Abbott, John Joseph Caldwell (DNB01)

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ABBOTT, Sir JOHN JOSEPH CALDWELL (1821–1893), premier of Canada, was born at St. Andrew's, in the county of Argenteuil, Lower Canada, on 12 March 1821.

His father, Joseph Abbott (1789-1863), missionary, born in Cumberland in 1789, went to Canada as a missionary in 1818, became the first Anglican incumbent of St. Andrew's, and is still favourably known by his story of 'Philip Musgrave' (1846). He died in Montreal in January 1863. He married Harriet, daughter of Richard Bradford, the first rector of Chatham in the county of Argenteuil.

His eldest son, John Joseph, was educated privately at St. Andrew's, removed to Montreal at an early age, and entered McGill University. He took the degree of B.C.L. in 1847. Throughout his life he maintained a close connection with the university, holding the position of dean in the faculty of law for several years, and becoming subsequently one of the governors. He received in his later life the honorary degree of D.C.L.

Abbott was received as advocate at the bar of Montreal in October 1847, devoting his attention to commercial law. In 1862 he was made queen's counsel. He was appointed solicitor and standing counsel for the Canadian Pacific Railway Company in 1880, and became director in 1887.

In company with the Redpaths, Molsons, Torrances, and others, Abbott signed in 1849 the Annexation Manifesto, the promoters of which expressed a wish that Canada should join the United States. But apart from this temporary ebullition of discontent his essential loyalty was never doubtful. On the rumour of the Trent affair in 1861 he raised a body of three hundred men called the 'Argenteuil Rangers' (now the 11th battalion of militia), proffered his services to the government, and was employed in patrolling the frontier. He was afterwards commissioned as lieutenant-colonel of the regiment.

In 1857 he contested the representation of his native county of Argenteuil. He was not returned but claimed the seat and, after an investigation that lasted two years, obtained and held it until 1874. In 1860 he published the proceedings under the title of 'The Argenteuil Election Case.' It gives a vivid picture of the ways of election committees in old Canada, and of the shifts common at the polls. In 1862 he entered as solicitor-general east the (Sandfield) Macdonald-Sicotte government, a liberal administration which adopted as its principle a somewhat peculiar phase of parliamentary development known as 'the double majority.' This meant that, inasmuch as the Union Act of 1841 gave equal representation to Upper and Lower Canada, and the equality itself was founded on practical as well as on historical and racial grounds, no ministry should be satisfied with the confidence merely of the whole house; it must command a majority from each section of the province. The device was found to be unworkable, and the ministry was defeated in 1863, within a year of its formation. The house was thereupon dissolved, the cabinet reformed, and the programme recast. In the recasting the 'double majority' was abandoned, and hopes were held out that the representation problem would be solved on the basis of population merely. This change brought about the retirement both of Sicotte, the French-Canadian leader, and of Abbott, who was the ministerial representative for the English of Lower Canada. From this time forth he leaned to the conservatives. When the issue of confederation arose in 1865 he joined them openly.

Short as was his term of office, it was by no means unfruitful. He introduced the use of stamps in the payment of judicial and registration fees in Lower Canada, a reform much needed at the time; he consolidated and remodelled the jury law, which obtains in Quebec to-day almost as he left it; he drafted and carried through the house an act respecting insolvency, which is the foundation of Canadian jurisprudence on that subject. His object was to fuse into a consistent whole the leading principles of English, French, and Scottish law on the question, and his attempt is generally regarded as a success. The year following he published 'The Insolvent Act of 1864,' with notes to show the general framework of the statute, the sources of its provisions, their juridical harmony and bearing.

In 1873 Abbott's name figured largely in what is called the 'Pacific Scandal.' A year earlier he had become fellow-director with Sir Hugh Allan in the first project to build the Canada Pacific Railway. As the elections were at hand Sir Hugh undertook to advance certain sums to the conservative leaders, and disbursed the money through Abbott, then his confidential adviser. The total amount acknowledged to have been thus received and spent exceeded 25,000l. After the elections, which were favourable to the conservatives, copies of correspondence and vouchers regarding the moneys came into the hands of the opposition through a clerk in Abbott's office, who absconded shortly afterwards. The house declined to accept the explanation that these sums were used in a strictly honourable if not legal way, and forced the government to resign. On appeal to the constituencies in 1874, the conservatives were utterly routed. Abbott was returned for his old constituency, but was afterwards unseated on the petition of Dr. Christie. Four years later, in 1878, he was again a candidate, and, though defeated, managed to upset the election. In the next appeal, 1880, he had a majority, but the return was set aside once more. A new election was held in 1881. This time he received an overwhelming vote. He was then left in undisturbed possession of Argenteuil till 1887, when he was summoned to the senate.

His chief legislative work during these years had reference to banking; his principal public employment was as delegate to England in connection with the dismissal of Mr. Letellier de St.-Just from the position of lieutenant-governor of Quebec. The lieutenant-governor's action in dismissing his local advisers had been pronounced unconstitutional by both branches of the Canadian legislature, and the Dominion cabinet thereupon recommended his removal. At the instance of the Marquis of Lome, the governor-general, the question was referred to England. Abbott succeeded in his mission of securing the home government's assent to the dismissal, and the advice of the Dominion cabinet was accepted by the governor-general. From 1887 to 1889 Abbott was, mayor of Montreal.

He sat in the senate for the division of Inkerman in Quebec, his summons bearing date 13 May 1887. At the same time he was sworn of the Canadian privy council, and became a member of the cabinet of Sir John Alexander Macdonald [q. v.], without portfolio. Until the death of Macdonald in 1891 he acted as the exponent of the government's policy in the upper house. As Sir John Sparrow David Thompson [q. v.] declined to accept the premiership on Macdonald's death, Abbott was prevailed on to take it with the post of president of the council, the other cabinet members retaining their portfolios (June 1891). He was then in his seventy-first year and in declining health; on the other hand, the troubles of the ministry were deepening day by day, particularly in connection with the Manitoba school question. He found the burden more than he could bear, and resigned office. on 5 Dec. 1892. Retiring into private life, he sought in vain restoration to health by foreign travel. On 24 May 1892 he was nominated K.C.M.G. He died at Montreal on 30 Oct, 1893. In 1849 he married Mary, daughter of the Very Rev. T. Bethune of Montreal.

[Dent's Canadian Port. Gall. iii. 229; Dent's Last Forty Years, ii. 423-30, 479, 526-8, 534; Report of Royal Commission, Canada, 17 Oct. 1873; Can. Sess. Papers (1879), Letellier Case; Morgan's Dom. Ann. Reg. (1879); Todd's Pari. Govt, in Col. pp. 601-20, 665; Cote's Pol. Appointments, pp. 25, 68, 171; Gemmill's Parl. Companion (1892); Toronto Globe, 31 Oct. and 2 Nov. 1893.]

T. B. B.