Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Macdonald, John Alexander
MACDONALD, Sir JOHN ALEXANDER (1815–1891), the organiser of the dominion of Canada, was born in George Street, Glasgow, on 11 Jan. 1815. His father was Hugh Macdonald, who came from Dornoch in Sutherlandshire, and who removed with all his family in 1820 to Canada, and settled at Kingston. At the age of ten Macdonald was placed at the Royal Grammar School in Kingston, and is said to have distinguished himself there in mathematics, but not in classics. When he was about fifteen his father apprenticed him in a lawyer's office, and he spent six years in the study of law. Before he was twenty-one he came up for admission to the bar, and he used afterwards to tell jocularly how he persuaded his father that he was of full age, although he was some months short of it. He was admitted to the bar in 1836, and began practice at Kingston. At the close of 1838 he made a great local reputation by his ingenious though unsuccessful defence of one Shoultz, an American Pole, who had invaded Canada at the head of a rabble during the ‘Papineau-Mackenzie Rebellion.’ For the next six years Macdonald's office was one of the busiest and most prosperous in Canada.
In 1844 Macdonald was elected member for Kingston to the House of Assembly. The house had been created in 1841 as part of a scheme of self-government which should unite the two Canadas, Upper and Lower, now called respectively Ontario and Quebec; and although the latter province far exceeded the former in population, both sent up an equal number of representatives, a fruitful source of discontent to the French dwellers in the lower province. In 1844 the conservatives held office, and Macdonald was returned in their interest. His conservatism was at the time of an uncompromising type. In one of his earliest speeches he denounced a measure for the abolition of primogeniture, on the ground that such a proposal ought not to be introduced in Canada, for the very reason that it was adopted in the United States, and that it violated the laws of political economy. Macdonald very quickly aroused attention in the house by his vehement energy, combined with remarkable powers of self-restraint. In 1847, when he was only thirty-two, Mr. Draper, the prime minister, conferred on him the cabinet position of receiver-general, and soon transferred him to that of commissioner for crown lands, the most important position in the public service. While holding this office Macdonald effected some memorable reforms, but the general election in the autumn of 1848 drove him and his fellow-conservatives from power. By his activity during the fierce electoral struggle, and by the gallantry with which he met defeat, Macdonald made himself the foremost man in his party. During the six years (1848–54) that the reformers remained in power [see Hincks, Sir Francis] Macdonald (who again represented Kingston) proved the moving spirit of the conservatives, although they were nominally led by Sir Allan MacNab [q. v.], a violent, old-fashioned tory. MacNab soon became jealous of Macdonald's influence, but Macdonald conducted himself with loyalty and tact in his relations with his party, while he lost no opportunity of turning his powers of invective against the government, which he insisted was ‘tainted with corruption, collectively and individually, both in their public and private characters.’ ‘It was time,’ he declared, before the dissolution of the house in 1854, ‘that an end should be put to this system of corruption, which was disgracing Canada more than any colony which Great Britain had ever had under her wing.’
The conservatives returned to office after the election in 1854, and the MacNab-Morin ministry was formed, in which MacNab was premier. A. N. Morin of Lower Canada was commissioner for crown lands. Macdonald took for the first of many times the office of attorney-general for Upper Canada. In 1856 MacNab was succeeded as premier by Colonel (afterwards Sir Etienne) Tache, but Macdonald, who then became the leader of the House of Assembly, was the real leader of the conservative party from that date till his death, thirty-five years later. In 1857, on 25 Nov., Colonel Tache resigned. On the following day the governor-general directed Macdonald to form a ministry. Tache's portfolio was conferred on George (afterwards Sir George) Etienne Cartier, who led the representatives of Lower Canada. No other change was made in the administration. Macdonald almost immediately dissolved parliament. His party obtained a majority at the polls, and the new parliament opened while he was still premier (November 1857).
Macdonald found his most persistent opponent in George Brown, the leader of an extreme section of radicals known as ‘Clear Grits.’ To liberals and conservatives Brown was equally hostile. Early in 1858 Macdonald introduced a measure for selecting a permanent capital for Canada, and Brown was so offensive in his opposition that Macdonald met his obstructive conduct by resigning office. Brown failed to form a ministry, and after an absence of eight days the conservatives returned to office. A decisive blow was thus struck at the ‘Clear Grits.’ For unassigned reasons, but probably from a desire to conciliate the French of Lower Canada, Macdonald, after his party's victory over Brown, resumed his old position of attorney-general for Upper Canada, while Cartier became premier. In 1859, in spite of bitter opposition from the lower province, Ottawa finally became the capital city. Next year Macdonald helped to entertain the Prince of Wales on his visit to Canada.
