SIR JOHN JOSEPH CALDWELL ABBOTT, attorney, businessman, educator, politician, militia officer, and gentleman farmer; b. 12 March 1821 in St Andrews (Saint-André-Est, Que.) , eldest son of the Reverend Joseph Abbott* and Harriet Bradford; m. 26 July 1849 Mary Martha Bethune, daughter of the Reverend John Bethune*, and they had four sons and four daughters; d. 30 Oct. 1893 in Montreal.

SIR JOHN JOSEPH CALDWELL early years were spent at different rural Anglican missions in Lower Canada, where his father was employed by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. A voracious reader, he was educated in his father’s well-stocked library and under his exacting tutelage. He can also have spent some time at the school in Grenville which his dad had helped establish.

His secondary education completed, he began work at age 17 with A. Laurie and Company, a Montreal retail and wholesale dry-goods firm. He did everything from selling fabric to packaging apples. Upon his recovery, he secured a position with a wholesale company in Gananoque, Upper Canada, where he learned accounting and bookkeeping. In 1843 he went to Montreal to study at McGill College. In precisely the exact same time he read law with William Collis Meredith and Strachan Bethune (his upcoming brother-in-law), and from 1846 with Christopher Dunkin* as well. He took classes to perfect his”fine tenor” voice, sang in and directed the six-person choir at Christ Church, and helped his dad, who had been bursar of McGill, with the school’s accounts. Even though a visitor’s report for 1844 discovered their accounting incorrectly and irregular, Abbott was appointed deputy secretary and inheritance to the bursar in 1845, protected from reprimand by his family’s intimate friendship with all the acting principal, Bethune, whose daughter Mary Martha he afterward married.

Through Badgley’s good offices he began teaching at McGill in 1853 as a lecturer. The next year he received a bcl out of McGill, and in 1867 he would receive a DCL, a degree available without examination to any graduate 12 years following his receipt of a BCL. In 1855 he succeeded Badgley as professor of criminal and commercial law and as dean of the school, a prestigious but not onerous position, given the few of students, the restricted formal instruction (most of the training took place in the professors’ law offices), along with the nominal administrative responsibilities; the deanship provided a yearly stipend of 500 along with also a share of student charges. Although Abbott retained the title of dean until 1880, he had stopped teaching and relinquished his administrative responsibilities by 1876, when William Warren Hastings Kerr became acting dean. Upon Abbott’s formal retirement, McGill appointed him emeritus professor in the school of law, and in 1881 he made him to the board of governors of the Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning. Following a lengthy career, he could count one of his pupils many who became prominent public men, such as Adolphe-Philippe Caron, Toussaint-Antoine-Rodolphe Laflamme, Gonzalve Doutre, Wilfrid Laurier*, and Eugène Lafleur.

Abbott’s academic involvement grew naturally from his professional and business activities. An expert in commercial law, he was mostly interested in contracts, bankruptcies, partnerships, and banking. Through clever and shrewd management he built his practice into among the very substantial in Canada and he was believed to have”appreciated the biggest professional income of any urge in the Province” for several decades. Though he was said to have twice been given the chief justiceship, a situation for which he was considered especially well qualified, approval of this post could have meant the reduction of roughly four-fifths of his earnings. During his 46 years of training, he had lots of partners, including his sons John Bethune and Henry. In 1870 his lawful firm was sufficiently large to justify the creation, in conjunction with Joseph Doutre*, of an Ontario agency, run by Toronto lawyer Herbert Chilion Jones, to facilitate”business connections between the merchants of Montreal and the people of Ontario.”

