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Canadian Confederation and its Leaders
Sir Charles Tupper



(1821-1915)

SIR CHARLES TUPPER was a statesman of vision and a party general of audacity. His name recalls thunder on the hustings, strength to wavering Cabinet Ministers, and a will to see-it-through in any cause he undertook. He initiated and carried Confederation in a rebellious Nova Scotia, he promoted the National Policy in the Dominion, he fathered and defended the Canadian Pacific Railway through perilous years of obstruction. No Canadian politician has had more hard, disagreeable tasks, but to each he brought a dashing courage which usually swept all before it. For fifty years he was a storm-centre in politics, and no matter how threatening the gale, he braced his feet, like a fisherman bound for the Grand Banks, and faced the danger without flinching. No speaker could still him, no audience terrify this veteran of a hundred battles. Now he used a stream of invective, again he tripped an enemy with fox-like cunning. He lived and thrived in an age of strong words. Nova Scotians were wearying of ornate orators, and his energy and bluster were as invigorating as a northwest wind. His deadly earnestness carried weight, his fighting manner roused friends and cowed his more meek opponents.

“I have been defeated by the future leader of the Conservative party,” said Joseph Howe in 1855, when the young country doctor carried Cumberland for the Assembly. From then until his death, sixty years later, Charles Tupper was never long from sight. Conservatives linked him with Macdonald for his capacity and his achievements. Liberals hated and denounced him for his egotism and his political methods, but they never ignored him. As party feeling subsides, his foresight and resolution, his devotion to national and Imperial causes, win praise from every party.

“In my judgment,” said Sir Wilfrid Laurier in 1916, “the chief characteristic of Tupper was courage; courage which no obstacle could down, which rushed to the assault, and which, if repulsed, came back to the combat again and again; courage which battered and hammered, perhaps not always judiciously, but always effectively; courage which never admitted defeat, and which in the midst of overwhelming disaster ever maintained the proud carriage of unconquerable defiance.”

J. A. Macdonald and Charles Tupper first met at the Confederation Conferences in 1864. They became firm friends, and until the former’s death constantly co-operated and supplemented each other. When Nova Scotia refused the Quebec resolutions it was Tupper’s duty to win over his Province. It was a three years’ task, but he never hesitated. When the Macdonald Government staggered under the Pacific Scandal charges in 1873, Tupper rushed to the defence in a lengthy speech, and persuaded Macdonald not to resign the leadership. In 1880 he joined in negotiating the Canadian Pacific contract, and when its prodigality was attacked he was its most unreserved defender. In December, 1883, Sir John cabled Sir Charles, who was then in London: “Pacific in trouble: you should be here.” Next morning came the reply: “Sailing on Thursday.” In 1886 Sir John heard unfavorable news of the political outlook in Nova Scotia, and wrote: “I cannot too strongly urge upon you the absolute necessity of your coming out at once, and do not like to contemplate the evil consequences of your failing to do so.” Sir John’s last Macedonian cry was in January, 1891, when he cabled: “Your presence during election contest in Maritime Provinces essential to encourage our friends. Please come. Answer.” The war horse promptly responded, and in a few days “walked down the gangplank at New York with his usual springy step.”

“After me the deluge,” Sir John Macdonald had said, and despite a pervading feeling for years that at his death Tupper would take the leadership, this was not the case. His hour came in the crisis of his party in 1896, when the Orangemen rose against the Remedial Bill of Sir Mackenzie Bowell’s Government, for the benefit of the Roman Catholics of Manitoba. Tupper, summoned from England to take the Premiership at seventy-five, dashed into the fray like a regiment of cavalry. He faced a frightened Cabinet just recovering from wholesale resignations, and met storms of “boos” from audiences of once subservient Conservatives. In Toronto, he fought for hours with a turbulent crowd who refused a hearing in that party stronghold. The Government was defeated by the Liberals under Wilfrid Laurier. Tupper lingered four years as Opposition leader, when, after another defeat, he sought the repose he had well earned.

