Eight Ways To Look At Sir John A. Macdonald

January 11th was Sir John A. Macdonald’s 200th birthday. As Canada’s first prime minister and key founding father, he deserves to be remembered. Across the country there were cakes, candles, songs, and speeches. Many Canadians will enjoy celebrations of one sort or another all year. Others, however, will not celebrate but castigate. The attacks have begun and some have been viscous.

The spirited debates remind us of history’s importance and of its terrific habit of never shutting up. History is not a warm bath of nostalgia but a mean teacher that forces us to think of things we have not before and, even more importantly, consider things we thought we knew for sure. The conflicted commemoration of our first prime minister is as it should be for there are at least eight ways to see Sir John.

Brady-Handy_John_A_Macdonald_-_cropped

Creator: In the 1860s, Americans were butchering each other over whether to enslave each other and threatening an invasion of the British colonies on their northern border. The bitty Brits with their dysfunctional governments and a mother country more interested in abandoning than embracing them, needed to save themselves by creating themselves. Canada’s birth had many midwives, but the conferences and subsequent debates that brought it into the world would have failed without Sir John’s charm and political acumen. The Constitution creating the state to house the nation was written largely in his hand.

Saviour: With the Civil War’s end, the United States demanded astronomical reparations from Britain for its role in prolonging the conflict. The Americans offered to trade the cash for Canada. As part of the British delegation in Washington, to negotiate what was called the Alabama claims, Macdonald deftly controlled the agenda. He refused to be bribed by the Brits or bullied by the Americans. He left with generous concessions and the swap swept from the table.

Visionary: Macdonald knew Canada must grow or be gone and the only way was west on rails. Without the railway, British Columbia could join the United States and the United States could, as its Manifest Destiny decreed, take the prairies. The railway idea was ludicrous. It would be the world’s longest railway through the world’s most inhospitable land. The rocks and impenetrable forests of the Precambrian shield would be hard, the muskeg that could swallow men and machines would be harder, and the snow-peaked Rockies would be impossible. Macdonald told British Columbians they’d have the steel line to the Pacific in ten years and the money flowed and hammers rang. His will and conniving saw the impossible done and Canada linked from sea to sea.

Centralist: Macdonald put power in parliament. He saw the prime minister as the servant of the House and provinces like municipalities. Parliament could overturn provincial laws deemed to contradict the national interest and he disallowed many. He interpreted parliament’s purchase of what is now most of the west as its ownership of the land and resources. When premiers met to complain, he refused to attend.

Charlatan: He was not above political trickery to get or keep power. Globe editor and Reform Party leader George Brown learned the hard way when Macdonald tricked him into office and then two days later tricked him right back out again. He used patronage jobs to openly and unapologetically reward friends and punish enemies. He was once scandalized out of power when caught linking political donations to railway contracts.

Rogue: No one knew more stories and jokes than Sir John. No one remembered more names or slapped more backs. He never met a voter with whom he disagreed or an opponent he did not try to woo. He once entered his occupation in a hotel ledger as “cabinet maker”. A hard drinker, he once threw up during a campaign speech but then won the election. He told another audience that Canadians preferred him drunk to George Brown sober – he was right. He was a scoundrel but he was their scoundrel.

Racist: He imported Chinese workers for the worst and most dangerous railway construction jobs. With the task done, Macdonald acted to have them kicked out and the door barred. He did not want Canadians to become what he called a “mongrel race”. Native nations were in the way. Macdonald swept the plains by emptying bellies and filling schools in a slow-motioned cultural genocide.

Founding Father: To our American friends, consider this: Sir John was like your Thomas Jefferson in that he provided the philosophical foundation upon which the country was based; he was like your James Madison as he was primary among those who wrote the constitution; he was like your George Washington in that he was Canada’s first chief executive and fully cognizant that everything he said or did set a precedent that would affect the behaviour of every prime minister that followed – so Sir John was your Jefferson, Madison, and Washington rolled into one man.

Sir John's Grave

Sir John’s humble grave site

Sir Christopher Wren, the man who designed St Paul’s Cathedral, one of the most spectacularly graceful and awe-inspiring buildings on the planet, once said that if you wished to see his monument you should look around. Canada is not as perfect as St. Paul’s but no country is. However, while flawed, it is safer, richer, and more democratic than most. Its long and fascinating history bursts with sources of pride and shame as well as progress and redemption. So as the key figure in creating, building, and saving the country, it is fitting and proper that we commemorate Sir John. Without him there would be no Canada. Perhaps we honour him best by acknowledging that he was as complex a man as is the country he left in our care. Perhaps we understand him as we understand Wren, by looking around.

