V: 'A Worn-Out Relic of Decayed Toryism', 1874-1891



Formally, Macdonald headed a 104-member caucus when the second parliament of the Dominion gathered in the spring of 1873. In a House of Commons of 200 members, this represented a narrow enough majority, although his support was initially larger thanks to the uncommitted ‘loose fish’ who still floated alongside official party lines.

However, as the Pacific Scandal allegations piled up against him once Parliament reassembled in October 1873, these fair weather supporters began to desert and early in November Macdonald was obliged to resign. The incoming Liberal prime minister, Alexander Mackenzie, promptly secured the dissolution of a parliament allegedly elected through corrupt influences. The Dominion’s third general election, in January-February 1874, slashed Sir John A. Macdonald’s following to 67.[1] The Conservatives lost eighteen seats across the province. The portents had been clear enough in Ontario. A by-election in West Toronto in December 1873 had completely turned around a two-to-one Conservative majority from the 1872 general election. There would have been no surprise had Macdonald, the most tarnished politician of all, had fallen as a symbolic victim, especially after his relatively narrow victory in 1872. In fact, he defeated Carruthers for a second time, but only by 839 votes to 801 – his already-reduced 1872 majority of 131 now pared down to just 38.


The challenge facing Macdonald in 1874 was all the greater because, for the first time in his career, there was a rival Dominion power-broker on his home turf. There was nothing inevitable about Richard Cartwright’s appointment as minister of finance in Alexander Mackenzie’s cabinet. Cartwright was not the new prime minister’s first choice, and he had not even run as a Liberal in 1872. Indeed, he had entered parliament for Lennox and Addington in 1863 as a Conservative, and it is tempting to conclude that, with better person-management skills, Sir John A. Macdonald might well have retained his allegiance. During his first years in parliament, Cartwright was in close contact with Macdonald: as representatives of adjoining ridings they had shared interests in local issues, and almost certainly they travelled together on the long slow train journeys that formed an essential but now largely forgotten part of the mid-Victorian political world. Familiarity did not breed contempt, but it certainly made Cartwright aware of the older man’s weaknesses. For instance, he never forgot ‘a rather remarkable tableau’ in an alcove outside the parliamentary restaurant: an inebriated Macdonald embracing an equally convivial political opponent who was heard to say, ‘Ah, John A., John A., how I love you! How I wish I could trust you!’[2]

 In 1867, Cartwright’s own trust in the new prime minister of Canada was put to the test. He had the misfortune to be serving a term as President of the Commercial Bank when it crashed. It was generally agreed that the Bank’s failure was not his fault, but it is likely that the episode shook his faith in Canada’s prime minister. At the height of the crisis, he urged Macdonald to throw money at the problem: ‘not less than a million and a half now ... would put us through.’[3] Macdonald could not oblige. But a formal breach was delayed until October 1869, when Cartwright objected to Macdonald’s decision to appoint Sir Francis Hincks as his finance minister. Hincks had been out of Canada for more than decade since the defeat of his discredited Reform administration in 1854. Cartwright objected that Hincks no longer possessed ‘the smallest claim to be considered a Liberal leader’, and hence his appointment made a travesty of Macdonald’s claims to be heading a coalition administration. Moreover, Hincks had the unenviable distinction of having introduced corruption into Canadian public life.[4] But even then, the breach came more in sorrow than in anger, with Cartwright writing that ‘however well disposed I was and am towards yourself and the rest of your colleagues, I cannot feel the same confidence as heretofore in an administration in which Sir F. Hincks holds office!’[5] It was by no means inevitable that Cartwright’s objection to a leader of the pre-Confederation Reform party would drive him into the arms of its post-Confederation Liberal successor.

Three elements contributed to make the breach with Cartwright unbridgeable. One stemmed from a personality flaw in John A. Macdonald himself, the other two from the social and political constraints of the Kingston environment. First, Macdonald was not good at coping with the life-cycle problem that younger men gradually mature and develop ideas of their own. Second, Cartwright belonged to a social elite which was increasingly marginalised from political power but from which the upstart Macdonald remained excluded. Third, the sluggish growth of the Kingston area in comparison with more dynamic urban centres meant that the city could expect only a tiny share of Dominion-wide political power. Once two front-rank politicians came to occupy the same support base, conflict between them was highly likely.

At first sight, Macdonald’s problem in adjusting to the pretensions of his juniors may seem surprising. Even the hypercritical Cartwright recalled that the Macdonald of the eighteen-sixties was ‘very ready to talk freely with the younger men of his party and, which is more unusual, was willing to give and take in discussions with us to an extent one would not have expected to find in a man of his position.’[6] But the flip side of this accessibility and affability was that Macdonald expected younger men to play second fiddle in his personal orchestra: he wanted acolytes, not equals. Time and again, when younger men showed that they had ideas of their own, Macdonald turned from mentor to detractor. Oliver Mowat, his first law student, had preferred to pursue his career in Toronto. Their relationship remained outwardly cordial for years, but it snapped during a confrontation in the Assembly in 1861 when an obviously drunk Macdonald called Mowat a ‘damned pup’ threatened to slap his face and. In later years, Macdonald would draw attention to their one-time teacher-pupil relationship with the dismissive comment that the one thing he admired about Mowat was his handwriting.[7]

Another example, and one that shows Macdonald in a poor light, was his inability to cope with the advancement of Robert Harrison. From 1856 to 1859 Harrison had served as John A. Macdonald’s first private secretary, before switching to practise law. In 1867 he was elected to the first Dominion parliament, but after one term he abandoned politics to concentrate on his profession, a decision that reportedly angered the prime minister. From Harrison’s point of view, leaving parliament proved to be a sound move, for in 1875 he was named Chief Justice of Ontario. Protocol, not to mention common courtesy, required a senior barrister like Macdonald to offer prompt and polite congratulations. In fact, he waited for over a month before sending a languid apology for being ‘somewhat remiss in offering you my congratulations’, adding in patronising tones, ‘I have long looked upon you as ... one of my boys.’ A less self-important dignitary than Harrison would have felt entitled to resent the slight upon his high office, and the chief justice duly despatched a frosty rebuke.[8] Similarly, although Alexander Campbell laboured for decades as Macdonald’s political lieutenant, their relationship probably never fully recovered from Campbell’s decision in 1849 to walk away from their law partnership because he could not stomach Macdonald’s wayward financial management. Potentially most tragic of all was Macdonald’s falling-out with his own son in 1875, apparently over his choice of a bride. Fortunately, this particular breach was soon healed by Hugh John’s dignified forbearance.[9]

Cartwright fitted the pattern because he had been exceptionally diffident about his own pretensions when he had first entered public life. It was standard practice for rookie candidates to show humility and offer a humble assessment of their claims, but Cartwright took self-deprecation to extreme lengths. When he first ran for Lennox and Addington at the age of 27, he confessed that ‘had circumstances permitted, I should have desired the benefit of a few years additional experience before entering public life.’ True, he was just emerging from a prolonged apprenticeship ─  five years as an undergraduate in Dublin, followed by an inconclusive spell as a law student ─ but it showed a remarkable lack of confidence to assure the voters that ‘should you ... think me too young and inexperienced to serve you, I shall bow cheerfully to your decision’. At a Macdonald election meeting, an enthusiastic supporter predicted that not only would their hero be returned, but ‘a Kingston boy’ would also come in for Lennox and Addington.[10] ‘Kingston’, yes ─ but ‘boy’, not for long. As a member of parliament and representative of one of the city’s founding families, Richard Cartwright was quickly catapulted to a central role in the local business world, including, from 1864, the presidency of the Commercial Bank. John A. Macdonald failed to appreciate that the boy had become a man. When Cartwright joined the Mackenzie cabinet in 1873, Macdonald let fly with a charge of personal disloyalty. ‘I have seen many instances of base conduct, ingratitude, and base treachery, but never in my life have I seen any man who has behaved so badly, so basely, and from such sordid motives as Mr. Cartwright.’[11]

Macdonald’s inability to accept a junior as an emerging equal was complicated by the residual background of social distinction between them. When the capital moved to Ottawa in 1865, John A. Macdonald had taken the lead in forming the Rideau Club, intended to remedy the absence of recreational facilities in the ‘sub-Arctic lumber village’ by providing a meeting place for men of power. Very quickly there developed a club-with-in-a-club, ‘a small informal mess of seven or eight members who always dined together’ when parliament was in session. Their unofficial president was John Hillyard Cameron, the Toronto Tory who was a product of Upper Canada College, and the gathering reflected his gentlemanly code. ‘Everything was discussed ... with amazing frankness,’ recalled Richard Cartwright, who was the youngest member, ‘on the understanding, very honourably kept, that nothing said at the table was to be repeated elsewhere’. Members included Luther Holton, a prominent figure in the Reform / Liberal party, Ontario premier Sandfield Macdonald (who also sat in the Ottawa parliament) and Alexander Galt, who had resigned from the Macdonald cabinet over the handling of the Commercial Bank disaster. It would be an exaggeration to say that they were united by their opposition to John A. Macdonald, but few went beyond a semi-detached form of support.[12]

 Macdonald himself would have subscribed to the diners’ code of outspoken confidentiality but he was not invited to join the club, although his close ally, Alexander Campbell, another of Canada’s dwindling band of gentlemen, was an occasional guest.[13] He did, however, keep an eye on its activities, and was quick to attribute Cartwright’s defection to the influence of Galt. ‘Cartwright and he formed at the Club last session a sort of mutual admiration society’, Macdonald reported early in 1870, ‘and they agreed that they were the two men fit to govern Canada.’[14]

Macdonald believed that Galt had told Cartwright that he should have become finance minister instead of Hincks. This was probably an exaggeration. At 33, Cartwright had never held office and, while nobody blamed him for the collapse of the Commercial Bank, the fact that the disaster had happened on his watch was hardly a prima facie qualification for appointment to the finance portfolio. But it was hardly surprising that he saw himself as ministerial material. ‘He is a gentleman well-educated, and possessed of a certain amount of ability,’ Lord Dufferin reported in 1874.[15] However, while Sir John A. Macdonald was prime minister, there would be an insuperable geographical barrier to Cartwright’s career advancement. In the first Dominion cabinet, politicians from the four provinces scrambled to fill thirteen places. Macdonald was there as prime minister, and Campbell was secure as government leader in the Senate: while there were always plenty of aspirants for the comfortable seats of the Red Chamber, few were prepared to undertake the unspectacular drudgery of steering government business through the upper house. That meant that one sixth of the cabinet places went to Kingston, which contained approximately one three-hundredth of Canada’s population. ‘It happened that Mr. Campbell, Mr. Cartwright and myself were all from one place,’ Macdonald said in his November 1873 speech. ‘Mr. Cartwright knew that we could not all be in the Cabinet’. Staid and increasingly sluggish Kingston was a long way from the Wild West but, so far as the emerging Macdonald-Cartwright stand-off was concerned, the Loyal Old Town (or, at least, its Conservative party) was not big enough for both of them. Macdonald could mock his younger antagonist as ‘a Tory of the old Family Compact’, but there was a geographical inevitability about Cartwright’s defection to the Liberals.[16]

 The breach with Cartwright meant that Macdonald for the first time had to contend with a rival politician of national stature on his home turf. Worse still, Cartwright’s roots in that turf were deeper and more fertile than his own. At a time when Macdonald was disengaging from Kingston, Cartwright was consolidating his position as a prominent regional figure. Sometime between 1866 and 1868 he had moved from the family property at Rockwood, now the site of a provincial institution, to Garden Island, and he continued to maintain a summer home five kilometres downriver even after 1878, when he lost Lennox and Addington and transferred to a western Ontario riding. This was no unobtrusive summer cottage: in 1874 he provided accommodation for the viceregal party when the governor-general visited Kingston. Cartwright was a wealthy man. At a time when John A. Macdonald had long ceased to have any spare cash, he would be a major investor in the Kingston and Pembroke Railway in 1876 and in the 1881 reorganization of the city’s Canadian Locomotive and Engine Company.[17] More to the point, as finance minister he was in a position to target public money to Kingston. Alexander Mackenzie’s decision to plunge Canada into a fresh general election in January 1874, just two months after forming his government, proved disastrous to the scandal-hit Conservative party across the country. But the quick dash to the polls may have been incidentally beneficial to John A. Macdonald in Kingston, where voters were still digesting the implications for the city of having a new political benefactor in their midst ─ and Cartwright was wrestling with an inherited government deficit that limited his spending options.