It is significant that a political career so marked by stress should have begun in storm. Most of us can recall some red-headed boy who was always in a fight if there was one. Charles Tupper had a genius for either finding or making a political squabble. In March, 1852, he entered the campaign in Cumberland in support of T. A. De Wolfe. His first speech, at a little rural meeting, was so impressive that he was persuaded to make De Wolfe’s nomination speech the next day. Here a dispute took place as to who should speak first, the nominators or the candidates. An unseemly row followed, lasting for an hour, in which young Tupper took his full part. Joseph Howe was one of the opposing candidates, and the warfare which then began lasted for nearly twenty years.

It is a matter of surprise that when Tupper entered the political arena, and for twenty years afterwards, he was exceedingly nervous before rising to speak, though his timidity soon left him once he was on his feet. “I did not sleep much that night,” he wrote of the hours preceding that first nomination speech, “and was so nervous the next morning that I threw up my breakfast on the way to the corner where the nomination was to take place.”

Tupper and Howe had met just previously under peculiar circumstances. Dr. George Johnson, afterwards Dominion Statistician, related in the Halifax Herald in 1909 that the future rivals both happened in his father’s house one night. When nine o’clock arrived the elder Johnson, as was his custom, conducted family worship. The visitors knelt with the household and heard the devout host invoke “the blessing of heaven upon the two strangers within the gate, and ask that they might be animated with a strong sense of duty in their public life.”

Tupper at this time was a busy and prosperous country doctor, with a decided aptitude for politics. He had been born in Amherst, July 2, 1821, of Puritan stock which emigrated from England to America in 1635, and from Connecticut to Cornwallis, N.S., in 1763, taking possession of land vacated by Acadians expelled in 1755. Charles was a precocious youth, and relates of his own childhood: “I do not remember when I commenced the study of Latin, but when I was seven years old I had read the whole Bible aloud to my father.” He had the same self-confidence and pugnacity that marked his later years, and in his journal describes a combat with the mate of a schooner who smoked to the windward of the youth. The mate was laid up for three days.

Young Tupper’s medical education in Edinburgh was thorough, and he was soon firmly established as a local practitioner. “In person,” says Edward Manning Saunders, “he was of medium height, straight, muscular, wiry and had intense nervous energy, which gave him quickness of movement and ceaseless mental activity. ... In his sleigh, carriage or saddle, he went from place to place, sometimes in deep and drifted snow, and at other times in mud more difficult than the worst snow drifts. In twelve years of practice before he was called into the sphere of politics, mountainous obstacles became a level plain and toil and exposure the highest enjoyment.”

Fortune decreed that the practice of medicine, for which the young doctor was so well fitted, was to play a small part in his life. After 1855 he was in politics to stay, and save a few years in Toronto, when in Opposition in the ’seventies, he gave little time to his profession.

Tupper’s rise in Nova Scotia politics was of that rapid character that marks a strong personality of a fresh cast of mind. His defeat of Howe in Cumberland in 1855 astounded the Province, and cast the first shadow over the future of that popular idol, the man whom Sir Wilfrid Laurier has described as “the most potent influence in Nova Scotia, and perhaps the brightest impersonation of intellect that ever adorned the halls of the Canadian Legislature.” The Conservative leader, J. W. Johnstone,! was advancing in years and wished to retire. He was ready to give Tupper his post, but to this the young doctor would not listen. They compromised by Johnstone remaining leader and Tupper doing most of the work. In his first session at Halifax in 1856, Tupper spoke out boldly and declared:

“I did not come here to play the game of follow my leader. I did not come here the representative of any particular party, bound to vote contrary to my own convictions, but to perform honestly and fearlessly, to the best of my ability, my duty to my country.”

In his first month in the Assembly the Opposition strength rose from 15 to 22. Thenceforward he was in the muddy stream of Nova Scotia politics,- with its perplexing local issues, until the Confederation movement loomed up, largely at his own bidding, to overshadow all other topics. From this party’s defeat in 1859 to their return to office in 1863 Tupper maintained a running fire of attack on the Government. On his return to office he introduced and passed in 1864 a measure of permanent value, providing for compulsory education in Nova Scotia.

