Manitoba Historical Society
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The Right Honorable Arthur Meighen *

by Gratton O'Leary

MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 27, 1970-71 Season

This article was published originally in MHS Transactions by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Arthur Meighen's career, his service to Canada, was a great service because he did leave us a legacy. He left us a legacy of integrity and God knows that in these turbulent days this is what our people are crying out for, more especially for our young people. I remember Meighen when he first came to the house. He was not by any means the most conspicuous young member from the west. He was overshadowed, for example, by Mr. R. B. Bennett who came there as a sort of thunderclap and everybody expected tremendous things from him. Meighen, on the other hand, was shy and diffident and little was heard of him until he made his first speech. There is a story, whether it is correct I don't know, about Sir Wilfrid Laurier sitting through the whole of this speech. Laurier always did this. Laurier was a man of great courtesy. He always sat carefully through the speeches of young members and often would rise from his seat and go back and sit down by the new member and pat him on the shoulder and congratulate him on his speech.

The story is that Laurier sat through Meighen's speech and then went out into the corridor to keep an appointment with an old friend of his, Mr. Kurt Cameron of Montreal. When he went out he said: "Kurt, Borden has found a man at last. I have just heard his speech which I think is remarkable and this man is bound to be heard from in the years to come." Well, of course, he was heard from, some thought too much. It's a curious thing about Arthur Meighen, I think that nearly all those of us who knew him in those days and who knew him in after years, all recognized and all acknowledged that here was a stunning intellect that had come to our public life. Here was somebody with an intellect superior to any we had known in the years gone by and yet today they speak of him as the magnificent failure.

Failure is a curious word and it depends just how you would apply, how you interpret, to know whether it has any great meaning. But the word magnificent, if you knew Meighen, you understood he was indeed magnificent-magnificent failure. More than that, they said it to the end of his life and after his death. This man was an arch-imperialist, an arch-tory, a reactionary. This was the man who in his first major speech in Parliament spoke as a Western radical, attacked big tariffs, a Conservative tariff, mainly upon farm implements. He attacked those farm implement manufacturers who he said were living and prospering behind their ramparts of gold. These were the exact words he used. So this was the man they called reactionary. This was the man who in later years, facing the implacable hostility of St. James Street, went on fearlessly to create the Canadian National Railway.

They said that he was an arch-imperialist. I have here with me tonight the first volume of Mr. McMillan's autobiography, "The Winds of Change." McMillan, of course, came to Ottawa as an aide at Government House, a young man with no great political interest but yet enough interest to come down occasionally and sit in the House of Commons and listen to what was going on. He tells in this volume how one day sitting in the gallery as a young man the question arose of Sir Robert Borden's advocacy of Canada having separate representation at the Versailles Peace Conference. Mr. W. S. Fielding, long one of the great captains of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, long one of the powers of the Liberal party, rose in the house and issued a solemn warning that if Canada was given separate representation at Versailles at that time, this might mean that Canada would go on to become a separate nation. No one answered this man, no one said a word. Mr. Rowell was in the house at that time; Mr. Ernest Lapointe was in the house at that time; many of the top flight members were all there. Not one word was said, but one man rose and rebutted it, and McMillan says that the words of this man at that time were considered almost revolutionary. This is what he said: "I affirm here as a Canadian citizen, that as a distinct entity within the British Empire and as a distinct self governing entity we are entitled to a voice in the attitude assumed by Great Britain in the disposal of every question that pertains to terms of peace." And the man who said that was the so called arch-imperialist, Arthur Meighen.

Meighen actually followed in the footsteps of Borden. Borden, you know, was the Sir Robert Peel of Canada. You remember that when Peel reformed the corn laws he didn't even tell his party he was doing it. They read it for the first time in an editorial in the London Times. He reformed the corn laws, he changed the whole course of his party and Sir Robert Borden did exactly the same thing with the Conservative Party. The Conservative Party, when I went to Ottawa first, was a romantic colonial party. It was a party of sentimental colonialism. It's hard to believe now. We all recall the great battle over the flag two years ago. When I went to the Parliamentary Press Gallery (and the snows of 60 winters have come and gone from Parliament Hill since then), not the Union Jack flew over the West Block but the Royal Standard. The Royal Standard was the flag that flew over the West Block and the office there was occupied by the Governor-General. He came to his office every morning, accompanied by his aide, and held court there for his ministers. Members of the Cabinet called on him, not to advise him, but to get his advice and there was no communication whatsoever between the government of Canada and the government of Great Britain. Everything, every dispatch, went from the Governor-General to the Colonial Secretary. Borden was a U. E. Loyalist, worse than that he was a Maritime U. E. Loyalist. Borden went to England in 1919 and he and his friend, Smuts, changed the whole constitution of the British Empire. He not only told them we are going to go to the Peace Conference as a separate nation. He did this, indeed, not to the liking of the British Foreign Office. It was all right for Lloyd George and people like that, the politicians accepted this but not the Parliament's officer, the Parliament's staff. They didn't like it at all. And our friends in the United States didn't like it. They didn't like it one bit.

