George Brown Vs. Sir John A. Macdonald

George Brown vs John A Macdonald

In the past for Sir John A. Macdonald’s birthday (January 11th), I have talked about the man himself and his complicated legacy as well as his friendship with Sir George Étienne Cartier. As such, it might not be much of a surprise that for this year I’m going to look at his arch-nemesis, George Brown. (I wish I could say I am being hyperbolic, but I’m not really. The two Fathers of Confederation hated one another). Despite their intense dislike of each other, the two were able to come together for Confederation purposes. How did this happen? Were they ever able to resolve their legendary feud?

Short Biography of George Brown

George Brown (1818-1880) was born in Alloa, Scotland. His father, Peter, was a Evangelical Presbyterian and a Whig-Liberal with a strong disdain for Tory aristocratic privilege. (Hmm, I wonder where Brown got his views from…) When the depression of 1837 hit, 18-year old Brown and his father headed to New York where they opened up a small dry goods shop to support their family back home. The Browns eventually became involved in journalism and often wrote about the British parliamentary system, abolitionism, and Scottish Presbyterian issues. Overtime, they began to report more and more on affairs north of the border. They made their Canadian readers very happy when they decided to relocate to Toronto in 1843. While his father wrote about religion, Brown’s focus on political reform caught the attention of major reformists in Toronto. They offered to fund the creation of a new reform-based, weekly paper. The Globe was first published in March of 1844. Brown’s editorials, his push for the most detailed news reports, his use of the latest printing presses, and his choice to publish specific versions for different areas (ex: the Western Globe for southwestern reformers) led to The Globe becoming the most widely read and influential daily paper in British North America by 1853.

The oldest version (May 21, 1844) of The Globe available online. [Archives of Ontario] Notice the first by-line, “General Meeting of the Reform Association of Canada.”

Brown quickly became one of Toronto’s top businessmen and a political powerhouse—despite not being an elected representative. As the voice of the reformers, his efforts against the Conservatives paid off when the La Fontaine–Baldwin government swept the Conservatives out of office in 1848. He was asked by the new administration to investigate alleged abuses at the provincial penitentiary in Kingston. This was the start of the longstanding Macdonald-Brown feud. Brown’s commission wound up uncovering an enormous amount of evidence confirming the abuses and Warden Henry Smith lost his job. Guess who happened to be a good friend of Smith? John A. Macdonald.

The Feud

Sir John A. Macdonald by William James Topley. Source: Library and Archives Canada/c-10144.

So what was Macdonald up to all this time? The fellow Scottish immigrant was busy being a successful businessman, lawyer, and a local politician in Kingston. 1844 was also a pivotal year for Macdonald as he decided to enter provincial politics. After being elected to the legislature, his political pragmatism and charm made him a leading Conservative politician even when the party wasn’t in power. In 1856, Macdonald became the leader of the Conservatives and co-lead the province alongside Sir Étienne-Paschal Taché. When Taché retired in 1857, George Étienne Cartier took his place and the Macdonald-Cartier government was formed.

During one of the house sessions, Brown (who finally entered the political arena back in 1851 as an independent Reformer) got into a heated debate with Macdonald. The debate got personal when Macdonald, who had never forgotten about how Brown had gotten his friend fired, suddenly accused Brown of bribing witnesses and falsifying evidence as when he was secretary of the inquiry commission. Talk about derailing an argument! Even though Brown was ultimately exonerated, a lot of people believed Macdonald’s claim, which he never took back. It remained a lasting smear against Brown and set the two men on an argument-filled future.

Brown and Macdonald almost seem destined to fight with one another. Macdonald was basically everything Brown hated. Both were Scots, however Brown was raised in Edinburgh while Macdonald was from Glasgow. Although Brown supported the British parliamentary system, he wanted to correct the many flaws of the system and fight for liberal causes. Meanwhile Macdonald was all about British conservative values, aka the status quo, and was fiercely loyal to the empire. Brown is described as humorless and a highly serious individual; Macdonald was a cheerful and easy-going optimist. He was an idealist who viewed politics as a civil duty. Macdonald was a pragmatist who saw politics as a game and knew how to play it well. Straight-laced Brown viewed Macdonald’s blatant alcoholism with open contempt. Macdonald didn’t exactly care though considering his famous quip, “[The public] would rather have a drunken John A. Macdonald than a sober George Brown.”

Brown also hated French Canadians and Catholicism; he saw them as a plague on the Legislative Assembly. He did not like the Catholic Church’s interference in Canadian politics and fought for religious liberty. Macdonald was Anglican and not pro-Catholic, but at times he defended Catholic interests for political purposes. To get things done in the Assembly, he knew he had to keep the French aka Catholic members happy. One example is when he argued in favor of a 1855 controversial bill on separate schools. (Fun Fact: This bill is the basis of Ontario’s enduring school system). You can imagine how pissed off George Brown was when the bill passed. He accused Macdonald of parliamentary manipulation and enabling French domination in the government. As editor-in-chief of The Globe, Brown was the most vocal critic of Macdonald.

