When Canada achieved Confederation on 1 July 1867, the response of almost all of the small number of outsiders who knew anything about the place was that it was a non-event. As these observers saw it, the curious new entity would, sooner rather than later, take the logical step of becoming fully independent from Britain and join the incomparably richer and more advanced United States.

The Times of London pronounced that, “we look in vain for the vital organs, the circulation and the muscular force” needed to keep together so huge and so empty, an expanse. The New York Tribune forecast that Canada “must” fail but its reward would be “peaceful absorption… in the great North American Republic.” The leading American and British historians of the day, George Bancroft and Goldwin Smith, each assumed it was inevitable that both nations would fulfill their joint Manifest Destiny.

Most Canadians did still want to be Canadian, (or really to be British) or not become American. But, they were divided deeply between English, French and Aboriginal peoples, which contradicted the very reason for creating a new nation state. Equally strange, Canadians were huddled in a narrow line as near as possible to the same, overshadowing country they were so anxious to keep away from.

Cometh the right time, cometh the right person. He was John A. Macdonald, devious, astute, manipulative, resilient, clever, daring, able to win six of seven elections but also fully ready to risk bankrupting the country he was trying to build by stitching it together by a trans-continental railway.

Macdonald wasn’t alone. At the time they were needed so urgently, three out-of-the-ordinary politicians came forward. There was George Brown, the Liberal leader, a high-minded, outstanding businessman and founder of the country’s best newspaper, the Globe. Brown brought Canada West (Ontario) to the table. But his bigotry towards Catholics — the Globe’s preferred description of the Pope was “The whore of Rome” — pushed Canada East (Québec) away. There was George-Étienne Cartier, strong and domineering and so able to bring Québec back to the table. As a francophone, though, he could not be the founder of a predominately anglophone country. And then Macdonald.

The difference between Macdonald and Brown and Cartier was that they were good, second-rank, politicians, while he stood in the first rank: his skills and accomplishments, even if exercised on a far smaller and more threadbare stage, were comparable to those of the century’s democratic greats, Abraham Lincoln and of Benjamin Disraeli.

At the beginning of the Confederation project, Macdonald was a laggard. As soon as he joined the parade, he went straight to its front. To the surprise of most, the first Confederation Conference, in Charlottetown in 1864, ended with Maritime approval. A key reason for this success was that Macdonald forged close alliances, with the Maritimers who mattered the most — the premiers of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

Immediately after Confederation was achieved, he had to deal with Nova Scotians’ rejection of the pact they’d just signed by voting all but unanimously for anti-Confederates as their federal and provincial representatives. With charm and cash, Macdonald got the anti-Confederate leader, Joseph Howe, to join his cabinet in 1869.

In 1871, Macdonald took part in the historic Washington conference at which Britain and the US settled all of their Civil War grievances. Macdonald ensured that Canadian affairs, principally its fisheries, took up more than half the entire time of the negotiations. He went on to win for Canada the right, unprecedented for a mere colony, for Canada’s Parliament to grant or withhold approval of the British–US pact. To top that, Macdonald extracted from London a pledge of a large loan for his railway.

That railway is his greatest achievement. As considerable in its context was his creation of the North-West Mounted Police that made, if sadly only for a time, Canada’s West decisively different from the geographically and demographically identical west below the border: here, the law ruled; there, the gun decided everything.

Such imagination confirms that there was a good deal more to Macdonald than just an exceptionally-gifted politician. There was more of a statesman in his make-up than is generally recognized. He was the first democratic leader, not just in Canada but anywhere in the world, to argue publicly for women’s vote. His decision to allow the execution of Louis Riel has radically diminished his contemporary reputation. Yet his understanding of Aboriginal people was remarkably advanced for his time. He described Aboriginal people as “the original owners of the land… [and] the great sufferers by the discovery of America.” For them to find their true place — in contemporary parlance, of integration rather than of either separation or assimilation — had to be, “a slow process,” one that would not happen until his “great grand-children” had at last understood what needed to be done.

Macdonald wasn’t just the founder of a nation that otherwise, almost certainly, would not have survived. He shaped a nation that has gone on to thrive to a degree exceeded or matched by very few among the near 200 nations around the planet. If Macdonald were told this today his likeliest response would be to shrug and then turn his attention to his plans for the next election campaign.

Richard J. Gwyn is the author of an award-winning, two-volume biography of Sir John A. Macdonald and a consultant on a Historica Canada Heritage Minute about Sir John A.