But Borden and Smuts put that thing through. And Smuts said to Borden: "We, sir, have changed the whole constitution of the British Empire." Now the truth of the matter is that Borden's party of which I was one and always have been, and always will be, we didn't even know this was going on. Borden did this on his own, he did what Peel did. And Arthur Meighen carried on in that tradition. I went to the Imperial Conference of 1921 with Arthur Meighen and Meighen went there determined that the Anglo Japanese alliance should be abrogated. He took the view that Britain was no longer merely a European power, that Britain was a world power, that her interests in this hemisphere, and especially in North America, were greater and of more importance as far as the future was concerned than her interest in Europe. He knew that the Americans wanted the alliance ended.

Meighen went there and the top flight people of the British Government, Lloyd George, Churchill, Birkenhead, Curzon - the cream of the talent of Britain, all against him and reinforced by Australia's redoubtable Billy Hughes. Meighen fought that thing single handedly day after day, and his party at home didn't know what he was doing. I used to see him every night. He told me what was going on. I was there acting for the Canadian Press and I was sending out these dispatches and one morning Meighen showed me a cablegram he had received from Sir George Foster.

The cablegram said, "For heaven's sake, see O'Leary's dispatches before he sends them, he misrepresented you in the most outrageous way." Meighen got great amusement out of this but Meighen fought against all these powerful figures and by sheer, moral sway, by courage, ability, eloquence, after two weeks he got his complete way. They all surrendered. They called instead, what he advocated, a Washington Disarmament Conference, to which Japan was invited. It ended, of course, in the futility which always comes to those International Conferences.

But this was the man, who they said: "Oh, he's an arch-imperialist, he's a reactionary, and so on." Let me read you something else that Meighen said when he was in London. Meighen went to speak to the benchers of Grey's Inn. This is probably as high an honour as you can get in England. In that speech, Meighen laid down his political creed. He told these people what he believed in, what was his political creed. He said it is as well to create a good new precedent as to unroll one. He was quoting Bacon. And he quoted Mr. Justice Holmes, the famous liberal justice of the United States, "the present has a right to govern itself." He also said "there is no duty to continuity with the past." He went on to quote Bacon again to say we must take from the past, from the ancient time what is good, and from the latter time what is fittest. Meighen then told me, "there could be no better precept for British statesmanship." This was the man they called the reactionary, this was the man they called an arch-imperialist, and this was the man who was neither a reactionary nor an imperialist in the wrong sense. He was British to the very core, British in his training, in his heart, in everything. But he was not an imperialist, he was not an imperialist in the sense that he didn't want Canada to be a self-governing Dominion within the Commonwealth or the Empire. That is all (and that is all Borden believed in), that's all true Conservatives believed in. Yet Meighen has been denounced again and again and again, an arch-tory, an arch-imperialist, an arch-reactionary.

I have spent 60 years of my life watching Parliament and I have had the privilege of knowing every Canadian Prime Minister from Sir Wilfrid Laurier to Mr. Trudeau. And I say here without the least qualification that in intellectual grandeur, Meighen had no superior in Parliament, never, and very, very few equals. I have heard it said about Meighen that he was a great debater but not a great orator. I don't know where exactly you draw the line. But in debating, it is certain no one in Parliament for the last 50 years has even come near to Arthur Meighen as a master of Parliamentary debate. In the cut and thrust of debate Meighen was devastating.

Let me give you two examples. I remember one evening, Meighen was speaking and he was going full cry. He introduced something which he said was a new Conservative Policy and somebody across the way said "what nonsense; why that is in our Liberal platform!" Meighen paused for just a second and said, "Mr. Speaker, I'm sorry to hear it, had I a project dearer to my heart, the worst fate I could fear for it would be that someday it might get into a Liberal platform." This was Meighen's style of debate.

