Biography of Hon. Oliver Mowat, Q.C., L.L.D.

Oliver Mowat, member of the Ontario Legislature for North Oxford, and Premier and Attorney-General of the Province; was born in Kingston, Ont., July 22,1820. His father was John Mowat, from Canisby, Caithness-shire, Scotland, a soldier in the British army during the campaign in Portugal and Spain, under Lord Wellington, coming to Canada in 1816, and settling at Kingston, where he died in 1860. His mother, before her marriage, was Miss Helen Levack, of Caithness-shire. Professor Mowat, of Queen’s University, Kingston, is a brother of our subject, who was educated in that city, and commenced the study of the law there under Hon. (now Sir) John A. Macdonald. He was called to the Bar in November, 1841.

Mr. Mowat has been engaged in the practice of his profession from the date given, except during eight years, during which he was Vice Chancellor, and he is now at the head of the firm of Mowat, Maclennan and Downey, of Toronto.

Mr. Mowat was created a Queen’s Counsel in 1856; and is a bencher ex-officio of the Law Society of Ontario. He has been President of the Canadian Institute, Toronto; was a Commissioner for consolidating the Public General Statutes for Canada and Upper Canada respectively from 1855 to 1857; was a member of the Union Conference for the Confederation of the British Provinces, held at Quebec, in 1864; Provincial Secretary in the Brown Dorion Administration in 1858; PostmasterGeneral in the Sandfield Macdonald Dorion Administration from May, 1863, until March. 1864; held the same position in the Coalition Government from June, 1864, to November 14 of the same year, when he was appointed Vice Chancellor of Upper Canada, an office which he resigned October 25, 1872, on being called upon to form a new Administration in the Government of Ontario. Six days afterwards he was sworn in as a member of the Executive Council and Attorney General.

Mr. Mowat sat for South Ontario in the Canadian Assembly from 1857 until November, 1864, when he retired awhile from public life; was an unsuccessful candidate for Kingston, against the Hon. John A. Macdonald, in 1862; was elected to his present seat by acclamation in November, 1872, re-elected in 1875. by acclamation; and re-elected after a contest in 1879.

He is a member of the, Presbyterian Church, and has a high standing in the community. He has been President of the Evangelical Alliance of Ontario for the last fourteen or fifteen years. The honorary degree of Doctor of Laws was conferred upon him by the University of Queen’s College, in April, 1872.

In 1846 Mr. Mowat married Jane, second daughter of John Ewart, of Toronto, and they have buried two children and have five living.
As a lawyer, Mr. Mowat very early acquired the confidence of the profession and the Court in which he chiefly practiced. He rose rapidly in his profession, and when he entered political life stood in the front ranks of the Chancery Bar. He was forcible and energetic in argument, fertile in resources, and withal consciencious to a degree. He possessed in an eminent degree the power which the few in any profession possess, of “thinking out” the subject upon which he was engaged. Perhaps he was stronger in his ability to go to the bottom of any subject than any of his cotemporaries. To these qualifications he added exhaustless patience and untiring industry. No subject was too complicated for him; no details too minute.
As a judge, he carried all these qualifications with him to the Bench, and he added to them a dignity of demeanor, gentleness of manner and a polished courtesy which won for him not merely the respect and esteem, but the positive liking of every one who came in contact with him in his judicial capacity. His capacity for work and great industry was soon apparent upon the records of the Court, in its improved machinery, and in the dispatch of business. By nature endowed with a judicial temperament and a logical mind, no man in the profession could have been chosen who would have brought more learning and industry to the work of the Bench than Mr. Mowat. His retirement from judicial labors was universally admitted as a loss to the Courts of the Province, but by his acceptance of the portfolio of Attorney General, and of the position of leader of the Government of the Province, he placed himself in a position to accomplish more for the people as a “Law Reformer” than though he had reached the place of highest dignity among the judges of the land.

It is one of the most remarkable features of Attorney General Mowat’s career, that surrounded in early life by Conservative influences, both family and professional, he has nevertheless developed a liberalism both of thought and action, which has placed him in the very front rank of those who claim the political designation of Reformers.

