In this clip with Allan Gregg, Sir Richard Gwyn discusses Macdonald's life as Canada's first Prime Minister.
He remained in the practice of law for the rest of his life with a series of partners, in Kingston until 1874 and then in Toronto. His firm engaged primarily in commercial law; his most valued clients were established businessmen or corporations. He was also personally involved in a variety of business concerns. He began to deal in real estate in the 1840s, acquired land in many parts of the province, including commercial rental property in downtown Toronto, and was appointed director of many companies, mainly in Kingston. For 25 years (mostly while he was prime minister), he was president of a Québec City firm, the St Lawrence Warehouse, Dock and Wharfage Co, and in 1887 became the first president of the Manufacturers Life Insurance Co of Toronto. Macdonald's personal life was marked by a number of misfortunes. His first wife, his cousin Isabella Clark, was an invalid during most of their married life. His first son died at the age of 13 months. His second marriage, to Susan Agnes Bernard, was saddened by the chronic illness of his only daughter, Mary.
Door to Politics Opens
Macdonald entered politics at the municipal level, serving as alderman in Kingston 1843-46. He took an increasingly active part in Conservative politics and in 1844 (at age 29) was elected for Kingston to the Legislative Assembly of the PROVINCE OF CANADA. Parties and government were in a state of transition, a modern departmental structure had begun to evolve, but RESPONSIBLE GOVERNMENT had not yet been conceded, and the role of the governor was still prominent. In this context Macdonald's political views proved cautious; he defended the imperial prerogative and state support of denominational education, and opposed the abolition of primogeniture. Above all, he emerged as a shrewd political tactician who believed in the pursuit of practical goals by practical means. His obvious intelligence and ability brought him his first Cabinet post as receiver general in 1847 in the administration of W.H. DRAPER, which was defeated in the general election that year.
Macdonald remained in Opposition until the election of 1854, after which he was involved in the creation of a new political alliance - the Liberal-Conservative Party - in which the Conservatives were attached to the existing alliance of Upper Canadian Reformers and the French Canadian majority political bloc. Once returned to office, he assumed the prestigious post of attorney general of UC. On the retirement, which he helped to engineer in 1856, of Conservative leader Sir Allan MACNAB, Macdonald succeeded him as joint-premier of the Province of Canada, along with Étienne-Paschal TACHÉ (and then with George-Étienne CARTIER 1857-62, with the exception of the 2-day Brown-Dorion administration in 1858).
During the years 1854-64 Macdonald faced growing opposition in his own section of the province to the political union of Upper and Lower Canada. The Reform view, voiced by George BROWN of the Toronto Globe, complained that the legitimate needs and aspirations of UC were frustrated by the "domination" of French Canadian influence in the government of Macdonald and George-Étienne Cartier. By 1864 the political and sectional forces in the province were deadlocked and Macdonald reluctantly accepted Brown's proposal for a new coalition, to include the Upper Canadian Reformers, designed to solve the constitutional difficulties through the adoption of a federal system, applied if possible to all the colonies of British North America.
While conceding the necessity of a federal arrangement to accommodate strong racial, religious and regional differences, Macdonald's preference was for a strong, highly centralized, unitary form of government. Macdonald took the leading part in the drafting of a federal system in which the central government held unmistakable dominance over the provincial governments. His great constitutional expertise, ability and knowledge received immediate recognition from the imperial government. Created Sir John A. Macdonald, Knight Commander of the Bath, he was chosen to take office as first prime minister of Canada on 1 July 1867.
The "Nation Builder"
During his first administration 1867-73, he became a "nation builder." To the original 4 provinces were added Manitoba, the North-West Territories (present-day Saskatchewan and Alberta), BC and PEI. The INTERCOLONIAL RAILWAY between Québec City and Halifax was begun and plans were made for a transcontinental railway to the Pacific coast. These undertakings involved unprecedented expenditures of public funds and did not proceed without incident. Manitoba entered the union following an insurrection led by Louis RIEL against the takeover of the area by the Dominion government, thereby forcing Macdonald's government to grant provincial status much sooner than had been intended and to accept a system of separate schools and the equality of the French and English languages.