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Although Abbott’s eulogists have made much of his strong sense of justice, asserting that the poorer his clientele and also the more just their origin, the harder he fought for their rights, almost all of his clients were so wealthy and powerful men like John Thomas Molson and Sir Hugh Allan* and corporate interests like the Bank of Montreal, the Merchants’ Bank of Canada, the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice, the Bell Telephone Company of Canada, the Standard Life Assurance Company, and the Canadian Pacific Railway. A private, dispassionate person, that avoided conflict, screen, and emotion, Abbott preferred the silent counseling of customers, the discussion of agreements, along with the drafting of contracts to the theatre of court-room pleading, especially before a jury. His most celebrated public court case was his defense, together with Laflamme and Kerr, of Confederate agents who had raided St Albans, Vt, from Canadian soil from October 1864 and were tried for extradition to the United States. Much to the annoyance of the Canadian and American governments, Abbott persuaded authorities magistrate Charles-Joseph Coursol* he lacked the authority to try this case, so Coursol put the prisoners free. After their rearrest Abbott again successfully defended the prisoners before estimate James Smith*, asserting that they were belligerents, not criminals. The highly-publicized instances brought Canadian-American tensions near armed conflict.


Railways were a fire that Abbott shared with his father and younger brother Harry Braithwaite, a well-known railway engineer. His father was one of the first promoters of a railway to circumvent the rapids in Carillon; the Carillon and Grenville Railway was incorporated in 1847 and John and Harry purchased stock. In January 1859, when a more ambitious project, the Montreal and Bytown Railway, incorporated in 1853 and made to absorb the Carillon and Grenville, ran into financial difficulties, Abbott and his partners purchased the lineup in a sheriff’s sale for $21,000; it had cost its promoters some $400,000 to build. Five decades after they offered it to the Ottawa River Navigation Company for a”handsome profit.” Abbott also held shares in the Montreal Northern Colonization Railway, Nova Scotia’s Eastern Extension Railway, and many others throughout his career. His toughest railway effort started with the Canada Central Railway, of which he had been president for many years along with his brother a constructor. Chartered in 1856 as the Lake Huron, Ottawa, and Quebec Junction Railway, an amalgamation of several smaller lines, in 1861 it reorganized as the Canada Central and was viewed by Abbott and Allan as an integral connection in a transcontinental line.

Since Allan’s legal advisor, SIR JOHN JOSEPH CALDWELL became involved from the Montreal financier’s efforts to secure a government contract to build a railway to the Pacific. Abbott drafted a charter to the Canada Pacific Railway, organized for its incorporation, was named a provisional manager, and left with Allan for London in late February 1873 to float bonds for its own construction. News of the Pacific Scandal jeopardized their attempts, destroyed the business, and placed Abbott at the center of one of the country’s most remarkable political scandals. Not only were the incriminating documents employed by mp Lucius Seth Huntington* to accuse the government of Sir John A. Macdonald of corruption stolen from Abbott’s office with his confidential clerk, George Norris, but he’d attended the meeting together with Sir George-Étienne Cartier* through which Allan had consented to finance Cartier’s election in 1872 in return for a contract to build the railway. Abbott had drafted letters to Cartier about the arrangement and he’d been the intermediary through whom requests from Cartier and Macdonald for additional funds had been made and fulfilled. A star witness at the royal commission established after in 1873 to investigate Huntington’s prices, Abbott had informed Macdonald about the guys best suited to serve on it, indicated what signs ought to be destroyed, and tried to purchase a witness to discredit his accusers. Political opponents never let Abbott, a Conservative mp, forget his sordid role in this political scandal. His enthusiasm for the building of a transcontinental railway, nevertheless, wasn’t dampened.

