The prime minister as reader

By Meaghan Scanlon

Library and Archives Canada’s (LAC) Prime Ministers and the Arts: Creators, Collectors and Muses exhibition looks at Canada’s prime ministers through the lens of their relationships with the arts. One aspect of the exhibition is an exploration of the prime minister as collector and fan. Among the items featured that explore this theme are correspondence between Sir Wilfrid Laurier and painter Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté, a painting from William Lyon Mackenzie King’s personal collection, and a fan letter from John Diefenbaker to artist Alma Duncan.

But the exhibition mainly focuses on the prime ministers’ libraries. If you read enough prime ministerial biographies, a pattern emerges: almost every one contains references to its subject’s prodigious reading habits. A biography of Alexander Mackenzie (OCLC 20920624), for example, notes that Mackenzie “was a greedy reader, and never tired of poring over his books.” According to the authors, Mackenzie’s family would spend their winter evenings

“sitting round the wide, old-fashioned fire-place, cheerful and ruddy with the blaze of the big logs, reading and discussing literary subjects and authors, especially Shakespeare and Byron, two prime favourites of theirs. It was a very interesting group, and its intellectual life was a fitting preparation for the future statesman. All who have heard Mr. Mackenzie speak, know that he could readily quote from the poets, and from current literature, and that his addresses were invariably pitched on the high plane of presupposing intelligent hearers.”

Sir John A. Macdonald, too, was known for quoting from literature in his speeches, according to biographers. In his book about Macdonald (OCLC 2886256), Joseph Pope claimed Macdonald was an “omnivorous” reader, meaning that he would read almost anything, but his favourite genre was political memoirs. Sir Robert Borden studied classical languages. The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto now holds a number of very old Greek and Latin books that contain Borden’s bookplate; one of these, a 1725 edition of writings by Cicero, is currently on loan to LAC for the exhibition. Mackenzie King was an avid reader who regularly commented in his diary on the books he had been reading. Many of his books are now in LAC’s collection, but a portion of his extensive library remains on view in his study at Laurier House.

Each of the prime ministers likely had favourite books and authors—Macdonald was a devotee of novelist Anthony Trollope, and King was so enamoured with poet Matthew Arnold that he began collecting books from Arnold’s own library.

A book open to the inside front cover. Attached to the left-hand page is the bookplate of Matthew Arnold. The right-hand page is blank and held down by a weight.

Bookplate of Matthew Arnold affixed to the inside front cover of The Holy Bible (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1828), from the Collection of Books from the Library of William Lyon Mackenzie King (OCLC 1007776528) Photo credit: Library and Archives Canada

But Arthur Meighen stands out among them all for his dedication to one particular literary figure: William Shakespeare. Meighen was known to be able to quote long passages of Shakespeare from memory. In 1934, during an ocean voyage to Australia, he composed and memorized a speech on Shakespeare, which he entitled “The Greatest Englishman of History.” Meighen delivered this speech a number of times; one address, at the Canadian Club in Toronto in February 1936, was recorded. This recording was eventually released on vinyl (OCLC 981934627), giving Meighen the unusual distinction of being the first Canadian prime minister ever to release an album.

A black 12-inch vinyl record with a yellow label.

Photograph of the vinyl record The Greatest Englishman of History by Arthur Meighen (OCLC 270719760) Photo credit: Library and Archives Canada

You can hear a clip of the audio recording of Arthur Meighen delivering his speech “The Greatest Englishman of History” in the Prime Ministers and the Arts episode of the LAC podcast.

The exhibition is open at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa until December 3, 2019.

Meaghan Scanlon is Senior Special Collections Librarian in the Published Heritage Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

Library and Archives Canada Sir John A. Macdonald treasures on display. Part 2: Shopping stories

As part of the year-long commemoration surrounding the 200th anniversary of the birth of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is presenting an exhibition at Bellevue House, in Kingston, Ontario—Parks Canada’s official historic site dedicated to Macdonald.

The exhibition includes rare treasures such as this page from a draft of the British North America Act (BNA), thought to have been handwritten by Sir John A. Macdonald himself.

A handwritten page in faded ink.

