The Women of Confederation

Canadian women from 1865-1900

Category: John A. Macdonald

Stepping Out

“Baby … dance with me tonight.”
Olly Murs

This blog post should perhaps have been my first one, because without the events on which it is based (and that lie just outside my timeframe of 1865-1900), Confederation would never have happened.

The conferences in Charlottetown in September and Quebec in October of 1864 paved the way for the constitution of Canada in 1867. And one woman recorded the behind-the-scenes socializing – and there was plenty of it – in her diary: Mercy Ann Coles, the twenty-six year-old daughter of George Coles, former premier of Prince Edward Island and leader of the Liberal opposition to Confederation (PEI did not enter Confederation until 1873 because it initially found the terms unfavourable). Mercy, the eldest of “several attractive daughters, well educated, well informed, and sharp as needles,” according to George Brown, owner of the Globe newspaper (qtd. in Dann), wrote about the dinners, balls, déjeuners, and outings that made up the social side of the conferences.

Mercy_Coles Mercy Coles during her visit to Quebec in 1864. (Source: McCord Museum.)

Without her diary, “Confederation history is incomplete,” Anne Macdonald has recently argued. Mercy’s record offers “an intimate view of Canada’s movers and shakers of the time. It includes places and events that made up Canada’s social and cultural history” (31).

Province_House_Ball_1864 Dusan Kadlec, Province House Ball, 1864. (Source: Parks Canada.)

Gossip Girl

Thanks to Mercy’s diary, we know that the Confederation conferences were not just, 24/7, about serious political maneuvering.

We know, for instance, that the daughters of William Steeves, conference delegate from New Brunswick, seemed “to be the possessors of the parlour downstairs [at Government House in Charlottetown]. I think they never leave it,” Mercy noted (perhaps with some indignation). “There is a Mr. Carver who seems to be the great attraction.”

Province House Province House, location of the 1864 Charlottetown conference. (Source: Parks Canada.)

And we know that Samuel Leonard Tilley, the premier of New Brunswick and a widowed father of seven, was a hot item among the unmarried ladies: “It is rather a joke,” wrote Mercy in the context of the first big event in Quebec, “he is the only beau of the party and with 5 single ladies he has something to do to keep them all in good humour.”

And we know that the would-be nation maker himself had, as usual, his game face on. Thus, Mercy wrote, “Mr. J. A. Macdonald dined with us last night. After dinner he entertained me with any amount of small talk.” Was Macdonald interested in her? Or was he wooing her father by paying attention to Mercy? Just a few days later she recorded, “I went to dinner in the evening. John A. sat along side of me. What an old Humbug he is. He brought me my dessert into the Drawing Room. The Conundrum.” Whatever the precise “conundrum” may have been that night, it is clear that John A. was fully aware of the stakes of the conferences and therefore was performing his public, political persona, even to a young single lady.

Shake That Booty

The festivities that took place at the Drawing Room in the Legislative Building in Quebec were the most sought after, and again Mercy recorded for posterity her impressions of the splendour:

“We all went down to the Drawing Room last night. Quite a crowd when we all got together. All the ladies looked very well and were quite a credit to the lower provinces. Pa, Ma, and I went together. A half dozen gentlemen wanted to take me into the room, but I preferred to go in with Papa. The Governor General stood in the middle of the room with his private secretary on his right hand. We did not require to have any [visiting] cards. The Aides announced us each time. … There were about 800 people presented.”

Spencerwood Spencer Wood, Quebec, residence of the Governor General at the time of the conferences, before the government’s move to Ottawa. (Source: Library and Archives Canada.)

Dancing figured prominently among the entertainments provided. “I went down to the Ball last night,” Mercy wrote about another evening’s fun, “such a splendid affair.” She delighted in being a desirable dancing partner: “Mr. Crowther danced with me the first quadrille. … I was engaged for every dance.”

The Congress Dances – and Advances

Mercy may well have wished to present herself as a statesman’s daughter “with imperial feminine virtues – conscious of the male gaze and playing the role of a young woman under its spell” (McDonald-Rissanen 201), but another observer, PEI delegate Edward Whelan, confirmed in his articles for the Examiner newspaper that dancing at the conferences was far from simple fun.

Calling the senior conference members “the most inveterate dancers I have ever seen,” Whelan also noted that “they are cunning fellows; and there’s no doubt that it is all done for a political purpose; they know if they can dance themselves into the affections of the wives and daughters of the country, the men will certainly become an easy conquest” (“The Life and Times”). Mercy accordingly notes in her diary after one event (that she had to sit out because of being ill), “Papa came home with every stitch of clothes wringing wet with perspiration,” having danced the night away.

