Richard Bedford Bennett (1870 - 1947)

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Richard Bedford Bennett, 1st Viscount Bennett and 11th Prime Minister of Canada's Geni Profile

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Birthplace: Hopewell Hill, New Brunswick, Canada
Death: Died in Mickleham, Surrey, England
Cause of death: Heart Attack while taking a bath
Occupation: 1st Viscount Bennett, 11th Prime Minister of Canada 1930-1935, Conservative member of the House of Commons (from 1911)
Managed by: Walter G. Ashworth
Last Updated:

About Richard Bedford Bennett

Canadian lawyer, businessman, politician, and philanthropist. He served as the 11th Prime Minister of Canada from August 7, 1930, to October 23, 1935, during the worst of the Great Depression years. Following his defeat as prime minister, R. B. Bennett moved to England and was elevated to the peerage as Viscount Bennett.

R. B. Bennett was born on July 3, 1870, when his mother, Henrietta Stiles, was visiting at her parents' home in Hopewell Hill, New Brunswick, Canada. He grew up nearby at the home of his father, Henry John Bennett, at Hopewell Cape, the shire town of Albert County, then a town of 1,800 people.

His father was descended from English ancestors who had emigrated to Connecticut in the 18th century. His great, great grandfather Bennett migrated from Connecticut to Nova Scotia c. 1765, before the American Revolution, taking the lands forcibly removed from the deported Acadians during the Great Upheaval.

Bennett was a Freemason.

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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Richard Bedford Bennett, 1st Viscount Bennett, PC, KC (July 3, 1870 – June 26, 1947) was a Canadian lawyer, businessman, politician, and philanthropist. He served as the 11th Prime Minister of Canada from August 7, 1930, to October 23, 1935, during the worst of the Great Depression years. Following his defeat as prime minister, Bennett moved to England, and was elevated to the House of Lords.

Early life

R. B. Bennett was born on July 3, 1870, when his mother, Henrietta Stiles, was visiting at her parents' home in Hopewell Hill, New Brunswick, Canada. He grew up nearby at the home of his father, Henry John Bennett, at Hopewell Cape, the shire town of Albert County, then a town of 1,800 people.

His father was descended from English ancestors who had emigrated to Connecticut in the 18th century. His great, great grandfather Bennett migrated from Connecticut to Nova Scotia c. 1765, before the American Revolution, taking advantage of lands vacated by the Acadians during the Great Upheaval.

R. B. Bennett's family was poor, subsisting mainly on the produce of a small farm. His early days inculcated a lifelong habit of thrift. The driving force in his family was his mother. She was a Wesleyan Methodist and passed this faith and the Protestant ethic on to her son. His principle ever after was: work as hard as you can, earn all you can, save all you can, and then give all you can. Bennett's father does not appear to have been a good provider for his family, though the reason is unclear. He operated a general store for a while and tried to develop some gypsum deposits.

The Bennetts had previously been a relatively prosperous family, operating a shipyard in Hopewell Cape, but the change to steam-powered vessels in the mid-1800s meant the gradual winding down of their business. However, the household was a literate one, subscribing to three newspapers. They were strong Conservatives; indeed one of the largest and last ships launched by the Bennett shipyard (in 1869) was the Sir John A. Macdonald.

Educated in the local school, Bennett was a good student, but something of a loner. In addition to his Protestant faith, Bennett grew up with an abiding love of the British Empire, then at its apogee.

Some important friendships

One day, while Bennett was crossing the Miramichi on the ferry boat, a well-dressed lad about nine years younger came over to him and struck up a conversation. This was the beginning of an improbable but important friendship with Max Aitken, later the industrialist and British press baron, Lord Beaverbrook. The agnostic Aitken liked to tease the Methodist Bennett, whose fiery temper contrasted with Aitken's ability to turn away wrath with a joke. This friendship would become important to his success later in life, as would his friendship with the Chatham lawyer, Lemuel J. Tweedie, a prominent Conservative politician. He began to study law with Tweedie on weekends and during summer holidays. Another important friendship was with the prominent Shirreff family of Chatham, the father being High Sheriff of Northumberland County for 25 years. The son, Harry, joined the E.B. Eddy Company, a large pulp and paper industrial concern, and was transferred to Halifax. His sister moved there to study nursing, and soon Bennett joined them to study law at Dalhousie University. Their friendship was renewed there, and became crucial to his later life when Jennie Shirreff married the head of the Eddy Company. She later made Bennett the lawyer for her extensive interests.

Moves to Alberta

Despite his election to the Chatham town council, Bennett's days in the town were numbered. He was ambitious and saw that the small community was too narrow a field for him. He was already negotiating with Sir James Lougheed to move to Calgary and become his law partner. Lougheed was Calgary's richest man and most successful lawyer.