 1874: ‘it would not have been fair to leave them’


If poor organisation is postulated as a cause of Macdonald’s waning majority in 1872, then in fairness his remarkable escape from defeat eighteen months later must be at least partly ascribed to an effective electoral machine. Indeed, Macdonald subsequently claimed that he had only defended his seat after the ‘very severe contest’ of 1872 because of pressure from his supporters. ‘Mr Carruthers was a resident, a very wealthy man, and had a great deal more money than I had’.[18] However, even before the formal dissolution, and while there was still speculation about the Liberal nomination, it seems to have been taken for granted that Macdonald would run again in Kingston.[19] ‘I had represented them nearly thirty years,’ he would later remark, ‘and it would not have been fair to leave them’. His strategy, he explained, was to ‘make up for scarcity of funds by an active personal canvass’. This involved him ‘steady work’ for the whole of January, from early morning until late at night: ‘my Committee arranged exactly what I was to do, and I attended the meetings they appointed me for’, usually two or three each evening.[20] One of the largest was held on January 9, when he addressed a crowded meeting at City Hall. ‘The number present is not at all an index to the popular feeling,’ insisted the local correspondent of the Globe, ‘men attending from curiosity, desiring to hear his defence.’ Not surprisingly, this report added that Macdonald dodged the charges of corruption against him ‘and abused his opponents generally.’[21] This was production-line electioneering, much more redolent of the campaigns of carefully cocooned party leaders a century later than of Kingston’s rough-and-tumble pre-Confederation contests. Even one of Macdonald’s supporters, who was attached to another canvassing team, ‘shook hands with him once’ but ‘never had any conversation with Sir John’.[22]

Even taking account of his high-powered campaign, it remains difficult to understand how Macdonald managed to hold on to his seat at the January 1874 election. Two of Kingston’s most authoritative historians conclude that he ‘might well have lost had he not let it be known that he planned to retire and would not join the next Conservative government.’[23] However, a contemporary report suggests that Macdonald campaign organisers put it about that their man would soon be back in office, and so once again capable of dispensing benefits.[24] After the stunning turn-around of the West Toronto by-election, it seems equally unlikely that anyone could seriously have believed that the fallen prime minister was about to bounce back. Even though it was an era which did not have psephologists to calculate ‘swing’, it was clear enough that the tide of public opinion was running towards the Liberals. And if the Mackenzie government was obviously going to win, it seems inexplicably selfless that the voters of Kingston should have defiantly endorsed the leader of the opposition, for their city had a sluggish economy and desperately needed friends in high places.

In mid-campaign, the Globe decided that the benighted Kingstonians needed a lecture on the morality and realities of political life. The ethical point was straightforward and blunt: other Conservatives might disclaim knowledge of the murky relationship between Sir Hugh Allan’s election contributions and the granting of the Pacific railway contract, but Macdonald could neither plead ignorance nor had he shown repentance. Kingston, and Kingston alone, had the chance to pronounce an authoritative condemnation upon the whole Pacific Scandal. However, there were even more persuasive practical reasons for ousting their long-time representative: ‘if the electors of Kingston return Sir John A. Macdonald, they bind themselves to the narrow political system which … has retarded the progress of their city.’ Occasional patronage appointments aside, ‘he has done nothing and said nothing, for his constituents for many years past’ and had ‘long since ceased to have any interest in the prosperity of Kingston.’ Although now out of office, ‘he does not even return to live among his constituents; he is to live in Ottawa, the city which he preferred when the seat of Government question was before Parliament.’ John Carruthers, on the other hand, had ‘done at least as much as for the prosperity of Kingston as any other man within its bounds.’ As a rich and public spirited merchant, he had encouraged its industry and commerce and was a strenuous supporter of its development as a railway centre. All in all, it would be ‘an act of folly for any man who values the welfare of Kingston ─ purely for party purposes, purely to maintain an ancient tie which has long since lost all real force ─ to reject a vigorous, active, influential citizen, and accept a worn out relic of decayed Toryism’.[25]

Perhaps, as in 1861, Kingstonians did not welcome Torontonian interference in their affairs. But perhaps, too, the choices open to individual voters were severely constrained. One of Macdonald’s most prominent supporters, George Offord, operated a shoe factory, and openly threatened to sack any employee who voted Liberal.[26] Why did Offord take such an uncompromising line in support of a man whose chaotic personal finances meant that he had long ceased to be a power in the local business world? There were reports too that officials appointed by both the Dominion and Ontario governments were ‘using their position to secure support for Sir John.’[27] On polling day, January 29, even the warders at the Penitentiary were ‘marshalled … and driven to the polls’ to vote en bloc for Macdonald by Warden John Creighton, evidently faithful to his proclamation at the time of the 1863 election that ‘no charge of corruption could be fastened upon him.’ Creighton had been appointed warden by the Macdonald government in 1871. He was a humane man and a penal reformer in advance of his times.[28] Why should he expose himself to the risk of political attack, perhaps even dismissal, in the cause of a fallen ally? When the Warden was felled by a near-fatal heart attack ten years later, Alexander Campbell was quick to rally support for ‘our good old friend Creighton’.[29] Sir John A. Macdonald may not have been Canada’s most morally upright politician, nor invariably its most sober statesman ─ but he did inspire a remarkably tenacious degree of uncritical loyalty. ‘A history of his acts and words’, said one supporter from his later years, ‘... would not make him known to those who never came into personal contact with him’. In personal contact, Macdonald radiated ‘a sort of intellect of the heart which pleased and convinced, and drew and bound men to him.’[30] It was this quality that helped to pull him through in 1874.

It was a close-run thing. At noon on polling day, there was ‘an exact tie’ between the two candidates, and all well-informed newspaper readers would have known that money would then change hands in the desperate struggle for votes. ‘Sir John has very little to be proud of,’ reported the correspondent of the Globe of his slim 38-vote majority. Indeed, when his supporters staged the traditional victory parade through the downtown streets, their candidate ‘failed to appear’. The British Whig felt the result ‘anything but flattering to Kingston’ which had ‘apparently … lifted up its voice in favour of Corruption and Charter-selling’. The adverb was important. Liberals alleged that Carruthers had ‘polled a considerable majority of the legitimate votes’, and that the result was the product of bribery, intimidation and ‘a large number of bogus votes’.[31]

However, such allegations were confidently made in the aftermath of very many contemporary Canadian elections, but they were by no means all followed through. Improprieties might be widely known, but they were hard to prove, and allegations of corruption might trigger damaging counter-charges. When Sir John A. Macdonald left his constituency to return to Ottawa a week after polling, the correspondent of the Globe revealingly sneered that the MP for Kingston ‘will spend the next five years away from this place as much as possible.’[32] In the event, the January 1874 election was unique in nineteenth-century Kingston in being overturned for corruption, forcing to Macdonald to contest a by-election which forced his majority down still further to a mere seventeen.

The petition to overturn the result was submitted by John Stewart, Macdonald’s opponent in 1867. There seems to be no way of knowing whether Stewart acted on his own initiative, or whether he was used as a front-man. ‘We have no special desire to keep Sir John A. Macdonald out of Parliament’, the Globe had loftily remarked during the election campaign, adding he ‘never was of much use in Opposition’.[33] In fact, it suited the Liberals well enough to have a badly wounded John A. Macdonald still clinging on to public life, for it would be difficult for the Conservatives to shake off the discredit of the Pacific Scandal while he remained their party leader. Equally, a trial for electoral corruption in his own riding would reinforce the unsavoury aroma of sleaze that hovered around Canada’s fallen leader. Should the action fail, the oddball Stewart could be conveniently disowned by Liberal party bosses as a loose cannon.

The irony is that Macdonald was caught by legislation which his own ministry had put through parliament shortly before its fall. Part of a general process of tightening up regulatory processes, the Act enabled the superior court to invalidate an election even if no misconduct could be proved against the candidate himself. Furthermore, once a petition was launched, only the presiding judge could permit it to be withdrawn, so ending the practice by which political parties protested elections wholesale in order to strike trade-offs.[34]  Indeed, there is a startling possibility that January 1874 was not an especially murky contest: Macdonald himself at least went through the motions of urging his supporters to obey the law. The election trial, in November of that year, will be considered in Chapter Six, as it is valuable in the light it threw upon dubious electioneering practices. In relation to the Wilson thesis, however, 79 charges of bribery plus assorted allegations of personation and intimidation would seem to suggest that the Macdonald campaign was in some respects too well organised. (Indeed, Wilson accepts that the local party had learned some lessons from its earlier disarray.[35]) Campbell was evidently now in effective charge of the local machine. By the time the election trial came on in November, he had prudently decamped on a business trip to the United States, where he could not be subpoenaed to give evidence. In a typically undated note to his candidate following one of the 1874 polls, he offered to provide a full account of the money he had spent, but sweetly added, ‘or would you rather not know just yet?’[36]

Sir John A. Macdonald was fortunate that Chief Justice Richards, who presided at the trial, evidently felt the need to tread a careful path in presiding at the election trial. The judiciary was still feeling its way in the interpretation of the tougher terms of the tougher legislation of 1873 against electoral corruption. On the one hand, electoral corruption would never be eliminated while candidates could disclaim any knowledge of the excesses of their supporters. On the other hand, to invalidate the election of a member of parliament because of the misbehaviour of others seemed to violate a fundamental principle that the innocent should not be punished. In his extensive and thoughtful judgement, Chief Justice Richards signalled his devastating condemnation of the Conservative campaign, for instance refusing to allow Sir John A. Macdonald’s legal costs to be recouped from public funds. The judge’s condemnation of the conveniently absent Alexander Campbell was surely a surrogate denunciation of Macdonald himself: Campbell ‘apparently showed an indifference to whether the law of the land was violated or not which is certainly not commendable, to say the least of it, to a gentleman in his position.’ Formally, however, Richards recorded that ‘no corrupt practices have been proven to have been committed by or with the knowledge or consent of the respondent’. Had such charges been upheld, Macdonald would have been barred from representing any constituency for the duration of the current parliament ─ and, approaching his sixtieth birthday, a four-year exclusion from public life would certainly have ended his political career. As it was, he was free to run for the seat again.[37]

            The most noteworthy feature of the December 1874 by-election, which Macdonald survived by 889 votes to 872, was that it was conducted under the newly introduced secret ballot. It was a low-key event, with both sides presumably taking care to avoid allegations of irregularity ─ for the Liberals had not emerged totally pure from the court proceedings. Even their opponents acknowledged that the Conservatives spent only $300, one tenth of their lavish outlay back in January. Perhaps voters agreed that earlier corruption could be carried forward, to give two elections for the price of one. But an increase of fifty votes in an apparently clean campaign again suggests that the Macdonald organisation was effective on the ground, with ward committees somehow shepherding their neighbours to the poll.[38]

            The classic argument for secret voting was that it protected economically vulnerable voters against unfair pressure from employers or customers.[39] Perhaps thirty years earlier, when the Kingston elite had united behind Macdonald, some artisans or small traders might have placed their pockets before their principles and added their votes to Conservative majorities. But the striking aspect about the advent of the ballot in December 1874 is that it apparently made so little difference ─ unless we postulate a repeat of the conundrum of 1861, and assume counter-balancing transfers in both directions. Even so, Macdonald managed to add fifty votes to his January total, although, to the amusement of his detractors, one of them was his own.[40] As always, his opponents trumpeted that they had enough evidence to unseat him for corruption, but nothing came of the threats.[41]

There are two possible reasons for the seemingly muted impact of secret voting. One was that the city’s economic elite had become politically divided, and poorer voters could be reassured that if they offended Macdonald’s friends, they could still do business with men of the wealth and standing of Carruthers. The other possibility was that voters were initially suspicious that their votes would still be identified. In particular, provision for illiterate voters to be assisted to cast their votes cut into the principle of secrecy, since these were often the men who were likely to be on a party’s payroll and so compelled to accept a campaign organiser as their minder.[42] Even if the ballot was officially secret, in Kingston it was probably not hard to guess how individuals had voted. The December 1874 result was announced by fourteen precincts, a number that increased to 24 by 1891. Newspaper accounts took for granted that party organisers knew how the vote was running even while the polls were open.[43] Overall, there is no evidence that in Canada, as in contemporary Wales and Ireland, the ballot enabled the masses to defy Tory oligarchs and advance the cause of the people. Indeed, after another dramatic by-election turnaround in West Toronto in 1875, George Brown complained that secret voting had cost the Liberals their ‘moral controul [sic]’ over the electorate.[44] In days of open voting, men had been shamed into supporting virtue, but now they could indulge in covert expressions of selfishness. This tendentious theory probably reveals more about Brown’s contempt for his fellow man, but it does indicate that the impact of the ballot was not one-sided.

