Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Histories of Lost Prime Ministers

Howzit that Mackenzie Bowell is having a moment? There is more to it than just his lively Twitter account @PMBowell ("My pronoun is Sir").

When Dundurn Press sent me a copy of The Lost Prime Ministers: Macdonald's Successsors Abbott, Thompson, Bowell, and Tupper by Michael Hill -- it launches today -- I had recently finished reading Sir Mackenzie Bowell: A Canadian Prime Minister Forgotten By History by Barry K. Wilson, published last year. There is an earlier bio by Betsy Dewar Boyce. And Dundurn tells me that next fall it will publish A Very Canadian Coup, about Bowell's removal from the prime minister's office in 1896 -- the last time, actually, a Canadian prime minister was dismissed and replaced by his own cabinet and caucus.

That seems to be more biographies of Bowell than, say, Robert Borden has, and about as many as John Diefenbaker. Maybe there's hope for Kim Campbell, John Turner, and Joe Clark someday.  

It's evidence that even though nineteenth-century Canadian politicians seem about as popular as a toppled statue, trade-market writers are taking up the gaps the professional historians leave. Michael Hall's book is light but lively. Wilson's Bowell biography is the most archivally-based of the ones above that I have seen, and also the one most determined to rescue him from the "weak, vain, unsuccessful" label he carries. (It's a struggle!) Boyce's book, the work of a writer from Bowell's hometown of Belleville who was also the author of The Rebels of Hastings is least inclined to defend him and sharpest about his anti-Catholic Orange Order loyalties and his virulent hostility to the Métis and prairie First Nations.

Turns out it's good to have several points of view, even on a minor figure like Bowell. We should not leave the DCB to carry all the biographical load.  

One thing working for Bowell:  he has that terrific portrait, painted from a photograph by Joanne Tod in 2002 and now gracing the halls of Parliament.

Update, May 13:  Might have recalled that historian Matthew Hayday has in progress a biography of Joe Clark.
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