Much of the discussion here at The Canadian Journal revolves around the failures of modern conservatism. Its inability to maintain any kind of moral integrity is typified by articles such as Stuart Thomson’s recent piece for the National Post, The conservative case for toppling statues: Why 'bad men' shouldn't be revered in the public square. There is nothing conservative about Thomson’s article; this is evidenced by his appeal to classical liberal thinkers and by the statistics that he quotes. Thomson also commits historical inaccuracies regarding the actions of Canada’s first prime minister, revealing a bias rooted in leftist thinking rather than the truth.
The central argument of the article is that the veneration of the great men in our nation’s history is undesirable. In making his argument, Thomson is adopting neither the right-wing position, nor the centrist position, nor the moderate left-wing position. In his article, Thomson is, as a supposed conservative, adopting the radical left-wing position. As he notes, “only 11 per cent of Canadians approve of mobs spontaneously pulling down statues and only 31 percent of people support some political process that removes the statues of politicians, even if the person implemented racist policies.” Thomson’s position is that of the radical, anarchist fringes. Conservatives hold tradition and history in high regard: they do not burn books and tear down statues.
In order to strengthen his argument, Thomson appeals to the academic credentials of “McGill University political theory professor Jacob T. Levy.” Levy, in turn, appeals to “18th century Scottish economist Adam Smith”, one of the most famous thinkers in the liberal tradition. He does this to “help convince conservatives” that “revering ‘great men’ isn’t a good way to determine public morals.” By their own admission, Thomson and Levy both hope that the appeal to Adam Smith will convince conservatives, who overwhelmingly currently support John A. MacDonald, to support the radical left.
Appealing to Adam Smith to defend the destruction of our national heritage by mobs and the liberal elites who support them is an interesting approach. As stated earlier, the aim of Levy and Thomson is to appeal to the reputation of Adam Smith as a great historical thinker in the Western tradition to convince the masses of right-leaning people to stop defending that same tradition. Philosophically, their argument seems to be that people have a natural tendency to venerate certain men. These men are perceived to stand outside the sphere of life that surrounds the rest of us. Great men are perceived to be made of “different stuff” than the rest of us. And because of this perception, we often ignore their flaws.
Notably, Levy never denies the existence of great men. His argument relies on the power that invoking their name has on the mass consciousness. But what is the nature of the veneration of great men? Something that Thomson does not consider in the article is that perhaps great men are venerated because they represent the best in us. We do not pretend great men are infallible, but rather, recognizing that all men are fallen, we self-consciously highlight those things we wish all our people to emulate. Knowing, for example, that John A. MacDonald was an alcoholic, we would never erect a statue of our first Prime Minister in a drunken stupor.
At the Journal, we have previously commented on the social nature of man. If we should grant that one of the central goals of human life is to live the highest form of life that is available to us then it is only natural that national communities should center their understanding of history on the lives and deeds of the great men who determined the course of their existence. Unfortunately for Thomson and Levy, it is not gangs of bureaucrats or academics who make history, but men who in the moment of decision are able to affect the flow of history. With his intellectual achievements Saint Bede the Venerable, known as the father of English history, was foundational in the development of a self-conscious English national identity. Where would the Western world be had Alfred the Great not defeated the great heathen army against all odds? Likewise, without the world-historical foresight of John A. MacDonald, Canada may very well have remained a collection of divided backwater territories, destined to be taken over by the American Republic to the south.
Great men are flawed like all men are, but as historical figures they stand as monuments to human excellence. By attacking the statues of our historical leaders, anarchist mobs and government committees are attacking the hierarchical principle of nature which is essential to the continuation of human life. The abandonment of this principle is not only a great act of self-deception, but also the rejection of the natural means by which men and nations can raise themselves up. Just as a forest tree that ceases to reach upwards seeking sunlight will be smothered by the surrounding trees as they overcome it, so too will nations that stop pursuing greatness stagnate and then shrivel away.
But let us for a moment take a more concrete view of our current situation. As Stuart Thomson himself admits: 89% of Canadians oppose mobs destroying the historic statues of our national figures, and 69% oppose any government actions to destroy these monuments. With this in mind, is it rational for conservatives to sit back, and reflect on the philosophical merits of venerating great men in history while we watch mobs desecrate our historical artifacts? According to Thomson, it is the principled conservative thing to do. Yet the political principles that lead Stuart Thomson to submit to the radical left are alien to the masses of the Canadian people who love their heritage, and even moreso to John A. MacDonald and the other conservative leaders who built this country. It is noteworthy that Thomson’s “conservatism” has made him an ally of leftist radicals and an enemy of Canada’s founding father. For the sake of accuracy it may be more appropriate to understand him as a ‘classical liberal’.
