Sir John Eh? Macdonald: Recovering a Voice from History

By Martin, Ged | British Journal of Canadian Studies, May 2004 | Go to article overview

Sir John Eh? Macdonald: Recovering a Voice from History


Martin, Ged, British Journal of Canadian Studies


HISTORIANS TALK A GOOD DEAL about listening to voices from the past. By this, we mean that we read what the past had to say through contemporary documents. Unfortunately, in one important respect, until the late nineteenth century we have been cut off from the sound of those voices: it is almost impossible to recapture the accent and delivery in which people actually spoke. Indeed, until the advent of modern mass media, even contemporaries had little idea how their leaders sounded unless they had actually met them or heard them speak in public. In Canada, the Diamond Jubilee of Confederation celebrations of 1927 were the occasion of the first coast-to-coast national radio hook-up. This was probably the first time that the Canadian people heard the voice of Mackenzie King, even though he had been their prime minister for most of the previous six years.1 The spread of radio in the 1920s enormously increased the number of people to whom politicians could have access. During the general election of 1930, Conservative leader R.B. Bennett delivered a keynote address to ten thousand people in an auditorium at Winnipeg, but it was estimated that another two million listened in at their own firesides.2 The enormous impact of the new medium explained the key element in the initial success of both Bennett and Alberta's Social Credit leader, William Aberhart.

Even the phonograph, invented by Edison in 1878, proves a disappointing source for famous voices: for various reasons, many early recordings have not survived. Two of the most notable personalities in nineteenth-century Britain experimented with the machine. Queen Victoria sent a message to the Emperor of Abyssinia, but on mature reflection asked him to destroy the recording.3 With it perished our only chance to check on contemporary descriptions of her silvery tones.4 Gladstone made three recordings, between 1888 and 1890. Only one original survives, and even its provenance is doubtful, although if genuine it is said to bear out the claims that the Grand Old Man's accent retained slight traces of his youth in Liverpool. More remarkable still is the fact that, although the phonograph was an American invention, the recording of Gladstone seems to be the first example of the voice of a world statesman: no example of a President of the United States survives before Taft, who went to the White House in 1909.5

Thus it is not surprising that for Canada, we have only tantalising snatches of impressionistic evidence, such as the statement in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography that Laurier spoke English with a slight Scots accent, the price he paid no doubt for learning the language in New Glasgow, Quebec.6 What of Sir John A. Macdonald, a native of the real Glasgow, whose family emigrated to Canada when he was five, but was reared in an environment of exiled Scots? It is a hoary joke that not only is it possible to identify a Canadian by the national intonation of adding 'eh?' at the end of sentences, but that the country's founding prime minister himself was Sir John Eh? Macdonald. Yet the producers of historical docu-dramas have tended to endow their Macdonald character with a Scots accent (although rarely with one redolent of Glasgow itself ), no doubt gratefully seizing upon so specific an identifier.7 How, then, did Macdonald speak? Can we recapture an accent that was apparently never recorded on cylinder or disk, from a life that ended forty years before talking pictures?

We may begin by noting that as a public figure, Macdonald did not trade upon his voice. 'As an orator, Sir John Macdonald had more of the English than of the American manner,' wrote Martin Griffin, the Librarian of Parliament, adding 'he was direct in argument, but sometimes hesitating in speech'.8 Joseph Pope, Macdonald's secretary and authorised biographer, agreed: Macdonald 'rarely prepared his speeches, preferring the impromptu semi-conversational style of the English House of Commons.' Hector Fabre noted that Macdonald 'rather gropes through his opening sentences'. …

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