A Conversation for the Birthday of Sir John A. Macdonald

‘The Party of Confederation’:

Sir John A. Macdonald and the Birth of the

Liberal-Conservative Party in 1854


The following is a conversation between speechwriter, columnist and leading authority on the prime ministers of Canada Arthur Milnes and Chris Alexander, candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada.  It marks the 202nd anniversary of the birth of Sir John A. Macdonald, on January 11th, 2017, in this year of the 150th anniversary of Confederation.


Chris Alexander: Thanks for doing this, Arthur.  A simple question to start: what do you see as Macdonald’s greatest gift as a political party leader?


Arthur Milnes: My old friend Jim Flaherty, whom I had the honour of working with as a speechwriter, perhaps put it best.  Both privately and in various addresses Jim would look at you with a Macdonald-like twinkle in his eye and remind you and his audience that Sir John played the “long game” in politics.  While it is relatively easy for a political party or politician to get caught up in the day’s headlines or a crisis caused by Question Period or a Tweet, it is by playing the “long game” that history is made.  I have long believed that one of the reasons Sir John A. is so rarely celebrated in Canada today is the fact he played that nation-building long game so well and was so successful it now looks easy.  By playing the “long game” and putting aside even his own religious and cultural upbringing, Macdonald united with French Canada.  By playing the “long game” he took a tiny little country and extended it all the way to the Pacific coast.  By playing the “long game” and building a progressive and inclusive political tent he played the key role in creating and expanding a tiny nation, in population terms at the time that is now one of the foremost nations of the world, a G8 country that is the envy of millions.


Where other English-speaking politicians saw racial and religious division regarding French Canada an impossible bridge to cross, Macdonald had no such hesitations.  What do you think made him able to do this?


Chris Alexander: Macdonald was a pragmatist: he understood clearly that nothing of any significance would be accomplished in Canadian politics without strong support from French Canada.  He was also building on strong Francophile foundations.  The early governors Murray, Haldimand and Carleton had shown a great deal of respect for French law, language and ultramontane Catholic religion.   King George III’s own son, Prince Edward, had lived at Quebec and Halifax in the 1790s, moving easily in French Canadian society with Mme St Laurent, a French noblewoman who had fled the Revolution.  Mostly French-speaking Canada East had held an absolute majority of the United Province’s population until around 1850.  In addition, Macdonald’s own forebears had been Gaelic-speaking Jacobites and Tories, partial to the “Auld Alliance” that made many Scots allies of the French right up until the early 1760s.  So diversity of language and religion was no barrier to political unity, in Macdonald’s view.  He must also have been impressed from his earliest days in the legislature by the calibre of leaders such as Morin, Tâché and later Cartier, who had passed from Le parti canadien, to the Patriote movement and thence into government leadership roles.  Macdonald may even have understood and spoken some French, though this is still debated.  Moreover, the Liberal-Conservative Party, which sprang out of a Caucus meeting of MacNab’s old Conservative Party on September 7, 1854, was born in Quebec City, where the itinerant Canadian parliament was meeting at the time.


Was the Liberal-Conservative Party in fact the Party of Confederation, which took place just over twelve years later?


Arthur Milnes: Most definitely but we cannot ignore the role played by George Brown from the other side in achieving Confederation.  In many ways Brown was the Preston Manning of his day – strong, principled and ahead of his time.  But when push came to shove, Brown found it easier to return to his corner of Canada and partisanship.  Macdonald, on the other hand, kept his eye on the “long game” and was therefore able to continually occupy the radical centre in early Canadian politics that Brown had vacated.  Six majority victories later all could see the wisdom in Sir John’s moves.


But when you consider the political conditions faced by Macdonald and his colleagues in the 1850s and early 1860s do you think the modern-term “failed state” is too strong a phrase to describe what he and others overcame?


Chris Alexander: It’s a bit too strong as a historical assessment, given the context of that time: few countries then had strong functioning states as we know them today.  But by today’s standards the Province of Canada was in every sense a virtual “failed state” in 1854.  It was fractious and divided.  There had been rebellion in 1837-38, with about 100 killed in those clashes.  The Parliament Buildings at Montreal had been burned down in late April 1849 – by English-speaking Protestants unhappy with the Rebellion Losses Bill.  The fight over control of patronage and “responsible government” had created a great deal of animosity.  Finally, the repeal of the Corn Laws caused a deep recession starting in the late 1840s, exacerbated by the resulting famine in Ireland that sent large numbers of poor emigrants to Canada.  There were few economic ties binding the Maritimes with Canada.  The tug-of-war over “representation by population” and sectional politics in Canada East and Canada West had produced a new wave of internal alienation.  In addition, in 1854 the British Empire was at war with Russia, which had failed to meet Palmerston’s April ultimatum to withdraw from Moldavia and Wallachia.  Against this backdrop, it’s remarkable Macdonald was able to fashion a new political party at all from the ruins of several past ones.  It’s even more impressive that he was then able to forge this new party – really a coalition of holdovers from previous political formations -- into a ministry that was among the most productive of any pre-Confederation government.


What is your view?  Was this Liberal-Conservative Party a Canadian creation or an attempt to emulate British and/or American trends?


Arthur Milnes: Uniquely Canadian.  Macdonald and his colleagues stood between the British Empire and the American Republic.  Pragmatic yet confident, early Canadian Conservatives drew and took from the best of the party systems in both Britain and the United States and adapted principles and approaches to create a made-in-Canada Toryism that built our country.  It is a lesson worth remembering today as Canadian Conservatives witness political events in both the United States and the UK and other countries.  “Solutions” found there are likely not solutions for Canada.  Macdonald knew that instinctively.  We must recall that today.