 An edited version of this column appeared as part of Globe and Mail debates in which I was asked to be one of four historians to consider whether Sir John was a “Visionary or Hateful Embarrassment”. You can see what the others wrote and vote for who you think should win at http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/sir-john/article22362438/

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Lessons Learned from Fear, Vision and Tradition

On a cool September afternoon a group of Canadians aboard a luxury ship arrived at the picturesque Charlottetown harbour. They dressed in their best finery and awaited a grand welcome. It didn’t come. Instead, a lone man appeared in a row boat far below and shouted up an invitation to dinner. It was an unexpected beginning to a week that for many would have an unexpected end. Within nine days, most of it spent dining, drinking, and dancing, a new country would be born.

The men assembled embarked on an audacious experiment that remains underway. In the shadow of a brutal war and the demands of an unforgiving clock they attempted to improve on what the British had bequeathed and the Americans seemed intent on burning. We can better understand today by considering what they created then.

Wily politician and political survivor John A. Macdonald led the Canadian delegation. At that moment – September 1, 1864, 150 years ago – Canada was a dysfunctional amalgam of what are now the southern bits of Ontario and Quebec. They were crashing a previously arranged meeting of delegates from New Brunswick, PEI, and Nova Scotia who were gathering to discuss a possible Maritime union.

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Author with Sir John A. and George Brown (OK, not really)

 
Confederation had been discussed and dismissed for years. But changes in the United States and Britain meant that to save itself Canada had to create itself. America had fallen into Civil War. It left cities burned and families destroyed. If we extrapolated the population then for now it would claim the equivalent of over six million lives.

Canada and the Maritimes were officially neutral but most newspapers were pro-South, Halifax and Saint John ports sold goods to both sides, factories ran weapons to the South, an anti-Lincoln political party operated from Windsor, and a Confederate spy ring organized raids from Toronto and Montreal. American newspapers and generals threatened and Lincoln hinted that when the war ended, the Northern army would turn north.

Britain had dispatched 11,000 troops to the border but a powerful group of British politicians were questioning the cost of that defence and of imperialism itself. They wanted the expensive and troublesome British North American colonies to find their own way.

Canada resembled a teenager whose parents were kicking her out of the house. She wouldn’t move in with the neighbours because their house was on fire. She needed to build a new house. The architects met in Charlottetown. They were government and opposition members who had pledged to surrender partisanship for the greater good.

The United States was the world’s first and most successful manifestation of John Locke’s 18th century Enlightenment ideas. But the men (and they were all men) in Charlottetown believed that while the sentiments were noble, the Civil War was demonstrating that America’s attempt to create an enlightened republic was a blazing failure. They channelled Irish nationalist and British Member of Parliament Edmund Burke. He believed that governments should not be based upon temporary popularity which he equated to shouts from a mob, but on tested and respected tradition. Facts and the circumstances of the day should dictate reasonable solutions; decisions should never be based on blind adherence to an ideology. With admiration for Burke and Britain and America as their negative example they envisioned Canada.

Power, they said, should not rest with the executive – they derided the American president as a four-year dictator – but with parliament. Through free elections, they argued, the people should not pick a prime minister or even a government. Rather, voters should create a House and the House would choose the government according to which group could earn support. Members of parliament must not be delegates merely echoing the views of their constituents but thoughtful free thinkers unencumbered by the often un- or ill-informed electorate or partisan newspapers. The Senate must be appointed to keep it illegitimate so that real power remained where it belonged – in the House. The struggle for State’s rights had led to the Civil War so they insisted that the federal government alone speak for Canada. They saw provinces as municipal in nature and restricted their power to areas on a short, proscriptive list. The British monarch should oversee it all as Head of State.

Anniversaries, and a 150th is one of significance, are invitations to reflect on the past and ponder the future. Canada was born of fear, vision and tradition. What of the old fear? The Americans may not be ready to bomb us anymore but have they bought us? What of the old vision? A democratic state locates power to best serve the nation but are we happy with where power has been relocated? What of the old tradition? Should we pursue our sovereignty by eschewing the sovereign? What would Sir John say? More importantly, on our collective anniversary, what do you say?

