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Stop #6 - George Brown House

Macdonald and Brown

Map for location 6.
George Brown House
George Brown House

George Brown was Macdonald’s greatest political rival. He was a man who made quite an impression. Standing over six feet tall, he was powerfully built, and had energy to burn. One contemporary said that people would, “turn about on the street to stare in wonderment at the majestic progress of this human steam engine.”

Brown and Macdonald fought on all the most important issues of their day like the secularization of the clergy reserves, representation by population, educational reform, and franchise extension.

George Brown is well remembered in Toronto with five plaques and a statue at Queen’s Park. He was born in Scotland (like Macdonald) in 1818 and followed the family to New York City in 1837. He settled in Toronto in 1843 and founded The Globe the following year. He was a fierce advocate of reform and liberalism. In 1850 he co-founded the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada and remained, along with his sister Isabella, dedicated to the cause of helping slaves escape the American South.

George Brown
George Brown Credit: Library and Archives Canada

He entered Parliament in 1851 and in 1857 rose to head the Reform party (a.k.a. – the ‘Clear Grit’ party) that eventually became the Liberal Party. He supported, among other things, the separation of church and state, the annexation of Rupert's Land, and small government. But the most important issue for George Brown was what he termed representation by population, more commonly known as "rep by pop".

Let us put all this in context. After the Rebellions in the 1830s, the British government chose to unite Lower and Upper Canada into a single province of “Canada” that had two administrative components: Canada East (or Quebec) and Canada West (or Ontario). When the new regime was created in 1841, Francophone-dominated Canada East had a larger population, but the British colonial administration hoped that it would be pacified by a coalition of Loyalists from French-speaking Canada East and loyalists from Canada West. The plan did not work, and people like Brown found that French Canadians had too much power.

In the 1850s, as the population of Canada West grew larger than the French-speaking population of Canada East, Brown argued that the larger population deserved to have more representatives, rather than an equal number. Brown's passionate pursuit of this goal of righting what he perceived to be a great wrong to Canada West was accompanied at times by stridently critical remarks against French Canadians and the power exerted by the Catholic population of Canada East over the affairs of largely Protestant Canada West. He hated the fact that Macdonald was able to form governments with a majority of French Canadians supporting him.

Sir John A. Macdonald
Sir John A. Macdonald Credit: Topley Studio / Library and Archives Canada

Brown recognized that Canada had to change and gradually overcame his deep hostility to Macdonald and decided to work with him. In 1864 he entered the "Great Coalition" government with his adversary and was active in the key Charlottetown conference that cemented the idea of Confederation, as well as the Quebec conference that took place a year later.

Brown did not last long in government. He resigned a year later over trade with the United States. Brown thought Canada should pursue a policy of free trade, but John A. Macdonald and thought Canada should raise tariffs.

In 1867, Brown was effectively the leader of the English-speaking opposition Liberals in the election. He was also the leader of the provincial Liberals and ran for a seat in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. He failed to win election to either chamber. In 1873, he was made a senator. Six years later, a former employee shot him at the Globe office and, seven weeks later on May 9, 1880, Brown died.

Macdonald once said, “The great reason why I have always been able to beat Brown is that I have been able to look a little ahead, while he could on no occasion forego the temptation of a temporary triumph.” That judgment has stood the test of history. Macdonald also said to an audience “I know you would rather have John A. drunk than George Brown sober.”

That leads us to the delicate subject of Macdonald and drink.

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