Home  »  library  »  prose  »  Critical and Biographical Introduction by George McKinnon Wrong (1860–1948)

C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by George McKinnon Wrong (1860–1948)

By Sir Wilfrid Laurier (1841–1919)

IN many ways Sir Wilfrid Laurier holds a unique position. The child of French-speaking parents, reared in a French Canadian village, and nourished on the traditions of France, he yet has qualities which remind us of that product of the American West, Abraham Lincoln. In personal characteristics the two men are indeed strikingly different. To the last Lincoln remained something of a rugged frontiersman, gaunt and uncouth. Laurier, on the other hand, tall, graceful, and distinguished in appearance, has the polish of a finished courtier. He speaks French and English with equal fluency, and in reserve and dignity seems rather the product of a European court than of a Canadian village. With these external differences, the two men are, however, alike in qualities of mind. Both read widely, both were chiefly self-taught, both pondered deeply the problem of human liberty, and both have championed the rights of races that felt themselves oppressed. It was Lincoln who set the negro free. There is, of course, no parallel between the negro in the United States and the French Canadian in Canada, a member of a proud race, which in many ways has led in modern civilization. Still in Canada the French were long depressed and discouraged. In Laurier, the first French Canadian to rule the great Dominion, his race found a symbol of their complete liberty and of their equality with the English under the British flag. It is not without interest that this man of French birth and speech conceived in his early years a profound admiration for Lincoln and has been a lifelong student of Lincoln’s career.

Sir Wilfrid Laurier was born in 1841. It was natural that he should become a lawyer, for, from early manhood, his mind was occupied with great questions of liberty and government. He came under the influence of the mid-Victorian political spirit which linked with a love of liberty the conviction that the individual should work out his own destiny with as little direction as possible from the state. Through many of Laurier’s speeches runs the passion for freedom born in the days when European states were shaking off the reaction after the French Revolution. To-day younger men may almost envy elders who lived through the great days when the Russian serf and the American negro were freed, when Italy became a nation, and when France threw off despotic rule and became a free Republic. Time has already shown and will in the future demonstrate more fully that not the least of the great movements of the period was the Federal Union of Canada. The Civil War in the United States had caused the fear in the Canadian provinces that they would have on their borders a great military state which would imperil their existence as British communities. Separated they were weak and inefficient, united they had the makings of a great state. It thus happened that, beginning in 1867, moved by some magic purpose, half a dozen obscure colonies, weak, provincial in spirit, and jealous of each other, were brought together to form a mighty state stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Laurier was in his first young manhood when the great movement was carried through, and all his later years have been influenced by the thought of that time. The federal idea dominates his mind. Federalism involves diversity in unity. If he has a passion for liberty he believes also that liberty permits a wide diversity, and he has always championed the view that in Canada the French should remain French while not less truly Canadian and British. One quarter of the people of Canada are French in origin, and French is the language of their laws, French equally with English is the official language of the federal parliament and of the federal courts of Canada. To threats that the French minority would be deprived of this privilege to their tongue Laurier has always stood vigorously opposed and some of his highest flights of eloquence have been concerned with this issue.

Laurier entered public life in 1871, when thirty years old. It was the day of doctrinaire Liberalism and his early speeches, made in French, are on fire with enthusiasm for Liberal ideals. To him Gladstone was the great prophet. Canadian statesmen occupy a position rather unique. Canada’s political connection with Great Britain keeps her in touch with the thought and the ideals of British leaders. In the United States, on the other hand, the Revolution brought a complete break with the traditions of England. A type of government wholly new was set up at Washington. In Canada no such break has taken place. The Canadian parliament follows with some exactness the customs and precedents of the historical chambers at Westminster. When Canadian statesmen quote British leaders they are citing what is in the direct current of their own political life. The new wine of Canadian democracy is, in some measure, in old bottles. Nothing is more striking in Laurier’s speeches than his close study of old-world politics. It is, however, to the politics of England rather than of France that this French-speaking statesman constantly turns. It is English institutions and traditions which have given liberty to his people.

