Scottish Canadian Politicians
Sir John A. MacDonald (1815-1891):
Father of Confederation & First Prime Minister of Canada
"The place of Sir John A. Macdonald in this country was so large and so absorbing that it is almost impossible to conceive that the politics of this country -- the fate of this country -- will continue without him. ... It may be said without any exaggeration whatever, that the life of Sir John Macdonald, from the time he entered Parliament, is the history of Canada."
~ Sir Wilfrid Laurier
John Alexander MacDonald was born in Glasgow to Helen Shaw and Hugh MacDonald, an unsuccessful merchant. Within eight years of marriage, the MacDonalds had produced five children, although their first-born died in infancy. After Hugh's business ventures failed, he found himself unable to adequately provide for his growing family. So, seeking the affordable land and promises of prosperity offered in Canada, the MacDonalds emigrated to Kingston in 1820.
In the beginning, it did not seem that their luck would change. Death took another MacDonald child when a drunken servant struck and killed young James in front of John. Prosperity did not come immediately, either, for Hugh's first business ventures were hardly more successful in Kingston than they had been in Scotland. The family was, however, able to scrape together enough money to send John to Kingston's Midland Grammar School, where, according to his biography Donald Creighton, "he would sit for hours deep in a book, almost oblivious to what was going on." 1
Fortune reversed for the MacDonald family as Hugh began to taste the fruits of success. Although his businesses and merchant shops did not make him wealthy, he gained enough local prominence to be appointed as a magistrate for the Midland District in 1829. Around this time, Hugh, seeing that his son had as strong an education as was available to him, enrolled John in a school for "general and classical" education, where the boy studied Latin and Greek, arithmetic, geography, and rhetoric. Only the most prosperous families sent their sons to university, however, so John applied his education to the law profession. He later confided to his personal secretary that he regretted leaving school when he did, hinting that he might have pursued a literary career had he continued to university.
John MacDonald began his apprenticeship with the prominent Kingston corporate lawyer, George Mackenzie, in 1830 at the age of fifteen. He distinguished himself quickly, earning the position of branch manager for Mackenzie's Napanee office two years later. When MacDonald's cousin, Lowther Pennington Macpherson, a partner in a Picton law firm, fell ill in 1833, Mackenzie permitted his articling student to take over his cousin's position. But when Mackenzie suddenly died in a cholera epidemic in the summer of 1835, MacDonald returned to Kingston to fill his place as the leading lawyer within Kingston's dominant Scottish Presbyterian community. He opened his own firm in August 1835, six months before he would be officially called to the bar.
While MacDonald was quick to attract attention as a criminal lawyer by taking on dramatic, high-profile cases, his legal career was defined by the Rebellions of 1837 in Upper and Lower Canada. He showed his willingness to take professional risks when he successfully defended eight political prisoners charged with treason for allegedly participating in the uprisings, and earned a reputation as a conservative unafraid to fight for liberal principles, a defender of ordinary people against military encroachment. The income he derived from his practice, and from his position as director and lawyer of the Commercial Bank of the Midland District, was used to support his mother and two unmarried sisters after his father died of a brain hemorrhage in 1841.
Private Sorrows and Public Spoils
In 1843, MacDonald married Isabella Clark, whom he had met during a holiday in Britain, the same year he answered his call to politics. No stranger to public affairs, from a young age he had ambitiously looked for civic opportunities wherever he could find them - he was secretary for both the Prince Edward District Board of Education and the Hallowell Young Men's Society in 1834, when he was only nineteen; began as the recording secretary for the Kingston Celtic Society in 1836; ascended to the presidency of the Young Men's Society of Kingston in 1837; was elected vice-president of the St. Andrew's Society in 1839; and served as a prominent member of the Scottish Presbyterian community. In March 1843, now well known as a public-minded citizen and respected as a lawyer and businessman, he was elected alderman of the Kingston Town Council.
