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Canadian Confederation and its Leaders
Thomas D’Arcy McGee


MANY and various types of strong men were necessary to the attainment of Confederation. A political crusader like Brown, a human lubricant like J. A. Macdonald, an intellectual diplomat like Galt, or a stern fighter like Tupper could not alone accomplish this peaceful evolution. Thomas D’Arcy McGee was a type apart in the select company of the Fathers. He was young Ireland incarnate, and brought to his service in Canada the mind of a poet and the ideas of a mellowed revolutionary. He carried his enthusiasm for union from province to province until his eloquent appeals fired the lagging decisions of men of less vision, and Confederation became inevitable.

McGee’s life was a strange vindication of the British Government he was born to hate. He was raised in an atmosphere which “saw red” at the mere mention of England. He carried this hatred to the United States and later settled in Canada, where he lived and died a sedate constitutionalist and loyal citizen. His martyrdom was the fruit of his own development, but were he consulted he no doubt would have died gladly for the principles he then held so dear. When warned that the Fenians were after him, he replied, “Threatened dogs live long.” His death by a Fenian assassin in 1868 filled with remorse a land still smarting from the invasion of two years before, and enhanced the love in which he was held for his unselfish services for Confederation.

Though McGee’s early record in the Young Ireland party, with his flight during the outbreak of 1848, was well known, he had removed the stain by his ardent patriotic endeavors. From his arrival in Canada in 1857, after an early manhood in journalism in the Eastern States, he had constantly advocated the union of the British Provinces. He travelled widely, lecturing in his captivating tones and polished oratory on topics ranging from Columbus, Moore, and the American Revolution, to the various aspects of Confederation. Others might declaim the political and economic advantages of union; McGee’s pictures glowed with the warmth of a true Hibernian imagination.

“I look to the future of my adopted country with hope, but not without anxiety,” he said in the Legislative Assembly soon after election. “I see in the not remote distance one great nationality, bound like the shield of Achilles, by the blue rim of ocean. I see it quartered into many communities, each disposing of its internal affairs, but all bound together by free institutions, free intercourse and free commerce. I see within the round of that shield the peaks of the western mountains and the crests of the eastern waves, the winding Assiniboine; the five-fold lakes, the St. Lawrence, the Ottawa, the Saguenay, the St. John and the Basin of Minas. By all these flowing waters, in the valleys they fertilize, in all the cities they visit in their courses, I see a generation of industrious, contented, moral men, free in name and in fact—men capable of maintaining in peace and in war a constitution worthy of such a country.”

Thus was McGee the western tribune of Confederation. It was a day of closer intercourse between public men and the people; public meetings were a frequent duty apart from the necessities of a campaign. McGee traversed the land as the eloquent interpreter of the new Idea. Handsome he was not, but impressive he ever remained.

“His face was flat and heavy,” said Sir George W. Ross, describing his impressions of McGee at a meeting at London, Ontario, in 1865,—“a face that no one would turn around to look at a second time. . . . The mellow richness of Mr. McGee’s voice and the rhythm and cadence of the Queen’s English as it flowed from his lips greatly impressed me. I noted also the finish of his sentences, coupled with a poetical glow which awakened emotions and feelings never before touched by the human voice. Of course argument and fact and history were there, all beautifully blended.”*

Charles Mair aptly expressed the country’s admiration in the hour of McGee’s passing, when he wrote: “Yea, we like children stood When in his lofty mood He spoke of manly deeds which we might claim, And made responses fit While heavenly genius lit His melancholy eyes with lambent flame,

And saw the distant aureoles
And felt the Future thunder in our souls.”

This was the man who spent three-quarters of his life absorbing and breathing hatred of the motherland, whose first mission to America had been to fan to still brighter hue the angry flames ever blazing among the Irishmen who had left Ireland for their country’s good.

McGee came honestly by his revolutionary beliefs. He was born at Carlingford, County Louth, Ireland, April 13, 1825, his father, James McGee, being a coast guard. For his mother, Catherine Morgan, whose father was a member of the “United Irishmen” in 1798, he had a deep affection, and from this attachment came the hatred of the Saxon which marked young McGee until late in the ’fifties. His school education ,was limited, but his ardent imagination and quick apprehension soon made him an intelligent, if not deeply educated man. At seventeen he joined the tide of Irishmen flowing to America and landed in Boston in 1842, in the golden age of American literature. A few days later his fiery anti-British Fourth of July oration attracted notice, and he secured employment on the Boston Pilot, a weekly Irish Catholic newspaper. He soon became editor, and his “repeal” articles attracting the attention of the great Daniel O’Connell himself, he was invited in 1845—at the age of 20—to take the editorship of the Freeman’s Journal in Dublin. Though O’Connell had publicly praised “the inspired writings of a young exiled Irish boy in America,” the young Irish boy was an intractable editor. He found O’Connell too conservative for his ardent spirits and soon withdrew to join the “Young Ireland” party, where he became intimate with Charles Gavan Duffy in the publication of the Dublin Nation, a journal which gave 154 free play to his anti-British ideas. Duffy years later thus described McGee’s appearance at this time:

“The young man was not prepossessing. He had a face of almost African type; his dress was slovenly even for the careless class to which he belonged; he looked unformed, and had a manner which struck me as too deferential for self-respect. But he had not spoken three sentences in a singularly sweet and flexible voice till it was plain that he was a man of fertile brains and great originality; a man in whom one might dimly discover rudiments of the orator, poet and statesman hidden under this ungainly disguise.”

McGee’s associations with the leaders of the uprising in 1848 and his known ideas made his arrest certain. He was apprehended early in the trouble for his public utterances but allowed to go. He fled to Glasgow, thence back to Belfast, friends meantime supplying money. Then, disguised as a priest, he wended his lonely way along the Irish coast, presently took steamer for America and landed in Philadelphia on October 10, 1848. McGee was now only 23 years old, but he had lived as through “a cycle of Cathay.” He was soon back in journalism, establishing first the New York Nation. Becoming involved in a dispute with the Bishops, he removed to Boston and published The American Celt, and, as in the other cases, filled it with his feelings of hatred of Britain.

From this time dates the beginning of the change in McGee’s views. He began to travel extensively as a lecturer, and as he met hosts of refined people his opinions moderated. The futility of mere denunciation became apparent, and he resolved to elevate the Irish people by teaching them to make the best of their fate, instead of depending on schemes of revolution. By 1852 he was able to write Thomas Francis Meagher, an old friend, of the change he had undergone, showing that peace and good will had become his motto. He removed his base to Buffalo, but business not being satisfactory, he yielded to an impulse and the requests of friends in Canada, whom he had met on vacation tours, and settled in Montreal in 1857.

The remaking of D’Arcy McGee was now almost complete. His warm heart responded to the Celtic welcome of Montreal, and within a year he was elected to Parliament. His venture in Canadian journalism, as publisher of The New Era, was soon dropped for the larger duty. From the first he ranged himself, as befitted his race and personality, “against the government,” and it is to be feared marked his first year or two by many unpleasant and severe speeches, for the diversion of the galleries. He studied law and was called to the Bar in 1861, though he never seriously devoted himself to that profession. Gradually he became a better legislator, and in 1862, on the downfall of the Cartier-Macdonald Government, he accepted office as President of the Council in the Sandfield Mac-donald-Sicotte Cabinet. When that administration was reconstructed a year later Mr. McGee and several other Ministers were dropped, a fact that spurred them to bitter opposition. McGee joined forces with J. A. Macdonald, for whom he had formed a warm attachment almost from their first meeting, and together they stumped Upper Canada against the Government that fall. Their efforts had much to do with the defeat of John Sandfield Macdonald early in 1864. In the Tache-Macdonald Cabinet, then formed, Mr. McGee became Minister of Agriculture and held that post until Confederation.

McGee played a direct and important part in interesting the Maritime Provinces in union. His lecture in St. John in 1863 had attracted wide notice to the subject, and the following summer one hundred Canadian delegates visited New Brunswick and Nova Scotia as a result of a conversation between McGee and Sandford Fleming, engineer for the Intercolonial Railway, who desired by better acquaintance to promote the larger union. In fact, throughout the formative years of the union movement, which he had with great persistency and eloquence advocated from his arrival in Canada, he was able to add his influence when opinion had to be made and constantly reinforced. He coined the phrase “the new nationality,” and to that had added the policy of the construction of the Intercolonial Railway and the development of intercolonial trade as necessary accompaniments.

Coupled with the poetic fervor that was part of his irresistible charm, was the logical argument for union which he presented in all parts of the country. He was impressed by the danger from the Fenians and other potential enemies in the United States, and referred to this repeatedly in support of the union case. At Port Robinson in Upper Canada in September, 1862, he spoke of the “presence of the perilous circumstances that confront us on our southern frontier.” "Rest assured,” he said in Halifax in August, 1864, when the unofficial Canadian parliamentary and business delegation visited the city, “if we remain longer as fragments we shall be lost; but let us be united and we shall be as a rock which, unmoved itself, flings back the waves that may be dashed against it by the storm.” At Montreal, later that year, he said the “delegates to the Quebec Conference might look across the border and see reasons for the Conference as thick as blackberries.” Equally impressive were his arguments for union v based on the necessities of defence.