Bennett moved to Alberta in 1897. A lifelong bachelor and teetotaler (although Bennett was known by select associates to occasionally drink alcohol when the press was not around to observe this[1]), he led a rather lonely life in a hotel and later, in a boarding house. For a while a younger brother roomed with him. He ate his noon meal on workdays at the Alberta Hotel. Social life, such as it was, centered on church. There was, however, no scandal attached to his personal life. Bennett worked hard and gradually built up his legal practice.

Early political career

He was elected to the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories in the 1898 general election, representing the riding of West Calgary. He was re-elected to a second term in office in 1902 as an Independent from the parties in the Northwest Territories legislature.

In 1905, when Alberta was carved out of the territories and made a province, Bennett became the first leader of the Alberta Conservative Party. In 1909, he won a seat in the provincial legislature, before switching to federal politics.

Elected to the Canadian House of Commons in 1911, Bennett returned to the provincial scene to again lead the Alberta Tories in the 1913 provincial election, but kept his federal seat in Ottawa when his Tories failed to take power in the province; such practice was later forbidden.

At age 44, he tried to enlist in the Canadian military once World War I broke out, but was turned down as being medically unfit. In 1916, Bennett was appointed director general of the National Service Board, which was in charge of identifying the number of potential recruits in the country.

While Bennett supported the Conservatives, he opposed Prime Minister Robert Borden's proposal for a Union Government that would include both Conservatives and Liberals, fearing that this would ultimately hurt the Conservative Party. While he campaigned for Conservative candidates in the 1917 federal election he did not stand for re-election himself.

Prime minister

Confronting the Depression

By defeating William Lyon Mackenzie King in the 1930 federal election, he had the misfortune of taking office during the Great Depression. Bennett tried to combat the depression by increasing trade within the British Empire and imposing tariffs for imports from outside the Empire, promising that his measures would blast Canadian exports into world markets. His success was limited however, and his own wealth (often openly displayed) and impersonal style alienated many struggling Canadians.

When his Imperial Preference policy failed to generate the desired result, Bennett's government had no real contingency plan. The party's pro-business and pro-banking inclinations provided little relief to the millions of increasingly desperate and agitated unemployed. Despite the economic crisis, Laissez-faire persisted as the guiding economic principle of Conservative Party ideology. Government relief to the unemployed was considered a disincentive to individual initiative, and was therefore only granted in the most minimal amounts and attached to work programs. An additional concern of the federal government was that large numbers of disaffected unemployed men concentrating in urban centres created a volatile situation. As an "alternative to bloodshed on the streets," the stop-gap solution for unemployment chosen by the Bennett government was to establish military-run and -styled relief camps in remote areas throughout the country, where single unemployed men toiled for twenty cents a day.[3] Any relief beyond this was left to provincial and municipal governments, many of which were either insolvent or on the brink of bankruptcy, and which railed against the inaction of other levels of government. Partisan differences began to sharpen on the question of government intervention in the economy, since lower levels of government were largely in Liberal hands, and protest movements were beginning to send their own parties into the political mainstream, notably the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation and William Aberhart's Social Credit Party in Alberta.

Anti-Communism

A nickname that would stick with Bennett for the remainder of his political career, "Iron Heel Bennett," came from a 1932 speech he gave in Toronto that ironically, if unintentionally, alluded to Jack London's socialist novel:

What do they offer you in exchange for the present order? Socialism, Communism, dictatorship. They are sowing the seeds of unrest everywhere. Right in this city such propaganda is being carried on and in the little out of the way places as well. And we know that throughout Canada this propaganda is being put forward by organizations from foreign lands that seek to destroy our institutions. And we ask that every man and woman put the iron heel of ruthlessness against a thing of that kind.[5]

Reacting to fears of Communist subversion, Bennett invoked the controversial Section 98 of the Criminal Code of Canada. Enacted in the aftermath of the Winnipeg General Strike, Section 98 dispensed with the presumption of innocence in outlawing potential threats to the state: specifically, anyone belonging to an organization that officially advocated the violent overthrow of the government. Even if the accused had never committed an act of violence or personally supported such an action, they could be incarcerated merely for attending meetings of such an organization, publicly speaking in its defense, or distributing its literature.[6] Despite the broad power authorized under Section 98, it targeted specifically the Communist Party of Canada. Eight of the top party leaders, including Tim Buck, were arrested and convicted under Section 98 in 1931. This plan to stamp out communism backfired, however, and proved to be a damaging embarrassment for the government, especially after Buck was the target of an apparent assassination attempt. While confined to his cell during a prison riot, despite not participating in the riot, shots were fired into his cell. When an agit-prop play depicting these events, Eight Men Speak, was suppressed by the Toronto police, a protest meeting was held where activist A.E. Smith repeated the play's allegations, and he was consequently arrested for sedition. This created a storm of public protest, compounded when Buck was called as a witness to the trial and repeated the allegations in open court. Although the remarks were stricken from the record, they still discredited the prosecution's case and Smith was acquitted. As a result, the government's case against Buck lost any credibility, and Buck and his comrades were released early and fêted as heroic champions of civil liberties.