Whatever he accomplished during his three years at the local level was quickly overshadowed by his entry into provincial politics in October 1844. MacDonald ran as Kingston's Conservative candidate for election to the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada on a platform that stressed his belief in the British connection, his commitment to the development of Canada's resources, and his promise to promote Kingston's interests in the capital. As a genuine Conservative in the Legislative Assembly, he opposed the secularization of clergy reserves, the abolition of primogeniture, responsible government, and extensions to the franchise on the grounds that such reforms could weaken Canada's connections with Britain or the authority of the governor-general. However, pragmatist that he was, MacDonald knew that he could not cling to outmoded political positions as power shifted to Canada's political parties.
During his first ten years in office, his main focus was on promoting the interests of his constituency, which he did with such conscientiousness that Kingston reelected him to the assembly seven consecutive times between 1844 and 1867, and three consecutive times to the federal house between 1867 and 1874. His first cabinet position came in 1847, when he was appointed Receiver General in William Henry Draper's government, but he had to resign the following year when the Draper government lost the election. MacDonald would not hold office again until 1854, when he was appointed Attorney General (a position he would hold with few interruptions until 1867) in the new Liberal-Conservative coalition government under Allan MacNab of Canada west and Étienne-Paschal Taché of Canada east. Assuming a heavy administrative load, MacDonald proved competent and pragmatic again and again.
Despite these professional successes, MacDonald's personal life was far from happy. His beloved Isabella fell ill after only two years of marriage. Severe migraines and attacks of numbness caused her so much pain that she drank liquid opium and sherry for relief, a combination that left her exhausted and bed-ridden. Her husband responded by taking her to Savannah, Georgia, in hopes that the warm climate would be good for her health. Anxious to return to work - for Isabella's high medical bills were driving him into heavy debt - he left her in the care of her two sisters for the entire length of 1846.
Nine months after John reunited with his wife, their first son was born. The pregnancy, though miraculous, resulted in a long and agonizing labor, and shortly after the boy's first birthday he was found dead in his crib. To the couple's astonishment, Isabella managed to conceive a second time - Hugh John, born in 1850, would survive into adulthood. "We have got Johnnie back again," Macdonald wrote to his sister after his son's birth. "I don't think he is so pretty, but he is not so delicate. He was born fat & coarse." 2
Hugh and his father never developed a strong relationship, however. When Isabella had first fallen ill, MacDonald took to binge drinking to ease his stress and pain. The bottle proved a loyal and constant companion during the lonely years of marriage, and politics provided MacDonald with an additional means of escaping from home.
He plunged himself into leadership role he was to hold for the remainder of his life in 1856 when MacNab was forced to resign on a vote of no confidence. The newly-reorganized cabinet placed Taché and MacDonald as Joint Premiers of the Province of Canada. In this decade before Confederation, MacDonald kept a watchful eye over his party's affairs in Canada west; he served as its chief strategist, campaign organizer, and fund-raiser. He intervened at the riding level to ensure the best candidates were nominated and advised them on policy - but he was not notably successful in winning seats for the Conservative candidates prior to Confederation. Nevertheless, he assumed so much personal responsibility for party leadership that when he had "one of his old attacks" of hard drinking during a time of government instability surrounding debate on a bill to expand the militia, his party drifted. The government resigned after the bill was defeated in 1862 and MacDonald served as leader of the opposition until 1864, when he and Taché again formed a coalition.
MacDonald had triumphed despite his personal demons - Isabella had died in 1857 - and a reputation as a drunkard. The public, however, was charmed by his quick wit, and may have seen his capacity for drink as a quality of strength: once, while debating on the 1863 campaign trail, a drunken MacDonald vomited on stage. When his opponent, George Brown, cried, "Is this the man you want running your country? A drunk?" the crowd booed, prompting MacDonald to retort, "The public would prefer John A. drunk to George Brown sober!" 3
Father of Confederation
The sixth government formed in six years, the 1864 MacDonald-Taché coalition, collapsed under political deadlock after a few short months. It was now obvious that Canada East and Canada West could not continue to be governed under the 1840 Act of Union. MacDonald joined his Liberal-Conservative party with George Brown's Clear Grits and George-Etienne Cartier's Parti bleu to form a triumvirate with the aims of reforming the constitution and achieving Confederation of British North America.