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Really, Abbott was largely instrumental in the formation of another syndicate to construct the Pacific railway. About Macdonald’s return to power in 1878, Abbott started working on a strategy which he submitted to the prime minister a couple of decades later, to extend the Canada Central in order to connect it to the line from Port Arthur (Thunder Bay) to Winnipeg which was begun by the government of Alexander Mackenzie. At Macdonald’s advocating Abbott revised his strategy, enlarging the group of investors to include Duncan McIntyre, now the president of and a major shareholder in the Canada Central, George Stephen, Donald Alexander SmithStephen , along with many others. Appointed the group’s attorney, a post that he held from 1880 to 1887, Abbott once more drafted a charter and then secured the incorporation of the Canadian Pacific Railway on 15 Feb. 1881. In negotiating a contract with the authorities to build the line he’d expressed far more generous concessions than Macdonald realized in the time and, according to Sir Richard John Cartwright, he clearly”out-generalled Sir John Macdonald.” In February 1881 Abbott accompanied Stephen, McIntyre, and other people to England in pursuit of funds. Later that year that the CPR purchased the Canada Central Railway. Throughout the construction of the CPR Abbott proved to be a skilled advocate and frequent lobbyist for government assistance. Quite appropriately he was present in the conclusion of the line. Until this time he’d refused to purchase stock in the company, and far to Macdonald’s annoyance would never vote or speak in the House of Commons on matters of interest to the railway so as to prevent the appearance of conflict of interest. Privately, but he pressed the CPR’s assert whenever he could, and on its conclusion he purchased stock and accepted a position as manager, which he retained until he became prime minister.

He advanced over $68,000 and supported a bank loan of $86,000 to establish his younger sons, Arthur and William, at Abbott and Company, and afterwards lent some $49,000 to the Metropolitan Rolling Mills, owned by Abbott and Company.

SIR JOHN JOSEPH CALDWELL‘s property provides additional insight into his material success and social aspirations. Along with owning a well-appointed house in Montreal, valued at $64,818 in 1898, along with a more modest house, valued at $3,000, for his sister Harriet, in 1865 Abbott purchased Senneville, a 300-acre country estate in the west end of Montreal Island, containing the remains of the rock mill built by Jacques Le Ber*. This property, initially known as Senneville Grange, and afterwards more grandly as Boisbriant, was valued at $35,000 at 1898. On it he built a baronial home using a library and conservatories. He laid out farms, orchards, and gardens, and preserved a herd of Guernsey cattle, imported from 1878 to 1883 and thought to be”the first direct importation” of this strain into Canada. Here he indulged his passion for orchids, also is thought to have owned”the richest variety at that time in Canada.” Boisbriant enabled Abbott to pursue his hobbies, protected privacy, and confirm his social standing among Montreal’s merchant princes, in a manner that his membership at the Rideau Club, Ottawa, along with the St James Club of Montreal alone couldn’t.

His social standing entailed obligations to the neighborhood. In 1860 he had been one of the creators of the Art Association of Montreal (of which his eldest son, John Bethune, turned into a curator). A trustee for the estate of the Montreal retailer Hugh Fraser, Abbott spent over 15 years trying to set the free library, museum, and art gallery provided for in Fraser’s will. Following years of litigation between the trustees and Fraser’s heirs, the Fraser institute, which included the books of the Mercantile Library Association along with the Institut Canadien, was started on 15 Oct. 1885, with Abbott, the institute’s life president, delivering the inaugural address. Back in 1869 Abbott had helped establish that the Protestant Institution for Deaf-Mutes and for the Blind [see Joseph Mackay*].

Although Abbott had served at the local militia”since boyhood,” in 1849 he had been a signatory to the Annexation Manifesto, calling for union of the Canadas with the usa. His recruiting of 300 men, called the Argenteuil Rangers, during the Trent affair of 1861 [see Sir Charles Hastings Doyle*] might have been made to atone for what he later referred to as the”sins of youth” and to improve his political qualifications, as much as to express his concern for his nation’s safety. Taunted by his political opponents in March 1889 for his”disloyalty” in 1849he clarified he considered his army service, and his commission as an officer and later commanding officer of the 11th Argenteuil Battalion of militia, to be proof that his young error had been forgiven.

