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Lord Elgin
Chapter I - Early Career

The Canadian people have had a varied experience in governors appointed by the imperial state. At the very commencement of British rule they were so fortunate as to find at the head of affairs Sir Guy Carleton--afterwards Lord Dorchester--who saved the country during the American revolution by his military genius, and also proved himself an able civil governor in his relations with the French Canadians, then called "the new subjects," whom he treated in a fair and generous spirit that did much to make them friendly to British institutions. On the other hand they have had military men like Sir James Craig, hospitable, generous, and kind, but at the same time incapable of understanding colonial conditions and aspirations, ignorant of the principles and working of representative institutions, and too ready to apply arbitrary methods to the administration of civil affairs. Then they have had men who were suddenly drawn from some inconspicuous position in the parent state, like Sir Francis Bond Head, and allowed by an apathetic or ignorant colonial office to prove their want of discretion, tact, and even common sense at a very critical stage of Canadian affairs. Again there have been governors of the highest rank in the peerage of England, like the Duke of Richmond, whose administration was chiefly remarkable for his success in aggravating national animosities in French Canada, and whose name would now be quite forgotten were it not for the unhappy circumstances of his death.[1] Then Canadians have had the good fortune of the presence of Lord Durham at a time when a most serious state of affairs imperatively demanded that ripe political knowledge, that cool judgment, and that capacity to comprehend political grievances which were confessedly the characteristics of this eminent British statesman. Happily for Canada he was followed by a keen politician and an astute economist who, despite his overweening vanity and his tendency to underrate the ability of "those fellows in the colonies"--his own words in a letter to England--was well able to gauge public sentiment accurately and to govern himself accordingly during his short term of office. Since the confederation of the provinces there has been a succession of distinguished governors, some bearing names famous in the history of Great Britain and Ireland, some bringing to the discharge of their duties a large knowledge of public business gained in the government of the parent state and her wide empire, some gifted with a happy faculty of expressing themselves with ease and elegance, and all equally influenced by an earnest desire to fill their important position with dignity, impartiality, and affability.

But eminent as have been the services of many of the governors whose memories are still cherished by the people of Canada, no one among them stands on a higher plane than James, eighth earl of Elgin and twelfth earl of Kincardine, whose public career in Canada I propose to recall in the following narrative. He possessed to a remarkable degree those qualities of mind and heart which enabled him to cope most successfully with the racial and political difficulties which met him at the outset of his administration, during a very critical period of Canadian history. Animated by the loftiest motives, imbued with a deep sense of the responsibilities of his office, gifted with a rare power of eloquent expression, possessed of sound judgment and infinite discretion, never yielding to dictates of passion but always determined to be patient and calm at moments of violent public excitement, conscious of the advantages of compromise and conciliation in a country peopled like Canada, entering fully into the aspirations of a young people for self-government, ready to concede to French Canadians their full share in the public councils, anxious to build up a Canadian nation without reference to creed or race--this distinguished nobleman must be always placed by a Canadian historian in the very front rank of the great administrators happily chosen from time to time by the imperial state for the government of her dominions beyond the sea. No governor-general, it is safe to say, has come nearer to that ideal, described by Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton, when secretary of state for the colonies, in a letter to Sir George Bowen, himself distinguished for the ability with which he presided over the affairs of several colonial dependencies. "Remember," said Lord Lytton, to give that eminent author and statesman his later title, "that the first care of a governor in a free colony is to shun the reproach of being a party man. Give all parties, and all the ministries formed, the fairest play.... After all, men are governed as much by the heart as by the head. Evident sympathy in the progress of the colony; traits of kindness, generosity, devoted energy, where required for the public weal; a pure exercise of patronage; an utter absence of vindictiveness or spite; the fairness that belongs to magnanimity: these are the qualities that make governors powerful, while men merely sharp and clever may be weak and detested."

