When in 1887 a Canadian delegation went to Washington to negotiate a treaty with the United States, their hosts treated them to a boat ride on the Potomac. One Canadian delegate arrived early and while waiting for the others struck up a conversation with a lady, the wife of a US senator.

"I guess you are from Canada,” she said.
"Yes, ma'am.”
"You've got a very smart man over there, the Honorable John A. Macdonald.”
"Yes, ma'am, he is.”
"But they say he is a perfect rascal.”
"Yes, ma'am, he is a perfect rascal.”
"But why do they keep such a man in power?”
"Well, you see, they cannot get along without him.”
Just then the woman's husband arrived and said: "My dear, let me introduce you to the Honorable John A. Macdonald.”

John A. Macdonald was Canada's first and greatest prime minister (photo 1863, courtesy Notman Archives/McCord Museum)

An indispensable "scalawag” is pretty much how many Canadians saw John A. Macdonald, but then Machiavelli said that a good man cannot be great. As the study of history has become more and more "correct,” historians have found many reasons to diminish Macdonald. Even those brave enough to acknowledge him, like two authors of a recent book ranking the prime ministers, feel bound to put the only man who qualifies as the founder of our country second behind the equivocating and abstemious Mackenzie King.

Many Canadians know the traditional picture of Sir John, a bibulous and unscrupulous Falstaff, master of the art of procrastination and political expediency. The portrait is not all wrong, for he was the master of every political ruse and device, and yes he drank to excess. But the measure of his accomplishment far outdistances the defects of his character: Macdonald was the principal author of our constitution and more than anyone the founder of our nation.

One of the many problems that our political historians have with Macdonald is that he does not fit their standard interpretation of history, in which our national development equals emancipation from British control. Mackenzie King is their hero for delivering us from the British "yoke.”

But for Macdonald the most difficult task confronting the Canadian nation was the survival of a separate political existence on a continent dominated by the United States. He believed that it was American, not British, imperialism that was the real threat to our autonomy.

Macdonald was not a traditional Conservative, in the British sense. His preferred name for his party was the "Union Party.” The word "union” was the key to the meaning of his grand design, the idea that a nation transcends group, class and section - more reasons why he is not honoured in our fragmented nation.

Macdonald's supreme accomplishment was Confederation. He was late coming to the idea, but it was only he and his partner George Etienne Cartier who had the dynamism and political skill to make it a political reality. He guided the Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences through turbulent waters and the constitution was largely his handiwork. He seduced opponents like Joseph Howe of Nova Scotia, coaxed PEI and British Columbia to join, put down a rebellion in the West and tied it all together with a transcontinental railway.

Sir John A. Macdonald, the "old chieftain" (photo William James Topley/National Archives of Canada/C-005329).

It is a pity that in place of examinations of Macdonald's vision, his political skills and his diplomatic battles with the United States, the textbooks substitute picturesque anecdotes of the wayward Sir John. He did not help his own case when during the 1872 election campaign he solicited huge sums of money from men seeking contracts to build the transcontinental railway.

"There are often times when I do things that are against my conscience,” he said, "but if I do not make certain allowances for the weakness of human nature, my party would turn me out of power, and those who took my place would manage things worse than I.” Macdonald "managed” with a fine ear, remembering everyone he met, listening to all and answering them with trenchant wit and whimsy. "He was the father and founder of his country,” said Sir John Thompson, "there is not one of us who had not lost his heart to him.”

As we celebrate Sir John's birthday on January 10th (the date registered in Glasgow) or the 11th (the day he marked) perhaps we too could make a few allowances. "Canadians do not like heroes,” wrote George Woodcock, "so they have none.” Macdonald deserves to have his name celebrated in a national holiday, but there are likely too many classes, interests and sections with a grudge against him for that to happen. But at least that day could be an opportunity for Canadians to celebrate his vision of unity and of a North American destiny independent of the United States.