John Sparrow David Thompson

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The Right Honourable
Sir John Sparrow David Thompson
John Thompson.jpg
4th Prime Minister of Canada
In office
December 5, 1892 – December 12, 1894
Monarch Victoria
Governor-General The Lord Stanley of Preston
The Earl of Aberdeen
Preceded by John Abbott
Succeeded by Mackenzie Bowell
5th Premier of Nova Scotia
In office
May 25, 1882 – July 18, 1882
Monarch Victoria
Lieutenant Governor Adams George Archibald
Preceded by Simon Hugh Holmes
Succeeded by William Thomas Pipes
MLA for Antigonish County
In office
December 4, 1877 – July 27, 1882
Serving with Daniel MacDonald, Angus McGillivray
Preceded by John J. McKinnon
Succeeded by Charles B. Whidden
Member of the Canadian Parliament
for Antigonish
In office
October 16, 1885 – December 12, 1894
Preceded by Angus McIsaac
Succeeded by Colin Francis McIsaac
Personal details
Born (1845-11-10)November 10, 1845
Halifax, Nova Scotia
Died December 12, 1894(1894-12-12) (aged 49)
Windsor, England, United Kingdom
Resting place Holy Cross Cemetery, Halifax, Nova Scotia
Political party Conservative
Spouse(s) Annie Affleck
(1870–1894, his death)
Children 9
Religion Roman Catholic
(Previously Methodist)

Sir John Sparrow David Thompson, KCMG PC QC (November 10, 1845 – December 12, 1894) was a Canadian lawyer, judge, politician, and university professor, who served as the fourth Prime Minister of Canada from December 5, 1892 until his sudden death in office on December 12, 1894. He also served as the fifth Premier of Nova Scotia in 1882. He was the first Roman Catholic to hold the office of Prime Minister.

Early years

Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to John Sparrow Thompson and Charlotte Pottinger, he was of Irish descent. Some sources say he was born on November 10, 1845, others say 1844. Thompson married Annie Affleck (1842–1913) in 1870. Annie Thompson was strong-willed and had the same kind of spirit that had driven Agnes Macdonald (another prime minister's wife) to ride the cowcatcher of a CPR train through the British Columbia mountains. During their courtship, Thompson was forced to write love letters in shorthand because of his soon-to-be wife's disapproving parents. Thompson's family life was marred by tragedy. A daughter, Annie, died at age one, while youngest son David lived to be two. Two other children died at birth (the Thompsons had five children survive childhood).

Law, politics, and professorship

Thompson was called to the Nova Scotia Bar in July 1865, and from 1878 to 1882 served as Attorney General in the provincial government of Simon H. Holmes. He briefly held the office of Nova Scotia premier in 1882, but his government was defeated in that year's election. Thompson was always a reluctant politician.

After his resignation from government, Thompson was immediately appointed to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia by the Prime Minister of Canada, Sir John A. Macdonald. In this role, he was instrumental in founding the Dalhousie Law School in 1883. He taught law courses at Dalhousie in its early years.

Federal Minister of Justice

After several failed overtures, Macdonald finally recruited Thompson to Ottawa in 1885. Macdonald generally thought highly of Thompson, remarking, "My one great discovery was my discovery of Thompson." Macdonald poked some fun at his recruit as well: "Thompson is a little too fond of satire, and a little too much of a Nova Scotian."[1] However, his rise in government is probably due as much to the influence of Lady Aberdeen, the wife of the Governor General, as to Macdonald's mentoring. She had great admiration for Thompson, and wrote frequently about him in her published "Canadian Journal".[2]

Thompson was sworn in as Minister of Justice in September 1885 and subsequently won a seat in Parliament in October, representing Antigonish.[3]

Louis Riel crisis

When he returned to Ottawa, the Riel crisis was in full swing. The question of what to do with Louis Riel, who had been sentenced to hang for leading the 1885 North-West Rebellion, was now the responsibility of Thompson. Although he was ill with kidney stones at the time of Riel's execution, Thompson made his first major speech to Parliament during the subsequent debate, arguing that anyone who encouraged aboriginal Canadians to act against the state could not escape justice. This speech was notable and helped to popularize Thompson, and he quickly rose to become a leading member of the Conservative government.[3]

Thompson's achievements as Minister of Justice included the first Criminal Code, a consolidation and unification of the criminal law for all of Canada.[3]

Declines post of prime minister

When Sir John A. Macdonald fell ill, Thompson was the last minister to see him before the Prime Minister's devastating stroke in May 1891. Following Macdonald’s death a week later, there was a Cabinet crisis. Governor General Lord Stanley of Preston called upon Thompson, requesting that he form a government, but Thompson declined. Religious prejudice against the Roman Catholic Thompson, having converted at his marriage, made this course of action politically untenable, and Thompson recommended John Abbott, who ultimately accepted.

Prime Minister (1892–1894)

Thompson assumed the office of Prime Minister in 1892, a year later, when Abbott retired. Thompson retained the post of Attorney General during his prime ministerial years.[3]

He came very close to bringing Newfoundland into Confederation, but this would not be achieved until 1949.

His first major speech as Prime Minister was given in Toronto in January 1893, covering the topics of tolerance and Canadian nationalism in conjunction with loyalty to the British crown. At the time, Thompson was concerned about the possibility of the annexation of Canada by the United States, a goal which was being pursued within Canada by the Continental Union Association, a group of Ontario and Quebec Liberals. Despite his concern, Thompson ultimately realized that the conspiracy to make Canada part of the United States was confined to a small and noisy minority within the opposition party.