The first page of the British North America Act (MIKAN 456819)

Lesser known, but equally intriguing, LAC holdings are also highlighted in the exhibition, including a sampling from the vast assortment of receipts Macdonald accumulated over the course of a lifetime for items that he purchased. These unassuming documents—usually handwritten, and often with elegant 19th-century flourishes—give unexpected insight into Macdonald, as a private person; the purchases they record are often both amusing and endearing.

Macdonald purchased a toboggan, for example, from renowned Montreal furrier John Henderson & Company (“Importers, Manufacturers and Dealers in Hats, Furs, Indian Moccasins, Snowshoes, &c.”) on December 23, 1862. It’s possible to speculate that this iconic Canadian sled may have been part of his family’s Christmas celebrations—perhaps chosen as a present for his young son Hugh John. Or that Macdonald himself may have succumbed to the fad for recreational tobogganing that gripped the well-to-do during the 19th century.

A handwritten receipt from Montreal furrier John Henderson & Company detailing purchases made, on various dates, by Sir John A. Macdonald. These include a toboggan, which was purchased on December 23, 1862.Historians have also speculated about the expensive ladies’ riding whip, bought from London’s exclusive Swaine Adeney, during a trip to Great Britain that Macdonald undertook as a new widower. Though travelling on official business, to promote government projects, Macdonald still found time to choose this luxurious present. The identity of the lady who received it remains an historical mystery.

On another trip to Great Britain, Macdonald—whose receipts reveal a lifelong fascination with fine clothing and smart men’s accessories—visited relatives in Scotland and stopped there to purchase himself a full kit of Macdonald clan “Highland appointments”: including a kilt, hose and the “silk-velvet Highland jacket… generally worn by Gentlemen.” The distinguished Edinburgh firm from which he purchased these items provided its Canadian buyer with instructions on how to wear everything properly, together with a suitable “air-tight coat case” for storage.

Image shows a detailed receipt for a complete kit of Macdonald clan ‘Highland appointments,’ including a kilt and a Highland jacket (MIKAN 122162)

Macdonald suffered for years from ill health due, in part, to his alcoholism. The collection is full of curious receipts for 19th-century style medicine, together with copies of personal prescriptions. This prescription, for “The Ferruginous tonic,” was based on the commonly held idea that tincture of iron could improve the functioning of the digestive tract. Macdonald was said to have suffered terribly from indigestion. He was prescribed this mixture during the final decade of his life.

Image shows an 1883 prescription from Ottawa “Chemist & Druggist” John Roberts for a tonic designed to alleviate Sir John A. Macdonald’s gastric issues.Come see Sir John A. Macdonald’s personal receipts at Bellevue House National Historic Site between May 16 and October 12, 2015.

Library and Archives Canada Sir John A. Macdonald treasures on display. Part 1: Famous outtakes

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) holds the most comprehensive collection of material in Canada related to our nation’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. As part of the year-long commemoration surrounding the 200th anniversary of Macdonald’s birth, LAC is presenting an exhibition at Bellevue House in Kingston, Ontario—Parks Canada’s official site dedicated to Macdonald.

The exhibition will provide a chance for Canadians to see rare treasures, such as an exercise book from Macdonald’s school days, and the earliest known painted portrait of him:

Image shows a school exercise book belonging to Sir John A. Macdonald when he was a child; the book is open at a page of geometry exercises.

Sir John A. Macdonald’s exercise book (MIKAN 122162)

Image shows the earliest known portrait of Sir John A. Macdonald, a portrait painted in oils in the Romantic style.

First oil portrait of Sir John A. Macdonald, ca. 1842–1843 (MIKAN 2837236)

It also features other lesser-known, but intriguing, items. LAC’s collection includes most of the original glass plate negatives from personal photography sessions that Macdonald booked with prominent Ottawa photographer William James Topley (1845–1930), for example:

Images show Sir John A. Macdonald wearing an overcoat and standing in various poses on ‘set’ at Topley Studios, either holding or setting aside a top hat and cane. Images show Sir John A. Macdonald wearing an overcoat and standing in various poses on ‘set’ at Topley Studios, either holding or setting aside a top hat and cane.

