Wilfrid Laurier: Speech on Political Liberalism, 1877
By 1877, Wilfrid Laurier was a rising political star in Québec, although his profile outside his native province was not yet established. On 26 June 1877, Laurier spoke to members of Le Club Canadien in Québec City on the risky topic of liberalism — deemed a radical threat at the time to Québec’s conservative elites and to the Roman Catholic Church. Laurier disarmed such fears by stating clearly what Liberals held dear: political freedom, respect for the Crown, the continuance of Canada’s democratic institutions and religious tolerance. The speech was a master stroke. Overnight, Laurier created space in Québec for the Liberal Party and became, for the first time, a national figure.
On Political Liberalism: Academy of Music, Québec City, Québec, 26 June 1877
I cannot conceal the fact that it was with a certain feeling of pleasure that I accepted the invitation to come before you to explain what are the doctrines of the Liberal Party and what the word “Liberalism” means as regards the Liberals of the province of Quebec.
"For my part, I belong to the Liberal Party. If it be wrong to be a Liberal, I accept the reproach: if it be a crime to be Liberal, then I am guilty of it. For my part, I only ask one thing: that we be judged according to our principles. I would be ashamed of our principles, if we were afraid to give expression to them and our cause would not be worth the efforts for its triumph, if the best way to secure that triumph was to conceal its nature."
I say that it was not without a certain feeling of pleasure that I accepted; but I would certainly have refused if I had looked only to the difficulties of the task. However, if the difficulties of that task are numerous and delicate, on the other hand I am so imbued with the importance for the Liberal Party of clearly defining its position, before the public opinion of the province, that this consideration was to my mind far above all the others.
In fact, I do not deceive myself with regard to the position of the Liberal Party in the Province of Quebec and I have no hesitation in immediately saying that it occupies a false position from the standpoint of public opinion. I know that, in the eyes of a large number of my fellow countrymen, the Liberal Party is a party composed of men of perverse doctrines and dangerous tendencies, pressing knowingly and deliberately towards revolution. I know that, in the eyes of a portion of my fellow countrymen, the Liberal Party is a party of men with upright intentions, perhaps, but victims and dupes of principles which are leading them unconsciously, but fatally, towards revolution. In fine, I know that, in the eyes of another, and not the least considerable portion, perhaps, of our people, Liberalism is a new form of evil, a heresy carrying with it its own condemnation.
I know all this and it is because I know it, that I have accepted the invitation to come here. I have not the presumption to believe that anything I might say here tonight will have the effect of dissipating any of the prejudices existing at present against us; my only ambition is to lead the way in the hope that it will be followed by others and that the work thus begun will be fully carried out; my pretensions go no farther than this.
And let no one say that this manifestation is useless or untimely. It is neither useless nor untimely to combat the prejudices which have been raised like a barrier everywhere between us and public opinion; it is neither useless nor untimely to clearly define our position as it really is.
It is quite true that we have been already long enough before public opinion to give it full opportunity to know and appreciate us. But it is equally true that if we have had our enemies like every other political party, we have been more assailed than any other political party. Of our enemies, the one has systematically slandered us; the others have in good faith calumniated us. Both have represented us as professing doctrines, the effect of which, foreseen and calculated by some of us, not foreseen by, but fatal for the others, would be the overthrow of our society, the revolution with all its horrors. To reply to these charges and to defend our position is the object of the demonstration of this evening organized by the Club Canadien.
To my mind, the most efficacious, the only way, in fact, to defeat these charges, to defend our ideas and principles, is to make them known. Yes, I am convinced that the exposure alone of our principles will be their best and most eloquent apology. And when we shall have made ourselves known as we are, when we shall have made known our principles as they are, we shall have gained, I believe, a double point. The first will be to rally to our side all the friends of liberty, all those, who, before 1837 or after it, laboured to secure for us responsible government, government of the people by the people, and who, on the establishment of that form of government, separated from us through fear that we were in reality what we were represented to be, and that the realization of the ideas ascribed to us would lead to the destruction of the government which they had had so much trouble in establishing.
The second point will be to force our real enemies, all who at bottom are enemies more or less disguised of liberty, to no longer appeal against us to prejudices and fear, but to come forward frankly as we do before the people with their ideas and their acts.
And when the fight takes place on the ground of pure questions of principle according to the thought by which they are inspired, when people will be no longer afraid to accept the good and reject the bad under the impression that in accepting the one and rejecting the other, strength will be only given to a party of perverse doctrines and dangerous tendencies, it matters little to me on which side victory will then perch.
When I state that it matters little to me on which side victory will perch, I do not mean to say that I am indifferent to the result of the struggle. I mean this: if the struggle turns against us, the opinion expressed will be the free expression of the people; but I am convinced that a day will come when our ideas, planted in the soil, will germinate and bear fruit, if the seed is sound and just.
Yes, I am confident, I am certain that if our ideas are just, as I believe they are, if they are an emanation of the eternal and immutable truth, as I believe they are, they will not perish; they may be rejected, reviled, persecuted, but a day will come when they will germinate, spring up and grow, as soon as the sun shall have done its work and prepared the ground.
I have already noted some of the charges made against us; I shall return to the subject, as it is the most important point. All the charges made against us, all the objections to our doctrines, may be crystallized into the following propositions:
- Liberalism is a new form of error, a heresy already virtually condemned by the head of the Church;
- A Catholic cannot be a Liberal.
This is what our adversaries proclaim. Mr. President, all who honour me with their attention at this moment will do me the justice of recognizing that I put the question as it is and that I exaggerate nothing. All will do me the justice of admitting that I reproduce faithfully the reproaches which are day after day cast up to us. All will acknowledge that it is well and truly the language of the Conservative press.
