Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
March 2006

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


George Brown and the Confederation Cabinet



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[This text was written by Alexander Mackenzie in 1882. For the precise citation, see the end of the document.]





In the wisdom of Mr. Brown entering the coalition government the writer never concurred, but he yielded his opinion to the great majority who held otherwise. Mr. Brown himself also had misgivings of coming trouble, which were realized within eighteen months of the consummation of the coalition. In the meantime Mr. Brown was, on June 30th, sworn in as President of the Council, with Messrs. Mowat and McDougall as his colleagues (the latter being a selection very few desired), and devoted himself with great zeal to the promotion of the great scheme of political reform, or revolution, to which he and his friends committed themselves.


With other members of the government he visited the Lower Pro­vinces during the summer, where he addressed meetings at Charlottetown, Halifax, and St. John. He returned in time to take part in the convention of the provincial delegates that assembled in Quebec on the 10th of October, where he took an active part in preparing the resolutions which formed the basis of the Confederation Act. Parliament met early in 1865, and as soon as the usual formalities could be disposed of, the scheme for reconstructing the government of the North American Provinces was brought up for discussion. The debate was a memorable one, for the ability which characterized it as much as for the importance of the questions which it decided. Mr. Brown's speech was a most able and exhaustive one. To him, as leader of the liberals, the position was a painful one. He was opposed by a large portion of his own friends from Lower Canada. Among all the sacri­fices he made on public grounds, none were so great as the necessity laid upon him to be compelled to stand upon the opposite side to his old colleagues Messrs. Dorion, Holton, and their friends. The result of the debate was that the federal resolutions were carried by a vote of 91 to 33. Of the minority only eight were from Upper Canada, and of these eight, it will be observed that the names of several mem­bers are recorded who voted at the caucus of 1864 for Mr. Brown's scheme, and who asked him to enter the coalition cabinet.


It was no secret that His Excellency, Lord Monck, took a very lively interest in the proposed constitutional changes, and did all he properly could do to secure the proposed unification of the British provinces under a federal system. During the interregnum—for it could hardly be said that there was a government in existence after the hostile vote—Lord Monck had several interviews with Mr. Brown with a view to induce him to set aside his scruples and act as a minister in securing the acceptance of the new system. Lord Monck was a thoroughly honest man, an upright Governor-General, and an en­thusiastic lover of Canada. He was also in British politics a well-known liberal. The opinions of such a man very naturally had much weight with public men generally. It may be too soon to discuss the full share he had in bringing influence to bear on the governments of some of the provinces, and possibly on individuals, but it may be accepted as incontrovertible that the means used and the influence exerted were such only as he was justified in using in a great crisis.


The following letter was written by His Excellency to Mr. Brown on the same day on which the liberal caucus was held, and materially influenced him in assuming the responsibility which the liberal party from Ontario wished him to take on his shoulders.


QUEBEC, June 21, 1864.


MY DEAR MR. BROWN,—I think the success or failure of the negotia­tions which have been going on for some days, with a view to the formation of a strong government on a broad basis, depends very much on your consenting to come into the cabinet.


Under these circumstances, I must again take the liberty of pressing upon you by this note, as I have already often done verbally, my opinion of the grave responsibility which you will take upon yourself if you should refuse to do so.


Those who have hitherto opposed your views have consented to join with you in good faith for the purpose of extricating the province from what appears to me a very dangerous position.


They have frankly offered to take up and endeavour to settle, on prin­ciples satisfactory to all, the great constitutional question which you, by your energy and ability, have made your own.


The details of that settlement must necessarily be the subject of grave debate in the cabinet, and I confess I cannot see how you are to take part in that discussion, or how your opinions can be brought to bear on the arrangement of the question, unless you occupy a place at the council table.


I hope I may, without impropriety, ask you to take these opinions into consideration before you arrive at a final decision as to your own course. Believe me to be, yours very truly,

(Signed,) MONCK.


At the close of the first session of 1865 Mr. Brown, with Mr. John A. Macdonald, Mr. Cartier and Mr. Galt, visited England to confer with the Imperial government on the proposed constitutional changes, commercial treaties and legislation, the consideration of the defences of Canada, arrangements 'for settlement of North-West Territory and Hudson Bay Company claims, and generally upon the critical state of affairs by which Canada was at that time most seriously affected. The Canadian ministers were received with great cordiality in Britain, and especially by the Queen and royal family. The project of a federal union of the colonies was highly approved of by the Imperial authorities, “as (to use Mr. Cardwell's words) an object much to be“ desired, that all the British North American colonies should agree “to unite in one government." The Lower Provinces had manifested strong objections to the union, though the Nova Scotia legislature had formally approved of it ; and the British government undertook to press the wisdom of the measure upon them. However desirable it might be to embrace all the provinces, it was not right to apply any pressure. This was undoubtedly done by Mr. Cardwell, and doubtless at his instance Mr. Arthur Gordon, governor of New Brunswick, applied all the pressure in his power, and not very fairly. He succeeded, but at the expense of some keen feeling, in the expression of which by some Mr. Brown was unjustly blamed.


On the 30th day of July Mr. Taché, the Premier of the coalition government, died, and negotiations for the continuance or reconstruc­tion of the government were commenced with Mr. Brown by Mr. Macdonald, who was the senior member. He desired to be Premier himself, but failing that, he was willing Mr. Cartier should be placed in that position. Mr. Brown, as leader of the liberal section, was bound to see that neither the reform party nor the policy agreed on were jeopardized by the new arrangements to be made. The following correspondence will best show the ground he took, supported by his two colleagues :






No. 1.—Memorandum made 4th August, 1865, of Conversation held on the preceding day between Messrs. Macdonald and Brown.


Mr. Macdonald, yesterday, sought an interview with Mr. Brown and in-formed him that His Excellency the Governor-General had sent for him that morning, and had stated his desire that the administration, as it was formed in 1864, should continue in office, with as few changes as possible, in order to carry out the policy announced by the government on its formation ;. that, with that view, His Excellency had expressed the opinion that the most obvious mode of supplying the place, vacated by the death of Sir Etienne Taché, would be for Mr. Macdonald to assume the position of First Minister, as being the senior member of the ministry ; and that Mr. Cartier would, on the same principle, become the leader of the Lower Canadian section of the government ; and that, for the purpose of carrying those views into effect, he had commissioned Mr. Macdonald to take the post of First Minister, at the same time requesting all the other ministers to retain their offices. Mr. Macdonald further informed Mr. Brown that he had assented to this proposition of His Excellency, and had seen Mr. Cartier, who at once agreed to it. He then invited Mr. Brown to accede to the proposal of His Excellency.


Mr. Brown replied that he was quite prepared to enter into arrange­ments for the continuance of the government in the same position it occu­pied previous to the death of Sir Etienne Taché ; but that the proposal now made involved a grave departure from that position. The government, heretofore, had been a coalition of three political parties, each represented by an active party leader, but all acting under one chief, who had ceased to be actuated by strong party feelings or personal ambitions, and who was well fitted to give confidence to all the three sections of the coalition that the conditions which united them would be carried out in good faith to the very letter. Mr. Macdonald, Mr. Cartier, and himself (Mr. Brown) were, on the contrary, regarded as party leaders, with party feelings and aspira­tions; and to place any one of them in an attitude of superiority over the others, with the vast advantage of the premiership, would, in the public mind, lessen the security of good faith, and seriously endanger the existence of the coalition. It would be an entire change of the situation. Whichever of the three was so preferred, the act would amount to an abandonment of the coalition basis and a reconstruction of the government on ordinary party principles, under a party leader unacceptable to a large portion of those on whose support the existence of the ministry depended. Mr. Brown reminded Mr. Macdonald that when the coalition was formed, the liberal party in opposition constituted a majority of the House of Assembly; that, solely for the accomplishment of a great measure of reform essential to the peace and progress of the country, they had laid aside, for the time, party considerations, and consented to form a coalition with their opponents, on conditions which nothing but the strongest sense of public duty could have induced them to accept. He reminded Mr. Macdonald of the disadvantageous and embarrassing position lie (Mr. Brown) and his colleagues, Mr. McDougall and Mr. Howland, had occupied during the past year, united as they were with nine political opponents who held all the important departments of state ; and he asked him to reflect in what light the liberal party must regard this new proposition to abandon their distinctive position, and place one of their chief opponents in the premiership, though his conservative supporters in parliament were much inferior, numerically, to the reform supporters of the coalition. Mr. Brown stated his conviction that the right mode of settling the question would be to invite some gentleman, of good position in the legislative council, under whom all the three great parties to the coalition could act with confidence, to become the successor of Colonel Taché. In no other way, he thought, could the position heretofore existing he continued. Mr. Brown concluded by saying that the proposal of Mr. Macdonald was palpably one for the construction of a new government, and that if the aid of the reform party of Upper Canada in the assembly were desired in its formation, a distinct statement of the policy of the new government must be made, and a definite proposition submitted. Speaking, however, for himself alone, he (Mr. Brown) occupied now precisely the ground that he had held in the negotia­tions of 1864 ; he stood prepared to give an outside but frank and earnest support to any administration that might be formed, pledged, like the coali­tion government, to carry through parliament, in the spring session of next year, either a measure for the final completion of the confederation scheme of the Quebec conference, or one for removing existing difficulties in Canada, by the introduction of the federal principle into the system of government, coupled with such provisions as will permit the Maritime Provinces and the North-West Territory to be incorporated into the system.


