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Stop #7 - 147 Beverley Street

William Lyon Mackenzie, John A. Macdonald and the question of alcohol

Map for location 7.
William Lyon Mackenzie's House
William Lyon Mackenzie's House

Many think of alcoholism when John A. Macdonald comes to mind. It's a shame because, although Macdonald undoubtedly abused drinking for twenty years, he was healed of its evils by the late 1870s when he returned to power in Ottawa. But for William Lyon Mackenzie King, Macdonald’s alleged fondness of the bottle became an obsession. King was Canada’s prime minister for most of the thirty years between 1920 and 1950. Long before rising to power, he lived at 147 Beverley Street with his parents (John and Isabel) while attending the University of Toronto from 1893 to 1896. He then left to continue his education in Chicago and at Harvard.

Young Mackenzie King actually saw John A. Macdonald in 1882 while the Prime Minister campaigned in King’s hometown of Berlin (now Kitchener), Ontario. He later recollected the following about that day: “What I remember from that occasion was not any political argument, but rather, that Sir John was presented with some flowers by a pretty young lady whom he then embraced.”

William Lyon Mackenzie King
William Lyon Mackenzie King Credit: Library and Archives Canada

It seems clear that Macdonald made a very positive first impression on the then eight year-old King. All his life, he remembered precisely where he was and what he was doing when he heard the news in June 1891 that Macdonald had died (King was 16 at that time).

Macdonald’s son, Hugh, was a friend of King’s father, and eventually became a good friend to Mackenzie King after he became Prime Minister.

Mackenzie King enjoyed social drinking as a young man and he continued to drink socially after he began his career as a public servant in Ottawa. His diary entry for 26 November 1909 recounts that Sir John Hanbury-Williams (the Governor General's Military Secretary) caught him with a drink in his hand and told him about “the care I should take in public life in the matter of wines etc. at any times. He felt I had a great career, he knew I would never want for financial help if it were needed, that I should be the premier of this country, but to look at Sir John Macdonald & see how his career had been marred by this one failing…”

Sir John A. Macdonald
Sir John A. Macdonald Credit: Library and Archives Canada

It seemed to have been an easy lesson to learn for the fiercely partisan King, who otherwise lived out a record-setting tenure as prime minister practically without ever mentioning Macdonald’s name publicly and with drinking very little! King, a devout and mostly teetotalling Presbyterian, often expressed a great deal of private concern about Sir John A. Macdonald’s attraction to alcohol. Macdonald haunted him in some way, and King was very happy when he passed Macdonald's nineteen years in power.

This is a good opportunity to confront the legend that Macdonald was a chronic drunkard. He was not. He drank regularly, like most men of that generation. But he would go on one of his legendary benders when life’s pressures were just too much.

After his first wife Isabelle died in 1857, leaving him alone with Hugh, he threw himself into work and drink. During the exertions and the parties of the Quebec conference of 1864, a friend discovered Macdonald standing in his room in front of a mirror, dressed in his nightshirt, reciting lines from Hamlet. He was not sober.

On the eve of Confederation, members of his cabinet complained about how drunk he was. In the late stages of negotiations with the Manitoba delegates in April 1870, Macdonald returned to drink. In some ways that combination of extreme stress and work was typical. Perhaps the worst period of drinking occurred in 1872–73, at the time of the election and the Pacific Scandal.

Macdonald never denied he was drinking. He never tried to hide it and never pretended to be more respectable than he was. He did once vomit on the platform when one of his adversaries was speaking. He had been drinking an awful lot. Imagine the scene: the speaker interrupted his speech and all eyes were on Macdonald. He turned to the audience and plainly said, “Mr. Chairman and gentlemen, I don’t know how it is, but every time I hear him speak it turns my stomach!”

Few people could get away with that sort of behaviour, but the audience just broke out in laughter.

There were plenty of drunks among Macdonald’s colleagues too, so it is not surprising that a temperance movement grew so strong in this country. When it came to assembling his first cabinet, Macdonald had to find a way of turning down his old friend and drinking companion Thomas D’Arcy McGee. “Look here, McGee” Macdonald said to him jokingly, “this government can’t afford two drunkards, and one of us has got to go.”

Finally, there’s the story of Macdonald walking home one night while he lived in Toronto - maybe even on this street. Macdonald met a tea merchant, a man he knew well, but who had never voted Tory. John Macdonald was pretty unsteady and needed help getting home. He appealed to the merchant: “I have known you for 25 years, and you’ve never given me a vote yet, but,” he added holding on to the merchant’s arm as headed home up this street, “you’ve got to support me this time.”

Drunk or sober, the man had a way with words.

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