An edited version of this article appeared last week in the Ottawa Citizen, Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun. To discover more about Canada’s birth in the shadow of the American Civil War and about Canada’s involvement in that war please see “Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation”.

http://www.amazon.ca/Blood-Daring-Canada-Fought-American/dp/0307361462/ref=sr_1_1_title_2_pap?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1410174613&sr=1-1

We Always Recall the First

George Washington was America’s first president but who was the second? Can’t recall? It’s a rare Canadian that couldn’t name Sir John A. Macdonald as their first prime minister but how many know their second? We seldom remember the second of anything. Because the purpose of History is to recall our past without prejudice in order to better understand our present with clarity our natural predilection to focus only on the first is a shame.

Canada’s second prime minister, like America’s second president, was a man whose character was sound, ambitions restrained, and accomplishments significant. Are those not qualities that we value in leaders and celebrate in those who helped shaped our story? It is with this perspective that we should recall and understand Canada’s second prime minister, Alexander Mackenzie.

Those who work with stone must be patient. To rush is to risk crumbling what to an untrained eye seems indestructible but to the skilled mason can be carefully shaped to stand and serve forever. Imagine a stone carver bringing that sensibility to the leadership of a nation.

Mackenzie learned to work with stone while a boy in his native Scotland. He was born in 1822 to a large and poor family. By the age of 16 he had mastered his craft and was helping with expenses. The Mackenzie family was one of thousands who fled poverty for the hope of a better life in Canada. Mackenzie’s skills acquitted him well and he soon secured contracts to build houses, churches, canals and public buildings. He eventually settled in Sarnia, Canada West.

A dour man, Mackenzie was slow to smile, joked only to jibe, drank very little for those hard-drinking days, and believed sports a waste of energy. He was none the less a popular figure in Sarnia and became active in public affairs including serving on the fire brigade and school board. He was attracted to the Reform Party (a precursor to the current Liberals) which reflected his belief in free markets and rewards based on merit and effort. He won a seat in the legislature in 1861, just as the American Civil War was seeing the butchering of brothers and the increasingly belligerent neighbour was leading Canadian political leaders to sense the urgent need to protect the country by growing the country.

alexander mackenzie Mackenzie

At first Mackenzie opposed his party’s joining with the hated Conservatives to bring about Confederation. He was not convinced that the scheme was a good idea and he had little respect for John A. Macdonald who he considered politically duplicitous and personally unsavory. The Great Coalition government nonetheless created the skeleton that would become Canada.

The Confederation negotiations led to Reform leader George Brown’s resignation in 1865 and a party crisis. Too many men of too little talent vied to succeed him. Mackenzie watched the leadership competition with disdain while continuing to work hard at his craft and in both the provincial and federal legislatures. His talents and diligence were rewarded when in March, 1873 he won the party’s leadership. He had little time to celebrate, however, for within a month the Pacific Scandal rocked the Macdonald government. In November it fell.

Mackenzie was asked to form a government and shortly afterwards he called for an election. Few outside of south western Ontario knew him. Although disgraced, Macdonald remained a giant. To Canadians he was a rogue but he was their rogue and they had grown used to forgiving his mistakes and foibles. The scandal, however, had been too much. Canadians turned on him and handed Mackenzie a handsome 60-seat majority.

Mackenzie faced a number of problems going forward and the first was the knives in his back. The Reformers/Liberals were at war with each other and the worst of the lot was the conniving and ambitious Edward Blake. He believed he should be party leader and even had the temerity to ask Mackenzie to step aside so that he could become prime minister. Of greater importance to Canadians was that the country had slid into a deep recession. Contracts were cancelled, trade declined, and unemployment climbed. Absent today’s social programs, the suffering was devastating. Another leader may have panicked or taken rash action but the stone carver weighed options and moved slowly.

Plummeting tax revenue met demands for more funds to continue the massive railway project that Macdonald had begun. Mackenzie was forced to slow construction and even ask the people of British Columbia who had been promised the line to entice them to join Canada to wait a little longer. Railway construction continued but at a much slower, more affordable pace.

Canada was less than a decade old. While Mackenzie needed to address current issues he also recognized his responsibility to build the infant country. In 1875, he created the Supreme Court of Canada. It was designed to wrest power from Britain’s Judicial Committee of the Privy Council which at that point was Canada’s court of last resort. It would not be until 1949 that Canada’s Supreme Court would be truly supreme but Mackenzie’s action was an important step in Canada’s march toward judicial independence.

Mackenzie had been a militia major and respected the military’s role in securing Canada’s defence and establishing its sovereignty. He undertook a complete overhaul of the Department of Militia and Defence. He also established Canada’s first military training college in Kingston.

He completely revamped Canadian democracy. Mackenzie introduced the secret ballot. He passed laws that led to elections being held in all ridings on the same day. He removed property as a qualification for candidates for public office. To protect the people from unscrupulous politicians he created the office of the Auditor General and had it report not to the prime minister but to parliament.