Victorian_Dancing

Dancing, at those steamy conference balls, clearly meant putting one’s best foot forward in more than one sense.

Rather than taking the view, as male writers and critics have done in the past, that the feminine perspective offers “no great issues … to agitate the mind” (Sinclair quoted in Wright 8), Mercy’s diary demonstrates that, however civically-minded a nation, however engaged its leaders, without social energy the political apparatus might well get stuck for lack of lubrication.

P.S. Whatever Mercy may have hoped for from the conference social activities, she never married. She died in 1921 or 1922 in Charlottetown, having lived into her eighties.

 

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Works Cited

“The Life and Times of Confederation, 1864-1867.” https://archive.org/stream/lifeandtimesofco030808mbp/lifeandtimesofco030808mbp_djvu.txt, accessed November 16, 2014.

Coles, Mercy Ann. “Reminiscences of Canada in 1864.” LAC MG24-B66.

Dann, Moira. “Where were the Mothers of Confederation?” Globe and Mail, Aug. 28, 2009. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/where-were-the-mothers-of-confederation/article4284401/, accessed November 16, 2014.

McDonald-Rissanen, Mary. In the Interval of the Wave: Prince Edward Island Women’s Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-Century Life Writing. Montreal and Kingston, London, Ithaca: MQUP, 2014.

MacDonald, Anne. “Daughters of Confederation.” Canada’s History Aug.-Sep. 2014: 30-33.

Wright, Donald. “Introduction to the Wynford Edition” of The Elegant Canadians, by Luella Creighton. Don Mills, On.: Oxford UP, 2013. 1-8.

First Wife

“I do so like to identify myself with all my Husband’s pursuits & occupations.”
Agnes Macdonald, Diary

Agnes.

Agnes the good, the care-taker, the preserver of him who was the hero, the arranger of domestic order and calm, the sayer of prayers. Agnes of God.

Agnes the shrew, the nay-sayer, the destroyer of all fun, the abstainer from booze (though he liked it), the enforcer of rules. Agnes the moralizer. Agnes of sourness and boredom.

Who was She?

Historians and biographers have long tried to figure out Agnes Macdonald, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald’s wife (and the new Canadian Dominion’s first ‘first lady’), ascribing to her a curious split – or double – personality: one, the vivacious, attentive, caring wife; the other, the humourless battle-axe inclined to stern judgments. That inability to pin Agnes down – and the consensus about her perceived multiple personality disorder – say as much about the apparent unease that has met political wives, and perhaps particularly prime ministers’ wives, in the nation’s mind, as they do about the complex character of Agnes.

Imacon Color Scanner Source: Library and Archives Canada.

Agnes Macdonald, Political Wife

A recent biography of Sir John A. credits Agnes – if perhaps somewhat grudgingly and born out of the trend to acknowledge more women in historical texts – as “a Mother of Confederation” (R. Gwyn 18). The label appears to be ‘official’ recognition of the person and role of the politician’s wife. Agnes is portrayed as always attentive to her husband’s needs and, through her care, even as having extended his life by the decade and a half he needed “to give the country a spine” (26). Even so, the split-personality view of Agnes (with all its unsympathetic characterizations) is perpetuated yet again.

Agnes certainly was closest to the centre of the whirlwind that was post-Confederation Canada. She was, after all, married to John A., but she owed her (perhaps privileged) position as much to her intimate relationship with the nation builder himself as to her own intelligence, interest in politics, and attraction to power.

During both of Macdonald’s tenures as premier, Agnes regularly attended sessions in the House of Commons. Seated in the Ladies’ Gallery, she was able to observe the proceedings (as well as to be observed in her attendances; there could be no question that she kept herself informed!). She even communicated messages and the political mood among the ladies present to her husband using the sign language they both had learned (Newman 10).

As early as July 5, 1867, just days after Confederation, Agnes noted with wry humour in her diary, “Here – in this house – the atmosphere is so awfully political that sometimes I think the very flies hold Parliament on the kitchen tablecloths.” The comment isn’t just amusing. It also exposes as well as destabilizes the strict division between public and private space (that applied particularly to women), highlighting Agnes’s astute awareness of her ‘place.’ More so, in politicizing the kitchen, the very centre of domesticity, Agnes defines her domestic situation as “an active site of political negotiation and influence” (Sutherland, “Peace, Order” 108).

