Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thompson, John Sparrow David

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THOMPSON, Sir JOHN SPARROW DAVID (1844–1894), premier of Canada, born at Halifax, Nova Scotia, on 10 Nov. 1844, was son of John Sparrow Thompson, who had emigrated from Waterford, Ireland, to Nova Scotia, and became queen's printer in that colony. His mother was Charlotte Pottinger. John was educated at the public elementary schools and the free church academy in that city. He early gave evidence of great skill in debate. In 1859 he entered the office of Henry Pryor, attorney, and, learning shorthand, was employed as a reporter in the House of Assembly of Nova Scotia. He was called to the bar in January 1865. He soon acquired a good practice, but still kept his work as a reporter in the assembly, becoming in 1867 reporter in chief. This experience proved valuable to him. Having become an alderman of Halifax and chairman of the school commissioners, Thompson in December 1877 entered the House of Assembly of Nova Scotia as member for Antigonish. In 1878 he was re-elected after the general election, and became the local attorney-general in what is usually known as the Holmes-Thompson government, which made a great effort to abolish the Upper House in the local legislature. He became Q.C. in 1879. In 1881, on the retirement of Simon Holmes, he became premier. In July 1882 he was defeated on the municipal corporation bill, a measure designed to consolidate and purify the local administration of Nova Scotia, and therefore opposed to the private interests of large numbers of old office-holders. He was readily induced to retire from political life by the offer of the judgeship of the supreme court of Nova Scotia in 1882. Thompson not only performed with vigour the work of the court, but established a reputation as a jurist. The Nova Scotia Judicature Act of 1884 was a monument of his toil. He delivered a course of lectures at this time in the Dalhousie law school on ‘Evidence.’

In September 1885 Sir John Alexander Macdonald [q. v.] requested Thompson to become minister of justice for the Dominion, and on 16 Oct. 1885 he was elected to the House of Commons for Antigonish. He made his reputation in parliament by his speech of 20 March 1886, defending the action of the government in regard to the execution of Louis Riel [q. v.] In Quebec they called him ‘le pendard;’ in Ontario he was received with acclamation. His amendment of the banking law and codifications of the criminal law in 1886 were the chief legislative products of this period of his life. At the general election in February 1887 Thompson was returned, after a sharp contest, for Antigonish. Later in the year he made a tour through the North-West territories, inspecting the prisons under his charge as minister. Before the end of the year he accompanied Sir Charles Tupper to Washington as legal adviser to the British plenipotentiaries, who negotiated the fishery treaty of that year with the United States. For his services on this occasion he was made K.C.M.G. in August 1888.

In June 1891, on the death of Sir John Macdonald, Thompson was sent for by the governor-general, but stood aside in favour of Sir John Abbott. He took the lead, however, in the Dominion House of Commons, and when Abbott's health failed he became prime minister (November 1892).

In July 1893 Thompson proceeded to Paris as one of the court of arbitrators upon the Behring Sea fisheries question. In the session of 1894 the chief questions with which he dealt were the explanation of the Behring Sea award and the Manitoba schools question. He welcomed the delegates to the intercolonial conference on 28 June 1894. His last public speech in Canada was delivered in unveiling Sir John Macdonald's statue at Toronto. On 13 Oct. he left for England, partly on private business, which took him as far as Italy, partly to discuss the vexed question of copyright with the imperial government. He died suddenly at Windsor Castle on 13 Dec., shortly after he had been sworn of the privy council. His body was embalmed and taken for burial to Halifax, Nova Scotia, by her majesty's ship Blenheim. He was there accorded a state funeral.

Thompson married, in 1871, Annie, daughter of Captain Affleck, and left two sons and three daughters. He became a Roman catholic in the year after his marriage.

Sir John Macdonald was once heard to say, ‘My greatest discovery was Thompson.’ The two were often spoken of as ‘the two Johns.’ His devotion to public duty left him a poor man, and his colleagues promoted a national subscription for his family when he died. His portrait hangs in the conservative caucus room of the Dominion House of Commons.

[Montreal Daily Herald, 13 Dec. 1894; Montreal Gazette, 13 Dec. 1894; Toronto Globe, 13 Dec. 1894; Times, 13, 14, 15 Dec. 1894; Castell Hopkins's Life and Work of Sir John Thompson, 1895.]

C. A. H.