I know that Catholic Liberalism has been condemned by the head of the Church. But I will be asked: what is Catholic Liberalism? On the threshold of this question I stop. This question does not come within the purview of my subject: moreover, it is not of my competence. But I know and I say that Catholic Liberalism is not political Liberalism. If it were true that the ecclesiastical censures hurled against Catholic Liberalism should also apply to political Liberalism this fact would constitute for us, French by origin and Catholics by religion, a state of things, the consequences of which would be as strange as they would be painful.
In fact, we, French Canadians, are a conquered race. This is a melancholy truth to utter, but it is the truth. But, if we are a conquered race, we have also made a conquest: the conquest of liberty. We are a free people; we are a minority, but we have retained all our rights and all our privileges. Now, what is the cause to which we owe this liberty? It is the constitution which was conquered by our forefathers and which we enjoy today. We have a constitution which bases the Government on the suffrage of the citizens and which was granted to us for our own protection. We have not more rights or more privileges, but we have as many rights and as many privileges as the other elements, which go to make up the Canadian family. But it must not be forgotten that the other members of the Canadian family are divided into two parties, the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party.
But if we, who are Catholics are not to have the right to have our preferences, if we are not to have the right to belong to the Liberal Party, one of two things must happen, either we would be obliged to abstain completely from taking any share in the management of the affairs of the State and then the constitution, that constitution which was granted to us for our own protection, would be no longer in our hands only a dead letter; or we would be obliged to take a part in the management of the affairs of the State under the direction and to the profit of the Conservative Party and then, our action being no longer free, the constitution would again be in our hands a dead letter and we would in addition have the ignominy of being regarded by the other members of the Canadian family composing the Conservative Party as tools and slaves.
Do not these absurd consequences, the strict accuracy of which nobody can question, conclusively show how false is the assertion that a Catholic cannot belong to the Liberal Party?
Since Providence has united together on this corner of earth populations of different origins and creeds, is it not manifest that these populations must have together common and identical interest, and, that, in all that affects these interests, each one is free to follow either the Liberal Party or the Conservative Party, according to the dictates of his conscience?
For my part, I belong to the Liberal Party. If it be wrong to be a Liberal, I accept the reproach: if it be a crime to be Liberal, then I am guilty of it. For my part, I only ask one thing: that we be judged according to our principles. I would be ashamed of our principles, if we were afraid to give expression to them and our cause would not be worth the efforts for its triumph, if the best way to secure that triumph was to conceal its nature. The Liberal Party has been for twenty-five years in Opposition and let it remain there for twenty-five more, if the people have not yet been educated up to accepting its ideas, but let it march proudly with its banners displayed in the full face of the country!
Before all, however, it is important to come to an understanding upon the meaning, value and bearing of the word “Liberal” and that other word “Conservative.”
I maintain that there is not one thing less understood in this country by its assailants than Liberalism and there are several reasons for this.
It is only yesterday that we were initiated into representative institutions. The English element understand the working of these institutions in some way by instinct, as well as by long experience. On the other hand, our people hardly understand them yet. Education is only beginning to spread among us and, in the case of the educated, our French education leads us naturally to study the history of modern liberty, not in the classic land of liberty, not in the history of old England, but among the peoples of the continent of Europe, of the same origin and faith as ourselves. And there, unfortunately, the history of liberty has been written in letters of blood on the most harrowing pages which the annals of the human race, perhaps, contain. In all classes of educated society may be seen loyal souls, who, frightened by these mournful pages, regard with terror the spirit of liberty, imagining that it must produce here the same disasters and the same crimes as in the countries I have just referred to. In the eyes of such well-meaning people, the very word “Liberalism” is fraught with national calamity.
Without blaming altogether these fears, but without allowing ourselves to be frightened by them, let us go back to the fountainhead itself and calmly examine what is at the bottom of those two words: Liberal, Conservative! What idea is hidden under this word Liberal that it should have called down upon us so many anathemas! What idea is hidden under the word Conservative that it should be modestly applied to everything that is good? Is the one, as is pretended and, in fact asserted every day, the expression of a new form of error? Is the other, as it seems to be constantly insinuated, the definition of good under all its aspects? Perhaps the one means revolt, anarchy, disorder, and is the other the only stable principle of society? These are questions which people are putting to themselves daily in our country.
These subtle distinctions, which are constantly appearing in our press, are nevertheless not new. They are only the repetition of the fancies of certain French writers, whose horizon is bounded by the narrow limits of their sanctums and who, only looking to the past, bitterly criticize everything existing in the present for the simple reason that nothing now existing resembles anything that existed formerly.
These writers proclaim that the Liberal idea, is a new idea but they are mistaken. The Liberal idea is no more a new idea than is the contrary idea. It is as old as the world and is found written on every page of the world’s history, but it is only in our days that we have come to know its force and its law and to understand how to utilize it. Steam existed before Fulton, but it has only been since Fulton that we have learned all the extent of its power and how to make it produce its marvellous effects. The combination of the tube and piston is the instrument by which we utilize steam and the system of representative governments is the instrument which has revealed to the world the two principles, Liberal and Conservative, and by which we get from that form of government all its effects.