In 1861 Lord Monck came to Canada as viceroy. At the time the conservative Cartier-Macdonald ministry was falling, but Macdonald is said to have been ‘not less busy holding his own party together than putting his opponents into hot water among themselves.’ In 1862, when the civil war was raging in the United States, and threatening an invasion of Canada, Macdonald introduced a Militia Bill, providing for the defence of the colony. It was rejected from fear of expense, but it gave to Macdonald in England a reputation for loyalty which his subsequent career fully confirmed. Public education, the status of the Roman catholic church in Lower Canada, and the future of the vast extent of crown lands in the north-west were the questions that chiefly occupied the attention of the Cartier-Macdonald ministry, but Macdonald was among the first to insist on the necessity of revising the constitution of 1841. Toronto had now twice the population of Quebec, but both continued to send an equal number of representatives to the House of Assembly, and the ministries were still formed on the awkward plan of admitting for every member from the upper province a representative from the lower. Moreover, the two provinces were practically separated by different modes of local government. In Quebec the principles of feudality and Roman catholic predominance were still recognised, and there were no means of uniting the two provinces in case of invasion by America. A union of the two Canadas was absolutely needful in Macdonald's opinion. The radical George Brown, in his newspaper, ‘The Globe,’ by clamouring for representation by population, was soon found to be fighting part of Macdonald's battle.
The Cartier-Macdonald ministry remained in power until 1862, when a weak liberal administration was formed, under the leadership of John Sandfield Macdonald (1812–1874). But in 1864 the conservatives returned to power, with Tache as premier, and Macdonald, the real leader, in his old position of attorney-general for Upper Canada.
The federation movement led by Macdonald began in full earnest at the same time. George Brown was admitted into the administration as president of the council. The little maritime provinces along the east of British America, which were wholly independent of Canada, had long been contemplating some sort of separate union among themselves, and in 1864 the legislatures of Nova Scotia, of New Brunswick, and of Prince Edward Island authorised delegates to meet in September at Charlottetown, the capital of Prince Edward Island, in order to discuss the question. Macdonald saw his opportunity, and although unauthorised by the Canadian legislature, he thrust himself, with Brown, Cartier, and others of his colleagues, into the conference at Charlottetown. The Canadian ministers were allowed to join in the discussion, and vigorously availed themselves of the courtesy. ‘Go on with your federation,’ said Macdonald in effect, ‘but include Canada in the plan.’ One of the islanders said afterwards: ‘The Canadians descended upon us, and before they were three days among us, we forgot our own scheme, and thought only about theirs.’ No one any longer spoke of a maritime union, but only of a general federation, guaranteeing local and joint control. There was a flame of enthusiasm throughout British America, and the Charlottetown conference was only adjourned to meet again in October (1864) at Quebec. At Halifax, where Macdonald was entertained at dinner, he declared, in reply to the toast of ‘Colonial Union,’ that the question of colonial union ‘absorbed every idea as far as he was concerned.’ ‘For twenty long years,’ he continued, ‘I have been dragging myself through the dreary waste of colonial politics. I thought there was no end, nothing worthy of ambition, but now I see something which is well worthy of all I have suffered in the cause of my little country. … Then we shall have taken a great step in advance of the American republic. If we can obtain that object—a vigorous general government—we shall not be New Brunswickers, nor Nova Scotians, nor Canadians, but British Americans, under the sway of the British sovereign.’ He desired to preserve for each province its own identity, ‘and to protect every local ambition;’ but his ambition was to be ‘a subject of a great British-American nation, under the government of her majesty, and in connection with the empire of Great Britain and Ireland.’
In October 1864 the adjourned conference met at Quebec in great enthusiasm, and, with the premier, Sir Etienne Tache, in the chair, adopted important resolutions. In March 1865 Macdonald carried in the House of Assembly a resolution that the queen should be requested ‘to cause a measure to be proposed to the imperial parliament for the purpose of uniting the colonies of Canada, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland in one government.’ Sir Etienne Tache died in the summer of this year. The jealous attitude of George Brown prevented Macdonald's succession to the premiership; but so that nothing might interfere with the great plan of federation, Macdonald agreed to serve under Sir Narcisse Belleau. During 1866 many jealousies arose on the part of the maritime provinces, but the invasions of New Brunswick and Canada by Fenians from the United States made the need of federation more obvious. At the end of 1866 Macdonald went to England with a Canadian delegation to consult with the home ministers and to meet the delegates of the other provinces. The delegates sat in Westminster Palace during December; Macdonald took the chair, and Lord Monck, who was also in England, rendered what assistance he could. Newfoundland preferred to have nothing to do with the federation, and the scheme made necessary the absorption of the north-west, and the building within ten years of a railway across the continent, which would render Canada independent of American ports during the season in which the St. Lawrence is closed to navigation. The requisite act was passed through the imperial parliament, and in May 1867 a royal proclamation was issued, giving effect to the ‘British North America Act,’ and appointing 1 July following as the date on which it should come into effect. The two old provinces of Canada, called Ontario and Quebec, were, with the two additional provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, to form one dominion, under the name of Canada. Elaborate provision was made for the supreme government of the Dominion, with governor-general and council, a parliament consisting of a House of Commons running not more than five years, and a senate for life, with lieutenant-governors and special legislatures for each province. In 1870 the newly erected province of Manitoba was admitted to the Dominion, in 1872 British Columbia, and in 1873 Prince Edward Island. In 1870 the north-west territories were organised into a provisional government, with representation at Ottawa from 1886. Canada, thus expanded, had an area of 3,500,000 square miles, and a population of four millions. For these results Macdonald was mainly responsible.