Ironically, while both parties were wary of corrupting individual voters during the by-election campaign, the Mackenzie Liberal government, for all its proclaimed political purity, offered a massive bribe to the city as a whole. In December 1874, Kingston learned that it was to become the location for Canada’s planned Military College. Why did this juicy piece of political pork, a rare instance of good news, prove in sufficient to unseat Sir John A. Macdonald at a time when the shift of only a handful of votes would have been enough to unseat him? Perhaps the fact that a Conservative mayor, the Queen’s professor Michael Sullivan, had campaigned to secure the future RMC for Kingston was enough to neutralise the credit claimed by the Liberals in 1874. In 1871 the previous Conservative government had located one of the two artillery batteries of the Canadian School of Gunnery ─ the tiny nucleus of Canada’s Armed Forces ─ at Kingston in 1871. The gesture was an inadequate replacement for the lost imperial garrison, but just three years later Macdonald may have retained some slight political capital for having tried to rescue the city from disaster.[45]

Macdonald probably also owed his narrow victory to a ruthless piece of news management. By 1874, his law firm, Macdonald and Patton, was based in Toronto, the centre of operations of its principal client, the Trust and Loan Company. By September, three months before the by-election, he had decided to move to the Ontario capital himself. He commissioned his protégé, the newspaper editor T.C. Patteson, to look out for a property that might suit his budget, but made it clear that his plans were to remain confidential. ‘Until my election matter is settled I dont [sic] want to have it supposed that I intend to fix my Habitat away from Kingston.’  In the event, it was not until the Fall of 1875 that the Macdonalds relocated to Toronto, initially slipping into the city by renting a house from Patteson himself.[46] The success of the manoeuvre almost certainly explains much of the vehemence of the backlash against him at the election of 1878.

The cumulative effect of the two elections of 1874 was that Macdonald eventually scraped home a seventeen vote majority. ‘I am very glad I got off with that, I can tell you,’ he remarked.[47] Within weeks, an Ontario general election had underlined the point, as the Liberal William Robinson coasted home by 143 votes.[48] A switch in just a handful of votes and Macdonald would have been out of Kingston. An unfavourable decision by Judge Richards, and he would have been out of parliament altogether, and perhaps for ever. In 1874, Sir John A. Macdonald’s career literally hung in the balance. By fair means or foul, he managed to mobilise enough support to survive two close-run contests, and played a weak court-room hand just skilfully enough to escape personal disqualification. Had he lost to Carruthers, he might have found it difficult to parachute himself into another riding: after the electoral massacre of 1874, there were few enough safe Conservative seats, and it is by no means certain that even those could have been opened up to a carpet-bagger condemned for corruption. But if Chief Justice Richards had taken the extra step and banned him for the duration of the current parliament, his political career would certainly have been over. The Conservative caucus could hardly be expected to operate under an interim House leader for five whole years and, by 1878, Macdonald himself would have been 63, hardly the age for a come-back.

Behind this series of close shaves, there remains the paradox of Kingston itself. Twice, albeit narrowly, the city returned him to parliament at a time when his career on the Dominion stage was in such deep trouble that any comeback surely seemed unlikely. Then, in 1878, when he did indeed bounce back from the depths of disgrace, Kingston threw him out. Perhaps the cruellest explanation of all is that the Liberals were happy enough for the discredited Tory leader to remain on the political scene. ‘We sympathize with the Liberals of Kingston,’ remarked the Ottawa Free Press, ‘... but we cannot regard the election of Sir John as a very great calamity.’ Far from it: Macdonald’s continued tenure of the Conservative leadership provided the best guarantee that his party would spend decades in the wilderness ‘as a punishment for their political sins’.[49]

            Throughout those opposition years, from 1873 to 1878, Sir John A. Macdonald gave off conflicting signals about his own future. Since he was opaque about his own intentions towards the Conservative leadership, it is difficult to decode whether Kingston was being asked to vote for him in this period as a disinterested tribute to a slightly battered elder statesman, or offered the opportunity to invest once again in a future prime minister of Canada. In the aftermath of his downfall, he portrayed himself as a caretaker, doing his duty by a shattered party until a new leader might emerge. But when, in September 1875, his former colleague Alexander Galt openly sought to supplant him, Macdonald forced his challenger into a humiliating retreat.[50] Then, throughout the summer months of 1876 and 1877, the Conservatives began to counter-attack through a famous series of political rallies on the picnic-grounds of Ontario.[51]

Sir John A. Macdonald used these events to introduce his Nova Scotian ally Charles Tupper to central Canadian audiences. At Kingston on June 6 1877, at the close of a three-hour harangue from Tupper, Macdonald once again assured his constituents that he had ‘long been anxious to retire from the position I have held’, and that Tupper was ‘a man who will well fill my place.’[52] But even this apparently unambiguous declaration was presented in hypothetical form (‘when I do retire’). Moreover, in designating Tupper as his eventual successor, Macdonald was virtually guaranteeing himself an unbroken hold on the party leadership, for there were two powerful objections to his selection. First, Tupper was a Maritimer and, as his biographer put it, in the early years of Confederation, ‘Canadian citizenship was still provincial, its views narrow and local.’[53] Macdonald wished to neutralise Tupper’s alien qualities by parachuting him into an Ontario riding,[54]  but this would only have drawn attention to the second objection to Tupper as leader, Tupper himself. The combative self-assertion that made him so formidable as a platform speaker reflected a grating and grasping personality who was single-minded in his devotion to the advancement of what historian Peter Waite has dubbed ‘Tupperdom’.[55] For about two years after the Conservatives returned to office, Tupper was not even on speaking terms with Macdonald because the prime minister blocked his demand for government patronage to his son’s law firm. Later, Kingston would have little reason to appreciate his success, in 1888, in securing the office of commandant of RMC for his son-in-law, Colonel Cameron, described by one critic as ‘a shrunken walrus’ whose ‘almost comic exterior concealed a malicious and tyrannical nature.’[56] By ostensibly naming Tupper as his successor, Macdonald was virtually awarding himself lifetime tenure of the Conservative leadership, for his party colleagues were unlikely to hurry him into retirement if the price of dumping him was the succession of Charles Tupper. Indeed, to underline the point (and discourage the faint risk of a Tupperite coup), Macdonald added that his chosen heir had himself threatened to quit politics himself should his leader step down. To underline the real point, that he was staying, Sir John A. Macdonald told the people of Kingston ‘that until my friends say that they think I have served long enough ─ so long as they think I can be of any use to them ─ it will be but a just return for what they have done for me not to desert them.’[57] He was referring to the Conservative rank and file, but just over a year later the voters of Kingston did tell him he had been around for long enough ─ for they no longer believed he had ‘served’ them satisfactorily at all.

1878: ‘defeated by a large majority at Kingston!’


To a modern observer, it seems incredible that a party leader could win a nationwide landslide while losing his own riding. In 1878, the Conservatives made a net gain of 75 seats, more than double their low point of 1874, but Macdonald was defeated by 144 votes in Kingston.[58] It was very definitely a personal reverse. His party registered almost half its gains in Ontario. Richard Cartwright, Mackenzie’s finance minister, lost in nearby Lennox. Macdonald’s opponent, Alexander Gunn, was such a poor speaker that he did not always feature at his own meetings.[59] How, then, can the paradox be explained? First, we should again recall that there were no opinion polls in nineteenth-century elections: Liberal hopes were high, and had Kingston voters foreseen a Conservative sweep, perhaps they would have thought twice about discarding the incoming prime minister of Canada. True, Macdonald was sure he would win a majority of between thirty and sixty seats (in fact, it was over eighty).[60] But Mackenzie was equally confident of victory and Macdonald, while recognising that he had a fight on his hands, characteristically insisted that his chances in Kingston were ‘good’.[61] There were, however, rumours that he would also run in Cardwell, a now-vanished federal riding to the north-west of Toronto but the plan, if serious, was probably abandoned because it ‘would be tantamount to giving up Kingston as lost’.[62]

            In his speech accepting the Conservative nomination, Macdonald did something that was highly unusual for him: he said ‘sorry’ about the Pacific Scandal (an episode that he habitually described as the ‘Pacific Slander’). When his words are closely examined, they reveal that in fact he was giving the appearance of contrition without actually apologising, let alone admitting that he had done anything wrong ─ a device to assuage critics and bury mistakes not unknown in modern politics. He repeated his familiar argument that the funding of elections in Canada could not judged by the alleged purity of British standards: in England, two independent political clubs (the Carlton for the Conservatives, the Reform for the Liberals) collected campaign contributions, so that the party leaders never knew who had bankrolled their campaigns. ‘In Canada, there was nothing of the kind, and when subscriptions came in to aid in elections they were sent to the leader of the party.’ If he could repeat the events of 1872, ‘I would not make the same mistake.’ He admitted that he had indeed received cash direct, ‘and I am sorry for it, for we should avoid the very appearance of evil.’ Since then, he had established a central party organisation, the United Empire Club, to handle party fund-raising at arm’s length. He also cleverly elided the 1872 campaign across Ontario, for which he had been convicted of improperly receiving money, with the 1874 election in his own riding, when it had been proved that his agents had improperly spent money: ‘not one cent went to Kingston.’ While some Kingston voters might have wished that his hands had not have been so clean, Macdonald’s declaration was almost certainly aimed at the country at large, and appears to have satisfied some doubters that a line could be drawn under past sleaze. William Leggo, the historian of Lord Dufferin’s term of office, believed that the Kingston declaration was sufficient to persuade the fastidious Goldwin Smith to reverse his earlier condemnation and come out publicly for the Conservatives. Sir John A. Macdonald, then, was using Kingston as a platform to address a national audience. Since Kingston was the scene of his alleged electoral sins, the city was the most effective place for him to make a brief and chapter-closing gesture of self-abasement.[63]

            Wilson’s thesis of poor organisation may to have some validity in 1878. A Conservative had won the recent mayoral race, but only by projecting himself as an independent.[64] Yet, once again, any deficiencies in the machine probably reflected a deeper weakness in the Macdonald candidacy. Three years earlier, he had moved to Toronto, having re-established his legal practice in the rival city. Soon afterwards, the death of his sister Margaret Williamson removed even the pretence of a surrogate family home in Kingston. Macdonald was in Kingston during the 1878 mayoral race, but it is noteworthy that he did not campaign. The truth was that John A. Macdonald was no longer a political asset. Liberals denounced him as ‘the Do-Nothing Deserter who has never raised either voice or finger in [sic] behalf of Kingston’s Interests’.[65] The anti-Toronto feeling which Macdonald had mobilised against Mowat in 1861 was now turned against him.

