A Champagne Conference: The Charlottetown Conference, 1864


I was once explaining to some visitors from overseas how Canada became a country. “There was no war, or revolution, or anything like that,” quoth I. “It was more…like when an adult child moves out of the basement, and into their own place.”

I still stand by the gist of that analogy, though of course, it was rather more complicated than that. With the 150th anniversary of Confederation nigh, let’s look at the first step on the road—and of course, it does involve alcohol.

Yay!

So it’s 1864. Organizers are planning the Charlottetown Conference: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island are all sending delegates to discuss the possibility of uniting these three Atlantic colonies into one.

Not so fast!

Depending on which source you read, a delegation from the Province of Canada more-or-less invited itself…or Governor General Monck did “ask” if they might also attend. In any case, in September 1864, the Canadians duly turned up in PEI—a formidable crew including John A. MacDonald and George Brown from Upper Canada, and George-Étienne Cartier, Alexander Galt, and Thomas D’Arcy McGee representing Lower Canada. Hilariously, the first circus to pass through Charlottetown in twenty years meant that all the hotels were booked and no one was actually working at the wharf. Nevertheless, the Canadians made themselves very cozy aboard their ship.

Province House in Charlottetown, wherein the proceedings proceeded.

Ostensibly, they were there only to observe. However, as the Conference unfolded, they inserted themselves into the discussion more and more, wooing the other delegates and turning the proceedings towards the unification of all the British North American provinces.

So what does this have to do with beer?

Well—politics and alcohol in the 1800s rarely lay far apart. As we saw in the case of the Red Lion Inn and the Upper Canada Rebellion, taverns functioned as political meetings. Groups met, debated, and voted in taverns. Deals were ironed out over drinks; alliances announced and cemented through toasting. Even at modern conferences, business goes down at the bar.

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George Brown: politician, newspaper editor, not a beer fan.

What’s more, the 1860s delegates used this socializing as a means of building relationships—and thus furthering their goal. A general session welcomed the Canadian crew on Friday, September 2nd. On the 3rd, the Canadians reciprocated with a champagne lunch. According to one source I found, they’d brought nearly $13,o00 worth (in today’s money, obviously). As George Brown wrote to his wife:

“Cartier and I made eloquent speeches — of course — and whether as the result of our eloquence or of the goodness of our champagne, the ice became completely broken, [and] the tongues of the delegates wagged merrily…”

(Two things. One: George Brown was a temperance advocate, but one assumes he saw the practicalities of not lecturing about alcohol in that moment. Two: I love the “of course” he inserts in there: so, so very much.)

An article in Brown’s newspaper shows that one conference member took the notion of relation-building to another level:

[He said,] “If any one can show just cause or impediment why these colonies should not be united in matrimonial alliance, let him no express it, or forever after hold his peace.” There was no response. “Then,” said he, “ere my days on earth, which are comparatively few, shall close, I may yet witness the conclusion of the ceremony and hear them pronounced man and wife.” (The Globe, September 16, 1864)

The Conference wrapped up on the 7th, at which point the original plan for a Maritime union had been scrapped in favour of joining with the Province of Canada. The delegates agreed to meet in Québec City the following month, one more ball was held, and then everyone went home.

Group photo taken on the portico. John A is sitting down, near the centre (by his pals Thomas D’Arcy McGee and George-Étienne Cartier. John A looks a little tired.

Historian J.M.S. Careless sums it up perfectly in his biography, Brown of the Globe: “There, in the chief stateroom of the Queen Victoria, amid the wineglasses and cigar smoke, 23 men had warmly agreed to found a new nation. Other states might have a more dramatic start — but few, surely, a more enjoyable one.”

We’ll toast to that!

To Queen and Country!

Katie

 

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