The Unveiling of Ruth Abernethy’s Holding Court

The Unveiling of Ruth Abernethy’s Holding Court On the Eve of Sir John A. Macdonald’s 200th Birthday, Fairmont Royal York Hotel

The Story behind the Sculpture:

Ruth Abernethy’s bronze portrait of John A. Macdonald Holding Court captures the moment when Canada’s future prime minister presented his first court case at the Picton courthouse in Upper Canada on October 8, 1834. He successfully defended himself against an indictment for assault occasioned by a practical joke. He won that case before a jury in the magistrates’ court known then as the courts of quarter sessions.

Here he is facing a petit jury in his moment of truth. It’s a moment all lawyers remember well, whether they won their cases or not. They are all players on the world’s stage at this moment in their lives.

Here was Macdonald facing a jury of his peers. He was only nineteen, but he was already well-versed in classical rhetoric and grammar from his elementary school education and he had been reading law since the age of fifteen when he passed his entrance examination to the Law Society of Upper Canada. He had studied trials in Picton and Kingston and knew in principle how to present a case to a jury. But here in this trial, he knew something even more valuable–as his future law partner Alexander Campbell once said of him:

His power before a country jury was always marked chiefly if not wholly owing to his knowledge of the jurymen and his appreciation of their habits of thoughts and ways of speaking. He was in tone of voice and manner as thoroughly a Bay of Quinté boy as if he had been born there.

In fact, from the age of five, John A. learned to speak as a Canadian, rather than as a Scot as his parents did. So he knew his jury of mainly North American Loyalists and he used this knowledge of the people to his advantage.

Four months after winning this first court case in Picton, John A. Macdonald graduated from the Law Society as an attorney. By this time he had turned twenty and he had finally “come of age.”

A few months later, he moved to Kingston to practice law there. When he turned twenty-one, he was called to the bar. For the next two years, he took on four challenging and difficult cases and won two of the three winnable cases. Donald Creighton, the acclaimed Macdonald biographer, summed up his reputation in Kingston in 1838:

Without any question he was the preferred legal advisor of the Scottish community and it might even be argued now that he was one of the most popular lawyers in the town as a whole. He was getting to be known professionally as an ingenious young man, persuasive with juries, adroitly clever in the management of cases—“ a dangerous man to encounter in the courts”, as one of his contemporaries phrased it long afterwards.

He was only twenty-three, but by now his talents were clearly evident. He was a gifted individual destined to play the leading role on a much greater stage.