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George Brown
Chapter IX - Some Personal Politics


AFTER the burning of the parliament buildings in Montreal the seat of government oscillated between Quebec and Toronto. Toronto’s turn came in the session of 1856. Macdonald was now the virtual, and was on the point of becoming the titular, leader of the party. Brown was equally conspicuous on the other side. During the debate on the address he was the central figure in a fierce struggle, and some one with a turn for statistics said that his name was mentioned three hundred and seventy-two times. The air was stimulating, and Brown’s contribution to the debate was not of a character to turn away wrath

Smarting under Brown’s attack, Macdonald suddenly gave a new turn to the debate. He charged that Brown, while acting as a member and secretary of a commission appointed by the Lafontaine-Baldwin government to inquire into the condition of the provincial penitentiary, had falsified testimony, suborned convicts to commit perjury, and obtained the pardon of murderers to induce them to give false evidence Though the assembly had by this time become accustomed to hard hitting, this outbreak created a sensation. Brown gave an indignant denial to the charges, and announced that he would move for a committee of inquiry. He was angrily interrupted by the solicitor-general, who flung the lie across the House. The solicitor-general was a son of the warden of the penitentiary who had been dismissed in consequence of the report of the commission. Macdonald was a strong personal friend of the warden, and had attempted some years before to bring his case before the assembly. Brown promptly moved for the committee, and it was not long before he presented that tribunal with a dramatic surprise. It was supposed that the report of the penitentiary' committee had been burned, and the attack on Brown was made upon that supposition. When Mr. Brown was called as a witness, however, he produced the original report with all the evidence, and declared that it had never been out of his possession “for one hour.” The effect of this disclosure on his assailants is shown in a letter addressed to the committee by VanKoughnet, Macdonald’s counsel: “Mr. Macdonald,” he said, “had been getting up his case on the assumption and belief that these minutes had been destroyed and could not be procured, and much of the labour he had been allowed to go to by Mr. Brown for that purpose would now be thrown away; the whole manner of giving evidence, etc., would now be altered.”

The graver charges of subornation of perjury etc., were abandoned, and Macdonald’s friends confined themselves to an attempt to prove that the inquiry had been unfairly conducted, that the warden had been harshly treated, and the testimony not fairly reported. It was a political committee with a Conservative majority, and the majority, giving up all hope of injuring Brown, bent its energies to saving Macdonald from the consequences of his reckless violence. The Liberal members asked for a complete exoneration of Mr. Brown. A supporter of the government was willing to exonerate Brown if Macdonald were allowed to escape without censure. A majority of the committee, however, took refuge in a rambling deliverance, which was sharply attacked in the legislature. Sir Allan MacNab bluntly declared that the charge had been completely disproved, and that the committee ought to have had the manliness to say so. Drummond, a member of the government, also said that the attack had failed. The accusers were willing to allow the matter to drop, and as a matter of fact the report was never put to a vote. But Mr. Brown would not allow them to escape so easily. Near the close of the session he made a speech which gave a new character to the discussion. Up to this time it had been a personal question between Brown and his assadanls. Brown dealt with this aspect of the matter briefly but forcibly. He declared that not only his conduct but the character of the other commissioners was fully vindicated, and that a conspiracy to drive him from public life had signally failed. Conservative members had met him and admitted that there was no truth n the charges, but had pleaded that they must go with the party. Members had actually been asked to “pair” off on the question of upholding or destroying his character, before they had heard his defence.

From these personal matters he returned to the abuses that had been discovered by the commission. A terrible story of neglect and cruelty was told. These charges did not rest on the testimony of prisoners. They were sustained by the evidence of officers and by the records of the institution. "If,” said the speaker, “every word of the witnesses called by the commissioners were struck out, and the ease left to rest on the testimony of the warden’s own witnesses and the official records of the prison, there would be sufficient to establish the blackest record of •wickedness that ever disgraced a civilized country.” Amid applause, expressions of amazement and cries of “Shame!” from the galleries, Brown told of the abuses laid bare by the prison commission. lie told of prisoners fed with rotten meal and bread infested with maggots; of children beaten with cat and rawhide for childish faults; of a coffin-shaped box in which men and even women were made to stand or rather crouch, their limbs cramped, and their lungs scantily supplied with air from a few holes. Brown’s speech virtually closed the case, although Macdonald strove to prove that the accounts of outrages were exaggerated, that the warden, Smith, was himself a kind-hearted man, and that he had been harshly treated by the commissioners.

