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Canadian Confederation and its Leaders
Sir Samuel Leonard Tilley



(1818-1896)

WHILE Upper Canada was all but unanimous for » » Confederation, and in Lower Canada Cartier was rapidly conquering opposition, down in the Maritime Provinces there was antagonism which almost paralyzed the whole movement. The burden of the battle for union in New Brunswick fell largely on Samuel Leonard Tilley, once an apothecary’s apprentice, later Premier of his Province, and destined to stand high in the councils of the new, wide Dominion. For his trying task, Tilley brought qualities of no ordinary strength. He was energetic, kindly, honest, gentlemanly, with scarcely an enemy in the world. He was a fluent, forceful speaker, with an attractive presence and a penetrating political judgment. He was a Puritan in principle and the first statesman in British North America to introduce a prohibitory liquor bill.

Tilley’s strong principles did not lessen his friends, for he had a saving sense of humor. When he was Finance Minister at Ottawa he carried his temperance practice into effect at his official dinners. But on one occasion, as the plum pudding was brought in, covered with a rich blue blaze, John Henry Pope, of Compton, one of the members present, said in a stage whisper:

“’Pon my word, I never saw ginger ale burn like that.”

Tilley joined in the roar of laughter that followed.

Isolated, unprotected and in need of liberal development, New Brunswick early felt the need of union. In 1853 when the first sod was turned for the railway from St. John to Shediac, the directors of the new line, addressing Sir Edmund Head, then Governor, expressed the hope that the British Provinces should become “a powerful and united portion of the British Empire.” Sir Edmund Head endorsed the sentiment and hoped the people of Canada and the Maritime Provinces would speedily realize that their interests were identical. The desire for railways was an abiding ambition for the Province, and the Intercolonial was one will-o’-the-wisp that hastened consideration of Confederation.

Tilley had been an approving listener in 1860 when Dr. Charles Tupper, lecturing in St. John, advocated a union of British North America. Two years later he attended the conference at Quebec regarding the Intercolonial Railway, and visited Upper Canada, when delegates informally urged a union of the Provinces. The Trent Affair, and the despatch to Canada of troops who had to be sent overland to Quebec on sleds in winter, enforced the need of a railway when the delegates from the various Provinces went later to England to seek Imperial aid. Despite the urgency of the plea of Tilley and Howe, terms were not agreed upon, and the project was delayed indefinitely. It became, however, a live issue at the Quebec Conference in 1864. Tilley, who had joined with Tupper in organizing the Charlottetown Conference for a Maritime union, was outspoken at Quebec on the railway question.

“The delegates from the Lower Provinces were not seeking this union,” he said at the banquet. “They had assembled at Charlottetown in order to see whether they could not extend their family relations, and then Canada intervened and the consideration of the larger question was the result.” Alluding to the Intercolonial Railway project he said: “We won’t have this union unless you give us the railway. It was utterly impossible we could hare either a political or commercial union without it.”

Tilley’s genius for finance was a factor in the formation of the resolutions at Quebec, and his attractive personality radiated good-will and won friends everywhere during the visit to Upper Canada. But there was an awakening when he returned to his own Province. He was not long at home before mischievous criticisms appeared. The secrecy of the Conference gave rise to many of the early misconceptions. A few days after the Charlottetown Conference closed the St. John Globe said:

“We should not be surprised to find that the federation meeting at Charlottetown will result in a ‘great fizzle.’ The doings of any convention or association that meets nowadays with closed doors rarely amount to anything in so far as they affect the public. The members of the convention made a great mistake in not inviting the press to attend their deliberations. They could have had very little to say that the public ought not to hear.”

Before November had ended it was clear that union was in for a stiff struggle in the Province. A formidable opposition was already growing up, and a number of the ablest papers in St. John were trying to turn the whole thing into ridicule. Tilley was already on the defence with a declaration that he would submit the question to the people. In a speech he pointed to the enlarged market the manufacturers of New Brunswick would have under union. He referred good-humoredly at St. John to the aspersions cast on Upper Canadian politicians, and said one would imagine that all at once the politicians of New Brunswick had become wonderfully pure and patriotic. He analyzed the financial aspects of the agreement, and declared their revenue under union would be equal to what they would derive from an increase of 200,000 in population under the old conditions. He was confident that Upper Canada could not carry out schemes for her own aggrandizement, for her 82 representatives would be opposed in such a case by 65 from Lower Canada and 47 from the Lower Provinces.