In the following chapters it will be seen that Lord Elgin fulfilled this ideal, and was able to leave the country in the full confidence that he had won the respect, admiration, and even affection of all classes of the Canadian people. He came to the country when there existed on all sides doubts as to the satisfactory working of the union of 1840, suspicions as to the sincerity of the imperial authorities with respect to the concession of responsible government, a growing antagonism between the two nationalities which then, as always, divided the province. A very serious economic disturbance was crippling the whole trade of the country, and made some persons--happily very few in number--believe for a short time that independence, or annexation to the neighbouring republic, was preferable to continued connection with a country which so grudgingly conceded political rights to the colony, and so ruthlessly overturned the commercial system on which the province had been so long dependent. When he left Canada, Lord Elgin knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that the two nationalities were working harmoniously for the common advantage of the province, that the principles of responsible government were firmly established, and that the commercial and industrial progress of the country was fully on an equality with its political development.

The man who achieved these magnificent results could claim an ancestry to which a Scotsman would point with national pride. He could trace his lineage to the ancient Norman house of which "Robert the Bruce"--a name ever dear to the Scottish nation--was the most distinguished member. He was born in London on July 20th, 1811. His father was a general in the British army, a representative peer in the British parliament from 1790-1840, and an ambassador to several European courts; but he is best known to history by the fact that he seriously crippled his private fortunes by his purchase, while in the East, of that magnificent collection of Athenian art which was afterwards bought at half its value by the British government and placed in the British Museum, where it is still known as the "Elgin Marbles." From his father, we are told by his biographer,[2] he inherited "the genial and playful spirit which gave such a charm to his social and parental relations, and which helped him to elicit from others the knowledge of which he made so much use in the many diverse situations of his after life." The deep piety and the varied culture of his mother "made her admirably qualified to be the depository of the ardent thoughts and aspirations of his boyhood." At Oxford, where he completed his education after leaving Eton, he showed that unselfish spirit and consideration for the feelings of others which were the recognized traits of his character in after life. Conscious of the unsatisfactory state of the family's fortunes, he laboured strenuously even in college to relieve his father as much as possible of the expenses of his education. While living very much to himself, he never failed to win the confidence and respect even at this youthful age of all those who had an opportunity of knowing his independence of thought and judgment. Among his contemporaries were Mr. Gladstone, afterwards prime minister; the Duke of Newcastle, who became secretary of state for the colonies and was chief adviser of the Prince of Wales--now Edward VII--during his visit to Canada in 1860; and Lord Dalhousie and Lord Canning, both of whom preceded him in the governor-generalship of India. In the college debating club he won at once a very distinguished place. "I well remember," wrote Mr. Gladstone, many years later, "placing him as to the natural gift of eloquence at the head of all those I knew either at Eton or at the University." He took a deep interest in the study of philosophy. In him--to quote the opinion of his own brother, Sir Frederick Bruce, "the Reason and Understanding, to use the distinctions of Coleridge, were both largely developed, and both admirably balanced. ... He set himself to work to form in his own mind a clear idea of each of the constituent parts of the problem with which he had to deal. This he effected partly by reading, but still more by conversation with special men, and by that extraordinary logical power of mind and penetration which not only enabled him to get out of every man all he had in him, but which revealed to these men themselves a knowledge of their own imperfect and crude conceptions, and made them constantly unwilling witnesses or reluctant adherents to views which originally they were prepared to oppose...." The result was that, "in an incredibly short time he attained an accurate and clear conception of the essential facts before him, and was thus enabled to strike out a course which he could consistently pursue amid all difficulties, because it was in harmony with the actual facts and the permanent conditions of the problem he had to solve." Here we have the secret of his success in grappling with the serious and complicated questions which constantly engaged his attention in the administration of Canadian affairs.

After leaving the university with honour, he passed several years on the family estate, which he endeavoured to relieve as far as possible from the financial embarrassment into which it had fallen ever since his father's extravagant purchase in Greece. In 1840, by the death of his eldest brother, George, who died unmarried, James became heir to the earldom, and soon afterwards entered parliament as member for the borough of Southampton. He claimed then, as always, to be a Liberal Conservative, because he believed that "the institutions of our country, religious as well as civil, are wisely adapted, when duly and faithfully administered, to promote, not the interest of any class or classes exclusively, but the happiness and welfare of the great body of the people"; and because he felt that, "on the maintenance of these institutions, not only the economical prosperity of England, but, what is yet more important, the virtues that distinguish and adorn the English character, under God, mainly depend."