Thomson’s article reveals the rather small soul of the modern classical liberal, wherein it is stated that “great men are almost always bad men.” Such a passive-aggressive remark besmirches the venerable publication that printed it. Certainly, the greatest among us are subjected to the greatest scrutiny and no man is infallible. Sir John A. Macdonald, like all men of the past, was not a secular materialist motivated by postmodern ethics and it is natural that people of the latter sort would criticize him. In the interest of his defence, let us assess the accusations levied against him in their proper historical context.
"The object I had in extending the privilege of the franchise to the Indians was to place them on a footing of equality with their white brethren."
Thomson presents two offences committed by John A. Macdonald that were egregious enough to warrant the dismantling of his statues. The first among these is the ‘head tax’ of 1885. Following the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the Chinese Immigration Act was passed, an act requiring a $50 fee be paid by each Chinese immigrant, equivalent to about $2500 today. This is roughly equivalent to modern fees paid by the vast numbers of immigrants that Canada admits on an annual basis. The average Chinese rail worker was paid a dollar (in 1880s currency) per day. While it may have demanded a degree of personal austerity, bringing one’s family from China was certainly feasible.
In regards to the so-called ‘starvation policy’, modern scholars offer a biased interpretation of the affair. John A Macdonald was of the then-liberal opinion that the path to native assimilation was the imposition of a static and agricultural life upon them. But furnishing them with land and farming implements was only a small part of MacDonald’s attempts to integrate the natives into Canada—he had a vision of the Native Americans playing an equal role in Canadian democracy. Through his letters with Peter Edmund Jones, an Ojibwe Chief and Native Rights advocate, we gain insight into the Prime Minister’s vision for the future of Native Rights in Canada. Allan Sherwin summarizes in his book Bridging Two Peoples: Chief Peter E. Jones, 1843–1909: “MacDonald picked up his pen and wrote a four-page personal letter to Jones to declare that ‘The object I had in extending the privilege of the franchise to the Indians was to place them on a footing of equality with their white brethren’… MacDonald hoped that someday the ‘Indian Race’ would be represented by one of themselves on the floor of the House of Commons.”
MacDonald’s vision of specific Native American representatives in the House of Commons never came to be but he was still able to advance the rights of Natives by granting Treaty-Status Indians the right to vote in 1885 with the Electoral Franchise Act. While Native Americans would still be voting for white representatives he saw this as a step in the right direction with Sherwin summarizing his thoughts “Until [Natives can represent themselves] they should vote for White men who would, of course, attend to their interests in Parliament or risk not being re-elected by the Indians.” Unfortunately, MacDonald’s efforts were undone after his death. In 1898, the Laurier government abolished the Electoral Franchise Act and Treaty Status Indians would be excluded from national elections until 1960.
John A Macdonald was not a perfect man by any means, nor was he a man devoid of personal or public tragedy. Yet he was undoubtedly a great man—a man of great character and conviction who should certainly be looked to as a model of Canadian values. The most glowing endorsement that can be given to Sir John A. Macdonald, regardless of whatever flaws he may have had, is that he is responsible for keeping the revolutionary ideas of the Americans south of the 49th parallel. In essence, he is responsible for our not being American. This is an immense achievement when weighted against the gravitational pull exerted by the behemoth south of the border, while taking into consideration the apathy of our nominal rulers in London towards repeated attempts to absorb the Canadian nation into the American Republic.
The Canadian right wing has been continually submitting to liberalism for the past sixty years. This spirit of anemia persists in the writings of Thomson, as he argues to adopt the overwhelmingly radical left-wing position of toppling statues. He suggests that conservatives engage in the historical erasure and revisionism that the left-wing has been pushing for decades. The right-wing will never find meaningful victory, nor will it implement meaningful change as long as it continues to pander to its enemies. Our heritage is most valuable if it is part of a living culture. We ought to have more statues built to MacDonald and other national heroes. Children should be taught the great deeds of these men and we should have public celebrations of their achievements. If we want to defend our culture from this radical leftist attack it is not enough to point out the errors of our enemies: we must be assertive and ensure that our country lives up to the great promise which MacDonald saw over a century ago. To that end, there is no ‘conservative case’ for the destruction of our history and heritage.