Nor were dangers from without forgotten by Mr. Tilley. He said he had nothing but the most kindly feelings towards the American people. “It was plain, however, that the English public, as well as the British Government, have felt for some time that our position with reference to the United States is not as satisfactory as it was in times past.” The low values of colonial securities also reflected the feeling of uncertainty of British capitalists with reference to the future destiny of British America, while Lord Stanley had declared that Canada was the most indefensible country in the world.

Hostility to the union scheme increased, fanned by resourceful opponents who did not want their own sphere of officialdom eclipsed. Early in March, 1865, the crash occurred. While the Confederation debate was in full swing at Quebec, the message came one day that Tilley’s Confederation Government, in the first of the Provinces affected to consult the people, had been defeated, having carried only 6 out of 41 seats. Unionists were staggered and anti-unionists took hope that they might yet overthrow the scheme then being forced through three legislatures. The alarm which had prevailed in the Maritime Provinces took on a more acrid form, and broadsides of abuse and misrepresentation were fired on the union cause. New Brunswick was afire with excitement and the country was overrun with pamphleteers and propagandists. The bogey of direct taxation was held before the people and gained much headway before the true nature of the resolutions could be presented. As in Nova Scotia, the electors were told that they had been sold to the Canadians for 80 cents per head, a reference, of course, to the subsidy of that amount which the Dominion would pay to the Provinces. It might have been said with as much truth that the Canadians had similarly been sold to New Brunswick.

As in the other small Provinces, the cause of union met obstacles inherent to the circumstances. The Legislature had authorized a conference on Maritime union; a larger union was proposed without consulting the electorate. Mr. Tilley had doubtless relied on his eloquence and power to carry a scheme which the people did not understand, and which appeared to be born of the political necessities of Canada. The Province would have additional taxation, the opponents said, and its political independence would be destroyed.

It was Tilley’s task to dissolve this vapor of ignorance and suspicion. This he did by a campaign of energy and persistence, covering almost every part of the Province. He was now a private citizen, he and all his colleagues having been defeated in the March elections. He was in the prime of manhood, his figure was attractive, his manner impressive and his voice convincing to a people misled by agitators and ready to learn.

“I will make a house-to-house canvass of the Province,” he declared, and he almost redeemed his threat. He appealed to the patriotism of the people as he went from county to county, telling of the desire of the motherland that union should be adopted. “Are you afraid?” he thundered, with his organ-like chest, to a hostile St. John audience, as he entered on the great campaign.

At this time the part of Arthur Hamilton Gordon (afterwards Lord Stranmore and uncle of the Earl of Aberdeen, recently Governor-General of Canada), Governor of New Brunswick, became a matter of importance. Gordon had opposed Confederation, but a visit to England gave him new light. Not long after the new Government of Albert J. Smith took office in 1865, the Colonial Secretary wrote this advice to Gordon:

“You will impress the strong and deliberate opinion of her Majesty’s Government that it is an object much to be desired that all the British North American colonies should agree to unite in one government.”

A series of events then promoted a revulsion of feeling. Dissension sprang up in the Smith-Hatheway Cabinet. The Legislative Council, led by Peter Mitchell, in reply to the Speech from the Throne, endorsed union, and Governor Gordon accepted this Address without consulting his advisers. The Cabinet had no course but to resign, their resolution being fortified by a threatened Fenian invasion and by defeat in an important by-election.