Agnes_reading Source: Library and Archives Canada.

In addition to her function in the politics of Canada – and her influence through her role as John A.’s confidante in the “political experience” of marriage (Rose 7) – Agnes also actively built the nation through her involvement in the church and in charitable organizations, such as the Ottawa Orphans’ Home. This engagement, providing examples of female participation in the public sphere, contributed to the production of civic society in the new Dominion.

Perhaps Agnes provokes a certain amount of hostility in commentators because as a woman who was highly intelligent, intellectually curious, serious-minded, and at times rather stern, she does not conform to traditional ideas of femininity. And perhaps political wives, unless they are more or less invisible, are bound to be controversial because of their closeness to power.

An Itinerant Life

Curiously, despite the uncertainties of political life, the 24 years of Agnes’s marriage to John A. were perhaps the most sedentary and stable in her life. Born Susan Agnes Bernard in 1836 to plantation owner parents in Jamaica, she experienced a series of upheavals before coming to Canada with her mother in 1854: her father’s death in 1850; farewells to two brothers whom she would never see again; a move to Britain; a further uprooting in the move to Canada. In Canada, Agnes and her mother lived with Agnes’s lawyer brother, Hewitt, who had become Macdonald’s private secretary. The job involved moving repeatedly while the government alternated locations between Toronto, Quebec City, and finally Ottawa (in 1865 – Agnes and her mother were not attracted to Ottawa; they chose to go to England instead).

Following a whirlwind romance in late 1866 to early 1867, the spinster – Agnes was thirty at the time – and the widower – Macdonald had been married before, to Isabella Clark, who had died in 1857 – were married. They had one daughter, Mary, who was born disabled and who required special care throughout her life. After Sir John A.’s death in 1891, Agnes and Mary went to live in Europe, where “they were wanderers and would continue to be such for the rest of Agnes’ life” (Reynolds 150). Agnes died in England in 1920.

Agnes_Mary Agnes and baby Mary, June 1869. Source: Library and Archives Canada.

Love and Grief

In all her undertakings, Agnes was, first, John A.’s wife. She was not just interested in her “husband’s pursuits & occupations,” as she says in her diary (July 7, 1867), and not just attentive to his wellbeing, but also “head over heels in love with her brilliant husband” (S. Gwyn 192). Seen through her eyes, the intellectually edgy prime minister emerges “laughing like a schoolboy with his hands in his pockets, and his head thrown back” (July 7, 1867) or enjoying a quiet evening reading on the sofa, while Agnes rests her head on his shoulder (November 17, 1867).

How painful would it be for her to find that her contribution to Canada’s story has gone “largely unrecognized” (Sutherland, “‘Good Housekeeping’” 36). And how much more painful to find that history assesses her marriage as one of “convenience,” and John A.’s feelings for her as ones of “respect” and “loyalty” but “never stronger than these” (R. Gwyn 17, 25-26)?

It is equally possible that the easy affection Agnes and John A. shared early in their marriage was ground down by the tragedy of having a severely disabled child, as well as turned into a perhaps more profound but also more burdensome kind of love by the strain and effort invested by both, in different ways, into building a nation.

 

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Sources and further reading

Gwyn, Richard. Nation Maker Sir John A. Macdonald: His Life, Our Times, Volume II: 1867-1891, Toronto: Vintage Canada Editions, 2011.

Gwyn, Sandra. The Private Capital: Ambition and Love in the Age of Macdonald and Laurier. Toronto: Harper and Collins, 1984. Print.

Macdonald, Agnes. Diary, 1867-75; 1883. LAC. Macdonald Papers, MG26A, Vol. 559A.

Newman, Lena. The John A. Macdonald Album. Plattsburg: Tundra, 1974.

Reynolds, Louise. Agnes: The Biography of Lady Macdonald. Ottawa: Carleton UP, 1990. Print.

Rose, Phyllis. Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages. New York: Random House, 1983.

Sutherland, Robin. “‘Good Housekeeping’: Agnes Macdonald Writes About Home and Parliament in Nineteenth-Century Canada.” Studies in Canadian Literature 29.1 (Spring 2004): 35-49. Print.

—. “Peace, Order, and ‘Good Housekeeping’: Feminine Authority and Influence in Lady Agnes Macdonald’s Canada.” Diss. University of New Brunswick, 2009.

Zeller Thomas, Christa. “Proximity to Power: Relationality in Agnes Macdonald’s Diary.” Conference paper, 7th IABA: Life Writing and Intimate Publics, Brighton, UK, 2010.