Today, we routinely see
parliamentarians on television and can judge for ourselves what, in the past, only
a select group of reporters saw and wrote about every day. In the early years
after Confederation oratorical ability was a prized talent and those who
possessed it were assured good coverage in the newspapers. Postures,
mannerisms, expressions and foibles were described in minute detail to eager
readers who had no other way of forming impressions of their politicians. The
witty, the boring, the long-winded, the pompous and the eloquent -- all came to
life under skilled and colourful pens. The resulting anecdotal descriptions not
only make interesting reading, but reveal something of the personalities who
governed Canada in its infancy.
Thomas D'Arcy McGee, a man once
described as "odd, even ugly", was widely acclaimed as an orator. His
chief asset was his wonderful voice, which could be heard without difficulty in
all parts of the Chamber. His face had, one writer said, "what is better
than comeliness -- plasticity and expression. It changed suddenly to correspond
with the sentiment he was about to utter." A generally quiet and dignified
speaker, McGee relied on an extensive vocabulary which he used fully and to
particular advantage in debate. He was fond, too, of caricaturing his
colleagues and opponents. George ╔tienne Cartier, who had an embarrassingly
high voice, and loved to sing at parties, was portrayed as an operatic singer.
John Sandfield Macdonald was "Old Rosin the Bow" after his practice
of playing the violin at functions of every description in his constituency.
Christopher Dunkin, a Member famous for his two-day speech analysing the
proposed British North America Act clause by clause, appeared as "Young
Abe the hair-splitter," while John A. Macdonald's well-known drinking
habits earned him a reference as "the Julian of the troupe."
Sir John A., on the other hand, was
no orator in the generally accepted sense. He spoke rapidly and occasionally,
when pursuing a thought, would stutter. Sometimes, he left sentences
unfinished. "He often spoke with his hands in his pockets and seldom
gesticulated with his arms", although on important occasions, to make a
point, he would stretch out the palm of his left hand and tap it with the two
forefingers of his right, in tandem with his voice. One strange habit he had
-- when entering upon a new train of
argument, he will fold his arms, give his head a peculiar jerk -- very much
like a magpie -- to the one side, then to the other -- and after having started
himself fairly off, he will unfold his arms and go on as before.
He rarely spoke very long, perhaps
an hour at most, and preferred the "impromptu semi-conversational style of
the English House of Commons." He spent little time on research for a
speech, preferring instead to have an assistant dig up the necessary facts
which he would quickly scan. "Then, often provided with nothing more than
a few notes, generally on the back of an envelope (which he not infrequently
contrived to mislay), he would deliver [the speech]...." Among his
greatest strengths were a sharp wit and an incurable tendency for punning. Once
during a debate he called over to an opposition Member "you had better
come over here, " to which the Member replied "we don't row in the
same boat." "No," retorted Sir John, "nor paddle with the
same skulls, either."
Alexander Mackenzie, a "plain,
outspoken, honest man", was not eloquent at all. He had, however, a
reputation as one of the most accurate and knowledgeable debaters in the House.
Wrote one observer:
He has not a fine or attractive
voice by any means, his action is nil, save a strange way he has of catching
his spectacles by the two ends. His pronunciations is at times extremely
Scotch, but he speaks with more precision than any man I have ever listened to.
His sentences as a rule are short, but at time she gets into an apparent confusion,
and mixes his participles up so that one would imagine he was sure to break
down. But no. He always comes out finished and elegant, every sentence complete
and neat as if he were reading from a carefully revised manuscript. It is all
but impossible to trip him up.
While many Members indulge in
random statements, and throw off a date or so, without much regard to
chronological accuracy, Mackenzie never does so. He is precise as a book, and
his memory seems as retentive of impressions received in the House as is paper
under the action of the printing press. This faculty is a great power in his
hands, and it is at times sometimes amusing and sometimes painful to see some
Members on the opposite side of the House wincing under the lash as he makes
pass before them their old utterances, and recalls statements made long ago,
which even they themselves had forgotten. Oftentimes an opponent will jump to
his feet and deny some statement imputed to him, but it is no use. Book, day
and date are always ready, and it often happens that the Member for Lambton
proves himself to have been quoting almost verbatim.
Edward Blake was in a class by
himself. He gave tremendously long speeches often inappropriate to the occasion
and frequently bored his listeners, sometimes even putting them to sleep. His
colleague Sir Richard Cartwright recalled that at the time of Louis Riel's
trial, Blake delivered a seven hour speech which "wound up in a maze of
legal subtleties and disquisitions on points of medical jurisprudence, from all
of which he deduced the conclusion that there was need of more evidence to
clinch the question whether Riel was perfectly responsible or not." After
Blake spoke on a subject, it was frequently claimed that there was nothing more
to be said. For major speeches, he used copious notes and books handed to him
as needed. He remained motionless while speaking, and kept his left hand deep
in his pocket. Generally calm and cool, he had an unfortunate tendency to
merciless sarcasm and scorn which often destroyed the effect of his otherwise
sound arguments. Still, the House admired and indeed deferred to this superior
intellect, and his shorter interventions won him greater respect than his set
Sir Charles Tupper could perhaps be
termed the most partisan speaker of the House's early years. Like Blake, he was
long-winded but his booming voice gave him an advantage in the sometimes noisy
atmosphere of the Chamber. "His voice rings through the House like a bell;
he throws out his right arm at full stretch, and with his finger pointed at
some opponent, and with his face showing the utmost earnestness if not passion,
he asserts, denounces, contradicts, accuses, in a torrent perfectly
irresistible." His lengthy declamations made him the object of jests.
After one such effort on a warm night, during which he consumed several glasses
of water, Joseph Howe, himself an eloquent speaker, is said to have remarked
"that in all his experience he never before saw a windmill driven by
water." Laurier once said that between Macdonald and Tupper "they had
sailed the ship of state pretty successfully; Sir John was at the helm and
supplied the brains while Sir Charles supplied the wind."
No retrospective of leading orators
in the last century would be complete without reference to Laurier.
Immaculately dressed, a gentleman in every sense of the word, he stood very
tall and erect and despite a generally weak constitution, managed to project
"a rich, sonorous voice, flexible, vibrant and variant as the tones of a
perfect instrument." His speeches were seldom over an hour long but they
were among the most graceful and moving ever pronounced in the House. To hone
his skills, he kept a book of French and English idioms and phrases under his
desk in the Commons and was always ready with an appropriate expression or
quotation whenever he spoke. He possessed a thorough knowledge of the Bible,
and frequently interspersed his remarks with effective quotes from Scripture.
Laurier, like Macdonald, did not write out his speeches, but unlike Sir John,
generally researched them himself and prepared important ones thoroughly,
enough to commit the exact language to memory. He was, by all accounts, most at
home in the House, where his erudition, "sober reason and deliberate
argument" played to his full advantage.
Will the countless archival videos
of our present orators provide as rich a portrait to future researchers as
these wonderful 19th century descriptions give to us ...?