Sir John Alexander Macdonald GCB, KCMG, PC (January 11, 1815 – June 6, 1891) was the first Prime Minister of Canada and the dominant figure of Canadian Confederation. Macdonald's tenure in office spanned 19 years, making him the second longest serving Prime Minister of Canada. He is the only Canadian Prime Minister to win six majority governments. He was the major proponent of a national railway, completed in 1885, linking Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. He won praise for having helped forge a nation of sprawling geographic size, with two diverse European colonial origins, and a multiplicity of cultural backgrounds and political views.
Bad luck followed the family to their new country. When he was only seven, Macdonald watched as his younger brother, James was struck and killed by a drunken servant who was supposed to be looking after them. And, Hugh Macdonald's business ventures in the Kingston area were scarcely more successful than they had been in Scotland. However, the family still managed to scrape up the money to send Macdonald to Kingston's Midland Grammar School where, according to biographer Donald Creighton, he studied subjects such as Latin, French and mathematics. "Already he was a voracious reader," Creighton writes, "and he would sit for hours deep in a book, almost oblivious to what was going on. At 14, Macdonald switched to a school for "general and classical education" founded by a newly-arrived Presbyterian minister from Scotland. It was one of the few schools in Upper Canada that taught both boys and girls. Kewl Macdonald's formal schooling ended at 15, a common experience at the time when only the most prosperous were able to attend university. Nevertheless, Macdonald later regretted leaving school when he did remarking to his private secretary Joseph Pope that if he had attended university, he might have embarked on a literary career. "He did not add, as he might have done," Pope wrote in his biography of Macdonald, "that the successful government of millions of men, the strengthening of an empire, the creation of a great dominion, call for the possession and exercise of rarer qualities than are necessary to the achievement of literary fame. He had a bad life.
Macdonald was then called to the Bar on February 6 1836. Soon after opening his own law firm he took in two students: Oliver Mowat, a future premier of Ontario and like Macdonald himself, a Father of Confederation, and Alexander Campbell, future Father of Confederation, federal cabinet minister and Lieutenant Governor of Ontario. With the help of his students, Macdonald "busied himself with lucrative but tedious work, such as chasing down unpaid bills and searching titles. Then suddenly, in 1837, Macdonald switched to criminal law for two years. Biographer Richard Gwyn writes that although there's no documentary evidence, there is a "plausible explanation" for Macdonald's motives:
As a criminal lawyer who took on dramatic cases, Macdonald got himself noticed well beyond the narrow confines of the Kingston business community. He was operating now in the arena where he would spend by far the greatest part of his life – the court of public opinion. And while there he was learning the arts of argument and of persuasion that would serve him all his political life.Macdonald unsuccessfully defended a man accused of raping an eight-year-old girl but won praise from a local newspaper for conducting "a very able defence." He then won the acquittal of a man accused of murdering a friend after an argument. Alexander Campbell, Macdonald's student wrote years later that Macdonald had persuaded the jury by his "humour and strong liking for anecdote more than for his professional knowledge.
Then, Macdonald served as co-counsel for John Ashley, the man in charge of a local military jail, who had himself been arrested and briefly imprisoned for allegedly helping 15 political prisoners escape from custody. Ashley sued Colonel Dundas, the military commander for illegal arrest. Dundas was a popular figure, but Macdonald helped persuade the jury to award Ashley substantial monetary damages. Macdonald, Creighton writes, was now associated "with the defence of the plain people against the encroachments of military power. The solid blue of his inherited conservatism was varied now, in a pleasantly interesting fashion, with a few threads of a different and livelier colour.
Finally, Macdonald took his biggest risk of all by agreeing to advise American raiders who had participated in an abortive invasion to liberate Canada from what they saw as the yoke of British colonial oppression. The inept raiders had been captured after the Battle of the Windmill (1838, near Prescott, Ontario) – a battle in which 16 Canadians were killed and 60 wounded. Worst of all, the American invaders were accused of mutilating the body of a dead Canadian lieutenant. Creighton writes that Kingston was "mad with grief and rage and horror. At least two other lawyers refused to help when the brother-in-law of one of the Americans pleaded with them to provide legal advice. Macdonald must have hesitated, but eventually said yes after the frantic brother-in-law knocked on his door one morning before he was out of bed.
