James McMullen served as senator from 1902 to 1913

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.
(Note: This is the second part of two-part series on Senator James McMullen of Mount Forest.)

When James McMullen arrived in Ottawa in the fall of 1882 as the new MP for Wellington North, he was part of an opposition caucus of 71.

Sir John A. Macdonald’s government had been returned for another term, and was pushing ahead with construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

The opposition Liberals had picked up a few seats in the election of June 1882, but had lost several leaders from their front bench, among whom was Sir Richard Cartwright, defeated as a parachute candidate in Wellington Centre.

Cartwright’s strong card had been financial matters, and McMullen soon filled the void by his close examination and criticism of Macdonald’s spending practices.

At 48, McMullen had mellowed slightly. The fiery radicalism of his youth had been mellowed by his years through the 1870s in the contentious local politics of Mount Forest, and by his efforts, as vice president of the Georgian Bay and Wellington Railway, to complete successful agreements for financing and operating the line.

With his familiarity of railway matters, and his continuing position as a director of a Grand Trunk Railway subsidiary, McMullen was an able critic of the Canadian Pacific Railway project. He had become a competent speaker over the years, using facts and logic to build his arguments, similar to the style of the Liberal leader, Edward Blake.

With construction of the CPR completed at the end of 1885, the Liberals turned their attention to other matters. The economy had entered a state of stagnation, with growing discontent across the country, and particularly in Ontario and Nova Scotia. McMullen supported Ontario premier Oliver Mowat’s assault on the growing power of the federal government. This was consistent with McMullen’s life-long belief in small, efficient government, with power concentrated at the lowest levels.

McMullen campaigned with confidence in the next election, which Macdonald called for 22 February 1887. He made the most of local discontents, such as the sluggish economy, falling commodity prices, and depopulation of rural Ontario. The Conservatives offered Robert Gordon of Kenilworth as their candidate, but he proved no match for the sitting member, who won by a good majority.

A few months later, Edward Blake resigned as Liberal leader, to be replaced by Wilfrid Laurier. There was new energy in the Liberal caucus, and a year later the party adopted the principle of free trade with the United States.

McMullen had long advocated such a policy, though in later years he acquired serious doubts about it.

Though a backbencher in the Liberal caucus, McMullen spoke frequently, honing his expertise on financial affairs. With his tall, lanky frame and bushy moustache, he had become a familiar figure on Parliament Hill, nicknamed “The Tall Sycamore” by friend and foe alike.

Conservative cabinet ministers were certain that McMullen memorized the annual auditor general’s reports. The Toronto Mail and Empire sneered at McMullen’s “microscopic criticism” of government accounts.

Discontent among farmers in Ontario continued through the late 1890s, and in 1889 led to the formation of the Patrons of Industry, advocating farmers co-operatives, among other things. The new group soon decided to enter politics, and geared up for the next federal election, held in March 1891.

The popularity of the Patrons alarmed the Liberals, who believed that the upstarts had raided their platform and supporters. The Patrons appealed to some extent to disgruntled Conservatives as well, who increasingly viewed the Macdonald government as old, tired, and unresponsive.

In Wellington North the Conservatives nominated Lionel Clarke, the Palmerston-based brewer and grain dealer. Clarke was the son of a former MP, the volatile Dr. William Clarke, and had a high profile across the riding.

More alarming for McMullen, the Patrons decided to endorse Clarke, rather than run their own candidate. The campaign exasperated the sitting member: Clarke said the same things that McMullen had been saying for years.

Lionel Clarke drew solid support from across the riding, but when the votes were counted, McMullen’s popularity in Minto, West Luther and Arthur Township gave him the victory by 186 votes.

Sir John A. Macdonald died shortly after the 1891 election. The Conservative government stumbled along, under four different leaders over the next five years. The resulting lack of direction provided many opportunities for McMullen’s attacks on wasteful expenditure, and the rising deficit.

One of his critics claimed he “advocated the practice of a frugality little short of parsimony.” Unlike most backbenchers, he trusted his own beliefs, and was never reluctant to break with his own party on specific issues.

Only a few weeks after assuming the Prime Minister’s chair in 1896, Sir Charles Tupper called a general election. Tupper tried his best to inject new life into the party, but it would prove to be a hopeless cause.

The Liberals had been gaining in optimism and vitality under Laurier, and felt certain of victory long before the election call.

At home, though, things did not look so certain for McMullen. Lionel Clarke was again in the field, under the Conservative banner but sounding much more like a radical Liberal with his Patron support.

It turned out to be the toughest fight of the campaign. The Orange Lodge injected a new element when its members organized the Protestant Protective Association, which protested educational funding for separate schools and any special accommodations with Quebec. The PPA ran candidates in some ridings, and elsewhere endorsed the candidates of other parties. With a large Catholic population in Arthur Township, McMullen did not wish to engage in sectarian politics. When younger he had been an extreme Protestant, but contact in Ottawa with Catholic MPs had moderated his opinions.