Upon any subject whatever, within the range of human things, the truth does not manifest itself equally to all intellects. There are some whose gaze pierces further into the unknown, but takes in less at a time; there are others whose gaze, even if it be less penetrating, perceives more clearly within the sphere which it embraces. This primordial distinction at once explains to a certain extent the Liberal idea and the Conservative idea. For this sole reason, the same object will not be seen under the same aspect by different eyes; for this sole reason, the one will take a route which the others will avoid, although both propose to arrive at the same end. But there is a conclusive reason which clearly explains the nature and the why and the wherefore of the two different ideas. Macaulay, in his History of England, sets forth this reason with admirable clearness. Speaking of the meeting of the Houses for the second session of the Long Parliament, the great historian says:
“From that day dates the corporate existence of the two great parties which have ever since alternately governed the country. In one sense, indeed, the distinction which then became obvious had always existed and always must exist; for it has its origin in diversities of temper, of understanding, and of interest, which are found in all societies and which will be found until the human mind ceases to be drawn in opposite directions by the charm of habit and by the charm of novelty. It is not only in politics, but in literature, in art, in science, in surgery and mechanics, in navigation and agriculture, nay, even in mathematics, we find this distinction. Everywhere there is a class of men who cling with fondness to whatever is ancient and who, even when convinced by overpowering reasons that innovation would be beneficial, consent to it with many misgivings and forebodings. We find also everywhere another class of men sanguine in hope, bold in speculation, always pressing forward, quick to discern the imperfection of whatever exists, disposed to think lightly of the risks and inconveniences which attend improvements and disposed to give every change credit for being an improvement.”
The former are the Conservatives; the latter are the Liberals. Here you have the real meaning, the true explanation, of the Liberal principle. They are two attributes of our nature. As Macaulay admirably expresses it, they are to be found everywhere: in the arts, in the sciences and in all the branches open to human speculation; but it is in politics that they are most apparent.
Consequently, those who condemn Liberalism as a new idea have not reflected upon what is transpiring every day under their eyes. Those who condemn Liberalism as an error have not reflected that, in so doing, they condemn an attribute of human nature. Now, it should not be overlooked that our form of government is a representative monarchy. This is the instrument which throws into relief and brings into action the two principles, Liberal and Conservative.
We, Liberals, are often accused of being Republicans. I do not note this reproach for the purpose of taking it up, for it is not worth taking up. I merely state that the form matters little; whether it be monarchical or republican, the moment the people exercise the right to vote, the moment they have a responsible government, they have the full measure of liberty. Still, liberty would soon be no more than an empty name, if it left without control those who have the direction of power. A man, whose astonishing sagacity has formulated the axioms of governmental science with undeviating accuracy, Junius, has said: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” Yes, if a people want to remain free, they must like Argus have a hundred eyes and be always on the alert. If they slumber, or relax, each moment of indolence loses them a particle of their rights. Eternal vigilance is the price which they have to pay for the priceless boon of liberty.
Now, the form of a representative monarchy lends itself marvellously much more, perhaps than the republican form to the exercise of this necessary vigilance. On the one hand, you have those who govern and, on the other, those who watch. On the one hand, you have those who are in power and have an interest in remaining there, and, on the other, those who have an interest in getting there.
What is the bond of cohesion to unite each individual of the different groups? What is the principle, the sentiment, to range these diverse elements of the population either among those who govern or those who watch? It is the Liberal principle or the Conservative principle. You will see together those who are attracted by the charm of novelty and you will see together those who are attracted by the charm of habit. You will see together those who are attached to all that is ancient and you will see together those who are always disposed to reform.
Now I ask: between these two ideas which constitute the basis of parties, can there be a moral difference? Is the one radically good and the other radically bad? Is it not evident that both are what are termed in moral philosophy indifferents, that is to say, that both are susceptible of being appreciated, pondered and chosen? Would it not it be as unfair as it would be absurd to condemn or to approve either the one or the other as absolutely bad or good?
Both are susceptible of much good, as they are also of much evil. The Conservative, who defends his country’s old institutions may do much good, as he also may do much evil, if he be obstinate in maintaining abuses, which have become intolerable. The Liberal, who contends against these abuses and who, after long efforts, succeeds in extirpating them, may be a public benefactor, just as the Liberal who lays a rash hand on hallowed institutions may be a scourge not only for his own country, but for humanity at large.
Certainly, I am far from blaming my adversaries for their convictions, but for my part, as I have already said, I am a Liberal. I am one of those who think that everywhere, in human things, there are abuses to be reformed, new horizons to be opened up, and new forces to be developed.
Moreover, Liberalism seems to me in all respects superior to the other principle. The principle of Liberalism is inherent to the very essence of our nature, to that desire of happiness with which we are all born into the world, which pursues us throughout life and which is never completely gratified on this side of the grave. Our souls are immortal, but our means are limited. We constantly gravitate towards an ideal which we never attain. We dream of good, but we never realize the best. We only reach the goal we have proposed to ourselves, to discover new horizons opening up, which we had not before even suspected.
We rush on towards them and those horizons, explored in their turn, reveal to us others which lead us on ever further and further. And thus it will be as long as man is what he is, as long as the immortal soul inhabits a mortal body, his desires will be always vaster than his means and his actions will never rise to the height of his conceptions. He is the real Sisyphus of the fable: his work always finished has always to be begun over again.
This condition of our nature is precisely what makes the greatness of man, for it condemns him irrevocably to movement, to progress: our means are limited, but our nature is perfectible and we have the infinite for our arena. Thus, there is always room for improvement of our condition, for the perfecting of our nature, and for the attainment by a larger number of an easier life. Here again is what, in my eyes, constitutes the superiority of Liberalism.
