Home  »  library  »  prose  »  On the Death of Queen Victoria

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

On the Death of Queen Victoria

By Sir Wilfrid Laurier (1841–1919)

Speech in the Canadian House of Commons, June 8th, 1901

THERE is mourning in the United Kingdom, in the colonies, and in the many islands and continents which form the great empire over which extends the sovereignty of Queen Victoria. There is mourning deep, sincere, heartfelt in the mansions of the great, and of the rich, and in the cottages of the poor and lowly; for to all her subjects, whether high or low, whether rich or poor, the Queen, in her long reign, had become an object of almost sacred veneration…. There is wailing and lamentation amongst the savage and barbarian peoples of her vast empire, in the wigwams of our own Indian tribes, in the huts of the colored races of Africa and of India, to whom she was at all times the great mother, the living impersonation of majesty and benevolence….

Let us remember that in the first year of the Queen’s reign, there was rebellion in this very country, rebellion not against the authority of the young Queen, but rebellion against the pernicious system of government which then prevailed. This rebellion was put down by force, and if the question had then been put: “What shall be the condition of these colonies at the end of Victoria’s reign,” the universal answer would have been: “Let the end of the reign be near or let it be remote, when that end comes these rebellious colonies will have wrenched from Britain their independence, or they will be sullen and discontented, kept down by force.” If someone had then said: “You are all mistaken; when the reign comes to an end, these colonies shall not be rebellious; they shall not have claimed their independence; they shall have grown into a nation, covering one half of this continent; they shall have become to all intents and purposes one independent nation under the flag of England, and that flag shall not be maintained by force, but shall be maintained by the affection and gratitude of the people,” if such a prophecy had been made, it would have been considered as the hallucination of a visionary dreamer. But to-day that dream is a reality, that prophecy has come true. To-day the rebellious colonies of 1837 are the nation of Canada—I use the word “nation” advisedly—to-day the rebellious colonies of 1837 are the nation of Canada, acknowledging the supremacy of the Crown of England, held not by force of arms, but simply by their own affection, with only one garrison in Canada at this present moment, and that garrison manned by Canadian volunteers….

There is another feature of the Queen’s reign which is but little taken notice of to-day, which, in my judgment, has an importance that we have not yet fully realized, and perhaps the term of which we have not yet seen. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, all the colonies of England in America, with the single exception of the French colony of Quebec, claimed their independence, and obtained it by the force of arms. The contest was a long and arduous one. It left in the breast of the new nation which was then born a feeling of—shall I say the word?—yes, a feeling of hatred, which continued from generation to generation, and which extended into our own time. Happily we can say that it has almost altogether disappeared. Perhaps we can still find traces of it here and there; but that feeling has so largely abated that there is to-day between England and the United States of America an ever-growing friendship. What are the factors which have made this possible? Of all the factors which have made reconciliation possible, the personality of the Queen is undoubtedly the foremost. It is a matter of history that from the day of her accession to the throne, the Queen exhibited under all available circumstances an abounding and everlasting friendship towards that country which but for the fault of a vicious government would still have formed part of her Empire—a friendship which could not fail to touch the minds and hearts of a sensitive people.

This was manifest in times of peace, but still more in times of war, especially in the supreme hour of trial of the United States during the Civil War. In the early months of the Civil War, as perhaps few now remember, an event took place which almost led to hostilities between Great Britain and the United States. An American man-of-war stopped a British merchant-ship on the high seas, and forcibly removed from it two envoys of the Confederate government on their way to Europe. The act was a violation of the territory of England, because England has always held the decks of her ships to be part of her territory. It not only caused excitement in England, but it caused excitement of a different kind in the United States. The action of the commander of the war vessel in making the abduction aroused a great deal of enthusiasm among the people of the United States, which was reflected even on the floor of Congress, and evoked many meetings and resolutions of commendation. Lord Palmerston was at that time the Prime Minister of Great Britain, and he was not the man to brook such an affront. He had a despatch prepared by the Foreign Minister, who, if I remember rightly, was at that time Lord Russell, peremptorily demanding the return of the prisoners and an apology.

The despatch which had been prepared was submitted to the Queen, and then was revealed the good sense and the kind heart of the wise and good woman at the head of the British nation. She sent back the despatch, remarking that it was couched in too harsh terms, and that it ought to be modified to make possible the surrender of the prisoners without any surrender of dignity on the part of the United States. This wise counsel was followed; the despatch was modified accordingly; the prisoners were released and the danger of war was averted…. But that was not all. Three years, or a little more, afterwards, at the close of the Civil War, when the union of the United States had been confirmed, when slavery had been abolished, when rebellion had been put down, the civilized world was shocked to hear of the assassination of the wise and good man who had carried his country through that ordeal. Then the good heart and sound judgment of the Queen were again manifested. She sent a letter to the widow of the martyred President—not as the Queen of Great Britain to the widow of the President of the United States; but she sent a letter of sympathy from a widow to a widow, herself being then in the first year of her own bereavement. That action on her part made a very deep impression upon the minds of the American people; it touched not only the heart of the widowed wife, but the heart of the widowed nation; it stirred the souls of strong men; it caused tears to course down the cheeks of veterans who had courted death during the previous four years on a thousand battlefields. I do not say that it brought about reconciliation, but it made reconciliation possible. It was the first rift in the clouds; and to-day, in the time of England’s mourning, the American people flock to their churches pouring their blessings upon the memory of Britain’s Queen. I do not hope, I do not believe it possible, that the two countries which were severed in the eighteenth century can ever be again united politically; but perhaps it is not too much to hope that the friendship thus inaugurated by the hand of the Queen may continue to grow until the two nations are united again, not by legal bonds, but by ties of affection as strong, perhaps, as if sanctioned by all the majesty of the laws of the two countries; and if such an event were ever to take place, some credit for it would be due to the wise and noble woman who thus would have proved herself to be one of the greatest of statesmen, simply by following the instincts of her heart.

She was a Queen, she was also a wife and mother. She had her full share of the joys and sorrows of life. She loved, she suffered. Perhaps, though a Queen, she had a larger share of the sorrows than of the joys of life, for as Chateaubriand somewhere says, we have come to know how much there is of tears in the eyes of Queens. Her married life was one of the noblest that could be conceived. It can be summed up in one word; it was happy. But death prematurely placed its cold hand upon her happiness by the removal of the noble companion of her life at an early age. From that moment she was never exactly the same. To the end of her life she mourned, like Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be consoled. After the lapse of forty years, time may have assuaged, but it did not remove her grief; we can apply to her the beautiful language of the French poet:

  • “Dans sa première larme elle noyd son cœur.”
  • (In her first tear she drowned her heart.)
  • She is now no more—no more? Nay, I boldly say she lives; lives in the hearts of her subjects; lives in the pages of history. And as the ages revolve, as her pure profile stands more marked against the horizon of time, the verdict of posterity will ratify the judgment of those who were her subjects. She ennobled mankind; she exalted royalty—the world is better for her life.