“About four years ago,” he said in his memorable speech in the Confederation debate, on February 9, 1865, “the first despatches began to be addressed to this country from the Colonial Office upon the subject (of defence). From that day to this there has been a steady stream of despatches in this direction, either upon particular or general points connected with our defence; and I venture to say that if bound up together the despatches of the late lamented Duke of Newcastle alone would make a respectable volume—all notifying this Government by the advice they conveyed that the relations—the military apart from the political and commercial relations—of these Provinces to the mother country had changed; and we were told in the most explicit language that could be employed that we were no longer to consider ourselves in relation to defence in the same position we formerly occupied towards the mother country.”

So great a change in McGee’s viewpoint and loyalty to authority could not be wrought without some sacrifice. Signs accumulated of the irritation and anger he was causing among his former friends. He did his best to carry them with him, and on many public occasions pleaded for tolerance and the burial of old feuds. He told his constituents in Montreal in 1861 that there was nothing more to be dreaded in the country than feuds arising from exaggerated feelings of religion and nationality, and a year later he told Protestant Irishmen of Quebec: “We Irishmen, Protestant and Catholic, born and bred in a land of religious controversy, should never forget that we now live and act in a land of the fullest religious and civil liberty. All we have to do is each for himself to keep down dissensions which can only weaken, impoverish and keep back the country.”

It was in the spirit of broad tolerance that he revisited Ireland in 1865 and made the fateful speech at Wexford which inflamed the Fenian element against him. He left Montreal in April with a message of good will ringing in his ears, in which “men of all countries and creeds” joined in congratulating him on his mission to represent his Province at the Dublin Exhibition.

Exhaling the spirit of the new world, McGee spoke at Wexford, where he told his co-religionists: “There ought to be no separation of the Kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland. Each country would suffer loss in the loss of the other, and even liberty in Europe would be exposed to the perils of shipwreck if those islands were divided by a hostile sea.” He was equally candid in his words to Englishmen, whom he urged to try kindness and generosity in their legislation for Ireland. He asked them to treat Ireland as they treated Scotland—apply the golden rule.

Barely had the news of this speech reached Montreal before the Fenian irreconcilables were ablaze with anger. A disclaimer was prepared and signed by six hundred Montrealers of Irish birth, repudiating the sentiments of the Wexford speech. They declared them to be “reflections upon the character, moral, social and political, of our fellow-countrymen in the United States of America, which we believe to be not only unhandsome and ungenerous but positively unjust.”

An observer at the time spoke of this disclaimer as “very suggestive and ominous,” and McGee’s enemies were soon to increase. At the next election, in 1867, he was viciously attacked in his Montreal riding, and his majority greatly reduced. This ingratitude broke his spirit and an illness followed. He recovered, a chastened and abstemious man, and attended the session of 1868, where his last words were a message of tolerance and good will concerning the agitation in Nova Scotia for the repeal of the union. “We need above everything else,” he said, “the healing influence of time.” He reminded the troubled House that time would heal all existing irritations, and added: “By and by, time will show us the constitution of this Dominion as much cherished in the hearts of the people of all these Provinces, not excepting Nova Scotia, as is the British constitution itself.” “We will compel them to come in and accept this union,” he concluded, “we will compel them by our fairness, our kindness, our love, to be one with us, in this common and this great national work.” These words of singular prophecy and solace were like a benediction. It was McGee’s last appearance in the House. Some hours after midnight, when the adjournment came, he walked to his lodgings in Sparks Street in Ottawa. A stealthy assassin followed, and as McGee stooped to open the door with his key, a bullet crashed through his head and he died instantly. Sir John Macdonald was summoned from his home and was the first to raise the stricken head from the pavement. McGee was already dead.

The country was shocked at the news. Sir John Macdonald, in informing the House the next day, said: “It is with pain amounting to anguish that I rise to address you. He who last night—nay, this morning— was with us and of us, whose voice is still ringing in our ears, who charmed us with his marvellous eloquence, elevated us by his large statesmanship, and instructed us by his wisdom and patriotism, is no more.”

Sir John, in a letter to Archbishop Connolly of Halifax some weeks later, stated that it had been arranged that McGee was to retire to the position of Commissioner of Patents that summer and devote his life to literature and other congenial employments. McGee was buried at Montreal, where a sympathizing public joined in an imposing service on April 13. Several arrests were made for the assassination, but Thomas Whalen was convicted and executed on February 11, 1869.

McGee began life a hot-headed revolutionary in a land of perpetual unrest; he ended it a sane, tolerant statesman where his public services and warm personality were to keep his memory green for generations.

A verse from his own “Canadian Ballads” might well be his epitaph:

“Rob me of all the joys of sense,
Curse me with all but impotence,
Fling me upon an ocean oar,
Cast me upon a savage shore;
Slay me! But own above my bier
The man now gone still held yet here
The jewel Independence.’”

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