MacDonald spent the next three years organizing the legislation necessary to confederate the Province of Canada and the Maritime provinces into one Canadian nation. He spearheaded the proposals of union during the summer of 1864 and that September presented them a conference in Charlottetown at which Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick had gathered to discuss the possibility of a regional legislative union. Newfoundland joined the next month's conference at Quebec City, at which MacDonald served as the principal spokesman. He chaired the meetings between the delegates of Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and the British government in London between December 1866 and February 1867, and the British North American Bill, proposing the federal union of those three provinces, was signed into law on 29 March 1867.
MacDonald alone had possessed the background in law and constitutional theory necessary to legislate Confederation and prepare the Canadian constitution. "I must do it alone," he told his close friend county court judge James Gowan in November 1864, "as there is not one person connected with the Government who has the slightest idea of the nature of the work." His colleague Thomas D'Arcy McGee emphasized this point in 1866 when he said that MacDonald had personally authored fifty of the seventy-two resolutions agreed upon at Quebec.
Governor General Monck asked MacDonald in May 1867 to form the new country's first administration. On 1 July of the same year, Queen Victoria conferred knighthood upon him - he was the only colonial leader to ever receive the honor.
Canada's First Prime Minister
John A. MacDonald returned to Canada that summer with a degree of nobility and a new wife, Susan Agnes Bernard. Under the British North American act, the new, highly-centralized federal system oversaw defence, finance, taxation, trade and commerce, currency and banking; could disallow provincial legislation; appointed provincial Lieutenant-Governors and Senators; and held a strong executive base, avoiding what MacDonald believed had led the United States to civil war: the combination of universal suffrage with a weak executive.
But as before, MacDonald's private life suffered as his public one flourished. In 1869, Agnes brought forth Margaret Mary Theodora after a long and dangerous delivery. Their daughter was born with hydrocephalia, and by summer her parents were worried that her physical and mental disabilities might not improve. Nonetheless, John weathered this newest tragedy with love, his tenderness revealed in the mountain of letters he wrote to his "Baboo" during his lifetime: "You remember that Mamma cut my hair and made me look like a cropped donkey. It has grown quite long again. When you come home, you must not pull it too hard." 4
To add to the family's struggles, MacDonald's personal finances also dried up that same year. The problem had begun five years earlier when his law partner A. J. Macdonnell died. The Macdonnell and MacDonald estates had jointly owed money to the Commercial Bank of Canada, and MacDonald had to assume the entire debt upon his partner's death. As long as the bank would carry him (albeit with seven-percent interest rates), he could stay afloat. Commercial Bank failed, however, in 1869, and the Merchant's Bank of Canada assumed its liabilities and assets, among which was MacDonald's eighty-thousand dollar debt.
A politician's income was meager at the time of Confederation; indeed, MacDonald had become poor in service to his country. His friend David Lewis Macpherson discovered the dire nature of his personal position after MacDonald suffered gallstones in May 1870 and could not afford to pay the medical bills incurred from treatment. Macpherson, thinking it a great injustice that the Prime Minister could not support a family on his official income, collected sixty-seven thousand dollars for his friend by 1872. He invested it as the Testimonial Fund, the income of which MacDonald could use to meet ordinary costs of living and pay off his debt to the Merchant's Bank.
What MacDonald could not build at home he built in office. Early parliamentary sessions revealed MacDonald's strong centralist views, and he spent his first and second terms assembling the nation. In 1869 he bought Rupert's Land and the North-Western Territory from the Hudson's Bay Company for three hundred thousand pounds and formed the land into the Northwest Territories. In 1870, Parliament responded to Metis concerns manifested in Louis Riel's Red River Rebellion by cutting the province of Manitoba from the newly-acquired land. British Columbia entered Confederation the following year on the condition that they be connected to the east by a transcontinental railway; although MacDonald conceded, his opponents decried the promise as unrealistic and costly, and the railway scandal would lead to his temporary downfall two years later. Before this scandal forced his government's resignation, however, MacDonald brought Prince Edward Island into Confederation by assuming the colony's extensive railway debts and agreeing to finance a buy-out of its last absentee landlords.
