Young Wilfrid Laurier was a rising political star in Quebec in the 1870s but the Catholic church was hostile to liberals, associating them with the revolutions that had occurred in nineteenth century Europe. Some in the church even contemplated setting up a Catholic political party. Laurier took them on with a speech delivered to a packed house in Quebec City on June 26, 1877. He was able to disarm his critics, both clerical and lay, and to win political space for Liberals in Quebec.
“You wish to organize a Catholic party, but you would bring on your country calamities, the consequence of which it is impossible to predict.”
I do not deceive myself as to the standing of the Liberal Party in the province of Quebec; and I, at once, declare that it occupies a false position in the eyes of public opinion. I know that for a great many of my fellow citizens, the Liberal Party is a party composed of men holding perverse doctrines, with dangerous tendencies, and knowingly and deliberately progressing towards revolution. I know that in the opinion of a portion of our fellow countrymen, the Liberal Party is made up of men of good intentions, perhaps, but not the less dupes and victims of their principles, by which they are unconsciously but fatally led to revolution. I know that for yet another portion, not the least numerous, Liberalism is a new form of evil, in other words a heresy, carrying with it its own condemnation. I know all this, and it is because I do so that I consented to appear before you. . .
I belong to the Liberal Party. If to be a Liberal is a term of reproach, that reproach I accept. If it is a crime to be a Liberal, then I am guilty. One thing only I claim, that is that we be judged according to our principles . . .
“Liberal” and “Conservative”
Let us ascend to the very source and examine calmly what is, at bottom, the meaning of these two words, liberal and conservative. What idea is concealed beneath the word “liberal” which has been subjected to so many anathemas? What does the word “conservative” mean which seems so sacred that it is modestly applied to all that is good? Is the one, as it is pretended, as in fact it is affirmed everyday to be, a new form of error? Is the other, as it is constantly insinuated, synonymous of good, in all its phases? Is the one, revolution, anarchy, disorder? Is the other the sole safe principle of society? Such are the questions which are asked everyday in this country. These subtle distinctions, which are continually brought forward in our press are, nevertheless, old. They are but the repetition of the dreams of certain French publicists who, shut up in their studies, look only upon the past, and who bitterly criticize everything that now exists because existing things do not resemble those of old. Such people say that the liberal idea is a new one; and in this they are mistaken. The liberal idea as well as its opposite is not new. It is as old as the world, and it is to be found in every page of its history. But it is only today that we understand its forces and its laws and know how to utilize them. . . . It is the form of representative government that has revealed to the world the principles of liberalism and conservatism; and it is that form of government that draws from each its full powers . . .
A Catholic party
It is the habit of our adversaries to accuse us Liberals of irreligion. I am not here to parade my religious principles, but I proclaim that I have too much respect for the faith in which I was born ever to make it the foundation of a political organization.
You wish to organize a Catholic party, but have you never reflected that if, unfortunately, you were successful, you would bring on your country calamities, the consequence of which it is impossible to predict.
You wish to organize all Catholics into a single party without other tie, without other basis than that of religion, but you have not reflected that by that fact alone you organize the Protestant population as a single party, and that then instead of peace and harmony which now exists amongst the elements of our Canadian populations, you will bring on war—religious war, the most frightful of all wars . . .
Freedom under the flag
Forty years ago, the country was in a state of feverish excitement and agitation which, in a few months later, culminated in rebellion. The British Crown was upheld in the country, but by powder and shot. And yet what did our forefathers demand? Nothing else than our present institutions; these institutions were granted and loyally applied, and behold the consequences: the English flag floats from the ancient Citadel of Quebec. It floats this evening above our heads and yet there is not a single English soldier in the country to defend it; its sole defence is the consciousness that we owe to it the liberty and security we find under it.
What Canadian is there who, comparing his own with even the freest of other countries, but feels proud of its institutions?
What Canadian is there who, in going through the streets of this old city, and seeing the monument a few feet from this place, erected to the memory of two brave men who fell on the same field of battle in fighting for the possession of this country, but feels proud of his country? In what country under the sun could you find a similar monument, erected to the memory of the conqueror and the conquered? In what country under the sun could you find the names of the victor and vanquished honoured in the same degree, occupying the same place in the sentiments of the population?
When in this last battle, commemorated by the monument erected to Wolfe and Montcalm, the cannon spread death among the French ranks; when the old heroes, whom victory had so often followed, saw her at last deserting them; when reclining on the sod, feeling their hearts’ blood flowing and life departing they saw, as a consequence of their defeat, Quebec in the hands of the enemy and their country forever lost, no doubt their last thoughts turned towards their children, towards those whom they left without protection and without defence; doubtless they saw them persecuted, enslaved, humiliated; and then we may imagine their last breath to have been a cry of despair.
But if, on the other hand, Heaven had permitted the veil of the future to be raised before their expiring vision; if Heaven permitted them, before their eyes closed forever, to penetrate the unknown; if they could have seen their children free and happy, walking proudly in every rank of society; if they could have seen in the ancient cathedral the seat of honour of the French governors occupied by a French governor; if they could have seen the spires of churches piercing the azure in every valley from the waters of Gaspé to the plains of Red River; if they could have seen this old flag which reminds us of our greatest victory triumphantly borne in all our public ceremonies; finally, if they could have seen our free institutions, may we not believe that their last breath was softened to a murmur of thanks to Heaven, and that they found consolation as they died.
If the shades of those heroes yet move about this old city for which they died, and if they are on this evening in this hall, we Liberals may believe, at least we have the dear illusion, that their sympathies are entirely with us.
Original source for entire speech: “Lecture on Political Liberalism delivered by Wilfrid Laurier Esq. MP on the 26th of June, 1877, in the Music Hall, Quebec, under the Auspices of Le Club Canadien,” pamphlet printed by Quebec Morning Chronicle, 1877. Speech link HERE:
Note: This speech by Laurier is treated in depth in my new book Speeches That Changed Canada.
Photo credit: Library and Archives Canada