            Essentially, Mackenzie was defeated across the country by hard times, whereas Macdonald lost in Kingston because the city’s economic malaise predated the Liberal government and could most easily be blamed upon ‘the man who left you to shift for yourselves for years, and who never sent a day’s work to Kingston’. The Mackenzie government had at least given the city Canada’s Military College: Macdonald, it was bitterly alleged, would have located it anywhere but in his own riding. In 1878, the embryo college was hardly large enough either to fill the economic gap left by the departure of the garrison or to influence enough votes to swing an election. Strictly speaking, it was located beyond the city boundary in Frontenac County. The total staff complement numbered about a dozen and, as commemorated in local folklore, the initial student enrolment of 1876 was just eighteen, some of them mere boys. Naturally enough the Mackenzie government ensured that the College placed its business with Liberal storekeepers, ensuring that the cadets would ‘neither eat bread made by Tory hands nor drink beer supplied by a Tory grocer’.[66] But, so far as electoral benefit was concerned, even that degree of influence might be neutralised by the secret ballot. The impact of RMC may have been not through any direct economic benefit but as a symbol that the Liberals did at least care about Kingston, although the announcement of the project back in December 1874 had not been enough to prevent Macdonald from scraping home at his by-election.

            However, Liberal trumpeting of their generosity perhaps illustrates the extent to which the city’s collective mentality had come to look to government largesse for its salvation. Macdonald’s protectionist rhetoric may have encouraged hopes of prosperity through industrialisation elsewhere, but it presumably did not inspire confidence in Kingston. This seems curious since, as the historian of Kingston’s locomotive works, George Richardson, has pointed out, the city’s largest industrial enterprise seemed likely to benefit from the revival of the Pacific railway scheme ─ although, in the event, the company  was in deep trouble by 1880.[67] The Globe lectured Kingston voters on the evils of tariff protection, pointing out that the nearly-completed Kingston and Pembroke railway would enable the city to export the timber and mineral resources of its northern hinterland. ‘How absurd it would be if at this crisis the city of Kingston should elect a man who is pledged to destroy the trade between Canada and the United States, and whose policy ... would deprive the Kingston and Pembroke Railway of traffic.’[68] Perhaps this free-trade argument was persuasive, but the Globe’s intermittent outbursts of Toronto-based hectoring superiority rarely seem to have had much impact upon the citizens of Kingston.

            Liberals also attempted to mobilise the Irish Catholic vote. One of Macdonald’s parliamentary successes during his term in opposition had been to unseat the Speaker of the Commons, Timothy Warren Anglin, for corrupt practices. Anglin’s offence had been largely technical: his newspaper company in Saint John had received government printing contracts, which should have invalidated his membership of the House. The Conservatives had made the most of the episode in the hope of cancelling out some of the discredit they had amassed during the Pacific scandal. Yet it was a high-risk strategy, for Anglin was the most prominent Irish Catholic in Canadian politics, and it was easy to stir his compatriots’ belief in their collective victimhood by alleging a witch-hunt against him.[69] If Macdonald’s organisation was shaky, the Liberal machine was in overdrive – if we credit subsequent Conservative complaints of corruption. Relatively early on polling day, reports were reaching Conservative committee rooms that ‘many of those who had promised faithfully to support Sir John Macdonald had gone over to the Gunn party, they having been bought up like sheep.’[70]

            The Ottawa civil servant and diarist Edmund Meredith captured the ‘great excitement’ as the results flowed in by telegraph on election night, bearing the ‘startling news that the Conservatives generally had triumphed’. Monitoring the reports in a Montreal newspaper office, the veteran Liberal Luther Holton could only comment: ‘Well! John A. beats the devil.’ But Macdonald’s satanic wiles had not triumphed everywhere. ‘Sir John has been defeated by a large majority at Kingston!’, Meredith recorded.[71] Among those taken by surprise was J.W. Bengough of the satirical magazine Grip, whose pre-election cameo punning cartoon of a nonchalant Macdonald staring down the barrel of a gun required a sequel in the following issue of an upended John A. exclaiming, ‘Didn’t know it was loaded.’[72] Macdonald himself had scorned to take the precaution of running in another riding, but he defiantly told his supporters that ‘although he was defeated he was not killed. … Before tomorrow morning he would have many offers to resign in his favour.’[73] Eliza Grimason, one of his most fervent supporters, wept for twenty-four hours after his defeat. In plain Irish speech, she even advised her hero to seek a career outside politics ‘and tell them all to go to the divil.’[74] She ought to have known that John A. Macdonald did not give up so easily: he had, after all, just regained the job he most wanted. Campbell offered the appropriate consolation: ‘if you were defeated in Kingston you have been elected by the Dominion.’[75] The fact that Macdonald’s defeat was a personal rebuff was underlined nine months later, when the Conservatives recaptured the provincial seat. Sir John A. Macdonald had lost to Gunn by 991 votes to 847. In the June 1879 Ontario general election, James H. Metcalfe, defeated the incumbent Liberal William Robinson by 955 votes to 756.[76] Thirty one years of age, an auctioneer and former schoolteacher, Metcalfe could hardly compete with Macdonald in terms of profile and charisma. As in the 1864 Cataraqui by-election, there seems to be evidence of a block of Kingston citizens, perhaps by now as many as one hundred of them, who would vote for any Conservative but the party leader.

            England’s mightiest newspaper, The Times, found Macdonald’s rejection ‘startling’, adding that ‘it has been a matter of personal pride with him ... that his seat in Kingston, his native city, has never been wrested from him since his first election thirty-four years ago.’[77] In rejecting its most celebrated citizen after 34 years, the Loyal Old Town did itself no favours. Perversely, defeat shifted the long-term political balance of power between Macdonald and ‘Glorious Old Kingston!’[78] in his favour. He claimed that he simply sent three telegrams to supporters in British Columbia, offering no deals but simply asking to be elected there. ‘It shall be done’, came the reply, and in the new parliament he sat as an absentee member for Victoria.[79] (Macdonald was also returned by acclamation for a Manitoba riding, but presumably took the wise decision to distance himself from memories of the Red River affair of 1869-70.) At the next election, in 1882, he was elected for two eastern Ontario constituencies, Lennox close to Kingston and Carleton near Ottawa. He had pledged to represent both and so he did, for sixteen anomalous months, until he was unseated for corruption in the first and fell back upon the second.[80] Thus when he reappeared as a candidate in Kingston in February 1887, he was not so much supplicating for a seat in parliament as implicitly offering his home town the chance to make amends – a point underlined by the fact that his punishing campaign schedule meant that he could spend almost no time in the city himself.

            By the eighteen-eighties, nobody was in much doubt that Kingston had lost the race for urban greatness. Writing in 1884, the Marquis of Lorne noted that ‘the several manufactories, and the stir at the wharves caused by the trans-shipment of grain, keep up a good deal of life in the locality’. However, there was an autumnal tinge about his comments on ‘one of the pleasantest of Canada’s towns’ and, having recently served as governor-general, Lord Lorne was hardly likely to engage in controversial denigration. ‘Its old importance, both as a military post and as a political centre (for it was once a capital) has now passed away; but the country around is so agreeable, and the society of the place so varied, although limited, that it will always be a favourite residence.’ It was not merely its lost status as Canada’s former capital that was receding into the past. ‘It had for many years the distinction of returning the present Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, to the House of Commons.’[81] 

1887: 'We must not throw away a single seat'.


In 1878, Macdonald had been roundly criticised for failing to do enough for the city. Nine years later, he perhaps seemed a more attractive political prospect. True, he had done nothing for the Kingston and Pembroke railway, which had finally broken into the Ottawa Valley in 1886, but the ‘K&P’ no longer looked like a miracle solution to the city’s problems either. It made sense for Kingston to turn its hopes back towards exploiting its communications by water, and this would eventually lead to the construction of a dry dock to supplement its existing ship-building business with opportunities for ship repair. Since it ran entirely within Ontario, the K&P had fallen under the ‘Local Works’ provision of Canada’s constitution, the British North America Act, and its promoters had looked to the provincial government and legislature for subsidies. But Section 92 (10) declared that even if a project was ‘wholly situate[d]’ within a single province, the Dominion parliament could declare it ‘to be for the general advantage of Canada or for the advantage of two or more of the provinces’.[82] The port of Kingston was obviously a plausible candidate for such a designation, and its chances of moving into the sphere of Dominion largesse would be increased should the city happen to vote in the prime minister as its local MP. The speed with which the Kingston business community moved to press their case after the 1887 election suggests that the Kingston dry dock was no mere accidental afterthought. Moreover, if Kingston might benefit from renewing its connection with Sir John A. Macdonald, he too probably had a personal motive for coming home. As further explored in Chapter Seven, his involvement with the Trust and Loan Company of Canada probably represented the most consistent success story in the chequered history of the Macdonald finances. The company specialised in farm mortgages, a sector which boomed throughout the eighteen-seventies and eighties.[83] As Ontario farmers became increasingly indebted, so it made good sense for John A. Macdonald to avoid the country districts and seek an urban constituency. Unfortunately, Ontario still boasted very few genuine towns, and each of them had spawned its own local elite of businessmen and lawyers, many of them ambitious for a political career and unlikely to accept even a parachuted prime minister. In 1887, John A. Macdonald and the city of Kingston needed one another. Moreover, the Kingston economy seemed at last to be moving away from its earlier dependence upon government activity. Three medium-sized textile plants pointed to a cohort of voters likely to see the merits of the National Policy of tariff protection, while employees of the Locomotive Works could be expected to welcome a member of parliament with a hotline to the recently completed railway to the Pacific Ocean.[84]

Indeed, Macdonald needed Kingston in 1887 not so much save his parliamentary career as to re-elect his government.[85] Already under political strain from the need to sustain the Canadian Pacific Railway, his ministry had suffered a series of blows in the two years before his gamble on a sudden dissolution in January 1887. The Métis uprising in the North West had been followed, in November 1885, by the controversial execution of its leader, the francophone Louis Riel. The ensuing explosion of protest in Quebec had fuelled a nationaliste challenge from the provincial Liberals at the October 1886 provincial election, leading to a result so close that nobody knew who would form the government when the legislature met. Then, in late December, Oliver Mowat’s Liberals won a smashing victory in the Ontario provincial elections. If the present was dispiriting, Macdonald decided that the outlook was still more grim. As an English-Canadian politician, he could not easily read the situation in French Canada, and it did not help that his Quebec lieutenants were quarrelsome and grasping. But, with a comfortable 67-seat majority in 1882, he knew that he could survive losses in Quebec provided he held on to seats in his own province. At provincial level, Ontario voters liked Mowat’s aggressive Ottawa-baiting agenda, but it was unlikely that they would feel easy about a similar stance from Quebec. Thus yet another apparent setback in the first week of the campaign, Honoré Mercier’s success in forming a Liberal-nationaliste provincial ministry, perhaps gave Ontario reason to reflect that, even though he was the bogey-man who threatened their own claims for greater autonomy and more territory, Sir John A. Macdonald might after all also prove the best champion of a secure Dominion.

Since every seat gained or lost made a net difference to two to the difference between the parties, the temptation to recover Kingston reflected more than mere vanity. ‘After the experience we have had by the Ontario Elections,’ Macdonald wrote, ‘… we must not throw away a single seat.’[86] But, almost a decade after his rejection by his home town, could Macdonald hope to turn back the clock? One reason for possible optimism could be found in the Dominion Franchise Act of 1885. From 1867, pending the establishment of a uniform franchise, the right to vote in Dominion elections remained in the hands of each province. In Ontario, the Mowat government widened the right to vote, and its decision in 1885 to include artisans and wage-earners – a potentially important bloc in urban areas ─ seems to have triggered Macdonald’s decision to carry franchise legislation of his own which he regarded as ‘the greatest triumph of my life’.  The establishment of two-tier voting qualifications meant that the way Ontario voted provincially was no longer a secure guide to its performance at Dominion level ─ hence Macdonald’s otherwise puzzling decision to hold a Dominion general election immediately after the Mowat Liberals had won handily at the provincial poll. Nonetheless, in practical terms, the 1885 Dominion franchise seems a puzzle. Ostensibly it was a conservative measure, designed to restrict the right to vote to those with a serious stake in the community. Thus in contrast to the Ontario provincial qualifications ─ occupation of property with an annual valuation of $200, or income of $250 ─ Macdonald opted for a $300 valuation and an income of $400, designed to exclude wage-earners. Yet, paradoxically, its overall impact was to add considerably to the electorate.