During the two years Lord Elgin remained in the House of Commons he gave evidence to satisfy his friends that he possessed to an eminent degree the qualities which promised him a brilliant career in British politics. Happily for the administration of the affairs of Britain's colonial empire, he was induced by Lord Stanley, then secretary of state for the colonies, to surrender his prospects in parliament and accept the governorship of Jamaica. No doubt he was largely influenced to take this position by the conviction that he would be able to relieve his father's property from the pressure necessarily entailed upon it while he remained in the expensive field of national politics. On his way to Jamaica he was shipwrecked, and his wife, a daughter of Mr. Charles Cumming Bruce, M.P., of Dunphail, Stirling, suffered a shock which so seriously impaired her health that she died a few months after her arrival in the island when she had given birth to a daughter.[3] His administration of the government of Jamaica was distinguished by a strong desire to act discreetly and justly at a time when the economic conditions of the island were still seriously disturbed by the emancipation of the negroes. Planter and black alike found in him a true friend and sympathizer. He recognized the necessity of improving the methods of agriculture, and did much by the establishment of agricultural societies to spread knowledge among the ignorant blacks, as well as to create a spirit of emulation among the landlords, who were still sullen and apathetic, requiring much persuasion to adapt themselves to the new order of things, and make efforts to stimulate skilled labour among the coloured population whom they still despised. Then, as always in his career, he was animated by the noble impulse to administer public affairs with a sole regard to the public interests, irrespective of class or creed, to elevate men to a higher conception of their public duties. "To reconcile the planter"--I quote from one of his letters to Lord Stanley--"to the heavy burdens which he was called to bear for the improvement of our establishments and the benefit of the mass of the population, it was necessary to persuade him that he had an interest in raising the standard of education and morals among the peasantry; and this belief could be imparted only by inspiring a taste for a more artificial system of husbandry." "By the silent operation of such salutary convictions," he added, "prejudices of old standing are removed; the friends of the negro and of the proprietary classes find themselves almost unconsciously acting in concert, and conspiring to complete that great and holy work of which the emancipation of the slave was but the commencement."

At this time the relations between the island and the home governments were always in a very strained condition on account of the difficulty of making the colonial office fully sensible of the financial embarrassment caused by the upheaval of the labour and social systems, and of the wisest methods of assisting the colony in its straits. As it too often happened in those old times of colonial rule, the home government could with difficulty be brought to understand that the economic principles which might satisfy the state of affairs in Great Britain could not be hastily and arbitrarily applied to a country suffering under peculiar difficulties. The same unintelligent spirit which forced taxation on the thirteen colonies, which complicated difficulties in the Canadas before the rebellion of 1837, seemed for the moment likely to prevail, as soon as the legislature of Jamaica passed a tariff framed naturally with regard to conditions existing when the receipts and expenditures could not be equalized, and the financial situation could not be relieved from its extreme tension in any other way than by the imposition of duties which happened to be in antagonism with the principles then favoured by the imperial government. At this critical juncture Lord Elgin successfully interposed between the colonial office and the island legislature, and obtained permission for the latter to manage this affair in its own way. He recognized the fact, obvious enough to any one conversant with the affairs of the island, that the tariff in question was absolutely necessary to relieve it from financial ruin, and that any strenuous interference with the right of the assembly to control its own taxes and expenses would only tend to create complications in the government and the relations with the parent state. He was convinced, as he wrote to the colonial office, that an indispensable condition of his usefulness as a governor was "a just appreciation of the difficulties with which the legislature of the island had yet to contend, and of the sacrifices and exertions already made under the pressure of no ordinary embarrassments."

Here we see Lord Elgin, at the very commencement of his career as a colonial governor, fully alive to the economic, social, and political conditions of the country, and anxious to give its people every legitimate opportunity to carry out those measures which they believed, with a full knowledge and experience of their own affairs, were best calculated to promote their own interests. We shall see later that it was in exactly the same spirit that he administered Canadian questions of much more serious import.