In addition, experience has established that insensibly, imperceptibly, abuses will creep into the body social and end by seriously obstructing its upward march, if not endangering its existence. Experience has further established that institutions which, at the outset, were useful because they were adapted to the state of society at the time of their introduction, often end by becoming intolerable abuses owing to the simple fact that everything around them has changed. Such was the case in our own midst with the seigniorial tenure. It is unquestionable that, in the infancy of the colony, that system greatly facilitated the settlement of the soil. But, in 1850, everything had changed so much amongst us that the system would have eventuated in deplorable complications, if our Legislature, upon the initiative of the Liberals, had not had the wisdom to abolish it.
As a consequence of the law which I have indicated as the determining cause of the Liberal and Conservative ideas, there will be always men found, who will attach themselves with love to these abuses, defend them to the bitter end, and view with dismay any attempt to suppress them. Woe to such men, if they do not know how to yield and adopt proposed reforms! They will draw down upon their country disturbances all the more terrible, that justice shall have been long refused. History, alas! superabundantly shows that very few of those who govern have been able to understand these aspirations of humanity and satisfy them. Indeed, more revolutions have been caused by Conservative obstinacy than by Liberal exaggeration.
The supreme art of government consists in guiding, directing and controlling these aspirations of human nature. The English are, in a high degree, masters of this art. Look at the work of the great Liberal Party of England! How many reforms has it not brought about, how many abuses corrected, without shock, disturbance and violence! Understanding the aspirations of the oppressed and the new wants created by new situations, it has carried out, under the sanction of the law and without other aid than the law, a series of reforms which has made the English people the freest people and the most prosperous and happy of Europe.
On the other hand, look at the continental governments! The most of them have never been able to grasp these aspirations of their peoples. No sooner do the sufferers raise their heads to catch a few breaths of air and of freedom, than they are brutally crushed back again into a circle which is ever growing more and more hermetically restricted.
But the day comes when the obstacles are shivered to pieces, when these peoples break forth from their paralyzing restraints, and, then, in the holy name of liberty, the most frightful crimes are committed. Is there reason to be surprised at this? Are we astonished when the storm clouds, rolling over our heads, burst forth in hail and lightning? Are we surprised at the explosion of the steam-boiler, when the engineer neglects to open the safety valve and relieve it of its superabundant pressure? No, because we see in these events the working of an inevitable law which is always attended with the same effects, as well in the moral as in the physical system.
Wherever there is compression, there will be explosion, violence and ruin. I do not say this to excuse revolutions, as I hate revolutions and detest all attempts to win the triumph of opinions by violence. But I am less inclined to cast the responsibility on those who make them than on those who provoke them by their blind obstinacy. I say this to illustrate the superiority of Liberalism, which understands the aspirations of human nature, and, instead of doing violence to them, seeks to direct them. Can it be believed, for instance, that – if England had persisted in refusing emancipation to Catholics; if it had persisted in refusing the fullness of their civil and political rights to the Catholics, the Jews and the other Protestant denominations not forming part of the established church; if it had persisted in keeping the suffrage limited to a small number; if it had persisted in refusing free trade in breadstuff; if it had persisted in refusing the right of suffrage to the working classes – a day would not have come when the people would have risen in arms to do themselves the justice that would have been obstinately denied to them?
Do you think that riot would not have raised its hideous head under the windows of Westminster and that the blood of civil war would not have reddened the streets of London, as it has so often reddened the streets of Paris? Human nature is the same all over, and there, as elsewhere, compression would have produced explosion, violence and ruin. These terrible calamities, however, were obviated by the initiative of the Liberals who, understanding the evil, proposed and applied the remedy.
What is grander than the history of the great English Liberal Party during the present century? On its threshold, looms up the figure of Fox, the wise, the generous Fox, defending the cause of the oppressed, wherever there were oppressed to be defended. A little later, comes O’Connell, claiming and obtaining for his co-religionists the rights and privileges of English subjects. He is helped in this work by all the Liberals of the three kingdoms, Grey, Brougham, Russell, Jeffrey and a host of others. Then come, one after the other, the abolition of the ruling oligarchy, the repeal of the corn laws, the extension of the suffrage to the working classes, and, lastly, to crown the whole, the disestablishment of the Church of England as the State religion in Ireland.
And note well: the Liberals, who carried out these successive reforms, were not recruited from the middle classes only, but some of their most eminent leaders were recruited from the peerage of England. I know of no spectacle that reflects greater honour on humanity than the spectacle of these peers of England, these rich and powerful nobles, stubbornly fighting to eradicate a host of venerable abuses and sacrificing their privileges with calm enthusiasm to make life easier and happier for a larger number of their fellow beings. While on this head, permit me to cite a letter of Macaulay’s written to one of his friends on the next day after the vote on the famous Reform bill, which put an end to the system of rotten-boroughs. I ask pardon for making this quotation, as it is somewhat long:
“Such a scene as the division of last Tuesday I never saw, and never expect to see again. If I should live fifty years, the impression of it will be as fresh and sharp in my mind as if it had just taken place. It was like seeing Caesar stabbed in the Senate-house, or seeing Oliver taking the mace from the table; a sight to be seen only once, and never to be forgotten. The crowd overflowed the House in every part. When the strangers were cleared out, and the doors locked, we had six hundred and eight Members present – more by fifty-five than ever were on a division before. The ayes and noes were like two volleys of cannon from opposite sides of a field of battle. When the Opposition went out into the lobby, an operation which took up twenty minutes or more, we spread ourselves over the benches on both sides of the House; for there were many of us who had not been able to find a seat during the evening. When the doors were shut we began to speculate on our numbers. Everybody was desponding. ‘We have lost it. We are only two hundred and eighty at most. I do not think we are two hundred and fifty. They are three hundred. Alderman Thompson has counted them. He says they are two hundred and ninety-nine.’ This was the talk on our benches. The House, when only the ayes were in it, looked to me a very fair House – much fuller than it generally is even on debates of considerable interest. I had no hope, however, of three hundred. As the tellers passed along our lowest row on the left-hand side the interest was insupportable – two hundred and ninety-one – two hundred and ninety-two – we were all standing up and stretching forward, telling with the tellers. At three hundred there was a short cry of joy – at three hundred and two another – suppressed, however, in a moment, for we did not yet know what the hostile force might be. We knew, however, that we could not be severely beaten. The doors were thrown open, and in they came. Each of them, as he entered, brought some different report of their number, it must have been impossible, as you may conceive, in the lobby, crowded as they were, to form any exact estimate. First we heard that they were three hundred and three: then that number rose to three hundred and ten; then went down to three hundred and seven. We were all breathless with anxiety, when Charles Wood, who stood near the door, jumped up on a bench and cried out, ‘They are only three hundred and one.’
