Sir John Eh? Macdonald

Published in British Journal of Canadian Studies, xvii (2004)


Historians talk a good deal about listening to voices from the past. By this, we mean that we read what the past had to say through contemporary documents. Unfortunately, in one important respect, all but the most recent times we are cut off from the sound of those voices: it is almost impossible to recapture the accent and delivery in which people actually spoke. Indeed, until the advent of modern mass media, even contemporaries had little idea how their leaders sounded unless they had actually met them or heard them speak in public. In Canada, the Diamond Jubilee celebrations of 1927 were the occasion of the first coast-to-coast national radio hook-up. This was probably the first time that most Canadians heard the voice of Mackenzie King, even though he had been their prime minister for most of the previous six years.1 The spread of radio in the nineteen-twenties enormously increased the number of people to whom politicians could have access. During the general election of 1930, Conservative leader R.B. Bennett delivered a keynote address to ten thousand people in an auditorium at Winnipeg, but it was estimated that another two million listened in at their own firesides.2 The enormous impact of the new medium explained the key element in the initial success of both Bennett and Alberta's Social Credit leader, William Aberhart.

Even the phonograph, invented by Edison as far back as 1878, proves a disappointing source for famous voices: for various reasons, many early recordings have not survived. Two of the most notable personalities in nineteenth-century Britain experimented with the machine. Queen Victoria sent a message to the Emperor of Abyssinia, but on mature reflection asked him to destroy the disk.3 With it perished our only chance to check on contemporary descriptions of her silvery tones.4 Gladstone made three recordings, between 1888 and 1890. Only one original survives, and even its provenance is doubtful, although if genuine it is said to bear out the claims that the Grand Old Man's accent retained slight traces of his youth in Liverpool. More remarkable still is the fact that, although the phonograph was an American invention, the recording of Gladstone seems to be the first example of the voice of a world statesman: no example of a President of the United States survives before Taft, who went to the White House in 1909.5

Thus it is not surprising that for Canada, we have only tantalising snatches of impressionistic evidence, such as the statement in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography that Laurier spoke English with a slight Scots accent, the price he paid no doubt for learning the language in New Glasgow, Quebec.6 What of Sir John A. Macdonald, a native of the real Glasgow, who emigrated to Canada at the age of five but was reared in an environment of exiled Scots? It is a hoary joke that not only is it possible to identify a Canadian by the national intonation of adding 'eh?' at the end of sentences, but that the country's founding prime minister himself was Sir John Eh? Macdonald. Yet the producers of historical docu-dramas have tended to endow their Macdonald character with a Scots accent (although rarely with one redolent of Glasgow itself), no doubt gratefully seizing upon so specific an identifier.7 How, then, did Macdonald speak? Can we recapture an accent that was apparently never recorded on disk, from a life that ended forty years before talking pictures?

We may begin by noting that as a public figure, Macdonald did not trade upon his voice. 'As an orator, Sir John Macdonald had more of the English than of the American manner,' wrote Martin Griffin, the Librarian of Parliament, adding 'he was direct in argument, but sometimes hesitating in speech'.8 Joseph Pope, Macdonald's secretary and authorised biographer, agreed: Macdonald 'rarely prepared his speeches, preferring the impromptu semi-conversational style of the English House of Commons.' Hector Fabre noted that Macdonald 'rather gropes through his opening sentences'. Pope acknowledged that Macdonald 'could not be called a great speaker'. Pope felt that his 'slightly hesitating manner, which disappeared under the influence of excitement, rather impeded the flow of his ideas'. G.W. Ross recalled that his speeches in the House of Commons were 'a sort of monologue, clear and coherent, notwithstanding frequent pauses as if waiting for a thought to crystallise, or to find the right word for his purpose.'9 A journalist in 1870 wrote that Macdonald's 'careless utterance, irregular inflections of voice, and general disregard of acoustic effect' made him 'the plague of the reporters' gallery'. Yet when roused, 'his voice swells and his words flow with extraordinary rapidity, when every sound is hushed and all ears bend to catch the rushing torrent of eloquence which rolls with overpowering velocity from his lips'.10 Twenty years later, his style of delivery was still 'peculiar'. 'He would run on for two or three sentences in a monotone in which but few words could be distinctly made out from the strangers' gallery; then he would throw out a single word with a tremendous jerk of the head, and with such emphasis that it could be heard in any part of the chamber.'11 An admiring biographer, J.E. Collins, perhaps laid it on too thick when he praised Macdonald's parliamentary speeches as 'models of clear, pure, incisive English', characterised by 'the flash of wit, and an under current of strong humour'. They were laced, too, occasionally with 'a keen sting of sarcasm, or a shaft of scorn'.12 The passion was carefully veiled: Fabre thought him 'too clever and too well versed in the knowledge of mankind to be cruel'. He possessed 'matchless tact' in dealing with awkward members: one day their support might be vital.13 'His suavity of manner and bonhomie seldom forsook him,' a journalist noted when Macdonald fell dangerously ill in 1870, 'even in answer to the roughest (and sometimes ... insulting) remarks.'14

