MACDONALD, Sir JOHN ALEXANDER, lawyer, businessman, and politician; b. 10 Jan. 1815 (the registered date) or 11 Jan. (the date he and his family celebrated) in Glasgow, Scotland, son of Hugh Macdonald and Helen Shaw; m. first 1 Sept. 1843 Isabella Clark (d. 1857) in Kingston, Upper Canada, and they had two sons; m. secondly 16 Feb. 1867 Susan Agnes Bernard* in London, England, and they had a daughter; d. 6 June 1891 in Ottawa.
John Alexander Macdonald was brought to Kingston at the age of five by his parents, in-laws of Donald Macpherson*, a retired army officer living near Kingston. His father, who had been an unsuccessful merchant in Glasgow, operated a series of businesses in Upper Canada: merchant shops in Kingston and in Adolphustown Township, and for ten years the large stone mills at Glenora in Prince Edward County. Though never a man of wealth, Hugh Macdonald achieved sufficient local prominence to be appointed a magistrate for the Midland District in 1829. He and his wife saw to it that John received as good an education as was available to him at the time. He attended the Midland District Grammar School in 1827–28 and also a private co-educational school in Kingston where he was given a “classical and general” education which included the study of Latin and Greek, arithmetic, geography, English reading and grammar, and rhetoric. His schooling provided appropriate training for his choice of profession, the law. In 1830, at age 15, he began to article in the office of a Kingston lawyer, George Mackenzie*. He quickly distinguished himself. Two years later he was entrusted with the management of a branch of Mackenzie’s office, in Napanee, and in 1833–35 he replaced his cousin Lowther Pennington Macpherson in the operation of the latter’s legal firm in Hallowell (Picton). In August 1835 he opened his own firm in Kingston, six months before being formally called to the bar on 6 Feb. 1836. From 1843 he usually practised with one or more partners, first with Alexander Campbell and then, from the 1850s, with Archibald John Macdonell and Robert Mortimer Wilkinson.
As a lawyer Macdonald quickly attracted public attention, mainly by taking on a number of difficult and even sensational cases, including the defence of William Brass*, a member of a prominent local family who was convicted of rape in 1837, and a series of cases in 1838 involving Nils von Schoultz* and others charged with involvement in the rebellion of 1837–38 and in subsequent border raids. (In December 1837 Macdonald himself had served as a militia private.) Though he lost as many of these cases as he won, he acquired a reputation for ingenuity and quick-wittedness as a defence attorney. In fact he did not long find it necessary to depend on a practice dedicated to the defence of hopeless cases. In 1839 he was appointed solicitor to the Commercial Bank of the Midland District and was made a director. From that point on his practice essentially concerned corporate law, especially after he gained as a client Kingston’s other major financial institution, the Trust and Loan Company of Upper Canada, founded in 1843. Though he acted at times for a wide range of businessmen and businesses, among them the company of Casimir Stanislaus Gzowski, the Trust and Loan Company for many years provided Macdonald with the bulk of his professional income.
Macdonald was himself an active businessman, primarily involved in land development and speculation. Throughout the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s he bought and developed urban property, first in Kingston and subsequently in Guelph and Toronto, and he bought and sold, often through agents, farm and wild land in many parts of the province, in parcels as large as 9,700 acres at a time. He also acted as an agent for British investors in Canadian real estate. Connections formed with British businessmen who were directors of the Trust and Loan Company led to his being appointed, in 1864, president of a British-backed firm in Quebec, the St Lawrence Warehouse, Dock and Wharfage Company. He acquired directorships in at least ten Canadian companies, in addition to the Commercial Bank and the Trust and Loan Company, and he sat on two British boards. As well, he invested in bank stock, road companies, and Great Lakes shipping. Macdonald’s business career was not, however, uniformly successful. He was caught at the time of the depression of 1857 with much unsaleable land on which he had to continue to make payments. In the 1860s he would suffer serious reverses because of the recklessness and sudden death of his legal partner, A. J. Macdonell, and the collapse of the Commercial Bank, which had advanced Macdonald loans. None the less, he managed to avoid failure, continuing to draw income from his law partnership and from the sale and rental of real estate.
Macdonald had a good many personal as well as business problems to deal with. In 1843 he had married his cousin Isabella Clark, who, within two years of their marriage, became chronically ill, suffering from mysterious bouts of weakness and pain. A modern medical examination of her symptoms concludes that “she suffered from a somatization disorder, perhaps with a migrainous component, secondary opiate-dependence and pulmonary tuberculosis.” Isabella bore two children; in both cases the pregnancies and deliveries were extremely difficult. The first child, John Alexander, died at the age of 13 months. The second, Hugh John*, would survive. Isabella herself died in 1857.
From an early age Macdonald had shown a keen interest in public affairs. He was ambitious and looked for opportunities wherever he could find them. At age 19, in 1834, he became secretary of both the Prince Edward District Board of Education and the Hallowell Young Men’s Society. In Kingston he was recording secretary of the Celtic Society in 1836, president of the Young Men’s Society of Kingston in 1837, vice-president of the St Andrew’s Society in 1839, and a prominent member of the Presbyterian community. In March 1843, now well known as a lawyer, businessman, and public-spirited citizen, he was easily elected to the Kingston Town Council as an alderman.
Macdonald’s three-year service at the local level was quickly overshadowed by his entry into provincial politics in the general election of October 1844. He ran in Kingston as a conservative, stressing his belief in the British connection, his commitment to the development of the Province of Canada, and his devotion to the interests of Kingston and its hinterland. Again he was elected by a wide margin; provincially, conservative winners outnumbered reformers by more than two to one.
It has been said that Macdonald’s political views were influenced by his legal mentor, George Mackenzie. While Macdonald was in his office, Mackenzie had advocated a moderate conservatism which stressed commercial expansion but also adhered to such traditional tory notions as state support for religious institutions and leadership by an élite. At any rate, in his early years in the Legislative Assembly Macdonald proved to be a genuine conservative, opposing responsible government, the secularization of the clergy reserves, the abolition of primogeniture, and extensions to the franchise, because such measures were un-British and could weaken the British connection or the authority of the governor and also the necessary propertied element within government and society. Yet he was never an entirely reactionary conservative. His approach to politics from the first was always essentially pragmatic. The fact was that circumstances made it impossible for Macdonald, or any other conservative politician, to cling to political positions that had become outmoded. The transfer of power from the governor and his appointed advisers to elected colonial politicians and the gradual acceptance of party politics created a system in which exclusivist views could not be maintained, at least in public. Macdonald preferred conservative options but did not wish, he stated in 1844, “to waste the time of the Legislature, and the money of the people, in fruitless discussions of abstract and theoretical questions of government.”
For six of the first ten years of his political career-between 1848 and 1854 – his party was not in power and his practicality was expressed mainly in efforts to promote the interests of his constituency. He regularly presented petitions and introduced legislation dealing with such matters as the incorporation of Kingston as a city; its debt; support for its charitable, religious, and educational bodies; and particularly the promotion of such Kingston-area businesses as road and railway companies, insurance companies, financial institutions, and gas, light, and water companies. (Macdonald had a personal financial interest in all of these businesses.) He was a conscientious and successful constituency man and would be re-elected from Kingston in seven consecutive elections for the assembly between 1844 and 1867 and in three for the federal house between 1867 and 1874.
Macdonald’s first experience as a cabinet member was in 1847–48, when he served for seven months as receiver general and for three as commissioner of crown lands in the administrations headed by William Henry Draper* and Henry Sherwood*. In these posts Macdonald proved himself an able and even a reformist administrator, but his chief political initiative was devising and advocating the University Endowment Bill for Upper Canada in 1847. It did not pass but it reflected both his conservatism and his pragmatism. In an attempt to steer a middle course between the reform policy of a single state-supported, nonsectarian university and tory plans for a revived and strengthened Anglican King’s College in Toronto, he proposed to divide the university endowment among the existing denominational colleges but to give King’s College the largest share. In 1848 he resigned with the government to make way for the reform administration of Robert Baldwin* and Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine*.
Macdonald did not hold office again until September 1854, when he became attorney general for Upper Canada in the newly formed coalition government of Sir Allan Napier MacNab* and Augustin-Norbert Morin*. His role in the formation of that coalition, from which some historians have dated the emergence of the modern Conservative party, is not entirely clear. The traditional version of the formation, which appears to have begun with John Charles Dent*’s account in The last forty years (1881), was that “his was the hand that shaped the course” of the negotiations. Donald Robert Beer’s well-founded modern view is that there is “no direct evidence” of Macdonald’s “special contribution to these events.” The exact extent of his involvement will probably never be known, but it is certain that the expanded party created in 1854 exactly fitted his own plan, mentioned in a letter to James McGill Strachan* in February of that year, to “enlarge the bounds of our party” and was in line with his already established “friendly relations with the French.” In 1861 Macdonald himself dated the existence of a solidly based Liberal-Conservative coalition from that occasion, “when I took them [the Conservative party] up in 1854.”
As attorney general (a position he would hold until 1867 except for periods in 1858 and 1862–64) Macdonald assumed a heavy administrative load because the office not only oversaw the judicial and penal systems of Upper Canada but handled a constant stream of references from the other government departments on points of law. He again proved a competent, if somewhat spasmodic, administrator and was shrewd in his choice of expert and efficient deputies: Robert Alexander Harrison* (1854–59) and Hewitt Bernard (1858–67). In the assembly he assumed an increasing share of the legislative load. His first major task was to steer through the act for the abolition of the clergy reserves, a measure that demonstrated his conservatism and his pragmatism by preserving a share of the revenues for clerical (mostly Anglican) incumbents but at the same time disposing of a long-standing, contentious issue. As he said in November 1854, “You must yield to the times.” In the same session, in early 1855, he assumed responsibility in the lower house for a controversial bill on Upper Canada’s separate schools, for which the Roman Catholic Church, led by Bishop Armand-François-Marie de Charbonnel, had lobbied the government. The bill was introduced first in the Legislative Council by Étienne-Paschal Taché* and in the assembly only in May, near the end of the session, when many Upper Canadian members had already left Quebec (the capital). Though provision for separate schools in Upper Canada had existed since 1841 [see Egerton Ryerson*], the act of 1855 really created the basis of the system that was to persist in Upper Canada and then in Ontario. It was defended by Macdonald on religious grounds – the right of Roman Catholics, according to the Toronto Globe’s report in June, “to educate their children according to their own principles.” The bill itself and the manner of its introduction had been severely criticized by Joseph Hartman* and others and ultimately opposed by a majority of Upper Canadian members, but it had passed on the strength of French Canadian Catholic votes. Macdonald was accused, probably rightly, of parliamentary manipulation and he laid the government open to a charge of “French domination” of the administration. The issue also provided arguments for those in Upper Canada, led by George Brown* of the Globe, who since 1853 had advocated the introduction of a system of representation by population in the provincial parliament, which would have given Upper Canada a greater number of seats than Lower Canada.
In 1856 Macdonald became, for the first time, leader of the Upper Canadian section of the government, replacing MacNab. The manner in which he assumed control has been the subject of some controversy. MacNab had come under increasing criticism within the coalition because of his lingering reputation as a compact tory and his growing ineffectiveness due to ill health. No doubt he should have resigned but he refused, making it necessary to force him out of office so that a reconstruction of the cabinet could occur. Macdonald does not appear to have acted purely out of personal ambition; he too had become convinced that MacNab had to go. He took part in the ouster, first by sending MacNab an ultimatum, which he rejected, and then by joining the Reform members of the cabinet, Joseph Curran Morrison* and Robert Spence*, in resigning from it on 21 May (the other Upper Canadian Conservative, William Cayley*, soon followed) on the grounds that the government had been in a minority among the Upper Canadian members on a vote of confidence. MacNab had no choice but to place his portfolio at the disposal of Governor General Sir Edmund Walker Head*. The cabinet was reorganized on the 24th, with Taché as premier and Macdonald as co-premier. Macdonald now assumed the leadership role he was to hold for the rest of his life.