“We set up a shout that you might have heard to Charing Cross, waving our hats, stamping against the floor, and clapping our hands. The tellers scarcely got through the crowd; for the House was thronged up to the table, and all the floor was fluctuating with heads like the pit of a theatre. But you might have heard a pin drop as Duncannon read the numbers. Then again the shouts broke out, and many of us shed tears. I could scarcely refrain. And the jaw of Peel fell; and the face of Twiss was as the face of a damned soul; and Herries looked like Judas taking his neck-tie off for the last operation. We shook hands, and clapped each other on the back, and went out laughing, crying, and huzzaing into the lobby. And no sooner were the outer doors opened than another shout answered that within the House. All the passages and the stairs into the waiting-rooms were thronged by people who had waited till four in the morning to know the issue. We passed through a narrow lane between two thick masses of them; and all the way down they were shouting and waving their hats, till we got into the open air. I called a cabriolet, and the first thing the driver asked was, ‘Is the bill carried?’ ‘Yes, by one.’ ‘Thank God for it, sir!’”
And Macaulay concludes with a sentence strongly indicative of the Liberal: “And so ended a scene which will probably never be equalled till the reformed Parliament wants reforming.”
The man, who wrote in these cheery terms, had just come from voting the abolition of the system by virtue of which he held his own seat. Macaulay owed his seat to the generosity of an English peer, Lord Lansdowne, who had him returned for the rotten borough of Calne. I know of few pages that do more honour to humanity then this simple letter which shows us these English natures, calm but steadfast in the fight and only kindling into emotion when the battle has been won, because an act of justice has been accomplished and an abuse uprooted from the soil of old England.
Members of the Club Canadien, Liberals of the province of Quebec, there are our models! there are our principles! there is our party!
It is true that there is in Europe, in France, in Italy and in Germany, a class of men, who give themselves the title of Liberals, but who have nothing of the Liberal about them but the name and who are the most dangerous of men. These are not Liberals; they are revolutionaries: in their principles they are so extravagant that they aim at nothing less than the destruction of modern society. With these men, we have nothing in common; but it is the tactic of our adversaries to always assimilate us to them. Such accusations are beneath our notice and the only answer we can with dignity give them is to proclaim our real principles and to so conduct ourselves that our acts will conform with our principles.
Now, at this stage of my discourse, I shall review the history of the Liberal Party of this country. I am one of those who do not fear to scrutinize the history of my party. I am one of those who think there is more to be gained by frankly stating the truth than by trying to deceive ourselves and others. Let us have the courage to tell the truth! If our party has committed mistakes, our denials will not change matters; moreover, if our party has committed faults, we shall always find in the other party enough of faults to balance ours, and, even if the other party were immaculate, our principles would not, for that reason, be either better or worse. Let us have the courage to tell the truth and let it prevent us from falling into the same faults in the future!
Down to 1848, all the French Canadians were of but one party, the Liberal Party. The Conservative or rather the Tory Party, as it was called, only represented a feeble minority. But, from 1848, date the first traces of the two parties, which have since disputed power. Mr. Lafontaine had accepted the regime established in 1841. When Mr. Papineau returned from exile, he assailed the new order of things with his great eloquence and all his elevation of mind. I shall not here undertake to enter into a criticism of the respective policies of these two great men. Both loved their country ardently, passionately; both had devoted to it their lives; both, in different ways, had no other ambition than to serve it; and both were pure and disinterested. Let us be content with these souvenirs, without seeking which of the two was right and which wrong!
There was at this time a generation of young men of great talent and still greater impetuosity of character. Disappointed at having come on the scene too late to stake their heads during the events of 1837, they threw themselves with blind alacrity into the political movement of the day. They were among the foremost of Mr. Lafontaine’s partisans in his glorious struggle against Lord Metcalfe. They afterwards abandoned him for the more advanced policy of Mr. Papineau, and, though taking their places among his following, as was natural, they soon went beyond him.
Emboldened by their success and carried away by their enthusiasm, they one day founded L’Avenir in which they posed as reformers and regenerators of their country. Not satisfied with attacking the political situation, they boldly attacked the social situation. They issued a programme containing not less than twenty-one articles commencing with the election of justices of the peace and ending with annexation to the United-States, and, taken as a whole, practically amounting to a complete revolution of the province. If, by the wave of some magic wand, the twenty-one articles of this programme had been realized in a single night, the country in the morning would have been no longer recognizable, and the person, who should have left it the evening before and returned the next day, would not have known where he was. The only excuse for these Liberals was their youth. The oldest of them was not more than twenty-two years of age.
