Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Sir John A. of Ebrius: No Stomach for the Opposition

Another legend of John A. Macdonald's drunken capers has come to my attention through Christoper Moore's 1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal.  It really is a shame that JAM is remembered for his drunkenness, but here I am contributing to such immaturity.

Andrew Hutchinson.
Magpie and WhiskyJack

Moore writes, "Weeks into a progressive drunk, Macdonald once horrified an election crowd by vomiting on the stage when he got up to answer his opponent - and then won them back by saying, 'I don't know how it is, but every time I hear Mr. Jones speak it turns my stomach.'"

Andrew Hutchinson places Macdonald's penchant for the bottle in the context of legendary big-drinkers. In the interesting medium of  encaustic, the colourization of beeswax, Hutchinson has completed a whole series of fun and flippant Canadian historical portraits.  The encaustic paintings are 1 meter wide and nearly 1.5 meters high.  Check out Hutchinson's work at his website.

Sir John the Scrapper

One may not think of John A. Macdonald as the type of man to resort to blows, but there were times when the red Scottish temper would boil over and get the better of him.  In a session of the parliament of the Province of Canada in 1861, Macdonald's future rival and former legal pupil, Oliver Mowat, was the target of a violent outburst from the future Prime Minister Sir John.

Oliver Mowat  H104-09
Macdonald had taken his seat after a speech which argued for a powerful central government.  The breakout of the American Civil War, with the cannons firing at Fort Sumter only a week before lent a credence to his suggestion for the federal government to hold robust overarching powers. In Macdonald's speech he had chastised Mowat for supporting representation by population, but Mowat took offence to being misrepresented.  Donald Creighton describes the ensuing furor in The Young Politician (1956):

"There must have been some provocation in his remarks - some charge that Macdonald had wilfully falsified his views.  Macdonald gasped.  These impertinences were actually coming from the fat boy who had been his inky junior at school and his respectful apprentice at law!  Suddenly, as the plump bespectacled, rather self-important little man finished his statement, Macdonald's brittle temper was shattered into splinters as at a blow.  In a minute - as soon as the Speaker had left the chair - he walked quickly across the gangway.  Blind rage in his heart, he confronted Mowat.

'You damned pup,' he roared, 'I'll slap your chops!' 
Pete DeCourcy gives Sir John a hard left.  Drawn by Leonard Kirk.  ComicBookDaily

Thursday, December 16, 2010

John A. Macdonald and the Dancing Bear

Most Canadians when asked to describe something about their first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald will report that he was a drunk.  It must be admitted that the man had a particular affinity for the bottle, and legendarily was caught clutching his desk for stability during the crisis of the Fenian raids.  It is reported that when delivering a particularly tricky oration in the parliament of the Province of the Canadas, that a number of his supporters, not knowing of each other's efforts, delivered a glass of gin to the speaker, cleverly disguised as a glass of water.  John A. Macdonald (not yet knighted for his service to Britain as architect of confederation) was inspired by the juniper juice and treated his listeners to a rousing speech.  For all these myths of debauchery, however, it seems slightly sad that a man whose later life was so dedicated to the national dream should be primarily remembered for falling off the waggon.

This being said, a recent read of the first volume of Donald Creighton's classic 1956 biography of the PM, The Young Politician provoked a contribution to the legend of JAM's party life.  Apparently Macdonald befriended a young Scotsman by the name of John Rose, living in Montreal in the early 1840s or late 1850s.  The following is Creighton's amazing description of a badly behaving man in his thirties:

"They were lighthearted and still fairly irresponsible young men who enjoyed life to the full without taking it very seriously; and once, when Macdonald at least was old enough to know better, they went off on an absurd adventure in the United States, and wandered around as travelling showmen, with Rose capering around as a dancing bear, and Macdonald playing some 'rude instrument' in accompaniment."  (Creighton, 243).