Mr. Macdonald stated in answer that at the time the coalition was effected in 1864, Sir Etienne Taché held the position of Premier, with him (Mr. Macdonald) as leader of the Lower House, and of the Upper Canadian section of the government. That on reference to the memorandum con­taining the basis of coalition, it will be seen that Mr. Brown at first pre­ferred to support the government in its policy as then settled without entering the government, but that it was afterwards agreed, in deference to the wishes of his supporters and at the pressing instance of Mr. Macdonald, that he and two of his political friends should enter the government. These terms were acceded to, the offices that happened to be then vacant placed at Mr. Brown's disposal, and the coalition was completed. Mr. Macdonald further stated that Sir Etienne Taché was not selected at the time of the coalition, or as a part of the agreement for the coalition, as First Minister, but he had been previously and was then the head of the conservative government, and was accepted with all his Lower Canadian colleagues without change. That on the lamented decease of Sir Etienne, His Excel­lency had, without any previous communication of his opinion to him or (as he understood) to any one else, come to the conclusion that the best mode of carrying on the government was (as already stated) for Mr. Macdonald to take one step upward ; that Mr. Cartier, as next in seniority, should do so also, and that the other arrangements should remain as before. That he (Mr. Macdonald) thought with His Excellency that this was the best solution of the matter, and could not hut accede to it ; that, however, he had no personal feeling in the matter, and that if he had, he thought it his duty to set aside such feeling for the sake of carrying out the great scheme, so happily commenced, to a successful issue. He therefore would readily stand aside and waive his pretensions, so that some other party than himself might be appointed to the premiership ; that he thought Mr. Cartier should be that party ; that after the death of Colonel Taché, Mr. Cartier, beyond a doubt, was the most influential man in his section of the country, and would be selected by the Lower Canadian supporters of the government as their leader ; that neither Mr. Brown nor Mr. Macdonald could dictate to Lower Canada as to their selection of leader ; that the Premier must be, according to usage, the leader or senior member either from Upper or Lower Canada ; and that as he (Mr. Macdonald) had, in consequence of the position taken by Mr. Brown, waived his own preten­sions, it followed that Mr. Cartier should be appointed as Prime Minister. Mr. Macdonald stated in conclusion that although he had no reason to suppose that His Excellency would object to the selection of Mr. Cartier, yet he must of course submit the proposition to him, and obtain His Excellency's assent to it.


Mr. Brown replied that in some of the views suggested by Mr. Macdonald, there was a difference between this proposition and the original one ; but still that this, like the other, would be a proposal for the construction of a new government, in a manner seriously affecting the security held by the liberal party. Before saying anything upon such a proposition, however, were it formally made, he would desire to consult his friends, Mr. McDougall and Mr, Howland.


The interview then terminated, and the following correspondance took place:


No. 2.—Hon. John A. Macdonald to Hon. George Brown.


QUEBEC, August 4, 1865.


MY DEAR, Sir,—Immediately after our conversation, the heads of which we have reduced to writing, I obtained His Excellency's permission to propose to you that Mr. Cartier, as being the leader of the ministerial majority of Lower Canada in parliament, should assume the position of Prime Minister, vacated by the death of Sir Etienne Taché, the other members of the administration continuing to hold their position and offices as before. All the Lower Canadian members of the council assent to this proposition, so do Mr. Campbell and myself ; and I am sure I can also speak for Mr. Solicitor-General Cockburn, who is now absent.

May I request the favour of an early reply.


Believe me, my Dear Sir, yours faithfully,              




No. 3.—Hon. George Brown to Hon. John A. Macdonald.


QUEBEC, August 4, 1865.


MY DEAR SIR,—I have received your letter of this afternoon, inviting me to retain my present position in a government to be formed under the premiership of Mr. Cartier. In reply I have now to state, after consulta­tion with Messrs. Howland and McDougall, that we can only regard this proposition as one for the construction of a new government, in a manner seriously affecting the security heretofore held by the liberal party. Anxiously desirous as we are, however, that nothing should occur at this moment to jeopardize the plans of the coalition government on the consti­tutional question, we cannot assume the responsibility of either accepting or rejecting it without consultation with our political friends. This I am prepared to do without any delay, and to that end it will be necessary that I have clearly stated in writing the basis on which Mr. Cartier proposes to construct the new government.