This, however, has not been the result of impulse, nor has it arisen from any violent estrangement from old political connections. It would probably be hard to find any one with whom Mr. Mowat has ever had a serious difference, except upon the broad ground of opinion
and his tendency in all political matters is to an extreme caution, approaching, as his opponents say, to timidity. His convictions are evidently the growth of deep deliberation and calm reflection, controlled by a profound conscientiousness. His conclusions are certainly not arrived at instinctively. Every point and bearing of a proposition must be well thought out, the merely plausible or doubtful rejected, and the strong and the true alone retained. Then, finding his position invulnerable, he adheres to it with unwavering steadfastness. It is this habit, which, to a large extent, gives him his power in the Legislature. His own followers confidence in the correctness of his views is strengthened, and his opponents hopes of successful attack are proportionately diminished, by the knowledge that nothing is proposed by the leader of the House which has not been previously well considered from every point of view, in the study and the Council Chamber. Under a political system where all depends on confidence in the statesman at the head of affairs, such qualities are most invaluable.

While not by any means an orator, and occasionally displaying a nervous hesitancy in speaking that mars mere rhetorical effect, Mr. Mowat possesses faculties as a debater that would secure for him influence in any legislative body. His manner is courteous, while his speech does not lack in aggressiveness or that pungency which is necessary to effectiveness in party conflict. He has a pleasant voice, cheery in its tone, puts his case clearly and succinctly; wastes few words, and impresses the listener with the belief he is thoroughly in earnest. He has, too, the faculty of application to business, even to its minutest details, that is indispensable to great success in a politician, and without which other brilliant qualifications are often deprived of much of their usefulness.

As Premier of a Government that deals largely with local and material interests, Mr. Mowat has necessarily to listen to numerous applications affecting the public treasury, and of great importance to those who urge them upon his attention. Few men have the art of sending away a deputation in better humor, while no one deals more sparingly in fair promises than the Attorney-General of Ontario. He enjoys, too, one high privilege, not often permitted to any public man, and rare indeed in the experience of new world politicians. For twenty five years in some public capacity or other he has been before the country. As a candidate for parliamentary honors, as a city alderman, as a member of the Legislature, and as formerly a member of, and more recently a member and head of, a Government, he has escaped a single charge against his integrity or honor. This immunity even from slanders that are false is almost unique in Canadian history. The invitation to Mr. Mowat to accept a portfolio in the short lived Brown-Dorion Administration of 1858, only a few months after his first election to the Legislature, shows in how high esteem his talents and influence were then held. The short but honorable career of the Sandfield Macdonald Dorion Ministry in 1863-64, in which Mr. Mowat was PostmasterGeneral, gave him an insight into departmental business under circumstances which demanded the utmost vigilance and prudence, so evenly were the two parties at that time balanced in the Assembly. Mr. Mowat’s retirement from the Coalition Government in 1864, some six months after its formation, in order to take a seat on the Bench, was no doubt fully justified by the large personal sacrifices he had already made in the interest of his party. But it was, nevertheless, a most serious blow to the Liberal leader in the Cabinet, Mr. George Brown, to whom the value of Mr. Mowat’s legal knowledge, cautious temperament, and sound judgment, could not be over estimated. It was a happy thought that suggested his return in 1872 to political life, to fill in the Province of Ontario the void created by the retirement of Messrs. Blake and Mackenzie at one and the same time from the Local Legislature, a step forced upon them by legislation which made the holding of a seat in the Local House incompatible with one in the Dominion Parliament. The Provincial general elections that have since taken place have testified not only to the wisdom of the arrangement then made, but to the growing popularity of Premier Mowat with the electorate.

His government of Ontario since 1872 has been distinguished by many public measures of the greatest value, as well as by a liberal and most beneficial system of administration. Among the legislative acts that his name is most closely identified with are, the extinction of a heavy amount of municipal indebtedness, coupled with a just and equitable distribution of surplus moneys in the Treasury, the revision and consolidation of the municipal and school laws, the revision and consolidation of the whole body of public laws affecting the Province, and a great reform in the administration of justice by the fusion of the two systems of law and equity. The Election Laws, Vote by Ballot, and indeed every vexed question of importance coming within the power and jurisdiction of the Provincial Legislature, has been dealt with by him since his re entrance into political life. The settlement of a difficult domestic boundary question, in a manner highly favorable to the territorial importance of his own Province, has been another event in the history of Mr. Mowat’s administration.



MLA Source Citation:

The Canadian Biographical Dictionary and Portrait Gallery of Eminent and Self Made Men, Ontario, Volume 1. Toronto: Toronto American Biographical Pub. Co. 1880. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 30 September 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/canada/biography-of-hon-oliver-mowat-q-c-l-l-d.htm - Last updated on Aug 6th, 2012


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