Historicist: "Fighting with a feather pillow"
Torontoist has been acquired by Daily Hive Toronto - Your City. Now. Click here to learn more.



Historicist: “Fighting with a feather pillow”

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

William Lyon Mackenzie King with his parents at the Scarborough Fair, circa September 1911. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 643.

For anyone observing from the House of Commons gallery in the early 1920s, the bitterness of the feud playing out on the Commons floor would’ve been plainly obvious. Trading places as prime minister and leader of the opposition—and then trading back again—in those years, Arthur Meighen, leader of the Conservative Party, and Liberal Leader Mackenzie King would quarrel furiously over minute details of legislation both trivial and important.
Well-read and well-spoken, Meighen was among the ablest debaters in the country’s history. Anytime he stood to speak, King became visibly uncomfortable. “His pencil stub began to tap on his desk,” Bruce Hutchinson described King’s reaction in The Incredible Canadian (Longmans, Green and Company, 1953). “A line of scarlet rose slowly up the back of his neck until it had flooded his bald scalp. As Meighen, erect, gestureless, and glacial, poured on his vituperation, King oozed pure hatred.” But King was always ready to jump to his feet to respond with obscure quotations, statistics, or a barb of his own. In Meighen’s estimation, King was “the most contemptible charlatan ever to darken the annals of Canadian politics,” according to Meighen’s biographer Roger Graham in the Canadian Historical Review (39.4, 1958). In short, their simmering mutual dislike left an indelible impression on Canadian politics.
That these middle-aged characters were each other’s antithesis in physique, demeanour, and their approach to politics was clear. But their contrasting character was just as evident when they were classmates at the University of Toronto in the early 1890s.

W.L. Mackenzie King (standing at left) with friends, University of Toronto, circa 1891-1896. Library and Archives Canada / C-007318.

At seventeen, Mackenzie King had, in Hutchinson’s words, a “lavish mop of hair parted in the middle, a round, solemn face, a large, homely mouth, a fashionable wing collar and flowing cravat.” He arrived at University College in the fall of 1891 and made an immediate impression on his college mates. According to a light-hearted account in the Varsity, a self-important freshman—thereafter nicknamed Rex—had been introducing himself around campus as the son of “Senator Rex” of Berlin. King, whose father was a member of the University Senate, later took pains to refute the story publicly, but he admitted to his parents that the incident had “done me good because now I know nearly every man in the college, or rather they all know me.” The anecdote provided wonderful illustration of both King’s ego and his lifelong talent for attracting attention.
As a young man of many middling talents, King tried a little bit of everything at university. He was elected class president in his second year, was a member of the Kappa Alpha fraternity, and acted as treasurer of the Glee Club (although its members were hesitant to let him sing). Always anxious to be seen as an athlete, he enthusiastically took part (but never excelled at) rugby, cricket, and track. Having been a bit of a trouble-maker as a child, King delighted in the many boyish pranks of university life—smashing chairs, knocking down sheds, and serenading the women’s schools by twilight. Although a devotion to social reform might’ve been somewhat surprising in one so well-known for enjoying the lighter side of school life, King’s religious convictions were strong. So he read to patients at the Sick Children’s Hospital each week, helped found a newsboys association, and campaigned against the appalling poverty he saw in Toronto.
With all his extra-curriculars, he still found time to study for his honours program in political science, and remained near the top of his class in politics, economics, constitutional history, and law. He was well-known and well-liked on campus, and his diverse range of activities indicate a youth who fervently sought to appeal to all manner of cliques—just as he would seek to be in his later political career—no matter how oppositional these personas may have appeared.

W.L. Mackenzie King as an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto, circa 1891-1896. Library and Archives Canada / C-055546.