Governor Gordon, whose conduct has been criticized as contrary to the principles of responsible government, was now a firm friend of union and did not hesitate to stretch his powers to aid the cause. Lengthy correspondence took place between him and Premier A. J. Smith, in the course of which, writing on April 12, 1866, Gordon said:

“He has no doubt as to the course which it is his duty to pursue in obedience to his Sovereign’s commands and in the interests of the people of British North America. His Excellency may be in error, but he believes that a vast change has already taken place in the opinions held on the subject in New Brunswick. He fully anticipates that the House of Assembly will yet return a response to the communication made to them not less favorable to the principle of union than that given by the Upper House, and in any event he relies with confidence on the desire of a great majority of the people of the Province to aid in building up a powerful and prosperous nation under the sovereignty of the British Crown. To this verdict his Excellency is perfectly ready to appeal.”

Tilley watched the constitutional struggle from the cool shades of private life. He had been out of office for almost a year, but he was far from being out of touch. He had formed a warm friendship with John A. Macdonald, and on April 14, 1866, he wrote the Conservative leader an extended account of the situation. He told of the break-up of the Smith Government through the quarrel with Governor Gordon, and the appeal to the country by Smith against the Governor’s conduct in answering the Legislative Council’s Address in favor of union before he consulted with his advisers.

“Had the break-up occurred in any other way,” he said, “we could without doubt have put the Nova Scotia resolutions through this House and have a majority to sustain the new Administration. As it is, I see nothing before us but a general election, and we shall have to fight the Opposition upon less favorable ground than we would if the simple question of Confederation was at issue. The new Government will probably be formed to-day, and I suppose I must go into it, and fight it out upon the Confederate line.”

When the Smith Government resigned, the Governor called on Peter Mitchell to form a Cabinet. Though Mitchell was an active unionist, he advised the Governor that Tilley was the proper person to form an administration, but the latter declined on the ground that he was not a member of the Legislature. A Cabinet was then formed by Mitchell and R. D. Wilmot, with Tilley as Provincial Secretary. The aggressive campaign was continued, and the elections returned a large majority for Confederation, the popular vote being 55,665 for union and 33,767 against. The battle for Confederation was completed by the adoption of the Nova Scotia resolutions and the participation in the London Conference to frame the bill. In this Tilley had a part, though the delay in the arrival of the Canadian delegates was a trying incident. Union was undoubtedly hastened in New Brunswick by the Fenian scare, and was received in 1867 with more general approval than in Nova Scotia.

Tilley’s seventy-eight years of life epitomized the evolution of his Province. At his birth New Brunswick had but 50,000 people, and it was only 34 years since the Loyalist immigration reached the St. John Valley. Wooden buildings were universal, people cooked and warmed themselves by the open fireplace, homespun comprised everyone’s clothing, and farm implements showed little advance on a thousand years before. Tilley lived to see New Brunswick with over 300,000 inhabitants, its prosperous settlements bordering the coasts and rivers, but its interior still largely in possession of the lumberman and the moose. St. John had become an important ocean port, and progress in manufacturing kept pace with farming.

Tilley was born at Gagetown, a picturesque village on the St. John River, on May 8, 1818. His ancestors were Loyalists, his great-grandfather, Samuel Tilley, migrating from Long Island after the American Revolution. His father, Thomas Morgan Tilley, was a house joiner and builder. The youth attended the Gagetown Grammar School, and at 13, with soaring ambition, went to St. John, where he became an apprentice in Dr. Henry Cook’s drug store. A little later he entered the store of William O. Smith, a shrewd business man of public spirit, from whom he derived many political ideas. A smart, active and pleasing youth, he attracted attention and soon joined the St. John Young Men’s Debating Society, where, like many another public man, he had his first and most helpful training in public speaking. In 1837 he enlisted in the cause of temperance, and his prominence in this did much to draw him into politics later. The next year he entered a drug partnership, and so successful was his business life, in the growing port of St. John, that when he retired in 1855 he was wealthy. Tilley’s life-long belief in protection led him to support the candidature in 1849 of B. Ansley on a high tariff platform. The following year he was a foremost member of the New Brunswick Railway League, an organization formed as a protest against the Legislature’s failure to assist railways, and having a line from St. John to Shediac as its chief objective. In June of that year, after a useful municipal career, Tilley was elected to the Legislature during his absence from the city, and thereafter was never long free from public duties. Responsible government had just been won under the leadership of Lemuel A. Wilmot,* and a new era began.

