Canada’s Christian Heritage Web Site
“The man who made union feasible.”
Hunter & Co. / National Archives of Canada / C-009558
The life of George Brown combines tragedy and heroism. Brown made Confederation possible for Canada through self-sacrifice. By a simple but magnificent gesture, he threw away personal ambition to better serve his country. Although history portrays him as a statesman who failed to attain the power and position that seemed his political heritage, as a publisher, journalist, and editor he was a man of superior influence.
George Brown was born into a devout and reform-minded evangelical Presbyterian family near Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1818. In 1837, the Browns immigrated to New York City following a business setback. In New York, George’s father, Peter, became successful in dry goods merchandising and in newspaper publishing.
Peter Brown and his son conjectured that there was no greater evil than government interference in church affairs. They also believed that personal integrity and morality were essential ingredients for any man seeking public office. According to the Browns, individuals were entitled to full freedom of conscience and expression and to the full protection of the law. Government must not encroach on basic freedoms, and vigilance among the free citizenry was always necessary to curb the tendency of governments to go beyond their proper limits.
On visiting upper Canada on business in 1842, George Brown wrote to his father, “The country is young. There are few persons of ability and education. There is no position a man of energy and character may not reasonably hope to attain.” On the invitation of Scottish Upper Canadians to publish a religious newspaper, the Browns moved to Toronto in 1843. The Banner expressed “Presbyterian interests and upheld Reform principles” on all great public issues.
In 1844, George launched his own newspaper, the Globe, in Toronto, Upper Canada’s fastest-growing city. Within a year, it was the colony's leading newspaper, and the Globe’s young publisher had become the colony’s most successful and powerful journalist. By 1847, Brown’s paper had become the official newspaper of the Reform (which later became a major component of the Liberal Party of Upper Canada). The Globe fiercely defended the values George Brown had grown up with.
Accused by opponents of advocating godlessness because he stood for separating educational institutions from the control of sects or denominations, Brown replied (with regard to the proposed Anglican controlled King’s College in Toronto in 1847) that the young should learn their Christianity at home from their parents. Professors in colleges should nonetheless “teach every science as Christians ought, both in the mode of doing it, and by the example they set before the students.”
When Brown was first elected to the Canadian Parliament in 1852, he came to the capital in Quebec as a friendless outsider. He had gone into opposition to the Liberal government of Francis Hincks because of its numerous compromises of Reform principles. Gradually, he won the support of the majority of Canada West’s electors and of the Reform members of Parliament and became their official leader. Reform, however, had lost power to the Conservatives, led by John A. Macdonald.
For Brown, politics was a civic duty. In government, high principle alone should direct one’s course. When engaged in affairs of state, Brown was virtually humourless, but always passionately intense, a merciless debater, and a relentless juggernaut of logical argument and moral persuasion. He maintained a reputation for incorruptibility and throughout his life maintained a strong belief that biblical morality should govern public life.
Macdonald on the other hand was urbane, suave, casually anecdotal, disarmingly charming, a master of the political game, a good administrator, and a great handler of men. For him, politics was the art of the possible rather than a quest for the ideal.
In 1861, Brown lost his seat in Parliament. He believed that his political career was over. He concentrated instead on improving the Globe. In addition, he pursued his Christian ideal of public service by helping fugitive American slaves in Canada and by promoting temperance. On a visit to Scotland in 1862, he married Anne Nelson. They shared a happy marriage and a warm Christian home with their children.
Brown re-entered Parliament in 1863. He stood for representation by population, for the federation of the two Canadas, and for acquiring the Hudson’s Bay lands of the west. By 1864, he again led Reform, this time against a shaky Macdonald-Cartier government.
In May 1864, Brown chaired a parliamentary committee studying ways to amend Canada’s constitution to break the east-west deadlock that paralysed effective government in Canada. The Macdonald-Cartier government fell, and another fruitless election loomed. Swallowing his personal antagonism to Macdonald and believing that God had provided him and his colleagues with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change the course of history, Brown offered to stake his career on an attempt to form a coalition with his opponents if they would agree to resolve the constitutional impasse once and for all. Thus, the Great Coalition was formed to seek a federation of the two Canadas.
Brown’s role in the subsequent Charlottetown and Quebec conferences in September and October 1864 was significant, as was his contribution in promoting confederation in the Globe and in numerous speeches. Although recent historians have often neglected Brown’s role, it was crucial. As his definitive biographer has explained: “The active force that drove the question of union to the point of decision, opened the way to decision through the constitutional committee, and then made the crucial move that transformed a blank wall of deadlock into vistas of nationhood was George Brown—in all this, the real initiator of confederation.”
Brown lost his seat in the conservative sweep in the 1867 election. He retired as Liberal leader in September 1867. Alexander Mackenzie, his friend and the new prime minister, named him a senator in 1874. From 1875 to 1880, Brown concentrated on personal affairs. He was instrumental in the formation of the Presbyterian Church of Canada in 1875.
On March 25, 1880, a disgruntled ex-Globe employee shot Brown in the leg. The wound became gangrenous, and Brown died on Sunday, May 9, to the sound of Church bells summoning worshippers to meet with God. Lord Monck, governor-general in the Confederation years, termed Brown “the man whose conduct in 1864 had rendered the project of union feasible.”
Despite the accolades, throughout his life Brown had remained humble. He had refused the lieutenant governor-ship of Ontario in 1875 and a knighthood in 1879, preferring always to remain, simply, George Brown of the Globe—which for him was distinction enough. As the Presbytery of Toronto testified: “By his pure life and conversion he commended the religion of Christ. He was sustained … by his trust in God, and in the blood of the Redeemer.”