Confederation was too large and complicated a movement to be the creation of any one man. It was the result of a combination of men and circumstances. In its accomplishment, Tupper ranks with Brown, Macdonald and Cartier, and in giving it its first concrete impetus he stands alone. Premier Johnstone of Nova Scotia, with his fellow delegates, had discussed the subject with Lord Durham at Quebec in 1838. Johnstone had submitted a scheme for union to the Nova Scotia Assembly in 1854. Charles Tupper, lecturing at St. John in 1860, had favored a union of the British North American Provinces, even going so far as to include the Red River and Saskatchewan country. Tupper’s opportunity for action came in 1864, when, as Premier of Nova Scotia, he put through the Assembly a resolution favoring a conference at Charlottetown regarding a union of the Maritime Provinces, a policy he had also advocated in his St. John lecture. This was adopted a few weeks before George Brown’s committee had reported at Quebec in favor of a federative system, either for Canada or all the colonies. It was followed in August by a visit to the Maritime Provinces by a party of Canadian legislators, invited by Dr. Tupper on the suggestion of Sandford Fleming, engineer for the Intercolonial Railway.

Looking back at this trickling brook of national consciousness, it is interesting to recall the vision and sense of difficulties felt by so potent a Father of Confederation.

“I do not rise,” said Tupper, in moving for the Charlottetown Conference, “for the purpose of bringing before you the subject of the union of the Maritime Provinces, but rather to propose to you their reunion.

. . . Whilst I believe that the union of the Maritime Provinces and Canada, of all British America, under one government would be desirable if it were practicable—I believe that to be a question which far transcends in its difficulties .the power of any human advocacy to accomplish—I am not insensible to the feeling that the time may not be far distant when events which are far more powerful than any human advocacy may place British America in a position to render a union into one compact whole, may not only render 250 -such a union practicable, but absolutely necessary. I need hardly tell you that contiguous to this there is a great Power, with whom the prevailing sentiment has long been—

“‘No pent-up Utica contracts our powers,
For the whole boundless continent is ours.’

This has long been the fundamental principle which has animated the Republic of America.”

Dr. Tupper then raised a point which had an increasing influence in solidifying opinion for Confederation, and that was the danger from the disbanding armies in the United States as the Civil War closed.

“I am satisfied,” he concluded, “that looking to emigration, to the elevation of public credit, to the elevation of public sentiment which must arise from enlarging the sphere of action, the interests of these Provinces require that they should be united under one government and legislature. It would tend to decrease the personal element in our political discussions, and to rest the claims of our public men more upon the advocacy of public questions than it is possible at the present moment whilst these colonies are so limited in extent.” Canada, too, had caught the infection of national consciousness and sent her delegates to the conference at Charlottetown. The air was charged with a feeling of national change. The Civil War was near its end, the reciprocity treaty with the United States was unlikely to be renewed, and the British American Provinces looked toward each other with yearning and dependence. The Charlottetown Conference adjourned to Quebec to consider a larger union, pausing on the way for several public meetings. At Halifax, Tupper, presiding at a banquet to the visiting delegates, said he was “perhaps safe in saying that no more momentous gathering of public men has ever taken place in these Provinces.”

The same sense of great impending events marked the utterances at Quebec. “From the time,” said Dr. Tupper, replying to a toast to the Nova Scotia delegates, “when the immortal Wolfe decided on the Plains of Abraham the destiny of British America, to the present, no event has exceeded in importance or magnitude the one which is now taking place in this ancient and famous city.”

Going on, he discussed the necessity for Canada to have all year round access to the sea. “Why is it,” he asked, “that the Intercolonial Railway is not a fact? It is because, being divided, that which is the common interest of these colonies has been neglected; and when it is understood that the construction of the work is going to give Canada that which is so essential to her, its importance will be understood, not only in connection with your political greatness, but also in connection with your commercial interests, as affording increased means of communication with the Lower Provinces. For the inexhaustible resources of the great West will flow down the St. Lawrence to Quebec, and from there to the magnificent harbors of Halifax and St. John, open at all seasons of the year.”