Macdonald's involvement in the negotiations for a contract to build the CANADIAN PACIFIC RAILWAY to BC involved him eventually in the PACIFIC SCANDAL; during the 1872 election large campaign contributions had been made to him and his colleagues by Sir Hugh ALLAN, who was to have headed the railway syndicate. Macdonald claimed that his "hands were clean" because he had not profited personally from his association with Allan, but his government was forced to resign in late 1873 and in the election of 1874 was defeated. Some of these political problems stemmed from the fact that he, like many of his contemporaries, was at times a heavy drinker. At the time of the election of 1872 and of the negotiations with Allan, it is clear that there were periods of time of which he later had no recollection. His drinking subsequently became more moderate.
Fortunately for Macdonald his defeat coincided with the onset of a business depression in Canada which gave the Liberal administration of Alexander MACKENZIE a reputation for being ineffectual. In 1876, at the instigation of a group of Montréal manufacturers, Macdonald began to advocate a policy of "readjustment" of the tariff - a policy which helped him return triumphantly to power in 1878. He remained prime minister for the rest of his life.
The promised changes in tariff policy, introduced in 1879 and afterwards frequently revised in close collaboration with leading manufacturers, became Macdonald's NATIONAL POLICY, a system of protection of Canadian manufacturing through the imposition of high tariffs on foreign imports, especially from the US. Appealing to Canadian nationalist and anti-American sentiment, it became a permanent feature of Canadian economic and political life. However, the economy as a whole continued to suffer slow growth, and the effects of the policy were uneven.
The great national project of Macdonald's second administration was the completion of the transcontinental CPR, which proved an extremely difficult and expensive undertaking requiring extensive government subsidization. Macdonald played a central role in making the railway a reality. He was involved in awarding the contract to a new syndicate headed by George STEPHEN, which called for a government subsidy of $25 million and 25 million acres (10 million ha) of land, and on 2 occasions, in 1884 and 1885, he agreed to introduce legislation for the further financial support of the railway. Its completion in November 1885 made feasible the future settlement of the West.
The physical linking of the Canadian community was accompanied by the first steps towards eventual autonomy in world affairs. Macdonald did not foresee Canadian independence from Britain but rather a partnership with the mother country. He himself represented Canada on the British commission which negotiated the Treaty of Washington of 1871; in 1880 the post of Canadian high commissioner to Britain was created; and Finance Minister Charles TUPPER represented Canada at the Joint High Commission in Washington in 1887.
The Last Stage
The last stage of Macdonald's public career was plagued by difficulties. The NORTH-WEST REBELLION, which occurred at a time when he himself was superintendent general of Indian affairs, and the subsequent execution of Louis Riel in 1885 greatly increased animosity between French-speaking and English-speaking Canadians and cost Macdonald political support in Québec, where Riel was regarded as a martyr to the forces of Anglo-Saxon imperialism. A series of successful legal challenges to the powers of the central government, mainly emanating from Ontario Premier Oliver MOWAT, resulted in a federal system much less centralized than Macdonald had intended. The federal power of DISALLOWANCE, freely used at first, was virtually abandoned in the face of provincial opposition.
Macdonald's contribution to the development of the Canadian nation far exceeded that of any of his contemporaries, yet he was not by nature an innovator. Confederation, the CPR and the protective tariff were not his ideas, but he was brilliant and tenacious in achieving his goals once convinced of their necessity. As a politician he early developed shrewdness and ingenuity. He kept a remarkable degree of personal control over the functioning of the party and was adept in using patronage for political advantage. He was a highly partisan politician, partly because he genuinely believed it essential to maintain certain political courses - especially the British connection and legal-parliamentary tradition in Canada against the threat of American political and economic influences.
Macdonald was an Anglophile, but he also became a Canadian nationalist who had great faith in the future of Canada. His nationalism was primarily central Canadian and English Canadian; his concern with Québec was largely political. He accepted the existence of a unique French Canadian community and especially a French Canadian claim to a due share of government patronage, but after Cartier's death in 1873 he did not share equal political power with a strong "Québec lieutenant," nor did he give senior Cabinet positions to French Canadian politicians. His overriding national preoccupations were unity and prosperity. An 1860 speech summed up his lifelong political creed and political goals: "one people, great in territory, great in resources, great in enterprise, great in credit, great in capital."
See also PRIME MINISTERS OF CANADA: TABLE.