A 2001 book by Quebec nationalist writer Normand Lester, Le Livre noir du Canada anglais (later translated as The Black Book of English Canada) accused Bennett of having a political affiliation with, and of having provided financial support to, fascist Quebec writer Adrien Arcand. This is based on a series of letters sent to Bennett following his election as Prime Minister by Arcand, his colleague Ménard and two Conservative caucus members asking for financial support for Arcand's antsemitic newspaper Le Goglu.[7] The book also claims that in a 1936 letter to Bennett, A. W. Reid, a Conservative organizer, estimated that Conservative Party members gave Arcand a total of $27,000 (the modern equivalent $359,284).

Coat of Arms

Viscount Richard Bedford Bennett's Coat of Arms was designed by Alan Beddoe "Argent within two bendlets Gules three maple leaves proper all between two deim-lions rampant couped gules. Crest, a demi-lion Gules grapsing in the dexter paw a battle axe in bend sinister Or and resting the sinister paw on an escallop also Gules. Supporters, Dexter a buffalo, sinister a moose, both proper. Motto, To be Pressed not Oppressed."

Legacy

While Bennett was, and is still, often criticized for lack of compassion for the impoverished masses, he stayed up through many nights reading and responding to personal letters from ordinary citizens asking for his help, and often dipped into his personal fortune to send a five-dollar bill to a starving family. The total amount he gave personally is uncertain, although he personally estimated that between the years of 1927-37 he spent well over 2.3 million dollars.[12] Bennett was a controlling owner of the E.B. Eddy match company, which was the largest safety match manufacturer in Canada, and he was one of the richest Canadians at that time. Bennett helped put many poor, struggling young men through university.[4] Relative to the times he lived in, he was likely the wealthiest Canadian to become prime minister.

Bennett worked an exhausting schedule throughout his years as prime minister, often more than 14 hours per day, and dominated his government, usually holding several cabinet posts. He lived in a suite in the Chateau Laurier hotel, a short walk from Parliament Hill. The respected author Bruce Hutchison wrote that had the economic times been more normal, Bennett would likely have been regarded as a good, perhaps great, Canadian prime minister.[4]

Bennett was also a noted talent spotter. He took note of and encouraged the young Lester Pearson in the early 1930s, and appointed Pearson to significant roles on two major government inquiries: the 1931 Royal Commission on Grain Futures, and the 1934 Royal Commission on Price Spreads. Bennett saw that Pearson was recognized with an O.B.E. after he shone in that work, arranged a bonus of $1,800, and invited him to a London conference.[13] Former Prime Minister John Turner, who as a child knew Bennett while he was prime minister, praised Bennett's promotion of Turner's economist mother to the highest civil service post held by a Canadian woman to that time.

Retirement and death

Richard Bennett retired to Britain in 1938, and, on June 12, 1941, became the first and only former Canadian Prime Minister to be elevated to the British House of Lords, as Viscount Bennett of Mickleham in the County of Surrey and of Calgary and Hopewell in the Dominion of Canada.[15]

He died after suffering a heart attack while taking a bath on June 26, 1947, at Mickleham. He was exactly one week shy of his 77th birthday. He is buried there in St. Michael's Churchyard, Mickleham. He is the only former Prime Minister not buried in Canada. Unmarried, Bennett was survived by nephews William Herridge, Jr., and Robert Coats and by brother Ronald V. Bennett.

Bennett was ranked #12 by a survey of Canadian historians out of the then 20 Prime Ministers of Canada through Jean Chrétien. The results of the survey were included in the book Prime Ministers: Ranking Canada's Leaders by J.L. Granatstein and Norman Hillmer.

Posted by Walter G. Ashworth 7th cousin

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Richard Bedford Bennett, 1st Viscount Bennett and 11th Prime Minister of Canada's Timeline

1870
July 3, 1870
Hopewell Hill, New Brunswick, Canada
1947
June 26, 1947
Age 76
Mickleham, Surrey, England
????
Mickleham, Surrey, UK