In Macdonald's early years, 'his voice had a certain melody which he lost with advancing age'.15 By the time Pope knew him, in the eighteen-eighties, his voice 'while pleasant, was not strong, nor remarkably distinct'.16 But what did he sound like? Alexander Campbell was well placed to comment. A Yorkshire-Scot raised in Canada and married to an English wife, he was presumably sensitive to accents. More important, he entered Macdonald's law office as a student in 1839 and was at various times his business partner, political ally and candid critic through half a century. Writing apparently after Macdonald's death, and only shortly before his own, Campbell emphasised the Canadian influences in his speech. 'He was in tone of voice & manner as thoroughly a Bay of Quinte boy as if he had been born there.' Campbell, who cultivated an annoying aristocratic mien, was slightly disapproving of the way Macdonald would trade on his background when pleading before a country jury. Once, in an assault case, he said of the defendant, 'he took & went & hit him a brick'. 'Whether he at any time in his life lost altogether this tendency to drop into the colloquial phrases of his boy hood [sic] on the Bay of Quinte I must leave others to say.'17

Campbell's evidence is impressive, but not conclusive. The Macdonald family arrived in Kingston in 1820 and did not move to the Bay of Quinté, with its 'fine farms, beautiful scenery & bad roads',18 until about 1824. Soon after that, the boy was sent back to Kingston for his schooling: 'here my infancy was passed,' he declaimed at a banquet in the city in 1860, 'here my boyish days were spent'.19 He went home for his holidays, but there is an undercurrent of evidence that suggests that the star pupil from the Midland District Grammar School was not especially welcome among the half-wild children of Hay Bay and the Stone Mills.20 If John A. Macdonald talked the language of the Bay of Quinté, it was partly because he was a superb mimic. At the election of 1851, fifteen years after the whole family had finally returned to the city, Macdonald led a party of voters down to Prince Edward County, entertaining them with a burlesque of the 'sing-song' voice of an eccentric preacher who had led the Quaker meeting at Hay Bay. Macdonald's imitation 'was so perfect that ... the old man, if he had been a listener, would have been puzzled to tell t'other from which'.21