In contrast, Arthur Meighen had a much quieter college career. When the shy eighteen-year-old from rural Perth County stepped off the train in September 1892, it was the first time he had ever been in the big city. Despite having little formal education themselves, Meighen’s parents had always placed emphasis on education and encouraged their children to pursue learning. They even moved closer to St. Marys, Ontario, so their son, already distinguishing himself as an intelligent and studious student, would be within walking distance of the local high school. From his parents he also received the foreboding influence of his Presbyterian faith.
Even as a child, Meighen had been withdrawn, a quiet youth more at home in books than in the company of others. “He was not unfriendly,” Roger Graham wrote in Arthur Meighen: A Biography (Clarke, Irwin & Company, 1960), “but he did not go out of his way to make friends.” His aloofness continued at University College as he did not attend social gatherings or athletic events. Although he had been an assistant editor at his high school paper, Meighen contributed only one article—a review of Hardy’s Tess of the d’Ubervilles—to the Varsity during his college days. Few people knew the quiet, unassuming student very well.

Arthur Meighen, M.P. (Portage la Prairie), March 1912. William James Topley / Library and Archives Canada / PA-026987.

With a tremendous capacity for hard work—believing it to be the only means of attaining satisfaction in life—Meighen secluded himself in the library to read whatever works seemed interesting, just as he had as a child rushing home to lose himself in the works of Gibbon, Macaulay, Carlyle, and Shakespeare. He was fascinated with the arguments of these authors as he was with how they used the English language, and he sought to emulate them in his writing and speech. Meighen later reflected that his “indulgence in more or less aimless reflections” at the university library “resulted in [his] being only a moderately successful student.” It was a characteristically modest remark for a student who graduated with first-class honours in mathematics.
Meighen was an inconspicuous undergraduate, and the one extra-curricular indulgence he took part in at college, albeit irregularly, was debating at the Literary and Scientific Society (or Lit). In high school, debates had helped the shy youngster come out of his shell, but his argumentative skills—which would serve him so well later in life—had been cultivated much earlier in verbal sparring with his father.
Fishing a current event from the newspaper, Meighen’s father would play devil’s advocate and intentionally provoke an argument with his son. “It’s the only way the boy will learn,” the father once explained to his wife. “It was a game,” Graham writes, “but it was taken seriously and the two of them would go at it hot and heavy, facing each other across the kitchen table, while the younger children listened in wide-eyed wonderment.”
In university, he likely hadn’t yet perfected his speech-making, however, because he lost both of the debates he took part in. During one, in November 1895, he argued that the railways ought to be nationalized—a policy that he would later help Prime Minister Robert Borden to implement. Although Meighen impressed and, according to the meeting’s minutes, “succeeded in establishing [his] case from the theoretical standpoint” on that occasion, his opponents were ruled “the winners from the practical point of view.” Another indication of the esteem with which his classmates held Meighen’s debating skills was his nomination for the prestigious position of public debater. Apparently considering the nomination as honour enough, Meighen withdrew his name and the election went to another member of the Lit, Mackenzie King.

W.L. Mackenzie King and friends, Toronto, circa 1890-1895. Library and Archives Canada / C-002858

While it does not appear that King and Meighen ever argued against each other in a university debate—and no evidence suggests the outright animosity of adulthood blossomed at school—they certainly would’ve been aware of each other. King was more successful than Meighen in Lit debates, winning all four that he took part in. His interest in politics was well developed by this point but not yet his determination to pursue it was a career. Nevertheless, in debates and elsewhere, classmate B.K. Sandwell later recalled in Saturday Night, “there hung already a sort of aura of destiny” about King.
“Surely,” a young King reflected, “I have some great work to accomplish before I die!” It was a sentiment encouraged since childhood by his mother, who saw in her son an opportunity to rehabilitate the name of her father, William Lyon Mackenzie, who at the time was commonly seen as a comical crank or a criminal. This inheritance surely placed a burden on young King but, as he pored over histories of the 1837 Rebellion and memorized his grandfather’s speeches, it also provided self-confidence and an inspiring sense of destiny. And whenever he felt himself to be the democratic defender of the unrepresented or the downtrodden—as he would do repeatedly in the House of Commons—King channelled his grandfather’s righteous indignation. He first assumed that role at university as one of the leaders of the student strike of 1895.

