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BURGESS, COLIN – Volume XIII (1901-1910)

d. 20 Oct. 1905 in Toronto

Confederation

Responsible Government

Sir John A. Macdonald

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

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier

Sports

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

Cabinet Struggles after 1882
 

The Conservatives won the 1882 election and returned Sir John A. MACDONALD with his third majority government. Despite this success, he had difficulty forming a stable cabinet. After George-Étienne CARTIER’s death in 1873, Macdonald’s presumed heir was Sir Charles TUPPER, but in 1881 he had sought the appointment as high commissioner in London:

“On 30 May 1883 Tupper, without surrendering his cabinet post, became unpaid high commissioner. He was based in London but returned to Canada repeatedly to deal with ministerial business and there was increasing criticism of his holding two incompatible offices. In May 1884 he resigned as minister and on 24 May became salaried high commissioner, abandoning his seat in parliament. His absence from the commons, Tilley noted in 1885, was ‘very much felt’ and in 1886 Macdonald appealed to him to return and assist the party in the forthcoming federal election.”

 

D’Alton McCARTHY, Macdonald’s close ally in Ontario, had been “the coming man in the party, a potential successor to the old chieftain”:

“…Macdonald continued to value McCarthy’s legal expertise. Twice in 1884 Macdonald offered him the justice portfolio, but McCarthy refused, claiming that his debts compelled him to continue in legal practice.”

 

P. B. Waite, the biographer of Sir John Sparrow David THOMPSON, analysed the personnel problems confronting Macdonald by the mid 1880s:

“In 1885… the government of Sir John A. Macdonald was looking for new men. The work of Macdonald’s cabinet was not being handled well, either in administration or in parliament. Too many ministers were old, or sick, or worn out. Especially was this true of key members, Sir Samuel Leonard Tilley in the Department of Finance, Sir Alexander Campbell in Justice, Sir David Lewis Macpherson in the Interior. Few of the others were capable of performing the business of the government in the commons. Much of this fell upon Macdonald’s shoulders; of necessity it could not all get done. A major reconstruction was clearly required. Before that could be effected the North-West rebellion broke out [see Louis Riel*], and the government now hung on for its very life.”

 

Macdonald called Thompson a “legal monk” and had appointed him to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia in 1882 at the age of 36. But with his cabinet in trouble, Macdonald appealed to Thompson to leave the bench and rejoin the Conservatives. Thompson answered the call, to the relief of the prime minister:

“…by 1890 Thompson had become Macdonald’s real lieutenant. He and Macdonald got on well together; he wrote admirable state papers and shouldered a great deal of the work. Macdonald was nevertheless devoted to Langevin, who had stood by him through many a dark hour. And he had always let tried and experienced ministers run their own departments. The obverse was that he could be caught by that trust. Of Joseph-Israël Tarte*, Caron, and others, who by 1890 were bringing Macdonald allegations of wrongdoing in Langevin’s department, Macdonald could only ask, what could he do? It was perhaps his inkling of a scandal involving Langevin and mp Thomas McGreevy, if not its details, that made him look early in 1891 for reasons to dissolve parliament. He now lived, according to Gowan, in daily fear that the searchlight would be applied to Langevin’s department. Macdonald was not at all sure his government would survive.”

 

For more information on Macdonald’s cabinet woes in the 1880s, please consult these biographies.

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