Scottish Canadian Politicians
George Brown (1818-1880):
A Father of Confederation & founder/editor of the Toronto Globe News Paper
"Oh for a Canadian nationality which would ameliorate the unmitigated personal selfishness which pervades the land!"
~ George Brown [the Globe, 2 January 1847]
George Brown was the eldest son in the family of Peter Brown and Marianne Mackenzie, daughter of a Stornoway gentleman. Aside from his prosperous wholesale business in Edinburgh, Peter spent stretches of time in Alloa, Clackmannan, up the Firth of Forth to direct a local glassworks. George spent his early childhood in this sleepy port before his family returned to Edinburgh, where he flourished at its celebrated High School. After leaving school with honours, he joined in his father's business, and began to settle into a comfortable middle-class urban lifestyle.
A staunch Whig-Liberal and evangelical Presbyterian, Peter Brown passed his fervent advocacy in civil and religious liberty, his belief in free market economics, and his abhorrence of Tory aristocratic privilege on to George. Peter also set an example of public service by fighting for borough reform in Edinburgh and the larger parliamentary reform in the early 1830s. But while he was serving as collector of assessments in Edinburgh in 1836, he lost £2,800 worth of municipal funds which were somehow mixed up with his private accounts. Luckily, no charges were brought against him, and he scrambled to redeem the monetary loss and his good name. But when depression sank in during the next year, Peter saw no other option than to start afresh in America. So on 30 April 1837, Peter and George, aged eighteen, set out from Liverpool for New York City.
Within weeks of landing there in June, Peter and George opened a small, two-person dry goods shop that thrived sufficiently well. Peter, however, was becoming interested in matters more pressing than commercial trade. He became a regular contributor to the weekly British emigrant newspaper and published a book in 1842 that espoused the British parliamentary system over the American republican model of government. The book's favourable reception turned Peter's full attention to journalism: in June 1842, Peter began publication of the weekly British Chronicle, again supported by the eager and passionate son training to inherit his father's modest mantle.
As the paper started taking notice of Canadian affairs, George took over the role of Canadian correspondent. After he concluded his apprenticeship in journalism in 1843, his name appeared in the Chronicle as Publisher, with his father serving as Editor.
Later that year, the British Chronicle became a solid the defender of the Church of Scotland's decision to split from the state Presbyterian Church, establishing the Free Kirk. The Scottish issue held important implications for Canada's Scottish Presbyterian communities, and Free Kirk supporters in Toronto extended an invitation and bond to Peter to move his paper to Toronto.
George had already made friendly contacts with leading Canadian Reformers through his travels and felt that the young Canadian colony offered many more opportunities to get ahead than the already-crowded New York. He convinced his father to accept the offer, and the Toronto Banner, a weekly dedicated to Presbyterian interests and Reform principles, ran its first issue on 18 August 1843.
The paper was split between Peter's "Religious Department" and George's "Secular Department." George was a forceful champion of the Reform cause, and within months another group of prominent Toronto Reformers approached the Browns with two-hundred and fifty pounds starting capital to found an official Reform party newspaper. The Toronto Globe made its first appearance on 5 March 1844; and from the start George was determined to make it the most influential newspaper in British North America. He chose as its motto a quote from Junius, a writer whose letter provided vital contributions to London's leading newspapers in the eighteenth century: "The subject who is truly loyal to the Chief Magistrate will neither advise nor submit to arbitrary measures."
Made popular by stirring editorials combined with immediate and detailed news reports, the Globe advanced to a tri-weekly by 1849 with a weekly edition specifically for the countryside. The mark of triumph came with its 1853 expansion to a daily paper printed by a steam press - carrying with it the largest circulation in the country. What had begun in 1844 with father and son, a printer, and young Gordon Brown as an apprentice had grown in less than a decade into a full-scale operation, complete with a full staff of printers, pressroom and engine hands, reporters, and parliamentary correspondents. The paper aimed to enlighten the electorate about the responsibilities it exercised through party rule, and Brown himself became a popular and powerful orator at political rallies.