I am, my Dear Sir, yours truly,




No. 4.—Hon. John A. Macdonald to Hon. George Brown.


QUEBEC, Saturday, 5th August, 1865.


MY DEAR SIR,—I regret to learn from your note of yesterday that you cannot assume the responsibility, without first consulting your political friends, of either accepting or rejecting the proposition that Mr. Cartier should be placed at the head of the government in the stead of the late Sir Etienne Taché, with the understanding that the rest of the council should retain their present offices and positions under him. I have con­ferred with Mr. Cartier on the subject, and we agree that, at this late hour, it would be highly inexpedient to wait for the result of this consultation.


Parliament is to assemble on Tuesday next, and in our opinion it would greatly prejudice the position of the government as well as the future prospects of the great scheme in which we are all engaged, if we met parliament with the administration in an incomplete state, and therefore with no fixed policy.


I have His Excellency's permission to state his concurrence in this view, and his opinion that the public interests require the immediate reconstruction of the ministry.


Under these circumstances, and to prevent the possibility of the scheme for the confederation of British North America receiving any injury from the appearance of disunion among those who coalesced for the purpose of carrying it into effect, Mr. Cartier and I, without admitting that there are any sufficient grounds for setting either of us aside, have agreed to propose that Sir Narcisse Belleau shall assume the position of First Minister and Receiver-General, vice Sir Etienne Taché ; that the position and offices of the other members of the executive council shall remain as before ; and that the policy of the government shall be the same as was laid before parliament in July, 1864, as the basis of the coalition which was then formed. His Excellency authorizes me to make this proposition, and expresses his desire for an early answer.

Believe me, my Dear Sir, yours faithfully,




No. 5.—Hon. George Brown to Hon. John A. Macdonald.


QUEBEC, 5th August, 1865.


MY DEAR SIR,—Your note of this afternoon was handed to me by Col. Bernard, and having communicated its contents to my colleagues, I now beg to state the conclusions at which we have arrived.


Without intending the slightest discourtesy to Sir Narcisse Belleau, we deem it right to remind you that we would not have selected that gentleman as successor to Sir Etienne Taché ; but as he is the selection of Mr. Cartier and yourself, and as we are, equally with you, desirous of pre-venting the scheme for the confederation of British America receiving in-jury from the appearance of disunion among us, we shall offer no objection to his appointment.


I think, however, it will be necessary that Sir Narcisse Belleau shall have stated to him, and shall accept, in more distinct terms than you have indicated, the policy on which our coalition now rests. It is quite right that the basis of June, 1864, should be stated as the basis still, but he should also clearly understand the modification of that agreement, rendered necessary by succeeding events, and which was ratified by Sir Etienne Taché in March, 1865. The agreement of June, 1864, was as follows : “The government are prepared to pledge themselves to bring in a measure next session for the purpose of removing existing difficulties by introducing the federal principle into Canada, coupled with such provisions as will permit the Maritime Provinces and the North-West Territory to be incorporated into the same system of government. And the government will seek, by sending representatives to the Lower Provinces and to England, to secure the assent of those interests which are beyond the control of our own legislation, to such a measure as may enable all British North America to be united under a general legislature based upon the federal principle."


Sir Narcisse Belleau should understand that occurrences in the Maritime Provinces unfortunately prevented this agreement from being carried out, so far as regards time ; that it became necessary to consider what course ought to be pursued in consequence of these occurrences ; and that we came to an agreement that we should earnestly strive for the adoption of the scheme of the Quebec conference, but should we be unable to remove the objections of the Maritime Provinces in time to present a measure at the opening of the session of 1866 for the completion of the confederation scheme, we would then present to parliament, and press with all the influence of government, a measure for the reform of the constitutional system of Canada, as set forth in the above agreement of June, 1864.


I remain, my Dear Sir, yours truly,




No. 6.—Hon. John A. Macdonald to Hon. George Brown.


QUEBEC, August 7, 1865.


MY DEAR SIR,—Sir Narcisse Belleau returned from the country yester­day, and I am happy to inform you that he has, though with great reluct­ance, acceded to the request of Mr. Cartier and myself, and accepted the position of First Minister, with the office of Receiver-General.


He accepts the policy of the late government, as stated in your note of Saturday to me, and adopts it as that which will govern his administra­tion.


This policy will of course be announced in both Houses of parliament as soon as possible.


Believe me, faithfully yours,



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Source: Alexander MACKENZIE, "George Brown and the Negotiations for the Reconstruction of the Cabinet at the Death of Sir E. P. Taché", in The Life and Speeches of Hon. George Brown, Toronto, The Globe Printing Company, 1882, 381p., pp. 95-101.

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