These were brave prophetic words, but it was not until 1876 that the Intercolonial was opened. It has since borne avalanches of criticism for its burden of political place-hunters, its easy-going management, and its deficits, but it cemented national sentiment, and in the great war opening in 1914 its usefulness as the only winter outlet for overseas troops abundantly justified its construction as a national enterprise.

It was an easy matter to agree to the union scheme at Quebec, but the testing of Tupper and his colleagues came on their return to Nova Scotia. No torch-light processions awaited them; only sullen politicians and people, who were soon to be inflamed to the verge of rebellion by Howe, Annand and others. It was a long, stubborn battle, and its complete success for union was a matter of years. Tupper was cunning enough to devote his energies in the Legislature to other topics, and on union, like Bre’r Fox, he “lay low.” Not until 1866 was there opportunity to press for a vote. Then, on the defection of William Miller from the antis, he made bold to move for a conference with the Imperial authorities on a scheme more favorable to Nova Scotia than that framed at Quebec. New Brunswick, which had been faltering, came over to the union cause. Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland had definitely withdrawn, but Canada joined the two Maritime Provinces in the Conference in London, when the Confederation Act was drafted. Tupper was one of the delegates, but he returned to find opposition to union unabated among the people.

The campaign in the summer of 1867 was marked on June 4 by a historic joint debate at Truro between Howe and Tupper. Their utterances were recorded in shorthand by arrangement, and the record of this battle of giants recalls the great Lincoln-Douglas debate across the border a few years earlier. Howe and Tupper spoke at length, and crystalized the arguments on both sides. Howe, speaking first, engaged in good-natured banter, and though he may have pleased his hearers, his words were not strong, as a set of arguments for his side. He was on his defence for his own advocacy of union, but with a light hand he brushed this aside:

“A man might discuss the question whether he would marry a girl or not, but that would not subject him to an action for breach of promise if he had never actually promised to marry her.”

Tupper was more serious and more logical. He met his opponent largely by quoting Howe’s earlier declarations. He illuminated his rival’s opposition to Confederation when he said:

“Mr. Howe is possessed of an eloquence second to no man, but it is his misfortune that he can follow nobody, however wise or judicious a measure may be. He cannot give his assistance to any great question unless he is at the head promoting it. Day after day he had pledged himself not only to the principles but to the details of union; but when he saw it was to be accomplished by his opponents, he is found in the foremost ranks of its opponents.”

Confederation Day came, even in Nova Scotia, and there, despite the opposition of the majority of the people, such a motto as this appeared in a window of St. Mary’s Globe House: “Yesterday a provincial town; to-day a continental city.” Sir John A. Macdonald had announced his Cabinet, after a most trying experience in reconciling all Provinces and races, and almost giving up and advising that George Brown be called on. Dr. Tupper was not in the Cabinet, and he made his own explanation that day in Halifax:

“In order to form a strong union Government, combining the Reformers and Conservatives of Ontario, the Catholics and Protestants of Quebec, and the Liberals and Conservatives of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, my friend, Mr. McGee, and I requested that the Hon. Edward Kenny, the President of the Legislative Council, should be substituted in our stead, and had the pleasure of seeing that arrangement effected.”

There was no room for doubt as to Nova Scotia sentiment when the Dominion elections in September, 1867, resulted in the return of only one union candidate in the Province. This was Tupper himself, who defeated William Annand, Howe’s chief lieutenant. The battle was renewed at Ottawa early in 1868 when Howe and Tupper presented their case to the House of Commons. Suddenly Howe joined Annand and other Nova Scotians in a mission to London to press for the repeal of union. Tupper followed, resigning the Chairmanship of the Intercolonial Board in order to be free from obligation to Ottawa, and faced Howe in London. His argument that the Imperial authorities were for the union, that the agitation could not succeed, that Nova Scotia could not get along without Federal assistance, weakened Howe’s resolution. Howe and Tupper returned together, and played shuffle-board, amiably, with Howe’s associates looking on anxiously. Once in Canada, Tupper enlisted the hand of Sir John Macdonald, master diplomat, and in a few weeks Howe was won over by the promise of better terms, and early in 1869 joined the Dominion Cabinet. Tupper piloted Howe, broken in health, through the Hants by-election. Three years later Howe and Tupper, working together at last, swept Nova Scotia completely, not an opponent of the Ottawa Government being returned. On the surface the union cause had its ultimate triumph.