Macdonald's accent, we can assume, was much more Canadian than Scots. In many ways, the art of being a good mimic is the same of the secret of becoming an effective politician: both require an ability to listen. Did this imply that he might have slipped into a Scots accent in the company of his family and community? It is worth remembering that Macdonald was often thought to have been born in Canada.22 Even his faithful secretary, Joseph Pope, 'used to get puzzled as to which was really his native place', as his employer regaled him with successive reminiscences of childhood in Glasgow, Kingston and the shores of the Bay of Quinté. In later general elections of his career, Macdonald was obliged to contest three separate eastern Ontario ridings, and he laughingly agreed that the Toronto Globe had alleged that he came up with a new birthplace for each campaign.23 'A Scotchman,' one journalist wrote of Macdonald, 'it was long a moot question where he was born.' It would hardly have been possible to have called him 'colorless in nationality' had Macdonald spoken in the unmistakably Scottish tones that his political rivals, George Brown and Alexander Mackenzie, had brought with them to Canada in early manhood. The most we might expect is his speech retained some muted legacy of his family background. In 1891, Martin Griffin wrote that his voice 'was distinct and clear as a Scottish accent always makes any voice'. Griffin, Newfoundland-born and raised in Halifax, may have detected some trace of immigrant speech, but he seems to have been referring to enunciation rather than pronunciation.24 Parodying a famous slur by Dr Samuel Johnson, Macdonald once cheerfully admitted that despite his 'misfortune' to have been born a Scot, 'still, I was caught young, and brought to this country before I had been very much corrupted'.25 There is nothing 'corrupt' about a Scots accent, but equally it is unlikely that this particular piece of self-deprecation would have 'worked' had it been delivered in heavily Caledonian tones.

So: was he Sir John Eh? Macdonald? The British prime minister, Disraeli, who met him 1879, found his Dominion counterpart 'gentlemanlike, agreeable, and very intelligent, a considerable man, with no Yankeeisms except a little sing-song occasionally at the end of a sentence'.26 Macdonald did not toady to the great imperial statesman but, in Canada's interests, he did adopt a mildly deferential attitude,27 and this was obviously not the occasion to recount tales about a man who took and went and hit somebody a brick. Adjectives such as 'gentlemanlike' and 'agreeable' suggest someone who could express himself according to the values and speech-patterns of the hierarchical British elite. Hence the importance of Disraeli's detection of that 'little sing-song occasionally at the end of a sentence'. Faithful to the Canada he had done so much to create, John A. Macdonald did indeed round off his sentences with that harmless interrogative 'eh?'.

Three examples may be cited. In 1888-89, Canadian politics were inflamed by conflict between Protestant and Catholic opinion over the distribution of the Jesuit Estates in Quebec. Macdonald had spent much of his career avoiding or damping down the ever-present danger of sectarian collision, and where possible he made light of the Jesuit row. In March 1889, thirteen stalwart Protestant MPs divided the House of Commons in support of a demand for Dominion intervention to veto the controversial Quebec legislation. Meeting one of them in the lobby afterwards, Macdonald was reported to have jovially remarked: 'You belonged to the devil's down tonight, eh?'.28 A few months later, accepting an honorary degree from the University of Toronto, he made an equally flippant allusion to a bout of rivalry between Ontario's two leading universities. 'I wonder if this war between Queen's and Toronto will supersede the Jesuit agitation, eh?'.29 It was even a formula that crept into his correspondence. When prompt action by Charles Tupper, Canada's High Commissioner in London, saved a consignment of Canadian cattle from needless slaughter under misapplied health regulations, Macdonald promised that the coup would receive appropriate publicity. 'No use hiding one's light under a bushel, eh?'.30 There are many respects in which Macdonald spoke and acted as part of a Victorian British imperial world that is very distant from the Canada of today, as for instance in his characterisation of Wilfrid Laurier as a 'nice chap'.31 But in one characteristic respect, Canada's first prime minister sounded very Canadian indeed. He was, as the humorists have often assured us, Sir John Eh? Macdonald.


1. H.B. Neatby, William Lyon Mackenzie King, ii: 1924-1932. The Lonely Heights (Toronto, 1963), p. 230. 10,000 radio sets were in use in 1923; 297,000 by 1929. J.H. Thompson with A. Seager, Canada 1922-1939: Decades of Discord (Toronto, 1985), pp. 181-82.

