Sir John Abbott (1821-1893), third prime minister of Canada (1891-1892). He was an able man, astute and steady as prime minister in a difficult political situation. He had no driving political ambition, was not identified with any notable policy, and neither aroused nor sought public enthusiasm.
John Joseph Caldwell Abbott was born on March 12, 1821, at Saint Andrew's, Argenteuil County, in the province of Lower Canada (now Québec). His father, a clergyman, came to Saint Andrew's in 1818 and married the daughter of a neighboring clergyman. Abbott graduated in law from McGill University in Montréal, was admitted to the provincial bar in 1847, and practiced law in Montréal. He became an authority on commercial law and built up a flourishing practice.
|III||EARLY POLITICAL CAREER|
Abbott's political career began in 1857 when, as a Liberal, he ran for election from Argenteuil County to the legislative assembly of the Province of Canada. The election was disputed, and it was two years before Abbott was declared elected. In 1862 he served as attorney general in the government of John A. Macdonald and L.V. Sicotte.
Abbott was among those who supported the idea of confederation, or the unity of all British and Canadian lands in North America into one country. As part of this support, in 1865 Abbott shifted his allegiance from the Liberals to the Conservatives. In 1867, the federation known as the Dominion of Canada was formed and Abbott was elected to the new federal legislature.
Abbott was a close associate of shipping magnate Sir Hugh Allan, one of the first promoters of the Canadian Pacific railway. In 1873, documents stolen from Abbott's office touched off the Pacific Scandal. The documents revealed Allan's contributions to the Conservative Party at a time when he was negotiating with the government for the right to build the railway. The resulting scandal held up negotiations for several years. In 1873, in the election following the Pacific Scandal, Abbott was defeated after his opponent demanded a recount.
In 1880, the railroad company was formed again and Abbott served as its legal counsel, later becoming director of the company.
In 1881 Abbott was elected to the House of Commons, and he survived a general election to hold the seat until 1887. In that year he was appointed to the Senate for the Inkerman division of Quebec, and at the same time he joined the Conservative government of Sir John A. Macdonald, acting as government leader in the Senate. From 1887 to 1889 he was mayor of Montréal.
The election of 1887, although it returned the Conservatives to power, left the party on the defensive. The Conservatives now faced a developing economic depression and the bitter racial and religious legacy of Riel's Rebellion, a provincial reaction against federal authority that brought about the creation of the province of Manitoba. At 72, Prime Minister Macdonald began to look for a successor. The most likely candidate, Sir Charles Tupper, the Canadian high commissioner in London, declined to accept leadership of the party for several years. A religious conflict had the effect of temporarily disqualifying another possible successor to Macdonald, Sir John Thompson, the minister of justice. Thompson's ability and his mastery of the House of Commons had won him the prime minister's confidence, but his conversion to Roman Catholicism had lost him the goodwill of many of his colleagues of other denominations. Also, as the minister responsible for executing Louis Riel, who had led the rebellion in Manitoba, Thompson had less popular support than Abbott.
Macdonald was elected once again in 1891. When he suffered a stroke in May and died a week later, his choice for a successor was not clear. Because the Conservatives held a majority, their new leader would be prime minister, but because the party had never changed leaders before, there was no special method for doing so. As a result, the British governor-general, Lord Stanley of Preston, would have to make the formal choice of a new prime minister. Lord Stanley waited for the politicians to sort out their own problems before deciding.
The possible candidates had been reduced to Thompson and Abbott. Thompson, at 47, was the younger by 23 years and would clearly be an acceptable choice. A majority of the Cabinet and of Conservative members of Parliament would have accepted him. However, because Thompson was Roman Catholic, his leadership would have offended Protestants in Ontario, where the party's majority was slim. When Lord Stanley sent for him, Thompson declined to be prime minister and advised the selection of Abbott instead, because Abbott was less likely to damage the Conservatives' electoral chances.
As prime minister, Abbott did not assume the direction of any department but took the titular office of president of the Privy Council. He also remained in the Senate, the first prime minister to sit there. Except for some exchanges of departments, the new ministry was the same as the old. Thompson continued as minister of justice and became government leader in the House of Commons. The government did not face a general election, but in 1892 a series of by-elections to fill vacant seats increased the Conservative majority in the House of Commons substantially.
Abbott's government redistributed parliamentary seats in accordance with the census of 1891. It reorganized the Department of Customs and the Department of Inland Revenue, reducing their ministers temporarily to non-Cabinet rank and creating the new Department of Trade and Commerce. It began a codification of Canadian criminal law. Although the Conservatives had been reelected in 1891 on a platform that condemned unrestricted free trade, Abbott was willing to admit a number of manufactured goods from the United States duty-free. Also, by protesting to Britain, Abbott's government succeeded in stopping the Bond-Blaine Agreement of 1892. According to this agreement, Newfoundland, not yet a member of the Canadian Confederation, and the United States would have made an independent agreement on trade and fisheries damaging to Canadian interests. However, the government's simultaneous attempt to bring Newfoundland into the Canadian federation was unsuccessful.
The most controversial issue to face Abbott's government was legislation for the benefit of the Roman Catholic minority in Manitoba's non-denominational public schools. In 1870 a dual system of Roman Catholic and Protestant schools had been established in Manitoba with public funds. However, by 1890 the relative number of Roman Catholics had decreased dramatically, and public funding for Manitoba's Roman Catholic schools was abolished by the provincial premier. In 1892 the judicial committee of the Privy Council, the British advisory board in Canada, upheld Manitoba's 1890 law, but also stated that the federal government could restore these privileges if it desired. Eventually, Abbott's administration simply passed this problem to the next administration, and it remained at the forefront of Canadian politics for several more years.
The main burden of Abbott's government fell on Thompson, rather than on Abbott. In addition, it was Thompson who defended the government against charges of favoritism and corruption in the granting of government contracts and licenses. Although none of these charges was directed against members of the Cabinet, they nonetheless tarnished a number of Conservative reputations. Mainly, however, these charges succeeded only in keeping the government on the defensive. The party's relative success was due partly to Thompson's debating powers and partly to the conveniently timed defeat of the Liberals in Québec because of similar charges of corruption.
In November 1892, Abbott's doctors warned him that he must retire. In his letter of resignation he advised the governor-general to send for Thompson. Abbott had already informed Thompson of his intention. There appears to have been no other consultation. Abbott lived quietly for 11 months, until his death in 1893.