PLUMB, JOSIAH BURR, businessman and politician; b. 25 March 1816 at East Haven, Conn., son of the Reverend Elijah Griswold Plumb and Grace Hubbard Burr; m. 30 May 1849 Elizabeth, the youngest daughter of Samuel Street* of Chippawa (now part of Niagara Falls), Canada West, and they had three sons and three daughters; d. 12 March 1888 at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
Before immigrating to Canada in 1865 Josiah Burr Plumb was manager of the State Bank of Albany, N.Y., and a director of several banks in Buffalo and Oswego. He had also been involved in the consolidation of several railway lines that eventually became the New York Central Railway. In early 1861, representing the Democratic party of New York State, he sat on a committee which conferred with representatives of the slave states in an attempt to prevent the impending conflict.
Immediately after the American Civil War Plumb retired from business and moved to the Niagara Falls area. He was soon associated with the Conservative party, doubtless through the influence of his brother-in-law, Thomas Clark Street*, one of the wealthiest men in Canada West. Plumb was brought to the attention of Sir John A. Macdonald* as early as 1872 by the editor of the Toronto Mail, Thomas Charles Patteson*, as a useful though at that time erratic acquisition for the party. Plumb entered politics in the general election of January 1874, partly out of chivalrous regard for Macdonald after the Pacific Scandal. He was elected for the county of Niagara but the election was voided. In a new election on 22 December Plumb was successful.
Plumb seems to have come to Ottawa as a widower, and he set out to enjoy himself. In 1875 he belonged to an Ottawa drinking circle called the Jim-Jam Club, with Joseph-Philippe-René-Adolphe Caron* and Senator Robert William Weir Carrall* of British Columbia. At the same time Plumb actively campaigned for Macdonald’s National Policy in 1877 and 1878. He did not spare himself nor did he doubt success, and in the election of 1878 Macdonald and the Conservatives were swept back into power. Plumb was awarded a contested election and returned to the House of Commons on 20 March 1879.
An active parliamentarian, Plumb had something of the cockiness in the house that was characteristic of Sir Charles Tupper*. He was especially critical of Sir Richard John Cartwright* for his “vitriol-throwing.” Liberal George William Ross* had already anticipated in the house that before long Plumb’s “limping hexameters will be heard no more . . . and even the sublime effrontery with which he addresses the House must come to an end. The [political] grave, which I know he is not prepared to fill, is already dug for him.” Ross was right. Plumb’s 1879 majority in Niagara had been very narrow, and in 1882 Macdonald arranged to have the Niagara constituency disappear in a gerrymander. Plumb, probably by arrangement with Macdonald, contested Wellington North in the general election that year. He lost, and Macdonald appointed him to the Senate on 8 Feb. 1883.
Plumb was both active and popular in the Senate On the withdrawal of Sir Alexander Campbell* from the cabinet in January 1887, Plumb’s experience, knowledge, and fluency made him the logical successor as government leader in the upper house. Then, on 4 April 1887, when William Miller* was forced out as Senate speaker owing to excessive drinking, Plumb replaced him, and remained in that position until his sudden death less than a year later.
Doubtless because of his American experience Plumb tried to lessen regional rivalries in Canadian politics. The great aim of parliament, he said in 1878, “should be to remove sectional jealousies, and to cement the Union into a whole. . . .” But he never rode his ideas too hard. With Plumb, as with Macdonald, politics was too important to be left dependent upon mere philosophical principles. In 1881 he quoted some lines that, he said, were favourites of Cartwright’s, though Cartwright did not heed them as Plumb did. They can well serve as his epitaph:
A genuine statesman must be on his guard
If he must have beliefs, not believe them too hard.
AO, MU 2306–10; MU 2918–22. PAC, MG 26, A. Can., House of Commons, Debates, 1875–82. Can., Senate, Debates, 1883–88. Toronto Daily Mail, 13 March 1888. Cyclopædia of Canadian biog. (Rose, 1886), 367–69.