Gentlemen, I am stating facts. I have no intention of reproaching anyone. Talent and sincere convictions are entitled to respect. Moreover, who is the one amongst us, who, if he had been living at that time, could flatter himself that he would have been wiser and that he would not have fallen into the same mistakes? Everything was favourable to such exaggerations: the situation of our own country and the situation in Europe.
The wounds of the country from the insurrection were not yet healed: we had been granted, it is true, a free constitution, but the new constitution was not being applied in good faith by the Colonial Office. There was at the bottom of every soul a discontented spirit, which was alone kept down by the recollection of the vengeance for which the insurrection had furnished the opportunity. Moreover, from all sides, the effluvia of democracy and revolt came pouring in upon us. Society was already shivering in the first blasts of that great storm, which was to break forth a few years later over the whole civilized world and which for a moment caused society to stagger.
The years preceding 1848 are frightful to contemplate. One feels a thrill of honour at the contemplation of the sinister work which was being everywhere done and which at one time drew into revolt upwards of eighty millions of men. This state of things naturally made a powerful impression on young, ardent and inexperienced imaginations, and, not satisfied with wanting to revolutionize their own country, our young reformers greeted with transports each fresh revolution in Europe.
However, hardly had they taken two steps in life, when they perceived their immense error. In 1852 they brought out another newspaper. They abandoned L’Avenir to the demagogues and sought in a new paper, Le Pays – without, however, finding it, it is true – the new path which should be followed by the friends of liberty under the new constitution.
One cannot help smiling today on reading over again L’Avenir’s programme; one cannot help smiling at finding, mixed up with so much good sense occasionally, so many absurd or impossible propositions. It would be tiresome to review one by one all the incongruous propositions which L’Avenir’s programme contained. I shall take one at random: Annual Parliaments.
I am satisfied that each of the young Reformers of that day, who is today in Parliament, is firmly convinced that an election every five years is quite sufficient. And moreover is it not obvious that annual Parliaments would be a constant obstacle to all serious legislation and a permanent source of agitation?
Still, the harm was done. The clergy, alarmed at these proceedings which reminded them of the revolutionaries of Europe, at once declared merciless war on the new party. The English population, friendly to liberty, but also friendly to the maintenance of order, also ranged themselves against the new party, and during twenty-five years that party has remained in Opposition, although to it belongs the honour of having taken the initiative in all the reforms accomplished during that period. It was in vain that it demanded and obtained the abolition of the seigniorial tenure; it was in vain that it demanded and obtained judicial decentralization, and it was in vain that it was the first to give an impetus to the work of colonization; it was not credited with these wise reforms; it was in vain that those children, now grown into men, disavowed the rashness of their youth; it was in vain that the Conservative Party made mistake after mistake: the generation of the Liberals of 1848 had almost entirely disappeared from the political scene ere the dawn of a new day began to break for the Liberal Party. Since that time, the party has received new accessions, calmer and more thoughtful ideas have prevailed in it: and, as for the old programme, nothing whatever remains of its social part, while, of the political part, there only remain the principles of the English Liberal Party.
During all this time, what was the other party doing? When the split between Mr. Papineau and Mr. Lafontaine became complete, the fraction of the Liberal Party, who followed Mr. Lafontaine, wound up, after some groping, by allying themselves with the Tories of Upper Canada, and then, to the title of Liberal which they could not or dared not yet avow, they added that of Conservative. The new party took the name of Liberal–Conservative. Some years elapsed and fresh modifications ensued. I know no longer by what name we call this party. Those who today seem to occupy leading positions in it will call themselves the Ultramontane Party, the Catholic Party. Its principles, like its name, have been modified. If Mr. Cartier were to come back to the earth today, he would not recognize his party. Mr. Cartier was devoted to the principles of the English constitution. Those who today take the lead among his old partisans openly reject the principles of the English constitution as a concession to what they term the spirit of evil. They understand neither their country, nor their time. All their ideas are modelled on those of the reactionists of France. They go into ecstasies over Don Carlos or the Comte de Chambord just as the Liberals admired Louis Blanc and Ledru-Rollin. They shout: long live the King! as the Liberals shouted: long live the Republic! In speaking of Don Carlos and the Comte de Chambord, they affect to always say only His Majesty the king Charles vii, His Majesty the king Henry v, just as the Liberals, in speaking of Napoleon iii always said only Mr. Louis Buonaparte.
I have too much respect for the opinion of my adversaries to ever insult them; but I reproach them with understanding neither their time nor their country. I accuse them of judging the political situation of the country, not according to what is happening in it, but according to what is happening in France. I accuse them of wanting to introduce here ideas, which are impossible of application in our state of society, I accuse them of laboriously and, by misfortune, too efficaciously working to degrade religion to the simple proportions of a political party.
In our adversaries’ party, it is the habit to accuse us, Liberals, of irreligion. I am not here to parade my religious sentiments, but I declare that I have too much respect for the faith in which I was born to ever use it as the basis of a political organization. You wish to organize a Catholic Party. But have you not considered that, if you have the misfortune to succeed, you will draw down upon your country calamities of which it is impossible to foresee the consequences?
You wish to organize all the Catholics into one party, without other bond, without other basis, than a common religion; but have you not reflected that, by the very fact, you will organize the Protestant population as a single party and that then, instead of the peace and harmony now prevailing between the different elements of the Canadian population, you throw open the door to war, a religious war, the most terrible of all wars? Once more, Conservatives, I accuse you in the face of Canada of not understanding either your country or your time.