On 1 July 1867 Lord Monck was sworn in as governor-general of the New Dominion, and the honour of a knight-commandership of the Bath was conferred upon Macdonald. Cartier resented, and refused the companionship of the Bath; but Macdonald was soon after instrumental in obtaining for his old friend a baronetcy of the United Kingdom. Macdonald became prime minister of the first ministry of the Dominion, and held the office for six years. In 1870 he was appointed, with Earl de Grey (first Marquis of Ripon), Sir Stafford Northcote, and two other Englishmen, to proceed to Washington, and to settle the Alabama claims and other differences between the British government and the United States. The result of their mission was the treaty of Washington, which was signed on 8 May 1871. Macdonald acted at once as an imperial commissioner and the prime minister of the colony most concerned, and his position was consequently delicate. In July 1872 he was made a privy councillor of the United Kingdom, and was sworn in in August 1879.
By 1873 the conservatives had lost their popularity in the country, and were easily defeated on the question of the alleged fraudulent opportunities given to Sir Hugh Allan for the employment of American capital in the building of the Canadian Pacific railway. Macdonald completely cleared himself of any personal reeponaibility, in a memorable speech (6 Nov. 1873), hut he could not stay the reaction, and he was succeeded by Alexander Mackenzie, at the head of a liberal ministry which lasted from 1873 to 1878. Macdonald's conduct during Mackenzie's administration was not factious, and he contributed largely to the reform of the legal system, helping the ministers to pass the Insolvent Act end the act constituting the supreme judicial court of the Dominion.
In October 1878 Macdonald, who was a convinced protectionist, defeated the ministry on a proposal to introduce an indiscriminating protective tariff which made no exception even in the case of importations from England. Thereupon Macdonald returned to office, holding the posts of premier and minister of the interior. He was defeated at the time for his old constituency of Kingston, but easily found another seat. He remained in power from 1878 until his death in 1891, exchanging his office as minister of the interior for the presidency of the council and superintendent-generalship of Indian affairs, 17 Oct, 1883. Macdonald visited England in 1880 with the ministers of railways and agriculture, and finally arranged the contract for the construction of the Pacific railway. He paid another visit in 1884, when he attended the conference held in London for the purpose of forming the Imperial Federation League, and was generally recognised as a pioneer of the principle of imperial unity. In November 1884 he was created G.C.B. In 1865 the university of Oxford had conferred on him the degree of D.C.L., and the Canadian universities were liberal in bestowing their honours upon him. Macdonald died at his residence, Earnscliffe Hall, near Ottawa, on 6 June 1891. Besides having been once premier of the old Canada of two provinces for a brief while, he had been during a period covering in all twenty years prime minister of the Dominion of Canada. During his final administration (1878-91) he was regarded as the foremost statesman on the American continent. His sphere of activity was the organisation of civilisation throughout Canada. His devotion to protection and his insistence on Canada's need of a high tariff excited some ill-feeling in England, but this was more than overborne by the general sense of his passionate loyalty. One of his latest public utterances was a warning to his countrymen (1890) that Canada could not stand alone.
Macdonald married in 1843 his cousin, Isabella Clark, daughter of Alexander Clark of Dalnavert, Inveness-shire. By her he had two sons, one of whom, Mr. Hugh John Macdonald, born in 1851, survives. In 1807 he married Susan Agnes, the daughter of Mr. T. A. Bernard, a prominent official in Jamaica. After Macdonald's death his widow was raised to the peerage of the United Kingdom as Baroness Macdonald of Earnscliffe; and on 16 Nov. 1892 a white marble bust erected to his memory was unveiled in the south aisle of St. Paul's Cathedral, London, by the Earl of Rosebery, secretary of state for foreign affairs.
[See Life and Times of Sir John Macdonald, by E. G. Collins; Macdonald's Speeches; Archer's Hist. of Canada; Dent's Hist. of Canada; Dent's Canadian Portrait Gallery; Appleton's Cyclopædia of American Biog.]