In a letter written about this time, Macdonald said that he was carrying on a war against Brown, that he would prove him a most dishonest, dishonourable fellow, “and in doing so I will only pay him a debt that I owe him for abusing me for months together in his newspaper.” Whatever the provocation may have been, the personal relations of the two men were further embittered by this incident.

Eight years afterwards they were members of the coalition ministry by which confederation was brought about, and Brown’s intimate friend, Alexander Mackenzie, says that the association was most distasteful to Brown, on account of the charges made in connection with the prison commission. That the leaders of the two parties were not merely political opponents but personal enemies must have embittered the party struggle: and it was certainly waged on both sides with fury, and with little regard either for the amenities of life or for Fair play.

His work on the commission gave Brown a strong interest in prison reform. While the work of the commission was fresh in his mind he delivered an address in the Toronto Mechanics’ Institute, in which he sketched the history of prison reform <n England and the United States, and pointed out how backward Canada was in this phase of civilization. He pleaded for a more charitable treatment of those on whom the prison doors had closed. There were inmates of prisons who would stand guiltless in the presence of Him who searches the heart. There were guilty ones outside. We cannot, he said, expect human justice to be infallible : but we must not draw' a hard and fast line between the world inside the prison and the world outside, as if the courts of ustice had the divine power of judging between good and evil. In Canada, he said, we have no system of reforming the prisoner; even the chaplain or the teacher never enters the prison walls. “Children of eight and ten years of age are placed in our gaols, surrounded by hundreds of the worst criminals in the province.” He went on to describe some of the evils of herding together hardened criminals, children, and persons charged with trifling offences. He advocated government inspection of prisons, a uniform system of discipline, strict classification and separation, secular and religious instruction, and the teaching of trades. The prisoner should be punished, but not made to feel that he was being degraded by society for the sake of revenge. Hope should be held out to those who showed repentance. The use of the lash for trifling offences against discipline was condemned. On the whole, his views were such as are now generally accepted, and he may be regarded as one of the pioneers of prison reform in Canada.