How could this be? One explanation lies in the fact that Macdonald’s legislation permitted plural voting by property owners. Hence there could be more votes without necessarily creating more voters – and, in a city like Kingston, it was possible to import voters from the nearby United States to impersonate absentee landlords. However, the key feature of the 1885 Act was not so much the qualifications laid down as the powers given to government-appointed ‘revising officers’ to draw up electoral registers. The revising officers, who were hand-picked by the prime minister, had considerable leeway to interpret the circumstances of claimants to the franchise. Hence a house could be worth $300 a year when occupied by a Conservative, but its value might be deemed to plummet if tenanted by a Liberal. Many professional men – such as doctors, lawyers and surveyors – depended upon the uncertainties income from fees, while shopkeepers were vulnerable to the eternal vagaries of commerce. In the absence of independent verification – since Canada had no income tax, there was no official mechanism for determining how much anybody earned – it was possible to take a more relaxed attitude to pro-government claimants than to those suspected of opposition.[87] Equally, it was up to the revising officers to decide whether Kingston men working in the United States were temporarily absent or permanently expatriated. According to opposition complaints, there was a tendency to assume that Conservative supporters were kept on the registers, and paid to come home when their votes were required. If there is a certain air of Third-World cynicism hovering over the 1887 election, it must be conceded that all this rule-bending seems to have had little overall effect.[88] Indeed, detailed examination of the vote in Kingston suggests that the new system did not work entirely in the government’s favour.

On the face of it, the establishment of an independent franchise qualification for national elections was an important further step in the process of  compartmentalisation of Canadian elections into distinct federal and provincial levels. Dominion and Ontario politics seemed increasingly unrelated, so that the same voters might well support Mowat at one election but almost immediately switch to endorsing Macdonald at the next. Indeed, there was increasingly also a third level of autonomous municipal activity. A vital local issue through the winter of 1886-87 concerned the quality and quantity of the city’s unreliable water supply, a campaign that culminated in a municipal buy-out after a local plebiscite approved the necessary loan finance in August 1887. In the early years of his political career, John A. Macdonald would have been at the centre of civic activity on such an issue: in fact, forty years earlier, he had been a director and parliamentary promoter of the original Water Works Company.[89] Now he was hoping to glide back into parliament, apparently without becoming involved in this vital local issue at all.[90]

One explanation for this curiously detached approach lies in the timing of his candidature. Until the last minute, Kingston Conservatives had been in some disarray in the choice of a nominee. George Airey Kirkpatrick, who had represented nearby Frontenac since 1870, had his eye on the seat. A Kingston resident of impeccable Tory stock, Kirkpatrick was president of the company running the Locomotive Works and an investor in the K&P railway. But these may have been precisely the claims to carry the Conservative banner in the city that would make Sir John A. Macdonald keen to block his candidacy. As a party organiser back in 1840, the young Macdonald had helped steer G.A. Kirkpatrick’s father into withdrawing his claims to the Kingston seat, and Thomas Kirkpatrick had challenged him at the polls in 1847. To have a Kirkpatrick representing Kingston did not appeal to him in 1887 any more than it had four decades earlier. G.A. Kirkpatrick had been Speaker of the Commons for the previous six years. For all his reverence for the Westminster system of parliamentary government, Sir John A. Macdonald believed that the Speaker should help the government to get its business through the chamber, and he complained that Kirkpatrick had failed to support his ‘Conservative friends’.

Evidently the member for Frontenac believed he could win in Kingston, where the Conservative J.H. Metcalfe had held his seat in the recent provincial election. The Liberals were caught off balance by Macdonald’s sudden dissolution: Alexander Gunn was overseas on a visit to Britain, and there was speculation that the party might take the opportunity to dump its taciturn standard-bearer.[91]

With Macdonald no longer politically associated with the city, and Alexander Campbell planning to retire from active politics, the bar on another Kingston cabinet minister that had driven Cartwright out of the party would no longer apply. Backed by the indefinable prestige of representing the one-time capital, and in credit with the party if he could win back the seat, Kirkpatrick would no doubt aim at a place in the cabinet. However, at the last minute Kirkpatrick decided to stay in Frontenac and the Kingston Conservatives found they had no obvious alternative candidate in place: the Globe claimed that they were ‘in distress’ after offering the nomination to at least a dozen men. It is at least as likely that Macdonald himself warned Kirkpatrick to back off (even the Globe acknowledged that he made his decision ‘submitting to party pressure not a little’), for on the eve of nominations it was announced that the prime minister would step in to contest his old riding ─ although, unlike 1878, he took the precaution of running in a second riding, Carleton, as an insurance. On the face of it, the ‘Old Man’ returned to his home city as the elder statesman of Canadian politics. But, not far below the surface, there remained the defiant upstart who had wrested control of the Conservative party from the arrogant Family Compact. The following year, Campbell left active politics and Kirkpatrick applied for his seat in the cabinet, only to receive a bleak appraisal of his abilities and a blunt refusal of his claim.[92] 

Unfortunately, for one local worthy, Dominion and provincial politics did not operate in hermetically sealed compartments. The Bishop of Regiopolis, James Vincent Cleary, had arrived in Canada in 1881, having been plucked by the Vatican from his home parish in Ireland to fill the vacant see. His predecessors, Bishops Phelan, Horan and O’Brien, had been just as Irish but more sensitively aware of the limits of episcopal power in so diverse a society as Canada. Cleary, on the other hand, spoke in the commanding tones of Ireland’s post-Famine Catholic Church, and demanded to be obeyed. A brilliant theologian, he particularly expected to be heeded on educational issues. He found a compliant ally in Ontario premier Oliver Mowat, who had come a long way since he had fronted the Orange revolt against John A. Macdonald twenty five years earlier. Naturally the bishop had favoured the Mowat Liberals in the December 1886 provincial election, even causing prayers to be offered up throughout his diocese calling for divine intervention to prevent the Ontario Conservatives from interfering with the Catholic school system.[93] Unfortunately, one of the leading Conservatives in Kingston was Michael Sullivan, a professor in the Queen’s medical faculty and an unusual figure in the Ontario party in being an Irish Catholic. Sullivan had run unsuccessfully against Alexander Gunn for the House of Commons in 1882, and Macdonald had named him to the Senate soon after.[94] Both Sullivan and another prominent Catholic, J.H. McGuire, had campaigned for their party and hence contrary to the wishes of their bishop. Cleary, as a Kingston obituary would enigmatically comment, ‘had some of the drawbacks as well as advantages of genius’.[95] An authoritarian personality, he found it impossible to accept that any member of his own flock might exercise individual judgement on any matter upon which he had pronounced. Sullivan and McGuire must have been suborned into defiance, and he held Sir John A. Macdonald responsible.

For a prime minister seeking to recover a lost riding, the bishop’s anger was an awkward complication. Macdonald had targeted the Catholic vote as early as 1847 and it had helped to save him in 1861. Loss of support among Catholics had been one of the elements that had rendered his seat insecure from 1872. To have any chance of recapturing the seat, Macdonald needed to retain the votes that Sullivan seems to have won from his co-religionists in 1882. But Cleary’s intervention had implications far beyond the boundaries of Kingston. The western revolt led by the francophone and Catholic Louis Riel had triggered a Protestant backlash across Ontario.[96] The Toronto Mail, conventionally the voice of the Conservative party, was swept up in a campaign of bigoted denunciation which John A. Macdonald found highly embarrassing. ‘We have lost nearly the whole Catholic vote by the course of the Mail,’ he wrote after touring western Ontario just before Christmas 1886. Early in the New Year he bluntly broke off the party’s links with the Mail and began to plan a successor newspaper, alleging that its course had not merely helped Mowat to win the Ontario elections, ‘but prejudiced the Conservative party throughout the Dominion.’[97] When mutinous Conservatives in remote Algoma sought to dump their serving member, Simon Dawson, for being both too old and too Catholic, Macdonald pleaded that it was ‘of importance to the Conservative Party all over the Dominion that they should not be considered as the bigoted party.… You must remember that Ontario is only a portion of the Dominion’ and Catholics in other parts of the country were likely to resent slights to their co-religionists.[98] Privately Macdonald hoped that the loss of Irish Catholic Conservative votes to Mowat might act as a safety valve, reasoning that ‘these people, having taken the edge off their resentment by voting Liberal in the provincial elections, felt free to return to their political allegiance when the Dominion elections came on two months later.’[99] He went out of his way to distance himself from the Ontario Conservative leader, W.R. Meredith, who was anathema to the Catholic hierarchy.[100] He also lobbied a potentially friendly prelate, Bishop John Walsh of London, assuring him that ‘the present ministry is the most Catholic body that has ever ruled the destinies of Canada.’ After listing appointments made by his government, Macdonald could not fathom the belief that ‘we are to lose the Catholic vote. I wont [sic] believe this and hope with Your Lordship’s help to keep a fair share of it.’[101]

Macdonald’s careful attempts to distinguish the Conservative party from the anti-Catholic prejudices of so many of its supporters were directly threatened by Bishop Cleary’s hostility. Three centuries earlier, the Protestant French king Henri IV had concluded that the Catholic city of Paris was the key to the control of his divided realm, and announced that Paris was worth a Mass. John A. Macdonald did not go quite so far, but on the first day of January 1887 he knew that, for one brief moment, the outcome of the election in Kingston might prove vital to his hopes of retaining power. Although he had not yet announced himself as the Conservative candidate for the city, he knew he must soothe the angry prelate. ‘The Dominion Ministry of which I am the present first Minister does not attempt to guide or influence Provincial Elections,’ he assured the bishop. During the recent provincial contest at Kingston, ‘I in no way interfered directly or indirectly. I neither asked nor induced any man to vote for either candidate.’ He strongly denied that either Sullivan or McGuire had acted on his behalf. ‘They are entirely independent of me, and I did not ask either of them to vote nor did I know how they were going to vote.’ Since Macdonald had recently named Sullivan to the Senate and he had also been in correspondence with McGuire deploring the Mail’s sectarian crusade, this protest was going a little too far, as his next sentence implicitly admitted. ‘I would naturally presume that as Conservatives they would vote for the Conservative candidate, but that would be a mere speculation of mine, not based on any communication on the subject with either of them.’ All in all, it was an extraordinary letter ─ penned by a man who had been prime minister of Canada for most of the previous two decades to an imperious cleric who had arrived in the country less than six years before. Its self-abasing tone was a measure of Macdonald’s need to avoid open confrontation with the Catholic Church.[102] However, Conservative campaigners would find themselves on dangerous ground when they subsequently implied that the ferocious prelate had changed sides. Cleary issued a statement declaring that ‘it would be ungracious on my part to encourage my people to vote against the Reform party, who so honorably, and in despite of such grievous temptations to join the No-Popery crusade, sustained us and our Catholic rights during the recent terrible struggle with the demon of bigotry’, the latter phrase referring to the Ontario election campaign.[103] If it was some way from an unqualified endorsement of Sir John A. Macdonald, it was at least as close to neutrality as could be expected from the masterful bishop of Regiopolis.

In practice, John A. Macdonald had to leave his bid to recapture Kingston in the hands of those local supporters of whose political views he claimed such innocent ignorance. His main task through the five-week campaign was to regain the ground lost to the Mowat Liberals across Ontario. In political terms, the Dominion of 1887 was a federation not just of provinces but of regional fiefdoms, and even the prime minister kept to his own Ontario patch ─ which proved large and exhausting enough. However, the moment the election was called, he found himself dealing with a crisis in Quebec. Most Canadian politicians were hungry for patronage, but few could equal the voracious appetite of J-A. Chapleau. Reckoning that Macdonald vitally needed his undoubted vote-pulling power among French Canadians, he threatened to bolt the party unless he was recognised as the supreme boss of the Montreal area. Donald Creighton, who was inclined to view Quebec political disputes as childish tantrums, implied that Macdonald quickly charmed his recalcitrant colleague ‘back into the fold’, to quote the prime minister’s own phrase.[104]  The humiliating reality was very different. Although, like most leading Quebec politicians, Chapleau was fluent in English, in those days the predominant language of government, he chose to assert his demands in French, well knowing that this would place the unilingual prime minister at a disadvantage. For Macdonald, the Chapleau challenge was like dealing with Bishop Cleary but on a larger scale. His only course was surrender, unconditional, with as much cheerfulness as he could pretend and as rapidly as Canada’s strung-out communications would permit. For his part, under the guise of confirmation and clarification, Chapleau adopted the classic ploy of the blackmailer and kept returning for more. It was a nasty episode but Macdonald’s desperate need to keep his tormenter sweet provides one vivid glimpse of the desperate pressures on a political leader, seventy years of age and fighting an election in the depths of the Canadian winter.