Brown, Cartier, and Macdonald.

There was also the ridiculous “double shuffle” incident. The Macdonald-Cartier cabinet were forced to resign on July 29, 1858 due to a vote of non-confidence. In their place, Brown formed an administration with Antoine-Aimé Dorion. It lasted four days. Rules dictated that new cabinet members had to resign their seats and get re-elected. When this happened, the Conservatives had a sudden majority in the Assembly. What did they do? A vote of non-confidence. Brown resigned. His hope was that a general election would put a stop to this madness. Instead, Macdonald had found a loophole; a provision that stated ministers can change to another portfolio so long as more than a month had not gone by. Since none of the former cabinet members had given up their seats, just their old positions, Macdonald appointed his colleagues to new portfolios and then shuffled them back to their usual ones 24 hours later. Macdonald and Cartier were co-premiers again, everything was back to normal, and Brown was super salty about the whole affair—especially when he challenged it in court and the issue was thrown out.


George Brown and Sir John A. Macdonald Meet to Inaugurate Confederation by C. W. Jefferys.

The one benefit of Brown’s growing bitterness towards politics was that he became convinced that the status quo was unsustainable and frankly just not working. (That was his opinion. Although the system was often gridlocked, the Macdonald-Cartier administration actually did get a fair amount done). He used The Globe to make a case for the creation of a federal union, provincial governments, and representation by population. It took several years before this dream became a reality.

The idea of creating a federal union had been floating around for some time. Macdonald flip-flopped on the issue. He originally supported it, but the American Civil War made him reconsider. He saw the unrest down south as partly caused by a weak centralized government. The last thing he wanted was for the Canadian provinces to have too much power. Macdonald eventually realized however that Confederation was the best way to attempt to solve the many problems within British North America: it would better accommodate citizens of various racial, religious, and regional backgrounds, settle the issue of parliamentary reform, lessen political deadlock, and ease the minds of those worried about American expansionism. One of the things that triggered this change of heart was Brown swallowing his pride. He sought to create a “Great Coalition” in 1864 with Macdonald and Cartier for the purpose of Confederation.


The two men never resolved their issues. As you can see Macdonald always seemed to best Brown. By 1867, the year Canada became a country, Brown had grown weary of politics. In the first federal election, Brown lost his seat whereas Macdonald became Prime Minister and Conservatives were given a majority. Brown’s response?

“I’m out.”

Now Brown didn’t completely leave politics. The Globe still covered Canadian politics closely, especially Macdonald’s involvement in the Pacific Scandal. Brown supported Alexander Mackenzie during his stint as Prime Minister. He was involved in a failed trading treaty with the United States and appointed a senator in 1874, though his attendance was limited. However, in the next federal election (1878), when Macdonald and his National Policy came roaring back and ousted the Liberals, Brown returned to his life outside politics. Possibly part of the reason the two never made up is because Brown died less than two years later…

George Brown (Hark, a vagrant: 184) by Kate Beaton.

Okay, no. Here’s what actually happened…

If you click on the image, you will be able to see that the illustrator wrote, “Attempted Assassination of George Brown, Toronto.”

On March 25, 1880, George Bennett, a former employee, entered Brown’s office. He was drunk and demanded that Brown sign a certificate that stated he had worked for The Globe for five years. Brown told him he was busy and to ask the foreman who had fired him to sign it. Bennett got mad and pulled out his gun. Brown wasn’t having any of that nonsense and grabbed the gun as it went off. The bullet pierced his leg. Bennett was arrested while Brown went to the doctor. He was told it was just a flesh wound and that he would be fine. Unfortunately, this was not the case as the wound became infected with gangrene. Brown died on May 9, 1880. Bennett was hanged for the murder. Brown’s wife, Anne, moved back to Scotland.

Macdonald never recognized Brown’s crucial role in achieving Confederation. The feud outlived the both of them. Following her husband’s death, Lady Agnes Macdonald would occasionally travel to Scotland. Reportedly when in the small town of Oban, Agnes’ and Anne’s carriages would pass by in the streets and the two women refused to acknowledge one another. Historian Richard J. Gwyn describes this as a “mutual salute” to their late husbands.

Fun Fact: In 1936, The Globe merged with The Mail and Empire to form The Globe and Mail.


Careless, J. M. S., “BROWN, GEORGE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 27, 2016,

Gwyn, Richard J., Nation Maker: Sir John A. MacDonald – His Life, Our Times. Toronto:. Random House Canada, 2011.

Johnson, J. K. and Waite, P. B., “MACDONALD, Sir JOHN ALEXANDER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 27, 2016,

“The “Double Shuffle” Cabinet,” The Quebec History Encyclopedia. Accessed from:



3 thoughts on “George Brown Vs. Sir John A. Macdonald

    • cadeauca says:

      Hey, salty is a technical term!

      I haven’t read a biography on Cartier, so I can’t confirm how well they got along exactly. I have never heard anything about a feud between those two but based on the fact that Cartier was French Canadian, Catholic, and best friends with Macdonald they probably weren’t super friendly with one another.

      Thanks for reading!


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