Though his government in Jamaica was in every sense a success, he decided not to remain any longer than three years, and so wrote in 1845 to Lord Stanley. Despite his earnest efforts to identify himself with the island's interests, he had led on the whole a retired and sad life after the death of his wife. He naturally felt a desire to seek the congenial and sympathetic society of friends across the sea, and perhaps return to the active public life for which he was in so many respects well qualified. In offering his resignation to the colonial secretary he was able to say that the period of his administration had been "one of considerable social progress"; that "uninterrupted harmony" had "prevailed between the colonists and the local government"; that "the spirit of enterprise" which had proceeded from Jamaica for two years had "enabled the British West Indian colonies to endure with comparative fortitude, apprehensions and difficulties which otherwise might have depressed them beyond measure."

It was not, however, until the spring of 1846 that Lord Elgin was able to return on leave of absence to England, where the seals of office were now held by a Liberal administration, in which Lord Grey was colonial secretary. Although his political opinions differed from those of the party in power, he was offered the governor-generalship of Canada when he declined to go back to Jamaica. No doubt at this juncture the British ministry recognized the absolute necessity that existed for removing all political grievances that arose from the tardy concession of responsible government since the death of Lord Sydenham, and for allaying as far as possible the discontent that generally prevailed against the new fiscal policy of the parent state, which had so seriously paralyzed Canadian industries. It was a happy day for Canada when Lord Elgin accepted this gracious offer of his political opponents, who undoubtedly recognized in him the possession of qualities which would enable him successfully, in all probability, to grapple with the perplexing problems which embarrassed public affairs in the province. He felt (to quote his own language at a public dinner given to him just before his departure for Canada) that he undertook no slight responsibilities when he promised "to watch over the interests of those great offshoots of the British race which plant themselves in distant lands, to aid them in their efforts to extend the domain of civilization, and to fulfill the first behest of a benevolent Creator to His intelligent creatures--'subdue the earth'; to abet the generous endeavour to impart to these rising communities the full advantages of British laws, British institutions, and British freedom; to assist them in maintaining unimpaired--it may be in strengthening and confirming--those bonds of mutual affection which unite the parent and dependent states."

Before his departure for the scene of his labours in America, he married Lady Mary Louisa Lambton, daughter of the Earl of Durham, whose short career in Canada as governor-general and high commissioner after the rebellion of 1837 had such a remarkable influence on the political conditions of the country. Whilst we cannot attach too much importance to the sage advice embodied in that great state paper on Canadian affairs which was the result of his mission to Canada, we cannot fail at the same time to see that the full vindication of the sound principles laid down in that admirable report is to be found in the complete success of their application by Lord Elgin. The minds of both these statesmen ran in the same direction. They desired to give adequate play to the legitimate aspirations of the Canadian people for that measure of self-government which must stimulate an independence of thought and action among colonial public men, and at the same time strengthen the ties between the parent state and the dependency by creating that harmony and confidence which otherwise could not exist in the relations between them. But while there is little doubt that Lord Elgin would under any circumstances have been animated by a deep desire to establish the principles of responsible government in Canada, this desire must have been more or less stimulated by the tender ties which bound him to the daughter of a statesman whose opinions where so entirely in harmony with his own. In Lord Elgin's temperament there was always a mingling of sentiment and reason, as may be seen by reference to his finest exhibitions of eloquence. We can well believe that a deep reverence for the memory of a great man, too soon removed from the public life of Great Britain, combined with the natural desire to please his daughter when he wrote these words to her:--

"I still adhere to my opinion that the real and effectual vindication of Lord Durham's memory and proceedings will be the success of a governor-general of Canada who works out his views of government fairly. Depend upon it, if this country is governed for a few years satisfactorily, Lord Durham's reputation as a statesman will be raised beyond the reach of cavil."

Now, more than half a century after he penned these words and expressed this hope, we all perceive that Lord Elgin was the instrument to carry out this work.

Here it is necessary to close this very brief sketch of Lord Elgin's early career, that I may give an account of the political and economic conditions of the dependency at the end of January, 1847, when he arrived in the city of Montreal to assume the responsibilities of his office. This review will show the difficulties of the political situation with which he was called upon to cope, and will enable us to obtain an insight into the high qualifications which he brought to the conduct of public affairs in the Canadas.

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