1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Macdonald, Sir John Alexander
MACDONALD, SIR JOHN ALEXANDER (1815–1891), first premier of the dominion of Canada, was born in Glasgow on the 11th of January 1815, the third child of Hugh Macdonald (d. 1841), a native of Sutherlandshire. The family emigrated to Canada in 1820, settling first at Kingston, Ontario. At the age of fifteen Macdonald entered a law office; he was called to the bar in 1836, and began practice in Kingston, with immediate success. Macdonald entered upon his active career at a critical period in the history of Canada, and the circumstances of the time were calculated to stimulate political thought. It was the year before the rebellion of 1837; the condition of the whole country was very unsettled; and it seemed well-nigh impossible to reconcile differences arising from racial and political antagonisms. During the rebellion young Macdonald volunteered for active service, but his military career never went farther than drilling and marching. The mission of Lord Durham; the publication of his famous report; the union of the two Canadas; the administrations of Lord Sydenham, Sir Charles Bagot, and Sir Charles Metcalfe, filled the years immediately succeeding 1837 with intense political interest, and in their results have profoundly influenced the constitution of the British Empire.
Macdonald made his first acquaintance with public business as an alderman of Kingston. In 1844 Sir Charles Metcalfe, in his contest with the Reform party led by Baldwin and Lafontaine, appealed to the electors, and Macdonald was elected to the provincial assembly as Conservative member for Kingston. A sentence in his first address to the electors strikes the dominant note of his public career: “I therefore need scarcely state my firm belief that the prosperity of Canada depends upon its permanent connexion with the mother country, and that I shall resist to the utmost any attempt (from whatever quarter it may come) which may tend to weaken that union.” He took his seat on the 28th of November as a supporter of the Draper government. During the first three or four years he spoke little, but devoted himself with assiduity to mastering parliamentary forms and the business of the house. His capacity soon attracted attention, and in 1847 he was made receiver-general with a seat in the executive council, an office soon exchanged for the more important one of commissioner of Crown-lands. Although the government of which he thus became a member held office for only ten months, being placed in a hopeless minority on making an appeal to the country, Macdonald from this time forward took a position of constantly increasing weight in his party.
One of the first acts of the Reform government which succeeded that of which Macdonald was a member was to pass the Rebellion Losses Bill, made famous in colonial history by the fact that it brought to a crucial test the principle of responsible government. The assent of Lord Elgin to the bill provoked in Montreal a riot which ended in the burning of the houses of parliament, and so great was the indignation of the hitherto ultra-loyal Conservative party that many of its most prominent members signed a document favouring annexation to the United States; Macdonald on the other hand took steps, in conjunction with others, to form a British-American league, having for its object the confederation of all the provinces, the strengthening of the connexion with the mother country, and the adoption of a national commercial policy. He remained in opposition from 1848 till 1854, holding together under difficult circumstances an unpopular party with which he was not entirely in sympathy. The two great political issues of the time were the secularization of the clergy reserves in Ontario, and the abolition of seigniorial tenure in Quebec. Both of these reforms Macdonald long opposed, but when successive elections had proved that they were supported by public opinion, he brought about a coalition of Conservatives and moderate reformers for the purpose of carrying them.
Out of this coalition was gradually developed the Liberal-conservative party, of which until his death Macdonald continued to be the most considerable figure, and which for more than forty years largely moulded the history of Canada. From 1854 to 1857 he was attorney-general of Upper Canada, and then, on the retirement of Colonel Taché, he became prime minister. This first coalition had now accomplished its temporary purpose, but so closely were parties divided at this period, that the defeat and reinstatement of governments followed each other in rapid succession.
The experiment of applying responsible government on party lines to the two Canadian provinces at last seemed to have come to a deadlock. Two general elections and the defeat of four ministries within three years had done nothing to solve the difficulties of the situation. At this critical period a proposal was made for a coalition of parties in order to carry out a broad scheme of British-American confederation. The immediate proposal is said to have come from George Brown; the large political idea had long been advocated by Macdonald and Alexander Galt in Upper Canada—by Joseph Howe and others in the maritime provinces. The close of the American Civil War, the Fenian raids across the American border, and the dangers incident to the international situation, gave a decisive impulse to the movement. Macdonald, at the head of a representative delegation from Ontario and Quebec, met the public men of the maritime provinces in conference at Charlottetown in 1864, and the outline of confederation then agreed upon was filled out in detail at a conference held at Quebec soon afterwards. The actual framing of the British North America Act, into which the resolutions of these two conferences were consolidated, was carried out at the Westminster Palace Hotel in London, during December 1866 and January 1867, by delegates from all the provinces working in co-operation with the law officers of the Crown, under the presidency of Lord Carnarvon, then secretary of state for the colonies. Macdonald took the leading part in all these discussions, and he thus naturally became the first premier of the Dominion. He was made a K.C.B. in recognition of his services to the empire.
The difficulties of organizing the new Dominion, the questions arising from diverse claims and the various conditions of the country, called for infinite tact and resource on the part of the premier. Federal rights were to be safeguarded against the provincial governments, always jealous of their privileges. The people of Nova Scotia in particular, dissatisfied with the way in which their province had been drawn into the Union, maintained a fierce opposition to the Ottawa government, until their leader, Joseph Howe, fearing an armed rising, came to an agreement with Macdonald and accepted a seat in his cabinet. The establishment of a supreme court also occupied the attention of Sir John, who had a strong sense of the necessity of maintaining the purity and dignity of the judicial office. The act creating this court was finally passed during the administration of Alexander Mackenzie. The pledge made at confederation with regard to the building of the Intercolonial railway to connect the maritime provinces with those of the St Lawrence was fulfilled. The North-West Territories were secured as a part of confederated Canada by the purchase of the rights of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and the establishment of Manitoba as a province in 1870. Canada’s interests were protected during the negotiations which ended in the treaty of Washington in 1871, and in which Sir John took a leading part as one of the British delegates. In this year British Columbia entered the confederation, one of the provisions of union being that a transcontinental railroad should be built within ten years. This was declared by the opposition to be impossible. It was possible only to a leader of indomitable will. Charges of bribery against the government in connexion with the contract for the building of this line led to the resignation of the cabinet in 1874, and for four years Sir John was in opposition. But he was by no means inactive. During the summer of 1876 he travelled through Ontario addressing the people on the subject of a commercial system looking to the protection of native industries. This was the celebrated “National Policy,” which had been in his thoughts as long ago as the formation of the British-American League in 1850. The government of Alexander Mackenzie refused to consider a protection policy, and determined to adhere to Free Trade, with a tariff for revenue only. On these strongly defined issues the two parties appealed to the people in 1878. The Liberal party was almost swept away, and Sir John, on his return to power, put his policy into effect with a thoroughness that commanded the admiration even of his opponents, who, after long resistance, adopted it on their accession to office in 1896. He also undertook the immediate construction of the Canadian Pacific railway, which had been postponed by the former government. The line was begun late in 1880, and finished in November 1885—an achievement which Sir John ranked among his greatest triumphs. “The faith of Sir John,” says one of his biographers, “did more to build the road than the money of Mount-Stephen.”
During the remaining years of his life his efforts at administration were directed mainly towards the organization and development of the great North-West. From 1878 until his death in 1891 Sir John retained his position as premier of Canada, and his history is practically that of Canada (q.v.). For forty-six years of a stormy political life he remained true to the cardinal policy that he had announced to the electors of Kingston in 1844. “A British subject I was born; a British subject I will die,” says his last political manifesto to the people of the Dominion. At his advanced age the anxiety and excitement of the contested election of 1891 proved too great. On the 29th of May he suffered a stroke of paralysis, which caused his death eight days later (June 6).