On another occasion he was speaking and some of the back benchers began to boo and he paused and he said, "Mr. Speaker, for intelligent interruption I offer no objection whatsoever, but I do object, Sir, to those ejaculations which ceased to be the language of men ten thousand years ago." This was the debate we don't hear anymore in Parliament. I only remember once when I thought Meighen probably got the worst of an exchange. We had a very witty Jewish member in the house, Mr. S. W. Jacobs from Montreal, and Mr. Jacobs, one night made a speech which was in fact a protectionist speech and when he sat down Meighen who liked him very much rose and said: "Would not the Honourable gentleman want to cross the floor and sit in his spiritual home?" Jacobs rose at once and said, "Mr. Speaker, one of my ancestors did that sort of thing 2000 years ago and the world hasn't stopped talking about it since." And Meighen, who liked that sort of thing, stood up and saluted him.

They said about Meighen that he was a good debater, but he was too passionate, too cold to be a great orator. Well, we have had really only about three authentic orators in the history of the Parliament of Canada. There was Joseph Howe, Wilfrid Laurier and D'Arcy McGee. But if you gave me an occasion when he was deeply moved I would put Meighen first. Then he did become neighbour to the sun and rose to the highest and purest eloquence. You will search the anthology of eloquence very long before you will find anything in Britain or in the United States before you find anything better than Meighen's speech when he unveiled the cross at Vimy. Better than his defence of his Hamilton speech spoken here in Winnipeg or better than his tribute to Thomas D'Arcy McGee. Meighen had the three ingredients of oratory, and there are only three, a structure, there is beauty, and there is passion.

I once, in 1922, followed Lloyd George to the glens and mountains of Wales in a general election. I have heard Churchill again and again in Parliament and on the platform during an election. I heard Sir Wilfrid Laurier in three or four of his most memorable speeches. And I say this without fear of being contradicted, that in those three ingredients of oratory: structure, beauty and passion, Arthur Meighen at his highest and best was a narrow stripe beyond them all. He was not appreciated by the Canadian people. They say "well, why didn't he win elections?" Well, the other night I was rereading one of Lord Acton's essays on liberty and Acton spoke of Lord Liverpool who had been a great winner of elections in Britain. Acton said that Liverpool won the elections not despite his mediocrity but because of it. This often happens in our democratic life. It often happens and we have this saying in Ireland that to lose is sometimes better than to triumph. And victory is far, far less than defeat, and this happened to Meighen.

He was a fighting man. Tim Healey, they called him Tiger Tim, once brought down the British House of Commons, by applying to Joseph Chamberlain that magnificent passage from Job. "He smelled the battle from afar." He said, "ha, ha, and he delighted in the shoutings of the captains and the glittering shields and spears." That could have been said of Arthur Meighen when the waves went high, Meighen sought the stone but there was this about him despite that he was a fighting man, despite his mercilessness in debate, there is no record in the Hansard of the Parliament of Canada of Arthur Meighen ever having been called to order successfully. This was because he knew the language. His reading was fantastic, his memory was fantastic. I remember once he came to play a game of golf with me in Ottawa at the River Meade Gold Club. He arrived late as usual and he was carrying a book under his arm. He came down to the locker and put the book on a shelf on a bench and what do you think it was! Button's "History of Civilization." I expect this was the first time in the history of the world that Button's "History of Civilization" found itself in the locker room of a golf club. But this was the way this man operated.

Writing editorials in the Journal I had a habit of quoting poetry from memory, meaning that I was too lazy to go and look it up, I thought I could remember it and quoted it and Meighen would call me again and again and say: "O'Leary, you've misquoted that poetry." Now just consider this: one day I quoted a verse from Matthew Arnold, it was from Rugby Chapel: "Most men eddy about here and there, gather and squander love and hate, arraigned aloft and hurled in the dust; and then they die, perish, and no one who asks, who or what they have been, more than they ask what waves on the moon, its solitudes of the mid-most ocean have swelled only for a moment and gone." Meighen called me next day and he said, "Grattan, you left out the key word in that verse," and I said, "what was the key word." Meighen said "did you ever cross the ocean at night and see those little waves swell and fold and then go? Did it never occur to you that this could only happen on a mild, mild night and so what Arnold said, careful of every word, "the mid-most ocean mild."

This was Meighen, he knew poetry better than any man I have ever met. The late Leonard Brockington knew poetry and Brockington once was visiting Meighen in the hospital and before he left he quoted a line from Gray's "Elegy." Meighen said, "Brockington, you know a curious thing is that the best verse in Gray's "Elegy" is not in the anthology," and Brockington said "what is it?" Meighen quoted it and Brock said, "I'd like to take that down." Meighen dictated it to him. And Meighen said to him "next time you are in the Parliamentary library you find out, it's there somewhere." Brockington, when he went back to Ottawa went to the Parliamentary library and looked up this missing verse and he found that Meighen hadn't even missed a comma in the verse that he had quoted.