It is unnecessary to trace the deviations of New Brunswick politics in the early years of Tilley’s public life. As in Canada, there were factions and defections during a period of shadowy party boundaries. After an absence of three sessions, Tilley was re-elected in 1854 and entered the first Liberal Government of the Province, that of Charles Fisher,t who was also a Father of Confederation. In 1855 Tilley, prematurely, as it proved, implemented his temperance beliefs by putting through a bill prohibiting the importation, manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquor.

Surveying the conditions from this distance, Tilley’s prohibition measure seems to have been the result of zeal rather than judgment. Those were the days of almost universal drinking. No social gathering was considered complete without it, and in that damp climate in the pioneer age, liquor was the “cure-all” for the ills of men. The square-rigged barques that carried timber to the seven seas returned with vinous and spirituous cargoes, the favorite being Jamaica rum from the West Indies. In 1838 the 120,000 people of New Brunswick consumed 312,298 gallons of rum, gin and whiskey and 64,579 gallons of brandy.

Tilley introduced his prohibition bill as a private member. It was first considered on March 19, and passed on the 27th. The narrow margin of 21 to 18 should have warned the promoter, but on the last day of the year the supposed end of the reign of King Alcohol was celebrated by the pealing of bells at midnight. It was not long before the law was seen to be a dead letter. There were 200 taverns in St. John and suburbs alone, and liquor continued to be sold. In a few months an unsympathetic Governor, H. T. Manners-Sutton, dissolved the Assembly, the- Government was defeated and the new Gray-Wilmot Ministry repealed the act. Fisher and Tilley gained power again in 1857 and enacted much advanced legislation, including vote by ballot, the enlargement of the franchise and quadrennial parliaments.

During his long public service Tilley was essentially the business man in politics. A man who could retire with a competency at 37 was one whose advice was sought by visionary and impractical politicians. His sound character and judgment put him in the forefront wherever he happened to be. He took part in the early conferences at Quebec regarding the Intercolonial Railway, the construction of which was greatly delayed by circumstances. He was an influential figure at the Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences, and helped frame the B.N.A. Act in London. When he had at length secured the adoption of union in his own Province he turned his hand to the cause elsewhere. As so often happens in personal intercourse, the contrast between him and John A. Macdonald made them fast friends. In 1867, when forming his Confederation Cabinet, Macdonald asked Tilley to join and to choose his own colleague from New Brunswick. He entered as Minister of Customs and took Peter Mitchell as Minister of Marine and Fisheries. An important part was played by Tilley in 1868 in reconciling Howe and Nova Scotia to union. Howe had just returned from his fruitless quest in Britain for repeal. Tilley , wrote Macdonald from Windsor, N.S., on July 17, that he had had breakfast with Howe and found him ready to consider Confederation if some concessions could be made.

“The reasonable men,” Tilley wrote, “want an excuse to enable them to hold back the violent and unreasonable of their own party, and this excuse ought to be given them.” He urged Macdonald to visit Nova Scotia at once, and said the nature of the concessions was not as important as the fact that concessions would be made.

“I am not an alarmist,” he added, “but the position can only be understood by visiting Nova Scotia. There is no use in crying peace when there is no peace. We require wise and prudent action at this moment; the most serious results may be produced by the opposite course.”

Macdonald was discerning enough to act upon this advice. He hastened to Halifax, made concessions to the anti-unionists, Howe joined his Cabinet, and serious trouble was avoided.

Though originally a Liberal and responsible for some advanced legislation, Tilley was now firmly established in the political family of Sir John Macdonald. From February until November, 1873, he was Minister of Finance, resigning to become Lieutenant-Governor of New Brunswick. The barefoot messenger boy of 1831 had come home in the trappings of a gilded governor, and he now had years of dignity and calm in his own Province. But the call of active politics was again to be heard and answered.