In 1848, the new provincial Reform cabinet commissioned the Globe editor to examine accusations of abuse in the Provincial Penitentiary at Kingston. Brown's 1849 report exposed the prison's "most frightful oppression - revolting inhumanity," and also advanced Canadian penology by suggesting reforms such as separating hard criminals from first offenders and juveniles; providing rehabilitation and aftercare; and appointing permanent, salaried prison inspectors. The report contained sufficient evidence to lead to the termination of warden Henry Smith, old family friend of John A. MacDonald, sparking a tension that would last between the two statesmen for years.
Brown also used the Globe to attack the institution of slavery in the southern United States; in response to the Fugitive Slave Law passed in 1850, he helped to found the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada, whose goal was to end the practice of slavery on North America while helping American slaves escape into Canada through the Underground Railroad. By 1850, Brown had built himself into one of Toronto's leading businessman and most influential political advocates, his influence spreading all across the province and beyond. Meanwhile, the Reform party had lost its more radical members to the new Clear Grit faction over the pressing issue of secularizing the clergy reserves - the Clear Grits demanded a total separation of church and state that more moderate French Catholic Reformers were not prepared to concede. Brown's personal stance came down in ardent support of the Clear Grits, and he was now ready to champion radical reform in the parliamentary arena.
Into the Political Foray
In the autumn of 1851, Brown ran for the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada as an independent Reformer in Kent County. His easy victory was due in part to the diligent campaigning of local reformer Alexander Mackenzie, who would become his closest supporter and ally. In parliament, he lobbied for small government; the separation of church and state; the annexation of the North-western Territory; and what he termed "Representation by Population".
Tensions between Lower Canada and Upper Canada had been mounting steadily since joined into one Province by the 1840 Act of Union, and the two sides often came to loggerheads in the equally-represented legislature. By 1855, many Clear Grit adherents were so convinced of Lower Canada's domination of the union that they called for its dissolution. Brown and the Globe instead argued to remake rather than destroy the union by advocating for a higher number of seats for Upper Canada in the Legislative Assembly to reflect its much larger population. Brown's argument won the Grits over, and he had found a powerful policy on which to focus the reunification of reform politics in Upper Canadian.
At the Reform convention in 1857, Brown brought together the Clear Grits, the Brownites (his own followers), and Liberals under the new banner of the Liberal Party of Upper Canada. It readily adopted Brown's platform of national non-sectarian education, free trade, representation by population, and annexation of the North-West, submerging the ideals of American elective democracy within Victorian British parliamentary Liberalism.
Brown also got half a week's taste of executive power in August 1858. After John A. MacDonald's cabinet resigned on a non- confidence vote by the Legislative Assembly, Governor-General Head called on Brown, as leader of the opposition, to form a new ministry with Antoine-Aime Dorion. The law required that newly-appointed ministers to resign their seats and run in a by-election; but when members of Brown's new cabinet resigned their seats to get re-elected, MacDonald re-emerged through a legal loophole and he, along with each former cabinet minister, was re-appointed to his old post. This four-day administrative episode was termed the "double-shuffle" and the subject of much political comic relief.
The First Father of Confederation
Back at the Globe, Brown launched a new campaign: federation. A federal union, he believed, would settle the difficulties between Upper and Lower Canada so that each could govern its own sectional interest under one general government based on representation by population. He introduced this new platform at the Upper Canada Reform convention, attended by five hundred and seventy delegates in November 1859.