2. Larry A. Glassford, Reaction & Reform: The Politics of the Conservative Party under R.B. Bennett 1927-1935 (Toronto, 1992), pp. 79-80. The Conservative Party's first-ever leadership convention in 1927 had received extensive radio coverage. However, Bennett's heavy reliance upon the radio to popularise his 'New Deal' in 1935 (shortly before heavy defeat in a general election) points to the limitations of the medium. With the notable exception of Rossevelt's 'fireside talks', politicians took some time to realise that radio audiences were assemblages of individuals who should not be harangued like a mass meeting. By contrast, neither George V nor, in particular, George VI were natural orators, and their radio performances in the nineteen-thirties made all the more impact. See, especially, Kenneth Rose, King George V (London, 1983), p.p. 393-94 for George V's first Christmas broadcast to the Empire in 1932 ('I speak now from my home and my heart to you all...); Harold Nicholson, King George V: His Life and Reign (1952), p. pp. 525-26 for his Jubilee address in 1935 ('Remember children, the King is speaking to you.'; J.W. Wheeler-Bennett, King George VI: His Life and Reign (London, 1958), p. 406, on the outbreak of War in 1939 ('In this grave hour ... I send to every household of my peoples, both at home and overseas, this message, spoken with the same depth of feeling for each and every one of you as if I were able to cross your threshold and speak to you myself.') On politicians and radio technique, see Philip Williamson, Stanley Baldwin: Conservative Leadership and National Values (Cambridge, 1999), pp. 83-85.

The invention of 'talkies' in 1928 offered another avenue for direct communication between leaders and people. However, a famous newsreel film showing R.B. Bennett introducing his cabinet by marching them awkwardly past the cabinet (and, revealingly, seeming to forget some of their names) demonstrates that Canadian politicians at least were slow in appreciating the advantages of the new medium. Overall, motion pictures added to American influence in Canada. Hollywood 'talkies' arrived in 1928 a month before the launch of a planned Canadian epic, a silent movie that failed dismally. Its title, Carry On, Sergeant, seems ironically appropriate. By no means everybody regretted the fact that the technology had not evolved earlier. When the British prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, commented that it would have been fascinating to have had a talkie from the reign of Queen Elizabeth in Tudor times, George V replied 'Damn Queen Elizabeth'.

3. Elizabeth Longford, Victoria RI (London, 1976), p. 721.

4. Cecil Woodham-Smith, Queen Victoria (New York ed., 1973), p. 139.

5. H.C.G. Matthew, Gladstone 1875-1898 (Oxford, 1995), p. 300; H.C.G. Matthew, ed., The Gladstone Diaries, XII (Oxford, 1994), p. 276. Two of Gladstone's recordings were specifically for the Edison Company to market on both sides of the Atlantic, the third was a greeting to the governor of New South Wales. At the time of recording, the quality was reportedly impressive ('Not only did I hear your incomparable voice', wrote the sound recordist on checking his equipment, 'but your breathing'.) Unfortunately, the Edison Company lacked the technology for mass reproduction from the original cylinder. Copies of the recording were made by using actors as impersonators. Gladstone was never noted for brevity, and it seems that one of his recordings ran out of cylinder space. By contrast, another was incorporated into a medley that included the popular song, 'Daddy wouldn't buy me a bow-wow'.

6. Dictionary of Canadian Biography, XIV, p. 610.

7. As in the feature film Canadian Pacific which dates from c. 1960.

8. Martin J. Griffin, 'Sir John Macdonald', Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, CL (1891), p. 163. After attending a political rally in Savannah, Georgia in 1845, Macdonald concluded that 'the great fault of American speakers' was that they were 'too theatrical in manner, & turgid in style'. J.K. Johnson, ed., Affectionately Yours: The Letters of Sir John A. Macdonald and His Family (Toronto, 1969), p. 42.

Our ideas of Macdonald's appearance are also limited by technology. Fast film was just coming into use at the time of his death in 1891: I know of no photograph of a prime minister of Canada laughing until 1893. Before that time, sitters had to adopt a fixed stare during the exposure of the film. Posterity's view of Alexander Mackenzie, prime minister 1873-78, has been shaped by a well-known pop-eyed rendering, and it is hard to appreciate that he possessed a lively sense of humour. Macdonald, a natural actor, was better at holding a pose, but the results may only offer a partial version of his appearance. 'If all Sir John's photographs and portraits appear unsatisfactory, it is partly because his expression was never the same twice.' W.F. Maclean, 'The Canadian Themistocles', Canadian Magazine, IV (1894-95), p. 256. For the first laughing prime minister, Peter B. Waite, The Man from Halifax: Sir John Thompson, Prime Minister (Toronto, 1985), frontispiece.