His approach to political power and responsibility was in practice highly personal. Before confederation he always shared the direction of the government and his party with a French Canadian leader, especially after November 1857 when the energetic George-Étienne Cartier* took over from Taché. Macdonald himself kept a firm hand on the affairs of the party in his own section of the Province of Canada. He was its chief strategist, fund-raiser, and, during elections, campaign organizer. He intervened directly at the riding level to ensure that suitable candidates were nominated, often having to sort out the rival claims of as many as six potential Liberal-Conservative mlas and if necessary “buying off” (usually with the promise of a government appointment) those who might create a party “split.” He advised candidates on policy and tactics and arranged election funding where necessary. He attempted to acquire the bloc support of a number of large groups, such as the Orange order and the adherents of the Methodist and Catholic churches, by appealing to the leaders of these organizations, including Ogle Robert Gowan*, Ryerson, and bishops Rémi Gaulin* and Edward John Horan*, for their influence with their followers. Despite his best efforts, however, Macdonald was not notably successful in winning elections in Upper Canada before confederation. In 1861, after his first extensive speaking tour and a campaign in which he advocated a British North American federation and raised the old “no looking to Washington” cry of loyalty, his candidates achieved only a small majority of Upper Canadian seats. In the other elections under his management, in 1857–58 and 1863, the Upper Canadian Conservatives were defeated.
Macdonald was nevertheless an adroit politician and a popular campaigner. He successfully combined political shrewdness with a talent for conviviality and for good-humouredly persuading his colleagues to follow his lead. On the platform he projected a no-nonsense political image, coupled with a flair for ridiculing the foibles of his opponents. Clearly, by 1855 colleagues recognized Macdonald’s capacity for drink and soft sawder as important elements of his strength; others underestimated his skills because of them. But on occasion he was a hard drinker. The first time his drinking seems to have been a serious public problem was in the spring of 1862, at a time of government instability and during debate on a bill to expand the militia that Macdonald had introduced and defended. The Globe reported him as having “one of his old attacks.” Because Macdonald took so much personal responsibility for leadership, when he went on a binge his party drifted. On 21 May 1862, after the defeat of the bill, the government resigned.
The truth was that the Upper Canadian Conservatives had usually been sustained in power by their alliance with Cartier and the Bleu bloc, which held a majority in Lower Canada. This relationship had obvious political advantages and reflected both Macdonald’s belief in French-English cooperation and his long-standing commitment to the union of Upper and Lower Canada as an economic necessity. The relationship also meant that his brand of Conservatism had become more and more unpopular in his own section of the province and increasingly open to charges of “French domination” of the ministry. Whether from conviction or necessity Macdonald had been forced to defend, against a hostile Protestant majority in the population of Upper Canada, the system of Catholic separate schools. He personally opposed representation by population as a basis for the distribution of seats in the assembly, even though most Upper Canadians and eventually many of his Upper Canadian Conservative followers, among them John Hillyard Cameron*, came out in support of the principle. After 1851 the population of the western section of the province exceeded the east’s so that adopting the principle would have reduced the effectiveness of the French Canadians as a political group. Macdonald also, like Cartier, showed limited enthusiasm for another popular Upper Canadian movement, the annexation of the vast territory west of Canada. Though the Taché–Macdonald government in 1857 made a vague claim to the lands then under the jurisdiction of the Hudson’s Bay Company, Macdonald was not much concerned. In 1865 he was to state in a letter to Edward William Watkin, the former Grand Trunk president who had examined the question of confederation for the Colonial Office, that he was “quite willing personally to leave that whole country a wilderness for the next fifty years.” Thus in the period 1854–64 he was in a kind of political trap of his own making. To stay in power he needed French Canadian support but that necessity in turn involved support for policies that were a political liability in his own section of the province.
Macdonald tried to compensate for the political weakness of Conservatism in Upper Canada in a number of ways. He insisted that the party officially remain a coalition of moderate Reformers and Conservatives and he always kept a succession of Hincksite Reform members, such as Morrison, Spence, and John Ross*, or Reform defectors such as Michael Hamilton Foley* or Thomas D’Arcy McGee* in the cabinet to try to broaden his party’s image and appeal. He also tried to compensate for political shortcomings by developing a centralized system of government patronage. Macdonald was, of course, far from the first politician to dispense patronage but, unlike his Conservative predecessors, he maintained a strong personal hold over office-giving while in power and he used offices, or the promise of office, in a deliberate attempt to strengthen the party at the local level, on the principle that reward should only result from actual service. By making sure that recommendations on patronage were “attached to the legal department,” as Macdonald stressed in January 1855, and by working hard on behalf of people to whom he had made commitments, he was able to raise the level of loyalty to the party, and to himself, throughout the province.
Though never associated with legislation that produced dramatic or sweeping reforms, during the period when he was most influential as attorney general, party leader, or co-premier (1854–62), he oversaw, particularly in the late 1850s, the introduction of measures and administrative changes which contributed a good deal to the efficient running of a rapidly expanding and changing province. In the 1850s in Canada the state had just begun to assume responsibility for social welfare; the only existing provincial institutions in Upper Canada were the penitentiary at Kingston and the lunatic asylum in Toronto [see Joseph Workman]. Between 1856 and 1861 branches of the asylum were opened in Toronto, Amherstburg, and Orillia. An institution for the criminally insane was established in Kingston in 1858. The first reformatory for juvenile offenders began in temporary quarters in Penetanguishene the following year. By the act of 1857 that provided for the asylum for the criminally insane and the reformatory, a permanent board of inspectors was created to oversee and set standards for all state welfare and correctional institutions, including 52 local jails. Under Macdonald’s leadership the basis of a public social-welfare system was laid down and gradually extended. In 1866 the Municipal Institutions Act (rescinded after confederation) required the establishment of a house of industry or a refuge for the poor in each well-populated county within two years.
During the same years a great deal of expansion and reorganization of the government’s bureaucracy was undertaken. The question of a permanent seat of government, which had exacerbated urban rivalries for years, was settled by the ingenious device, on the part of Macdonald and others, of referring the issue to the queen in 1857 [see Sir Edmund Walker Head]. Announcement of her choice of Ottawa occasioned the temporary defeat of the Macdonald–Cartier government in July 1858, but when the Reformers under George Brown were unable to attract a parliamentary majority, it returned to office within 48 hours by means of the controversial “double shuffle” manœuvre [see William Henry Draper]. In 1859 a parliamentary decision in favour of Ottawa was finally reached by a majority of five votes.
The Civil Service Act of 1857 established the rule that each major government agency would have a permanent, non-political head called a deputy minister. A first attempt to bring fiscal responsibility into government had been undertaken in the Audit Act of 1855 and the appointment of Macdonald’s friend and former Conservative colleague John Langton as auditor of public accounts. Further financial change occurred in 1859 when the office of inspector general was elevated to a full-fledged Department of Finance, completing a long process by which the office of receiver general, who was originally the province’s most important financial officer, was downgraded to a minor post. Two new departments were created. The Bureau of Agriculture and Statistics, established in 1857, became a full department in 1862 [see Joseph-Charles Taché]. The previous year Macdonald had imposed a political head, the minister of militia affairs, upon the bureaucratic post of adjutant general of militia. In December 1861 Macdonald himself assumed the responsibility of being the first minister, a post which he held until May 1862, during the sensitive opening year of the American Civil War, and again in 1865–67, at the time of the Fenian raids. The expansion included the creation in 1857, within the Crown Lands Department, of a fisheries branch, charged with preserving and protecting fresh-water fish-stocks, and, more significant, the assumption by the province in 1860 of complete responsibility for Indian affairs, previously under imperial control [see Richard Theodore Pennefather*].
Attempts were also made to develop areas of a province that was rapidly running out of accessible agricultural land. In 1858 two temporary judicial districts (Algoma and Nipissing) were established, tightening the government’s control in these thinly populated northern areas. A network of colonization roads was planned under the direction of Crown Lands to encourage settlement in the southern section of the Canadian Shield beyond the existing areas of cultivation. These roads when built were never successful in their agricultural purpose (though they were helpful to the lumber industry), but the construction of several during Macdonald’s period in office reflected his often-expressed view that there was a “fertile back country” which only needed an improved transportation system to permit it to develop.
In the late 1850s, and especially in 1857, when more bills were passed than in any other year in the entire union period, the Macdonald–Cartier government undertook many legislative initiatives including the Independence of Parliament Act (1857), amendments to the Municipal Corporations Act (1857 and 1858), an act for the registration of voters (1858), and amendments (1858) affecting the operation of the surrogate courts, the usury law, the composition of juries, and imprisonment for debt (it was abolished in most cases). As attorney general Macdonald was responsible for a number of significant reforms of the judicial system itself, among them the Common Law Procedure Act (1856), the County Attorneys Act (1857), and an act which permitted appeal in criminal cases (1857). In addition, this business-oriented government adopted a wide range of measures to stimulate economic growth. These included not only continued support of the Grand Trunk Railway but also, in the budget brought in by Inspector General William Cayley in 1857 and seen through the legislature by Alexander Tilloch Galt the following year, the first tariff system of “incidental protection” for Canadian industry. This system, foreshadowing the National Policy of the 1870s, was responsible for “numerous manufactories of every description which have sprung up in both sections of the province,” according to Macdonald in 1861. In 1859 Postmaster General Sidney Smith*, one of Macdonald’s closest political friends, concluded arrangements with the United States, Great Britain, France, Belgium, and Prussia for mail service to Canada and the United States. Macdonald and his colleagues also encouraged and supported a large number of acts incorporating new businesses and expanding the scope of existing ones, including road and rail companies, insurance companies, banks, mining, oil, and lumber companies, and many others, in some of which Macdonald and his parliamentary associates had a personal interest.
Macdonald went into opposition in 1862 when the Militia Bill was defeated in the assembly. He returned to office two years later, in very different political circumstances. The election of 1863 had returned almost twice as many Reformers as Conservatives in Upper Canada, but the situation overall, owing to the continued strength of Cartier’s Bleus and the English-speaking Conservatives of Lower Canada, was a virtual stalemate. An administration led by the Reformers John Sandfield Macdonald* and Louis-Victor Sicotte* and then another formed in March 1864 by E.-P. Taché and Macdonald each failed to sustain majority support. A constitutional committee of the legislature chaired by George Brown, of which Macdonald was a member, reported on 14 June in favour of a federal system of government for the two sections of Canada or for all of the British North American provinces. This proposal received wide support in the Province of Canada because it offered a way out of the highly polarized political deadlock and would provide Upper and Lower Canada with separate provincial governments, thus allowing for greater regional freedom of action and a lessening of sectional and racial tensions. Macdonald, however, with two others from Brown’s 20-member committee, refused to endorse its report, which was supported by almost all of the leading Canadian politicians of the day. Though he had been part of an administration which, as early as 1858, favoured a federal union, he had always been cool to the idea because, he stated in a public address in 1861, he feared a federation would have “the defects in the Constitution of the United States” – a weak central government. Macdonald had always preferred a highly centralized, preferably unitary, form of government that would not be torn by jurisdictional disputes, which, he believed, had been “so painfully made manifest” during the Civil War.
Despite these strong misgivings about federation, when Brown suggested combined action to bring about constitutional change, Macdonald reversed his stand. His shift came within two days, on 16 June 1864. The result was the formation on the 30th of the “Great Coalition,” by which the majority of the Upper Canadian Reformers joined with Macdonald’s Conservatives and Cartier’s Bleus for the purpose of creating a federal union of British North America. The reasons for Macdonald’s abrupt change of mind were both visionary and entirely practical. Federation would “prevent anarchy,” “settle the great Constitutional question of Parliamentary Reform in Canada,” and “restore the credit of the Province abroad.” In other words, the united provinces would form a larger, stronger, more harmonious community and even a potential rival to the United States. More immediately the coalition allowed him to escape from serious political difficulties in his own section of Canada, where the Reform party appeared to be gaining unbeatable strength. “I then had the option,” he wrote privately in 1866, “either of forming a Coalition Government or of handing over the administration of affairs to the Grit party for the next ten years.”
