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SIR JOHN JOSEPH CALDWELL ABBOTT (1821-1893), PRIME MINISTER OF CANADA

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“I hate politics… I hate notoriety, public meetings, public speeches, caucuses, and everything that I know of that is apparently the necessary incident of politics - except doing public work to the best of my ability.”
John Abbott (1891)

Born in 1821 in St. Andrew’s East (now Saint-André-d’Argenteuil), John Abbott was the son of an Anglican minister. At the age of seventeen, Abbott went to work in the dry-goods trade, where he learned bookkeeping and business. In 1849, he married Mary Bethune (1823-1898). The couple had nine children.

Sir John Abbott. (Photo - Canada Post)One of the Lower Laurentians’ most notable native sons, John Abbott is best known as Canada’s third Prime Minister. He was actually the first Canadian-born Prime Minister of Canada, the first Prime Minister born in Quebec (Lower Canada), and the first Prime Minister to lead the country from the Senate. Though Abbott’s tenure as Prime Minister was short (he resigned due to ill health after seventeen months), it was the culmination of a long and illustrious career. He died in Montreal in 1893.

LEGAL AND TEACHING CAREER
A graduate of McGill College, John Abbott was admitted to the bar and began practicing law in 1847. He later went on to specialize in commercial law. In 1853, he began a long and distinguished teaching career at McGill, continuing until 1876, and was dean of the Faculty of Law from 1855 to 1880. Appropriate given his contributions to teaching in Montreal, John Abbott College in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, Quebec, is named after him. St. Andrews East, where Abbott's father was minister. (Photo - Matthew Farfan)

BUSINESS CAREER
In addition to teaching and law, Abbott was a successful businessman. As a young businessman, he signed (and later repudiated) the Montreal Annexation Manifesto in 1849. A response to a depression in the Canadian colonies and of the removal of preferential trade between Britain and Canada, this document advocated the annexation of Canada to the United States. Abbott later regretted this youthful act of disloyalty, and is said to have attempted to make up for it by raising and commanding (at his own expense) the militia detachment known as the Argenteuil Rangers (1862-1884).

RAILWAYS
John Abbott owned stock in a number of Montreal companies and served on several corporate boards. He is best known for his involvement in some of the country’s first major railway ventures. Indeed, as President of the Canada Central Railway (1862), he helped build that company, which would eventually become an important part of the transcontinental railway system.Abbott served as legal council to railway and shipping magnate Sir Hugh Allan, who was then President of the Canadian Pacific Railway. He helped Sir Hugh Allan secure the contract for Sir John A. Macdonald's trans-Canada railway project. As Member of Parliament for Argenteuil County, Abbott found himself in a severe conflict of interest, which resulted in the infamous Pacific Scandal, which centred on corruption related to the awarding of railway contracts. The scandal would eventually topple Macdonald’s government in 1873 and cost Abbott his seat in the House of Commons.Pacific Scandal notwithstanding, Abbott continued to pursue his interests in railways, and from 1885 to 1891, he served as a Member of the Board of Directors of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

POLITICS
Abbott enjoyed a long and (mostly) successful political career. As a Conservative, he first came to office in 1857, when he was elected to represent Argenteuil County in the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada. He served as Solicitor General in 1862. He held on to his seat in the Assembly until Confederation (1867), upon which he was elected to represent Argenteuil in the new House of Commons of the Dominion of Canada. As a Member of Parliament, he served as Chair of the House of Commons Banking Committee (1867-1874). As noted earlier, Abbott lost his seat in 1874. He was re-elected, however, in a by-election in 1880, and retained his seat until 1887. During this period, he continued his involvement with the CPR, but was careful to abstain from voting on railway issues in Parliament.In 1887, Abbott was appointed to a seat in the Senate, a seat he held until his death. While in the Senate, Abbott served as Minister without Portfolio (1887-1891), Government Leader in the Senate (1887-1893), and President of the Privy Council (1891-1892). As a member of Macdonald’s Cabinet, Abbott was respected for his legal and business skills. Amazingly, during this period, he found time to serve as Mayor of Montreal (1887-1888). Abbott became leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister of Canada upon the sudden death of Sir John A. Macdonald in 1891, only three months after the Conservatives had won a general election. This was a difficult time for the party, which had been in power for over a decade and which was bitterly divided. As the compromise successor to Macdonald, Abbott saw himself as a “caretaker” leader, until a younger and perhaps more capable leader could be found. His tenure was short-lived, and he resigned in 1892 due to ill health. He died of cancer the following year, and was buried in Mount Royal Cemetery in Montreal.

Although brief, Abbott’s 17-month term as Prime Minister is recognized as being a successful one. He is most remembered for his reforms to the Canadian Criminal Code, improvements to the Civil Service, and the Reciprocity Treaty he signed with the United States. He also smoothed the way for his successor, the brilliant (and Roman Catholic) Sir John Thompson.

References:
Dictionary of Canadian BiographyLibrary of Parliament, Prime Ministers of Canada.