Author J.K. JOHNSON
D.G. Creighton, John A. Macdonald, 2 vols (1952-55); Richard Gwyn, John A: The Man Who Made Us (2007); J.K. Johnson, ed, Affectionately Yours, the Letters of Sir John A. Macdonald and his Family (1969); P.B. Waite, Macdonald (1975).
Links to Other Sites
Sir John A Macdonald Day
A guide to classroom activities for celebrating Sir John A Macdonald Day and learning about Confederation. Students investigate milestones in the life and political career of Canada's first prime minister and find out how historians determine the historical significance of specific people, events, or developments. Check out the interactive Sir John A Day Timeline and the informative videos on related topics. From the Historica-Dominion Institute.
The website for the Historica-Dominion Institute, parent organization of The Canadian Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. Check out their extensive online feature about the War of 1812, the "Heritage Minutes" video collection, and many other interactive resources concerning Canadian history, culture, and heritage.
First Among Equals
Learn about the private lives and political careers of Canada’s Prime Ministers. Includes biographies, speeches, and other historical documents. A Library and Archives Canada website.
Sir John A. MacDonald, Empire Builder
A 1915 address by Rev. Byron H. Stauffer to the Empire Club of Canada. Features comments about the challenges Canada faced during the negotiations over the 1871 Treaty of Washington.
In Sir John A.'s Footsteps: A Kingston Walking Tour
Listen online to Don Cherry's reading of "In Sir John A.'s Footsteps" — an audio walking tour of the first Prime Minister's Kingston.
Grave Sites of Canadian Prime Ministers
Check this site for photos and information about specific grave sites of former Prime Ministers of Canada. From the website for the National Program for the Grave Sites of Canadian Prime Ministers.
Bellevue House National Historic Site
This Parks Canada site in Kingston, Ontario is the former home of Sir John A. Macdonald, Prime Minister of Canada (1867-73, 1878-91). Check out the detailed overview of the life and political career of Sir John A. Macdonald.
Sir John A. Macdonald
A biography of Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada's first prime minister and one of the Fathers of Confederation. Includes photographs and other archival resources. Part of the “Canadian Confederation” website from Library and Archives Canada.
House of Commons Heritage Collection
The House of Commons Heritage Collection features objects ranging from sculpture and furniture to official portraits, historical paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures, murals, and frescoes.
Face to Face: The Canadian Personalities Hall
"Face to Face" features outstanding Canadians whose ideas and contributions have transformed this country. Click on the photos in "Meet the Personalities" to see their biographies. From the Canadian Museum of Civilization.
Sir John A. Macdonald
This site is devoted to the life and political career of Sir John A. Macdonald. Features a splendid virtual exhibition of digitized documents, pictures, and other unique records from Library and Archives Canada.
Engine 1095 Restoration Project
See an online gallery of photos of Engine 1095 aka “The Spirit of Sir John A.," a former Canadian Pacific Railway locomotive currently located in downtown Kingston. Shows the locomotive in various stages of restoration. From flickriver.com.
Sir John Alexander Macdonald
A biography of Sir John Alexander Macdonald, lawyer, businessman, and politician. From the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.
Sir John A. Macdonald: Architect of Modern Canada
See right side menu for vintage CBC media clips about Canada's first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald.
Sir John A. Macdonald Day
An informative resource about Sir John A. Macdonald, the first Prime Minister of Canada and one of the architects of Confederation. From the Department of Canadian Heritage.
Sir John A. Macdonald Day and the Sir Wilfrid Laurier Day Act
See the text of the Sir John A. Macdonald Day and the Sir Wilfrid Laurier Day Act. From Canada's Department of Justice website.
John A: Birth of a Country
View the entire movie "John A: Birth of a Country", a TV drama that focuses on the pre-Confederation conflict between two pillars of Canadian politics, Sir John A. Macdonald and George Brown. From the CBC website.
John A: Birth of a Country
The presskit for the riveting television drama "John A: Birth of a Country". Offers insights by cast and crew into the production and the life of John A. MacDonald, Canada's first prime minister.
Nation Maker: Sir John A. Macdonald: His Life, Our Times, Volume Two: 1867–1891
A review of Richard Gwyn's second volume of his biography of Sir John A. Macdonald. From "Quill & Quire."