From 1864 to 1867 Macdonald was preoccupied with two overriding concerns: the Civil War – its aftermath and its implications for Canada – and the not unrelated matter of the confederation of British North America. In October 1864 a raid on St Albans, Vt, by Confederate soldiers operating from Canada and their later release on a technicality by Montreal magistrate Charles-Joseph Coursol* caused a strong anti-Canadian reaction in the United States. In December its government demanded that all persons entering the United States from British North America be required to hold a passport and Congress began proceedings for the abrogation of the Reciprocity Treaty, in force since 1854. The Canadian government responded by calling out 2,000 militia volunteers to attempt to prevent further incidents along the border. As attorney general Macdonald authorized the creation of a small “detective and preventive force” to gather information, using Canadian agents and American informants in several American cities. In charge of this first Canadian secret-service unit (which became the Dominion Police after confederation) Macdonald, in December, placed a “shrewd, cool, and determined man,” a Scottish immigrant and former mla named Gilbert McMicken. He reported directly and secretly to Macdonald, who in August 1865 once again added the responsibilities of minister of militia affairs to those of attorney general.
In 1864 Macdonald and McMicken were also forced to become concerned about the Fenian Brotherhood, an Irish-American paramilitary organization dedicated to the liberation of Ireland. There were fears of Fenianism spreading into Canada and there were rumours and a few incidents of armed organization on the part of the Hibernian Benevolent Society of Canada [see Michael Murphy*; John O’Neill*], but the menace turned out to be external. In 1866 raids were launched on Campobello Island in New Brunswick and, with more success, across the Niagara River at Fort Erie. Fenianism thereafter faded as a threat to British North American security but events of 1864–66 undoubtedly contributed to an “atmosphere of crisis” which had an important effect on the rapid achievement of a federal union and on the form it took. The coalition government established in 1864 was under the titular leadership of Taché but Macdonald quickly became the mainspring of the confederation negotiations that followed. Brown had wanted the coalition first to pursue a federal union of the two Canadas alone. Macdonald insisted, and got his way, that the priority should be a union of all the provinces. An opportunity to further this aim presented itself, since the Maritime provinces had already begun preparations for a regional conference to discuss the possibility of a legislative union of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island [see Arthur Hamilton Gordon*; Sir Charles Tupper*]. Viscount Monck, governor general of British North America, arranged with the lieutenant governors of those provinces to allow a Canadian delegation to attend the conference, planned for Charlottetown, to present informally a proposal for federation. During the summer of 1864 the Canadian cabinet prepared its proposals. When the delegation arrived at the conference in September, it was invited to present its case at once, before any discussion of Maritime union. Macdonald spoke first, beginning a process that was to culminate with the passage of the British North America Act three years later. It led to the Quebec conference in October 1864 between representatives of Canada, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland, and eventually to the final meetings of the delegates of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick with the British government in London between December 1866 and February 1867.
The extent to which Macdonald was personally responsible for the form and substance of the confederation agreement has been the subject of debate, but there is no doubt that he was the dominant figure throughout the events of 1864–67. At the Quebec conference he was the principal spokesman for the Canadian scheme, which had been worked out in some detail. He chaired the meetings in London in 1866–67 (in February 1867 he married there). The British North America Bill, for the federal union of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick, was signed into law on 29 March 1867, to be proclaimed on 1 July. Macdonald’s role was amply recognized in Great Britain. He was the only colonial leader to be awarded an honorary degree (from Oxford in 1865) or to be given a knighthood (conferred 29 June 1867, announced 1 July), and he was, of course, selected as the first prime minister of the Dominion of Canada. (He had been asked by Monck in May to form the first administration.)
Certainly much of the constitutional structure of the dominion was his creation. He could not say so publicly, but in private he claimed almost complete responsibility for the confederation scheme on the grounds that he alone had possessed the necessary background in constitutional theory and law. In the “preparation of our Constitution,” he had told his close friend county court judge James Robert Gowan* in November 1864, “I must do it alone as there is not one person connected with the Government who has the slightest idea of the nature of the work.” His colleague Thomas D’Arcy McGee said in public in 1866 that Macdonald was the author of 50 of the 72 resolutions agreed upon at Quebec.
Even at the time some played down Macdonald’s role. George Brown challenged McGee’s statement in the Globe and attributed the confederation plan to the collective efforts of the Canadian cabinet. Certainly there were aspects which Macdonald did not initiate and some of which he did not particularly approve. The financial arrangements, as he admitted, were the work of A. T. Galt. Representation by population, the principle that governed membership in the lower house, had long been advocated by Brown and was made a fundamental part of confederation at his insistence. The provisions for the official use of the French language in parliament, in the federal courts, and in the courts and legislature of Quebec, as well as the continuance of the code civil in that province, were clearly Cartier’s contribution. The arrangements for the preservation of existing separate schools and for their establishment in new provinces were largely inspired by Galt. Before confederation Macdonald had never shared Brown’s great enthusiasm for extending Canadian jurisdiction into the northwest, or for an intercolonial railway, which was provided for in an unusual constitutional clause insisted upon in London by the Maritime delegates, who included Jonathan McCully*, William Alexander Henry*, and Samuel Leonard Tilley. To what extent then can the BNA Act be said to have been “the Macdonaldian Constitution”?
The terms of the act were not precisely what Macdonald would have wanted had he been allowed a free hand, but he believed that his main objectives had been achieved. His overriding goal had always been a system that, though federal in order to secure the assent of Quebec and the Maritimes, would be as centralized as possible, with a central government directed by a powerful executive. In the act the division of powers between the central and provincial governments reflected his aims. The federal powers were more numerous and contained the blanket phrase “peace, order and good government.” In that phrase was the most sweeping grant of power known to the drafters at the Colonial Office, who supported Macdonald’s centralist position. Macdonald intended to have ample room for anything he wanted to do. The federal powers were also concerned with those areas of jurisdiction where Macdonald believed real power lay: national defence, finance, trade and commerce, taxation, currency, and banking. As well the federal government was given the power (exercised by the imperial government before 1848) to disallow provincial legislation. (In June 1868 a justice department memorandum approved by cabinet for transmission to the provinces was to emphasize a new and exacting use of disallowance, so that even the strongest of provincial rights was to be subject to central surveillance.) The federal cabinet appointed its own provincial watch-dogs, the lieutenant governors, as well as the members of the Senate, the body designed by Macdonald to represent the well-to-do, propertied element of Canadian society, though the House of Commons would continue to be elected on a property franchise. Macdonald believed he had avoided the chief weaknesses of the American federation: universal suffrage and a weak executive. Canada would be run from the centre by people who had a genuine stake in the community. Macdonald’s omission from the BNA Act of a formula for amending the structures and powers of the central government was probably not, as is often suggested, an oversight. Having seen to it that the local legislatures could amend their own constitutional arrangements within the tight constraints of section 92, Macdonald would not have neglected something analogous in section 91, on the powers of parliament, had he thought he needed it.
Macdonald’s private agenda for the future of the new federation went much farther than the BNA Act revealed. It was not just that a provincial government was to be “a subordinate legislature.” The provincial governments, he maintained, had been made fatally weak and were ultimately to cease to exist. He envisaged a Canada with one government and, as nearly as possible, one homogeneous population sharing common institutions and characteristics. In December 1864 he told Matthew Crooks Cameron* that “if the Confederation goes on[,] you, if spared the ordinary age of man, will see both Local Parliaments & Governments absorbed in the General Power. This is as plain to me as if I saw it accomplished but of course it does not do to adopt that point of view in discussing the subject in Lower Canada.” He was undoubtedly wise not to make such sentiments public, for among French Canadians, by whom the provincial governments were already being seen as the centre of what would become known as “provincial rights,” there were even in 1864 suspicions of his intentions. Ottawa’s Le Canada, edited by Elzéar Gérin*, argued in 1866, “The more the local legislature is simplified, the more its importance will be diminished and the greater the risk of its being absorbed by the federal legislature.” Macdonald thought he had set in motion an evolutionary constitutional process which in time would further alter the relative importance of the two levels of government. His colleague Hewitt Bernard, secretary of all the confederation conferences, had acquired an inner core of experience about how Macdonald’s constitutional ideas could be translated into practice. Asked by Governor General Lord Dufferin [Blackwood*] in 1874 to comment on the BNA Act in the light of seven years of operation, Bernard directed his criticisms mainly at making still more explicit and restrictive the provincial powers covered in section 92.
In many practical ways the administrative structure of the new dominion government was that of the Province of Canada shifted into a new gear. The capital remained at Ottawa, of course, and many of the old province’s deputy ministers and chief officers occupied senior positions in the federal civil service, among them Bernard, Joseph-Charles Taché, William Henry Griffin, Toussaint Trudeau, Edmund Allen Meredith, and John Langton. Macdonald was more ambitious than his colleagues to make not only constitutional room for central power but physical space as well. He wanted more land in central Ottawa than his colleagues would let him take. Macdonald wished, for instance, to take over Nepean Point for the governor general’s residence, but his colleagues would have none of it. He told Joseph Pope* years later that Rideau Hall had cost them more to patch up than a new residence would have cost at Nepean Point. Macdonald wanted to take the whole block between Wellington and Sparks streets east of Metcalfe for future departmental offices. His colleagues baulked at that too.
The Department of Justice was the portfolio Macdonald himself chose in 1867 and the one he retained until the resignation of his government in November 1873. He supervised the splitting of functions in 1867, consigning those of his former office, the attorney generalship of Upper Canada, to the provincial government in Toronto. The senior staff in his old office remained with the new department; no break in Macdonald’s old departmental letter-books occurred.
His duties also tended to be a continuation of those he had carried as attorney general. The pardoning power, which belonged to the governor general, compelled Macdonald to review capital cases, and the penitentiary system was a federal responsibility. Federal involvement in both had been insisted upon by the Colonial Office; it is by no means certain that Macdonald wanted them. The penitentiary system he left to Hewitt Bernard, but in his policies he continued his tendency to be firm rather than charitable. The primary object of penitentiaries, he told John Creighton*, the warden in Kingston, in 1871, was “punishment, the incidental one, reformation.” It was possible to make prisons too comfortable, prisoners too happy. (Read David Copperfield, he said, particularly where Uriah Heep, in a model prison, is so much better off than poor people living outside it.) The power of release ought to be used sparingly. Certainty of punishment was of more consequence than severity of sentence. Macdonald attributed the high rate of crime in the United States to the ease with which pardons could be obtained through political pressure on state governors.
When Thomas D’Arcy McGee was shot on 7 April 1868, the full power of the dominion government was placed at the disposal of the attorney general of Ontario, in whose hands lay the responsibility for prosecution. The dominion shared the expenses of prosecuting Patrick James Whelan*, and Bernard, as deputy minister of justice, took a prominent part in finding evidence in Ottawa. Although John Sandfield Macdonald was premier of Ontario as well as attorney general, Sir John virtually took over the case. He was implacable. Pressures arose for a stay of execution; even the prosecuting counsel, James O’Reilly*, seemed uncomfortable; John Hillyard Cameron, the defence counsel, thought there should have been a new trial or at the least an appeal to the Privy Council. Yet Macdonald was ordinarily of milder mien, especially in cases where the evidence was ambiguous. The death sentence of Baptiste Renard, convicted in 1864 of rape, had been commuted, as usual, to life imprisonment. Three years later, after Bishop Edward John Horan of Kingston brought new evidence to Macdonald’s attention, Renard was discharged.
The early sessions of the Canadian parliament showed Macdonald’s strong centralist views about the assimilation of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and the Hudson’s Bay Company territory. The new North-West Territories, to be carved out of Rupert’s Land, were to become, Macdonald admitted, Canadian crown colonies, administered as such. He had things to learn; but the first year or so of confederation showed how firmly a central Canadian he was, sanguine about issues and difficulties that he was unfamiliar with. In the face of continuing anti-confederate sentiment in Nova Scotia, customs minister S. L. Tilley had to warn him in July 1868 from Windsor, N.S., “There is no use in crying peace when there is no peace. We require wise and prudent action at this moment.” Macdonald was a realist, but realism with him took the form of perceptions forced upon a sanguine temperament. This odd combination gave him the incentive, dodger that he was, to adapt, shift, make expedients. He would not bow down to difficulties: he would try to work his way out of them. In the case of Nova Scotia, the recklessness of its premier, Charles Tupper, in pressing the province to enter confederation and his own central Canadian perspective had got him into trouble; when he moved it was late, but he acted with skill, courage, and resourcefulness. He travelled to Halifax in August 1868 in order to meet Joseph Howe* to work out measures to ease the conflict between Nova Scotia and the dominion.
