Search just our sites by using our customised site search engine


Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

George Brown
Chapter XXV - Conclusion


THE building in which the life of the Hon. George Brown was so tragically ended, was one that had been presented to him by the Reformers of Upper Canada before confederation “as a mark of the high sense entertained by his political friends of the long, faithful and important services which he has rendered to the people of Canada." It stood upon the north side of King Street, on ground which is now the lower end of Victoria Street, for the purpose of extending which, the building was demolished. The ground floor was occupied by the business office; on the next, looking out upon King Street, was Mr. Brown’s private office; and above that the rooms occupied by the editorial staff, with the composing room in the rear. At about half past four o’clock on the afternoon of March 25th, 1880, several of the occupants of the editorial rooms heard a shot, followed by a sound of breaking glass, and cries of “Helpl” and “Murder I” Among these were Mr. Avem Pardoe, now librarian of the legislative assembly of Ontario; Mr. Archibald Blue, now head of the census bureau at Ottawa; Mr. John A. Ewan, now leader writer on the Globe; and Mr. Allan S. Thompson, father of the present foreman of the Globe composing room. Mr. Ewan and Mr. Thompson were first to arrive on the scene. Following the direction from which the sounds proceeded, they found Mr. Brown on the landing, struggling with an undersized man, whose head was thrust into Brown’s breast. Mr. Ewan and Mr. Thompson seized the man, while Mr. Brown himself wrested a smoking pistol from his hand. Mr. Blue, Mr. Pardoe and others quickly joined the group, and Mr. Brown, though not apparently severely injured, was induced to lie on the sofa in his room, where his wound was examined. The bullet had passed through the outer side of the left thigh, about four inches downward and backward; it was found on the floor of the office.

The assailant was George Bennett, who had been employed in the engine room of the Globe for some years, and had been discharged for intemperance. Mr. Brown said that when Bennett entered the office he proceeded to shut the door behind him. Thinking the man’s movements singular, Mr. Brown stopped him and asked him what he w anted. Bennett, after some hesitation, presented a paper for Mr. Brown’s signature, saying that it was a statement that he had been employed in the Globe for five years. Mr. Brown said he should apply to the head of the department in which he was employed. Bennett said that the head of the department had refused to give the certificate. Mr. Brown then told him to apply to Mr. Henning, the treasurer of the company, who could furnish the information by examining his books.

Bennett kept insisting that Mr. Brown should sign the paper, and finally began to fumble in his pistol pocket, whereupon it passed through Mr. Brown’s mind “that the little wretch might be meaning to shoot me.” As he got the pistol out, Mr. Brown seized his wrist and turned his hand downward. After one shot had been fired, the struggle continued until the two got outside the landing, where they were found as already described.

The bullet had struck no vital part, and the wound was not considered to be mortal. But as week after week passed without substantial improvement, the anxiety of his friends and of the country deepened. At the trial the question was raised whether recovery had been prevented by the fact that Mr. Brown, against the advice of his physician, transacted business in his room. After the first eight or ten days there were intervals of delirium. Towards the end of April when the case looked very serious, Mr. Brown had a long conversation with the Rev. Dr. Greig, his old pastor, and with members of his family. “In that conversation,” says Air. Mackenzie, “he spoke freely to them of his faith and hope, and we are told poured out his soul in full and fervent prayer,” and he joined heartily in the singing of the hymn “Rock of Ages.” A few days afterwards he became unconscious; the physicians ceased to press stimulants or nourishment upon him, arid early on Sunday, May 10th, he passed away.

Bennett was tried and found guilty of murder on June 22nd following, and was executed a month afterwards. Though he caused the death of a man so conspicuous in the public life of Canada, his act is not to be classed with assassinations committed from political motives, or even from love of notoriety. On the scaffold he said that he had not intended to kill Mr. Brown. However this may be, it is certain that it was not any art of Mr. Brown’s that set up that process of brooding over grievances that had so tragic an ending. By misfortune and by drinking, a mind, naturally ill-regulated had been reduced to that condition in which enemies are seen on every hand. A paper was found upon him in which he set forth a maniacal plan of murdering a supposed enemy and concealing the remains in the furnace of the Globe building. That the original object of his enmity was not Mr. Brown is certain ; there was not the slightest ground for the suspicion that the victim was made to suffer for some enmity aroused in his strenuous career as a public man. Strange that after such a career he should meet a violent death at the hands of a man who was thinking solely of private grievances.