Our adversaries also reproach us with loving liberty and they term the spirit of liberty a dangerous and subversive principle. Is there any justification for these attacks? None whatever, except that there exists in France a group of Catholics who pursue liberty with their imprecations. Assuredly, it is not true enemies of liberty in France alone who regard it with terror. The most ardent friends of liberty often contemplate it with the same feeling. Recall Madame [Marie-Jeanne Phlippon] Roland’s last words [before the guillotine in 1793]. She had warmly loved liberty, she had ardently prayed for it, and her last word was a sorrowful one: “Oh! Liberty, how many crimes are committed in thy name!” How often have the same words been as sincerely uttered by fully as sincere friends of liberty!
I can readily conceive, without, however, sharing them, the feelings of those Frenchmen, who, regarding how much liberty has cost them in tears, blood and ruin, have sometimes favoured for their country a vigorous despotism; I can conceive their anathemas, but that these anathemas should be repeated in our midst is a thing I cannot understand. What? Is it a conquered race, who should curse liberty? But what would we be without liberty? What would be today if our forefathers had cherished the same sentiments as the Conservatives of the present time? Would we be other than a race of pariahs?
I frankly admit that liberty, as it has been generally understood and practised in France, has nothing very attractive about it. The French have had the name of liberty, but they have not yet had liberty itself. One of their poets, Auguste Barbier, has given us a pretty correct idea of the kind of liberty which is sometimes in vogue in France and which was last seen at work in 1871. He represents it as a woman
À la voix rauque, aux durs appas,
Qui, du brun sur la peau, du feu dans les prunelles,
Agile et marchant à grands pas,
Se plaît aux cris du peuple, aux sanglantes mêlées,
Aux longs roulements des tambours,
À l’odeur de la poudre, aux lointaines volées
Des cloches et des canons sourds;
Qui ne prend ses amours que dans la populace,
Qui ne prête son large flanc
Qu’à des gens forts comme elle, et qui veut qu’on l’embrasse
Avec des bras rouges de sang.
If liberty was well and truly this sinister virago, I could understand the anathemas of our adversaries and I would be the first to join in them. But it is not liberty. An English poet, Tennyson, has sung about liberty, the liberty of his country and of ours. In his poem In Memoriam, Tennyson addresses himself to a friend who enquires why he does not seek a milder climate in the South Sea islands and why, notwithstanding his impaired health, he persists in remaining under the foggy skies of England? And the poet replies:
It is the land that freemen till,
That sober-suited Freedom chose,
The land, where girt with friends or foes
A man may speak the thing he will;
A land of settled government,
A land of just and old renown,
Where Freedom slowly broadens down
From precedent to precedent;
Where faction seldom gathers head,
But, by degrees to fullness wrought,
The strength of some diffusive thought
Hath time and space to work and spread.
This is the liberty we enjoy and defend and this is the liberty which our adversaries, sharing in its benefits, attack, without understanding it. Jean-Baptiste Rousseau, in one of his odes, speaks of barbarous peoples, who, one day in a moment of inconceivable folly, fell to insulting the sun with their cries and imprecations. The poet, in a word, characterizes this stupid piece of impiety:
Le dieu, poursuivant sa carrière,
Versait des torrents de lumière
Sur ses obscurs blasphémateurs.
In the same way liberty has its assailants among us. Liberty covers them, floods them, protects them and defends them even in their imprecations.
But, while reproaching us with being friends of liberty, our adversaries further reproach us, with an inconsistency which would be serious, if the charge were well founded, with denying to the Church the freedom to which it is entitled. They reproach us with seeking to silence the administrative body of the Church and to prevent it from teaching the people their duties as citizens and electors. They reproach us with wanting to hinder the clergy from meddling in politics and to relegate them to the sacristy.
In the name of the Liberal Party and of Liberal principles, I repel this assertion. I maintain that there is not one Canadian Liberal who wants to prevent the clergy from taking part in political affairs if they wish to do so. In the name of what principle, should the friends of liberty seek to deny to the priest the right to take part in political affairs? In the name of what principle, should the friends of liberty seek to deny to the priest the right to have and express political opinions, the right to approve or disapprove public men and their acts and to instruct the people in what he believes to be their duty? In the name of what principle, should he not have the right to say that, if I am elected, religion will be endangered, when I have the right to say that if my adversary is elected, the State will be endangered? Why should the priest not have the right to say that, if I am elected, religion will be inevitably destroyed, when I have the right to say that, if my adversary is elected, the State will go into bankruptcy? No, let the priest speak and preach, as he thinks best; such is his right and no Canadian Liberal will dispute that right.
Our constitution invites all citizens to take part in the direction of the affairs of the State; it makes no exception of any person. Each one has the right not only to express his opinion, but to influence, if he can, by the expression of his opinion, the opinion of his fellow citizens. This right exists for all and there can be no reason why the priest should be deprived of it. I am here to speak my whole mind and I may add that I am far from finding opportune the intervention of the clergy in the domain of politics, as it has been exercised for some years. I believe on the contrary that, from the standpoint of the respect due to his character, the priest has everything to lose by meddling in the ordinary questions of politics: still his right to do so is indisputable and, if he thinks proper to use it, our duty, as Liberals, is to guarantee it to him against all denial.
This right, however, is not unlimited. We have no absolute rights amongst us. The rights of each man, in our state of society, end precisely at the point where they encroach upon the rights of others. The right of interference in politics finishes at the spot where it encroaches on the elector’s independence.