The application of an “imperial screw” to Nova Scotia [see Sir William Fenwick Williams*] was not something he would willingly repeat. By 1869 he knew that as a mode for political unions it was counter-productive. At the end of that year Governor Stephen John Hill of Newfoundland suggested the colony might be added to Canada by imperial fiat. Macdonald would have none of it. Although terms of union had been negotiated with Canada by a delegation led by the island’s premier, Frederic Bowker Terrington Carter, in the fall general election Newfoundlanders had definitely pronounced themselves against confederation. That, as far as Macdonald was concerned, was that. He would not impose Canadian rule on another colony without local opinion being tested and found willing. This attitude explains his readiness to negotiate at the first sign of trouble at Red River (Man.) in 1869 [see Louis Riel*]. He would insist, for the same reason, on an election in British Columbia before confederation was cemented in place there in 1871. He would be endlessly patient with the demands, and elections, of Prince Edward Islanders. “I see that you have quite a political ferment about your Railway,” he wrote in October 1871 to his doctor in Charlottetown, William Hamilton Hobkirk. “I hope that the result of the increase of your pecuniary burdens will be your making a junction with the Dominion; but such a consummation . . . can be hastened by no action on our part, it must arise altogether from your own people.”
The acquisition of Rupert’s Land was a major item on his 1869 agenda. This had been negotiated in London on Canada’s behalf largely by Cartier. He and William McDougall*, the minister of public works, arrived in London in October 1868; the latter was taken seriously ill almost at once. Cartier’s negotiations crossed two ministries, Disraeli’s on the way out and Gladstone’s on the way in. Although McDougall was convinced that Gladstone’s government would be more favourable to the Canadian cause, Cartier believed the opposite and he was right. Cartier left for Canada only on 1 April 1869, after six months of continuous negotiations. Under the dominion’s temporary government act, assented to in June, a lieutenant governor and council were to administer the territories, which were to be transferred formally to Canada on 1 December.
After McDougall accepted the office of lieutenant governor of the North-West Territories (what Macdonald privately called his “dreary sovereignty”) Macdonald followed up a long conference with him by letters full of good sense. “The point which you must never forget,” he advised sternly on 20 November, “is that you are now, approaching a Foreign country, under the Government of the Hudson Bay Company. . . . You cannot force your way in.” Macdonald encouraged him to retain Riel (a “clever fellow”) for his “future police,” and thus to give “a most convincing proof that you are not going to leave the half breeds out of the Law.”
For the troubles that had already arisen in the Red River settlement over a federal survey and the transfer of the northwest, Macdonald, so far as he knew of them, put some blame on local priests. He also put some, privately, on Cartier for having “rather snubbed” Bishop Alexandre-Antonin Taché of St Boniface that summer when he came through Ottawa on his way to Rome. Secretary of State Hector-Louis Langevin* was thought to have patched things up, but Macdonald believed by late November that Taché’s irritation had got back to Red River. The main burden of blame Macdonald put upon officials of the HBC. The dissatisfaction of the Métis was well known to its local council. The transfer had been planned and known of for months. HBC officer John H. McTavish had been in Ottawa in April, had seen Macdonald and others, and had been told of the transfer of the northwest to Canada with the same rights for its inhabitants as had existed before. Yet company officials gave no explanation to the people of Red River about what was to happen. “All that those poor people know,” Macdonald said to Cartier on 27 November, “is that Canada has bought the country . . . & that they are handed over like a flock of sheep to us; and they are told that they lose their lands . . . . Under these circumstances it is not to be wondered at that they should be dissatisfied, and should show their discontent.”
Macdonald’s advice to McDougall that same day, in the light of what was then known, was good law and common sense. He told McDougall in a letter not to cross the 49th parallel and not to be sworn in as lieutenant governor. The policy should be to throw full responsibility for the unrest on the HBC and the imperial government. A proclamation from McDougall calling for the loyalty of the people in Red River would be well if it were certain to be obeyed. But if it were disobeyed, Macdonald reasoned, McDougall’s weakness would be “painfully exhibited” to the people and to the Americans. If he were not admitted to the country, a proclamation would create anarchy; it would then be open to the inhabitants of Red River “to form a government ex necessitate for the protection of life and property, and such a government has certain sovereign rights by jus gentium.” The Americans might even be tempted to recognize it. This advice reached McDougall too late to save him from his own folly of 1 December, when he precipitately proclaimed the northwest to be part of Canada. A week later Riel established a provisional government. At about the same time, Macdonald sent emissaries, Charles-René-Léonidas d’Irumberry* de Salaberry and Abbé Jean-Baptiste Thibault*, when he thought reassurances were needed, and Donald Alexander Smith* as a commissioner to negotiate the moment he saw that real mediation was going to be necessary. What he did not want was the British government sending out an imperial commissioner. He believed, as did the whole Canadian cabinet, “that to send out an overwashed Englishman, utterly ignorant of the Country and full of crotchets as all Englishmen are, would be a mistake.”
When Taché came back through Ottawa in February 1870, Cartier ate as much humble pie as seemed requisite. But so sensitive was the northwest issue as a result of Thomas Scott*’s execution in March that two of the delegates sent east by Riel in March, Alfred Henry Scott* and Abbé Joseph-Noël Ritchot*, were arrested for complicity in the murder. Macdonald hired John Hillyard Cameron to help get them off and made the $500 payment privately so that it would not appear in public accounts.
On 6 May, as the bill to create the new province of Manitoba was going through the House of Commons, Macdonald was struck down by the passage of a gallstone. He was so weak he could not be moved home, and his corner office in the east block became his sick-room. In early July Macdonald, his wife, his little daughter, his mother-in-law, Hewitt Bernard, Dr James Alexander Grant, a nurse, and a secretary went off to Charlottetown by government steamer from Quebec. The party arrived on 8 July and took up residence in a large rambling house in the suburbs. Macdonald was still so weak in the legs that he could not walk. It has been alleged that there, besides following the Franco-German War, Macdonald hatched the scheme to buy Prince Edward Island into confederation by getting its government to build a railway. Suspicions do not make evidence. What is certain is that Macdonald was not going to take the Island into confederation without a convincing display of local support. He was back in Ottawa on 22 September, impressing everyone with how well he looked.
He soon took hold of bringing British Columbia into confederation. Negotiations had been conducted by Cartier in June 1870. On 29 September Macdonald told the colony’s governor, Anthony Musgrave*, that though the terms Cartier had negotiated, including the construction of a transcontinental railway, could be justified on their merits, “considerable opposition” could be expected in parliament because they would likely be seen as too burdensome to Canada and too liberal to British Columbia. He therefore told Musgrave to try to follow the course taken when the Newfoundland resolutions were going through parliament in 1869: have members of the colonial government come to Ottawa to discuss awkward points with the mps, especially the Conservative caucus. In April–May 1871 Joseph William Trutch* came east for that purpose and helped Cartier secure parliament’s approval of the British Columbia terms of union.
Macdonald was again absent from the House of Commons. He had had to assume the thankless role of being a Canadian and an Englishman at the same time: as one of the British commissioners in the negotiations at Washington to settle outstanding Anglo-American differences, many of which affected Canada. One suggestion for a representative from Canada had been Sir John Rose*, formerly Canada’s finance minister, who had already conducted discussions on the same topic with American secretary of state Hamilton Fish. But Rose’s interests were now London and New York and however much Macdonald trusted him – and that trust went a long way – his appointment was unacceptable politically. There seemed to be no one else for this ungrateful task but himself. He left for Washington on 27 February for what he would later describe as the “most difficult and disagreeable work that I have ever undertaken since I entered Public Life.”
Macdonald had seen little of the United States for 20 years, and the commission was his first extended contact with American statesmen. He was surprised to find them agreeable socially; that did not make them less dangerous diplomatically. Of the pressing issues the Alabama claims was the most serious, but the commission, for the moment, could only agree to disagree on it. The full weight of negotiations then fell upon the Canadian inshore fisheries. Free access to those fisheries had ended when the Reciprocity Treaty lapsed in 1866 and the licensing of American vessels was now being rigorously enforced [see Peter Mitchell]. Solving this issue became a matter of vital importance to Great Britain, which hoped to face the military and political consequences of the Franco-German War without the distraction of Americans being angry and belligerent. The United States, Macdonald told Tupper, wanted everything and would give nothing; his British colleagues, especially Lord de Grey, the chief commissioner, were ready to make Macdonald and Canada responsible for failure. They wanted a treaty in their pockets “no matter at what cost to Canada.” Macdonald seriously weighed resigning as commissioner. De Grey strongly urged him not to, for the resignation of a plenipotentiary, especially the Canadian one, would endanger the treaty in the American Senate. Macdonald had been caught, as he admitted, between the devil and the deep blue sea, between his role as a British commissioner and as Canadian prime minister. Britain was so anxious to secure a treaty that, to help persuade Canada to ratify it, the British accepted Macdonald’s suggestion that compensation be given by the imperial government for the Fenian raids, since the Americans had refused to consider any redress as part of the treaty.
Americans had accepted Canadian ratification of the treaty only because they thought that Canada would be a rubber stamp. If the British parliament ratified the treaty, that was that. As Macdonald put it to Tupper in April, “When Lord de Grey tells them that England is not a despotic power & cannot control the Canadian Parlt. when it acts within its legitimate jurisdiction, they pooh! pooh! it altogether.” On 8 May, with much misgiving, Macdonald signed the Treaty of Washington.
In Canada he would face strong opposition from both political parties. He wrote to Rose some days after the signing, “I think that I would have been unworthy of the position, and untrue to myself if, from any selfish timidity, I had refused to face the storm. Our Parliament will not meet until February next, and between now & then I must endeavour to lead the Canadian mind in the right direction. You are well out of the scrape.” He put it more sharply to de Grey: Canadian indignation in June and July was intense and pervaded all classes – parliament was certain to reject the treaty. If that happened, Macdonald suggested to Governor General Baron Lisgar [Young*] in July, he would leave the government. His colleagues might or might not carry on without him. If they resigned, and a Liberal government were formed, it would oppose the treaty lock, stock, and barrel.
The fall of the Sandfield Macdonald government in Ontario in December 1871 did not augur well for the treaty, or for Ontario in the next federal election. Edward Blake*, the new premier, and Alexander Mackenzie, his lieutenant, both opposed the treaty. It offered Ontario and Quebec nothing: no compensation from the United States for the Fenian raids on the Ontario and Quebec borders; free navigation of the St Lawrence for the Americans in return for the dubious privilege given to Canada of navigating three rivers in Alaska. The fisheries settlement offended most areas: Canadian fish would be admitted free to the American market, but access to the inshore fisheries was to be sold to the Americans for 10 years at a price to be set down by arbitrators. Macdonald had had to fight to avoid it being set down for 25 years. Scholars could later write about the treaty as an achievement in settling outstanding issues between Great Britain and the United States; it was another matter for the prime minister of a country that had to swallow critical sections of it. In the end, by waiting until May 1872, when Canadian public opinion had cooled down and the British had offered a guarantee for Canadian railways as compensation for the Fenian raids, Macdonald was able to get the treaty through the commons by 121 votes to 55. The vote did not mean, however, that the hustings had forgotten it.
Nor was this all. Riel would not go away. He had been got out of the country, but he drifted back. In the so-called Fenian attack across the Manitoba border in October 1871, Macdonald suspected him of playing a double game, first encouraging the leader, William Bernard O’Donoghue*, and then switching sides when he saw that the raid would be damped down by the Americans. For that and other reasons Macdonald found Lieutenant Governor Adams George Archibald’s shaking hands with Riel in apparent reconciliation unpardonable, and he wished that Archibald had had his political antennae sensitized by Ontario’s reaction to the death of Thomas Scott.