The Conservative and Patron forces were very well organized. Lionel Clarke had worked actively for successful Patron candidates in the two previous provincial elections, and they now were returning the favour. Clarke managed to resurrect most of the campaign slogans of the previous 50 years: “Loyalty to the British Crown; Love of the Constitution, Equal Rights for All Classes; Persecution of None; Canada for Canadians; Down with Traitors and Annexationists.” The Clarke campaign became something of a crusade.

McMullen and the Liberals relied on a large organization and a systematic canvas of the riding. His opponents charged that he bribed voters, and campaigned on a sea of whiskey.

Large numbers of voters seemed to be dissatisfied with the existing state of party politics. When the votes were counted, McMullen had to be content with a margin of victory of 150.

This had been the toughest and nastiest campaign of McMullen’s career. The animosity continued even after the election. The Arthur Enterprise, a few days after the election, described Clarke as “fair and manly….not so his unscrupulous opponent, who outdid anything of which we have a record in the vileness and mendacity of the means that were adopted by himself and his backers to carry the election.”

There was a move to unseat him on the grounds of election irregularities, but nothing came of the charges. McMullen had faced similar charges, always unsubstantiated, in all his previous elections.

Across the country, Wilfrid Laurier racked up a large majority. Though a senior MP, McMullen did not get a cabinet post–Laurier had an abundance of first rank men to draw from–but he did get the chairmanship of the Public Accounts committee. Here he was able to put into practice the notions he had been advocating for years.

With a minor role in the new government, McMullen came into frequent contact with the cabinet. He developed a strong association with William Mulock, the new postmaster general, who soon implemented a full reorganization of the department.

Mulock improved services and reduced rates by 50%. It was a controversial reform, but McMullen supported it.

McMullen was considering retiring when Laurier called an election in 1900. He was nearing 70, and had spent 18 years as an MP. His friends persuaded him to stand again. They expected an easy campaign. The economy was booming, discontent had largely vanished, and the Patrons of Industry had fizzled out. The Conservatives nominated Edwin Tolton, a Clifford grain dealer, who everyone considered to be a much weaker candidate than Lionel Clarke.

As a result, the Liberals ran a lacklustre campaign in Wellington North. McMullen spent considerable time elsewhere, usually in the company of William Mulock.

They made a good team. McMullen, as always, sprinkled his speeches with facts and figures. Mulock, on the other hand, relied on sarcasm and earthy humour to make his points.

Though a successful lawyer and Bay Street operator, Mulock like to pose as Farmer Bill. Provincial organizers were delighted with the McMullen/Mulock team.

At home though, McMullen seemed tired. He complained about his advancing age. He admitted that the Laurier government had made mistakes, “but these were errors of judgment, and not acts committed to serve party ends and purposes.” He was still hammering at the old point: the elimination of wasteful spending and patronage.

Edwin Tolton won by small majority. No one was more surprised than McMullen by the results, and all the more so because the Liberals largely swept rural Ontario. It was the end of the longest term by any Wellington MP up to that time.

Less than two years later, in February 1902, Wilfrid Laurier appointed James McMullen to the Senate. This may well have been on the urging of William Mulock, who was responsible for political patronage in Ontario. As well, he continued his business interests, and became a director of the Dominion Life Insurance Co.

There was something of an irony in the appointment. McMullen had often denounced the Senate as an extravagance, and more than once had urged that it be an elective body.

Nevertheless, he took the appointment seriously, and became increasingly independent in his thinking. He began to have serious doubts about the wisdom of free trade, and took on increasingly nationalistic positions.

In 1908 he attempted to put an export duty on pulpwood to the United States, in order to conserve a valuable resource and to promote employment and economic development in Canada. A year later he tried to have American labour organizers from becoming involved in strikes in Canada.

He was furious that the American government was making it difficult for Canadians to work across the border.

Two years later, in the 1911 election, McMullen broke completely with Laurier on the free trade question. As he grew older, he sounded more and more like a Macdonald Conservative nationalist.

Senator James McMullen died in March 1913, after serving 11 years in the upper house. The day of the funeral was a public holiday in Mount Forest, with flags at half mast and black bunting on buildings.

The crowd of mourners overflowed Westminster Church. Obituary notices appeared in virtually every daily paper in Canada.

James McMullen’s life had witnessed the growth and maturity of Wellington County. He gained his first political impulses as a boy on a pioneer farm in Nichol.

When he died the county was a beehive of commercial agriculture and small town industry.

The values of frugality, the importance of strong efficient government, and the primacy of individual thinking, all guided his thoughts throughout his life, and, during his years as an MP and senator, influenced the public policy of the country.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on May 6, 2000.

Thorning Revisited