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John McDowell of Manitoba.

John McDowell (1825 - 1892) was the seventh Governor-General of the Confederation of North America, serving from February 1878 to February 1888, an era known as the Age of Renewal.

1878 Election Campaign[]

McDowell was one of five Liberal Party candidates in Manitoba to be elected to the Grand Council in the 1873 Grand Council elections. While serving in the Grand Council, McDowell gained a repuation as an honest, outspoken reformer and a competent legislator, although he was almost unknown outside of his home confederation. At the Liberal nominating convention in Philadelphia in January 1878, McDowell was selected as the party's nominee for Governor-General, winning out over Councilman John Runk of Georgia, and Claude Baldwin, the corrupt former Governor of Indiana.

The 1878 Grand Council elections were marked by a wave of political violence, most of it directed against the recently-founded People's Coalition. McDowell's reputation for honesty attracted the votes of those who were dismayed by the violence, and the Liberals won a 62 seat plurality in the Eighth Grand Council against 49 Conservatives and 39 Coalitionists. McDowell rejected a series of deals offered by members of the other parties, but as the Grand Council conducted ballot after ballot over the next week, he attracted the support of reformers from the other parties. In the seventh ballot, held on 21 February 1878, McDowell received the votes of 12 Conservatives and 15 Coalitionists, giving him a majority of 89 votes.

Early Reforms and Foreign Policy[]

McDowell began his term by embracing (or co-opting) the reform movement that had given rise to the P.C. The Confederation Bureau of Investigation was created in 1878 to investigate and prosecute corrupt practices among government agencies. The Railroad Control Commission Act of 1878 created the Railroad Control Commission, a regulatory body that had the power to investigate complaints and make recommendations for rate adjustments. The Williamson Anti-Monopoly Act gave the Minister of Home Affairs the right to prosecute any large corporation "engaged in unfair or unethical practices." The Civil Rights Act of 1879 guaranteed "the full protection of the law in their public pursuits" to all citizens of the C.N.A. The Morgan Act encouraged management and labor to reach equitable solutions to their common problems. However, apart from the C.B.I., few of these measures had effective enforcement provisions.

In Great Britain, Prime Minister Geoffrey Cadogan responded to the outbreak of the Franco-German War in 1878 by mobilizing the army and increasing naval appropriations. The combination of higher taxes, rising interest rates, and war jitters brought a sharp reduction in British investments in the C.N.A. The result was a wave of bank failures and business bankruptcies in the early months of 1880, particularly the bankruptcy of the Northern Confederation Trust in April and Thomas Edison's National Electric in May. A severe recession known as the Great Depression engulfed the C.N.A. in the early 1880s. As a result, the C.N.A. was plagued by vagabonds, looters, and rioters, though to a lesser extent than other nations.

McDowell responded to the Great Depression by creating the National Financial Administration under Administrator Howard Carson to offer emergency loans to failing businesses. McDowell also established the Rural Credit Association under Senator Clifford Brinton of Indiana to offer loans to farmers whose holdings were endangered by foreclosures.

McDowell favored a more active foreign policy than his four predecessors. The Franco-German war had ended in a French defeat in 1879, provoking a violent revolution, the overthrow of the French monarchy, and the execution of the French royal family. The revolution spread throughout Europe in 1880, and 1.5 million Europeans emigrated to the C.N.A. between 1880 and 1882, when McDowell closed the country's borders. McDowell joined with Prime Minister Cadogan to hold the First Imperial Conference in London in 1881 to discuss common problems among the member states of the British Empire. The participants at the conference agreed to maintain free trade among the member nations and established the Imperial Monetary Fund with the power to offer low-interest loans to member governments. McDowell and Cadogan went on to hold a Second Imperial Conference in New York in 1882, where the participants agreed to increase the lending power of the I.M.F.

The rise to power of Mexican Chief of State Benito Hermión in September 1881 initially caused McDowell great concern. McDowell expected Hermión to revive the memories, and perhaps also the actions, of the Rocky Mountain War. However, Hermión made every effort to assure North Americans of his desire for good relations between the U.S.M. and C.N.A. He encouraged exchanges of professors, students, artists, and other cultural leaders, and named Simon Cardenes, a popular Mexican author with a large North American following, as the new ambassador to the C.N.A. Cardenes and Minister for Foreign Affairs Malcolm Kitteridge negotiated several important agreements, notably the 1884 Kitteridge-Cardenes Treaty.

C.B.I. Commandant Mark Forsyth, who had worked with Hermión to establish Mexico's Constabulary, assured McDowell that he need not fear aggression from the new Chief of State "for the time being." Forsyth said that "Benito has always preferred warmer climates than those we enjoy in the C.N.A., and he lacks both the desire and stamina for a struggle with a nation as powerful as ours." He advised McDowell "to assure our Caribbean friends of our best wishes, and desire for their continued indpendence, and to let Benito know our feelings in the matter," and McDowell did so. Throughout the period of his rule, Hermión was devoted to maintaining good relations with the C.N.A.

