Wednesday, November 14, 2018

George Brown Days 5: Was GB a bigot?

I deny not that in this protracted contest words were spoken and lines were penned that had been better clothed in more courteous guise.  But when men go to war they are apt to take their gloves off, and assuredly if one side struck hard blows the other was not slow in returning them....
It is the incumbent duty of the reform party, dictated as well by their most cherished principles as by justice, and good policy, that a full share of parliamentary representation according to their numbers, and generous consideration in all public matters, should be awarded to the catholic minority [in Ontario]... This the reform party has done voluntarily, gladly, without condition, although a vast proponderance of the catholic electors will in all probability cast their votes in the coming contest against our candidates and for our opponents.   (George Brown, letter to the Roman Catholic Committee, March 1871, arguing why Catholics should support the Reformers rather than the Conservatives)

In those recurring three cornered debates about the great man of confederation -- was it John A?  Was it Cartier?  Was it Brown?  -- one of the knocks on Brown is often his bigotry.  An important figure, surely, but disqualified by his intolerance for francophones and for Roman Catholics, goes the argument.

I'm not really a Brown scholar. From time to time, however, I have followed up sources that are cited a proof of the allegation: things he said or printed about Irish Catholics, or French Canadians, or the Catholic Church hierarchy

He was extremely hard on the Catholic Church for sure, assailing it for "priestcraft and state-churchism" and for coercing Catholics to follow the political dictates of their bishops. And he was hard on French-Canadians, and indeed famously on "French-Canadianism."  He also clearly feared in the 1840s and 1850s that the migration of large numbers of Irish Catholic refugees to British North America would undermine his Reform constituency by bringing into the body politic large numbers of illiterate, priest-dominated settlers hostile to most British political ideas and institutions. None of these views was welcomed by Catholics, Francophones, or Irish immigrants.

But his criticisms were usually expressed as charges that French-Canadians and Irish Catholics were too much driven and controlled in their politics by their priests and by leaders approved by the hierarchy -- a strong accusation but within the bounds of political discourse, surely. In his insistence that the Catholic Church should stay out of politics, Brown, it often strikes me, was about a hundred years ahead of his time. He was accused of being a francophobe for asserting views about the separation of Church and State that every Quebecker seemed to adopt about 1960.

I do not want to go too far here.  Brown undoubtedly grew up with 19th century British prejudices about the Pope and France and Ireland  -- developed from times of the Spanish Armada to James II to Napoleon -- as a great permanent threat to the "rights of Englishmen," and those attitudes found a receptive audience in British North America.

So... I'd welcome contributions:  citations to the Globe, or parliamentary debates, ore letters, or whatever that strike readers as evidence of bigotry.

A different criticism of Brown next...

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