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The Politician Who Hated Politics

For the week of Monday October 30, 2006

On October 30, 1893, Canada’s third Prime Minister, Sir John J. C. Abbott, passed away in Montréal after having been ill for many months. Though overlooked in Canadian history, Sir John Abbott was the first Canadian-born Prime Minister, as well as the first Prime Minister to lead the government from the Senate.

Sir John J. C. Abbott
Sir John J. C. Abbott
© William James Topley / Library and Archives Canada / PA-033933
John Joseph Caldwell Abbott was born in St. Andrews, Lower Canada (today Saint-André-Est, Quebec) on March 12, 1821. As a child, Abbott received much of his education from his father. Abbott learned business, accounting and bookkeeping at age 17 by working at a dry goods store in Montréal and later at a wholesaler’s in Gananoque, Upper Canada (now Ontario). In 1843, Abbott entered law school at the University of McGill College and was called to the Bar in 1847. In 1855, he became the Dean of the Faculty of Law at McGill where he also taught.

Abbott was also an important businessman. He invested in the developing railway system and purchased many shares in several rail companies, including the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). This interest in railways forced Abbott into politics, a profession he actually despised! He began in provincial politics but was elected to the House of Commons in 1867, the year of Confederation. He soon became embroiled with Sir John A. Macdonald in a conflict of interest that resulted in the Pacific Scandal of 1873. This led Abbott to lose his seat in the following election. He was, however, re-elected in 1881 and, in 1887, he was appointed to the Senate as the Leader of the Government in the Senate. That same year, Abbott was also elected Mayor of Montréal for a one-year term. For someone who despised politics, he managed to represent every level of government!

Boisbriant, Abbott
Boisbriant, Abbott's rural home
© Parks Canada / Michel Pelletier
But tragedy struck in 1891. Sir John A. Macdonald passed away suddenly while still in office. After some convincing, Abbott was appointed the third Prime Minister, ruling from the Senate. Although he only served as Prime Minister for 17 months (until 1892), Abbott was able to strengthen the Conservative Party as well as reform the civil service. His greatest accomplishments were the revision of the Criminal Code, and laid the groundwork for a reciprocity treaty with the United States.

Sir John Joseph Caldwell Abbott was designated a National Historic Person in 1938. His rural home, Boisbriant, is located in the Senneville Historic District, in Quebec, designated of national significance in 2002.

For more information on the Pacific Scandal, please visit This Week In History’s Archives.

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