John A. Macdonald and his Tories won the first post-Confederation election in 1872. They promised to build a transcontinental railway and there was a nasty feud over the contract between rival entrepreneurs in Toronto and Montreal. Macdonald chose Hugh Allan’s Montreal group. In 1873, someone broke into the office of Allan’s lawyer and found a telegram sent by Macdonald during that election. “I must have another ten thousand,” Macdonald wrote. The release of this information caused a political firestorm, which Macdonald attempted to evade by shutting down the House of Commons in the summer of 1873. Then in November, he made a lengthy speech in the House while fortifying himself with tumblers of gin. He dealt with many issues, but never directly with his request for money from Allan.
“I throw myself upon this House, I throw myself upon posterity”
I have to speak to the specific charges made against the government. Before the last elections took place, I knew what I had to face. I had a great, a strong and united opponent, I had showered upon my devoted head all kinds of opposition . . .
I was at Washington . . . attending at all events to the Washington treaty, when the resolutions were carried which—happily I say for Canada—brought British Columbia into the union of British North American provinces. The proposition included the Pacific Railway, for British Columbia would not have come in unless the terms of the union had included a railway. Notwithstanding great opposition the resolutions were carried by my late honoured and lamented colleague [Sir George-Étienne Cartier], but he only carried them by promising to introduce resolutions by which the railway would be built, not by the government directly, but by private capital, aided by government grants . . .
As we could not succeed in going to the country with a perfect scheme for building the Pacific Railway, what else was left to us but to keep the amalgamation of these great capitalists open till after the elections, and then call them together, and the only word of preference for Montreal over Toronto was simply my expression that any influence the government might have in case of amalgamation, in the case of the two companies joining and electing a board of directors, would be fairly used in favour of Sir Hugh Allan for the presidency . . .
No mention of money
I made that promise, but I wish the House to remember that at the time of that telegram—in which I simply stated that as we could not form a company before the elections, we would form one afterwards out of the two, and would do what we could to make Sir Hugh Allan president—at that time there had been not one single word said about money, and there never was one said, as far as I was concerned, between Sir Hugh Allan and me.
I was fighting the battle in western Canada. I was getting subscriptions, as I have no doubt the honourable member for Lambton [Alexander MacKenzie] was getting subscriptions, and if he denies it I will be able to prove it. I state in my place that I will be able to prove it. I was doing what I could for the purpose of getting money to help the elections, and I was met not only by individual exertions, but by the whole force, power, and influence, legitimate and illegitimate, of the Ontario government.
Spies and thieves
I have no hesitation in saying that in all expenditure we were met by two dollars to one . . . If we had had the same means possessed by honourable gentlemen opposite, if we had spies, if we had thieves, if we had men who went to your desk, picked your lock, and stole your notebooks, we would have much stronger evidence than honourable gentlemen think they have now. We were fighting an uneven battle. We were simply subscribing as gentlemen, while they were stealing as burglars. We may trace it out as a conspiracy throughout. I use the word conspiracy advisedly, and I will use the world out of the House as well as in the House . . .
By their line of action, the gentlemen opposite have postponed for some years the building of that railway, and they have besmirched unjustly, dishonourably, the character of the Canadian government and of the Canadian people. If there be any delay, any postponement in the completion of that great system of railways, I charge it to the honourable gentlemen opposite. Long after this quarrel is over, it will be recorded in the history of this Dominion of Canada that there was one body of men in this country willing to forget self, to forget party, to forget section to build up a great interest and make a great country, and they will say that there was another party who fought section against section, province against province, who were unable to rise to the true position of affairs, and I say the history of the future will be our justification and their condemnation.
Doing our duty
I have some more to say. I say this government has been traded with foul wrongs. I say this government has been treated as no government has ever been treated before. It has been met with an Opposition the like of which no government in any civilized country was ever met. I say we have been opposed not with fair weapons, not by fair argument, not by fair discussion as a government ought to be opposed, but opposed in a manner which will throw shame on honourable gentlemen opposite . . .
I say I am condemned. But I commit myself, the government commits itself, to the hands of this House, and far beyond the House, it commits itself to the country at large. We have faithfully done our duty. We have fought the battle of Confederation. We have fought the battle of union. We have had party strife setting province against province, and more than all, we have had in the greatest province, the preponderating province of the Dominion, every prejudice and sectional feeling that could be arrayed against us.
Appeal to posterity
I have been the victim of that conduct to a great extent, but I have fought the battle of Confederation, the battle of union, the battle of the Dominion of Canada. I throw myself upon this House; I throw myself upon this country; I throw myself upon posterity, and I believe that I know that, notwithstanding the many failings in my life, I shall have the voice of this county and this House rallying round me. And, if I am mistaken in that, I can confidently appeal to a higher court, to the court of my own conscience, and to the court of posterity.
I leave it with this House with every confidence. I am equal to either fortune. I can see cast the decision of this House either for or against me, but whether it be against me or for me I know, and it is no vain boast to say so, for even my enemies will admit that I am no boaster, that there does not exist in Canada a man who has given more of his time, more of his heart, more of his wealth, or more of his intellect and power, such as it may be, for the good of this Dominion of Canada.
Macdonald was exhausted by his speech and the tension surrounding it. The next day he took to his sickbed and by the time he recovered his government had collapsed, to be replaced by the Liberals. But his political career was far from over.
Source: House of Commons Debates, 2nd Parliament, 2nd Session, Volume 1, November 3, 1873, pp: 119-41. See here for complete speech.
More information: The Canadian Encyclopedia, “Pacific Scandal.”
Photo: Dennis Gruending.
Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based author and blogger and a former Member of Parliament. His latest book is Speeches That Changed Canada.