Then, of course, there is the story of his Shakespeare. Meighen was on a boat coming from Australia and he had a cablegram from the Canadian Club in Vancouver asking him if he would speak to them when he got to Vancouver and would he indicate to them what he would like to speak about, what the subject would be. He wired back his acceptance and said he would speak, the title of his address would be, "The Greatest Englishman in History," and of course, they thought, well, this is Nelson, or Drake, or somebody else. Nobody thought of Shakespeare. There was not a single book on that boat about Shakespeare. Nothing, and Arthur Meighen sat down and wrote out that address, came to Vancouver and again without a single solitary heading or note in front of him gave that remarkable speech on Shakespeare.

He came to Ottawa and repeated it and I remember it was a Saturday afternoon and the reporters went to him and said: "well, Mr. Meighen we just simply can't report this," and Mr. Meighen said, "well I tell you what I'll do (he was then leader in the Senate), "come on up to my office on the 7th and I'll dictate it to my stenographer and give you the copy." And he went up to his office and sat in his chair. Now standing up you can say things and get away with it, but to sit down? He sat down and he dictated that whole speech again, all over again, and it was a remarkable speech. Not merely the memory of the sonnets and the plays and so forth but Meighen's interpretation of them as he went along.

This, this was the man I knew and learned to love over the years. The curious thing was, Meighen, with all this literary fire, when he used the language of warfare, never referred to his opponents as opponents. They were always the foe. This is the way he spoke. Yet he had on the Liberal side of the house some very deep and lovable friends. One of the men who became a great friend of his was the Honourable Charles Murphy, a fighting Irishman, whose shillelagh very seldom slipped in his hand. He and Meighen became ardent friends. And one of the loveliest speeches Meighen ever delivered was the tribute he paid to Charles Murphy when he died. Now, mind you, I think that Murphy attracted him to some extent by the fact that Murphy got to hate Mackenzie King.

But I had another experience with him in London. You see, Meighen, although he came from the north of Ireland (his people did), was Irish to the very core, and before we went to England, a brother of John Redmond, Willy Redmond, who was killed in the Great War, came to Canada advocating home rule. And who do you think took the chair for him, Arthur Meighen. When Meighen was going to London, Charles Murphy who knew all about this wrote to T. P. O'Connor, the famous old Tay Pay, who had now become the father of the British House of Commons, telling him about Meighen and how he had taken the chair for Willy Redmond, and so on. When we got to London he also gave me a letter to O'Connor. One afternoon we went down to the House of Commons and Meighen, of course, was admitted to the strangers' gallery (the distinguished strangers' gallery) and Mr. Loren Christie and I sat with him.

There was a debate going on, on India, and finally the speaker caught the eye of T. P. O'Connor, being the father of the house, he would catch the speaker's eye very easily. He rose and immediately turned the subject to Ireland and said, "we have in the House today, in the distinguished strangers' gallery, the great and gallant prime minister of Canada and what does he believe in? Well go and read what he said when he was chairman for Mr. William Redmond in Canada." Meighen was absolutely thunderstruck by this. Not knowing where it came from or where they had gotten to know about it. However, I was then invited by O'Connor to a luncheon at 10 Marcus Mansion. You must know all about this. And I was amazed when I got there to find that he had brought along Mr. John Dillon, Mr. William O'Brien, Mr. T. P. Gill, Mr. Joe Devlin. These were the cream of what was then the old Irish Nationalist Party which had been a great party in its day. They asked me about Meighen what sort of a man was he, and I told them. And they said, "well do you think he'd come down some evening and just spend an evening with us here and talk?" I said "well I'll ask him." I was afraid to send this back to Canada because the Toronto Telegram was demanding that Meighen be impeached for treason because he was daring to oppose the British Government. And to send to Canada that he was now dining with the Irish Party; this, the Devil would pay altogether. So I said nothing about it but on a certain night Meighen came down with me and this was a glorious evening. Meighen knew more Irish history than they did. He recited part of it, I remember the speech, Thomas Francis Mars's speech of the sword, which was a great speech, Meighen could recite this. He could recite speeches and poetry and so forth.

They were absolutely delighted with him. He often told me the joy he got in that evening. But this was the sort of man the Canadian people never knew. They never knew Arthur Meighen. They thought he was cold, passionless. They thought he was merciless with his opponents, and he wasn't.