Topley was the premier portrait photographer of his day, making images of both well-known and unknown citizens from across the country. His studio, always located in the neighbourhood of Parliament Hill, was convenient enough to attract the patronage of many of the new Dominion’s first MPs. Topley even served as official court photographer to Canada’s Governor General, the Marquis of Lorne (1845–1914).

Prints of the photographs from Macdonald’s studio sessions with Topley do not always survive, but most of the negatives for each session do—often including fascinating and unexpected ‘outtake’ images. Produced on thin plates of glass, the 19th-century technology that preceded the development of photographic film, these are both fragile and unwieldy—besides being negative images. Modern positive reproductions are usually made from them, as in the case of this exhibition, to allow for convenient viewing.

This exhibition displays several outtakes, and a print from the Topley sessions, in sequence. The outtakes lack the formality of finished studio portraits but give a small feeling of what a 19th-century studio session must have been like. When viewed as a set, they almost give a feeling of motion—bringing Macdonald to life again, before our eyes.

LAC is the only archives in Canada to hold the official records of the Topley Studio, including original counter books, prints and negatives. The Macdonald negatives illustrate just one way in which the collection works as one of the most important visual records of Canada during the first 50 years after Confederation.

Image shows one of Sir John A. Macdonald’s receipts for a photographic session with William James Topley, June 1885.

Topley receipt for a photographic session (MIKAN 122162)

Come see the Macdonald outtakes at Bellevue House National Historic Site, between May 16 and October 12, 2015.

A Canadian icon: celebrating Sir John A. Macdonald’s bicentennial

It has been 200 years since the birth of Canada’s first prime minister and the interest in his political and personal life has not diminished. Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has an extensive and varied collection of records related to Sir John Alexander Macdonald, including a virtual exhibition that includes personal papers, photos, artwork, and publications. Within LAC’s Sir John A. Macdonald collection, there are over 100,000 letters to and from family and close friends, which gives researchers a rare glimpse into his personal life.

Black and white photograph showing Sir John A. Macdonald sitting on a chair, both his legs and his arms are crossed.

Sir John A. Macdonald, 1872, by William Topley (MIKAN 3333452)

As well as revealing a little bit about Sir John A.’s family life, LAC’s collection also contains artwork and objects that use the former prime minister’s image as a political symbol and, at times, a comic caricature. From political cartoons disapproving of the National Policy and Canadian-American relations, to a derisive phrenological chart of Macdonald’s head, the image of Sir John A. has become a part of Canadian iconography.

Lithograph showing Sir John A. Macdonald dressed as a marching British soldier in front of a locked gate. Behind his back, Uncle Sam is reaching for bags of money from some business men straddling the fence.

Electoral campaign sign reading, “We can’t undo the lock, Sir John is on guard. Hand it over the fence?” (MIKAN 2847973)

Beyond the more politically charged cartoons, Sir John A. Macdonald’s image has also been used commercially in beer advertisements, an endorsement for tomato chutney, and he has even been made into an action figure.

Print of a Molson’s ale ad featuring Sir John A. Macdonald seated and looking off to the side. Behind him is a map of the Dominion of Canada and underneath the image the text reads, “Fifty-six years ago when Sir John A. Macdonald was first Premier of the Dominion of Canada in 1867, Molson’s ale was then 81 years old! The ale your great-grandfather drank.”

Molson’s Ale, Sir John A. Macdonald. (MIKAN 3000462)

However, lest our mental image of Sir John A. Macdonald become a caricature, this bicentennial marks an opportunity to reflect on the personal history and life behind the icon. LAC’s Sir John A. Macdonald collection is a monument to the man and the myth, but his legacy extends beyond these images, back to his Scottish origins. In 1968, outside the tiny village of Rogart in the Scottish Highlands, a memorial cairn was dedicated to Sir John A. Macdonald and unveiled by the 13th Prime Minister of Canada, John Diefenbaker. This memorial is built on the site of the home of Sir John’s grandparents and is made of stones from the original family home. Accompanying the cairn is a plaque that states that the monument is but “a footnote to his greatness.” This type of disclaimer is a good one to keep in mind when examining Sir John A. Macdonald’s accomplished and storied life through such a diverse range of records.

To learn more about Sir John A. Macdonald and his legacy:

Library and Archives Canada releases seventeenth podcast episode, “Let us be Canadians: Sir John A. Macdonald

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is releasing its latest podcast episode, Let us be Canadians: Sir John A. Macdonald.

