The Canadian people have had a varied experience in governors appointed by the imperial state. At the very commencement of British rule they were so fortunate as to find at the head of affairs Sir Guy Carleton—afterwards Lord Dorchester—who saved the country during the American revolution by his military genius, and also proved himself an able civil governor in his relations with the French Canadians, then called “the new subjects,” whom he treated in a fair and generous spirit that did much to make them friendly to British institutions. On the other hand they have had military men like Sir James Craig, hospitable, generous, and kind, but at the same time incapable of understanding colonial conditions and aspirations, ignorant of the principles and working of representative institutions, and too ready to apply arbitrary methods to the administration of civil affairs. Then they have had men who were suddenly drawn from some inconspicuous position in the parent state, like Sir Francis Bond Head, and allowed by an apathetic or ignorant colonial office to prove their want of discretion, tact, and even common sense at a very critical stage of Canadian affairs. Again there have been governors of the highest rank in the peerage of England, like the Duke of Richmond, whose administration was chiefly remarkable for his success in aggravating national animosities in French Canada, and whose name would now be quite forgotten were it not for the unhappy circumstances of his death. Then Canadians have had the good fortune of the presence of Lord Durham at a time when a most serious state of affairs imperatively demanded that ripe political knowledge, that cool judgment, and that capacity to comprehend political grievances which were confessedly the characteristics of this eminent British statesman. Happily for Canada he was followed by a keen politician and an astute economist who, despite his overweening vanity and his tendency to underrate the ability of “those fellows in the colonies”—his own words in a letter to England—was well able to gauge public sentiment accurately and to govern himself accordingly during his short term of office. Since the confederation of the provinces there has been a succession of distinguished governors, some bearing names famous in the history of Great Britain and Ireland, some bringing to the discharge of their duties a large knowledge of public business gained in the government of the parent state and her wide empire, some gifted with a happy faculty of expressing themselves with ease and elegance, and all equally influenced by an earnest desire to fill their important position with dignity, impartiality, and affability.
But eminent as have been the services of many of the governors whose memories are still cherished by the people of Canada, no one among them stands on a higher plane than James, eighth earl of Elgin and twelfth earl of Kincardine, whose public career in Canada I propose to recall in the following narrative. He possessed to a remarkable degree those qualities of mind and heart which enabled him to cope most successfully with the racial and political difficulties which met him at the outset of his administration, during a very critical period of Canadian history. Animated by the loftiest motives, imbued with a deep sense of the responsibilities of his office, gifted with a rare power of eloquent expression, possessed of sound judgment and infinite discretion, never yielding to dictates of passion but always determined to be patient and calm at moments of violent public excitement, conscious of the advantages of compromise and conciliation in a country peopled like Canada, entering fully into the aspirations of a young people for self-government, ready to concede to French Canadians their full share in the public councils, anxious to build up a Canadian nation without reference to creed or race—this distinguished nobleman must be always placed by a Canadian historian in the very front rank of the great administrators happily chosen from time to time by the imperial state for the government of her dominions beyond the sea. No governor-general, it is safe to say, has come nearer to that ideal, described by Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton, when secretary of state for the colonies, in a letter to Sir George Bowen, himself distinguished for the ability with which he presided over the affairs of several colonial dependencies.