W.L. Mackenzie King, 1899. Library and Archives Canada / C-014191.

“If there’s anything that makes my blood boil,” King said in a rabble-rousing speech at a student meeting on February 15, 1895, “it’s tyranny.” Before almost the entire student body at Wardell’s Hall on Spadina Avenue, he denounced the university administration for nepotism in professorial appointments, poor-quality instruction, the suspension of the Varsity editor for refusing to retract critical comments, and the dismissal of a popular professor over a critical article he’d penned in the Globe. Stirred to action by King’s oratory, the student assembly voted (with only four dissenters) to boycott lectures until the university addressed their grievances.
Meighen, although by no means an instigator, attended this Friday meeting and therefore absented himself from class until the following Wednesday when another student assembly voted to return to lectures because the president had agreed to meet a student delegation.
Reminiscing years later, according to Graham, Meighen mainly remembered the strike as the first of many occasions providing “evidence…that Mackenzie King protested too much and at too great length his devotion to freedom and democracy.” He was not alone in this criticism.
One editorial cartoon of the time depicted King as two-faced: calling for a strike from one side of his mouth while simultaneously caving to the administration too easily from the other. One student leader, A.M. Chisholm, went further in a 1955 interview with the Varsity. He claimed that King had had second thoughts about the strike he’d instigated and had been ostracized as one of the very few to attend classes. The account, although uncorroborated, certainly fits with King’s later propensity for adapting his personal narrative in order to broaden his appeal.
Further evidence of back-room manipulation of the 1895 strike suggests that there was more happening than was evident at the time. Robert H. Blackburn has argued in the Canadian Historical Review (LXIX: 4, 1988) that William Mulock, the university’s vice chancellor and a friend of King’s father, leveraged legitimate student grievances for gain in his own festering personal rivalry with the president and chancellor, who were pushing Mulock aside to take the school’s management in another direction.
Mulock found a willing accomplice, Blackburn speculates, in King, who had his own axe to grind with administration insiders such as Professor George M. Wrong, the chancellor’s son-in-law and one of the perceived benefactors of nepotism. Unhappy with a mark, King had once asked Wrong to revisit his essay. Wrong concurred and promptly adjusted the mark downward. According to Blackburn, Mulock, King, and other student leaders met several times leading up to and throughout the student strike. On this and other occasions, King left enough of an impression that in 1909 Mulock—now in Laurier’s cabinet—recruited King into the federal public service. The 1895 strike can also therefore be viewed as an early instance when King was able to mask what were essentially petty vendettas and personal grievances behind bravado and populist grandstanding.

Rt. Hon. Arthur Meighen, ca. 1920-1930. Library and Archives Canada / C-000691.