These elements combined to make the general election of the summer of 1872 difficult, even treacherous, for Macdonald. He did not like to run a government out to full term, but after Washington an election in 1871 would have been folly. Even now the timing was not much better. Ontario farmers, he told Colonial Secretary Lord Carnarvon privately in September 1872, could not understand why the Maritime provinces should get free admission of fish to the United States while Ontario got nothing. And Ontario was even more important politically than before; after the 1871 census, redistribution gave it 88 seats, six more than it had in 1867. Macdonald worked at Ontario tenaciously. He went nowhere else (it was still the custom for ministers to preoccupy themselves with their home provinces), leaving Quebec to Cartier and Langevin, New Brunswick to Tilley, Nova Scotia to Tupper, and Manitoba to A. G. Archibald and Gilbert McMicken, now dominion lands agent in that province. Macdonald also lavished money on Ontario. He got $6,500 from Conservative friends and received from Sir Hugh Allan* some $35,000, plus an emergency draft of $10,000 on 26 August. The day after, in Toronto, he borrowed $10,000 on his own hook from Charles James Campbell and John Shedden* at six per cent on a six-month note, a loan that alarmed Conservative campaign manager Alexander Campbell.
By this time Macdonald was very discouraged. He fought on as best he could, with those reserves of optimism that he always summoned up when the going was bad. His modus operandi in Ontario is suggested in his dealings with James Simeon McCuaig, mp for Prince Edward: “Let me tell you that if [Walter] Ross goes in with money he will stand a great chance of beating you. You must fight him with the same weapon. Our friends here have been liberal with contributions, and I can send you $100000 without inconvenience. You had better spend it between nomination and polling.” McCuaig lost, and Macdonald got only 42 out of 88 Ontario seats, if that. In September he estimated his overall majority as 56. That was high, though how big his majority was depended on the issue. In April 1873, when Lucius Seth Huntington* broke the first intimations of the Pacific Scandal, it would be 31.
At least three, possibly four, groups in Canada were interested in the Pacific railway by 1872, to say nothing of Americans. The main groups were those of Sir Hugh Allan of Montreal and David Lewis Macpherson of Toronto. Cartier had conceded in 1871, under opposition pressure and while Macdonald was ill, that the railway would not be built as a government enterprise but by a private company. Macdonald tried to bring the main groups together before, during, and after the election, but jealousies between Toronto and Montreal and mutual suspicions between principals made that impossible. In the late autumn of 1872 Allan was given the task of putting a company together to build the railway. Macdonald had made only one promise to Allan: the presidency of an amalgamated Canadian Pacific Railway Company, whenever it was formed. But there were commitments of which, as yet, Macdonald knew nothing, notably Cartier’s to Allan in the summer of 1872, that Allan’s group would be guaranteed the charter and a majority of stock in return for additional election funding, totalling more than $350,000. When Allan finally told Macdonald the amount, it seemed so fantastic that he did not believe Allan, and that fall he wrote to Cartier to confirm it. Cartier did, more or less; he was then in London fighting Bright’s disease, which eventually would kill him, in May 1873. There was also Allan’s commitment to American backers, of which Macpherson had been suspicious all along.
The Pacific Scandal was partly scandalous, partly not. All parties used money at election time. Macdonald would explain to Governor General Lord Dufferin in September 1873 how Canadian elections went. There were legitimate election expenses; because of the many rural constituencies, with sparse populations, these were large. Other expenses, long considered necessary, were in a half-light, being sanctioned by custom though technically forbidden by law, for example hiring carriages to take voters to the polls. Such expenses, in Macdonald’s parliamentary experience, had never been pressed before an elections committee. No doubt the $1,000 McCuaig was to spend between nomination and polling day was partly for carriages. It was also no doubt for other things Macdonald did not mention: treating the voters could comprehend more than just carriages and whisky.
The Pacific Scandal broke in the commons on 2 April 1873. Huntington made a motion calling for a committee of inquiry and charging that Allan’s original company, the Canada Pacific Railway Company, had been financed with American money and that Allan had advanced large sums of money to senior members of the government in the election. To his charges Macdonald ostensibly paid no attention; he brought in the members and voted down Huntington’s motion; he called for a committee of investigation on his own. However, Conservatives were already uneasy. From then on Macdonald fought a stubborn, sometimes despairing, but often skilful rearguard action, hoping to rally his followers and to placate an uncomfortable, occasionally censorious governor general. But the telegrams published in Liberal newspapers on 18 July were damning, showing that Macdonald, and especially Cartier and Langevin, had accepted large sums of money, actions that were singularly inappropriate since the funds came from a financier with whom the government was negotiating a major railway contract.
When parliament met in late October, Macdonald’s colleagues were confident they would weather the storm, but almost at once defections began, including that of Donald Alexander Smith. Macdonald was urged to meet the opposition, to stop further haemorrhage while there was time. Dufferin and others believed that had the prime minister forced a vote of confidence early enough, he might have won by double figures. But Macdonald sank into a lethargy of gin and despair, waiting, glassy eyed, for some card he feared the opposition had up their sleeve. Finally, he made a great rallying speech on the night of 3 November, but he had been outgeneralled by fear and had left it too late. He and his government resigned 36 hours later, on the 5th.
Macdonald was in some ways glad to be out of it. He went to caucus the day after his resignation and offered to retire as leader, half hoping the members would accept, half fearing an abrupt plunge into private life. Caucus would have none of it. Perhaps retirement was not in his nature. When he was ill in 1870 Joseph Howe had suggested that he should retire to the bench, as chief justice of the proposed supreme court of Canada [see Sir William Johnston Ritchie]. Macdonald was contemptuous, exclaiming as Under-Secretary of State E. A. Meredith recorded in his diary, ‘“I wd. as soon go to H–ll!”’
Shortly after New Year’s Day 1874 the new government of Alexander Mackenzie called an election and proceeded to wipe the floor with the Tories. Of 206 seats in the house the Liberals took 138. Macdonald held Kingston, by only 38 votes, but he was unseated in November on charges of bribery and other electoral malpractice. Yet the Conservatives’ popular vote overall, even in this disastrous election, was still 45.4 per cent. Now in opposition (he was returned in a Kingston by-election), Macdonald needed income to live on. The money acquired in 1872 had never stuck in his pockets; he had bled freely with his own money, as well as with the funds of Allan, C. J. Campbell, Sir Francis Hincks*, and others. He was only five years distant from having been flat broke.
Macdonald’s private life in the 1850s and 1860s had demanded all his reserves of patience and sanguineness, hope and resilience. The spring and summer of 1869 marked its nadir. After a long and dangerous delivery, Agnes gave birth on 8 Feb. 1869 to a hydrocephalic girl, Margaret Mary Theodora, whose enlarged head undoubtedly contributed to the difficulty of her birth. A photograph taken in June shows Agnes and Mary; sad it is. Even sadder is one of mother and daughter in 1893 when Mary was 24. The cost in moral anguish to both parents can never be known, but any judgement of Sir John and Agnes should always have Mary in mind. By midsummer 1869 it was slowly coming to Macdonald – and with what infinite reluctance did he allow it – that Mary might never be normal. There were always hopes of some new medical treatment that would allow her to live like anyone else. It never came. She never did.
In 1869, too, Macdonald hit the bottom of his personal finances. He had been fighting off that dénouement for five years. One reason for the elaborate marriage settlement of 1867 was to protect Agnes against his creditors. The problem had begun in March 1864 on the death of his law partner, A. J. Macdonell. In May 1867 an estimated $64,000 (roughly $800,000 at 1988 prices) was jointly owed by Macdonald and the Macdonell estate, mainly to the Commercial Bank of Canada. As long as it would carry him – at rates of interest as high as seven per cent – Macdonald could stay afloat. But in September the bank failed; its assets and liabilities were taken over by the Merchants’ Bank of Canada. Among the assets was Macdonald’s debt, which in April 1869 was almost $80,000. Hugh Allan, president of the Merchants’ Bank, did not press but indicated, when Macdonald raised the matter, that it would be useful to have the debt dealt with. The arrangements Macdonald was compelled to make in 1869 are by no means clear. He borrowed $3,000 from D. L. Macpherson to tide him over and, with Agnes, took out a mortgage on property at Kingston, payable to the bank, for $12,000. The money owed him by the Macdonell estate was largely uncollectable. (When Macdonell’s widow died in 1881, Macdonald’s Kingston factotum, James Shannon, told him that the estate still owed him $42,000.) In 1869 a case was pending in Toronto against Macdonell and Macdonald. It could have been settled out of court in 1865 for $1,000, but Macdonald did not like the counsel for the plaintiffs, Richard Snelling, whom he thought a shark. Finally Hewitt Bernard, again acting as a personal aide, was forced to negotiate a settlement in 1872, for $6,100.
At the time of confederation Macdonald had little income. As prime minister and minister of justice he earned $5,000 per year. His income from his legal partnership with James Patton Sr of Toronto, formed in 1864, was $2,700 between 1 May 1867 and 30 April 1868; the next year it was $1,760. What got Macdonald through was pride, and his friends. Macpherson discovered how bad Sir John’s position was after Macdonald’s attack of gallstones in May 1870; he set to work to develop a private subscription. He thought it unjust that a prime minister could not support and educate his family on his official income. In the service of his country he had become poor. By the spring of 1872 some $67,000 had been collected by Macpherson and invested as the Testimonial Fund, the income of which Macdonald could use in meeting the ordinary costs of living. Out of it, presumably, Macdonald’s debt to the Merchants’ Bank would be slowly discharged. Ever sanguine, in 1876 he told Thomas Charles Patteson of the Toronto Mail not to be upset at owing money. Treat debts as Fakredeen, in Disraeli’s Tancred, treated his, Macdonald advised: he “caressed them, toyed with them. What would I be without these darling debts.”
After the parliamentary session of 1874 was over, Macdonald began to feel that perhaps his fighting days were coming to an end. He sold his Ottawa house in September 1874 for $10,000 and began plans to move to Toronto, where his law firm and principal client, the Trust and Loan Company, were now located. Before he moved, he wanted the dispute over the contested Kingston election settled; he did not want it known that he would not be returning to Kingston. He won the by-election at the end of December by 17 votes. He then moved into a house on Sherbourne Street in Toronto, rented from T. C. Patteson, and a year later into a more fashionable brick house on St George Street.
Macdonald in 1875 was determined to lie back, avoid factiousness, and ride the party with a loose rein. He lay back too much. One Friday in February, when Agnes was visiting in Niagara, he had been drinking brandy in the Senate bar, and by 3:00 p.m. he was already drunk. George Airey Kirkpatrick got him into the house for the speech he had to make. He spoke with sufficient clarity, though everyone present knew he was “sprung.” Alexander Mackenzie followed. Macdonald, by now fractious, interrupted him constantly. Conservatives tried to get him out, but he refused to go. When he was drunk his temper went awry. Agnes would have kept him under control; left to himself, as Charles Belford* of the Mail remarked, “he is helpless as a baby.” She was called home abruptly by her mother’s death that same evening. Macdonald had reason to try to turn over a new leaf. He did: he joined the Church of England on 2 March.
It may be well to confront the legend that Macdonald was a chronic drunkard. He was not. He was a spasmodic one: now and then, as the dialectic of life and politics went too savagely against him, or as the sheer strain of running or some inner compulsion, now beyond analysis, drove him. The numerous stories may be exaggerated but cannot be safely denied. A few examples suggest the general point. During the exertions and the parties of the Quebec conference of 1864, a friend discovered Macdonald standing in his room in front of a mirror, dressed in his nightshirt, a train rug thrown over his shoulder, practising lines from Hamlet. He was not sober. Such incidents were not always so innocent of effect. In the late stages of negotiations with the Manitoba delegates in April 1870, Macdonald, after having been on the wagon for several months, became quite hors de combat on a Friday, and could not be got working again until the Monday. He was tired from overwork, distracted by worries, and demoralized by the sudden death of a friend. In some ways that combination was typical. Still, it was also true that Macdonald was ill from gallstones. Perhaps the worst period of drinking occurred in 1872–73, at the time of the election and Pacific Scandal. In reviewing the fall of the government, Alexander Campbell told Alexander Morris*, lieutenant governor of Manitoba and the North-West Territories, that Macdonald, “from the time he left Kingston, after his own election, . . . kept himself more or less under the influence of wine, and . . . really has no clear recollection of what he did on many occasions at Toronto and elsewhere after that period.”
