. 4190 (20 August 1891).