Tracing Mr. Brown’s career through a long period of history, by his public actions, his speeches, and the volumes of his newspaper, one arrives at a somewhat different estimate from that preserved in familiar gossip and tradition. That tradition pictures a man impulsive, stormy, imperious, bearing down by sheer force all opposition to his will. In the main it is probably true; but the printed record is also true, and out of the two we must strive to reproduce the man. We are told of a speech delivered with flashing eye, with gestures that seemed almost to threaten physical violence. We read the report of the speech and we find something more than the ordinary transition from warm humanity to cold print. There is not only freedom from violence, but there is coherence, close reasoning, a systematic marshalling of facts and figures and arguments. One might say of many of his speeches, as was said of Alexander Mackenzie's sentences, that he built them as he built a stone wall. His tremendous energy was not spasmodic, but was backed by solid industry, method and persistence.

As Mr. Bengougli said in a little poem published soon after Mr. Brown’s death,

“His nature was a rushing mountain stream; His faults but eddies which its swiftness bred.”

In his business as a journalist, he had not much of that philosophy which says that the daily difficulties of a newspaper are sure to solve themselves by the effusion of time. There are traditions of his impatience and his outbreaks of wrath when something went wrong, but there are traditions also of a kindness large enough to include the lad who carried the proofs to his house. Those who were thoroughly acquainted with the affairs of the office say that he was extremely lenient with employees who were intemperate or otherwise incurred blame, and that his leniency had been extended to Bennett. Intimate friends and political associates deny that he played the dictator, and say that he was genial and humorous in familiar intercourse. But it is, after all, a somewhat unprofitable task to endeavour to sit in judgment on the personal character of a public man, placing this virtue against that fault, and solemnly assuming to decide which side of the ledger exceeds the other. We have to deal with the character of Brown as a force in its relation to other forces, and to the events of the period of history covered by his career.

A quarter of a century has now elapsed since the death of George Brown and a still longer time since the most stirring scenes in his career were enacted. We ought therefore to be able to see him in something like his true relation to the history of his times. He came to Canada at a time when the notion of colonial self-government was regarded as a startling innovation. He found among the dominant class a curious revival of the famous Stuart doctrine, “No Bishop, no King;” hence the rise of such leaders, partly political and partly religious, as Bishop Strachan, among the Anglicans, and Dr. Ryerson, among the Methodists, the former vindicating and the latter challenging the exclusive privileges of the Anglican Church. There was room for a similar leader among Presbyterians, and in a certain sense this was the opportunity of George Brown. In founding first a Presbyterian paper and afterwards a political paper, he was following a line familiar to the people of his time. But while he had a special influence among Presbyterians, he appeared, not as claiming special privileges for them, but as the opponent of all privilege, fighting first the Anglican Church and afterwards the Roman Catholic Church, and asserting in each case the principle of the separation of Church and State.

For some years after Brown’s arrival in Canada, those questions in which politics and religion were blended were subordinated to a question purely political—colonial self-government. The atmosphere was not favourable to cool discussion. The colony had been in rebellion, and the passions aroused by the rebellion were always ready to burst into flame. French Canada having been more deeply stirred by the rebellion than Upper Canada, racial animosity was added there to party bitterness. The task of the Reformers was to work steadily for the establishment of a new order involving a highly important principle of government, and, at the same time, to keep the movement free from all suspicion of incitement to rebellion.

The leading figure of this movement is that of Robert Baldwin, and he was well supported by Hincks, by Sullivan, by William Hume Blake and others. The forces were wisely led. and it is not pretended that this direction was due to Brown. He was in 1844- only twenty-six years of age, and his position at first was that of a recruit. But he was a recruit of uncommon vigour and steadiness, and though he did not originate, be emphasized the idea of carrying on the fight on strictly constitutional and peaceful lines. His experience in New York and his deep hatred of slavery had strengthened by contrast his conviction that Great Britain was the citadel of liberty, and hence his utterances in favour of British connection were not conventional, but glowed with enthusiasm.