The sprawling country was linked with three bold new laws. The Post Office Act created door-to-door delivery to cities across Canada. The Weights and Measures Act said that everyone had to begin using the same systems. The Collection of Criminal Statistics Act modernized police services across the country through the gathering, filing and sharing of information.

Mackenzie’s government had accomplished a great deal but the people cared more about the government’s addressing immediate needs and those needs had become desperate. There were even food riots in Montreal. While all of this was going on Sir John was reinventing campaigning by creating the political BBQ. He travelled the country attending outdoor picnics where he worked his inimitable charm and slowly earned forgiveness. In the election of September, 1878 Canadians returned the old chieftain to power.

Alexander Mackenzie’s service as Canada’s second prime minister was one of significant accomplishment. He acted with the stone carver’s patience and precision. He slowly did what could be done, left what should be left alone, and carefully moved the project along – the Canada project – the sculpture that to this day remains, as it should, under construction.

(And by the way, the second American president was John Adams.)

A version of this column appeared originally on the excellent site Leaders and Legacies. Find it at http://leadersandlegacies.com/2014/06/26/building-a-nation-brick-by-brick-canadas-forgotten-prime-minister/

The Slave Who Helped Create Two Countries and Wreck a Third

John Anderson was born property. At 29 he was a prisoner. He was seated in Toronto’s Osgood Hall while outside on the chilly morning of December 15, 1860 stood fifty armed police officers. A company of the Royal Canadian Rifles stood with muskets ready and bayonets menacingly attached. All were prepared for the demonstration promised and the riot expected should the court decision go as the crowd of two hundred or so Anderson supporters feared. Stretchers were piled against a wall, ready to haul away the injured and killed.

His adventure had begun seven years before. He had run when life as a Missouri slave had become too much. It was too much to watch his mother being beaten and then sold. It was too much to lose his name. It was too much to be kept from living with his wife and child. It was too much to be denied opportunity; to be denied his very humanity. And so he ran. In running he had committed a crime for he robbed his owner by stealing himself.

On the third day of his flight, Anderson accidently stumbled upon a White farmer named Seneca Digges and four of his slaves. They gave chase and for thirty minutes ran through woods and fields until Anderson encountered Digges. Digges raised either a cane or a tree branch and they fell together. Anderson’s knife plunged three times into Digges’ chest and back.

Dirty, exhausted and starving, Anderson slowly snuck his way north. When he encountered a White man who offered a meal and bed for the night Anderson boarded the Underground Railroad. A few weeks later he was over the Detroit River and in Windsor, Canada West. With the help of a thriving Black community he learned to read and do sums and within a few years he had learned masonry, begun his own business and purchased a house.

Anderson confided to a friend that he had stabbed a man while fleeing. He was betrayed and arrested. A judge informed Missouri officials that Anderson was in a Brantford jail. Soon, officials from the Missouri governor to the American Secretary of State were writing to Canadian and British leaders demanding his extradition.

Anderson had moved from slave to symbol. Southerners had grown enraged with the Canadian Black communities and the abolitionists that enabled them. For generations they had insisted that slaves were unable and unwilling to work, read, or succeed on their own. And yet, up in Canada, ex-slaves were illuminating the lie that was the foundation of their economic, political and social ethos. The Underground Railroad, Northern abolitionists, and Canada had in this way become part of the Southern impetus to insist on State Rights and contemplate a divorce from the American state.

If Anderson could be extradited then the Canadian Black communities and the Underground Railroad itself could be destroyed with slave catchers able to grab prey in Canadian cities as easily and legally as if they were Boston or New York. A New Orleans attorney wrote, “We are going to have Anderson by hook or by crook; we will have him by fair means or foul; the South is determined to have that man.”

John Anderson

At that time, Canadians were debating their future as a British colony, a new country, or perhaps an American state. Meanwhile, a growing number of influential British leaders were advocating cutting ties with the increasingly expensive and bothersome Canada. The Anderson case led other Brits to argue that there was a moral issue at stake that trumped political concerns. They advocated intervening in the case even if it kept Canada colonial and threatened war with the United States.

The court decided that Anderson must be returned to Missouri but there was an appeal. American Secretary of State Lewis Cass wrote a letter insisting that Anderson be immediately sent south. British Prime Minister Palmerston demanded that Anderson be dispatched to Britain. Canada’s Attorney General summoned the temerity to say no to both. His name was John A. Macdonald, soon afterwards, an independent Canada’s first prime minister. He quietly covered all Anderson’s legal bills.

Sir John A Macdonald

John A. Macdonald

Finally, after weeks of legal wrangling and insults across the ocean, over the Canadian border and back and forth across the Mason-Dixon Line, the time had come for a final decision. British, American and Canadian reporters were huddled in the imposing courtroom as police and soldiers outside nervously held their weapons. Three justices argued that the Missouri writ had charged Anderson with killing and that there was no such crime – the only charge available was murder. On a technicality, Anderson was free to go.

Anderson rose unsteadily to his feet and beamed a huge smile. In a quiet voice he whispered, “Thank you, gentlemen—thank you, your lordships.” The gavel fell and there was a roar of shouting and applause from those in the courtroom and from the crowd shivering outside in the snow.

Canadian reaction was ecstatic for it was a three-way victory. Anderson was free. Canada had told the United States to forget its designs its Black citizens and to respect its borders. It told Britain to mind its own business. Macdonald pushed and in March 1862 the British government passed the Habeas Corpus Act rendering it illegal for Britain to issue writs in Canada. A major step toward Canadian nationhood had been taken.

Canadian and American abolitionists quickly had Anderson delivering speeches to educate and raise funds. By June, he was in England delivering more speeches. His largest audience was at Exeter Hall, where the newly formed John Anderson Society welcomed six thousand to see him.

Meanwhile, Fort Sumter had been pummelled and Bull Run bullets had screamed. By 1862, the American Civil War was grinding into its second year. Anderson was no longer needed to make a point or further a cause. Without consulting him, British abolitionists arranged for him to be given land in and passage to Liberia.

On December 22, 1862, Anderson delivered his last speech. As always, he ended with the mournful hope that he might again see his family. The next day he was aboard a steamer bound for Cape Palmas. There are no records of him in Liberia, nor of his wife Maria or their child in Missouri. They became as lost to history as they were to each other. However, John Anderson’s legacy lives on in the America that was torn in two and Confederacy and Canada he had inadvertently, with his primal desire to be free, helped to create.

To discover more about John Anderson and Canada’s role in the American Civil War please check out Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation, available online and, if you can still find one, book stores everywhere. http://www.amazon.ca/Blood-Daring-Canada-Fought-American/dp/0307361446

 

Our Forgotten Father

Next year will be a great party. Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s founder, builder and savior turns 200. Already ahead of the game, Prime Minister Harper, historians, pundits and even twitter trolls have started the celebration. A group called Sir John A 2015 has organized narrated walks in his home town of Kingston and a play and more. On June 6, I will be at his Kingston gravesite as the keynote speaker at a ceremony commemorating his passing.

It is fitting and proper that we take the time to celebrate Sir John because without him there would be no Canada. Without Sir John Canadians today would all be Americans. I am certain that part of the commemoration will note that there is a great deal of darkness in his legacy. His attitudes regarding Chinese immigrants and Native People were of his time but rightfully make us cringe. His drinking would make Toronto’s Mayor Ford look responsible and we cannot forget that he was once pushed from office by an inexcusable election spending scandal. We must remember, of course, that none of us are perfect people nor is there such a thing as perfect prime minister.

Our remembering Sir John, warts and all, will allow us recall that history’s greatest gift is a better understanding of today. To honour the gift we must fully understand the lessons offered; history, after all, is not an ideological weapon or a nostalgic crutch. History is a teacher and like any good teacher it makes you work. In this case, we must concede that Sir John had to be dragged into Confederation. The man who did that deed was George Brown – our forgotten father.

Image George Brown

Everybody knew Brown. He founded and edited the Globe. It was Canada’s most respected and widely-read newspaper at a time when papers were the sole source of news and when all were unfair and unbalanced voices of a particular party. Brown led the Reform Party; not Preston Manning’s party but a precursor of our current Liberals. As such, he and the Globe never tired of criticizing Macdonald and his Tories, at that time called the Liberal-Conservatives. (I know, it’s odd.)

Brown and Macdonald were more than opponents – they were enemies. They first clashed over an issue involving the Kingston penitentiary. Macdonald later outfoxed Brown in a dirty but legal trick called the double-shuffle. Brown became prime minister for two days only to be unseated by the wily Macdonald. They grew to despise each other.  Brown was intelligent and hard working but never seemed able to best him. Macdonald was once heckled about his drinking and quipped that Canadians seemed to prefer him drunk to Brown sober.