On the Sunday before the last full week of campaigning, from his desk in Ottawa, the prime minister attempted to parry the latest round of demands from Chapleau, and to excuse himself for not responding immediately. ‘I was absent on Friday at Brockville where I had a dreadful day & night of it ─ with a regular blizzard ─ processions receptions and speeches.’ He slept badly and the next day ‘the roads were blocked’ and it was Saturday afternoon before reached ‘home’ (which, of course, was his house on the banks of the Ottawa River). ‘I was so thoroughly used up that I was obliged to go to bed without opening my letters’ ─ surely a dangerous omission in a party leader conducting an election campaign ─ and Saturday evening had been taken up with an election rally in the capital. ‘I leave tomorrow morning for North Lanark. On Tuesday I shall be at Kingston, Wednesday Hamilton ─ Thursday Brantford ─ Friday Lindsay and return to Ottawa on Saturday night.’[105] Tuesday at Kingston: ‘Sir John is a resident of Ottawa,’ protested the Whig. ‘He has spent but a day or two here’.  In years past, he was ‘never ... the friend of the place he ought to have been.’[106]

 But the criticism that had hit home in 1878 proved less effective nine years later and Macdonald narrowly scraped home, by 1370 votes to 1358.[107] ‘A mistake occurred in the returns of one of the wards and for some time all was uncertainty, both sides claiming the election.’[108] Indeed, the outcome remained uncertain for over a week and Macdonald himself prudently remained in Ottawa and declined invitations to join his supporters in a victory celebration. With sixteen ballots in dispute, the final result depended upon a full recount. This confirmed Macdonald’s election but threw up one curious and suspect detail. Four Liberal voters had sought the help of a deputy returning officer to ensure that they voted for Gunn.  This official, a Tory, had written their names on the back of their ballot papers, an obvious act of sabotage which violated the principle of secrecy and led to the invalidation of their votes.[109] Another glitch in the voting procedure was simply bizarre. A Liberal supporter insisted that he had arrived at one of the polling stations in Cataraqui ward just before five o’clock, when polls were due to close. The official in charge declared that the time was already five o’clock, and closed the poll. The aggrieved would-be voter jumped into a cab and rushed downtown, to find a polling station in the Market Place that was still open. (If electors could vote anywhere in the city, it must no wonder that personation was a problem.) The source of the confusion was straightforward enough. Thanks to the genius of a Canadian engineer (and Chancellor of Queen’s), Sandford Fleming, in November 1883 the North American railroad system had adopted a common system of time zones, the ingenious standardisation of the clocks that forms the basis of time-keeping around the world to this day. But Liberals claimed that polling stations in Kingston elections had ‘always been opened and closed by city time’, which was six minutes behind railway time. Liberals, it seems, were not always in the forefront of progress. It must have been a dramatic cab ride.[110] 

But, for the defeated Liberals, this irregularity formed part of a wider picture of electoral corruption. The Kingston Whig lamented that it had been ‘an unequal fight from the start’, the Liberals having relied on ‘a simple faith in the honesty of the electorate’ and the Conservatives on ‘“boodle”’. Yet despite the confident and predictable announcement that there was ‘ample evidence to unseat the member elect’, as always, the allegations were almost impossible to prove. One voter, just one out of 2,700, was arrested on polling day for allegedly accepting a bribe. The case collapsed when it came to court: the accused denied the charge and a key prosecution witness had mysteriously disappeared.[111] Macdonald’s twelve-vote victory stood and, forty-three years after his first campaign, he was once again member of parliament for Kingston.[112] Well might Campbell write ‘Hurrah! Hurrah!’.[113]

            Comparison of the 1887 result with that of 1882 is complicated by two factors, the change in the Conservative candidate and the vast increase in the numbers voting. Michael Sullivan, the party’s standard-bearer in 1882 could hardly rival Macdonald in political profile, but it does seem likely that he attracted a personal following among Irish Catholic voters. The considerable increase in numbers voting, from 1686 to 2728, might suggest that valid comparisons could not easily be drawn. In fact, the patterns that seem to emerge do not wholly endorse the Machiavellian interpretation of the 1885 Franchise Act. True, in three of the four wards in which participation increased by over sixty percent, Macdonald ran appreciably ahead of Sullivan’s vote share five years earlier. To that extent, the fine-tuning of the electoral registers perhaps did ensure his victory. He scored the biggest advances in the Conservative vote around the north-west and western fringes of the city, where some of the explanation might lie in suburban development, for Kingston in the eighteen-eighties was experiencing a rare spurt of population growth.[114] More puzzling is the fact that he lost percentage support in three wards, Ontario, Cataraqui and Sydenham, which were the areas of the city where Sullivan had polled best. In Cataraqui, on the northern fringe of the built-up area, the ‘swing’ is hardly significant: as in previous elections, Macdonald ran comfortably ahead of his opponent. Ontario and Sydenham were downtown districts, but so was St Lawrence where the Macdonald vote surged six percent above the 1882 level.[115] One possible explanation is that Irish Catholics traditionally concentrated downtown, had voted Conservative in 1882 for one of their own, but switched in 1887. The Liberal leader Edward Blake had few political strengths, but he was a champion of Irish Home Rule, an issue of symbolic importance to the Catholic Irish since Gladstone’s attempt to recreate a Dublin parliament had been thrown out at Westminster a few months earlier.[116] Even if Macdonald had calmed Bishop Cleary’s anger, his marked absence of episcopal enthusiasm was probably contagious. If this analysis is tenable, two perhaps surprising deductions follow from it. The first is that a Queen’s professor had possessed some advantages as a candidate over the prime minister of Canada (just as, twenty years earlier, Alexander Campbell had proved to be a more successful vote-getter among the Orangemen). The second is that the ‘new’ voters were not all shovelled on to the rolls in the Conservative interest: Liberal percentages held up even in the face of sizeable increases in the electorate in Cataraqui and Frontenac wards. Despite the assumption that the legislation of 1885 had been designed to pack the electoral rolls, in Kingston it would seem that, district by district, the new voters cast their ballots in much the same patterns as their previously enfranchised neighbours.


Table 3            KINGSTON ELECTIONS 1882 AND 1887


Ward               A         B                     C                     D                     E          F


Victoria           212      366                  72.64               46.7                 51.48   +6.31


Cataraqui         284      485                  70.77               57.04               55.46   -1.58


Rideau             350      575                  64.29               38.57               51.49   +12.91


St Lawrence    162      262                  61.73               37.66               43.9     +6.24


Ontario            154      244                  58.4                 50.65               46.31   -4.34


Frontenac        341      517                  51.61               48.09               50.3     +2.29


Sydenham       203      256                  26.1                 48.28               48.05   -0.23


A: Numbers voting 1882; B: Numbers voting 1887; C: Percentage increase voting; D: Conservative percentage 1882 (Sullivan); E: Conservative percentage 1887 (Macdonald);

F: Percentage increase/decrease voting Conservative. Source: Daily British Whig, 23 February 1887.


There was to be one conspiratorial sequel to the 1887 campaign in Kingston. In May 1888, Archbishop John Lynch of Toronto died, thus throwing open the top Catholic appointment in the province. John A. Macdonald ‘greatly dreaded the appointment of his successor of a stranger’ who might import ‘foreign prejudices’. In other words, he did not want a second Cleary brought over from Ireland. More to the point, he did not want the ‘violent & indiscreet’ Cleary himself translated to the archbishopric, an outcome to be feared given Cleary’s high standing as a theologian. But how could a Protestant politician in a distant colony influence the deliberations of the Roman Curia? Macdonald decided that ‘having a word said at the Vatican’ was the best way to influence the outcome. The governor-general, Lord Lansdowne, was about to return to England at the close of his term of office. Like Macdonald, Lansdowne was a Protestant, but as a grandee he could easily talk on confidential terms to Britain’s senior Catholic aristocrat, the Duke of Norfolk, who duly relayed the message through the English Catholic hierarchy, which was perennially embarrassed by wild Irish clerics, and on to the Vatican. The specific advice conveyed through this indirect channel, Macdonald reported to his episcopal ally Bishop John Walsh of London, was ‘that Your Lordship’s enthronization as Archbishop would be in the highest degree satisfactory to the Government & people of Canada’.[117] It was typical of Macdonald that he made sure the beneficiary of his lobbying knew what had happened ─ and, had he not done so, we should probably have no record of the manoeuvre. Walsh duly moved to Toronto the following year. The downside of the deal was the Cleary stayed in Kingston, where his local status was increased by the consolation prize of the promotion of his see to an archbishopric. And he continued to make trouble for the Conservatives. Still, the episode was an example of one of Macdonald’s sayings: ‘Time and I against any man.’

            The recount on March the first had confirmed Sir John A. Macdonald’s recovery of his electoral heritage. Just eight days later, Kingston put in its claim for reward. A joint deputation from the Boards of Trade of Toronto, Montreal, Hamilton and Kingston arrived in Ottawa to lobby for the deepening of the St Lawrence and Welland canals. But the Kingston delegation had an agenda of its own, soliciting government investment to improve Kingston’s harbour facilities. The Globe, still hoping to unseat Macdonald for corruption, sarcastically assured the petitioners that ‘the Kingston people should have no difficulty in getting anything they may demand’ in time for the expected by-election.[118] The speed with which the local elite acted to claim their prize confirms that Kingston had been well aware of the likelihood of Dominion investment under the guise of a Section 92 project during the election campaign. High on the March 1887 shopping list was ‘an examining warehouse’, a customs facility, in line with the long-time hope of funnelling trade with the United States through the port. But it may be that a maritime accident pointed to a more useful project. The previous fall, a Lake steamer, the Myles, had run aground on a shoal off Kingston. As the ice began to break up at the end of March, arrangements were made to re-float the vessel and to check below the waterline for damage. But to get the Myles into a dry dock involved towing her 200 kilometres, the length of Lake Ontario, to a facility at Port Dalhousie on the northern end of the Welland Canal.[119] By May of 1888, the government was committed to give Kingston a dry dock (the technical term was a graving dock), which would extend the capacity of the port as a centre for ship repairing. ‘Why Kingston?’ asked the outspoken John Charlton, a Liberal from western Ontario. His claim that ‘some other point would be better than this which is at the foot of Lakes’ would certainly have been helpful to Macdonald in the constituency as demonstrating that it was his benevolence that had secured the windfall. A Nova Scotian Liberal, Alfred G. Jones, who sought similar investment for Halifax, took a more whimsical view. ‘I have no objection to the Government building a dry dock at Kingston ... as it is represented by the leader of the Government, and as the majority is not very large’.[120]

Initially, the projected cost of the Kingston dry dock, as announced by the minister of public works, Hector Langevin, was estimated at somewhere between $250,000 and $400,000. But construction projects on Langevin’s watch had a disconcerting tendency to rise to the top of their range, and beyond. By August 1891, the cost had soared above $450,000.[121] Although the trajectories cannot be traced, nor the amounts quantified, it may be safely assumed that some of that money was diverted to funding Conservative party electioneering. Sir John A. Macdonald had ceremonially inaugurated the project in June 1890,[122] but the contractors remained on site, ready to provide work (which detractors claimed was make-work) at election time. The dry dock was not merely a pork-barrel project that secured the abstract gratitude of the people of Kingston. It almost certainly generated the cash that floated the Conservatives to victory both at the general election of March 1891 and the January 1892 by-election made necessary by Macdonald’s death. The contract for the project was structured in a way that certainly embodied some imaginative creativity, and which would be denounced as blatantly fraudulent. The affair of the ‘Bancroft contract’ is examined in Chapter Six as part of a wider discussion of the electoral implications pork-barrelling in Kingston.

