George Brown Haiku

Always known drunkard

Would wind up the death of him,

Shocked it’s not John A.

It is a truth universally acknowledged by Canadian historians that if you were an anglophone of any note in 19th century Canada, there was an even chance you were a Scot. George Brown (Father of Confederation, founder of the Toronto Globe, First President of the I Hate John A Macdonald Club) was no exception.

Brown was born in the town of Alloa in Scotland in 1818. The family pulled up stakes and moved to New York City in 1837. In 1843, after a lot of trips up north to Canada, he decided to live there instead. He thought parliamentarianism > republicanism, you see. But don’t you go thinking he was some hidebound Tory-type, no no no!

A year after the move, Brown debuted a wee newspaper called The Globe, which rapidly increased in readership and became a daily paper in response. Brown unabashedly used the paper as an organ for what would later become the Liberal Party (name me a 19th century North American newspaper that wasn’t obviously aligned with one political party or another.)

People who liked George Brown, other than Liberals: Black Canadians. He helped found the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada, which campaigned to end the practice entirely on the whole of the continent, and also provided more practical assistance in aiding the Underground Railroad. He was super pro-Union, surprise surprise, when the Civil War broke out, and Globe readers got hear all about it.

People who hated George Brown, other than Tories and John A Macdonald: French Canadians and Catholics. All his bigoted impulses were directed towards them, and again, Globe readers got to hear all about it. If a meteor struck the French Catholic-dominated Lower Canada, he’d be dancing on the ashes.

Yeah, he was a supporter of representation by population and the separation of church and state. A large part of this was driven by noble motives. The other part was driven by his desire to see Lower Canada put in what he saw was its place.

The rep-by-pop thing, for example. From our 21st century perspective, it just makes sense, right? The problem was that at that time, the two Canadas, united under responsible government, were given equal political power. In the beginning, that was to ensure the then-more populous Lower Canada, with all its suspect French people, wouldn’t have control over the anglo-dominated Upper Canada. But times changed, the population shoe was on the other foot, and suddenly, there was a lot more support for rep-by-pop in the UC! Huh! Especially with people who really hated Catholics! Hmmm! I wonder if that means something!

Moving on. One of Brown’s earliest and most important dust-ups with his great foe, John A Macdonald, occurred in 1849 when Brown released his findings of the conditions at the Kingston Penitentiary. They were… not good. Like, I’m pretty sure it’s not really okay to flog imprisoned youths because they laughed or whistled. John A’s beef: the warden, Henry Smith Sr, was the father of a close friend of his. So instead of considering the report with anything approaching objectivity, John A attacked Brown, calling him a liar and nearly inciting a goddamned duel between two. (They didn’t speak for eight years after this incident. Fuck’s sake.)

George Brown became an actual elected representative in 1851 (still running his newspaper, because he could) and soon became the head of the Clear Grits (the future Liberal Party). Alas for him, try as he might, John A Macdonald out-played him at every turn, culminating in Brown becoming Premier… for four days. (The whole weird incident was dubbed the ‘Double Shuffle’ and I am NOT getting into it right now.)

So how did this guy, who’d happily treat John A to a little chin music if he could’ve got away with it, wind up as a Father of Confederation? The first step, I think, was making a really, really good marriage.

Anne Nelson (born 1827) was beautiful, intelligent, cultured, and educated, and when Brown met her when visiting his old school chum / her brother in the UK, he fell like a lump. Brown, furthermore, wasn’t one of those men who felt resentful if their wife was smarter and better educated than him – that just meant better conversations.

Anne not only mellowed him out and provided for him a home life that made him goofily happy ’til the end of his days, but she advised him on political business. In fact, she was probably the one that got him to get the stick out of his ass, start working with John A, George-Étienne Cartier and Crew, break the political deadlock that was preventing anyone from getting anything done in the Canadas, and get the Confederation ball rolling.

And after Confederation became a done deal, he was also pretty much done with being an active member of government (although he did get a senate seat in 1874.) Done with politics, though? Heck, no! Not when John A was still around to complain about! So he split his available time between his newspaper and his lovely wife and their three children.

George Brown died in 1880, one of the precious few Canadian politicians to die via a bullet – but it wasn’t a political assassination. You see, there had been a night engineer in charge of the boiler room at The Globe offices. I say ‘had’, because George Bennett got drunk on the job, nearly causing an accident with the boiler. Now, I am sometimes a sympathetic person, but I would not personally let a drunk man stay in charge of a piece of equipment that could explode and set everything on fire. Brown was of the same mind; Bennett was fired. Bennett spent the next month drinking and alternately engaging in self-pity and swearing revenge.

On March 25, he took a pistol to his old workplace, then wandered around chatting with and threatening his former coworkers. (I’m sure security at the Toronto Globe is better these days.) Then he went to see Brown, who refused to give him a reference. A scuffle ensued, ending in a seemingly minor wound in Brown’s thigh. No problem! He’d be back on his feet in no time!

Except the wound became gangrenous and antibiotics weren’t a thing then. It took 45 danged days for him to die. Bennett, then in custody, was charged with murder and yep, he was hanged.

The widowed Anne went back to Scotland because she actually didn’t really like living in Canada that much. Fair enough.

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