Paradoxically Abbott is best recalled as a politician, a profession he claimed”to loathe and detest.” “I hate politics,” he clarified in 1891,”and what exactly are believed their appropriate methods. I hate notoriety, public meetings, public addresses, caucuses, and everything that I know of that is apparently the essential incident of politics — except doing public work to the best of my skill.” The constituency he picked, Argenteuil, wasn’t an easy one. After Bellingham won again at the elections of 1857–58 by about 200 votes Abbott petitioned to have the election on the grounds that men without property qualifications and from outside the constituency was tempted to vote for his rival. That year he released the committee’s proceedings in a job of 258 pages in which he argued that the enforcement of existing electoral laws in contrast to the enactment of further ones was the best assurance of electoral probity. Though he had missed the first two years of his mandate, also was arrested by professional business from regular attendance during the session of 1860, he had been re-elected in 1861, and in May 1862 combined the average Reform authorities of John Sandfield Macdonald* and Louis-Victor Sicotte* as attorney general for Lower Canada. During his year in office that he initiated three major legislative measures: a bill to govern the supply of assets to creditors and relieve debtors from accountability for debt — a step which established his authority on the topic of insolvency and enhanced his professional standing; a statement regarding juries and jurors in Lower Canada; and also a bill to levy a stamp tax upon judicial processes. He also insisted upon acting as crown prosecutor, regardless of the fact he had managed few criminal cases. He had been re-elected in 1863, and although he refused to join the rebuilt ministry and subsequently voted against the government, Sandfield Macdonald encouraged him to pilot throughout the assembly his invoice on insolvency, which had failed to pass before dissolution. The following year he published an annotated edition of this action entitled The Insolvent Act of 1864, with notes along with the rules of training and the tariff of fees for Lower Canada, which demonstrated his comprehensive understanding of French, English, and Scottish law.

A reluctant supporter of confederation, he feared that it would lessen the general public inhabitants of Lower Canada to political impotence. In accordance with William Collis Meredith, Christopher Dunkin, along with others, he drafted a resolution calling on the authorities to protect the electoral boundaries of 12 British Quebec constituencies. Afterward, Alexander Tilloch Galt supported the proposal, had the London summit accept this, and included it as informative article 80 of the British North America Act.

After confederation Abbott drifted to the Communist party. Elected to the House of Commons to get Argenteuil at 1867 and 1872, he stayed interested in finance, particularly in the revision of the Insolvent Act in 1869, and for several years he served as chairman of the home’s banking committee. His response in the Pacific Scandal resulted in his eventual defeat; although elected in 1874, he was unseated by petition, because of irregularities in the voters’ lists. Defeated in 1878 by 89 votes, he won a by-election in February 1880, only to have it declared void because of bribery by his own officials. Re-elected in a by-election at August 1881, and returned from the general election of 1882 by acclamation, he held his seat until 15 Jan. 1887. On 12 May 1887 he was called to the Senate, an institution he argued had an important role to play in government. In recognition of his parliamentary skills and basic usefulness, on 13 May Sir John A. Macdonald appointed him Senate house leader and named him to the cabinet without portfolio.

Although his nomination since the English candidate was fiercely contested by George Washington StephensDecision , the town’s energetic urban reformer, he was chosen in 1887 with a comfortable majority of some 2,000 votes within Henri-Benjamin Rainville, also re-elected by acclamation the next year. Abbott’s very first act on being called to the Senate was going to procure a charter to the Royal Victoria Hospital. He failed, but to secure its amalgamation with the Montreal General Hospital, also incurred the anger of conservationists by hinting that the hospital be built on the city’s mountain parkland and with his position as mayor to achieve that end. The Montreal Star was especially critical of Abbott’s civic government, his insensitivity to the needs of his constituency, and also the corruption at city hall during his tenure.

Inside or outside parliament Abbott’s legal skills were in demand. In April 1879 he accompanied Hector-Louis Langevin* into London as legal advisor, to seek out assistance from the Colonial Office for efforts of the Canadian government to remove Quebec’s lieutenant governor, Luc Letellier* p Saint-Just, whose dismissal of his Conservative cabinet had established an acrimonious political controversy in Quebec. In London he transacted other government business, particularly the entrance to Britain of American cows in transit through Canada. In 1888 Macdonald requested him to go to Australia to negotiate closer connections in trade and communication, a policy firmly endorsed by the CPR, but the mission was postponed rather than realized.

