Scottish Canadian Politicians
Andrew Archibald MacDonald (1829-1912):
A founding father of modern Canada, Brought P.E.I. into Confederation
"He was one of the better class of public men who in nearly three score years of public life pursued a faithful public course and was held in high regard and respect by all."
~ The Charlottetown Guardian, 22 March 1912
Andrew Archibald MacDonald carried on his family's long tradition of regional influence in both politics and business. He descended from the Clanronald branch of the MacDonalds of the Isles, and his family had been settled in Inverness-shire before they immigrated to Prince Edward Island. Andrew MacDonald, a tacksman and merchant in Arisaig, Inverness-shire, and his wife Isabel of the Isle of Canna Such, set sail for the Island from Aberdeen on the Isle of Skye in 1806 with forty of their extended kinsmen in tow. Andrew purchased all eight hundred acres of Panmure Island at the mouth of the Georgetown harbour, where he built PEI's first brick house and stable, while the other family units spread out over their ten thousand acres on the Three Rivers region. The mercantile and shipbuilding enterprise Andrew established in partnership with his sons Angus and Hugh provided the foundation from which the family's social and political influence grew.
By the time Andrew Archibald was born to Hugh and Catherine MacDonald in 1829, his grandfather had retired, leaving his father and uncle to carry on the family business. They were among the first Roman Catholic members elected to the PEI House of Assembly in 1830, a distinction Andrew himself would achieved in 1854, a year after being elected to the Legislative Assembly. Something of the clan system had survived the passage from Scotland to Prince Edward Island, and the MacDonalds formed a kind of Scots Catholic aristocracy in Kings County. Their relative affluence and proud bloodline commanded respect from other Catholic Highlanders and the local church hierarchy that they used to push themselves into "respectable" Protestant society.
Andrew Archibald MacDonald grew up in a brick house filled with servants and private tutors. His family suffered financial loss, however, when he was a teenager, and at fifteen he was forced to curtail his formal education to go to work at a cousin's store in Georgetown. He inherited the business when his cousin died in 1851 and he brought his two brothers, Archibald John and Augustine Colin into a partnership that developed an extensive and diverse business enterprise. Over the next twenty years, A. A. MacDonald and Brothers came to own twenty vessels for export and trade, shipping grain, potatoes, and lumber to New England, Newfoundland, and Britain, and importing manufactured goods to sell at the firm's stores in Georgetown and Montagu. When mackerel fishery began to flourish in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the firm took advantage of that, too.
MacDonald's trading enterprise and family name helped to springboard him into politics. Following in the footsteps of his father and uncle, he won a seat in the House of Assembly for Georgetown and Royalty in 1854. Although the family's status as landholders had leaned them towards conservatism, MacDonald supported the Liberals, who were in turn sustained by the Island's Catholics. He was not a frequent speaker, but his adherence to the interests of his constituents and concise, rational style established confidence and respect in both voters and colleagues. A Conservative-dominated House unseated him, however, after a controversial scrutiny of the outcome of the 1859 election, contested by MacDonald's defeated opponent.
MacDonald was again defeated in a bitter 1863 election that pitted the Island's Catholics and Protestants against each other, only to win a seat in the newly elective Legislative Council a few weeks later. Unseated after another contention, he returned unopposed in the ensuing by-election, tempered by the trials of a mercurial political climate. He emerged as Leader of the Opposition in the Legislative Council in 1864, and was the youngest delegate at that year's Charlottetown and Quebec conferences.
MacDonald rejected any union that failed to provide Prince Edward Island with constructive economic incentives or equal representation in the proposed British North American Senate. The Island's other delegates shared his concerns, and the colony did not join Confederation in 1867. When a Liberal majority returned to the Assembly later that year, Premier George Coles invited MacDonald to serve on the Executive Council.
MacDonald's career spanned the Island's most critically partisan era, its politics rife with questions. Aside from the issue of confederation, PEI politics were dominated by land, railways, and education concerns. All tangled together and thrown at the colony's fledgling party system, these concerns nearly ruined the structure of the Island.
On the issue of land, MacDonald was torn. As a merchant, he would profit from the prosperity of small landholders, making him a supporter of reform to eliminate the leasehold system; but as a landholder himself, he rejected the violent defiance used by the Tenant League to accomplish such reform. Instead he supported the voluntary sale of estates to the government, a policy finally implemented in 1875.
MacDonald, however, could not moderate the education question, which centered on whether the government should fund Roman Catholic schools. He had managed to avoid the issue for some time, but in the end his party allegiance could not hold against his religious affiliation. In 1870, he led the Liberal party's Catholic members into an uneasy coalition with the Conservatives after the Liberal caucus refused to support a government endowment for the Roman Catholic St. Dunstan's College. The issue continued to fester as the Bishop of Charlottetown, Peter McIntyre, began an aggressive campaign for a wholly separate sectarian school system funded entirely by the government. When MacDonald tried to maintain political integrity while doing his religious duty, the bishop tried to pressure him into another political bloc. With the looming question of confederation coming to a head, however, the government decided to shut the door on education, and its 1873 legislation did not include separate Catholic public schools.
At Charlottetown, MacDonald had flatly opposed the concept of legislative union, and by the Quebec conference he had rejected federal union, too. Believing that union would leave PEI with little power and few resources, it was only the colony's impending bankruptcy from railroad debts in 1873 that caused him to reconsider. But even then he held out for terms that would safeguard the residents from double provincial and federal taxes. In May 1873, he moved to adopt the final terms of union in the Legislative Council just weeks before exiting the political arena he had inhabited for the past two decades.
MacDonald resumed a business enterprise in wholesale groceries with his brother-in-law in Charlottetown. By 1878, however, the business had failed, forcing MacDonald to live off of the salaries of his government appointments. He was appointed Postmaster General after leaving the Executive Council in 1873, and ten years later was given the honour of becoming Lieutenant-Governor of PEI. After serving in that capacity for five uneventful years, he moved on to the Canadian Senate, to which he was appointed in May 1891. His health steadily declined thereafter, and in 1912 the one-time anti-confederate died in Ottawa, proud of his role as a founding father of modern Canada.