The habit of personal attack was further illustrated in the charge, frequently made by Mr. Brown’s enemies, that he had been a defaulter in v Scotland. The North American had printed this accusation during its fierce altercation with the Globe, but the editor, Mr. Macdougall, had afterwards apologized, and explained that it had crept into the paper during his absence and without his knowledge. In the session of 1858, a Mr. Powell, member for Carleton, renewed the attack in the House, and Mr. Brown made a reply of such compelling human interest that not a word can be added or taken away. He said: “This is not the first time that the insinuation has been made that I was a defaulter in my native city. It has been echoed before now from the organs of the ministry, and at many an election contest have I been compelled to sit patiently and hear the tale recounted in the ears of assembled hundreds. For fifteen years I have been compelled to bear in silence these imputations. I would that I could yet refrain from the painful theme, but the pointed and public manner in which the charge has now been made, and the fear that the public cause with which 1 am identified might suffer by my silence, alike tell me that the moment has come when I ought to explain the transaction, as I have always been able to explain it, and to cast back the vile charge of dishonesty on those who dared to make it. That my father was a merchant in the city of Edinburgh, and that he engaged in disastrous business speculations commencing in the inflated times of 1825 and 1826, terminating ten years afterwards in his failure, is undoubtedly true. And It is, unhappily, also true, that he did hold a public office, and -that funds connected with that office were, at the moment of his sequestration, mixed up with his private funds, to the extent, I believe, of two thousand eight hundred pounds. For this sum four relatives and friends were sureties, and they paid the money. Part of that money has been repaid; every sixpence of it will be paid, and paid shortly. Property has been long set aside for the payment of that debt to its utmost farthing. My father felt that while that money remained unpaid there was a brand on himself and his family, and he has wrought, wrought as few men have wrought, to pay off, not only that, but other obligations of a sacred character. Many a bill of exchange, the proceeds of his labour, has he sent to old creditors who were in need of what he owed. For myself, sir, I have felt equally bound with my father; as his eldest son I felt that the fruits of my industry should stand pledged until every penny of those debts was paid and the honour of my family vindicated. An honourable member opposite, whom I regret to hear cheering on the person who made the attack, might have known that, under the legal advice of his relative, I long ago secured that in the event of my death before the accomplishment of our long-cherished purpose, after the payment of my own obligations, the full discharge of those sacred debts of my father should stand as a first charge on my ample estate. Debts, sir, which I was no more bound in law to pay than any gentleman who hears me. For the painful transaction to which I have been forced to allude, I am no more responsible than any gentleman in this assembly. It happened in 1836; I was at that time but seventeen years of age, I was totally unconnected with it, but, young as I was, I felt then, as I feel now, the obligation it laid upon me, and I vowed that I should never rest until every penny had been paid. There are those present who have known my every action since I set foot in this country ; they know I have not eaten the bread of idleness, but they did not know the great object of my labour. The one end of my desire for wealth was that I might discharge those debts and redeem my father’s honour. Thank God, sir, my exertions have not been in vain. Thank God, sir, I have long possessed property far more than sufficient for all my desires. But, as those gentlemen know, it is one thing in this country to have property, and another to be able to withdraw a large sum of money from a business in active operation; and many a night have I laid my head on my pillow after a day of toil, estimating and calculating If the time had yet arrived, when, with justice to those to whom I stood indebted, and without fear of embarrassment resulting, I might venture to carry out the purpose of my life. I have been accused of being ambitious; I have been charged with aspiring to the office of prime minister of this great country and of lending all my energies to the attainment of that end; but I only wish I could make my opponents understand how infinitely surpassing all this, how utterly petty and contemptible in my thoughts have been all such considerations, in comparison with the one longing desire to discharge those debts of honour and vindicate those Scottish principles that have been instilled into me since my youth. The honourable member for Cornwall [John Sandfield Macdonald] is well aware that every word I have spoken to-night has been long ago told him in private confidence, and he knows, too, that last summer I was rejoicing in the thought that I was at last in a position to visit my native land with the large sum necessary for all the objects I contemplated, and that I was only prevented from doing so by the financial storm which swept over the continent. Such, sir, are the circumstances upon which this attack is founded. Such the facts on which I have been denounced as a public defaulter and refugee from my native land. But why, asked the person who made the charge, has he sat silent under it? Why if the thing is false has he endured it so many years? What, sir, free myself from blame by inculpating one so dear ! Say ‘ It was not I who was in fault, it was my father’? Rather would I have lost my right arm than utter such a word! No, sir, I waited the time when the charge could be met as it only might be fittingly met; and my only regret even now is that I have been compelled to speak before those debts have been entirely liquidated. But it is due, sir, to my aged father that I explain that it has not been with his will that these imputations have been so long pointed at me, and that it has only been by earnest remonstrance that I have prevented his vindicating me in public long ere now. No man in Toronto, perhaps, is more generally known in the community, and I think I could appeal even to his political opponents to say if there is a citizen of Toronto at this day more thoroughly respected and esteemed. With a full knowledge of all that has passed, and all the consequences that have flowed from a day of weakness, I will say that an honester man does not breathe the air of heaven; that no son feels prouder of his father than I do to-day; and that I would have submitted to the obloquy and reproach of his every act, not fifteen years, but fifty—ay, have gone down to the grave with the cold shade of the world upon me, rather than that one of his gray hairs should have been injured.” Public opinion was strongly influenced in Mr. Brown’s favour by this incident. “The entire address,” said a leading Conservative paper next day,  “forms the most refreshing episode which the records of the Canadian House of Commons possess. Every true-hearted man must feel proud of one who has thus chivalrously done battle for his grayhaired sire. We speak deliberately when asserting that George Brown’s position in the country is at this moment immeasurably higher than it ever previously has been. And though our political creed be diametrically antipodal to his own, we shall ever hall him as a credit to the land we love so well.”


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