Sir John A. Macdonald appears to have had a good view of Abbott, whom he believed a dignified, informed, dispassionate parliamentarian,” celebrated because of his lack of animosity and personal bitterness,” and among the best speakers in the home. Just before his death in 1891 Macdonald offered Abbott that the presidency of the Privy Council. In the time he had been apparently considering Abbott as the upcoming prime minister; he had advised his ministry of justice, Sir John Sparrow David Thompson, his obvious successor,”After I am gone, you’ll need to rally around Abbott; he’s your only man.”

SIR JOHN JOSEPH CALDWELL certainly didn’t want the prime ministership; in his opinion, Thompson was the ideal person to lead the party. But in the end, Thompson helped persuade Abbott to take, Abbott, consenting reluctantly on the condition that Thompson takes a lot of the responsibility, particularly in the House of Commons. Abbott realized, and even exaggerated, his own limitations, and never stopped explaining to anyone who would listen that he was chosen leader of his party only because he was the man who divided it least.

“Venerable and well-mannered, fond of whist and cribbage,” as historian Peter Busby Waite has described him, the first Canadian-born prime minister” was not without attractiveness” or societal, administrative, and political skills. Even political opponents such as Cartwright conceded this. Moreover, as Waite has contended, Abbott’s authorities were more than the caretaker, provisional administration so frequently depicted. A large backlog of job awaited him when he assumed power on 15 June 1891. Nor was it easy to direct a celebration grown tired and weak in the workplace, flanked by corruption and separated by religious, cultural, and personal rivalries. The country, too, faced serious problems, not the least of which have been a severe depression in trade, the Manitoba school question [see Thomas Greenway], the elimination of Honoré Mercier from the premiership of Quebec, the Bering Sea dispute [see Thompson], and also the Bond-Blaine conference [see Sir Robert Bond]. During the 17 months of his administration, Abbott, a tireless worker, stripped off from their government industry, shuffled his cabinet, compelled Langevin to resign his portfolio until he was cleared of charges of corruption, endorsed reform of the civil company, reluctantly significant alterations to the criminal code through a recalcitrant Senate, pressed the Colonial Office to appoint a Canadian attaché to the British legation in Washington, also delivered Thompson to Washington to discuss a wide spectrum of issues including a reciprocity treaty with the United States. Throughout his decisive and energetic direction, notably his smart handling of the Mercier affair, his social diplomacy, along with the aid of friends, including William Cornelius Van HorneDecision, who aided recreate restless French Canadian colleagues such as Joseph-Adolphe Chapleau and Langevin, Abbott seems to have restored his party’s assurance, inside and outside parliament. In recognition of the public services, he was made a kcmg on 25 May 1892.

Scarcely had he been a year in office, however, when his health began to fail. In August 1892 his doctors insisted he take a prolonged rest to recuperate from what they described as”cerebral conjestion and resulting in exhaustion of the mind and nervous system.” Abbott, then aged 71, never returned to his office. In October he left for England to look for medical assistance. There, he wrote an undated letter of resignation into Thompson, whom he had left in the helm, to take a look at Thompson’s convenience. About 23 Nov. 1892 Thompson met with the governor general and agreed to substitute Abbott officially on 4 December; he had been sworn in as prime minister three times later. Meanwhile, Abbott toured France and Italy vainly looking for relaxation and health. His funeral was held on 2 Nov. 1893 at Christ Church Cathedral, the bishop presiding over a tribe of the country’s wealthiest and most powerful men. Although La Minerve liberally announced Abbott that a”friend of our race,” he’d not been popular among many of the French coworkers; he had simply been more acceptable than the intense members of the Conservative party. A smart, persuasive, and discreet energy broker, he’d stayed the experienced advocate of English Quebec’s powerful business community.


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