After Sir John Macdonald and Sir Charles Tupper had swept the Dominion in 1878. on the new National Policy platform, it fell to Tilley to introduce the new tariff. He had abandoned the ease and comfort of Government House at Fredericton to return to the hurly-burly of political life. He became Minister of Finance in the joyous home-comin’g of the Conservatives, and on March 14 following enunciated the National Policy. His three hours’ speech was somewhat dreary, as he lacked the magic to make figures glow, but it stands as the argument for the policy which has persisted ever since with little modification. He could refer with truth to the depressed conditions which then existed. In 1873, he said, he could point with pride and satisfaction to the increased capital of the banks and the large dividends they paid. “To-day, I regret to say, we must point to depreciated values and to small dividends. Then I could point to the general prosperity of the country. To-day we must all admit that it is greatly depressed.”

What was afterwards for years denounced by the Liberals as the “Red Parlor” had its origin at this time. This was the consultation between the Government and the manufacturers as to the amount of protection various industries ought to have.

“We have invited,” said Tilley, “gentlemen from all parts of the Dominion and representing all the interests in the Dominion, to assist us in the readjustment of the tariff, because we did not feel, though perhaps we possessed an average intelligence in ordinary government matters, we did not feel that we knew everything.” The Government was confronted at the time with falling revenues, for the ad valorem duties generally in force in Canada made the customs receipts drop as values fell. Tilley said he regretted the necessity for increased taxation, but promised that taxation would be heavier on goods from, foreign countries than from the mother country. So far as the United States was concerned he expressed no regret, for Canada had expected to lead them into better trade relations, but in vain. The new schedules, generally speaking, increased the rates from 1 lxk per cent, to 20 and even to 40 per cent. Tilley said he thought these “would be ample protection to all who are seeking it and who have a right to expect it.”

“The time has arrived, I think,” he said, “when it becomes our duty to decide whether the thousands of men throughout the length and breadth of this country who are unemployed shall seek employment in another country or shall find it in this Dominion; the time has arrived when we are to decide whether we shall be simply hewers of wood and drawers of water; whether we shall be simply agriculturists raising wheat, and lumbermen producing more lumber than we can use, or Great Britain and the United States will take from us at remunerative prices; whether we will confine ourselves to the fisheries and certain other small industries and cease to be what we have been, and not rise to what I believe we are destined to be under wise and judicious legislation—or whether we will inaugurate a policy that will by its provisions say to the industries of the country: We will give you sufficient protection; we will give you a market for what you can produce; we will say that while our neighbors built up a Chinese wall, we will impose a reasonable duty upon their products coming into this country; at all events, we will maintain for our agricultural and other products largely the market of our own Dominion. The time has certainly arrived when we must consider whether we will allow matters to remain as they are, with the result of being an unimportant and uninteresting portion of her Majesty’s Dominions, or will rise to the position which I believe Providence has destined us to occupy by means which, I believe, though I may be over-sanguine, which the country believes are calculated to bring prosperity and happiness to the people, to give employment to the thousands who are unemployed, and to make this a great and prosperous country, as all desire and hope it will be.”

Sir Leonard (he had been knighted in 1879) continued as Finance Minister until October 31, 1885, when failing vigor compelled him to resign as his “only chance of a measure of health and possibly a few more years of life.” He was again appointed Lieutenant-Governor of New Brunswick, and continued to hold office for almost eight years further. He was now the victim of an incurable disease, and when he finally lay down the reins he knew he had not many years to live. He went in and out among his people for three years more, respected and loved by the thousands to whom he was personally known and for whose welfare he had always been solicitous. In June, 1896, his illness took a fatal turn, and he passed away on the 25th. Just before he lost consciousness on the 23rd the first returns of the Dominion election which was to sweep his party from power were given him. At that moment they appeared favorable and the dying gladiator said: “I can go to sleep now; New Brunswick has done well.”

Thus passed a statesman whose life was an example and whose record was an inspiration. He was a lucid but not a brilliant speaker. He was a man of sense and judgment rather than emotion and display. He was honest and he ever looked for the good and noble in others. As New Brunswick’s foremost son he takes his place among the greatest of the builders of the new Dominion.


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