“It is not too much to say,” says Sir Robert L. Borden of Tupper, “that if he had been a man of less invincible courage and determination, the project of Confederation might have been postponed for many years.”

Nova Scotia’s “little Napoleon” was not long in Federal politics before his influence was felt. His natural pugnacity and initiative carried him along in the House, while Sir John Macdonald soon learned to lean heavily upon him, though he was not yet in the Cabinet. In 1870 he launched the idea of the National Policy, which was later adopted by the Conservative party, and which with variations has remained in effect to this day. He asked the House if it was advantageous for Canada to long remain in its present humiliating attitude with regard to trade relations with the United States.

“Should we allow the best interests of the country to be sacrificed,” he said, “or uphold a bold national policy which would promote the best interests of all classes and fill our treasury? . . . Whoever read the discussions of Congress would see that all we had to do was to assume a manly attitude on that great question in order to obtain free trade with the United States. But suppose they resented that retaliatory policy? The result would be hardly less satisfactory than a reciprocity treaty. It would increase the trade between the Provinces, stimulate intercourse between the different sections of our people, and promote the prosperity of the whole Dominion. Such a question should be fully considered, for it affected the most important interests of the country, and, properly dealt with, would diffuse wealth and prosperity throughout the Dominion.”

So impressed was Sir John Macdonald that he at once took Tupper into the Cabinet as President of the Council.

But the National Policy was not to be adopted by the country for eight years. In 1873 the Macdonald Government fell, as a result of the Pacific Scandal exposure, and were out of office until 1878. Tupper, who was not compromised in any way by the charges, was a valiant defender of the Ministry, and when Lord Dufferin, then Governor-General, asked Sir John Macdonald to resign, Tupper, in a characteristic interview, secured a reversal of that request. His own version of this meeting is as follows:

“I called upon Lord Dufferin, who said: ‘I suppose, Doctor, Sir John has told you what I have said to him,’ and was answered in the affirmative. Lord Dufferin said: ‘Well, what do you think about it?’ I said, ‘I think your Lordship has made the mistake of your life. To-day you enjoy the confidence of all parties as the representative of the Queen. To-morrow you will be denounced as the head of a party by the Conservative press all over Canada for having intervened during a discussion in Parliament and thrown your weight against your Government. Nor will you be able to point to any precedent for such action under British parliamentary practice.’

“Lord Dufferin said: ‘What would you advise?’ I replied: ‘That you should at once cable the position to the Colonial Office and ask advice.’ That was done. Lord Dufferin sent for Sir John Macdonald at two o’clock that night, and withdrew his demand for the resignation of the Government.”

The period which followed was one of low fortunes for the Conservative party. Sir John Macdonald, flung from the heights reached by his success in the Washington treaty in 1872, was overwhelmed and eager to resign from the leadership. It was the buoyancy of Tupper that revived him and induced him to remain head of the party. Both men removed to Toronto, Macdonald to take up law, living in the “Premier’s house” in St. George Street,—afterwards successively the home of Oliver Mowat and A. S. Hardy, Premiers of Ontario— and Tupper to give attention to his neglected profession of medicine. Between whiles they “mended their political fences,” and were soon in more cheerful mood.