            Macdonald’s second period as member for Kingston was a world away from his political debut almost half a century earlier. A political publicity stunt in 1889 found that only eleven of the 225 signatories to the 1844 requisition were still alive. To mark the 45th anniversary, ten of them agreed to sign a copy, a kind of renewal of political vows. The eleventh refused, and there seems to have been little regret in the Macdonald camp when he died the next day.[123] ‘You’ll never die, John A.!’, a supporter had shouted back in 1884,[124] but five years on, it was clear that the Macdonald era was coming to an end. The stage was set for the poignant campaign of 1891.

1891: ‘It is the last time’

‘The Old Flag, the Old Policy, the Old Leader.’[125]  His National Policy was threatened by the Liberal pledge to seek ‘unrestricted reciprocity’ with the United States. Congress had just passed the highly protectionist McKinley Tariff, and Macdonald plunged yet again into a winter election campaign before Canada’s farmers could discover the full extent of the barrier Washington had placed in the way of their export trade. In his last election, as in his first, Macdonald waved the Union Jack: ‘A British subject I was born – a British subject I will die.’[126] A modern politician would probably be advised not to draw attention to his own mortality. Macdonald added a whole new level of meaning to his famous flourish when he collapsed under the strain of campaigning.

            The 1891 campaign was very far from the ‘Nunc dimittis’, the honourable retirement from politics to which he occasionally referred. His Dominion was riven by clashes of religion and language, ‘race’ in the vocabulary of the day. His party was a time-bomb of simmering corruption scandals, about which he knew but could take no action. ‘The Old Leader’ could not even point to an acceptable, still less a willing, successor. ‘We would all like to walk in your footsteps,’ wrote John Thompson, one of his ablest lieutenants, ‘– but not in your shoes!’[127]

In this once-again desperate struggle, Kingston formed part of the background furniture of continuity. ‘I shall be a candidate for the representation of my old constituency, the city of Kingston,’ Macdonald announced, but his manifesto was addressed to the ‘Electors of Canada’ and it was issued from Ottawa.[128] Indeed, his campaign to hold Kingston got off to an awkward start when the candidate himself discovered he was too busy to leave Ottawa for his own nomination meeting. Failure to show up to such an important meeting risked reviving the resentments of 1878, when he had been censured for allegedly preferring the Dominion capital to the interests of his own riding. Macdonald turned at short notice to his ally, Sir Charles Tupper, the man he had presented to Kingstonians as his eventual successor back in 1877. Officially, Tupper was out of politics. At least, he was out of the House of Commons, having in 1882 become Canada’s High Commissioner in England. But the post, created by Sir John A. Macdonald himself in 1880, had not yet become a purely diplomatic appointment. Tupper, with his bull-like anatomy and stentorian lungs, was a great favourite at election meetings in Ontario, as well as retaining considerable influence in his own province of Nova Scotia. Macdonald had summoned him back to take part in the election campaigns of 1882 and 1887, and on 6 February 1891 Tupper arrived in Ottawa once again ready for the fray.

A brief note from the prime minister was awaiting him. ‘Welcome! There is a meeting in Kingston ─ my constituency ─ to organise and nominate me. I have made so many appointments for to-morrow that I must not leave town.’ Calling upon Tupper’s ‘good nature’ (a quality that not always visible to others), Macdonald urged him to deputise. ‘If you can’t manage it, will you ask Charlie to go?’ ‘Charlie’ was Charles Hibbert Tupper, the High Commissioner’s son. Admitted to the cabinet in 1888, he had quickly proved to be unusually voracious in his demands for favours. According to legend, the prime minister had returned one of his begging letters with the bald annotation, ‘Dear Charlie, skin your own skunks.’ Sending Charlie Tupper to Kingston would have been scraping the bottom of the political barrel.

Luckily, Tupper senior was able to make the journey instead and duly delivered a rousing speech to nominate the absent candidate. He assured the Kingston faithful of ‘Sir John Macdonald’s deep regret at not being able to be present’, a sentiment presumably sharpened by the prime minister’s belief that, had he appeared in person, he might have been returned by acclamation. Thanks to this unlikely scenario, Tupper could portray Macdonald’s failure to put in an appearance not as an affront to his constituents, but rather as a sign of his high-minded commitment to Canada: ‘he would subject himself at this inclement season of the year, to the hardships of a contest, rather than fail in a single duty to the country.’ The people of Kingston were invited to bathe in reflected glory, reflected of course at some distance from the one-time rival city of Ottawa. Tupper declared that he envied ‘the electors of this noble constituency, which for so many years has returned to Parliament a statesman who was looked up to throughout the Empire.’[129] Thirteen years earlier, the notion that Kingston was subservient to Macdonald had cost him his seat. Now the nine years in which the Liberal candidate, Alexander Gunn, had represented the city, were being expunged from the rhetorical record. After the election, the defeated opposition tried to make an issue out of Tupper’s participation in the campaign, and John A. Macdonald’s very last evening in the House of Commons would be spent fending off a censure motion moved by Liberal leader Wilfrid Laurier.[130]

As was his wont, Macdonald campaigned exclusively but also extensively in Ontario, concentrating on the booming areas to the west of Toronto where voters were especially nervous about access to United States markets. He had been on the road for over two weeks when he finally put in an appearance in his own riding ten days before polling, although even then he intended to use the city as a base for campaigning around the eastern section of the province.

On February 24, Macdonald addressed what was claimed as ‘the greatest political gathering ever’ in Kingston. Over an hour before the meeting was due to commence, crowds burst through the barred doors of the city’s Opera House, quickly filling the whole building. Surrounding streets were jammed with people, hundreds of whom were turned away. The turn-out was all the more remarkable since there had been a sudden burst of February gales, with temperatures down to -13oC.[131] The following day Macdonald headed for Napanee to shore up support in Lennox. There the enthusiasm of his supporters considerably outran their organisational efficiency. So many of them crowded in to his official rally in the local theatre, even swamping the platform, that he was pressed to address an overflow meeting in the town hall. On a ‘raw and bleak’ evening, he was driven about the town in an open carriage. ‘I am not quite as young as I used to be’, was his exhausted comment, as he leaned on a walking stick to deliver his two speeches. As proceedings closed, a long-time supporter impulsively urged him to take a rest. Macdonald clasped his hand and was overheard assuring his old acquaintance that this would be ‘the last time’, the final campaign. After shaking hands with a group of schoolgirls, and kissing the smallest of them, he was driven to the train station, where he boarded his railway carriage and collapsed with exhaustion.[132]

‘The Old Leader’ took no part in the final week of the campaign. The excursion to Napanee had left him with a severe cold, and his heart was alarmingly weak. His progressive personal dissociation from Kingston compounded the problem. His two sisters were dead and his son had moved to Winnipeg. His only family base in the town was the home of his brother-in-law, James Williamson, ‘a widower who lived in a desolate-looking house with the minimum comforts of any kind’. Listless and confined to a ‘cheerless’ bedroom, Macdonald tried to oversee the election from this unlikely refuge. His secretary, Joseph Pope, tried without success to protect him from the bombarding telegrams from candidates trying to extract last-minute concessions and promises. ‘Joe,’ Macdonald complained one afternoon, ‘if you would know the depth of meanness of human nature, you have got to be a Prime Minister running a general election!’ On March 4, the day before polling, he managed to summon enough strength to travel back to Ottawa, exchanging one bedroom for another.[133] He had left Kingston for the last time.

Evidently, the exhausted prime minister played little part in his final campaign but, as his secretary Joseph Pope somewhat innocently recalled, his supporters ‘worked like Trojans, and re-elected him by a thumping majority, which gratified him exceedingly.’[134] Macdonald trounced a disappointed Alexander Gunn by 1784 votes to 1301. In a harbinger of a form of politics that Macdonald would not live to see, a third candidate ran as a socialist, but Kingston was not fertile territory for revolutionary ideas and he polled only 29 votes. Although the 483-vote majority was not his largest margin of victory in the city, Macdonald’s vote tally in 1891 was the biggest on record, more than six times as many as he had won back in 1844. At first sight, Kingston seemed once again to have moved against the provincial tide, for across Ontario as a whole, the government lost seven seats. However, six of these were in rural areas and, as usual in Ontario, the popular vote was closely divided and had barely shifted between the parties. In 1887, the Conservatives had led the Liberals by 1.5 percent, but in 1891 this was cut to 0.3 percent – a marginal under-estimate of their real strength since one government supporter returned by acclamation.[135]

The extent of Macdonald’s victory did cause some surprise, since Conservative organisers were reported to have hoped for a majority of 125. This may have represented a shrewd talking down of their prospect, for 125 was a narrow enough prediction to discourage complacent abstention among supporters, but sufficiently solid to spread discouragement among opponents. The outcome was certainly a remarkable statement of support for a candidate too weak to campaign on his own behalf. Macdonald generously attributed his margin of victory to Tupper’s oratory on his behalf.[136] Doubters pointed out that Tupper also orated at London, Ontario, where the incumbent John Carling went down to defeat. It would be pleasant to think that in this, all-too obviously Macdonald’s last contest, Kingston voted for him as much out of appreciation for past services as in hopes of future favours. When it came to fill the seat again at the by-election that followed Macdonald’s death, it suited the Toronto Globe to suggest that his 1891 majority ‘was probably obtained in some measure by personal appeals for the “Old Man” who, as it was truly said, was asking for their votes for the last time.’[137] But, in the context of a closely contested by-election, it made sense to talk down the previous Conservative majority as a purely personal vote. In the aftermath of the general election, the Daily British Whig challenged the sentimental illusion. While Liberal party workers ‘were tiring themselves bringing voters to the polls’, it alleged, Conservative organisers languidly looked on. ‘They knew what the result would be,’ confident that the $20,000 they had ‘spent in corrupting the electorate’ was enough to buy the riding.[138] When the Kingston election was subsequently discussed in parliament, Liberal MP William Paterson acknowledged ─ perhaps sarcastically ─ ‘the popularity of the Prime Minister in his own constituency’ but added that ‘the Franchise Bill and the making-up of the voters’ lists helped the majority somewhat’. Richard Cartwright also made ironic acknowledgement of the impact of Macdonald’s ‘good deeds’ upon the voters of Kingston, but was more specific in his allegations of electoral malpractice. Although February was not the ideal month of outdoor construction projects, the contractor in charge of the Kingston dry dock project had marked the start of the election campaign by announcing ‘that anyone who wanted work had only to come to him and he would get it, if the work only consisted of the wheeling [of] the rubbish from one side of the dry dock to the other.’ (Menacingly, Cartwright named the contractor as ‘Mr. Connolly’ and added that it was a name the House of Commons would be hearing again.) In addition, at the outset of the election campaign, Macdonald placed a large order for rolling stock at the Kingston Locomotive Works: presumably he acted on his authority as Minister for Railways in commissioning work on 120 rail cars.

Cartwright also attributed the sharp rise in Macdonald’s majority to the activities of the contractors for the Kingston dry dock, especially ‘the zeal which was shown in bringing in so many expatriated Canadians from Watertown and other parts of the United States’.[139] Shipping absent electors back home to vote was a standard device in the manipulation of Canadian elections, especially when ─ as in 1891 ─ a major railway company like the Canadian Pacific was willing to provide free transport. Was the ‘foreign vote’ a major factor? Two decades later, Cartwright recalled the 1891 campaign as one of a series in which Liberals were cheated of victory in many Ontario constituencies by ‘the importation at heavy cost of men who had left Canada and settled in the … adjoining states, but whose names had been purposely kept on the voters’ lists for this very object.’ These exiled Canadians ‘were as a rule only too glad to accept a free trip and a handsome douceur to revisit their old homes.’ Cartwright estimated that in closely contested ridings, between one and two hundred votes were procured in this way. In one ‘extreme case’, which the Liberals took especial care to document, ‘over 400 such votes had been brought in at a cost of many thousands of dollars’. Cartwright commented that this was a special case ‘where it might have been worth while for example’s sake to have made an exposure of the system … but the death of the party [i.e. the person] elected prevented further proceedings.’[140] It is likely that this was a reference to Kingston in 1891. The alleged expenditure by the Conservatives of $20,000, plus the death of Macdonald three months after the poll, would both fit the circumstances he described. There was no hint of a legal challenge in the debate of 22 May 1891. Cartwright would later claim that the Liberals had simply run out of money to pursue petitions for electoral irregularity.[141] But the opposition soon lifted the lid to expose the scandal behind the Kingston dry dock.