9. Joseph Pope, Memoirs of the Right Honourable Sir John Alexander Macdonald First Prime Minister of the Dominion of Canada (2 vols, Ottawa, 1894), II, pp. 284-85; George W. Ross, Getting Into Parliament and After (Toronto, 1913), p. 134. Ross was echoed by Martin Griffin: 'He was hesitating in manner; but the exquisite precision of phrase which marked his speeches showed always that he never spoke at random.' Obituary in the New York Independent, quoted in G. Mercer Adam, Canada's Patriot Statesman: The Life and Career of the Right Honourable Sir John A. Macdonald (Toronto, 1891), p. 562. Pope's biography quotes Fabre's assessment. These descriptions are in line with a sour description of Macdonald's celebrated five-hour defence of his handling of the Pacific Scandal in 1873: 'a mumbling, rambling, desultory kind of speech, if you could call it a speech'. But the peroration sounded the dignified note of a politician who evidently knew that his career was at an end. A.L. Burt, 'Peter Mitchell on John A. Macdonald', Canadian Historical Review, XLII (1961), p. 216. Famously, there were other influences that affected the coherence of Macdonald's remarks on that occasion. But the House of Commons usually met late in the day and it is likely that many of Macdonald's post-prandial speeches were delivered, to some extent, under the influence of alcohol. A famous defence of the British connection as 'a golden chain, and he, for one, was glad to wear it' on 30 March 1875 was delivered 'after recess' [i.e. for dinner] and drew from Alexander Mackenzie the laconic comment that Macdonald 'appeared to be speaking under some unusual excitement'. Debates of the House of Commons of the Dominion of Canada (ed. A.M. Burgess, Ottawa, 1875), pp. 980-81.

10. E.B. Biggar, Anecdotal Life of Sir John Macdonald (Montreal, 1891), p. 253. In fairness, it should be noted that the acoustics of the Canadian House of Commons were lamentably bad. As early as 1868, when the Ottawa buildings had only been in use for two years, an attempt was made to improve acoustics by hanging green baize around the walls. This improved the appearance but not the sound quality. One journalist wrote that reports had to adopt 'alarming postures', half-hanging out of the press gallery, and in any case 'the dull and unexciting nature of the proceedings' aroused little interest. Canadian News (London), 16 April 1868, p. 244, quoting the Ottawa correspondent of the Montreal Daily News, 18 March.

11. Biggar, Anecdotal Life, p, 256. Reporters had long experienced problems in reporting the opening of Macdonald's remarks. 'From the low tone in which he spoke,' noted a report of a speech on 23 March 1853, 'his first words were inaudible.' E. Gibbs at al., eds, Debates of the Legislature of the United Province of Canada, XII, part I, p. 2296.

12. J.E. Collins, Life and Times of the Right Honourable Sir John Macdonald Premier of the Dominion of Canada (Toronto, 1883), p. 505.

13. Hector Fabre, quoted in Pope, Memoirs, II, p. 285.

14. Montreal Gazette, 9 May 1870.

15. Biggar, Anecdotal Life, p. 256. In his early career, Macdonald seems to have been critical of the pitch of his own voice. Congratulating Oliver Mowat on his maiden speech in 1858, he wrote: 'You speak in too high a key, and strain your voice, so that it falls not too pleasantly upon the ear.' The letter was signed 'don't imitate ... John A. Macdonald'. C.R.W. Biggar, Sir Oliver Mowat: A Biographical Sketch (2 vols, Toronto, 1905), I, p. 83. Charles Langelier, a Liberal MP from 1886 to 1890, recalled in 1909 that Macdonald had a pleasant voice and charming smile, but added that his nose was his most glorious feature. P.B. Waite, 'Sir John A. Macdonald: The Man', in H.L. Dyck and H.P. Krosby, eds, Empire and Nations: Essays in Honour of Frederic H. Soward (Toronto, 1969), p. 36.

