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Date Published:
March 2006

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Letters of George Brown on Confederation



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Letters on the Formation of the

Great Coalition


QUEBEC, June 18, 1864.


Past 1 in the morning.—We have had great times since I wrote you. On Tuesday we defeated the government by a majority of 2. They asked the Governor-General to dissolve parliament, and he consented; but before acting on it, at the Governor's suggestion they applied to me to aid them in reconstructing the government, on the basis of settling the constitutional difficulties between Upper and Lower Canada. I refused to accept office, but agreed to help them earnestly and sincerely in the matter they proposed. Negotiations were thereupon commenced, and are still going on, with considerable hope of finding a satisfactory solution of our trouble. The facts were announced to the House to-day by John A. Macdonald, amid tremendous cheering from both sides of the House. You never saw such a scene ; but you will have it all in the papers, so I need not repeat. Both sides are extremely urgent that I should accept a place in the government, were it only for a week ; but I will not do this, unless it is absolutely needful to the success of the negotiations. A more agreeable proposal is that I should go to England to arrange the new constitution with the Imperial government ; but as the whole thing may fail, we will not count our chickens just yet.


QUEBEC, June 20, 1864

I intended writing you a long letter, but the negotiations have occupied every moment since 5 in the morning, and I fear that I may not have the opportunity of doing so. It is now 5.30 and the mail closes at 6 o'clock ; and I am waiting in the Governor-General's office for bis Excellency, who has sent for me to meet him. If he is brief in his discussion, I will write you ; if he is lengthy, I will not be able to do so. But mean-time, I may say that I have closed the negotiations for the construction of a new government, pledged to carry constitutional changes, and that I have the offer of office for myself and others to be named by me. I call a meeting of the party to-night to accept or reject this offer, and I must abide by its determination. I am deeply distressed at having this matter thrust on me now, but dare not refuse the responsibility, with such vast interests at stake. I shall try to do my duty to the country. So far I have received the approval of the best men on both sides.


QUEBEC, June 20, 1864.


I wrote you half an hour ago, just before going in to see His Excellency. I have now a few minutes to spare before meeting the deputation from the Executive Council, and I shall try to use it in explaining, as well as I can, the position of matters at this moment. Cartier and all his party, by the compulsion of circumstances, have been driven into the necessity of taking up the representation question openly and vigorously. They have asked me to enter the cabinet with two friends : to conduct the negotiations with the Lower Provinces for a union of all British North America, and to conduct the negotiations in London with the Imperial government. They agree to bring down a measure next session to apply the federation principle to Canada alone, with population as the basis of representation, and with provision for the admission of the Maritime Provinces and the great North-West gradually into the union.


I reject the proposal to go into the cabinet, but offer all my aid outside, The government insist on my going in, and my party insist on my going in ; but my party insist on our getting four cabinet seats instead of three, and the others are not willing to do so. I think the Governor-General is with me in this controversy, and that he will urge the cabinet to give us four seats, or at least three departments, and myself to be sworn in an executive councillor, without a department and without a salary. Whether they will yield to his urgent appeal I cannot say, but he is entirely with us.


QUEBEC, June 23, 1864.