It was surely wisdom to have nothing to do with the whole affair. And yet, he took the case. Even he might have found it difficult to say why. A curious interest in people, a relish for cases which were odd and difficult, a jaunty recognition of the fact that professional prestige involved publicity, and, perhaps, a certain stubborn, independent conviction that these helpless and deluded men deserved at least the bare minimum of assistance – all these may have helped to move him to his decision.There was little Macdonald could do to defend the Americans. Under military rules governing courts martial, civilian lawyers were not allowed to question witnesses or address the judge. Macdonald could only give private advice which helped the brother-in-law to ask searching questions during his trial, but did not save him from the gallows. Macdonald also advised "General" Nils Szoltevcky Von Schoultz, the brave and charismatic Polish immigrant who had led the American raiders after their real commanders abandoned them at Windmill Point. Von Shoultz insisted on pleading guilty and wanted to leave Macdonald $100 in his will. Macdonald had to refuse it, but he never forgot the tragic story of the tall, handsome Pole.
Biographer Donald Creighton writes that although the rebellions and their aftermath helped Macdonald's career, they also had lasting psychological effects. "For him, and for Kingston," Creighton writes, "the 'rebellion' had been not so much a native uprising as a succession of American raids; and from then on he never quite lost a certain lingering anxiety for the problem of British North American defence."
In 1843, Macdonald entered politics, standing for the office of Alderman in Kingston, a position to which he was elected. In 1844 he was elected to the legislature of the Province of Canada to represent Kingston, gained the recognition of his peers and in 1847 was appointed Receiver General in William Henry Draper's administration. However, Macdonald had to give up his portfolio when Draper's government lost the next election. He left the Conservatives, hoping to build a more moderate and palatable base. In 1854, he helped with the founding of the Liberal-Conservative Party under the leadership of Sir Allan MacNab. Within a few years, the Liberal-Conservatives would attract all of the old Conservative base as well as some centrist Reformers. The Liberal-Conservatives came to power in 1854 and under the new administration Macdonald was appointed Attorney-General. During his time in cabinet, Macdonald was usually the most powerful minister, even when other men held the premiership. In the next election Macdonald continued his rise in politics by becoming Joint Premier of the Province of Canada with Sir Étienne-Paschal Taché of Canada East for the years 1856 and 1857.
Taché resigned in 1857, and George-Étienne Cartier took his place. In the election of 1858, the Macdonald-Cartier government was defeated and they resigned as Premiers. In an interesting piece of politics, the Governor General of Canada asked Cartier to become the senior Premier, only a week after his defeat. Cartier accepted and brought Macdonald into office along with him. This was legal as any member of the cabinet could re-enter the cabinet provided they did so within a month of resigning their previous position. Macdonald focused on communications and defence, especially the Intercolonial Railway. Canada had to pressure the Colonial Office, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island to, as one historian notes, "consider an ambitious scheme proposed by their pushing and turbulent neighbour, Canada." [Creighton, 1956, p. 273]
The coalition government was again defeated in 1862. Macdonald then served as the leader of the opposition until the election of 1864, when Taché came out of retirement and joined ranks with Macdonald to form the governing party yet again.
To resolve the frequent legislative deadlocks in the Province of Canada, George Brown, the leader of the Clear Grits (the forerunners to the Liberal Party of Canada) and an extremely vocal opponent of Macdonald's Conservatives, joined with Macdonald's Conservatives and George-Étienne Cartier's Parti Bleu in 1864 to form the Great Coalition. The coalition sought to reform the political system of Canada, and was a crucial step in achieving a consensus to support future reform. However, the Parti Rouge of Canada East, led by Jean-Baptiste-Éric Dorion, still refused to join the coalition. Macdonald then spent 1864 to 1867 organizing the legislation needed to confederate the colonies into the country of Canada. In September 1864, he led the Canadian delegation at the Charlottetown Conference in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, to present his idea to the Maritime colonies, who were discussing a union of their own. In October 1864 delegates for confederation met in Quebec City, Quebec, for the Quebec Conference, where the Seventy-Two Resolutions were created – the plan for confederation. By 1866, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and the Province of Canada had agreed to confederation. Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island were opposed. In the final conference of confederation held in 1866 in London, England the agreement to confederate was completed.