In 1896, at the age of fifty-five, Laurier became Prime Minister of Canada. It was in accordance with the traditions of his Liberal training that he stood for a policy of freer, though not of free, trade. One chief issue in the election was that of the right of a Canadian province to control its own system of education, and Laurier stood for the rights of the provinces. Those were the last days of the Victorian age. During the three-score years of the Queen’s reign Canada had passed through the whole cycle of development from an obscure and rebellious colony to a great state with illimitable possibilities. Laurier, always a student of history, was deeply conscious of the change. In 1837 Canada had been, in truth, a subject colony with no control even of her own tariff. In 1897, when Victoria celebrated the sixtieth year of her reign, Canada ruled herself and had imposed a high tariff against British imports. In the interval had grown up a changed conception of the British Empire. With a common sovereign, the different self-governing states of the Empire had become free and equal units bound together only by the ties of good will. It was Laurier, the leader of French origin, who made the first striking advance towards a new union of the Empire in respect to trade. In 1897 he carried through the Canadian Parliament a measure which resulted in giving to Great Britain a reduction of one third of the tariff imposed against the rest of the world. Germany, in particular, resented this closer drawing together of the British Empire, and a long trade warfare followed between Germany and Canada in which in the end Canada maintained her position.

For nearly sixteen years, until September 1911, Laurier remained Prime Minister of Canada and was one of the conspicuous figures in the British political world. It was under this French Canadian leader that Canada showed its willingness to share in the wars of the Empire when some vital principle was at stake. After the South African war broke out in 1899 it fell to Laurier to carry out the sending to South Africa of Canadian troops. The incident revealed the solidarity of the British peoples. It was certainly a strange turn of fortune that made the representative of a conquered people in Canada the supporter of British arms against the Boer republics. Laurier’s record in Canada made it fitting, however, that he should desire to see achieved the self-government of the Boers in South Africa, and when this came about he hailed it with deep satisfaction. He and General Botha met in London when each of them was Prime Minister of his own state. The two rulers of two races, conquered by British arms, and yet free, became warm friends and each has played a notable part in governing a vast British territory. Surely history has no stranger coincidence than that of a French and a Dutch Prime Minister governing free units within the British Empire.

Laurier fell from power in a cause which was in harmony with his earlier career. He appealed to the electors in 1911 for Reciprocity in trade with the United States, and he was beaten at the polls. Since that time he has remained the leader of the Liberal party, a man of unequaled distinction in Canadian public life. His peculiar position as a leader in a British state, though himself French in origin, has involved difficulties which have called for the exercise of the highest courage and restraint. To some of the British in Canada he has seemed too French, while to some of the French he, with his profound sympathy for British ideals, has seemed too British. From both quarters he has been bitterly attacked. It shows the greatness of the man that, the storm center of malignant strife, he has never uttered an angry or a bitter word or lost the poise of one who has never stooped to be petty.

At the time of writing (1917) Laurier is seventy-six years old, yet he remains the most alert and vigorous of the leaders of his party. Had he not chosen the path of a statesman, he would have walked in that of the man of letters. He has at his command the treasures of two great literatures, that of France and that of England. No task pleases him better than that of dealing with some topic divorced from party politics. He was a friend of Gladstone, and visited him at Hawarden. Like Gladstone, Laurier has proved to be careful and conservative in respect to the traditions of British constitutional procedure. Like Gladstone he is a student. Like Gladstone this man of books possesses the art of holding the crowd by stately and passionate eloquence. Perhaps the charm of Laurier’s speech in English is enhanced by the fact that there is something in tone and accent to reveal that his native speech is not English. He himself would say that he speaks with most effect in French. The three speeches here presented were, however, given in English. They are less the utterance of one accustomed to the precise weighing and balancing of single words than of a genuine eloquence which knows how to reach the heart of the people.