Historicist: Sir John A. Macdonald's Last Hurrah
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Historicist: Sir John A. Macdonald’s Last Hurrah

Our first prime minister made his last great speech in Toronto in 1891.

Conservative campaign poster, 1891.

Were it another age, or another paper, the screaming headline on the front page of the February 14, 1891 edition of the Empire would have been claimed by the latest lurid Jack the Ripper murder across the Atlantic. But this was the Empire, an experiment in direct newspaper ownership by the Conservative party, and a federal election campaign was on.

Amid the sea of text that Saturday morning, readers caught this eye-catching headline:


“For several days anxious enquiries have been made as to the date when Sir John Macdonald would address a Toronto audience,” the paper reported. There may have been legitimate anxiety among local Tories. When the campaign began two weeks earlier, the prime minister had intended to use Toronto as his base of operations. But the avalanche of mail from candidates and party officials, along with the 76-year-old leader’s increasing infirmity, had kept Macdonald off the hustings. He skipped a large rally in Toronto the week before, leaving it to several cabinet ministers to excite the faithful.

But after that false start, Macdonald was finally coming. The date: February 17. The venue: the Academy of Music on King Street. Located where University Avenue now crosses the south side of King, it was the city’s first fully electrified building. The rally would witness the last great speech Macdonald made.

The Empire’s headline also hinted at the problems festering among the Liberals. Former leader Edward Blake was unhappy with the party’s direction regarding a key campaign issue. Following his defeat in the 1887 election, the party pursued a policy promoting “unrestricted reciprocity” with the United States. The idea was to loosen the heavy tariffs on goods Macdonald’s government had applied via the National Policy since the late 1870s. What unnerved Blake was the fervour displayed by policy architects like Oxford South MP Sir Richard Cartwright toward a potential effect: a commercial union with the Americans which could lead to full annexation.

Blake decided not to run again in his West Durham riding. He ordered the Liberal-dominated Globe to print a letter in late January 1891 outlining his issues with the Liberal stance on trade. Globe editor John Willison, realizing the damage the letter could inflict, stalled as long as he could. It took a visit by Blake’s successor, Wilfrid Laurier, to Blake’s home, Humewood, near St. Clair Avenue, to convince the former leader to wait to publish the letter until the campaign was over.

Cartoon by J W  Bengough depicting John A  Macdonald and Oliver Mowat  Grip, March 7, 1891

Cartoon by J.W. Bengough depicting John A. Macdonald and Oliver Mowat. Grip, March 7, 1891.

As for Cartwright, he loved irritating the Conservative press even if his comments made fellow Grits grimace. “No other leading Liberal had his legendary capacity to make comments and take actions that could so disastrously embarrass the party, especially when it came to Canadian-American relations,” observed Christopher Pennington in his book The Destiny of Canada: Macdonald, Laurier, and the Election of 1891. “Cartwright, to the great delight of the Conservatives, never seemed to appreciate the patriotism of most ordinary Canadians.” During a speech in Boston on January 30, Cartwright noted that Canadian land and resources potentially added up to “the addition of half a continent for commercial purposes, and the creation of a complete new tier of Northern States.”

Like Cartwright, fellow Liberal loose cannon Edward Farrer had once backed the Tories. But now he was the chief editorial writer at the Globe, where he endorsed economic union. Before the election, both men travelled south to discuss future political and trade scenarios with American officials. So did Macdonald, who held secret talks with US Secretary of State James Blaine in January 1891. The PM couldn’t keep his mouth shut, and thought he could outfox the Liberals with a limited free-trade deal. When the Empire leaked details, Blaine denied any discussions. With that plan scuttled, the Tories framed the election around loyalty. Would Canadians back a party aiming to sell us to the Americans, or one who remained true to the country and the British Empire? As the famous campaign poster put it, the Conservatives offered “the old flag, the old policy, the old leader.”

While Macdonald was holed up, he prepared the campaign manifesto, whose loyalty-stressing conclusion contained one of his most famous quotes:

As for myself, my course is clear. A British subject I was born—a British subject I will die. With my utmost effort, with my latest breath, I oppose the veiled treason which attempts by sordid means and mercenary profit to lure our people from their allegiance. During my long public service of nearly half-a-century, I have been true to my country and its best interests, and I appeal with equal confidence to the men who have trusted me in the past, and to the young hope of the future, with whom rests its destinies for the future, to give me their united and strenuous aid in this, my last effort, for the unity of the Empire and the preservation of our commercial and political freedom.

“Knowing that his end was near,” observed biographer Richard Gwyn, “and knowing also that most Canadians knew it, Macdonald by these devices was challenging voters to stay with him, their founding father, in the last he would ever make to them to remain Canadian rather than become Americans.

Rally day was unseasonably warm. By 6 p.m. thousands had gathered on King Street outside the Academy of Music, a throng later estimated to be around 15,000. Pushing and shoving reigned. Sharp-dressed attendees were caked in mud and slush up to their knees. The hot rumour was that Macdonald had damaging goods proving an alleged conspiracy by the Globe to sell out the country.