The constitution of the country rests on the freely expressed wish of each elector. It intends that each elector shall cast his vote freely and willingly as he deems best. If the greatest number of the electors of a country are actually of an opinion and that, owing to the influence exercised upon them by one or more men or owing to words they have heard or writings they have read, their opinion changes, there is nothing in the circumstance but what is perfectly legitimate. Although the opinion they express is different from the one they would have expressed without such intervention, still it is the one they desire to express conscientiously, and the constitution meets with its entire application. If, however, notwithstanding all reasoning, the opinion of the electors remains the same, but that, by intimidation or fraud, they are forced to vote differently, the opinion which they express is not their opinion, and the constitution is violated. As I have already said, the constitution intends that each one’s opinion shall be freely expressed as he understands it at the moment of expression, and the collective reunion of the individual opinions, freely expressed, forms the government of the country.
The law watches with so jealous an eye the free expression of the elector’s opinion as it really is that, if in a constituency the opinion expressed by a single one of the electors is not his real opinion, but an opinion forced from him by fear, fraud or corruption, the election must be annulled. It is therefore perfectly legitimate to alter the elector’s opinion by argument and all other means of persuasion, but never by intimidation. As a matter of fact, persuasion changes the elector’s conviction; intimidation does not. When, by persuasion, you have changed the elector’s conviction, the opinion he expresses is his own opinion; but when, by terror, you force him to vote, the opinion he expresses is your opinion; remove the cause of his fear and he will then express another opinion, which is his own.
Now, it will be understood, if the opinion expressed by the majority of the electors is not their real opinion, but an opinion snatched from them by fraud, by threats or by corruption, the constitution is violated and you have not the government of the majority, but the government of a minority. Well, if such a state of things continues and is repeated, if, after each election, the will expressed is not the real will of the country, once more you do violence to the constitution, responsible government is no longer an empty name and, sooner or later, here as elsewhere, the pressure will culminate in explosion, violence and ruin.
But people are not wanting who say that the clergy have a right to dictate to the people what are its duties. I simply answer that we are here under the government of the Queen of England, under the authority of a constitution which was granted to us as an act of justice, and that, if the exercise of the rights which you claim is to have for effect the impeding of the constitution and our exposure to all the consequences of such an act, then the clergy themselves would not want it.
I am not one of those who parade themselves as friends and champions of the clergy. However, I say this: like the most of my young fellow countrymen, I have been reared among priests and among young men who have become priests. I flatter myself that I have among them some sincere friends and to them at least, I can and I do say: see, if there is under the sun a country happier than ours; see, if there is under the sun a country where the Catholic Church is freer or more privileged than it is here. Why, then, should you, by claiming rights incompatible with our state of society, expose this country to agitations, of which it is impossible to foresee the consequences?
But I address myself to all my fellow countrymen without distinction and I say to them:
We are a free and happy people; and we are so owing to the liberal institutions by which we are governed, institutions which we owe to the exertions of our forefathers and the wisdom of the mother country.
The policy of the Liberal Party is to protect those institutions, to defend and spread them, and, under the sway of those institutions, to develop the country’s latent resources. That is the policy of the Liberal Party and it has no other.
Now, to properly estimate all the value of the institutions by which we are ruled today, let us compare the present state of the country with what it was before these were granted to us. Forty years ago the country was in a state of feverish commotion, a prey to an agitation which, a few months later, broke out in rebellion. The British crown was only maintained in this country by powder and ball. And yet what were our predecessors seeking? They were asking for nothing more than the institutions which we have at present; those institutions were granted to us and loyally applied; and see the result; the British flag floats over the old Citadel of Quebec; it floats tonight over our heads, without a single English soldier in the country to defend it, its sole defence resting in the gratitude, which we owe it for our freedom and the security which we have found under its folds.
Where is the Canadian who, comparing his country with even the freest countries, would not feel proud of the institutions which protect him? Where is the Canadian who, passing through the streets of this old city and reaching the monument raised a few steps from here to the memory of the two brave men, who died on the same field of battle while contending for empire in Canada, would not feel proud of his country?
In what other country, under the sun, can you find a similar monument reared to the memory of the conquered as well as of the conqueror? In what other country, under the sun, will you find the names of the conquered and the conqueror equally honoured and occupying the same place in the respect of the population?
Gentlemen, when, in that last battle which is recalled by the Wolfe and Montcalm monument the iron hail was spreading death in the ranks of the French army; when the old heroes, whom victory had so often accompanied, saw at last victory snatched from them; when, stretched on the ground with their life-blood fast ebbing away, they saw, as the result of their defeat, Quebec in the hands of the enemy and the country forever lost; no doubt, their last thought was of their children, whom they were leaving without protection and without defence; no doubt, they pictured them as persecuted, enslaved, and humiliated, and then, it is reasonable to believe, they drew their last breath with a cry of despair.
But, if, on the other hand, Heaven had lifted the veil of the future from their dying eyes and enabled them for an instant, before these closed forever, to pierce what was hidden from their sight; if they could have seen their children free and happy, marching proudly in all spheres of society; if they could have seen, in the old cathedral, the seat of honour of the French governors occupied by a French governor; if they could have seen the church steeples rising in every valley from the shores of Gaspé to the prairies of the Red River; if they could have seen this old flag, which recalls the finest of their victories, carried triumphantly in all our public ceremonies; in fine, if they could have seen our free institutions, is it not permissible to think that their last breath would have been exhaled in a murmur of gratitude to Heaven and that they would have died consoled?
If the shades of these heroes still hover over this old city, for which they laid down their lives; if their shades hover tonight over the hall in which we are now assembled, it is free for us, Liberals, to think – at least we cherish the fond illusion, – that their sympathies are all with us.
(See also Sunny Ways: The Speeches of Sir Wilfrid Laurier.)