16. Pope, Memoirs, II, p. 284.

17. Archives of Ontario, Campbell Papers, undated memorandum.

18. Macdonald's description after a return visit in 1849, Johnson, ed., Affectionately Yours, p. 63.

19. Address of the Hon. John A. Macdonald to the Electors of the City of Kingston (1861), pp. 1-2.

20. Poor relations with other children seem clear from Biggar, Anecdotal Life, pp. 24-27, 250.

21. Canniff Haight, Country Life in Canada Fifty Years Ago (Toronto, 1885), pp. 297-98.

22. E.g the undated report in the Chicago Republican, quoted Canadian News (London), 24 October 1867, p. 263, which also termed Macdonald 'the Bismarck of Canada'.

23. Pope, Memoirs, I, p. 6.

24. Griffin's obituary in the New York Independent, quoted Adam, Canada's Patriot Statesman, p. 562. Macdonald's parents were Highlanders, and Highland pronunciation is often taken as a pure form of English. It seems that, thirty years after his arrival in Canada, Brown was still prefacing his obiter dicta with the characteristic phrase, 'Eh mon...'. Early in his parliamentary career Mackenzie caused some amusement in the Assembly with his riposte to Joseph Cauchon, 'Who told you I was a Scotchman?' J.M.S. Careless, Brown of the Globe: ii, The Statesman of Confederation (Toronto, 1963), p. 360; Dale C. Thomson, Alexander Mackenzie: Clear Grit (Toronto, 1960), p. 66. Cartoonists often captioned Mackenzie speaking in a Scots accent, but not Macdonald. Cf. J.W. Bengough, A Caricature History of Canadian Politics (ed. D. Fetherling, Toronto, 1947), p. 115. But stereotypes did not always apply. A British politician who met D'Arcy McGee in 1865 thought him 'a thorough Celt in appearance' but was surprised to note that he 'has not much brogue'. A. Hawkins and J. Powell, eds, The Journal of John Wodehouse First Earl of Kimberley for 1862-1902 (Camden Fifth Series, London 1997), p. 162.

25. Address of the Hon. John A. Macdonald to the Electors of the City of Kingston, p. 6. Macdonald also made jokes about kilts, and what might or might not be worn under them. Johnson, ed., Affectionately Yours, p. 83; Biggar, Anecdotal Life, p. 204. In 1875, he joined the Anglican Church. His conversion may have been linked to a personal crisis that culminated in his victory over alcohol. Equally, it was conveniently timed to avoid the internal controversies that accompanied the reunification of the two main streams of Canadian Presbyterianism that year.

26. Marquis of Zetland, ed., The Letters of Disraeli to Lady Bradford and Lady Chesterfield (2 vols, London, 1929), II, p. 236. It is a measure of the marginal importance of Canada to the British political elite that prior to 1879 meetings between the two leaders had been merely formal. Pope, Memoirs, II, pp. 204-6.

27. See Macdonald's letter to Disraeli (by then, Lord Beaconsfield), 7 October 1879, reporting that 'Canada has been in a state of pleasurable excitement' thanks to his speech at Aylesbury in which Canada 'was favourably spoken of'. Pope, Memoirs, II, p. 207.

28. J. R. Miller, Equal Rights: The Jesuits' Estates Act Controversy (Montreal, 1979), p. 76.

29. Donald Creighton, John A. Macdonald: The Old Chieftain (Toronto, 1955), p. 519.

30. Macdonald to Tupper, 24 October 1883, E.M. Saunders, ed., The Life and Letters of the Rt. Hon. Sir Charles Tupper (2 vols, London, 1916), II, p. 18.

31. Modern Canadians would find it hard to identify with the vocabulary of a leader who privately referred to Laurier as a 'nice chap'. Joseph Pope, The Day of Sir John Macdonald (Toronto, 1915), p. 161.