Macdonald’s drinking had been serious enough that when he had consulted Hewitt Bernard about marrying his sister Agnes, Bernard replied that he had only one objection. Macdonald promised reformation. Another source said that Bernard tried to dissuade his sister from the marriage for that reason. Altogether, there is no doubt that Agnes had some idea of what she was getting into when she married Macdonald in 1867. And it was easier for Macdonald to promise reformation than to effect it. His reformations were spasmodic too. His having joined the Church of England in March 1875 did not prevent an unpleasant incident at a dinner party in T. C. Patteson’s house in Toronto some months later. Macdonald got drunk, insulted Tupper, and finally went ropily upstairs to bed. Agnes went out the front door, and was still outside, sitting on the gate, when Patteson looked out at 6:00 a.m. Macdonald’s political colleagues were philosophical; they would try to get him where he could sleep it off. Agnes could usually handle him, but, as this incident shows, not always. Of course people made allowances. His drinking may not have harmed him all that much in a world that tolerated a good deal of heavy drinking; it may even have had advantages in an age when men voted and women did not. What it did to him morally and physically is difficult to know; and one can only imagine what it did to Agnes. Some of her feelings surface in her diary.
The internal life of Macdonald’s second marriage is as much a mystery as most marriages are. The main difficulty in knowing it is the absence of correspondence between them. One suspects that Agnes herself was the source of this hiatus, for she lived on until 1920 and had ample time to destroy not only Macdonald’s letters to her but hers to him. Agnes was not greatly popular in Ottawa; she was acutely conscious of her lack of genial social graces, of deftness and ductility, and she finally seemed to take refuge in being something of a Tartar in the capital’s society. But one must never forget her crippled daughter.
By 1875 Macdonald’s law practice had become rather snarled. His agreement with Patton in 1864 was to last eight years. In the summer of 1871 a new agreement was drafted with a 20-year term. Macdonald’s son, Hugh John, now 21 and a law student, was to enter the firm on 1 Nov. 1873. Of the profits from the Trust and Loan business Macdonald was to have one-third, Patton two-thirds; of general business Macdonald and his son were to have one-third, Patton one-third, and a new partner (Robert M. Fleming) one-third. The agreement defined Macdonald’s participation as “protecting & advancing the interests of the Firm, using his influence on their behalf & advising on important questions.” At the end of 1875 Hugh left the firm to go into practice on his own at Kingston, partly owing to a row with his father over his engagement to a young Toronto widow. The correspondence with his son does not show Macdonald to advantage. A softer and less vigorous edition of the old man, Hugh was, at least on paper, sweet reasonableness; Macdonald sounded like a heavy-handed father, gruff and unforgiving. He slowly got over it. By the end of 1877 Patton wanted out of the partnership. Evidence of the degree of bitterness is conflicting. Macdonald told T. C. Patteson on 18 Jan. 1878 that he and Patton were parting, but not amicably; the next day he told Hugh that any breach had been healed. The break became effective on 15 April. A formal indenture, dated 15 Oct. 1880, registered what had been a fact for two years.
In January 1877 Macdonald had told Langevin that he would resign the Conservative leadership when caucus met in Ottawa for the new session. His health seemed precarious, and he did not like to be an inefficient leader. But caucus would not hear of his resigning; Macdonald gritted his teeth and went on. He had already begun to think the Mackenzie government might be defeated. In the session of February–April 1877 he definitely adopted a protectionist policy, something he had been drifting toward for some years. Macdonald had once been a free trader; several of his Conservative colleagues were still free traders, Macpherson for one. But Liberals had occupied that terrain. Macdonald had to agree with Patteson of the Mail, as early as 1872, that the Conservative party had no option but to “coquet with the Protectionists.” Of course that wicked word “protection” should never be used, Macdonald told Macpherson privately in February 1872, but “we can ring the changes of a National Policy; in paying the United States in their own coin.” In the summers of 1876–78 he was into political picnics, his hands “full of these infernal things,” which were nevertheless an efficient means of popularizing protection and revitalizing his party.
The extent of its victory in the general election of September 1878 astonished even Conservatives. Macdonald’s personal defeat in Kingston could not alter their elation. Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Ontario, and Quebec all reversed positions from 1874. The most dramatic change was in Ontario, where Mackenzie had won 66 of 88 seats in 1874, and where Macdonald now won 63. Besides the obvious effects of the depression of the mid 1870s, the temperance question had in Macdonald’s view done the Liberals great damage in Ontario. At the dominion level Mackenzie had passed the Canada Temperance Act in April 1878; at the provincial level Oliver Mowat*’s Liberal government passed the Crooks Act in 1876, which transferred authority for liquor licences from the municipalities to a provincial board. These acts alienated 6,000 licensed hotels and taverns in Ontario.
Subsequently elected in both Marquette, Man., and Victoria, B.C., Macdonald judiciously chose to represent the latter. His cabinet was built that fall from the same template he used to shape all his cabinets. It reflected Canada’s national and religious composition and contained representatives of six provinces. Making such agglomerations work was the product of Macdonald’s own peculiar make-up. First, he believed in politeness. Asking Langevin in 1879 to comment upon an enclosed letter, Macdonald noted, “What answer shall I send? Let it be soft.” It made no sense to alienate people, merely for the sake of satisfying a principle, usually irrelevant. There were times to be tough and exigent: but they were far less frequent than people thought. If Macdonald returned few hard answers, he rarely promised, definitely, anything. Agnes had a frank word with T. C. Patteson on that subject. Patteson was interested in some office, perhaps for a friend. Agnes made it clear Macdonald was as costive with her as with everyone else. It was unlikely the office was already promised. Macdonald did not work that way. But she had no direct influence. “Of Sir John’s plans & purposes I know nothing, tho’ the world . . . persists in thinking I do . . . . My lord & master who in his private capacity simply lives to please & gratify me . . . is absolutely tyranical in his public life so far as I am concerned. If I interfere in any sort of way he will be annoyed. . . . Sir John knows my opinion & wishes on the subject perfectly well . . . . The other day . . . I expressed it again with added decision – but Sir John, as is usual with him . . . looked very benign[,] very gracious, very pleasant – but – answered not one word!” In 1890 Joseph Pope said much the same: Macdonald hated to be boxed in by promises, real or implied.
Under Macdonald patronage settled into a certain pattern. Nominations came from anyone, but ministers listened to those from party members of standing, especially from Conservative mps or a Conservative who had fought an election and lost. Macdonald would never concede, and tried to prevent colleagues from conceding, that an mp had any right to be consulted about appointments. Fundamentally, it was a minister’s responsibility to decide, and Macdonald rarely interfered. In his own departmental administration – as minister of justice (1867–73), minister of the interior (1878–83), superintendent general of Indian affairs (1878–87), and minister of railways and canals (1889–91) – Macdonald was cautious about appointments, and he would not have his deputy minister pushed around by cabinet ministers or mps out for favours for their constituents.
When he was minister of justice, he paid particular attention to the appointment of judges; to some extent he always would. The argument that Macdonald never appointed to a judgeship anyone without a substantial record of party service is not true. Joseph Pope was basically right: Macdonald was after quality – mind, law, integrity, good health, even address. In 1882 he pushed Alexander Campbell, then justice minister, to appoint Lewis Wallbridge* of Belleville, well known to Manitoba lawyers and an old friend, as chief justice of Manitoba, despite his Grit family connections. “He will be a good judge,” Macdonald reasoned. “It is so seldom one can indulge one’s personal feelings with due consideration for public interests.” Macdonald’s main concern was Wallbridge’s teeth. He could not contemplate the prospect of a grave chief justice delivering judgement through a mouthful of black, decaying stumps. Mackenzie Bowell*, a cabinet minister from Belleville, was set to work to get Wallbridge to have new teeth. It was a doubtful business, although, as Bowell put it irreverently, of “gnashing importance.”
The more important the judgeship, the less was Macdonald willing to let ordinary canons of patronage prevail. “My rule,” he told one Nova Scotian in 1870, “is to consider fitness as the first requisite for judicial appointments, and . . . political considerations should have little or no influence.” Perhaps the best example of this concern was his appointment of Samuel Hume Blake* as a vice-chancellor of Ontario. In 1869 he thought the judges of its Court of Chancery, John Godfrey Spragge* and Oliver Mowat, lacked authority; as Macdonald put it to J. H. Cameron, equity in Ontario needed heavier metal. He had wanted Edward Blake; solicited privately, Blake did not accept the offer, mostly because his private law practice was too lucrative. Macdonald tried other Liberals and in the end, in 1872, got Blake’s brother to accept. “There was,” he explained to Patteson, “literally no Conservative fit for the position who was available.” Macdonald applied the rule of judicial qualification generally. Bliss Botsford* was appointed a county court judge in New Brunswick in 1870, even though he had been an anti-confederate in 1865–66. Timothy Warren Anglin, a New Brunswick Liberal, noted that appointment and wondered if there were any possibility for himself. Macdonald answered promptly, stating that Botsford had been selected on “special recommendation” and declaring his patronage principles: “I think that in the distribution of Government patronage we carry out the true Constitutional principle. Whenever an office is vacant it belongs to the party supporting the Government if within that party there is to be found a person competent to perform the duties. Responsible Government cannot be carried on in any other principle. I am not careful however what a man’s political antecedents have been, if I am satisfied that he is really and bona fide a friend of the Government at the time of his appointment. My principle is, reward your friends and do not buy your enemies.”
In 1878 Macdonald took on the Department of the Interior portfolio because the west was the growing edge of the country. By 1881, however, the CPR was taking up so much of his time and energy that David Mills*, one of the members of the Liberal opposition with whom he was always friendly, chided him with having largely left the department “to take care of itself.” Macdonald was, as he was to admit in 1883, unprepared in debate and had to “rely on memory and the inspiration of the moment.” That did not answer with a vigilant opposition. Macdonald was 66 in 1881, and his age was starting to show. He had been ill in 1880 and during the winter of 1880–81, when the CPR contract was going through parliament. He managed an expert defence of it in the house on 17 January, but after the session prorogued, on 21 March, he went to ground, pulse at 49, with liver and abdominal pain. His sister, Louisa, saw him early in May: “I never saw John looking what I would call old till this time.” But he made no plans to give up. The CPR and the National Policy both needed the buttress of another election victory. He nursed his strength as best he could at home. Charles John Brydges*, land commissioner of the HBC, found him there on 3 May looking “very ill indeed” but determined to straighten out an ugly tangle with the HBC over a contract with the government for Indian supplies. Macdonald put the blame on Chief Factor John H. McTavish. In 1881 he still cherished hard memories of the HBC as partly responsible for the Red River rebellion. But his old friendship with Brydges allowed a sensible compromise that Brydges had suggested to go forward.
Macdonald by now needed help with the interior portfolio. D. L. Macpherson had become a minister without portfolio and government leader in the Senate in 1880, and the following year an ailing Macdonald began to get him to do the interior work when he himself was abroad for recovery. Macpherson liked the task and believed he was good at it. From London in 1881 Macdonald watched Macpherson taking hold while he tried to build up his energies. Work was now his only pleasure. He returned to Ottawa in mid September a good deal more spry. A cartoon by John Wilson Bengough* in Grip showed him passing his 67th birthday milestone with “M.DCCC.L.XXX.II. JNO.A. O.K.” carved on it. This well-being was reflected triumphantly in the general election of June 1882. There were no major issues, and Canadians gave Macdonald (who was returned in the eastern Ontario riding of Carleton) nearly as large a majority as he had had in 1878.