Like everyone else, Brown knew that the current Canadian political structure was a wreck. Pushed together into one colonial state, the largely English Canada West (Ontario) and the largely French Canada East (Quebec) was so dysfunctional that decisions could not be made, the economy was collapsing and opportunities to expand could not be exploited. Brown tried for years to reform or split the colony in two but it was rejected over and over again. Finally, he cajoled his party into a meeting at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market. Beneath the golden glow of the gas lights and the stares of hideous gargoyles, he shook hands, slapped backs and twisted arms until the convention adopted Confederation as part of its platform. The party would support a new government based on a federal scheme where the two provinces could handle municipal matters and the central or federal government could handle larger affairs that demanded broader, more strategic thinking and legislation. He then returned to the House and tried in vain to bring the idea forward. Every attempt was blocked by Macdonald, Cartier and the Tories.

While Canadians refused to entertain change, the United States changed everything. In 1861 it fell into a Civil War that would lead to the death of over 600,000 Americans. Because of Canadian and British reactions to the war and involvement in it, a very real threat arose that when the shooting stopped the Union army would be turned north to take Canada. After the 1863 battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg it became apparent to all that the North would win. At the same time, influential British leaders, called Little Englanders, were saying that they were through supporting Canada. Confederation had thus gone from a good idea to a necessity. If Canadians wanted to stay Canadian they would need to form a bigger, richer, and more efficient Canada. Canada had to invent itself to save itself.

Brown had left politics for a while but returned determined to put partisanship and personal enmity aside to advance the national interest. He single-handedly revived the idea of Confederation. He bullied forward a motion to form a committee to investigate Confederation. They met in a small room and they were all there – Macdonald, Cartier and many others we all know as Canada’s founders, the Fathers of Confederation. Brown stood, locked the door, and dramatically slid the key into his vest pocket. He glared at his startled colleagues and said, “Now gentleman. You must talk about this matter, as you cannot leave this room without coming to me.” He forced them to talk. He forced them to keep talking. The committee eventually developed a proposal for Confederation.

But before the committee could report, the government fell yet again. Its fall proved the point Brown was making – the system was broken. He called Cartier and Macdonald to his hotel room and a shocking deal was struck. Macdonald rose in the House the next day and surprised all when he announced not that yet another election would be held but rather that a coalition government would be formed. Brown, his well-known and well-connected enemy, would join the cabinet. There were cheers and a line formed to shake Brown’s hand. A diminutive Quebec member hugged Brown and loudly exclaimed that he had saved the country while for a moment hanging ludicrously from Brown’s neck.

The Great Coalition, as it was called, persuaded Nova Scotia, PEI and New Brunswick to invite the Canadians to a conference they had already scheduled to consider their political future. Brown and the Canadians arrived and soon the Maritimers forgot their idea for union and began discussing a broader Canada. Brown led the discussion of the intricacies of a new, federal-based constitution.  In the brilliant sunshine of tiny Charlottetown and the incessant rain of bustling Quebec City and all in the shadow of the bloody Civil War, a unique and unlikely new country was born.

Brown is important today for the example he offers. Politicians can look beyond the next election and beyond personal and political differences and the scoring of partisan points. We can accept coalition governments as valid expressions of democracy. We can see compromise as a sign of strength and not a surrender of principal. Let us celebrate Sir John but let us not forget George Brown.

Sir John the Saviour

Part of the joy of being an author is the privilege of travelling the country and meeting people who share a passion for books and ideas. Interviews are fascinating too because questions reveal the issues that are stirring interest. The questions are sometimes surprising.

Last January I was speaking with an American journalist from Louisiana about my book dealing with Canada and the American Civil War. She said, “I read your book and admit I had never heard of John Macdonald. It seems like he was quite was a big deal.” “Yes,” I offered politely, “He was and is quite a big deal.”  She continued, “So how would you explain Macdonald to our American readers in one sentence?” “Well,” I said, drawing a breath, “Macdonald is like America’s James Madison in that he led the writing of our constitution, and he is like your Thomas Jefferson in that he provided the ideological basis and political justification for the creation of our country, and he is like your George Washington in that he was our first chief executive that put flesh on the country’s skeleton while his every decision provided a precedent that resonates to this day; so our Macdonald was your Madison, Jefferson and Washington rolled into one man.”

I could have said much more. We can’t escape Macdonald. Every time we discuss the Senate, or the power of the prime minister, or the role of an MP, or government’s power we are revisiting his vision. We know that he created and built Canada. Less well known, however, is how he saved Canada.