As a family man I know of no one who was more lovable, more attached to his family or more sentimental, and this went for his friends. But when in combat he was absolutely unbeatable. I have here the memoirs of Chubby Powell, who was a famous figure in the Liberal Party and a very gallant one. Chubby Power tells in this book, during the Conscription Crisis of Arthur Meighen going right to the city of Quebec, going downtown to speak to them to defend his position on Conscription. There were over 10,000 people at that meeting and many had gone there to prevent Meighen from speaking. Meighen began his speech and there were shouts to put him down, but putting Arthur Meighen down was not something easily done. This is how Power describes it: "He (Meighen) gradually took command of the crowd and overawed all his interruptors. It would be difficult to imagine anyone placed in a similar difficult position being able to overcome the obstacles that Meighen overcame that evening. I can only account for it by the thought that he had appeared to be alive, resourceful, sure of himself and unafraid. Before long it was seen that Meighen would not only be able to finish his speech but would receive the plaudits of the crowd. I have been at many of our most turbulent public confrontations, but never in my life, never has it been my privilege to witness such a demonstration of that sheer strength of a fighting personality. He made no attempt to please. He simply crushed opposition."

That was the man that the winds and the moods and idiosyncrasies of democracy robbed us of his full genius. I saw Meighen in his closing years, I saw him just before the darkness closed around him. I talked with him often. He talked about his past, about his failures. He had no bitterness whatsoever. He blamed himself.

I remember, after one election, saying to him "Aw, the people are stupid." He said, "Grattan, don't say that, the people are not stupid. I failed. I failed to get my message across." This is the thought he had. I remember one day, sitting in his home. He had the manuscripts of Mr. Green's biography he had been reading. I asked him if he had liked the book. He said, "yes, it was a good book." It was not the book he would have written himself, but it was a good biography. And I said to him, "Now, have you suggested any changes." He replied, "No, there are things in that book with which I disagree but it's his book and never, never would I suggest that he change a paragraph, a sentence or a word in it." Now this was typical of Meighen. Over the years I had many memories of him. Many conflicts with Meighen. He complained about something in the papers and we would argue about it, but it never made the slightest difference in our friendship. Now with Mr. Bennett it was different. If Mr. Bennett read something in the Journal he didn't like he cut you dead in the Rideau Club the next day. He thought he was punishing you. The next day he'd meet you just as jovial as ever. But on the following day, then you had to be chastised. Now this wasn't Meighen's way at all. Meighen wanted to argue with you, he'd argue it out and often he'd win the argument.

His closing days were sad. He had suffered humiliations and defeats. He had fallen upon evil days and evil times. But nothing that ever happened to Arthur Meighen could dim for his friends the memory of what he was nor lessen the regret for what he might have been.

Finally, you may ask why do I dwell so much on eloquence and words and debate and so on? I do, my friends, because I place tremendous stress on the value of words. Words are the things which distinguish us from the animals; words are the only things by which we communicate in this world; words, words whose transcendent meanings call up the best passions of all the bygone times-steeped through with tears of triumph and remorse-sweet and painful-and cleansed in fire.

Rudyard Kipling in this country spoke on words once. He told of a masterless man who rose up and discovered words-words as he put it, which walked up and down in the hearts of all his hearers and he went on to say that after all it was a phrase, that naked phrase, which made or unmade the kingdom from the glory.

That is why I dislike hearing our young people sneering at Parliament, sneering at eloquence, extolling what they call the strong silent man and speaking of the talking-shop on Parliament Hill. I remember many years ago in England going to hear that distinguished English woman, Rebecca West, speaking on the Mother of Parliaments. She told of many parties that had come there down the centuries; how they had fallen into decay, passed into extinction, and how other men and other parties had come after them with new hopes and new ideas and new aspirations. She said, "whatever you may say against them there is this that must be said for them, most of them cared a great deal for the common good." That is true, of our own country. We have had good men in Ottawa and bad. And some of the pages of history that make us, we would gladly wipe out. But when all is said and done, when the last word of censure has been spoken it still remains true, and the most cynical interpretation of history cannot deny that most of our people did care and do care for the common good. Those who hold differently betray ignorance and I think they invite pity.

They invite the thing that has come to so many areas of the earth where, because of cynicism and indifference and falsity to democracy, we see now that saddest of all things in the human story-the epitaph of a vanished freedom.

* The foregoing narrative has been taken from a tape-recording in which some portions were indistinct and thus indecipherable. The omission of these, however, does not breach the sequence of thought or disturb the burden of the theme. In a few other places a word or two, a brief phrase, here and there, could not be gathered without doubt from the transcript. Interpolations have therefore been made; it is hoped that they are kindred souls in harmony with the original words and phrases.

Page revised: 22 May 2010

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