Yet the next nine years of Macdonald’s life would be a struggle to maintain his own strength, and that of his cabinet, against old age, illness, incompetence, or colleagues simply wearing out. Macpherson took over the interior portfolio officially in 1883 because he and other colleagues saw that Macdonald was carrying too heavy a load. But Macpherson soon flagged and was abroad for his own health in 1883 and again in 1884. When a question about British Columbia lands arose that year, of course Macdonald had to deal with it. He looked better than most of the cabinet but claimed that he felt the worst, with the possible exception of John Henry Pope*. Although his face and voice did not betray his weakness, he was already thinking of easing back in the harness, especially when parliamentary sessions were on. But Tupper’s retirement to England in 1884 as high commissioner left a gaping hole in the cabinet; a solid and capable replacement was a matter of urgency. It took a long time. “We want new blood sadly,” Macdonald told Tupper in February 1885. Campbell and Archibald Woodbury McLelan* wanted out, Tilley in finance was unwell and was away much of the time, Macpherson and Joseph-Adolphe Chapleau were ill and away, J. H. Pope was sick, John Costigan* was often drunk. The work fell on Macdonald, that too-willing horse, and, he admitted to Campbell, “much of it of necessity was ill done. . . . If we don’t get Thompson I don’t know what to do.” Well before John Sparrow David Thompson came into cabinet, the Saskatchewan crisis, at the end of March 1885, was fully upon the government.
The issues in the Saskatchewan River valley were produced by a series of disappointments and an overstrained administration. The CPR pulled its main line far to the south in 1882; there were bad harvests in the valley in 1883 and 1884. The territory needed attention from Ottawa and there was no one to give it. Langevin went west in 1884 but he declined to make a 200-mile ride across the prairie to hear grievances from disaffected Métis at Batoche (Sask.) or whites in Prince Albert. In Regina Edgar Dewdney*, lieutenant governor of the North-West Territories, did the best he could on skimped budgets and attempted so far as he was able to buffer Macdonald from difficulties.
Riel’s arrival in the Saskatchewan valley in July 1884 created a stir among both Métis and whites. A large petition to Ottawa about grievances was got up by Riel, William Henry Jackson*, and Andrew Spence in December. It was reviewed by Macpherson, now back on the job. On 28 January the cabinet concluded that it would have to assess the position of the Saskatchewan Métis, with full enumeration and probably land scrip in mind. Macdonald, who had always frowned on land grants and scrip as a solution, did not much like the decision, but he went along with forming a three-man commission to investigate the claims of those Métis who were still eligible but had not participated in land allocation under the Manitoba Act. The news was telegraphed to Dewdney on 4 February; Riel got it via his cousin Charles Nolin* four days later. The appointment of a commission was not merely a shuffle. The government was looking to a strong commission; Macdonald and Macpherson were weighing up the men for it in early March. Once it was appointed and working, an insurrection would be pointless and any settlement of Riel’s personal land claims unlikely.
In late March 1885, by an extraordinary combination of circumstances, two major problems landed on Macdonald’s desk at the same time. The outbreak of fighting on the 26th at Duck Lake, between the Métis led by Gabriel Dumont* and a North-West Mounted Police force under Lief Newry Fitzroy Crozier*, occurred on the very day when Macdonald finally told George Stephen*, president of the CPR, that the cabinet could not approve any further loan to allow its completion. By the next day it was becoming clear to Macdonald that the one problem could be made to relieve the other: further funding could be considered for the CPR because of its value in moving forces to quell the insurrection [see Sir Frederick Dobson Middleton]. As tactics the solution was brilliant: as government it was desperate.
In these circumstances, the introduction in April, not of relief for the CPR, but of the electoral franchise bill, might have seemed quixotic, not to say foolhardy. But with a rebellion on in the west, it was patent that, as things stood, whether the CPR survived or not, Macdonald could not win another general election, which was due within two years. Provinces controlled their own franchise and dominion elections were based upon provincially prepared voters’ lists. Because Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Ontario were now under Liberal control, it was sensible to consider having a federal franchise, with federal voters’ lists administered by county court judges or, where necessary, by local barristers. Macdonald wanted at least impartiality; he certainly wanted to negate Liberal partiality. Vigorously defended by Macdonald against a barrage of opposition attacks, the franchise bill passed in July, near the end of the session.
In dealing with the CPR, a private company dependent on the goodwill of the government, Macdonald could be more cavalier. The CPR was, as he had remarked in 1884, the government’s “sleeping partner (with limited liability).” In February of that year he suggested to Stephen that, in the war coming between the Grand Trunk and the CPR, it would be well to strengthen the latter’s hand in sections of the country. “The CPR must become political & secure as much Parliamentary support as possible.” Appointments to the Ontario and Quebec, the railway leased by the CPR from January 1884, “should all be made political. There are plenty of good men to be found in our ranks.” In March Macdonald put the question more jocularly to Henry Hall Smith, the Ontario Conservative organizer. No one should be working on the CPR who was not – Macdonald used William Cornelius Van Horne*’s pithy remark – a “fully ‘circumsised”’ Conservative.
Stephen was not an easy-going confrère. He complained of manifold difficulties, but he did not always appreciate Macdonald’s. For example, in 1885 the CPR wanted to institute a land buy-back scheme; being land rich and cash poor, it would sell some of its land back to the government. The cabinet was opposed and Macdonald reminded Stephen on 26 May that it had been only “with very great difficulty” that he himself had gained acceptance for the loan package devised during the rebellion. “The majority of our friends in Parlt and all our & your foes were in favour of the Govt assuming possession of the road, and my personal influence with our supporters and a plain indication of my resignation only got them into line. This was done by personal communication with every one of them . . . . You speak of having to come back next Session. I hope you have not done so to anyone else. A hint of that kind getting abroad would be fatal to you.” The CPR aid package, notice of which had been given by the prime minister on 1 May, was introduced in the commons on 16 June and passed in July. It is possible to wonder what would have happened to the CPR had Macdonald not been in power, or if he and Stephen had not worked together in utmost frankness. The line to the west coast was completed later in 1885 and in the summer of 1886 Macdonald travelled overland to British Columbia, his first trip west. Ironically, during the parliamentary session that spring the CPR did sell 6.8 million acres, valued at $10.2 million, back to the government to help repay the loan.
A glimpse of Macdonald’s personal opinion about one of the most dramatic episodes of the North-West rebellion, Riel’s trial and execution, emerges from his correspondence with his trusted friend, J. R. Gowan, now retired from the bench, whom Macdonald had appointed to the Senate in January 1885. Macdonald confessed to him on 4 June 1885, two weeks after Riel was captured, that if Riel were convicted “he certainly will be executed but in the present natural excitement people grumble at his not being hanged off hand.” When the question of clemency for Riel arose after his conviction in August, Gowan’s legal and political view was much the same as Macdonald’s. It would be, he told Macdonald in September, “a fatal blunder to interfere with the due course of law in his case. The only plea he could urge was urged for him at the trial and found against him.” Macdonald’s correspondence on this touchy subject is thin, but Gowan’s letter to him of 18 November, two days after Riel was hanged, reveals Macdonald’s perception clearly enough: “From what you wrote me I did not doubt the result but I felt most uneasy to the last knowing how public men are often obliged to take a course they do not individually approve. The fact may affect you prejudicially with Lower Canada but looking at the subject with all anxiety to see the wisest course for you to take I felt it would have been an act of political insanity to yield, simply because the man was of French blood.” Thus, although it is sometimes averred that Macdonald sacrificed Riel to Ontario opinion, that is the truth inside out. Riel was a victim of the law. One way out might have been to bend before Quebec opinion. The furia francese spent its force eventually, but not without political damage. Though he won a comfortable majority in the federal election of February 1887, Macdonald lost ground in Quebec; provincially, the Conservatives lost control of Quebec to Liberal leader Honoré Mercier.
The west, after the rebellion, went on to become prosperous, with ranches, railways, immigration, and wheat. Ontario, on the other hand, took up fear of Catholicism and the French; Quebec took up fear of Protestants and the English. Anti-Catholicism had spilled northward from the United States, where a strong nativist movement arose in the late 1880s; but there was plenty of Protestant tinder in Ontario always ready for a satisfying and warming blaze, and Toronto’s Protestant papers took fire after Mercier’s Jesuits’ Estates Act was given royal assent in July 1888 [see Christopher William Bunting]. Protestant Ontario demanded disallowance, claiming papal intrusion into a settlement between the Jesuits and the province of Quebec (the estates’ owner since confederation), but Macdonald and the minister of justice, Sir John Thompson, thought the act should stand. The Protestant “equal rights” uproar followed in March 1889 [see Daniel James Macdonnell]. William Edward O’Brien*, mp for Muskoka, told Macdonald that he would move in the commons that the Jesuits’ Estates Act be disallowed. Macdonald said he regretted such a motion but, he added in a typical gesture, he would be sorry if any Conservative should feel bound to separate from the party merely because he had voted for O’Brien’s motion. He told William Bain Scarth*, his right-hand man in Manitoba and mp for Winnipeg, to leave “equal rights” severely alone. Many Conservatives might take it up but Macdonald felt they “will be all right at election time. There is no use of reminding them of their mistake. It might, such is the perversity of human nature, have the effect of making them stick to their cry.” Macdonald had little stomach for recriminations.
In the commons debate in 1889 on disallowance, Thompson walked into O’Brien’s outspoken ally D’Alton McCarthy with a cool, polite, but infuriating logic. Thompson was appalled at the sheer impolicy of the motion in a country like Canada, which was 40 per cent Catholic. Macdonald admired his performance but for one thing: it was too good. Thompson had angered McCarthy. Macdonald was thinking of a day when O’Brien and McCarthy, both Conservatives, would cool off and return to the party. Thompson had perhaps reduced that possibility. The government’s overwhelming majority against disallowance, 188 to 13, was due not only to parliament’s revulsion at McCarthy’s argument but also to the French Canadians on the Conservative side having been told to keep quiet and let the common sense of the anglophone members prevail. Nevertheless, Macdonald did not like the drift of things. Canada, he told Gowan in July 1890, as a just punishment for ingratitude for the blessings that had been heaped upon it, was heading into trouble. “The demon of religious animosity which I had hoped had been buried in the grave of George Brown has been revived. . . . McCarthy has sown the Dragons teeth. I fear they may grow up to be armed men.”
On the Manitoba school question, which grew out of “equal rights,” Macdonald agreed in 1890 with both Thompson and Edward Blake – the decision about the constitutionality of Manitoba’s abolition of public funding for Catholic schools was best left to the courts, not to the House of Commons. He who had been so free with disallowing provincial legislation to protect the CPR from Manitoba [see John Norquay*] or with Ontario over the Rivers and Streams Act [see John Godfrey Spragge], now capitulated to basic good sense. If Manitoba’s school legislation was ultra vires, the courts would so declare it. If it were intra vires, what was the point of disallowance?
By 1890 many of Macdonald’s colleagues had died off or retired, some of them too young. Thomas White* died in 1888 at age 58, having won golden opinions as minister of the interior; Macdonald loved him like a son. John Henry Pope died in 1889; Macdonald mourned him as a trusted and salty companion. Others went to pasture: Tilley to Government House in Fredericton in 1885, Sir Alexander Campbell to Government House in Toronto in 1887. The weaknesses of Sir Adolphe-Philippe Caron*, the minister of militia and defence, seemed to grow more apparent, as did Secretary of State Chapleau’s thirst for a portfolio with blood in it. Macdonald had acquired younger men, enthusiastic and hardworking, but not very experienced: John Graham Haggart*, Charles Carroll Colby, George Eulas Foster*, and Charles Hibbert Tupper*. They were awkward colleagues to handle sometimes, especially young Tupper, mp for Pictou, N.S., and minister of marine and fisheries from 1888 to 1894. He had much of the talent and all of the bumptiousness of his father. One of Tupper’s importunate requests Macdonald endorsed with “Dear Charlie, Skin your own skunks. JAMD.” In a characteristic argument in 1889 Tupper took exception to Conservative friends in Pictou being ignored in a coal contract for the Intercolonial Railway. Macdonald, then in charge of railways and canals, reminded him that chief engineer Collingwood Schreiber* was responsible for the contract. Schreiber had no other interest than doing his duty. You can, Macdonald told Tupper, “throw all the blame on me, if you like.” Still, he prefaced his letter with a touch of jocularity. “I see we must find you a seat where there are no coal mines, or we shall have annual trouble.”
