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DEVAU, Retor, CLAUDE – Volume IV (1771-1800)

d. 14 April 1784 at Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pérade (La Pérade, Que.)


Responsible Government

Sir John A. Macdonald

From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier


The Fenians

Women in the DCB/DBC

The Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864

Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

The Acadians

For Educators

The War of 1812 

Canada’s Wartime Prime Ministers

The First World War

Patronage and Party Control

Patronage was essential to managing political parties, building political networks, and succeeding in elections. John A. MACDONALD and other politicians, including William Warren BALDWIN and Wilfrid LAURIER, understood it within the context of responsible government [see Patronage]. Macdonald expressed his views in 1870:

“‘I think that in the distribution of Government patronage we carry out the true Constitutional principle. Whenever an office is vacant it belongs to the party supporting the Government if within that party there is to be found a person competent to perform the duties. Responsible Government cannot be carried on in any other principle. I am not careful however what a man’s political antecedents have been, if I am satisfied that he is really and bona fide a friend of the Government at the time of his appointment. My principle is, reward your friends and do not buy your enemies.’”

Macdonald had been honing his understanding of patronage since the 1850s:

“He … tried to compensate for political shortcomings by developing a centralized system of government patronage. Macdonald was, of course, far from the first politician to dispense patronage but, unlike his Conservative predecessors, he maintained a strong personal hold over office-giving while in power and he used offices, or the promise of office, in a deliberate attempt to strengthen the party at the local level, on the principle that reward should only result from actual service. By making sure that recommendations on patronage were ‘attached to the legal department,’ as Macdonald stressed in January 1855, and by working hard on behalf of people to whom he had made commitments, he was able to raise the level of loyalty to the party, and to himself, throughout the province.”

By the time of confederation in 1867, patronage had become a familiar facet of Macdonald’s political craft:

“Under Macdonald patronage settled into a certain pattern…. Fundamentally, it was a minister’s responsibility to decide, and Macdonald rarely interfered. In his own departmental administration – as minister of justice (1867–73), minister of the interior (1878–83), superintendent general of Indian affairs (1878–87), and minister of railways and canals (1889–91) – Macdonald was cautious about appointments, and he would not have his deputy minister pushed around by cabinet ministers or mps out for favours for their constituents.”

Indeed, patronage provided a means of rewarding loyal lieutenants or denying opponents even minor posts. Postmaster Alexander CAMPBELL’s most active years as a party official were from 1867 to 1873:

“In those years... he was postmaster general for all but four months. He used the patronage component of his portfolio assiduously and in the interests of his party. Pay raises for postal workers, leaves of absence, and appointments were manipulated for partisan purposes….

“Macdonald left his own [1872] re-election in Kingston to Campbell, who evidently had charge as well of the other ridings in the old Midland District. Macdonald had found his power base here prior to confederation, but, active now on a larger stage, he delegated to Campbell much of the management of the party in the district.”

A strong cabinet was also critical to a party’s success, and its handling required a deft touch and considerable political acumen:

“[Macdonald’s] cabinet was built that fall [of 1878] from the same template he used to shape all his cabinets. It reflected Canada’s national and religious composition and contained representatives of all six provinces. Making such agglomerations work was the product of Macdonald’s own peculiar make-up. First, he believed in politeness. Asking Langevin in 1879 to comment upon an enclosed letter, Macdonald noted, ‘What answer shall I send? Let it be soft.’ It made no sense to alienate people, merely for the sake of satisfying a principle, usually irrelevant. There were times to be tough and exigent: but they were far less frequent than people thought. If Macdonald returned few hard answers, he rarely promised, definitely, anything.”

After the 1878 election Mackenzie BOWELL, Macdonald’s minister of customs, was kept busy:

“In the political side of his office, Bowell dealt mainly in the small change of politics: jobs, salary increases, promotions, and patronage. He seems to have been scrupulous in following government rules, but there were exceptions. Macdonald frequently enquired of him, in benign fashion, when, where, and if the rules might be bent. A minor customs appointment was suggested in a covering letter from Macdonald in 1884: ‘If you can possibly do this for the Bishop do it. It is of very great importance just now to keep him not only friendly but Earnest in the cause.’”

For more information on Macdonald, patronage, and party control, consult the following biographies.

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