According to James Young, who was then in the House of Commons, a remarkable incident occurred in 1876. When the Liberal Budget was presented, the Conservatives expected a higher tariff, and were prepared in their criticism to take the opposite policy. Mr. Mackenzie’s version, as quoted by Mr. Young, that night, after the Premier had been over chaffing Tupper, was as follows:

“‘I went over to banter him a little on his speech, which I jokingly alleged was a capital one considering that he had been loaded up on the other side. He regarded this as a good joke and frankly admitted to me that he had entered the House under the belief that the Government intended to raise the tariff, and fully prepared to take up the opposite line of attack!’”

Tupper was equal to the emergency, and in the remaining years of Opposition was a merciless critic of Sir Richard Cartwright, then Finance Minister. The Conservatives gradually gained ground, through the widespread financial depression, the poor generalship of the Government, and the hope the high tariff aroused among the people. Sir John Macdonald was not long in power before the Canadian Pacific Railway project took a new and definite form. Sir Charles Tupper (who had been knighted in 1879), as Minister of Railways, recommended a definite plan in June, 1880, following which Macdonald, J. H. Pope and himself visited England and arranged with a syndicate for the construction of the transcontinental line on payment of $25,000,000 and 25,000,000 acres of land. In presenting the agreement to the House for ratification late that year, Tupper said:

“We should be traitors to ourselves and to our children if we should hesitate to secure, on terms such as we have the pleasure of submitting to Parliament, the construction of this work, which is going to develop all the enormous resources of the Northwest, and to pour into that country a tide of population which will be a tower of strength to every part of Canada, a tide of industrious and intelligent men who will not only produce national as well as individual wealth in that section of the Dominion, but will create such a demand for the supplies which must come from the older Provinces as will give new life and vitality to every industry in which those Provinces are engaged.”

It fell now to the Liberals to play the role of Faintheart. Edward Blake said the project was “not only fraught with great danger but certain to prove disastrous to the future of this country,” while Sir Richard Cartwright considered the bill “simply as a monument of folly.” Meetings were held in the country, Tupper following Blake from place to place a night later, but the bill passed, and the railway was completed by 1885, but not without mountainous financial difficulties, which at times threatened disaster.

Sir Charles Tupper’s later public services were as Canadian High Commissioner in England, where he served almost continuously from 1884 to 1896. His aggressive and energetic temperament found play in uncounted avenues of usefulness. He returned to Canada in 1891, while still High Commissioner, to speak against the Liberal policy of reciprocity with the; United States, and for his partisanship was severely criticized by his opponents. He was not chosen to succeed Sir John Macdonald in 1891, and he has declared that he would not take the position. Writing to his son, C. H. Tupper, from Vienna, on June 4, 1891, on hearing Sir John was dying, he said:

“You know I told you long ago, and repeated to you when last in Ottawa, that nothing could induce me to accept the position in case the Premiership became vacant. I told you that Sir John looked up wearily from his papers, and.said to me: ‘I wish to God you were in my place,’ and that I answered: ‘Thank God I am not.’ He afterwards, well knowing my determination, said he thought Thompson, as matters now stood, was the only available man.”

When Tupper responded to the call of the Premiership in 1896, in his party’s extremity, he was an old but still a courageous man. He placed his party under one more debt for his unhesitating service. Even in 1900, in his last campaign, at the age of 79, he dashed from meeting to meeting with the constancy of a beginner. Defeat doubtless came to him as a relief, for on election night he bade his circle of friends in Halifax to be of good cheer: “Do not let a trifling matter like this interfere with the pleasures of a social evening.” The last entry in his journal for that day said significantly: “I went to bed and slept soundly.”

Sir Charles lived until October 30, 1915. The sunset of his life in England was brightened by the tributes and allegiance of friends in both parties. He had fought valiantly in the days of Canada’s builders. His loyalty to his country was only equalled by his loyalty to his party. His last years were varied by occasional visits to Canada. In 1912 he laid at rest, in Nova Scotia, Lady Tupper, formerly Florence Morse of Amherst, his, happy helpmeet during sixty-six years of struggle. The world had entered the crucible of a vast war, and the Dominion saw ahead a new era for which the Confederation period was but the foundation, when a battleship bore his remains to his native land.


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