Image Sir John A. Macdonald

In 1871, Canada was four years old. The American Civil War that had affected how and when the country had been created had been over for six years; but it was not really over. When the war began, Britain had declared itself neutral. That made Canada neutral too but still about 40,000 Canadians and Maritimers broke the law to don the blue and gray and fight. Canadians sold weapons to both sides and housed a Confederate spy ring that organized raids from Toronto and Montreal. John Wilkes Booth visited Montreal to organize Lincoln’s assassination. All of this and more led a great many Americans to call for revenge; generals, newspapers and politicians called for invasion and annexation.

Throughout the war, Britain had ignored its neutrality law and allowed ships to be bought or built then sold to dummy companies that turned them over to the Confederate navy. One such ship was called the Enrica. The Americans knew about it even while she was under construction at the Laird Yards in Liverpool in the fall of 1861. The British government allowed it to be built and then snuck down the Mersey to the Azores where it was refitted for war and rechristened the CSS Alabama.

The Alabama roamed the seas and eventually sank 64 American commercial vessels and a warship. Lincoln ordered it destroyed and the global hunt was on. In July, 1864, the Alabama was sunk outside a French port.

Image CSS Alabama

At the war’s conclusion, the United States continued its Manifest Destiny driven desire to have Canada. Annexationist Secretary of State William Henry Seward purchased Alaska in 1867. He explained that the purchase was merely a step in driving Britain out of British Columbia and eventually all of North America. But Macdonald stopped him by persuading those in Vancouver and Victoria to join Canada. Seward negotiated with Britain to purchase Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Company – nearly all of what is now northern Ontario and the prairies. But Macdonald stopped him again by negotiating around the United States and buying it for Canada.

Seward had one card left to play. He argued that by allowing ships such as the Alabama to be built and bought that Britain had prolonged the Civil War and cost America money and lives. He added up everything from lost ships to increased maritime insurance rates and presented Britain with a bill totalling an astronomical 125 million dollars.

Britain would not, and in fact simply could not pay. Its economy would be crushed. Plus it needed what money it had to build its defence in light of growing troubles in Europe. It reacted to what became known as the Alabama claims by playing the diplomatic game of deny and delay.

By 1871, Ulysses S. Grant had become president. Like Seward, Grant hated the roles Canada and Britain had played in the war. He told his cabinet, “If not for our debt, I wish Congress would declare war on Great Britain, then we could take Canada and wipe out her Commerce as she has done ours, then we would start fair.” Grant’s Secretary of State Hamilton Fish spoke with the British minister to Washington Edward Thornton. He said that Grant would waive the entire Alabama reparation payment if Britain would simply hand over Canada. Thornton said the Canadians would probably not like it but that he would inform his government. Shortly afterwards, a conference was convened to settle the matter. Grant was pleased and said that if Canada was annexed then the Alabama claims could be settled in five minutes.

Image President Grant

In February, 1871 five Americans, including Secretary of State Fish, welcomed five Brits to Washington. As a courtesy, the British allowed Sir John to be a part of their delegation. Macdonald knew that the future of his infant country was at stake. He took the proceedings so seriously that he even abstained from drink for the entire conference!

Macdonald maneuvered the agenda so that they began negotiating the American abuse of rules regarding inland fishing rights. It was an enormously important issue for Canada and he refused to budge an inch. But focussing on fishing was also a brilliant strategy for no matter how many other matters were raised Macdonald kept coming back to fishing. Every time anyone brought up the main question at hand – the Alabama claims – Macdonald talked to Fish about fish.

The Americans badgered him during the day. The British delegates badgered him every night. The Brits threatened him with a withdrawal of British military support. He was unmoved. They tried to bribe him with an appointment to Her Majesty’s Privy Council. He laughed them off. When cornered, Macdonald delayed by saying he needed to write home for advice. It was later discovered that his cables to the cabinet and governor general were being boomeranged back to Washington by Governor General Lisgar who had more loyalty to Britain than Canada. The backstabbing double-cross meant that British delegates knew exactly what Macdonald was doing and all of his fall back positions; but they could still not best him.

The conference ended after 9 weeks and 37 meetings. Macdonald won everything he had wanted. Fishing rights were settled in Canada’s favour. Because the Americans refused, Britain would pay Canada 4 million pounds in compensation for losses incurred in the Fenian Raids; Macdonald would use the money for railway construction. Free access to the American market for a number of Canadian products was guaranteed while Canadian tariffs could remain. Two concessions were more important than these and others. First, the Alabama claims would be settled by an international tribunal and it was agreed that the reparations for Canada swap was off the table. Second, it had been established that the ratification of the Washington Treaty would need approval by the American Congress, British parliament and by the Canadian parliament.