The Pacific Scandal
With Americans pouring into North America's western frontier, Canada faced threats to its newly-acquired North West Territories but lacked the population and political jurisdiction to control its boundaries. Thus, a transcontinental railway system was critical to national policy and defense.
Two companies competed for the lucrative charter to build the railway: Sir Hugh Allan's Canada Pacific Railway Company and David Lewis Macpherson's Inter-Oceanic Railway Company. Scandal arose in 1873 when the Liberal party uncovered damaging evidence that suggested the Conservative government had awarded the contract to Allan in exchange for monetary contributions to the re-election campaign of 1872 in excess of three-hundred and sixty thousand dollars. Severe binges accompanied the scandal: and although Agnes could usually keep his fractious temper under control, his colleagues had less success.
MacDonald resigned as Prime Minister and offered to resign as party leader, but the caucus would not hear of it and convinced him to stay. Although the Conservatives were defeated by Alexander Mackenzie's Liberal government in 1874, the public ousted the Liberals in the 1878 election and brought MacDonald back as Prime Minister.
National Policy and the End of an Era
Mackenzie's Liberal government suffered economic depression exacerbated in no small manner by its low tariffs. High tariffs within the United States meant that while the United States could take advantage of Canada's market, Canada could not benefit from the market of the United States. The Conservative government regained power on their national policy, a platform that sought to promote trade within Canada by introducing high tariffs to protect its industries from those in competing nations.
MacDonald also promised to resume work on the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway - the integral role it played in putting down Riel's 1885 North-West Rebellion aroused enough political support in the project to see it completed later that year. MacDonald's personal feelings regarding Riel's trial and execution were revealed through his correspondence with his friend J. R. Gowan, a judge retired from the bench. Two days after Reil was hanged, Gowan wrote, "I did not doubt the result but I felt most uneasy to the last knowing how public men are often obliged to take a course they do not individually approve.... it would have been an act of political insanity [for you] to yield [by awarding clemency] simply because the man was of French blood." 5 Although MacDonald held onto a comfortable majority in Quebec during the next election, Quebec-Ontario and Anglo-French relations remained tenuous thereafter. The west, meanwhile, prospered with ranches, immigration, railways and wheat.
By 1890, many of MacDonald's old political colleagues had retired or passed away. He was in his mid-seventies and had been slowing down over the course of the past twenty years, his health and drinking finally catching up with him. Nevertheless, he took great heed of the American Secretary of State's (James Gillespie Blaine of Maine) expansionist interests and entered the 1891 election to confront the Liberal call for unrestricted economic reciprocity with the United States head-on. He fought the election on patriotic grounds, declaring the Liberal scheme to be fundamentally annexationist. Countering with a strong sense of Canadian nationalism, he proudly proclaimed during his 7 February electoral address: "I am a British subject and British born, and a British subject I hope to die!"
Three months after being elected to his fourth consecutive term, Sir John A. MacDonald suffered a stroke while in bed recovering from a bad cold. He lingered, unable to speak, for a week, and passed away in the evening of 6 June 1891. Thousands flocked to Ottawa to pay their respects at his grand state funeral, and thousands more lined the railway tracks from Ottawa to Kingston as his body was transported to his home town. He was buried in Cataraqui Cemetery beside his parents, his sisters, his first wife Isabella, and their son who had died in infancy.
"He was the father and founder of his country," Sir John Thompson said in a rare 1891 interview following MacDonald's death. "There is not one of us who ... had not lost his heart to him."Visit Sir John A. MacDonald: Canada's Patriot Statesman at Library and Archives Canada
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