||Maker Of Manners
by Royce Macgillivray
GEORGE BROWN was one of the two Fathers of Confederation to die by assassination. The other was Thomas D`Arcy McGee. Brown was sitting in the office of his newspaper, the Toronto Globe, one afternoon in March 1880 when a former employee appeared in the doorway, demanding a letter of reference. In the verbal and physical scuffle that followed Brown was slightly wounded by a gunshot. Six weeks later he died of gangrene. The assassin, in accordance with the rigours of Canadian law at that time, was hanged.
It was one of the favourite medical beliefs of Brown`s contemporaries that someone was vulnerable to life-threatening infections if he was "run down" through depression and mental anxiety. This was most certainly the case with Brown. The Globe was in financial trouble. And calamitously, Brown`s cherished and costly stock-breeding venture near Brantford was burned out twice, probably by arson.
Yet Brown had extraordinary achievements to look back upon. He was one of the engenderers of the plan of Confederation, and had pushed it through to success in his role as a politician and as a journalist. He was one of the founders of the Liberal Party. Since the 1840s Brown had been one of the most significant educators of the Ontario mind through the press, parliament, and speaking platform. His most casual opinions were received with reverence by scores of thousands of the most industrious and progressive citizens of his province. Bow Park Farm had been the "largest agricultural enterprise in Canada" and was intended to lead the way in cattle breeding.
Had he lived, he would have done no more than to hang on to the shadow of these achievements.). M. S. Careless argues that from the mid-1870s Brown`s influence was waning in the Liberal Party, and that he was more and more out of place in a country that was turning away from the classic Adam Smith-style doctrines of free trade and non-government intervention in business in favour of protective tariffs and economic nationalism. Moreover "aggressive imperialism" was about to exert its fascination over the minds of the late-19th-century Anglo- Canadians. The new era "could not be Brown`s."
It was a question, indeed, what era was Brown`s? Obviously, he belonged in the most intimate sense to the ebullient, forward-looking Canada of the railroadbuilding, nation-building 1850s and 1860s. But in colonies and other dependent societies ideas and attitudes survive and are found to be perfectly useful long after they have faded into oblivion in their homelands. The greatest single British intellectual influence on English Canada up to the beginning of the 1880s was that of the Scottish Enlightenment. It lingered long in Canada, just as its successor Victorianism was to linger in its turn far into the 20th century. And Brown was the last of the great men produced by the Scottish Enlightenment.
Scots abounded in Brown`s Canada. But perhaps the fact that Brown was both a Lowlander (his father`s side) and a Highlander (his mother`s side) made him if anything less a Scot than if he had been one of these exclusively. For Scots at least, the difference between Highlander and Lowlander was important. But Brown`s supremacy was always personal more than ethnic. George Brown had been born in Scotland in 1818, just as that great intellectual movement which for two generations had made Scotland an intellectual centre of world importance was coming to its end. His father Peter Brown had been a member in good standing of the most prestigious Edinburgh literary circles. But even before the Browns had arrived in Canada the Enlightenment ideas were being advanced by the Presbyterian clergy -- just as they were later to be by the Globe.
The Scottish Enlightenment was particularly suited to nation building. Next to the question of how the human mind operated, its object of enquiry had been the functioning of the mechanisms of state and society. It had a superbly rationalistic indifference to the claims of the past and therefore to all vested interests. Its adherents could address themselves to the problem of what should be done here and now, not what had been done in the dead or dying past. Predominantly, it was a movement of theorists. George Brown was as close as it came to a man of action. And Brown was curiously defective as a man of action: an ingenious inventor in the line of state formation rather than a dedicated manager of established institutions. Creativity, not management, was his metier. His political career was passionate, but discontinuous, sporadic. He lacked the patience, the tolerance, of Sir John A., who was both an inventor and a manager. The Globe was the only institution Brown cared to discipline himself to manage on a long-term basis.
Brown clashed memorably with the French Canadians and with the Roman Catholics on the subjects of denominational schools and the separation of church and state. The Liberal Party was closely associated in its origins with these forms of strife and nothing is more remarkable in Canadian political history than the fact that the Liberal Party outlived them to be a favourite of 20th- century Quebec. George Brown`s Enlightenment views satisfied and delighted a wide constituency in Ontario. But here was one of the few instances where they jarred with the facts of the contemporary world -- the critical fact here being the 19th-century post-French-Revolution revival in Europe and elsewhere of the Roman Catholic church.
Brown was celebrated for the abusive, denunciatory tone of the Globe. Later his brother Gordon and others took it up as they came to write the Globe editorials. One of the henchmen was delighted to have his editorials attributed by the public to the great George himself but was intrigued by "the lamentation of our opponents that the writing indicated him to be far gone in senility." In the immediate aftermath of the assassin`s attack -- when the wound was not thought to be dangerous -- Goldwin Smith wrote that
if the attacker "had used a horsewhip, perhaps the wave of public indignation would have been less universal." In truth, Brown was a target as well as an aggressor so far as the volleys of abuse were concerned. Such was the political and journalistic dialogue of the day. None of it bothered him much. It is hard think that one of the most profound differences between Brown`s generation and people of today lies in a drastically reduced capacity to sustain personal abuse.
The present volumes are an unaltered reprint, with no new material, of J. M. S. Careless`s superb life of Brown, first published in 1959 to 1963 and long since securely established as one of the glories of Canadian scholarship. The writing is rich and vivid, the chewy sentences an utter delight; the book is as solid as Brown himself And this is all the more impressive because Careless was dealing with a man whose powerful mind and amiable personality seem to have revealed frustratingly little inner life.