1883 Election Campaign[]

As the 1883 Grand Council elections approached, McDowell gave the Age of Renewal speech in New York on 11 October 1882. In his speech, McDowell declared that "every North American has the right to hold a job, to a fair wage, to a fair return on his investment, to a decent place in which to live, to security in his home, to the knowledge that his government knows of his needs, and is prepared to help him help himself."

Over the next three months, McDowell went on to give more speeches in the Northern Confederation, the Southern Confederation, and Indiana on the subject of reform, while introducing a series of bills in the Grand Council to implement his programs. All of these bills were defeated by the Conservatives and Coalitionists, and McDowell responded by attacking them in a speech in Burgoyne on 8 January 1883. Shortly afterwards, at the Liberal Party's national convention, McDowell was chosen as party leader by acclimation. On election day, 15 February 1883, the Liberals won an outright majority of 82 Grand Council seats. Equally important was the fact that the People's Coalition won 45 seats to the Conservatives' 23, thereby becoming the official opposition.

Second Term[]

With a majority in the Grand Council, McDowell was able to pass all of his proposed legislation for 1883: a guaranteed employment act that made the government the employer of last resort; a guaranteed minimum wage of N.A. £1 a day; a reform of the school system offering universal secondary education; the Transportation Act of 1883 giving the Railroad Control Commission the power to order changes in railroad policy; the Fair Trade Act of 1883 creating the North American Export Council to subsidize exports; the establishment of the North American Bank; an expansion of the National Financial Administration allowing more and larger loans to distressed corporations; expansion of the Rural Credit Association; expansion of the Confederation Bureau of Investigation into a national police force; and increased appropriations for the army and navy.

Theodore Lindsay, publisher of the Conservative Party organ the New York Herald, claimed that McDowell "will destroy our moral fibre with his nostrums, and our exchequer with his taxes." People's Coalition Minority Leader Scott Ruggles criticized the expansion of the N.F.A. and R.C.A., claiming they would help large businesses and ignore smaller ones, while Michigan City Mayor Ezra Gallivan criticized the expansion of the C.B.I. and the increased military appropriations. Ruggles' predictions proved correct, and by 1885 there was growing opposition to McDowell's reforms. The C.B.I.'s investigative methods provoked a public outcry, and tax rates were at an all-time high, while inflation became an increasing problem.

McDowell was nominated by the Liberals for a third term in the 1888 Grand Council elections, while the People's Coalition nominated Gallivan and the Conservatives Abraham Reese. The Liberals were widely expected to maintain their majority, but on election day, 16 February, the People's Coalition won a 73 seat plurality in the Grand Council, while the Liberals won only 66 seats and the Conservatives 9. McDowell chose not to challenge Gallivan for the Governor-Generalship, instead arranging for several Liberal Councilmen to vote for Gallivan, giving him an 81-seat majority.


McDowell retired to his home in Manitoba, and had begun writing his memoirs when he died of a heart attack on 1 October 1892. Governor-General Gallivan traveled to Manitoba to give the eulogy at McDowell's funeral three days later. The first five chapters of McDowell's memoirs, recounting his boyhood in Manitoba, as well as notes collected for the rest of the work, were published in New York in 1893 as The Age of Renewal.


Sobel's sources for the life of John McDowell are McDowell's memoirs, as well as Worthington Fowler's John McDowell and the Fruits of Reform (New York, 1899), McDowell in Retirement (New York, 1901), and Reform at Flood Tide: McDowell's Year of Glory, 1883 (New York, 1908); Mark Forsyth's Under Three Governors: My Life in the C.B.I. (New York, 1900); Arthur Watkins' The Great Depression of 1880-1883 (London, 1915); Paul George's John McDowell: An Appreciation and Assessment (Burgoyne, 1930); William Harris' The Bloody Ballot: The C.N.A. Elections of 1878 (New York, 1943); Egbert Pierce's John McDowell and the Press: A Study in Manipulation (Burgoyne, 1947); Jay Phister's The Age of Renewal: McDowell at His Prime (New York, 1952); Marshall Butler's The Paradox of the Black Vote (Burgoyne, 1955); Reuben Fenton's And Close the Door: The Decline of C.N.A. Conservatism (New York, 1955) and McDowell: Appearance and Reality (New York, 1957); Abner LeFevre's The Age of Renewal: The First McDowell Administration (New York, 1968); Milton Hull's The Politics of 1883: McDowell and His Campaign (New York, 1970); and Sir Monte Barkins' Long-Term Dislocations in the C.N.A. Economy in the Great Depression (London, 1970).

This was the Featured Article for the week of 27 January 2013.

Governors-General of the C.N.A.
Winfield ScottHenry GilpinWilliam JohnsonWhitney HawkinsKenneth ParkesHerbert ClemensJohn McDowellEzra GallivanClifton BurgenChristopher HemingwayAlbert MerrimanCalvin WagnerHenderson DeweyDouglas WatsonBruce HoggJames BillingtonRichard MasonPerry JayCarter Monaghan