Sir John Joseph Caldwell Abbott, Canada’s third prime minister, was born 195 years ago on March 12 in St. Andrews, Lower Canada (Saint-André-d’Argenteuil, Quebec). He was the first son of Harriet Bradford and Reverend Joseph Abbott, an Anglican missionary.
After studying law at McGill University, Abbott was called to the bar of Lower Canada in 1847. He emerged as a successful corporate lawyer, representing the likes of John Thomas Molson, the Bank of Montreal, and the Hudson’s Bay Company. He also served as the dean of McGill’s faculty of law from 1855 to 1880.
Abbott’s legal and political life collided when news of the Pacific Scandal broke. Abbott, who had been an elected representative for the constituency of Argenteuil since the late 1850s, was also legal advisor to the Canadian Pacific Railway and Sir Hugh Allan, placing him at the centre of dubious government contracts and railway corruption. With the fall of Sir John A. Macdonald’s government in 1874, he lost his seat and did not successfully return to federal politics until winning a by-election in 1881.
Abbott did not seek re-election in 1887 but was appointed to the Senate in May that same year. He was nominated as Leader of the Government in the Senate, and as minister without portfolio in Macdonald’s cabinet. When Macdonald passed away after winning the federal election in March of 1891, the Liberal-Conservative party conferred internally and Abbott reluctantly accepted the position of prime minister in June. With this transfer of power, Abbott became Canada’s first Canadian-born prime minister, and the first senator to hold the office. With his health in decline, Abbott resigned in November 1892.
Outside of federal elected life, Abbott was a friend to Montreal businessman Hugh Fraser, who, in his 1870 will, bequeathed a portion of his estate for the creation of a free library, museum, and art gallery for the city’s residents. Since the establishment of this public institution was contested, Abbott, as a trustee of Fraser’s will, spent 15 years, and travelled as far as the Privy Council in the United Kingdom, advocating for the realization of his friend’s wishes. With success, the Fraser Institute finally opened in 1885; it housed the libraries of the Institut canadien and the Mercantile Library Association. Abbott, as the Institute’s first Governor, delivered the inaugural address in October 1885. Today, it is known as the Fraser-Hickson Institute Library.
Abbott was married to Mary Martha Bethune, and they had eight children. He died in Montreal on October 30, 1893.
Discover more about Sir John J.C. Abbott: