FOLEY, MICHAEL HAMILTON, journalist, lawyer, and politician; b. 1820 at Sligo (Republic of Ireland); he and his wife Katherine had eight children; d. 8 April 1870 at Simcoe, Ont.
Michael Hamilton Foley immigrated with his parents in 1822 to Port Colborne, Upper Canada, where he was educated. He later taught school briefly in Louth Township. Unhappy with a teaching career, between 1845 and 1853 he edited successively the Long Point Advocate and Norfolk County General Advertiser (Simcoe), the Norfolk Messenger (Simcoe), and the Brant Herald (Brantford) while studying law. In 1851 he was admitted to the Upper Canadian bar, and in 1854 he won election to the legislature for Waterloo North as a Reformer. Rising quickly in Reform ranks and backing George Brown *’s call for representation by population, Foley held the office of postmaster general in the short-lived ministry of Brown and Antoine-Aimé Dorion* in August 1858. At the Reform convention held in Toronto in November 1859 he spoke eloquently against dissolution of the Canadian union and won the admiration of the eastern Upper Canadian delegates who opposed constitutional change. He had reservations about William McDougall*’s compromise motion calling for separate governments for Upper and Lower Canada and “some joint authority” for common matters – reservations that aroused Brown’s displeasure. Foley argued that justice to Upper Canada in the way of representation and schools could not long be denied or even he would have to become a dissolutionist. But he maintained that union was beneficial to all, that Upper and Lower Canada were “in partnership,” and that change under a united Reform ministry would soon come.
Foley had tried for several years without success to reconcile the two opposed groups within the Reform party: the western Grits under George Brown’s leadership, and the followers of Robert Baldwin* such as Sandfield Macdonald*. In 1859 rumours circulated that Foley would either head a reunited Reform ministry or join in a coalition with George-Étienne Cartier*’s Bleus and John A. Macdonald*’s Conservatives. In the spring of 1860, Foley, Sandfield Macdonald, and Josiah Blackburn* of the London Free Press attempted to bypass Brown’s leadership and block all moves, including Brown’s federalist proposals, which tended toward disruption of the union. Foley and Sandfield Macdonald hoped to forge an alliance with Louis-Victor Sicotte*, the leader of moderate Reform in Canada East. But Brown fought back, and a vehemently personal clash between Brown and Foley rang through the columns of the Globe and the Free Press. Foley urged liberals not to be seduced by “the tortured misrepresentations of ill-natured and sour-minded seekers after sectional supremacy, nor by the ungenerous and malicious coloured emanations of the biddable scribblers who follow in their wake.” Yet, in the west, support for Brown was strong, and Foley was denounced for disrupting the unity achieved through McDougall’s compromise at the Reform convention. Under extreme political pressure from his constituents and Brown, Foley deserted Sandfield Macdonald and voted in the assembly for Brown’s resolutions in favour of remodelling Canada along federal lines. In 1861 Foley supported a resolution for representation by population, yet he also seconded Sandfield Macdonald’s resolution urging adoption of the principle of “double majority.”
In the election of 1861 Brown was defeated, and the Upper Canadian Reform caucus, boycotted by Sandfield Macdonald, early in 1862 elected Foley house leader over Oliver Mowat*, a disciple of Brown. The fortunes of moderate Reform and of Foley seemed to be on the rise. Yet, when the Conservative forces fell in May 1862, Governor General Monck* did not choose Foley or Sicotte but Sandfield Macdonald as premier. Foley, it was alleged, drank too much, lacked sufficient stature, and might have appeared, especially to Lower Canadians, too sectional. Instead of the coveted attorney generalship, Foley had to be satisfied with the office of postmaster general. In that post he initiated steamer mail service to the head of Lake Superior.
Sandfield Macdonald, who people claimed had a strong propensity to distrust Irishmen, was always suspicious of Foley’s loyalty. When in May 1863 the ministry was reconstructed, Brown was able to persuade him to drop Foley in favour of Mowat. Foley was enraged; in the election that followed, he was successful in Waterloo North as an independent Reformer opposed to the ministry but, he stressed, dedicated to Reform principles.
When the house met in August 1863, Foley seconded Sicotte’s motion condemning the reconstructed Reform ministry led by Sandfield Macdonald and A.-A. Dorion. This attack on his former colleagues permanently destroyed Foley’s credibility with Reformers. In his own constituency the Berlin Telegraph correctly called his behaviour the “shipwreck of his political fortunes” and a “serious breach of good faith.” From then until the fall of the Reform government in March 1864, his political behaviour was erratic.
As part of a vain and transparent attempt to make the succeeding Conservative ministry of Sir Étienne-Paschal Taché and John A. Macdonald appear a coalition, Foley was again appointed postmaster general. But the Berlin Telegraph asserted that Waterloo North would not return an “opponent of liberal measures,” and Foley was defeated in the ensuing by-election. Before the election, Luther Holton*, the outgoing finance minister from Montreal, wrote Brown that if men like Foley could be re-elected in western Upper Canada to support such a government, “there would really seem to be little use in troubling ourselves about politics at all.”
Foley went back to his law practice, and resided primarily in Simcoe. Between his defeat in 1864 and the election of 1867, he tried at times to refurbish his Reform credentials. The sole effect of his attempts was to alienate him from the Conservatives. He did editorial work for the Simcoe Reformer, but his drinking became much more serious. In 1867 he ran unsuccessfully both in Wellington North for the House of Commons and in Norfolk North for the provincial legislature, having received no help from either Macdonald, prime minister or premier.
Despite his frustrations and bitterness, Foley was usually affable and witty, adept at making life “hot for his opponents, even if he had once in a while to take a little liberty with the facts.” Although he was an Anglican he played on the popularity of his Irishness to solicit Irish Catholic votes. The London Free Press noted at his death that he had had “habits which seriously interfered with his official duties . . . ,” that he was better on the “stump” than in the legislature, and that his premature death was regrettably caused by alcohol.
PAC, MG 24, B30, 1340; MG 26, A. PAO, Clarke (Charles) papers; Mackenzie-Lindsey papers. Can., Prov. of, Legislative Assembly, Journals, 1857. Globe, 1858–64. London Free Press, 1858–64. Quebec Daily Mercury, 1862–64. Careless, Brown, II. Davin, Irishman in Can. B. W. Hodgins, “The political career of John Sandfield Macdonald to the fall of his administration in March 1864: a study in Canadian politics” (unpublished phd thesis, Duke University, Durham, N.C., 1964). E. H. Jones, “The Great Reform Convention of 1859” (unpublished phd thesis, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ont., 1971). W. L. Morton, Critical years. James Young, Public men and public life in Canada . . . (2v., Toronto, 1912).
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Cite This Article
Bruce W. Hodgins, “FOLEY, MICHAEL HAMILTON,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 1, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/foley_michael_hamilton_9E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Bruce W. Hodgins|
|Title of Article:||FOLEY, MICHAEL HAMILTON|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1976|
|Year of revision:||1976|
|Access Date:||June 1, 2023|