"With 1849 came the triumph of Reform, and the last despairing effort of the old regime, dying out with the dames of the parliament bui1 lings at Montreal. Now ensued a change in both parties. The one, exhausted and discredited by its fight against the inevitable coming of the new order, remained for a time weak and inactive, under a leader whose day was done. The other, in the very hour of victory, began to suffer disintegration. It had its Conservative element desiring to rest and be thankful, and its Radical element with aims not unlike those of Chartism in England. Brown stood for a time between the government and the Conservative element on the one side and the Clear Grits on the other. Disintegration was hastened by the retirement of Baldwin and Lafontaine. Then came the brief and troubled reign of Hincks; then a reconstruction of parties, with Conservatives under the leadership of Macdonald and Reformers under that of Brown.

The stream of politics between 1854 and 1864 is turbid; there is pettiness, there is bitterness, there is confusion. But away from this turmoil the province is growing in population, in wealth, in all the elements of civilization. Upper Canada especially is growing by immigration; it overtakes and passes Lower Canada in population, and thus arises the question of representation by population. Brown takes up this reform in representation as a means of freeing Upper Canada from the domination of the Lower Province. He becomes the “favourite son” of Upper Canada. His rival, through his French-Canadian alliance, meets him with a majority from Lower Canada; and so, for several years, there is a period of equally balanced parties and weak governments, eroding in dead-lock.

If Brown’s action had only broken this dead-lock, extricated some struggling politicians from difficulty, and allowed the ordinary business of government to proceed, it might have deserved only passing notice. But more than that was involved. The difficulty was inherent in the system. The legislative union was Lord Durham’s plan of assimilating the races that he had found “ warring in the bosom of a single state.” The plan had failed. The line of cleavage was as sharply defined as ever. The ill-assorted union had produced only strife and misunderstanding. Vet to break the tie when new duties and new dangers had emphasized- the necessity for union seemed to be an act of folly. To federalize the union was to combine the advantage of common action with liberty to each community to work out its own ideals in education, municipal government and all other matters of local concern. More than that, to federalize the union was to substitute for a rigid bond a bond elastic enough to allow of expansion, eastward to the Atlantic and westward to the Pacific. That principle which has been called provincial rights, or provincial autonomy, might be described more accurately and comprehensively as federalism; and it is the basic principle of Canadian political institutions, as essential to unity as to peace and local freedom.

The feeble, isolated and distracted colonies of 1864 have given place to a commonwealth which, if not in strictness a nation, possesses all the elements and possibilities of nationality, with a territory open on three sides to the ocean, lying ,n the highway of the world’s commerce, and capable of supporting a population as large as that of the British Islands. Confederation was the first and greatest step in that process of expansion, and it is speaking only words of truth and soberness to say that confederation will rank among the landmarks of the world’s history, and that its importance v ill not decline but will increase as history throws events into their true perspective. It is in his association with confederation, with the events that led up to confederation, and with the addition to Canada of the vast and fertile plains of the West, that the life of George Brown is of interest to the student of history.

Brown was not only a member of parliament and an actor in the political drama, but was the founder of a newspaper, and for thirty-six years the source of its inspiration and influence. As a journalist he touched life at many points. He was a man of varied interests—railways, municipal affairs, prison reform, education, agriculture, all came within the range of his duty as a journalist and his interest and sympathy as a man. Those stout-hearted men who amid all the wrangling and intrigue of the politicians were turning the wilderness of Canada into a garden, gave to Brown in large measure their confidence and affection. He, on his part, valued their friendship more than any victory that could be won in the political game. That was the standard by which he always asked to be judged. This story of his life may help to show that he was true to the trust they reposed in him, and to the principles that were the standards of his political conduct, to government by the people, to free institutions, to religious liberty and equality, to the unity and progress of the confederation of which he was one of the builders.


Return to Book Index Page

This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus