Of all the scholarly debates about the life and career of Sir John A. Macdonald, one of the most contentious pertains to his personal views on social issues. Based on the mountain of documentary evidence available, it is possible to arrive at bewilderingly different conclusions about whether Macdonald was, at heart, a reformer or a reactionary. Did he support a woman’s right to vote, for example, or did he suppress it? Was he an advocate of racial equality, or was he a racist and white supremacist?

The only honest answer is that Macdonald was all of these things at different times and in different contexts over the course of his career in politics. This being the case, how can casual students of Canadian history make any sense of what he really thought? There is no easy solution, but there are a few important caveats to note while formulating a balanced understanding of the first prime minister’s views on these subjects.

Macdonald was above all a pragmatist who was neither a political theorist nor a social scientist. P. B. Waite, one of Canada’s greatest historians, once said that if you had asked Macdonald to explain his political beliefs, “he would have passed you off with a story about those unfortunate politicians who stuck to their principles and sank with them.” He generally preferred conservative policies, but he worried primarily about staying in touch with the popular views of the electorate. Waite judged that he “was always rather uncomfortable too far away from the ideas of his time,” and Macdonald himself once admitted that one “must yield to the times.”

That simple phrase conveys his perspective and sense of priorities better than any other. He had an extraordinary ability to suddenly abandon ideas that had lost public support in favour of more popular ones he had previously opposed (he performed such about-faces, for example, on responsible government, representation by population and even Confederation). Such innate flexibility, which can be regarded as a political principle in itself, allowed Macdonald to remain continuously in public life from 1843 to his death in 1891.

It is also necessary to appreciate that Macdonald, who is too often assumed to have towered over his times, was never in complete control of his circumstances. This was especially true in the years leading to Confederation, and even at the height of his power during the final years of his career. Party discipline was relatively loose in his era, and he had to constantly consider how loyal his supporters would remain if he championed risky views that were contrary to their own. More importantly, the federal government he led was miniscule in size, and his policy-making was sharply constrained by this reality. In the politics of his time, Macdonald could not simply do as he pleased; the financial muscle and physical infrastructure of his government were limited, making it difficult to effect transformative changes to Canadian society.

One cannot discern Macdonald’s views on a given subject from any individual public or private statement that he made, no matter how definitive and incontestable the quotation may appear to be. On 27 April 1885, for example, while defending a clause of his proposed franchise bill that would have given the vote to unmarried women and widows who met the property qualification, Macdonald told the House of Commons that “every year, for many years, I have become more strongly convinced of the justice of giving women otherwise qualified the suffrage.” This speech, which is entirely uncharacteristic of his usual habit of avoiding unpopular subjects, has been hailed by some scholars as evidence that he was a progressive thinker who was ahead of his times.

But did he actually support women’s suffrage for “many years”? It’s possible. However, if he adopted this point of view at any time during the first four decades of his career, he did not discuss it in public. Perhaps his purpose was to use the clause as a bargaining chip that could be withdrawn later in exchange for some concession from the opposition. Perhaps he believed that women would be more likely to vote for his party when they eventually obtained the vote — he admitted in 1885 that he knew the House was against him — if he had put himself on the record as a suffragist. There’s no way to know what he was really thinking. The point is that, even when Macdonald’s views appear to be crystal clear, it is necessary to consider his quotations in the context of their utterance and to weigh their importance against his other statements and actions over the course of his long career.

By the same token, it is important to avoid jumping on any one quotation by Macdonald on racial equality as incontrovertible evidence of his overall views on the subject. Even though he was broad-minded and inclusive in his management of English-French and Protestant-Catholic relations, there is no denying that Macdonald was, on some level, a racist. He accepted prevailing derogatory stereotypes about racial groups, particularly Aboriginal and Chinese persons, and his ingrained prejudices undoubtedly affected his policy-making towards them.

Yet, his many statements about Aboriginal people, judged collectively, give strong evidence that he held no particular ill will toward First Nations or Métis peoples. They do, however, point to an extremely superficial understanding of those cultures and identities. Macdonald assumed, like most politicians of his generation, that First Nations and Métis communities could only survive in modern society by adopting the habits of white Canadians. The methods he used to pressure them to do so — most notoriously, his government’s practice of withholding food rations from Aboriginal communities in Western Canada until they moved onto reserves — were ruthless. His treatment of Aboriginal peoples — who suffered immensely as a result of these policies — stands as the greatest failure and black mark on his political career. But even if his handling of the situation is impossible to approve or forgive, it cannot be seen as surprising if one considers the political options that he reasonably had available to him. His entire legacy as prime minister cannot be made to rest upon it.

All of the above-mentioned factors — Macdonald’s basic pragmatism, tendency to adapt his public and private statements to suit the needs of the moment, and limited control over the events of his era — have to be considered when attempting to draw conclusions about his personal views on social issues. To say that Macdonald was a man of his times is not to make apologies for views he held that are seen as unacceptable today, but simply to accept that he was, in fact, a man of his times. He was a practical man above all else, working within the confines of what was politically possible, and it is not realistic to expect that he could have succeeded in Canadian public life had he advocated modern-day views on the issues of his day, even if he had held them personally.

P. B. Waite once attributed Macdonald’s success as a politician to the manner in which he managed people in spite of their faults and observed, “Macdonald took men as they were.” In order to evaluate the country’s first prime minister with a proper sense of historical balance, Canadians must try to do the same of him.