We have had great doings since I wrote you on Monday. My negotiations with the government were successfully closed on Monday night. On Tuesday I called a meeting of the Upper Canada liberals, and sub­mitted what I had done. You will see from the published proceedings (which I send you) that my course was sustained almost unanimously. You will see that the meeting passed a resolution urging me to go into the government, but that did not influence me wholly ; private letters from many quarters did something more, and the extreme urgency of the Governor-General did still more. His Excellency sent a very kind letter, urging me to go in, of which I will send you a copy. The thing that finally determined me was the fact, ascertained by Mowat and myself, that unless we went in the whole effort for constitutional changes would break down, and the enormous advantages gained by our negotiations probably be lost. Finally, at 3 o'clock yesterday, I con­sented to enter the cabinet "as President of the Council," with other two seats in the cabinet at my disposal—one of which Mowat will take, and probably McDougall the other. We consented with great reluctance, but there was no help for it ; and it was such a temptation to have possibly the power of settling the sectional troubles of Canada for ever. The announcement was made in the House yesterday, and the excitement, as over the province, is intense. I send you an official copy of the proceed­ings during the negotiations, from which you will see the whole story. By next mail I intend to send you some extracts from the newspapers. The unanimity of sentiment is without example in this country ; and were it not that I know at their exact value the worth of newspaper laudations, I might be puffed up a little in my own conceit. After the explanations by ministers I had to make a speech, but was so excited and nervous at the events of the last few days that I nearly broke down. However, after a little I got over it, and made (as Mowat alleges) the most telling speech I ever made. There was great cheering when I sat down, and many members from both sides crowded round me to congratulate me. In short, the whole movement is a grand success, and 1 really believe will have an immense influence on the future destinies of Canada. We are to be sworn into office on Monday. Immediately after I go up to Toronto for my re-election and to arrange matters ; then return here for a week or two ; then back to Toronto for a week or two ; then go to Prince Edward's Island as one of the representatives of Canada in the Convention of Provinces; and from there to England as a delegate from Canada to the Imperial government.


We got home at 2.30. The House met this morning at 11, and we have been hard at work ever since trying to close up the business of the session. It is 1 o'clock in the morning, and the boat which is to take this letter sails six hours hence. The weather is fearfully hot.


I send you the Governor-General's letter and the formal statement of the late negotiations. I also send you a few extracts from some of the newspapers. They are not selected extracts, but simply a few that I picked up round the House ; scarcely one of the papers friendly to me is among them.


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Letters of George Brown during the

Quebec Conference

QUEBEC, Oct. 17, 1864.


For the first time since my return to Quebec, I have a quiet moment. Last week the council met at 9 o'clock, and sat till 11 ; the conference from 11 o'clock to 4. Council again from 4 o'clock to 6 or later, and after dinner came letter writing, resolutions, drafting, till all hours in the morn­ing. This week we have council from 9 to 10 o'clock; conference from 10 to 2; council from 2 to 6 ; and conference from 7.30 as long as we like to sit.


The conference proceedings get along very well, considering we were very near broken up on the question of the distribution of members in the Upper Chamber of the federal legislature, but fortunately we have this morning got the matter amicably compromised, after a loss of three days in discussing it. We have eight or ten other points of great difficulty yet to be got over, and it is impossible to say when we will get through. If the conference lasts all next week, I am distressed to say that I must delay my departure till the 9th November. I hope and believe that this will not be necessary ; but I know that you would not wish me to imperil all my work, and ruin myself with my political friends throughout the country, by abandoning this great scheme at the very moment when a firm hand was most needful.


QUEBEC, Oct. 15, 1864.


I have just come from a grand ball given by the Executive Council to the Maritime delegates in the parliament buildings. It went off very well ; but I have come to my quarters weary and worn, and with a shocking headache. We have had such a week of it. Council from 9 o'clock to 11, conference from 11 o'clock to 4 ; council again from 4 o'clock to 6, and sometimes till 7 every day, and then letters and orders in council to

write at night. It has been very hard work ; however, the deliberations of the council go on harmoniously, and there is no appearance yet of any insurmountable obstacle. We progress very slowly, however, and how soon some difficulty may show itself no one can tell. The probability is that at least another week will be consumed, which will forbid the possibility of my leaving before the Scotia sails—the 2nd November, my poor dear mother's birthday. It cannot be helped, and we must not repine at doing our duty.


QUEBEC, October 21, 1864.


Since writing I have received a whole batch of letters from you, and I am delighted to hear that you are well and enjoying yourself so very much, and that baby is not only able to say pa-pa, but to stand up in the corner with a little help. It is no little deprivation to have lost all the pleasure of watching her progress to such an advanced stage of babyhood ; in fact, the little darling will have ceased to be a baby before I get over.


The conference is still sitting, and I am sorry to say there is no hope of our rising before the middle of next week. We have had pretty hard work to settle a number of knotty points, and have not done with them yet. We have settled the constitution of the federal executive, the federal senate, and the federal House of Commons ; we have also settled the form of the local legislature and governments, but we have yet to determine the whole of the money questions, the school question, and the powers and functions of both general and local governments. There is yet plenty to do, and quite enough to split us up should we disagree. It is quite possible this may be the result, but we shall try to avoid it.


