- Thomas D’Arcy McGee. Vol. 2, The Extreme Moderate, 1857–1868 by David A. Wilson
Thomas D’Arcy McGee (1825–68) has slipped somewhat from the popular pantheon of Canadian thinkers and visionaries. This would be a surprise to those who attended his funeral in Montreal on 13 April 1868 following his assassination in Ottawa almost one week earlier. Between forty and fifty thousand people reportedly paid their respects at his house on St Catherine Street, fifteen thousand participated in the procession, and eighty or so thousand lined the streets as the [End Page 602] hearse went past. Canadians stunned by McGee’s grisly end had not known or heard of a funeral like it. In this second volume of a two-part biography, David A. Wilson has again done a masterful job in reviving the memory of McGee as the most eloquent Father of Confederation, and as one of the more controversial public figures in nineteenth-century Canada. With little in the way of available private correspondence, the biography is political rather than personal, but Wilson does not neglect McGee’s familial context in his meticulously researched portrayal of a gifted communicator whose life was marked not only by passion and fearlessness but also by insecurities and a battle with the bottle. It is a definitive biography that was awarded the prize for best book by the Political History Group of the Canadian Historical Association in 2012.
With the first volume focusing on McGee’s early years in Ireland, his nationalist activities with the Young Ireland movement, and his time in the United States as a journalist, the story here begins with his arrival in British North America in 1857, aged thirty-two. Invited by Irish Canadians in Montreal to represent their interests in both politics and print, McGee soon won a seat in the colonial Parliament. The revolutionary nationalist within him had faded, and he was now an ultramontane Catholic confident that his children could obtain religious schooling in their new setting. The newcomer wasted little time in formulating a vision for Canada that built on his Irish and American experiences; the Romantic nationalism of the Young Irelanders combined with McGee’s distaste for the excesses of American-style democracy to fashion his ideas for a great northern nationality bound, as he put it, “like the shield of Achilles, by the blue rim of ocean” (100). This was a political vision that, Wilson explains, positioned Canada as “a Burkean alternative to Paineite democracy” (167), and McGee also enthused about a separate Canadian monarchy. But the Burkean moderate that McGee strove to be would struggle with extremist elements, not only within his own personality, but also in the shape of the Irish revolutionary Fenian Brotherhood, born in New York the year after McGee’s departure for Montreal.
In Parliament, McGee sided initially with George Brown’s Reformers. Though Brown was firmly against separate schools for Catholics, McGee could not bring himself to align with the Liberal-Conservatives to whom the ultra-Protestant Orange Order lent its support. In the end, however, the intransigence of the Clear Grits group in the Reform ranks, a cool relationship with Premier Sandfield Macdonald, and the realization that John A. Macdonald’s party could deliver on separate schools despite the Orangemen, led McGee to cross the parliamentary floor [End Page 603] in 1863. The Scott Act of that year finally provided rights to separate schooling.
The first half of the book details McGee’s domestic political entanglements in the years when the idea of confederation was taking shape in Canada. His energy and conviviality were evident in multiple contexts, not least in his travels to the Maritimes, where he extolled the benefits of British North American union, as well as in his bringing a Maritime delegation to Canada in 1865. Wilson thus dubs McGee the “social convenor of Confederation” (207). And though later disagreements with John A. Macdonald and Brown led to McGee’s absence from negotiations in...