Neither young man left university with a clear career path in mind. Meighen got bored as a general store clerk, then as a high school teacher got ensnared in the petty politics of a small-town school board. He found success by moving west to study law in Winnipeg and settling down to practise in nearby Portage La Prairie. He was not the kind of man, Graham argues, for “whom the small combats and minor triumphs of a provincial courtroom could fully or forever satisfy.” So he sought greater challenges with his election to the House of Commons in 1908.
King continued his studies in politics and economics at Chicago and Harvard; he tried but quickly gave up on being a lawyer; and he spent some time as a newspaper reporter. After some time as the Deputy Minister of Labour, King entered active politics with his election to Parliament in a 1908 by-election.
With intelligence, studious hard work, and a firm grasp of the issues—not to mention his sharp wit—Meighen quickly became a dominant Conservative spokesman and debater. After Borden became prime minister in 1911, Meighen moved to the government’s front benches and became associated in the public mind with Borden’s policies, including the highly contentious conscription legislation. He succeeded Borden as prime minister in the summer of 1920.
Meighen had little admiration for King, his opponent across the floor who had become Liberal leader the previous year. Even Hutchinson—King’s most hagiographic biographer—thought “the dumpy little man…looked less like a statesman than a Sunday-school teacher”; he speculated that King must’ve seemed to Meighen “the reincarnation of Uriah Heep, a very humble man with a deadly purpose.”
It has been frequently argued that Meighen’s arrogance or his ineptitude in the game of politics prevented him from courting third-party Progressives, a growing influence in the House, as a means of securing a long term as prime minister—as a supposedly more prescient King would do. In reality, it stemmed from a fundamental difference between how the two men viewed politics. In Meighen’s over-idealization he believed that opponents and the public ought to be won over by systematically proving, through argument, evidence, and clear logic, that one’s position was the most sound.
Furthermore, he believed leaders needed the courage to be consistent, never altering their argument—even if unpopular—to pander to an audience for short-term political gain. “If anyone tells me that fidelity to party and fidelity to country are always compatible,” he once told a party convention, “or that the wisdom of mere numbers is the wisdom of heaven, then I tell him that he loves applause far more than he loves truth. Loyalty to the ballot box is not necessarily loyalty to the nation; it is not even loyalty to the multitude.”

Arthur Meighen at the CNE, 1930s. City of Toronto Archives, Series 1057, Item 3690.

Therefore, in the House and on the hustings, Meighen wasted no time on platitudes for the crowd. His speeches clarified issues with cold logic, and were delivered—although unsmiling—with the measured cadence of one fully in control of his words. His eloquence earned the grudging respect of his opponents, and many were willing to concede he was their better intellectually. But Meighen’s brooding manner and pitiless domination of them in debate also earned their resentment, and they vilified him in their ridings—far from any danger that he could reply with another vicious verbal riposte. King was foremost among these offenders.
As a politician, King was the very antithesis of everything Meighen valued; Meighen found his tactics utterly repellent and his success maddening. Given King’s ability to raise ambiguity to an art form, Hutchinson compared sparring with King to “fighting with a feather pillow.” King’s entire strategy was to divert the public’s attention away from divisive issues by perfecting artless, rambling, and intentionally unclear speech.
His statements were so filled with ifs and buts, Graham argues, that “no one could be absolutely sure [what] the answer really was.” In the 1921 election, after jettisoning his party’s entire platform to better sway in the breeze of popular opinion, King promised a tariff that would appeal to protectionist manufacturers and anti-tariff farmers alike, although he never quite clarified how he hoped to achieve such a contradictory policy. Such ambiguity allowed King to appear as all things to all men while simultaneously exploiting the country’s divisions to assure himself high office. But, some have argued, in a country where mere electoral success is often confused with statesmanship, King’s success provided the blueprint to gaining and retaining political power that many would seek to emulate.
After his defeat at the polls in 1926, Meighen resigned as party leader and retired to business life in Toronto. He became a senator and remained a powerful backroom figure in the Conservative Party. While King remained a dominant force in politics for over a generation and piloted Canada though the Second World War, Meighen spent his twilight years bitterly brooding about being bested by King. Although he’d been raised to never blame others for one’s misfortunes, Meighen was torn by his sense that his defeat was beyond his control. There was a fundamental difference between the men that was revealed in their contrasting experiences at college. Meighen felt success would be assured if he clung to his convictions and convinced others of their virtue. But his parliamentary encounters with King left him disillusioned, as Graham put it, because his failure “seemed to violate every precept instilled in him as a child, every lesson life had taught him thus far, every canon of the classical theory of parliamentary government to which he clung.”
Other sources consulted: Thomas A. Crerar, “The Incredible Canadian: An Evaluation,” International Journal (8, Summer 1953); and Roger Graham, Arthur Meighen (The Canadian Historical Association Booklets, No. 16, 1965).