The position of matters is such that I cannot leave the conference at this moment. I must stick to the ship until the breakers are passed, and I see no hope of this being accomplished in time to let me off by the Scotia. It is quite possible that such a turn of affairs may occur as will render it necessary for me to see at once my parliamentary friends before finally assenting to the new constitution. It will therefore be safe to say that I cannot leave before the 9th November. I am more distressed than I can tell you, but it cannot be helped ; I must rio my duty in the position I have assumed. Nothing could save my reputation—more important still, nothing could ever restore peace of mind and self-respect to me—were this great movement to fail in consequence of my absence at the critical moment. The very moment I dare leave I will be off. We shall finish this business up, and retire, at least in the consciousness of having tried to do our duty.


TORONTO, Oct. 31, 1864.


We got through our work at Quebec very well. The constitution is not exactly to my mind in all its details; but as a whole, it is wonderful—really wonderful. When one thinks of all the fighting we have had for fifteen years, and finds the very men who fought us every inch now going far beyond what we asked, I am amazed, and sometimes alarmed lest it all goes to pieces yet. We have yet to pass the ordeal of public opinion in the several provinces, and sad indeed will it be if the measure is not adopted by acclamation in them all. For Upper Canada, we may well rejoice the day it becomes law. Nearly all our past difficulties are ended by it, whatever new ones may arise.


I think I wrote you about the entertainments at Quebec—the ball given by the Executive Council, the drawing room held by the Governor-General, the ball given by the bachelors of Quebec, and the endless dinners and feastings in honour of our guests. The same sort of thing is now to go off in Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto. On Friday they go on to the Falls, and home by New York and Boston. From the day they left home till the day they get back, the whole of the delegates, and the ladies accom­panying them, are the guests of Canada. 1 am hard at work preparing for my departure, and there is much to do. I send you photographs of a number of the members of our conference. I will get the balance of them on Thursday, and send them to you this day week. We must keep them as a memento of the great occasion. If we live twenty years, we will prize then much as recalling stirring times—that is, provided the federation goes on.   



Letters of George Brown during the

Confederation Debates


QUEBEC, Feb. 7, 1865.


John A. opened the confederation debate last night. Cartier is now addressing his countrymen in English, and he is to do it in French after-wards. I was to have followed him, but as I am not yet ready, and as there will not be time enough left for me after Cartier closes, Galt has kindly agreed to follow Cartier, and leave me all to-morrow (after 7.30) to myself. If I am in the right frame, I will make a vigorous speech! It is in my mind, if I can get it out; so look out for Thursday morning's Globe.


QUEBEC, Feb. 9, 1865.


I commenced my speech at eight o'clock and spoke till 12.30. The House was well filled the whole time, and I was listened to throughout with earnest attention. I suspect it was pretty successful, and between you and me, the argument in favour of the scheme is perfectly irresistible. When I closed, the members of all sides came round me, warmly congratulating me on the speech. They say it was far the best speech I ever delivered ; but of that I am not certain. Kisses dear for little Maddie.


QUEBEC, February 24, 1865.


The confederation debate goes slowly on. We have heretofore com­menced it at 7.30 every night, but hereafter we propose to begin the debate every day at 3 o'clock until it is closed. We don't expect that over 30 will vote against the measure.


The weather is beautiful. I am wearying to be away, and looking out for another farm to which the select portion of the Bothwell flocks and herds may be carried.


Write all about little darling's daily doings. You cannot tell how much I enjoy all you say about her ; kiss her for papa a thousand times.


QUEBEC. March 6, 1865.


It does pain me somewhat to part with Bothwell ; I feel a blank. It supplied relaxation when I wanted to escape from the pressure of thought about things around nie. I believe thinking of Bothwell has been of essential service to my mind, and the working it out was most enjoyable. I could readily, to-morrow, without regret or hesitation, give up politics and the press and go on a large farm. I might tire of it, of course, but I don't think I would.


