“Baby … dance with me tonight.”
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.
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).
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
“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.