This rumour worried one man in the crowd. John Willison feared that whatever the Prime Minister had on his paper might spark a riot leading back to the Globe’s office at Yonge and Melinda. He arranged for 50 police officers to protect the paper while he watched the rally unfold.

Front page, the News, February 18, 1891

Front page, the News, February 18, 1891.

Police were overwhelmed at the Academy, where the crowd cut off carriage traffic. They barely held the throng back when Tories given advance tickets were admitted just after 6 p.m. When the main doors opened at 7 p.m., around 4,000 people squeezed in. “The standing ways and aisles were all blocked, and pyramids of men were piled up in the corners,” the News reported. Several women fainted during the surge. Seats were ripped out to make more room. A gas lamp outside was destroyed, causing a gas rupture which forced organizers to turn on the electricity inside.

Some people tried alternative methods to get in, creating money-making opportunities. One person charged a quarter to lead attendees one by one through a back staircase into the rafters. Another levied a toll (which rose from a nickel to a quarter) to scale a fence with a ladder. Among those who took the latter route was opening speaker Charles Tupper, who couldn’t enter via the front door when the crowd failed to give him space. The heavy-set, heavily dressed politician had a few antsy moments on the ladder and almost fell into a pile of bricks during his descent.

Macdonald arrived via carriage from the Queen’s Hotel (now the site of the Royal York) around 7:35 p.m. It took 10 minutes to enter the building, as the crowd outside demanded a speech. Rally chairman W.R. Brock finally formed a wedge to let the PM in. Inside, Macdonald saw a hall covered in mottos. There were the patriotic (“Canada for the Canadians”), the flattering (“Hail to Our Chieftain”), and a few cheap shots at annexationists.

Brock’s attempt to start the rally at 8 p.m was delayed by the audience’s euphoria. As Tupper was delayed by his ladder journey, future Toronto mayor Emerson Coatsworth warmed up the room with a brief talk. When Tupper finally appeared onstage, the audience hooted and hollered for eons. “I always knew our great leader was a very popular man, but I never appreciated it fully until I attempted to gain entrance to this hall tonight,” Tupper noted. He then joked, “I think the best thing we can adopt on the present occasion is a little unrestricted reciprocity in the way of order.” He sat down until police calmed the overexcited crowd, which included a few hecklers who were ejected.

Tupper roused the crowd with a long speech outlining Tory accomplishments over the previous 13 years and attacking annexationists. He found it difficult to stop talking, but he reached a point where he conceded, “I must not take up more of your time.”

Then the headliner took the stage. The Empire described the scene:

The old man stood up, and as, in the fullness of his years, he leaned slightly forward there was a sudden outburst from the audience that fairly shook the building from its vaulted roof to its foundations. The entire gathering arose and yelled. Handkerchiefs, hats, umbrellas, walking sticks, programmes, and in fact everything within reach, were waved by the audience. The enthusiastic uproar was deafening. The grand old man stood there motionless as his heart throbbed within his honoured breast. This was one of the rewards that fall to the lot of a man who has spent his whole life labouring for the benefit of his race. It was a proud minute for Sir John.

When the cheering finally stopped, someone yelled, “For he’s a jolly good fellow,” prompting the audience to erupt into song. It took the pinning of a bouquet to Macdonald’s jacket to bring silence to the hall.

Left: cartoon, the News, March 6, 1891  Right: cartoon, the World, March 5, 1891

Left: cartoon, the News, March 6, 1891. Right: cartoon, the World, March 5, 1891.

Macdonald appeared frail and couldn’t be heard beyond the first few rows. He joked about his condition, referring to himself as “the aged leader—perhaps the weak and inefficient leader.” When the crowd shouted, “No! No!” Macdonald replied, “But the honest and well-intentioned leader.” He discussed the years he spent in Toronto while out of office during the mid-1870s, and how the National Policy benefitted the city’s manufacturing sector. He gradually slipped into attacked the treasonous annexationists among the Liberals, a threat he probably knew he was overplaying.

Then he pulled out what everyone had waited for: a pamphlet written for an American client by Edward Farrer that showed how Canada could be brought to heel economically. Proofs of the pamphlet were stolen by a printer loyal to the Tories. The work was intended to discuss Canadian-American relations from the viewpoint of an imaginary American, was not authorized by the Liberals, and was not intended for public consumption. When Macdonald got hold of it, he showed it to the governor general, Lord Stanley (of hockey cup fame), who felt it was slight.