Even if Cartwright’s allegations are accepted in their entirety (and where the Macdonald Conservatives were concerned he hardly even pretended to objectivity), the four hundred imported voters would account for Macdonald’s 483-vote majority, for the scale of his victory rather than the fact of his election. Cartwright’s charges raise two further historical conundrums, which have to be merely noted as they seem to be beyond elucidation. The first is that bringing voters home on such a scale from Watertown, let alone from more distant places subsequently specified by Cartwright such as Buffalo and Rochester, would have required considerable long-distance organisation, of which no trace seems to remain. The second concerns the secrecy of the ballot. If the Conservatives were indeed shipping in exiles on such a scale, they needed to be sure that their electoral tourists performed faithfully when they voted. Was the ballot really secret? There is much in the story of Kingston elections that we shall probably never recover.

Some oblique light can be thrown upon Sir John A. Macdonald’s last election campaign by looking at the tailpiece, the January 1892 by-election made necessary by his death. Just as the dead leader’s Commons desk was draped with a Union Jack and left symbolically unoccupied for the remainder of the 1891 parliamentary session, so there was no indecent hurry to fill his Kingston seat.[142] But in the interval, the Liberals quietly worked hard to build up their organisation on the ground and were able to kick off their formal campaign with a mass meeting that successfully welcomed party leader Wilfrid Laurier on his first visit to the city. The party rallied behind Alexander Gunn, in his fifth and final electoral outing, no doubt hoping to mobilise a sympathy vote for a decent man who had been unlucky to encounter the cash-lubricated Macdonald juggernaut. By contrast, Conservative morale seems to have been low. A series of scandals emanating from Ottawa, one of them focusing on the contract for the Kingston dry dock, placed them on the defensive. As in 1887, they found it hard to agree upon a local candidate. Pleading that he had promised Macdonald he would run as his successor, James H. Metcalfe switched from the provincial legislature but he was forced to acknowledge that his nomination was not unanimous.

In a move that hearkened back to the old-time ‘hustings’ that had lapsed after 1872, the two parties staged a candidates’ debate in the City Hall ─ except, of course, that the ever-silent Gunn had to be represented by the Liberal party’s provincial organiser, W.T.R. Preston. It was a lively meeting which formally closed with both sides uniting in cheers with Queen Victoria. Unfortunately, two voters then ‘got into a discussion’ that turned into a fist-fight and rapidly spread to involve three hundred citizens of Kingston. ‘This ended the liveliest election meeting that was ever held here.’  That comment conveys its own slant upon the new, post-John A. Macdonald era. Apart from some necessity pieties from Metcalfe himself, the memory of the dead leader barely seems to have featured in the campaign. Indeed, Conservative party workers now asked voters ‘to return Mr. Metcalfe in order to show that they voted last March, not for the man, but for the policy of the party.’[143]  Nor was it only the theoretical excellence of party policy that made the Conservative cause attractive. The government, which had been in dispute with the dry dock contractors over fraudulent practices, suddenly released a blocked $32,000 payment, after Metcalfe himself had left his campaign to travel to Ottawa and lobby on their behalf. A powerful influence was appeased at a key moment.

The strategy seems to have worked. Metcalfe ran almost seventy ahead of Macdonald’s total the previous year, to head the poll with 1850 votes. The Globe sourly acknowledged that although Metcalfe’s twelve years in the Ontario legislature ‘had given evidence of little capacity for public affairs he enjoys great personal popularity.’ (He had flaunted his confidence by resigning from the Ontario legislature at the outset of the campaign, so that the provincial by-election could be held at the same time.) The Globe also noted that the Conservatives had made a vigorous appeal to the ‘loyalty cry ... and the city is peculiarly susceptible to an appeal of that kind.’ But the big surprise was the surge in support for Gunn, who in just ten months since the general election managed to jump from 1301 votes to 1734. The Globe simply reported that ‘583 more votes were polled than in the last contest’ without noting that this represented a twenty percent increase in turn-out or speculating on the cause. The most likely explanation is that the by-election, coupled with the lengthy delay in filling the vacancy, enabled the Liberals to concentrate their province-wide organisational resources upon the city to mount a voter-registration drive while the demoralised Conservatives could do little more than hold their own. The visible prominence of the secretary of the  Ontario Liberal party, W.T.R. Preston, gives weight to this interpretation, while the Globe’s wish to present the outcome as ‘pretty strong evidence of the waning popularity of the government’ would account for its reluctance to mention organisational factors.[144]

In a sense, the Globe was right, at least about the trend of opinion in Kingston. Across the Dominion, a staggering series of 55 by-elections took place between December 1891 and January 1893. The opposition made just two gains, while the Conservatives captured no fewer than eighteen Liberal seats.[145] When Kingston went to the polls in January 1892, it was passing judgement on a ministry that was just ten months into a five-year mandate. Other ridings evidently thought it prudent to align themselves with the winning side, but the Loyal Old City came close to returning itself to the political wilderness. (Indeed, the Liberals did manage to capture Metcalfe’s vacant provincial seat, although that may have represented a self-interested deference to the Mowat patronage machine.) Since Kingston went for Laurier in 1896, it is tempting to conclude that the city’s underlying allegiance in Dominion politics was marginally but consistently towards the Liberal side from 1878 through to the Borden sweep in 1911: Macdonald’s victories in 1887 and 1891 represented not so much a homecoming as a hi-jacking. This in turn would be in line with one of the complexities of the Kingston identity ─ a city that proclaimed its loyalty to the British empire but defined its interests in terms of access to the markets of the United States. If so, the question that arises in relation to 1891-2 is: why did the Liberals not make more effort to mobilise their potential support to block Sir John A. Macdonald’s Last Hurrah? Had Gunn amassed his by-election tally of 1734 votes at the general election ten months previously, he would have cut the prime minister’s majority to fifty, close enough to justify an attempt to re-fight the election in the courts. And, in March 1891, ‘Old Tomorrow’ had run out of time.

But we should not forget that, as Creighton remarked of John A. Macdonald’s first election, back in 1844, allegations of corruption by the defeated party formed ‘normal and rather routine procedure’ in nineteenth-century Canadian elections.[146] Having traced the story of Kingston elections from the point of view of the protagonists, round by round and blow by blow, through almost half a century, it is time to stand back and look at the electorate, and the way it behaved. Who had the right to vote, and how far did participation in elections change over time? It is also important to take a hard look at the influences that were brought to bear on voter choices, from the downright corruption of buying votes, through more subtle processes of intimidation ─ such as threats of dismissal or loss of business ─ to the legitimate if not always savoury manipulation of political favours and the delivery of pork-barrel projects designed to advance the prosperity of the whole community. In pursuing these lines of enquiry, it is necessary to confront the cynical interpretation that modern-day political analysis simply did not apply to nineteenth-century Canadian elections: the only influence that counted was money. The next chapter seeks to prise the lid off the electoral politics of Kingston. Since it was a lid that Macdonald and his contemporaries tried hard to keep firmly in place, much of the evidence is tentative, but enough can be reconstructed to suggest a complex if not entirely wholesome picture of voter participation and choice.



[1] Beck, Pendulum of Power, pp. 22-29.

[2] R. Cartwright, Reminiscences (Toronto, 1912), p. 47

[3] J. Pope, ed., Correspondence of Sir John Macdonald (Garden City, NY, 1921), pp. 55-56. Pope dates the letter to 25 October 1867, but the Commercial Bank had already closed its doors by then.

[4] Cartwright, Reminiscences, p. 68.

[5] Pope, ed., Correspondence of Sir John Macdonald, p. 100. Hincks had served terms as a colonial governor in the West Indies, and was knighted in 1869.

[6] Cartwright, Reminiscences, p. 46.

[7] YP, p. 310; Biggar, Anecdotal Life, p. 45.

[8] P. Oliver, ed., The Conventional Man: The Diaries of Ontario Chief Justice Robert A. Harrison, 1856-1878 (Toronto, 2003), pp. 536-37.

[9] OC, pp. 200-1, 225; J.K. Johnson, ed., Affectionately Yours: The Letters of Sir John A. Macdonald and His Family (Toronto, 1969), p. 117. The row with Hugh John Macdonald seems to be a rare episode where correspondence may have been destroyed. Macdonald had apparently objected, in harsh terms, to his son’s decision to marry a Catholic, a common enough prejudice at the time but one that his executors may have decided to delete from the historical record.

[10] Kingston Daily News, 5, 13 June 1863.

[11] Toronto Mail, 17 November 1873.

[12] Cartwright, Reminiscences, pp. 30-31. Goldwin Smith called Ottawa ‘a sub-Arctic lumber village’ in 1891.

[13] Macdonald once joked to Cartwright that his ideal cabinet would consist of ‘highly respectable parties whom I could send to the penitentiary if I liked.’ Years later, Cartwright alluded to the remark in parliament, ironically congratulating the prime minister ‘on having nearly attained his ideal ... bar the respectability’. Macdonald rebuked him for quoting a dinner-table remark. Cartwright, Reminiscences, p. 304. In the early years of Confederation, and thanks to his marriage to Agnes Bernard in 1867, Sir John A. Macdonald was one of the few Ottawa politicians to live a normal family life in the capital. Most politicians left their wives back home and so depended upon the Rideau Club.

[14] J. Pope, The Day of Sir John Macdonald (Toronto, 1920), p. 85.

[15] C.W. de Kiewiet and F.H. Underhill, eds, Dufferin-Carnarvon Correspondence 1874-1878 (Toronto, 1955),  p. 44(private letter, 24 May 1874). Dufferin added  that Cartwright’s ability was said to be ‘less than he himself imagines’.

[16] Toronto Mail, 17 November 1873.

[17] Pope, ed., Correspondence of Sir John Macdonald, p. 74; DCB, 14, p. 204; W. Leggo, The History of the Administration of … Earl of Dufferin (Montreal, 1878), p. 291; KBP, pp. 181, 202.

[18] Globe, 19 November 1874, and cf. Thomas Brady, ‘Sinners and Publicans: Sir John Macdonald’s Trial under the Controverted Elections Act, 1874’, Ontario History, 76, 1984, p. 77.

[19] Globe, 5 January 1874.

[20] Globe, 19 November 1874.

[21] Globe, 12 January 1874.

[22] Globe, 19 November 1874 (evidence of Thomas Hanley). Hanley’s evidence was indistinctly reported (‘he not coming out with us, as the Grits would be round before night and drum them up’), but it seems to suggest that Macdonald was shielded from direct contact with Liberal activists.

[23] Brian S. Osborne and Donald Swainson in KBP, pp. 278-79.

[24] Globe, 30 January 1874.

[25] Globe, 13 January 1874.

[26] Globe, 26 January 1874.

[27] Globe, 12 January 1874.

[28] DCB, 11, pp. 216-17. 

[29] LAC, Macdonald Papers, vol. 196, Campbell to Macdonald, 18 March 1884.

[30] Macpherson, II, p. 472.

[31] Globe, 30 January and British Whig, 29 January, quoted Globe, 31 January 1874.

[32] Globe, 10 February 1874.

[33] Globe, 13 January 1874.

[34] Brady, ‘Sinners and Publicans’, OH, 76, 1984, pp. 65-87, esp. 67-68.

[35] Wilson, ‘Eleven Years’, HK, pp. 49-50.

[36] Quoted, J.A. Eadie, ‘The Federal Election in the Lennox Riding and its Aftermath, 1882-83: A Glimpse of Victorian Political Morality,’ OH, 76, 1984, p. 369. Although often fussily precise over small matters, Campbell was deplorably informal in dating his correspondence. Pope, Memoirs of Macdonald, I, p. 180n.

[37] The Richards judgement was published in full by the Globe, 23 November 1874.

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