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MACDONALD, JOHN, merchant, churchman, philanthropist, and politician; b. 27 Dec. 1824 in Perth, Scotland, son of Elizabeth Nielson and John Macdonald; m. in 1850 Eliza Hamilton (d. 1856); m. secondly in 1857 Annie Elizabeth Alcorn; d. 4 Feb. 1890 at Toronto, Ont.

Raised on floggings and Presbyterian prayer-meetings to be an intensely serious lad, John Macdonald came to Canada in 1837 when the regiment in which his father was an officer was sent out in response to the colonial disturbances. He briefly attended Dalhousie College in Halifax, then Bay Street Academy in Toronto, before entering the firm of C. and J. McDonald of Gananoque as a clerk in 1840. In 1842 he joined the Toronto dry goods house of Walter Macfarlane whereupon he fell into worldly habits until his conversion to Methodism in 1843 through the influence of a fellow clerk. He became a local preacher, but instead of entering the ministry as planned he left his job in 1847 and went to Jamaica for reasons of health. After a year, during which he was appalled by the licentiousness of life there, he returned to Toronto and opened his own retail dry goods business in September 1849.

Macdonald moved into wholesaling through jobbing, and in 1853 sold his retail business. He prospered in the 1850s by close accounting, a reluctance to extend credit, and the departmentalization of his house to maximize responsibility and accountability. None of these practices were as yet common in Canadian business. By the 1860s John Macdonald and Company was the largest dry goods house in Canada, and probably the largest wholesale house of any kind. Its Gothic five-storey warehouse running from Wellington to Front Street was one of the adornments of Toronto’s commercial district. In the 1870s the business was estimated to be worth $500,000 and to have annual sales of $1,000,000. Approximately 100 clerks were employed in the house, whose operations the owner likened variously to a British regiment and an anthill. One of the few retailers to whom he extended substantial credit was a struggling fellow Methodist, Timothy Eaton*.

In 1863 John Macdonald defeated John Beverley Robinson* Jr for the Toronto West seat in the assembly. He was one of seven Reformers who stayed out of the coalition of 1864 and he opposed confederation as an ill-considered, expensive scheme unsuited to advance the interests of Canada West. Defeated in the 1867 federal election, he was returned by acclamation for Toronto Centre in an 1875 by-election. As an independent Liberal in the House of Commons he supported Sir John A. Macdonald* on the need for moderate protection in 1876, but opposed a protective tariff in 1878 and was defeated by Robert Hay in that year’s general election. Not an active or partisan member of parliament – rather the independent gentleman who served as a public duty – in 1877 he had moved the resolution introducing opening prayers to the House of Commons and spoke often to his biographer of “the foul and fetid atmosphere” of Ottawa politics.

Macdonald gained greatest prominence as a devout and generous Methodist. He preached almost every Sunday and at one time or another held virtually every office open to a layman in the Methodist Church. He was the ubiquitous corner-stone layer during the Methodist church-building boom in Ontario in the 1870s and 1880s, collecting some 30 trowels and contributing substantially to building funds. He supported the Methodist unions of 1874 and 1884 and was a member of the board of regents of Victoria College and one of the strongest proponents of its move from Cobourg to Toronto. He was also a member of the senate of the University of Toronto. Tending to conservatism in faith and doctrine, he favoured aggressive missionary and evangelical work. In spare hours he distributed tracts, visited the sick, and exhorted his employees and business associates to abstain from alcohol. An obsessive fear of death heightened the sense of urgency with which he went about his good works.

Macdonald’s extant diaries confirm charitable donations of roughly one-fifth his annual income. As well as supporting the church he was a major patron of the Young Men’s Christian Association and Toronto General Hospital. He also encouraged and donated to the Salvation Army. A stream of needy men and women passed through his office, ranging from collectors for charity to “tramps in every stage of dilapidation”; they received financial help, prayers and tracts, and, on occasion, a share of his lunch. He was fond of giving uplifting addresses to aspiring young businessmen and his long 1872 pamphlet, Business success: what it is and how to secure it, is one of the few 19th century Canadian success manuals. It is typical of the genre in stressing industry, integrity, sobriety, and careful accounting, as well as warning that wealth and true success are not synonymous. Macdonald contributed a number of articles to the Globe and the Canadian Methodist Magazine on church matters, his travels, and his business life. He also enjoyed translating Latin poetry, versified for his own amusement, and as the father of 12 children became an accomplished player of marbles.

John A. Macdonald appointed John Macdonald to the Senate in November 1887. This highly unusual honouring of a known Grit was in recognition of the wholesaler’s occasional support for Macdonald and the Tories in the 1870s and his important opposition to commercial union in the Toronto Board of Trade’s debate earlier in the year, during which he had urged extended trade with the West Indies as an alternative.

Macdonald seems to have been genuinely respected as a Christian gentleman; he had made few enemies in business and politics. Not a man to hide his light, however, Macdonald lived in one of Toronto’s finest houses, Oaklands, and was not always successful in wrestling to avoid the sins of pride and love of self. He was an autocratic employer who could be offensively persistent in attempting to improve other men’s morals. In the fullest sense he seems to have tried to live the role his biographer assigned to him as Toronto’s “Merchant Prince.”

John Macdonald was one of the most prominent of the great wholesalers who dominated Toronto business in the 1870s and 1880s. Channelling most of his surplus energy into Christian good works, he made little attempt to diversify his business interests. His sons were not able to prevent the family firm from finally being made uneconomic by the direct purchasing practices of Eaton’s and other large retailers. The firm lasted into the 1920s only because it had been built on strong foundations.

The churches whose foundations Macdonald laid survived longer, and their strength would have pleased him. Always fearful that the time allotted to him would be brief, he had tried to use it to create in Toronto a community of prosperous, God-fearing, and sober Christians. As well as anyone he personified capitalism and Christianity in the early years of “Toronto the Good.”

Michael Bliss

There are daily journals of John Macdonald for 1871 and 1882–84 in the possession of Mrs F. H. Lytle, Toronto, and for 1886 at the Academy of Medicine (Toronto). He was the author of Business success: what it is and how to secure it; a lecture delivered before the Toronto Young Men’s Christian Association (Toronto, 1872); Elements necessary to the formation of business character (Toronto, 1886); and “Leaves from the portfolio of a merchant,” Canadian Methodist Magazine, 22 (July–December 1885): 68–75, 131–39; 23 (January–June 1886): 318–26, 428–40.

Baker Library, R. G. Dun & Co. credit ledger, Canada, 27: 237, 254, 299. PAC, MG 26, A. Can., House of Commons, Debates, 1875–78; Senate, Debates, 1887–90. Can., Prov. of, Parl., Confederation debates, 760–65. Globe, 5 Feb. 1890. Commemorative biog. record, county York. C. P. Mulvany, Toronto: past and present: a handbook of the city (Toronto, 1884; repr. 1970). Cornell, Alignment of political groups. Hugh Johnston, A merchant prince: life of Hon. Senator John Macdonald (Toronto, 1893).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Michael Bliss, “MacDONALD, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed August 29, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/macdonald_john_11E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/macdonald_john_11E.html
Author of Article: Michael Bliss
Title of Article: MacDONALD, JOHN
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1982
Year of revision: 2014
Access Date: August 29, 2014