The career of Sir John Macdonald must be considered in connexion with the political history of Canada and the conditions of its government during the latter half of the 19th century. Trained in a school where the principles of responsible government were still in an embryonic state, where the adroit management of coalitions and cabals was essential to the life of a political party, and where plots and counterplots were looked upon as a regular part of the political game, he acquired a dexterity and skill in managing men that finally gave him an almost autocratic power among his political followers. But great personal qualities supplemented his political dexterity and sagacity. A strong will enabled him to overcome the passionate temper which marked his youth, and later in his career a habit of intemperance, which he at first shared with many public men of his time. He was a man of strong ambitions, but these were curbed by a shrewd foresight, which led him for a long time to submit to the nominal leadership of other and smaller men. Politics he made his business, and to this he devoted all his energies. He had the gift of living for the work in hand without feeling the distraction of other interests. He had a singular faculty for reading the minds and the motives of men, and to this insight he perhaps owed the power of adaptability (called by his opponents shiftiness) which characterized his whole career. To this power the successful guidance of the Dominion through its critical formative period must be ascribed. Few political leaders have ever had such a number of antagonistic elements to reconcile as presented themselves in the first Canadian parliament after confederation. The man who could manage to rule a congeries of jealous factions, including Irish Catholics and Orangemen, French and English anti-federationists and agitators for independence, Conservatives and Reformers, careful economists and prodigal expansionists, was manifestly a man of unusual power, superior to small prejudices, and without strong bias towards any creed or section. Such a man Macdonald proved himself to be. His personality stands out at this period as the central power in which each faction chiefly reposed trust, and under which it could join hands with the others in the service of the state. His singleness of purpose, personal independence and indomitable energy enabled him to achieve triumphs that to others seemed impossible. His methods cannot always be defended, and were explained by himself only on grounds of necessity and the character of the electorate with which he had to deal. After the “Pacific scandal” of 1874 the leader of the opposite party declared that “John A.” (as he was generally called) “has fallen, never to rise again.” Yet he not only cleared his own character from the charges laid against him, but succeeded four years later in achieving his most signal party triumph. His natural urbanity allowed him to rule without seeming to rule. When baffled in minor objects he gave way with a good-natured flexibility which brought upon him at times charges of inconsistency. Yet Canada has seen statesmen of more contracted view insist on such small points, fall, and drag down their party with them. He lived at a time when the exigencies of state seemed to require the peculiar talents which he possessed. Entering politics at the dreariest and least profitable stage in Canadian history, he took the foremost part in the movement which made of Canada a nation; he guided that nation through the nebulous stages of its existence, and left it united, strong and vigorous, a monument to his patriotic and far-sighted statesmanship. His statue adorns the squares of the principal Canadian towns. In the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral a memorial has rightly been placed to him as a statesman, not merely of Canada, but of the empire. In unveiling that memorial Lord Rosebery fitly epitomized the meaning of his life and work when he said: “We recognize only this, that Sir John Macdonald had grasped the central idea that the British Empire is the greatest secular agency for good now known to mankind; that that was the secret of his success; and that he determined to die under it, and strove that Canada should live under it.” Macdonald became a member of the Imperial Privy Council in 1879, and in 1884 he received the Grand Cross of the Bath. His first wife was his cousin, Miss Isabella Clark, who died in 1858, leaving one surviving son, the Hon. Hugh John Macdonald, at one time premier of the province of Manitoba. By his second marriage, to Miss Bernard in 1867, Macdonald left an only daughter. On his death in 1891 his widow was created Baroness Macdonald of Earnscliffe.
The authorized and fullest biography of Sir John A. Macdonald is one written by his private secretary, Joseph Pope. Others have been written by his nephew, Colonel J. Pennington Macpherson, and by J. E. Collins. A bright and amusing anecdotal life has been compiled by E. D. Biggar. A condensed biography by G. R. Parkin forms one of the “Makers of Canada” series (Toronto, 1907; new ed., 1909). (G. R. P.)