John Abbott

Sir John Joseph Caldwell Abbott PC KCMG QC (March 12, 1821 – October 30, 1893) was a Canadian lawyer and politician who served as the third prime minister of Canada from 1891 to 1892. He held office as the leader of the Conservative Party.

The Honourable

John Joseph Caldwell Abbott

3rd Prime Minister of Canada
In office
June 16, 1891  November 24, 1892
Governor GeneralLord Stanley of Preston
Preceded byJohn A. Macdonald
Succeeded byJohn Thompson
Personal details
John Joseph Caldwell Abbott

(1821-03-12)March 12, 1821
Saint-André, Lower Canada
DiedOctober 30, 1893(1893-10-30) (aged 72)
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Resting placeMount Royal Cemetery, Montreal
Political partyConservative
Mary Bethune
(m. 1849)
ParentsJoseph Abbott
Harriet Bradford
EducationMcGill University (1847)
Military service
AllegianceProvince of Canada
Dominion of Canada
Branch/serviceCanadian Militia
Years of service1866–1874
Unit11th Argenteuil Battalion
CommandsCanada–United States border

Abbott was born in what is now Saint-André-d'Argenteuil, Quebec. He studied law at McGill University and became one of Montreal's best-known lawyers, later returning to McGill as a professor of law and earning a Doctor of Civil Law degree. He was perhaps best known for his successful defence of the perpetrators of the St. Albans Raid. Abbott involved himself in politics from a young age, signing the Montreal Annexation Manifesto in 1849  which he later regretted  and winning election to the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada in 1860. In the lead-up to Confederation he was a prominent advocate for the rights of English-speaking Quebecers.

In the 1867 federal election, Abbott was elected to the new House of Commons of Canada as a member of the Conservative Party. A telegram leaked from his office played a key part in the Pacific Scandal of 1873, which led to the downfall of John A. Macdonald's first government. Abbott was appointed to the Senate in 1887, in order to become Leader of the Government in the Senate. He became prime minister in June 1891 following Macdonald's death in office. He was the first native-born Canadian prime minister, both Macdonald and Alexander Mackenzie having been born in Scotland. Abbott was 70 years old at the time, and served only until November 1892 when he retired due to ill health. He died the following year.[1]

Early life

Abbott was born in St. Andrews, Lower Canada (now Saint-André-d'Argenteuil, Quebec), to Harriet (née Bradford) and the Rev. Joseph Abbott, an Anglican missionary from Little Strickland, England. In 1849, Abbott married Mary Martha Bethune (1823–1898), a relative of Dr. Norman Bethune, a daughter of Anglican clergyman and McGill acting president John Bethune, and a granddaughter of the Presbyterian minister John Bethune.[2][3] The couple had four sons and four daughters, many of whom died without descendants. Their eldest surviving son, William Abbott, married the daughter of Colonel John Hamilton Gray, a Father of Confederation and Premier of Prince Edward Island. The direct descendants of Abbott and Hamilton Gray include John Kimble Hamilton ("Kim") Abbott, a political commentator and lobbyist and a WWII Royal Canadian Airforce pilot in the infamous "Demon Squadron". Abbott was also the great-grandfather of Canadian actor Christopher Plummer and the first cousin (once removed) of Maude Abbott, one of Canada's earliest female medical graduates and an expert on congenital heart disease.

Abbott was a Freemason.[4]

Abbott graduated as a Bachelor of Civil Law from McGill College (now McGill University) in Montreal in 1847,[5] while in the same year was initiated in the St. Paul's Masonic Lodge, No. 374, E.R., in Montreal.[6] In 1867, he graduated as a Doctor of Civil Law (DCL). Most of his legal practice was in corporate law; however, his most celebrated court case was the defence of at first fourteen, then upon release and recapture, four of those fourteen Confederate agents who had raided St. Albans, Vermont from Canadian soil during the American Civil War. Abbott successfully argued that the Confederates were belligerents rather than criminals and therefore should not be extradited. The episode brought Canadian-American tensions close to armed conflict. Abbott was widely viewed as the most successful lawyer in Canada for many years, as measured by professional income. He began lecturing in commercial and criminal law at McGill in 1853, and in 1855 he became a professor and dean of its Faculty of Law, where Wilfrid Laurier, a future prime minister of Canada, was among his students. He continued in this position until 1880.[5] In 1862, he was made Queen's Counsel.[5] Upon his retirement, McGill named him emeritus professor, and in 1881 appointed him to its Board of Governors.


Early involvement

In 1849, he signed the Montreal Annexation Manifesto calling for Canada to join the United States, an action which he regretted later as a youthful error. He eventually joined the Loyal Orange Lodge of British North America, well known as a pro-British organization.[7] Abbott first ran for Canada's Legislative Assembly in 1857 in the Argenteuil district, northwest of Montreal.[5] Defeated, he challenged the election results on the grounds of voting list irregularities and was eventually awarded the seat in 1860. He served as solicitor general for Lower Canada (Quebec) representing the conservative administration of John Macdonald and Louis Sicotte, from 1862 until 1863.[5] He reluctantly supported Canada's confederation, fearing the reduction of the political power of Lower Canada's English-speaking minority. In 1865, he converted to a conservative.[5] His proposal to protect the electoral borders of 12 English Quebec constituencies was eventually incorporated into the British North America Act, 1867.

National politics

Abbott was elected to the House of Commons in 1867 as member for Argenteuil. He was removed from his seat by petition in 1874 following his involvement in the Pacific Scandal. He narrowly lost the 1878 election, then won in February 1880, only to have his victory declared void because of bribery allegations. He was, however, subsequently elected in a by-election in August 1881. In 1887, Macdonald appointed him to the Senate.[5] He served as Leader of the Government in the Senate from May 12, 1887 to October 30, 1893 (including his term as Prime Minister) and as Minister without Portfolio in Macdonald's cabinet. He also served two one-year terms as mayor of Montreal from 1887 to 1889.