The Washington Treaty was the final battle of the American Civil War. It was the final episode of the American Manifest Destiny dream of Canadian annexation. Macdonald ensured that Canada could thrive because it would survive.

When he arrived back in Ottawa Macdonald delivered a four hour speech in the House. He did not strut. He did not gloat. Rather, he acted as a responsible statesman who respected Canadians sufficiently to explain what had been at stake and what had happened in all of its complex detail. He then went home and for the first time in over two months enjoyed a drink; perhaps more than one. He deserved it, he had saved his country, and that was quite a big deal.

Civil War Hero or Villian

Civil War Hero or Villain

You may not know Jacob Thompson but he knew us. One hundred and fifty years ago this week Thompson brought the American Civil War to Canada as it hadn’t been before and helped spur Confederation. His role in our birth reminds us of the ideas that seem to be motivating us still.

The winter of 1863-64 was tough on the Confederate States of America. Its armies were losing men and battles, its cities saw food riots and its dollar was plummeting. President Jefferson Davis needed to turn things around and so he turned to Jacob Thompson.

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Thompson was a Mississippi lawyer, politician and former federal cabinet secretary. Davis asked him to save the South by going north. He was given one million dollars, an astronomical sum at the time, and ordered to harass and distract Lincoln’s Union from Canada.

Thompson arrived in the first week of May, 1864 and established offices in Montreal and in Toronto’s swankiest hotel, the Queen’s, located where the Royal York is today. He mobilized Confederate deserters and escaped prisoners and Canadians sympathizers.

One of his first acts was to invite America’s most influential newspaper publisher and Lincoln’s personal secretary to Niagara Falls under the pretence of negotiating a peace agreement. When Lincoln set terms the South could never meet, Thompson’s contacts pilloried him in the press for being a warmonger with no interest in peace. Lincoln’s already shaky support in the war-weary North suffered.

Union ships on Lake Erie were hijacked. Attempts were made to free Confederates from Northern prisons. Arms and ammunition were manufactured in Guelph and Toronto and shipped to the South. Thompson worked with the Copperhead movement to stop Lincoln’s re-election and split the North by creating a new, independent country. The Copperhead leader ran operations from his hotel in Windsor. Thompson and the Copperheads disrupted Lincoln’s Republican Party convention.

Thompson’s underground actions led to more Union troops being moved to the border. American ships ignored a War of 1812 agreement and rearmed. In response, more British soldiers were deployed to Canada along with more complaints from London that the colony was too expensive and should be left to its own devices. Canadian militia units were mobilized with the realization that the broke, politically dysfunctional colony could not effectively defend itself in the face of growing American threats.

John A. Macdonald knew that Thompson’s actions had enraged a United States that was already upset with Canadian war-time actions and attitudes. The likelihood of a post-war invasion seemed real and terrifying. For years, Confederation had been an interesting idea but it had become a necessity. To save itself Canada needed to create itself. It is no coincidence that five months after Thompson arrived in Toronto the Fathers of Confederation arrived in Charlottetown.

While Macdonald debated Thompson terrorized. His men simultaneously engulfed a number of Manhattan’s hotels and theatres in flames and then fled back to Toronto. Among the New Yorkers caught in the chaos on Broadway was the famous actor John Wilkes Booth. As part of his plot that killed Lincoln, he spent a week with Thompson’s men in Montreal.

Several of Thompson’s terrorists raided St. Alban’s, Vermont. They robbed its banks, killed a man and then fled with guns blazing and a posse in pursuit. They were caught by Canadian authorities but a judge freed them. American newspapers insisted that Lincoln immediately invade Canada in retribution. The American Senate reacted by ending the Canadian-American free trade agreement and taking other actions that promised to economically punish Canada. Canadians were further convinced of the threat to all they valued and yearned to preserve.

With his country dying, Jacob Thompson inadvertently aided in the birth of ours; he was our Uncle of Confederation. Considering his role in motivating change allows us to consider the degree to which our political decisions are still based upon equal parts courage, hope and fear. And, as in politics so often and war always, we are left to ponder whether Thompson was a hero or a villain.

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Read more about Jacob Thompson and about Canada’s role in the war in the bestselling Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation.

http://www.amazon.ca/John-Boyko-Books/s?ie=UTF8&page=1&rh=n%3A916520%2Cp_27%3AJohn%20Boyko

http://www.chapters.indigo.ca/home/search/?keywords=john%20boyko