Foster also had a difficulty, though it was not with his Department of Finance. Macdonald was distressed over Foster’s marriage to Adeline Chisholm [Davies*] in 1889. Her husband had deserted her and she had eventually got a divorce in Illinois. In a letter to former governor general Lord Lansdowne [Petty-Fitzmaurice*], now in India, Macdonald was frank. Mrs Foster would be shunned by Ottawa society, he said, and Rideau Hall would be closed to her. Foster would be stung to death in the next session of parliament. “But,” Macdonald added, “as Sir Matthew Hale long ago said, ‘There is no wisdom below the belt.”’ Macdonald judged wrong. If Lady Macdonald refused to see Mrs Foster, Lady Thompson [Affleck*] would and did see her, and in 1893 Sir John Thompson persuaded Governor General Lord Aberdeen [Hamilton-Gordon*] and Lady Aberdeen [Marjoribanks*] that the nonsense had gone on long enough.
Macdonald’s heir apparent, after Sir Charles Tupper went to London in 1884 and McCarthy refused to enter the cabinet, had been Sir Hector-Louis Langevin. He had been groomed to replace Sir George-Étienne Cartier, upon whom Macdonald had relied so much. Cartier had been his Quebec lieutenant, respected, listened to, and with real authority. He had also been Macdonald’s right hand in the commons, taking over the running of it when Macdonald was away. To this double role Langevin might have succeeded, but he was never really capable of filling either part of it. The political control of Quebec he was forced to share, reluctantly, with others. Hardworking in his department (Public Works), he was the senior minister but, despite Macdonald’s urging, he seemed never quite to rise to mastering the general business of the house. He remained senior minister but by 1890 Thompson had become Macdonald’s real lieutenant. He and Macdonald got on well together; he wrote admirable state papers and shouldered a great deal of the work. Macdonald was nevertheless devoted to Langevin, who had stood by him through many a dark hour. And he had always let tried and experienced ministers run their own departments. The obverse was that he could be caught by that trust. Of Joseph-Israël Tarte*, Caron, and others, who by 1890 were bringing Macdonald allegations of wrongdoing in Langevin’s department, Macdonald could only ask, what could he do? It was perhaps his inkling of a scandal involving Langevin and mp Thomas McGreevy, if not its details, that made him look early in 1891 for reasons to dissolve parliament. He now lived, according to Gowan, in daily fear that the searchlight would be applied to Langevin’s department. Macdonald was not at all sure his government would survive.
The election of March 1891 would be fought on patriotic grounds, by meeting head on the Liberal call for unrestricted reciprocity with the United States. It was apparent to Macdonald that the American secretary of state, James Gillespie Blaine of Maine, was an expansionist interested in taking over Canada. Macdonald could strike the patriotic note hard. Asked for a dissolution, Governor General Lord Stanley* was more than a little dubious about using, as a weapon of political war, the proofs of a pamphlet by journalist Edward Farrer* on how American policies could be devised for driving Canada into annexation, but, with the Liberals getting the Langevin scandal hot and ready to serve, Macdonald did not want another session of parliament without an election first. He did not hesitate, in an enthusiastic address in Toronto on 17 February, to colour Liberal schemes of unrestricted reciprocity as fundamentally annexationist. Macdonald’s famous remark in his electoral address on the 7th of that month, “I am a British subject and British born, and a British subject I hope to die,” has to be read more as an expression of Canadian nationalism than as any lofty imperial sentiment. Indeed as early as 1884 he was looking to the day when Britain (now a rather “shaky old Mother,” as he saw her) would be taken care of by her growing children. That year he was sorry to see New South Wales throwing over the chance to have an Australian federation; Canada and Australia together would have work to do ere long helping the mother country, he said in a letter to Gowan. But in 1889 cabinet expressed only mild interest in his proposals for a conference with the “Australasian Colonies” and, perhaps following the lead of business, the possibility of trade relations.
Parliament opened at the end of April 1891 and on 11 May Tarte moved for the Langevin–McGreevy investigation. The next day, in an interview with the governor general, Macdonald suffered a slight stroke. Neither Thompson nor Lord Stanley liked the look of it; the election, which had produced a reduced Conservative majority, had taken a great deal out of Macdonald. Nevertheless, he rallied and in ten days was back in that all too familiar and sweaty harness at the Department of Railways and Canals, dealing, once more, on 22 May, with C. H. Tupper’s importunities. It was almost the last business Macdonald did. Tupper wanted a policeman to control the crowds at the Pictou railway station when the trains came in. Macdonald patiently sent the letter to Schreiber, who replied that he could not believe the good people of Pictou had suddenly become all that uncontrollable! Few could know how toilsome were Macdonald’s working days. Behind a life that seemed full of achievement and great projects were a mountain of detail, piles of paper, and long days of aching routines. In these last weeks, working in his department and in cabinet, he tried to keep his strength, avoiding late-night sittings of the house. He was chagrined at a ministerial defeat on 21 May on a motion to adjourn, by a vote of 65 to 74, because Conservative members were at dinner parties given by Chapleau and Dewdney. Such a defeat had not happened to Macdonald before, in 13 years of office. He himself had to come into the house. This defeat and the Langevin scandal gave the opposition new life and vigour.
Macdonald went the other way. While he was in bed recovering from a cold, a severe stroke overtook him on the afternoon of 29 May. He never spoke again. He died a week later, in the evening of 6 June 1891. There was a great state funeral in Ottawa and he was buried in Cataraqui Cemetery, near Kingston, beside his parents, his first wife, his sisters, and his long-dead child.
Under Macdonald’s will, dated 4 Sept. 1890, rights of administration were given to Edgar Dewdney, Frederick White (a former secretary), and Joseph Pope, his secretary since 1882. The three men were, with Agnes, the official guardians of Mary, who would live until 1933. All of Macdonald’s real estate and property in Ottawa (mainly Earnscliffe, the family’s home since 1883) went to Agnes free of rent. Her current income was provided by her marriage settlement and by the testimonial gift of $67,000 presented to the Macdonalds in 1872. Macdonald’s two insurance policies, each worth £2,000, were to be invested for the benefit of Hugh John, who also received some estate and stock left to Sir John by his sister, Louisa. Not counting the Earnscliffe property, Macdonald left about $80,000 plus the Testimonial Fund income.
Macdonald had an elasticity of mind and range of information rare in Canada and unusual anywhere. He joined to that a huge and irreverent sense of humour. He wore the dignity of his office, well and good; he had style, manners, and vocabulary, but they were often a mask and the real Macdonald would show through it, especially if he caught the eye of an old friend. With his friends, he rarely worried about being what later Victorians might have called respectable. He was never a later Victorian anyway. When his affairs were in a tangle, when he was depressed, when he was unable to put things off, he might get drunk: more often he would open up the truth in conversation. He often discovered that talk suggested, to his fertile mind, some way of escape. He had enormous patience. Sir Alexander Campbell, his old law partner and long a colleague, marvelled at it. To A. W. McLelan of Nova Scotia he gave the impression, even in 1889, that there were reserves of power yet unused.
J. R. Gowan reflected that of Macdonald’s great aspirations, of his nobility of aim, there could be no doubt. But if Macdonald thought of the ends, he was insufficiently concerned with the means. The public service was affected. Lord Lansdowne, in India, was not surprised at the Langevin revelations, however much he was fond of Macdonald. In his own departments Macdonald would not tolerate a slack or disobedient deputy minister and he would back a fair and judicious official such as Schreiber in railways or a cabinet minister of the calibre of Thompson. But often he had to work with lesser men, of doubtful integrity or dubious intelligence. He may have trusted them too much, or his own capacity for using them. “A good carpenter,” he told T. C. Patteson in 1874, “can work with indifferent tools.” On 19 June 1891 the Montreal Star observed that as long as he was there, it did not much matter who was in the cabinet: “His infinite capacity for getting well out of any scrape that his friends got him into . . . [was] such as would have inspired confidence in a government composed of Montreal aldermen had he been at the head of it.” Macdonald’s protean mind, his resourcefulness, his reserves of doggedness when the going was really rough – all gave him tremendous depth and resilience. He calls to mind an aphorism by Talleyrand, “The stability of complicated natures comes from their infinite flexibility.” This quality could mean timidity, as with George Eulas Foster. Yet he was never a prig; his sense of humour could be wicked, and he loved old, even gamy friends and associations. It could also mean a tenderness that was both charming and touching. In April 1891 Tilley, his old finance minister, wrote from New Brunswick asking if he could continue for a while longer as lieutenant governor; if he stepped down, his and his wife’s combined income would not be enough for them to live on. He would have to eat up his capital, and this, though Tilley did not say so, after 12 years of public service to New Brunswick and 24 to Canada. Macdonald sent the letter on to Foster, the New Brunswick minister in cabinet, endorsing it, “My dear Foster, This is a sad letter. . . . We must leave him in Govt House as long as possible.” Foster agreed. Tilley stayed until 1893.
The truth was, notwithstanding all the vicissitudes Macdonald had endured, he enjoyed his métier. He remembered faces and places, associations and names, and he kept them alive in mind and practice with an enormous and often personal correspondence. He listened to everyone, and led all to think that he set great store by their information. His own letters are a marvellous treasure: trenchant, whimsical, full of pith and substance, salt and savour – the way he was. “He was the father and founder of his country,” said Sir John Thompson in 1891 in a rare interview, “there is not one of us who . . . had not lost his heart to him.” Even Liberals were not without grudging admiration; Conservatives, in parliament, in the country, loved the Old Man and at his death they mourned for him as if he had been taken from their very firesides.
Note: A revised biography, which includes references to residential schools and related matters, is forthcoming.
[The main manuscript source for this study is the Macdonald papers at NA, MG 26, A. The letter-books, copious for the late 1860s and early 1870s, are particularly useful. Other important collections at the NA are the papers of Sir James Robert Gowan (MG 27, I, E17), Henry Hall Smith (MG 27, I, I19), Sir George Stephen (MG 29, A30), Sir John Thompson (MG 26, D), and Sir Charles Tupper (MG 26, F). At the AO are the papers of Sir Alexander Campbell (MU 469–87), Alexander Morris (MS 535), T. C. Patteson (MS 22), and W. B. Scarth (MS 77). Also useful are the Langevin papers at the ANQ-Q (P-134) and the Williamson papers at the QUA (2259).
Leading printed sources are Sir Joseph Pope’s edition of the Correspondence of Sir John Macdonald . . . (Toronto, 1921), still valuable after nearly 70 years, and the more detailed and modern Letters of Sir John A. Macdonald . . . , in two volumes covering the period from 1836 to 1861, edited by J. K. Johnson and C. B. Stelmack (Ottawa, 1968–69). A collection of Macdonald family correspondence, also edited by Johnson, has been published as Affectionately yours; the letters of Sir John A. Macdonald and his family (Toronto, 1969). Other major primary materials include Can., Prov. of, Parl., Confederation debates, and Pope’s Memoirs of the Right Honourable Sir John A. Macdonald, G.C.B., first prime minister of the Dominion of Canada (2v., Ottawa, ).
There are several biographies of Macdonald. One that must be mentioned here is Donald Grant Creighton*’s two-volume study, Macdonald, young politician and Macdonald, old chieftain. It is unforgettable, splendid, but flawed. Creighton makes daring assumptions not only in his description of Macdonald but also in his reading of characters in apposition. Nevertheless, it is probably the greatest Canadian biography yet published in English. Other useful works are P. B. Waite’s Macdonald: his life and world (Toronto and New York, 1975) and his Life and times of confederation; J. K. Johnson’s “John A. Macdonald” in The pre-confederation premiers: Ontario government leaders, 1841–1867, ed. J. M. S. Careless (Toronto, 1980), 197–245, “John A. Macdonald, the young non-politician,” CHA Hist. papers, 1971: 138–53, and “John A. Macdonald and the Kingston business community,” To preserve & defend: essays on Kingston in the nineteenth century, ed. G. [J. J.] Tulchinsky (Montreal and London, 1976), 141–55; and W. R. Teatero, “John A. Macdonald learns – articling with George Mackenzie,” Historic Kingston, no.27 (1979): 92–112. j.k.j. and p.b.w.]
© 1990–2023 University of Toronto/Université Laval
Cite This Article
J. K. Johnson and P. B. Waite, “MACDONALD, Sir JOHN ALEXANDER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 27, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/macdonald_john_alexander_12E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||J. K. Johnson and P. B. Waite|
|Title of Article:||MACDONALD, Sir JOHN ALEXANDER|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1990|
|Year of revision:||1990|
|Access Date:||March 27, 2023|