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Celebrating two great 19th-century statesmen

Celebrating two great 19th-century statesmen

As Canadians prepare to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Sir John A. Macdonald, scholars with the Queen’s-based Disraeli Project are exploring the parallels between the careers of Canada’s first prime minister and Benjamin Disraeli, one of Britain’s greatest political leaders of the Victorian era.
Sir John A. MacdonaldSir John A. Macdonald

To say that Britain’s Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) and Canada’s Sir John A. Macdonald (1815-1891) are political legends is an understatement.

More than 100 years after their deaths, the legacies of both of these great prime ministers continue to fascinate citizens, academics, and politicians alike.

For example, Senator Hugh Segal often invokes Disraeli in promoting the idea of establishing a guaranteed annual income plan for Canada’s most vulnerable citizens. Disraeli, of course, pioneered discussions of the idea during his own political service in the Victorian era. And as members of the Queen’s community know first-hand, Segal also has a lifelong interest in Sir John A.

And on campus, a group of avid researchers have been studying the relationship between Disraeli and Macdonald — and just in time for the celebrations surrounding the bicentennial of Macdonald’s birth.

I refer, of course, to the Disraeli Project.

For almost 40 years, scholars at the project have painstakingly been researching and annotating all of Benjamin Disraeli’s correspondence — a herculean task involving more than 13,000 letters thus far, with more being discovered each year.

Last April, the University of Toronto Press published Volume 9 in its distinguished series Benjamin Disraeli Letters, the first volume of which appeared in 1982. The U.K.’s Times Literary Supplement has praised the series as “one of the landmarks of Victorian-era scholarship.”

And the Disraeli Project has won wide praise from Canadians. “Your university’s famed Disraeli Project (is) world-class scholarship about a world leader (and is) being performed right here (in Canada),” federal Immigration Minister Chris Alexander (the son of Bruce Alexander, Com’60, LLD’11), himself a respected author, recently said in a speech at Queen’s.

Chris Alexander was reacting to the news that Dr. Michel Pharand, director of the Disraeli Project, is helping Canadians mark the bicentennial of our first prime minister’s birth. Using his research skills, Dr. Pharand has edited and annotated the only extended comparison of Macdonald and Disraeli (Lord Beaconsfield as of 1876), written by French-Canadian journalist Joseph Tasse in 1880 (the year before Disraeli died) and published in English in 1891 (the year Macdonald died).

Thanks to Dr. Pharand, Lord Beaconsfield and Sir John A. Macdonald. A Political and Personal Parallel has been reissued and made available to 21st-century scholars and history buffs.

“How fitting that Michel Pharand should be a French-Canadian, as was the author of the amazing 19th-century pamphlet,” Chris Alexander said. “It remains a great tribute to Sir John that he was known in his lifetime as ‘the Canadian Disraeli.’ ”

“It is not all,” Disraeli wrote in his novel Vivian Grey, “to be able to govern men: it is necessary also to be able to astonish them.” Macdonald, of course, had a career in public life that still astonishes us.

Benjamin Disraeli

In terms of exciting scholarship that will inform Canadians and their British cousins about Macdonald and Disraeli, Queen’s University’s Disraeli Project also astonishes us.

Here is how Joseph Tasse describes his two political subjects: “Both are charming, and conspicuous by their courtesy in private life; their conversation, by turn serious and light, is sprinkled with philosophic reflections, with anecdotes, with smart and piquant repartees, of which they both appear to have an inexhaustible fund, and which they know how at need to turn with refined art against their adversaries.”

Mr. Tasse, in a fascinating study that has not seen the light of day for more than 100 years — until Dr. Pharand rediscovered it, so to speak — continues:

"If these two statesmen had a considerable resemblance in their physical, moral, and intellectual qualities, there was also a distinct and appreciable analogy and resemblance in their political careers,” he writes. “It is not too much to say that Mr. Macdonald has worked to cement the diverse elements of French and English nationality in one grand whole with the same ardour that Mr. Disraeli has displayed in order to unite by the strong bonds of mutual interest the two powerful nations from which we have descended, and to make them march proudly, shoulder to shoulder, at the head of civilization.”

With celebrations marking the bicentennial of Sir John A.’s birth planned for 2015, readers will understand why I am attracted to the following passage, written in 1891 by the monograph’s translator, James Penny:

“It is the memory of our heroic contests, of our hard won battles, of the heroes who fought, and conquered, and died, in their country’s service, which animates and incites our youth ... to noble deeds worthy of fame; to a home in the hearts of their fellow countrymen. Can we do better than point to the brilliant examples of a Beaconsfield, of a Sir John Macdonald? No. They occupy, and will continue to occupy, the highest niche in the temple of fame.”

On behalf of the Sir John A. Macdonald Bicentennial Commission, I would like to congratulate and thank Michel Pharand, as well as the many generous supporters of the Disraeli Project at Queen’s University, for providing yet another intriguing dimension to Canada’s founding prime minister just as Kingston and Canada prepare to mark the bicentennial of his birth.

Arthur Milnes is commissioner of the Sir John A. Macdonald Bicentennial Commission. Anyone wishing to receive a free copy of the Disraeli-Macdonald monograph should contact the Disraeli Project.