Brown's path to a united Canada was interrupted when he suffered a complete collapse of health in the winter of 1861. Restricted to two months of bed rest, he missed the year's first parliamentary session and in June was still too weak to campaign for the election. He lost the Toronto seat and was out of parliament for the first time in ten years. Nevertheless, he used the break to embark upon a recuperative holiday back in Scotland, and returned to Edinburgh during the summer of 1862 after a twenty-five year absence. There he met the sister of two old schoolmates and fell quickly and deeply in love at the age of forty-three. George Brown wasted little time marrying Anne Nelson - the two were committed at a ceremony held at her family estate on 27 November 1862
The couple returned to Toronto before the New Year. Brown was back to full vigor but a little mellower, and ready to jump back into politics. He won an easy by-election in the South Oxford riding in 1863 but re-entered a parliament rife with underlying sectional and constitutional problems. The Conservative "double-majority" principle, by which neither side of the union would be governed against the will of its own parliamentary majority, had floundered, and the electorate responded by sweeping Reform candidates into the Upper Canadian legislature. George-Etienne Cartier's Conservatives, however, had equally swept the east. The government was embroiled in a political deadlock.
Fruitless power struggles frustrated Brown, who now longed to settle the constitutional impasse so he could retire to a warm family life with his wife and first child. He headed up a committee to investigate the best way of remedying Canada's sectional problems, and reported its findings to parliament in June 1864: the solution laid in the adoption of a federative system. MacDonald and Cartier then invited him to join in a triumvirate to dislodge the deadlock: the constitutional breakthrough Brown had initiated was moving fast.
On 22 June 1864, the "Great Coalition" was presented the House of Commons, and its council members worked tirelessly to outline a federal scheme to propose to the Maritimes. Brown's presentation on the proposed constitutional structure of a federal union received unanimous endorsement at the Charlottetown Conference, and he moved forward to play a major role in the Quebec Conference. But while he was negotiated with New Brunswick in the fall of 1865, the government was deciding on a policy of joint legislative action in seeking reciprocity with the United States. Although Brown had long upheld the idea of economic reciprocity, he feared that seeking it through the legislative means would put Canada's prosperity at the mercy of America's congressional lobby. Despite tense cabinet discussion, Brown failed to sway his colleagues, and resigned from the Coalition in December 1865.
With Confederation secure, Brown was more than ready to depart from the cabinet. The escalating tension between himself and MacDonald and the prevalent, uneasy feeling that the Coalition had committed him to the old office-dealing game, combined with the reciprocity issue, pushed him into a firm decision. "I am a free man once more," he wrote in a telegram to his wife.
The success of his federation proposal had led to his personal defeat: by 1867, enough Liberals had joined with the Conservatives to give the latter both the federal regime and the provincial government. Out of Parliament again and over a year away from turning fifty, he left Canada for an extended family holiday in Scotland.
Out of the Limelight
George Brown had managed to escape public life, but he could not escape politics. The officially leaderless Liberal party considered him its "elder statesman" until Mackenzie took over in 1873, and its members frequently consulted the Globe editor for advice. Over the next few years, Brown devoted himself to his growing family, to his first love, the Globe, and to a new cattle-breeding enterprise at Bow Park new Brantford. While there he made acquaintance with his neighbour's son, Alexander Graham Bell, who offered him a share in the rights to his new "sound telegraphy" invention in exchange for a six-hundred dollar advance and the acquirement of a patent in Britain. Although Brown was at first accommodating, he became discouraged as to the value of Bell's invention, and passed on the opportunity to become part-owner of the future Bell Telephone empire. Bow Park's cattle-raising venture concerned him more.
In March 1880, George Bennet, a former worker in the Globe's engine room, entered Brown's office. The inebriated Bennet, who had been discharged, initiated an argument and pointed a gun at Brown. During the scuffle that ensued, Brown suffered a slight flesh wound to the thigh. This minor injury turned into a gangrenous infection that killed him seven weeks later at the age of sixty-one.
The Globe continued to flourish under the new direction of Gordon Brown, the paper's first apprentice, and remains today a testament to George's memory. But the larger testament is Canadian confederation itself: for Brown was, as Governor-General Monck said in 1867, "the man whose conduct in 1864 had rendered the project of union feasible."