Manitoba History: Review: P. B. Waite, The Man from Halifax: Sir John Thompson, Prime Minister

by J. E. Rea
University of Manitoba

Manitoba History, Number 13, Spring 1987

This article was published originally in Manitoba History 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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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P. B. Waite. The Man from Halifax: Sir John Thompson, Prime Minister. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985. ix, 547 pp., photos. ISBN 0-8020-5659-8.

Peter Waite is the most elegant stylist now writing Canadian history in English. His talent has never shown to better advantage than in this excellent biography of Canada’s fourth Prime Minister. The wit and charm of the author’s prose ornament this study of Sir John Thompson, perhaps the most gracious biography to appear since Creighton’s Macdonald.

Thompson has lingered in unwarranted historical obscurity since his death in 1894. He was Prime Minister less than two years. But this is more than simply an attempt to rescue the reputation of one of our “unknown prime ministers.” Waite’s transparent sympathy and admiration for Thompson shine through; and it is difficult not to agree that, in terms of sheer intellectual power, only Meighen perhaps could rival him. As Minister of Justice, none could.

His weaknesses, as Waite concedes, were political. He had little of what we now call charisma. Indeed, he shunned publicity, hated making political speeches, dreaded campaigning and seldom spoke for effect. His decision to embrace Roman Catholicism was not calculated to advance one’s political career in nineteenth century Canada. (The waspish Lady Macdonald referred to Thompson as “that pervert”). Though he did not lack ambition, he was very much his own man and political preferment would always be on his terms. So he could be a difficult colleague.

Thompson’s political schooling was in the hurly-burly of Halifax municipal affairs and the bear pit of the Nova Scotia Assembly where personalities and invective were the usual stock in trade. When his talents were brought to the Prime Minister’s notice, Macdonald brought him straight into the Cabinet and the Justice portfolio.

It was not an auspicious moment for his debut. The Government was under severe attack by the Opposition for the rebellion in the North-West and its subsequent decision to deny clemency to Louis Riel. It was during the famous debate on the Landry motion, which superficially sought to censure the Government for Riel’s execution, but equally was intended to embarrass the divided Liberals, that Justice Minister Thompson made his first important speech in the House of Commons. In a letter to his wife, Annie, he described Riel as “a paltry hero who struggled so long and so hard for the privilege of hanging.”

In the House, with Macdonald and Chapleau away ill, the burden of defending the Government fell to Thompson. He agreed with the Manitoba Free Press, which concluded that “Riel was fairly tried, honestly convicted, laudably condemned and justly executed.” The telling point for Thompson’ was the charge that Riel had incited the Indians and was therefore the indirect author of the Frog Lake massacre. Anyone guilty of such an offence thus took “his life in his hand, and when he appeals to me for mercy, he will get justice.” A new Tory champion had arrived in the House and a potential successor to the aging Macdonald received his first national recognition.

Thompson was neither inhumane nor insensitive, despite his conviction that Riel had been rightly executed. He moved quickly to remove one of Canada’s most obviously barbaric judicial customs, executions bungled by incompetent hangmen under the authority of county sheriffs. When one poor wretch suffered for fourteen minutes after the trap was sprung, Thompson, with the agreement of the provinces, appointed a public executioner, one J. R. Radclive who had learned his unusual trade hanging pirates for the Royal Navy on the China station. It was, at least, a partial reform.

Thompson also wrought significant constitutional change in the thorny area of disallowance of provincial legislation. Macdonald and Mackenzie had used it frequently, often as an instrument of federal policy. After Macdonald’s death in the summer of 1891, Thompson never recommended disallowance again. In a typical Thompson opinion, he observed in a later context that if a provincial law was ultra vires, the courts would invalidate it; if it was intra vires, the Dominion should stay out of provincial affairs.

Two of Thompson’s foremost achievements are little known. As a determined nationalist, he rejected the British contention that its copyright law obtained in Canada. It took years of argument, sometimes bitter, before Thompson won his point and Canada had its own copyright legislation. This experience and others meant that he was never in awe of British political leaders. Indeed he had a very low opinion of some of them such as Lord Salisbury, whose acceptance of an Arbitration Treaty involving the United States Thompson described as “one of the worst acts of what I regard as a very stupid and worthless life!” But his monument was the codification of the criminal law. The Canadian Code, as Waite puts it, was “the plain distillation of seven hundred years of common law” adapted to Canadian use. It was a herculean task and occupied Thompson and his collaborators for years. But it gave to the law a continuing relevance, and despite a rough ride in Parliament its passage was hailed as a triumph.

Although the author would probably disagree, Thompson’s brief tenure as Prime Minister was somewhat anti-climactic. He simply had not the time to put his stamp on the party and we shall never know if, under his leadership, it would have survived the debacle of the Manitoba Schools Question. It is, I suppose, presumptuous to declare any historical study definitive, but this biography comes as close as one could wish and will remain a benchmark for late nineteenth century Canadian Studies. Whatever Waite’s private intentions, Thompson must never again be cast with the unknowns of our history.