We are to have a great scene in the House to-day, and I am writing this before going down to it. The government of New Brunswick appealed to the people on confederation by a general election, and have got beaten. This puts a serious obstacle in the way of our scheme, and we mean to act promptly and decidedly upon it. At 3 o'clock we are to announce the necessity of carrying the resolutions for confederation at once, sending home a deputation to England, and proroguing parliament without any unnecessary delay—say in a week. Three o'clock is just at hand, and I must be off to the House, but I will not close this letter until I can tell you the effect of our announcement.


6 p.m.We have had a stirring debate. Our proposals have all been accepted most favourably by the House ; so the House will soon rise. I cannot say who will go to England, but I will not go as one unless there is an imperative necessity.


QUEBEC, March 7, 1865.


Our announcement was received yesterday favourably by the House. Our friends are greatly encouraged, and are anxious to have the business of the session brought to an immediate close. We have just made a second move that will probably shorten the session still more. We have moved the previous question, which prevents any amendment being moved, and will bring the debate much more speedily to a close.


I see everybody is expecting that I will be one of the delegates to Eng­land, and some members of the liberal party have spoken to me strongly on the subject, from learning that I would refuse to go ; but that does not alter my purpose, and unless an absolute necessity arises, I will not go.


QUEBEC, March 8, 1865.


The affair in New Brunswick does not discourage us; we shall go on just as we have been going, and push the matter to a termination. If it fails after all legitimate means have been used, we will go on with our scheme for Canada alone. We expect that 38 or 40 will vote against confederation.


QUEBEC, March 9, 1865.


The confederation debate keeps wagging along, but there is some hope of its coming to a termination to-night. The division will be very much as I wrote you yesterday—from 35 to 40 against the measure, and all the rest for it. Amendments will be moved afterwards, however, on which our majority will not be so large. We are in some hope that the House may rise on Tuesday or Wednesday next, but we cannot of course be sure. A dead set has been made on me to go as one of the deputies to England, but I have decidedly refused ; John A. refuses also, and there is a grave difficulty before us.


QUEBEC, March 13, 1865.


The confederation debate was kept up till 4.30 on Saturday morning, and it was 5.30 before I got to bed. I was at council from 1 to 3 o'clock, and then, feeling unfit for anything else, Fergusson Blair and I set off for a drive to Cape Rouge.


QUEBEC, March 14, 1865.


This morning at 2.30 we got through finally with our address to the Queen by increased majorities ; and so is accomplished one of the grandest political revolutions ever peacefully accomplished in any country. What-ever happens now, my honour is safe in going into the coalition, and my fifteen years' labour is amply recompensed by the consent, recorded beyond recall, of a large majority of both sections in favour of representa­tion by population. I feel now quite relieved of all uneasiness as to what may hereafter happen. Come what may, I have placed the question on such a basis as must secure its early settlement. I could not possibly have abandoned the trust that has gradually grown up and now rests upon me.


Would you not like that darling little Maddie should be able, twenty years hence, when we may be gone, to look back with satisfaction to the share her father had in these great events ? for great they are, and history will tell the tale of them. I have been writing this while the defence debate proceeds, for I dare not leave my seat.


QUEBEC, March 15, 1865.


I am so glad you will allow me to get the bird for baby. What shall it be—a parrot, or a parrot and some canaries ? I am glad she likes ani­mals. By and by we shall have rabbits for her, and pigeons, and a pony, and all sorts of things to make her kind and gentle. Do you know, I think the care of little creatures has a most softening effect on all children. I recollect how I petted my rabbits, and ever since I have been unable to see, without extreme horror, even any rough usage of dumb creatures.


Since writing the above we have had a vote of want of confidence, and the government has been sustained by a majority of 93 to 23. We are now on the second motion. Rose has just spoken, and Street is firing away on the defence question, and I must close and take part in the debate.


Don't for a moment fancy that what I am now doing will unfit me for a quiet settled life. On the contrary, every day makes me more anxious to get quit of politics forever. I don't like it, and would with all my whole heart abandon it finally tomorrow.

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Source: George BROWN, "Letters to his Family on Confederation ", in Alexander MACKENZIE, The Life and Speeches of Hon. George Brown, Toronto, The Globe Printing Company, 1882, 381p., pp. 222/233.

© 2006 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College