John A. Macdonald and Strong Drink

In Anecdotal Life of Sir John Macdonald (1891),  Emerson Bristol Biggar writes about John A’s drinking problem in a restrained way, but with sufficient details to give an indication of the scope of the problem.

Sir John’s unfortunate habit of indulging in strong drink but for which he might have lived ten or fifteen years yet in the full vigor of his intellect, and so have extended a career that would have been absolutely without a parallel in the history of the world’s legislators and prime ministers— has already been alluded to. Of late years, owing to the carer solicitude and good counsel of his wife, and to other causes which will be spoken of elsewhere, he gained control of this appetite, and limited himself to a very small allowance each day. At one time, however, more especially the period between the death of his first wife and his second marriage, he frequently gave way to drink, sometimes absenting himself from work for days at a time, and paying little heed to the quality of liquor he drank, or the standing of the place at which he got it. But even at such times his mind retained its seat, and he never allowed his tongue to run loose.

Once he went to speak against a Reform candidate in a North Ontario constituency. When he mounted the platform,, after having taken too much strong drink and being shaken over a rough track on the train, he became sick and vomited on the platform while his opponent was speaking. Such a sight before a large audience disgusted even many of his friends, and the prospect for the Conservative cause that day was not bright. The opposing candidate, whom we will call Jones, ceased speaking, and John A. rose to reply. What could he say, or how could he act to redeem himself and gain respect or attention ?” Mr. Chairman and gentlemen,” he began, “I don’t know how it is, but every time I hear Mr. Jones speak it turns my stomach!” The conception was so grotesque and so unexpected, that the audience went off in fits of laughter, and disgust was instantly turned into general good humor and sympathy.

At one time complaints were pretty numerous among prominent Conservative members of the drinking habits of Thomas D’Arcy McGee. A member came to John A. and said, “You must speak to him. This sort of thing is a disgrace.” After putting them off for some time, John A. went to McGee and said, “Look here, McGee, this Government can’t afford two drunkards, and you’ve got to stop.”

Four or five years ago a temperance delegation came down to Ottawa from the West to urge some temperance reforms, followed the next day by a large delegation from the Licensed Victuallers’ Association, who strongly presented the “liquor side” of the question. Meeting Sir John after this, Mr. S. E. Gregory, one of his old supporters from Ontario, asked him how he was going to get out of this difficulty, and yet please both sides. “We’ll give them a dose of Gregory’s Mixture,” replied Sir John instantly, “that will bring them round all right.”

Akin to this was his remark when the names of the two candidates for Hamilton, at a former election, were submitted to him. One was D. B. Chisholm, a prominent advocate of temperance, and the other was Peter Grant, the brewer. On asking the occupations of the men, Mr. Grant was given by mistake as a distiller. “Where could you get a better combination than that,” said John A.—”good water and good whisky.”

Though the fact may not be creditable to human nature, Sir John’s very weakness was a secret of his popularity with a certain class of men, and he did not hesitate to take advantage of the weakness when the occasion served his purpose. Once he caused great applause in his audience when he said, “I know enough of the feeling of this meeting to know that you would rather have John A. drunk than George Brown sober.”

Going home one night, while he lived at Toronto, he met Mr. L , the tea merchant, who, though one of his many personal friends, was a life-long Reformer. Sir John was a little unsteady, and wishing company home said, “L , I have known you for twenty-five years, and you’ve never given me a vote yet; but,” he added as he took his friend’s arm, “you’ve got to support me this time.”

When Prince Arthur visited Canada, a reception was given him at the Capital, and it was arranged that the members of the Cabinet should meet privately in their Windsor uniforms, just before the reception. One of the ministers, Mr. V , who was not himself an exemplar of temperance principles, tried on his cocked hat, and one of the company observed that it was not a fit. “No,” said Sir John, looking at the subject of remark, “you look as if a cock’-tail would suit you better than a cocked hat.”

When the prohibition bill was introduced four or five years ago, the Hon. C. I,angelier said to Sir John, “I hope you don’t intend to let that go through. It would kill us all in our province.” “Yes,” replied the Premier, “and it would kill me at home too.”

For more information on John A Macdonald and drinking see John A. Macdonald and the Bottle by Ged Martin (Journal of Canadian Studies Fall 2006),

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