Abbott as Mayor of Montreal.

Abbott was involved in the promotion of several railway projects, including the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) (of which he served as president). He worked to incorporate and arrange financing for the first CPR syndicate. As legal advisor to its main financier, Sir Hugh Allan, Abbott was the recipient of the infamous telegram from Prime Minister Macdonald during the 1872 Canadian federal election campaign which read "I must have another ten thousand; will be the last time of calling; do not fail me; answer today." This telegram was stolen from Abbott's office and published, breaking the 1873 Pacific Scandal which brought down Macdonald's government. Abbott was subsequently a key organizer of a second syndicate which eventually completed the construction of Canada's first transcontinental railway in 1885, serving as its solicitor from 1880 to 1887 and as a director from 1885 to 1891.

Prime Minister

When Prime Minister Macdonald died in office, Abbott supported John Thompson to succeed him, but reluctantly accepted the plea of the divided Conservative party that he should lead the government, though he considered himself a caretaker prime minister for his seventeen months in office. He was one of just two Canadian Prime Ministers, the other being Mackenzie Bowell, to have held the office while serving in the Senate rather than the House of Commons.[8]

Soon after Abbott assumed office in 1891, Canada was plunged into an economic recession; later that same year he faced another challenge as the McGreevy-Langevin scandal came to light, revealing that Hector-Louis Langevin, former Minister of Public Works in the Conservative government, had conspired with contractor Thomas McGreevy to defraud the government.

Despite the political toll on his party, Abbott dealt with the backlog of government business awaiting him after Macdonald's death, including reform of the civil service and revisions of the criminal code. He attempted in 1892 to negotiate a new treaty of reciprocity with the United States, but failed to reach an agreement.

During his term, there were 52 by-elections, 42 of which were won by the Conservatives, increasing their majority by 13 seats—evidence of Abbott's effectiveness as prime minister. One year into his time as prime minister, Abbott attempted to turn the office over to Thompson, but this was rejected due to anti-Catholic sentiment in the Tory caucus.[5]

Later life

Abbott's funeral monument in Mount Royal Cemetery.

Suffering from the early stages of cancer of the brain, Abbott's health failed in 1892 and he retired to private life, whereupon Sir John Thompson finally became Prime Minister. Abbott died less than a year later at the age of 72.

Sir John Abbott is buried in the Mount Royal Cemetery, Montreal, Quebec.[9]


Sir John Abbott's house on Sherbrooke Street, Montreal, Quebec

John Abbott College in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, Quebec, near Abbott's 300-acre (1.2 km2) country estate (Boisbriant), is named after him.

He was named a Person of National Historic Significance by the Government of Canada in 1938.[10]

His "most memorable" political comment is "I hate politics."[11] The full quote was "I hate politics and what are considered their appropriate measures. I hate notoriety, public meetings, public speeches, caucuses and everything that I know of which is apparently the necessary incident of politics—except doing public work to the best of my ability."[12]

In their 1999 look at the Canadian Prime Ministers through Jean Chrétien, J.L. Granatstein and Norman Hillmer included a survey of Canadian historians ranking the prime ministers. Abbott's term of service was considered below par and was ranked #17 out of 20 (up to then).[13] When the survey was repeated in 2016, Abbott was ranked 7th out of ten "short-term" Prime Ministers with a score of 1.8 out of 5.[14]

See also


  1. Miller, Carman (May 23, 2007). "Sir John Abbott". The Canadian Encyclopedia (online ed.). Historica Canada. Retrieved July 12, 2015.
  2. Young, Brian J. (2003). Respectable Burial: Montreal's Mount Royal Cemetery. Montreal, Quebec: McGill-Queen's Press. ISBN 978-0-77357-098-6. Retrieved July 12, 2015.
  3. Miller, Carman (1990). "Abbott, Sir John Joseph Caldwell". In Halpenny, Francess G (ed.). Dictionary of Canadian Biography. XII (1891–1900) (online ed.). University of Toronto Press. Retrieved September 21, 2015.
  4. "Famous Freemasons in the course of history". Archived from the original on November 16, 2015. Retrieved September 30, 2018.
  5. "Abbott, Sir John". Encyclopædia Britannica (online ed.). Retrieved September 23, 2015.
  6. "Short biography of John J.C. Abbott". Archived from the original on November 1, 2001. Retrieved September 30, 2018.
  7. "Biography – THOMPSON, Sir JOHN SPARROW DAVID – Volume XII (1891-1900) – Dictionary of Canadian Biography". Retrieved July 11, 2021.
  8. "The Honourable Sir John Joseph Caldwell Abbott". Former Prime Ministers and Their Grave Sites. Parks Canada. October 3, 2017. Archived from the original on December 11, 2017.
  9. Abbott, Sir John Joseph Caldwell National Historic Person. Directory of Federal Heritage Designations. Parks Canada.
  10. Duffy, John (August 17, 2002). "Selling Laurier: Sir Wilfrid's appeal: 'A Frenchman you can trust'". National Post. p. B.1.
  11. Donaldson, Gordon (1997). The Prime Ministers of Canada. Doubleday Canada. p. 49.
  12. Hillmer, Norman; Granatstein, J.L. (April 21, 1997). "Historians Rank the Best and Worst Canadian Prime Ministers". Maclean's.
  13. Azzi, Stephen; Hillmer, Norman (October 7, 2016). "Ranking Canada's best and worst prime ministers". Maclean's.

Further reading

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