Still, its mere existence provided attack material for Macdonald. He suggested Farrer might be in the crowd—which he was, standing next to Willison. “I am very glad that he is, because he will hear what I have to say,” Macdonald gloated. He portrayed the pamphlet as a sign of sinister intent. He also depicted Sir Richard Cartwright, not Laurier, as the true architect of Liberal policy. “I do not think he can,” he told the supportive audience, “in any decency, keep the title he got from the Queen when he becomes Senator for Ontario.” He ended his speech by promising to show the Americans that Canadians valued their nation. “I would say,” he concluded, “the sooner the grass was growing over my grave the better, rather than that I should see the degradation of the country which I have loved so much and which I have served so long.”

Several men sitting on the platform then erupted into an impromptu ditty called “We Will Hang Ed Farrar on a Sour Apple Tree.” More cheers and songs followed until the crowd finally dispersed around 11 p.m. Macdonald held an informal reception on the platform before returning to his hotel.

The city’s Tory papers were ecstatic. The official organ, the Empire, hyperbolically called the rally “the greatest political meeting ever held in Canada….One that will exist without a peer in the political history of the Dominion.” The World felt that “the interior of that building presented a sight the inspiration of which cannot be conveyed into print.” The Telegram advised caution, feeling that calling leading Liberals traitors wasn’t justified: “Tin sounds loudest in Sir John’s thunder. Its roar is largely artificial, but the shrill small note of truth is in it.”

At the Globe, Willison spent the night figuring out how to address Macdonald’s charges. Front-page coverage was given to a Laurier speech in Montreal. On the editorial page, Willison dismissed the credibility of the treason charges. Farrer was given an editorial page column to defend himself. He admitted writing the pamphlet, discussed its origins, and felt no shame about it. He was free to write whatever he wanted in his off-hours.

Macdonald embarked on a grueling tour of Ontario over the next week, using Toronto as his base. After a speech in Kingston on February 24, personal secretary Joseph Pope was alarmed by his leader’s appearance. As historian Donald Creighton put it, Macdonald’s face was “grey, grey with fatigue, grey with another kind of fatigue which was the final exhaustion of a life.” Suffering from bronchitis and other ailments, he rested in both Kingston and Ottawa.

Macdonald was at his Ottawa home, Earnscliffe, when the results began rolling in on March 5. He went to sleep around 10 p.m., having heard only a fraction of the returns. Fears that the public was tired of the Conservatives proved unjustified—while they lost a few seats, the party maintained a healthy majority and increased its percentage of the popular vote. Macdonald’s platform had carried off one last victory.

Sir John A. Macdonald statue, Queen’s Park, 1910. Toronto Public Library.


When Parliament resumed on April 29, 1891, Macdonald brought his son Hugh, who was elected as MP for Winnipeg, into the House of Commons. A series of strokes beginning on May 12 gradually deteriorated the prime minister’s condition. At 10:25 p.m on June 6, 1891, Joseph Pope met with reporters hovering outside Earnscliffe: “Gentlemen, Sir John Macdonald is dead. He died at a quarter past 10, without pain and in peace.”

Four men filled out Macdonald’s term. The first, Sir John Abbott, reluctantly accepted the job for the next year and a half. His replacement, Sir John Thompson, may be best known for dying of a heart attack after sitting down for lunch at Windsor Castle in December 1894. Charles Tupper was Thompson’s logical successor but Governor General Lord Aberdeen (and Lady Aberdeen) despised him. When Mackenzie Bowell flopped as PM, Tupper took over for the 1896 election campaign, becoming Canada’s shortest-serving leader.

The Liberals quickly dumped unrestricted reciprocity as a party policy. Edward Blake’s letter was printed following the election, and was as unflattering as party brass feared. Blake took a seat in the British House of Commons representing an Irish riding in 1892. That same year, Edward Farrer left the Globe, thanks to Ontario premier Oliver Mowat’s irritation over his annexationist views. Farrer remained associated with the party and became one of Laurier’s trouble shooters.

The Academy of Music survived extensive damage caused during the rally. It was soon renamed the Princess Theatre. Destroyed by fire in 1915, it was rebuilt only to be demolished in 1930 to make way for the southern extension of University Avenue.

On the issue of treason during the campaign, Christopher Pennington offered this summary:

The truth is that both the Conservatives and Liberals acted patriotically during the campaign. They simply had contrasting ideas for the future of the country, ideas rooted in different but equally legitimate conceptions of the meaning of Canadian nationalism. The clash of these ideas was the real “great issue” of the election of 1891.

Additional material from John A. Macdonald: The Old Chieftain by Donald Creighton (Toronto: Macmillan, 1955); Nation Maker: Sir John A. Macdonald: His Life, Our Times Volume Two 1867-1891 by Richard Gwyn (Toronto: Random House Canada, 2011); The Destiny of Canada: Macdonald, Laurier, and the Election of 1891 by Christopher Pennington (Toronto: Allen Lane Canada, 2011); the February 14, 1891 and February 18, 1891 editions of the Empire; the February 18, 1891 edition of the Globe; the February 18, 1891 edition of the Mail; the February 18, 1891 edition of the News; the February 19, 1891 edition of the Telegram; and the February 18, 1891 edition of the World.

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