As Canada comes together in the 1850s and 1860s our southern neighbour is – literally – falling apart and will explode into Civil War.  Macdonald admired America, visited there often and felt there was much to admire.  How important do you think American examples – successes and failures – were to Macdonald’s thinking as he envisioned Canada?


Chris Alexander: Quite important, I think.  Macdonald obviously admired the strength of the American market – its vast capital and growing population.  But he also saw its volatility and susceptibility to crisis.  These observations no doubt informed Macdonald’s reforms of land, banking and railway policy in Canada from the 1840s through to the 1880s.  He was also keenly aware of the many border issues, not to mention the Manifest Destiny doctrine.  The Oregon boundary had only been settled in the 1840s.  Encroachment continued.  Only a coherent approach to Canada, the Maritime provinces and Rupert’s land in the northwest could bring unity or success.  Finally, Macdonald as a lawyer was a student of the US federal constitution.  He saw the leverage many states used, singly or in groups, to prevent national reforms as a major obstacle – one he later sought to overcome in drafting plans for Canada’s Confederation.


Speaking of examples, who and what had been the greatest influences in Sir John A. Macdonald’s life up to 1854 — his father; Mackenzie, the lawyer to whom he apprenticed; Draper, the Conservative leader in the 1840s; MacNab, the Tory leader after Draper and Sherwood, or someone else?


Arthur Milnes: I’m not going to answer this with a name.  Instead I will do so by raising a part of Macdonald’s biography that is often not considered today.  Up until 1854 I submit that the most formative impacts on him are ones shared by millions of Canadians even in our own time: the immigrant experience.  He and his family crossed an ocean and arrived in the Kingston area – a community and colony dominated by the Family Compact that had little time or quarter for Scots immigrants or their concerns – as immigrants.  Through fraternal organizations he joined and help prosper; by establishing with other Scots educational institutions like Queen’s University and through engagement in community, regional and pan-colonial politics he helped transform a once strange land into his own.  It is a remarkable lesson for today and a reminder that the Conservative Party must remain true to its roots and founder and be the party of immigrants and immigration.  It is in our DNA.  Just ask John A.


From the 1850s until the end in 1891 Sir John A. Macdonald took a deep interest in party organization, the recruitment of candidates and so much more.  He also knew the valley of defeat.  What party lessons in terms of organization are there from him for Tories today as they contemplate a new leader in a new time?


Chris Alexander: You’re absolutely right: Macdonald was not only a capable “cabinet maker” but a master builder of political coalitions and parties.  He understood that politics is in fact one rushing torrent, with different currents endlessly combining and intermingling.  To get anything done, one had to be nimble and ready to manoeuvre.  In 1854, after a vote of non-confidence in Hincks, Macdonald cobbled a new ministry and a new party out of the old reformers (in both Canada East and Canada West) and MacNab’s Conservatives, who were only just shedding the rigidities of early 19th century Toryism.  Over the next 42 years, from 1854 until 1896, this party would govern Canada for all but seven years – a period of dominance still unsurpassed in Canadian history, even by the Liberal Party after 1919.  It wasn’t just that they came together in a new way.  The ministry sworn in on September 11, 1854 passed historic measures – reciprocity, the clergy reserves bill, university bill and end of seigneurial tenure, as well as launching discussion of separate publicly-funded Catholic schools.  Macdonald learned a great from defeats in 1858, 1862 and 1873, returning to office each time with a larger vision of the nation-building projects required to build Canada -- from establishing a permanent capital in Ottawa or completing the Victoria Bridge in Montreal and the Grand Trunk Railway to Confederation itself (in 1862) and the National Policy (after 1878), which dominated the 1880s.  Nation-building should never be out of fashion for Canadian Conservatives!


In your view, how did the shape of Macdonald’s new Liberal-Conservative Party form his vision for Canada?


Arthur Milnes: From the moment Macdonald became Co-Premier he had at his side a French-Canadian equal.  With this fundamental – fundamental to the development of the nation turning 150 years old this year! – political fact understood and celebrated, Confederation was possible.  And the renewal and continuance of that fundamental fact – dating back to Macdonald and Tâché and Cartier and others – will be key to future success of Canada’s federal Tories.


Chris Alexander: So in other words, the 19th century Liberal-Conservatives were the party of unity, biculturalism and the “long game”!  But Confederation would not have happened had Macdonald not reached across the aisle to erstwhile political opponents.  The same can be said of Borden’s union government during the First World War, which triggered Canada’s participation in the Paris Peace Conference (1919) and the later Statute of Westminster (1931), enacted under Bennett.  Free trade with the US and Europe, as well as tax reform, were “long game” achievements for the Mulroney and Harper governments.  Today we need to return to such bold thinking -- to prepare Canada for a new era of success.  Speaking of which, one hundred and sixty-three years later, what lessons does the re-birth of 1854 have for Conservatives as we choose a new leader in 2017?


Arthur Milnes: This journey through party history should remind us that the Tory leader’s job in Canada is to build a bigger and bigger tent through each challenge and generation.  Sir John himself put it best: “If they could make the world,” he said, “all of one way of thinking, it might work more harmoniously, but yet I doubt very much if things would go on a bit better for that account.  The severance of opinion, the right of private judgement, they tended to the elevation of man.”


Chris Alexander: Well said, Arthur – and nice quote!  We in Canada are strong in the clash of opinions that animates our democracy – when we play “the long game”!  Thanks for this conversation.


Arthur Milnes: Thank you!

Alexandra Day