Most Canadians know Thomas D’Arcy McGee not for what the Irish-Canadian politician and firebrand accomplished in his short lifetime but for the way he died. He was infamously gunned down on an Ottawa street in April 1868, the victim of the first political assassination in Canada.
As David A. Wilson ably demonstrates in The Extreme Moderate, the concluding volume of his definitive biography, there is much more worth remembering about the forceful, fearless McGee than his tragic death just one week shy of his forty-third birthday.
Wilson’s first volume, published in 2008, chronicled McGee’s coming-of-age in Ireland and his career as a journalist and author in the United States. Volume two picks up the story in 1857, the year McGee moved to Montreal, founded a pro-Irish newspaper, and launched his political career.
A brilliant orator and forceful writer, McGee thrived in the fluid politics of 1860s Canada, moving with ease from opposition to government benches, from the Reform to the Conservative cause as alliances shifted on the road to Confederation. One thing remained constant — his belief that British America could become a safe haven for Irish Catholics and other minorities. His vision of a tolerant, inclusive federal state, Wilson argues, helped “to open the door for modern multiculturalism.”
McGee’s most notable achievement was introducing the resolution at the Quebec Conference that enshrined separate Catholic and Protestant schools in the British North America Act. He took pride in his contribution to what he hailed as “the first Constitution ever given to a mixed people.”
In November 1867, five months before his death, the Montreal Gazette lauded him as “the orator of the Dominion, its best thinker and most graceful writer.” But his vocal opposition to a rising tide of Irish extremism quickly overshadowed his role as a nation builder.
Wilson traces McGee’s evolution from Irish radical — he was briefly detained as a young man on a charge of sedition — to a politician convinced that his countrymen were better off under British rule than American-style republicanism. That put him on a collision course with the Fenian movement and its violent campaign against all things British. Branded a traitor to the Irish cause, McGee became a marked man.
Patrick James Whelan, a Fenian sympathizer, was convicted and hanged for McGee’s murder, and Wilson’s painstaking research leaves no doubt that justice was done. If Whelan “did not shoot McGee himself,” he concludes, “he was part of a hit squad that did.”
McGee’s untimely death did not cut short his political career; by 1868 he had become a liability, forced to relinquish his claim on a portfolio in John A. Macdonald’s first federal Cabinet and barely winning a seat in the first Parliament as his Irish support crumbled. He was angling for a soft landing in a civil service job when he was killed.
This, Wilson acknowledges, is “a political rather than a personal biography.” McGee left few papers to offer insights into a private life marred by heavy drinking and the deaths of three of his five children before the age of four. But Wilson spent a decade combing archives here and in Britain, Ireland, and the U.S., and reviewing McGee’s voluminous speeches and writings, and it shows in his mastery of his subject.
This is history well-told: insightful, detailed, and faithful to the historical record, yet displaying the clear writing and narrative drive needed to bring McGee’s story — the achievements as well as the tragedy — to a general audience.
This review appeared in the August-September 2012 issue of Canada's History magazine.
— Dean Jobb (Read bio)
Dean Jobb is a journalism professor at the University of King’s College in Halifax.