January 11, 2015 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. To celebrate this anniversary, award-winning journalist-historian Arthur Milnes and LAC art archivist and curator Madeleine Trudeau join us to discuss the life and career of this important political figure as well as the related resources available at LAC.

Subscribe to our podcast episodes using RSS or iTunes, or just tune in at Podcast–Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.

For more information, please contact us at

The 200th Birthday of Sir George-Étienne Cartier, a Prominent Father of Confederation

Today marks the 200th birthday of one of Canada’s most important historical figures, Sir George-Étienne Cartier, a leading Father of Confederation. Cartier was born on September 6, 1814 in Sainte-Antoine-sur-Richelieu, Lower Canada. He studied law and started practising in 1835; however, politics soon became his passion. His entrance into the world of politics was anything but uneventful, as he played a role in the Lower Canadian Rebellion of 1837 and fought in the Battle of Saint-Denis. Cartier subsequently spent a year in exile in Vermont but pled for leniency and returned to Montreal in 1839.

The Honourable Sir George-Étienne Cartier, Baronet

The Honourable Sir George-Étienne Cartier, Baronet (MIKAN 3476630)

In 1848 Cartier was elected to the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada and shortly after was appointed to Cabinet. From 1857 to 1862 he served as co-premier of the Province of Canada with Sir John A. Macdonald following his coalition with the Upper Canadian Conservatives. It was in this period that Macdonald and Cartier started working together and began to garner support for Confederation in an attempt to put an end to political instability.

Sir George-Étienne Cartier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier (MIKAN 3213760)

Cartier played a pivotal role in gaining French-Canadian support for Confederation. He argued that francophone interests would be best preserved in a federation of provinces. When Confederation finally came about on July 1, 1867, John A. Macdonald became the first Prime Minister and Cartier the first Minister of Militia and Defence.

Shown among their peers are the Honourable Sir John A. Macdonald, the Honourable Sir George-Étienne Cartier and Lieutenant-Colonel John G. Irvine

Shown among their peers are the Honourable Sir John A. Macdonald, the Honourable Sir George-Étienne Cartier and Lieutenant-Colonel John G. Irvine (MIKAN 3192010)

Cartier passed away on May 20, 1873. His death deeply affected his close friend, John A. Macdonald, who proposed that a statue be erected in Cartier’s honour. It was sculpted by Louis-Philippe Hébert and unveiled in 1885. This was the first statue to be placed on Parliament Hill and it can still be seen today. Cartier left his mark on generations of Canadians. The centenary of his birthday in 1914 was marked by large celebrations and another monument was erected, this time in Montreal. Cartier’s Montreal home was designated a National Historic Site.

Sir George-Étienne Cartier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier (MIKAN 2837680)

While the majority of Cartier’s papers were destroyed, Library and Archives Canada does have several important records, including a family photo album, postcards, and some correspondence that took place during his period as Minister of Militia and Defence. We also have several letters written by Cartier to Macdonald, found in the Sir John A. Macdonald collection (archived).

To find out more about George-Étienne Cartier and his role in Confederation:

Sir John A. Macdonald: Rare and intriguing treasures from the vaults of Library and Archives Canada

Library and Archives Canada holds Canada’s most comprehensive collection of material related to the life, times and continuing appeal of Sir John A. Macdonald (1815–1891)—charismatic firebrand, architect of Canadian Confederation and Canada’s first prime minister. The year 2015 will mark the bicentennial of Macdonald’s birth.

Take a look at our Flickr album to browse a selection of original documents, art and ephemera related to Macdonald, from historical and modern periods. Acquired over the years and from a variety of sources, these unique records document the public face, private life, and enduring power of one of Canada’s most iconic cultural figures.

This material represents only a small portion of Library and Archives Canada’s holdings related to significant Canadians and important events that will be showcased in the lead-up to the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation in 2017.

Journal recording the birth of Sir John A. Macdonald and preserving a lock of hair

By Hugh Macdonald, 1820. View of writing and human hair on the left side and marble endpaper on the right side of the journal. Library and Archives Canada, e008295645.

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