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Patrice Dutil

Joseph Tassé, Lord Beaconsfield and Sir John A. Macdonald: A Personal and Political Parallel (Montreal, 1891), translated from the original in French by James Penny, edited by Michel W. Pharand, School of Policy Studies, Queen’s University and McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015, 85 p.

This is a welcome addition to the small production of books published in this year of Sir John A. Macdonald’s 200th anniversary. Michel W. Pharand, the long-time director of the Disraeli project at Queen’s University, brings together both the original version of Tassé’s pamphlet, first published in 1880, as well as the translation produced by James Penny in 1891. Pharand brings a rigorous scholar’s attention to the original text and the translation and alerts the reader to his numerous corrections. He also provides an admirably complete set of notes to establish context as well as enlightening explanations.

The revival of Joseph Tassé’s study of two giants of the epoch gives today’s readers an appreciation of how Macdonald was seen in his own day, although Tassé was hardly an objective observer. Born in what is today Laval, Tassé had trained as a lawyer but had no taste for its practice. He worked as a journalist until he was offered a job as translator in the House of Commons in 1872. Tassé also took on an ambitious literary project, a massive two-volume work entitled Les Canadiens de l’ouest which appeared a few years later.

When Tassé decided he had had enough of translating the words of politicians he sought the Conservative nomination for the riding of Ottawa and was elected in Macdonald’s 1878 landslide victory. He was a 32-year-old member of caucus when he wrote this tract.

Ever the journalist at heart, Tassé knew a good story when he saw one. Macdonald was in London in the late summer of 1879 and was invited by Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (Lord Beaconsfield) to visit him at Hughenden Manor, his country estate some 50 kilometres west of London. On September 1, 1879, Macdonald travelled to the splendid mansion in Buckinghamshire and spent the evening in animated conversation with his British counterpart. We know very little of what was discussed, except that Disraeli did observe that Macdonald was “gentlemanlike, agreeable and very intelligent; a considerable man.” Macdonald took leave early the next day and soon thereafter returned to Canada.

Inspired by the event, Tassé wrote his 25-page essay comparing the two men and it was published by La Minerve, the Montreal-based Conservative newspaper, in 1880. Much of the text consists of parallel biographies, but it is striking to note how very different the two men were. Disraeli’s origins, his arduous climb of the proverbial greasy pole and his literary bent made him utterly different compared to Macdonald. Indeed, there is precious little these two had in common except for a romantic vision of the British Empire. Tassé mentions Disraeli’s concern for the working class but does not mention Macdonald’s signal legislation that legalized trade unions in 1872 (Gladstone had done the same in 1871). The young journalist was more successful in drawing parallels between the two men on physical likeness and the charm of their respective wives (both men had been widowers at one time, something Tassé does not mention).

Macdonald must have liked the booklet. Though re-elected in 1882, Tassé was defeated in 1887 and appointed to the Senate by Macdonald in 1891. Tassé served until his death in 1895; he was only 46.

The pamphlet was only available in French until 11 years later, literally a few days after Macdonald passed away, when Penny published it in English translation. The Macdonald reputation-building machine had already stepped up its activities and this publication heralded a wave of books that would appear in the following two years.

Patrice Dutil
Professor of Political Science, Ryerson University

Canadian Parliamentary Review Cover
Vol 38 no 3

Last Updated: 2020-09-14