In March 1893, Thompson travelled to Paris, France as one of the judges on the tribunal to settle the Canada-USA dispute over the seal harvest in the Bering Sea. The result was a victory for Thompson, as the tribunal ruled there was no justification for the United States' claim that the Bering Sea was closed to all but American seal hunters.

Other matters of concern during Thompson's tenure as Prime Minister included the reduction of trade tariffs and questions over schooling in Manitoba and in the North West Territories, where serious disputes existed over the role of Catholics and Protestants in administering the school system. Ultimately, the North West Territories' school problem was resolved to Thompson’s satisfaction, but the Prime Minister would not live to see a similar resolution to the Manitoba matter.

Supreme Court appointments

While in office, Thompson chose the following jurists to sit as justices of the Supreme Court of Canada:

Death in office

Sir John Thompson had been Prime Minister of Canada for only two years when he died suddenly from a heart attack at the age of 49 on December 12, 1894. He was at England's Windsor Castle, where Queen Victoria had just made him a member of her Privy Council.[4][5] Thompson's physical condition had deteriorated during his time in Ottawa; he was significantly overweight when he died (standing 5 feet 7 inches (1.70 m), he weighed about 225 pounds (102 kg)), and had always pushed himself very hard in his work.

Thompson was the second of two Canadian prime ministers to die in office (the first being Sir John A. Macdonald), and the first of three who did not die in Canada (the other two being Sir Charles Tupper and Richard B. Bennett).

After an elaborate funeral was staged for him in the United Kingdom by Queen Victoria, Thompson's remains were transported back to Canada aboard the armoured cruiser HMS Blenheim, which was painted black for the occasion. He was buried on January 3, 1895, in the Holy Cross Cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia.[6][7]

Despite having held prime ministerial office, Thompson had little estate, so Parliament set up a fund to support his widow and children. His only remaining descendant today is the Canadian politician Margaret Mitchell.


Annie E Thompson by William James Topley

Thompson, then a young barrister, married in 1870 Annie E. Affleck, daughter of John Affleck, of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and his wife, Catherine Saunders. Annie was born and educated in Halifax. The couple had nine children, only five of whom survived early childhood. After she was widowed December 12, 1894, a fund of $30,000 was raised for Lady Thompson, headed by Lord Strathcona with a subscription of $5,000; the Parliament of Canada contributed $25,000. The Governor-General, the Earl of Aberdeen undertook the education of the sons. Lady Thompson cofounded, with the Countess of Aberdeen, the National Council of Women, and served as one of its presidents. She served as a governor of the Victorian Order of Nurses. As a widow, she lived at "Denuent Lodge", on Sherbourne Street in Toronto.[8]


Thompson's collected papers were donated in 1949 to the National Archives of Canada by his son, Colonel John Thompson.[9]

Although subjective, a ranking of the Canadian Prime Ministers was published by J.L. Granatstein and Norman Hillmer in 1997. A survey of 26 Canadian historians determined that Thompson was ranked #10 of the 20 people who had at that time served as Canadian PM. He was identified as "The great "might-have-been" of Canadian Prime Ministers...", whose potentially promising career was cut short by his early death.[10] A follow-up article co-authored by Hillmer in 2011 broadened the survey to include survey responses of over 100 historians; in this survey, Thompson was ranked 14th out the 22 who had by then served as PM.[11]

The high school in the Canadian sitcom Life with Derek, SJST, is named after Thompson.[citation needed] Sir John Thompson Catholic Junior High School in Edmonton is named for him.[12] Thompson appears as a prominent character in Paul Marlowe's novel Knights of the Sea (set in 1887 when Thompson was Minister of Justice).

Since 1996, Sir John Thompson's former home in Ottawa at 237 Metcalfe Street has served as the national office of the Canadian Soccer Association.

Nova Scotian artist William Valentine painted Thompson's portrait.

See also


  1. Hutchison
  2. Waite, p. 527.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Chisholm 1911.
  6. P. B. Waite (1990). "THOMPSON, Sir JOHN SPARROW DAVID". Dictionary of Canadian Biography. University of Toronto/Université Laval. Retrieved March 10, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. "Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada – Former Prime Ministers and Their Grave Sites – The Honourable Sir John David Sparrow Thompson". Parks Canada. Government of Canada. December 20, 2010. Retrieved March 10, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Morgan, Henry James Types of Canadian women and of women who are or have been connected with Canada : (Toronto, 1903) [1]
  9. Waite, pp. vii–ix.
  10. Granatstein and Hillmer, p.42.


  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). [ "Thompson, Sir John Sparrow" ] Check |ws link in chapter= value (help). Encyclopædia Britannica. 26 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Peter Busby Waite, 1985, The Man from Halifax: Sir John Thompson, Prime Minister, University of Toronto Press
  • J. P. Heisler, 1955, Sir John Thompson, thesis, University of Toronto.
  • J. Castell Hopkins, 1895, Life and Work of the Rt. Hon. Sir John Thompson, Toronto: United Publishing Houses.
  •  Harris, Charles Alexander (1898). [ "Thompson, John Sparrow David" ] Check |ws link in chapter= value (help). In Lee, Sidney (ed.). Dictionary of National Biography. 56. London: Smith, Elder & Co.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Waite, P. B. "Thompson, Sir John Sparrow David (1845–1894)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/27272.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)

External links

Political offices
Preceded by
Alexander Campbell
Minister of Justice and Attorney-General
Succeeded by
Charles H. Tupper
Preceded by
Sir John Abbott
Prime Minister of Canada
Succeeded by
Sir Mackenzie Bowell
Conservative Leader