In 1867 the agreement was brought to the British Parliament, which passed the British North America Act creating the Dominion of Canada. Upon the creation of the Dominion of Canada, the Province of Canada was then divided into the individual provinces of Quebec and Ontario. Macdonald was asked by the first Governor General of Canada Charles Monck, to form the first administration. He was subsequently knighted on Canada Day, July 1, 1867, the only colonial leader ever to receive that honour.
Queen Victoria knighted John A. Macdonald for playing an integral role in bringing about Confederation. His appointment as a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George was announced at the birth of the Dominion, July 1, 1867. An election was held in August which put Macdonald and his Conservative party into power.
Macdonald's vision as prime minister was to enlarge the country and unify it. Accordingly, under his rule Canada bought Rupert's Land and the North-Western Territory from the Hudson's Bay Company for £300,000 (about $11,500,000 in modern Canadian dollars). This became the Northwest Territories. In 1870 Parliament passed the Manitoba Act, creating the province of Manitoba out of a portion of the Northwest Territories in response to the Red River Rebellion led by Louis Riel.
In 1871 Britain added British Columbia to Confederation, making it the sixth province. Macdonald promised a transcontinental railway connection to persuade the province to join, which his opponents decried as a highly unrealistic and expensive promise. In 1873 Prince Edward Island joined Confederation, and Macdonald created the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (then called the "North-West Mounted Police") to act as a police force for the vast Northwest Territories.
In 1873, Macdonald was accused of taking bribes to award contracts for the construction of the railway. The Pacific Scandal broke and Macdonald was forced to resign on November 5th, 1873. Liberal leader Alexander Mackenzie formed a caretaker government. After New Years, 1874, the Liberals called an election. Macdonald's Tories were unable to recover from the scandal and the Liberals formed a majority government. This election was also the first in Canada to use a secret ballot.
Macdonald was returned to power in 1878 on the strength of the National Policy, a plan to promote trade within the country by protecting it from the industries of other nations. He also promised to renew the effort to complete the previously promised Canadian Pacific Railway. Macdonald won re-election as prime minister again in 1882. The CPR was completed in 1885, after several refinancing plans to cover shortfalls for the very expensive project, plunging Canada heavily into debt. Also in 1885, Louis Riel returned to Canada from exile in the United States, and launched the North-West Rebellion in the territory of Saskatchewan, but now that there was a railway through the area, militia were quickly sent to put it down; troops travelling from central Canada reached the site in eleven days. The success of this operation gave the CPR enough political capital to garner sufficient support to complete its construction. The trial and subsequent execution of Riel for treason caused a deep political division between French Canadians, who supported Riel (a culturally French Métis) and English Canadians, who supported Macdonald.
In 1891, Macdonald won the elections again, but by this time, the 76-year-old political warhorse started to feel the years of overwork, stress, drink and several bouts of severe illness, including a gallstone problem in 1870 that turned his office into a sick room for two months. On May 29, 1891, Sir John A. suffered a severe stroke, which robbed him of the ability to speak, and from which he would never recover. He died a week later on June 6, 1891 at the age of 76. He would lie in state in the Canadian Senate Chamber (prime ministers now lie in state in the Hall of Honour in the Centre Block) where grieving Canadians turned out in the thousands to pay their respects. His state funeral was held on June 9, attended by hundreds of thousands of people. He is buried in Cataraqui Cemetery in Kingston, Ontario. None of his children left heirs; he is survived by relative Hugh Gainsford.
But at the same time, he frequently suffered from an undiagnosed illness. The symptoms, weakness and listlessness, began in 1840 and continued sporadically throughout 1841. Macdonald decided he needed a complete rest, and in January 1842 he set sail for Britain, his pockets full of the money (about two thousand dollars) he had won during three nights of playing a card game called Loo. Macdonald's trip proved to be fateful. He recovered his health and met his first cousin Isabella Clark. Isabella's features were gentle and tranquil, according to biographer Donald Creighton, "her hair brushed smoothly away from its centre part in the demure fashion of the 1840s. She also had "large, beautiful blue eyes with an imploring expression that melted more than one observer's heart. "Isa," as Macdonald called her, followed him home to Kingston and on September 1, 1843, they were married. Macdonald was 28, Isabella, 34.
For the first year and a half, the Macdonalds lived the life of a happy, successful couple. John A. had been elected city alderman a few months before his marriage, so he was now a prominent local politician, and his law partnership with his former student, Alexander Campbell, continued to flourish. In the fall of 1844, Macdonald was elected as a Conservative Member of Parliament for Kingston. Then, in 1845, everything changed when his beloved "Isa" got sick. She suffered periodic attacks that included severe headaches and numbness. Biographer Patricia Phenix writes that Isabella was diagnosed "as suffering from everything from tic douloureux, a devastating pain in the fifth nerve of her face, to 'uterine neuralgia.'. To relieve the pain, she drank liquid opium as well as sherry. The opium and alcohol combined with the painful attacks left her groggy, exhausted and bedridden. Her chronic illness may also have had psychological causes rooted in an "hysterical personality" compounded by migraine headaches and her dependence on opium. As the illness continued, Macdonald feared Isabella would die. "The warm, pleasant edifice of his domestic happiness," Donald Creighton writes, "was crumbling towards utter ruin.
John A. responded to his wife's protracted illness by taking her to Savannah, Georgia where he hoped the warm climate and the company of her sisters would restore her health. They set off on their journey in the summer of 1845. The trip turned out to be long and gruelling with Isabella often unable to walk and suffering excruciating pain. They first joined Isabella's sisters in New Haven, Connecticut, finally reaching Savannah in late November. John A. was anxious to return home to continue his political career. He had to remain in the American south however, until Isabella's sisters arrived in mid-January 1846. He would not see his wife again until Christmas when they were reunited in New York City. There, Isabella became pregnant. After Macdonald returned to Canada, she remained under medical care in New York. Their first son, John Alexander, was born in New York on August 3, 1847 after a long and agonizing labour. "His eyes are dark blue, very large & nose to match," Macdonald wrote to his sister-in-law. "When born his length was 1 foot 9 inches & was strong and healthy, though thin.
Macdonald rented Bellevue House in Kingston in 1848 in the hope that the fresh suburban air and quiet would help Isabella's condition after her return from New York. This experiment, however, was a failure. Worse still, shortly after the Macdonalds moved into their new home, 13-month-old John Alexander was found dead in his crib, a possible victim of SIDS or sudden infant death syndrome. Isabella became pregnant again in 1849, yet another miracle for a 40-year-old chronically-ill woman. Their second son, Hugh John, was born on March 13, 1850. "We have got Johnnie back again," Macdonald wrote to his sister. "I don't think he is so pretty, but he is not so delicate. He was born fat & coarse.
Hugh John and his father were never close. The boy was raised by Macdonald's sister Margaret and her husband, James Williamson, after Isabella's death in 1857.
Macdonald is depicted on the Canadian ten-dollar bill. He also has bridges (Macdonald-Cartier Bridge), airports (Ottawa Macdonald-Cartier International Airport, and highways (Macdonald-Cartier Freeway) named after him, as well as statues and a plethora of schools across the country. In Kingston, Macdonald Park and Sir John A. Macdonald Boulevard are both named in his honour and a bronze statue of the man stands at the corner of King and West streets. The law building at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario is named in his honour. The Hotel Macdonald in Edmonton and Macdonald House, part of Canada's high commission in London, are also named for him.
In 2004, Macdonald was nominated as one of the top 10 "Greatest Canadians" by viewers of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He is considered by some Canadian political scientists to be the founder of the Red Tory tradition.