MACDONELL (Greenfield), JOHN, lawyer, office holder, militia officer, and politician; b. 19 April 1785 in Greenfield, Scotland, the fourth son of Alexander Macdonell of Greenfield and Janet Macdonell (Aberchalder), sister of John McDonell (Aberchalder); d. 14 Oct. 1812 in Queenston, Upper Canada.
Little is known of John Macdonell’s early life. In 1792 his family immigrated to Glengarry County, Upper Canada, and under his father’s leadership it enjoyed a measure of prominence in the military and political affairs of the county. Some sources suggest that John, like his younger brother Alexander Greenfield*, attended John Strachan*’s grammar school at Cornwall. This seems improbable. Strachan’s school was established in the summer of 1803 and on 6 April of that year Macdonell became a law student. In 1862 Chief Justice John Beverley Robinson* recalled that Macdonell served in the law office of William Dickson* at Niagara (Niagara-on-the-Lake). Several historians have speculated that he was persuaded to take up law by his uncle Alexander McDonell* (Collachie), sheriff of the Home District and member of the House of Assembly for the riding of Glengarry and Prescott. In 1808, having articled for the requisite five years, Macdonell was called to the bar in Trinity term. Thereafter, according to Robinson, he “established himself very successfully in business” at York (Toronto).
Macdonell’s legal career was brief but meteoric. Through Collachie he became acquainted with judge William Dummer Powell*, gaining both his friendship and his patronage. At the height of his political power during the administration of Lieutenant Governor Francis Gore*, Powell on 19 Aug. 1808 solicited an appointment for the young barrister as clerk to several court commissions for the Newcastle, Midland, Johnstown, and Eastern districts. By 1811 Macdonell was firmly established in his profession. A combination of personal ability and Powell’s patronage brought recognition of his legal prominence when on 16 July he was appointed to conduct the criminal prosecutions on the western circuit in the absence of Solicitor General D’Arcy Boulton*. Powell’s wife, Anne Murray*, wrote enthusiastically that “our young Friend J McDonnel goes as king’s counsel.” He had also begun to attract law students and that year Robinson and Archibald McLean* joined his practice. The following year the astute Ebenezer Washburn*, ever alert for suitable prospects for his family, arranged for his son Simon Ebenezer* to article with Macdonell but the War of 1812 disrupted these plans. Macdonell’s professional stature had been complemented by an increasing social prominence. In December 1811 he was secretary to the subscribers to the library in York and in 1812 esquire was added to his name on the town census.
Early in his career Macdonell established a reputation for a quick temper. In 1808 he reacted strongly to a statement about his practice made in court by Attorney General William Firth* and on 16 September sent his close friend Duncan Cameron* to demand a retraction. Firth refused and Cameron challenged him to a duel on Macdonell’s behalf. Firth seems to have had little use for the code so dear to the gentlemen of Upper Canada and faint-heartedly dismissed the challenge as contrary to law. Macdonell could give offence as easily as he took it. In April 1812 William Warren Baldwin* objected in court to his “wanton & ungentlemanly” expressions. Chief Justice Thomas Scott* reprimanded Macdonell but Baldwin remained dissatisfied. He demanded an apology and when Macdonell refused challenged him to a duel. They met on 3 April but Macdonell would not raise his pistol, having decided to admit his fault by receiving Baldwin’s fire. Baldwin “took this as an acknowledgement of his error – we joined hands and thus this affair ended.” Baldwin’s initial objection seems to have been prompted by Macdonell’s arrogance and success. Several weeks after the incident he wrote to his friend Firth describing Macdonell as “such a paragon of excellence that he leaves no virtue no commendable qualification for others to found pretensions on . . . the field, the cabinet and the Forum are all to be the scenes of his Renown – his honors rain not upon him, they come in tempests.”
The mark of Macdonell’s rapid ascent was his assumption of the duties of attorney general on 28 Sept. 1811. Firth had returned to England to defend his accounts and Boulton had been imprisoned by the French in Verdun. Gore was less than enthusiastic about the appointment and two days later urged Lord Liverpool, the Colonial secretary, “to lose no time in procuring a fit subject for that high and confidential situation” because “there is no Person at the Bar in this Province, whom I consider qualified for the office.” Gore returned to England in October and Macdonell made a more favourable impression on the administrator of the province, Isaac Brock. Macdonell’s appointment was confirmed on 14 April 1812 and a warrant issued on 18 June. His nomination was a testament to Powell’s influence: Brock, “who appeared to repose as much on my Judgement & Counsel as his predecessor . . . afforded Strong proof of this in naming . . . the youngest Practioner at the Bar merely on my recommendation.” Powell, an able judge of men, saw in young Macdonell “a fair proportion of legal acquirement . . . Sound Discretion and highly honorable spirit.” The appointment was the first for a native-trained barrister, thus suiting Powell’s “object to retain the Honors of the profession amongst ourselves without risque of receiving from Europe Subjects often less suitable & no credit to the good wishes of the Minister, and to the good Service to the Colony.”
The fourth and fifth parliaments of Upper Canada had witnessed the rise of opposition in the House of Assembly [see Joseph Willcocks; Robert Thorpe*]; war with the United States seemed imminent. In this atmosphere of early 1812 Macdonell decided to contest the riding of Glengarry for the sixth parliament. His decision was probably influenced by his political friends, mindful of the need for a loyal assembly, and by the decision of his uncle Collachie, who had held one of the Glengarry seats since 1800, not to stand for a fourth term. Macdonells from various branches of the family had virtually monopolized the Glengarry seats since 1792 and in his election broadside John Macdonell reiterated the traditional social bonds of extended family and clan loyalty which characterized the Highland settlements of Glengarry, describing himself as “connected with many of you by the ties of blood, and possessing one common interest with you all.” In May, on a leave of absence from official duties, he travelled to the Eastern District with John Beikie, the first clerk of the Executive Council, who had been encouraged by Father Alexander McDonell* to contest the riding of Stormont and Russell. Archibald McLean, one of the priest’s political contacts in York and a friend of John Macdonell, wrote of their candidacy, “At this time it is particularly to be desired that the House of Assembly should be composed of well informed Men who are well affected to the Government.” Both were elected, Macdonell in conjunction with Alexander McMartin*. Whether Macdonell attended the first session of the sixth parliament called by Brock to pass emergency legislation occasioned by the war is unknown. After his death he was succeeded in the assembly by his uncle Collachie.
Macdonell’s abilities were not apparently restricted to politics and law. Brock found him “so useful” as a soldier that on 15 April 1812 he appointed him provincial aide-de-camp with the rank of lieutenant-colonel in the militia. In his memoir of the war William Hamilton Merritt* was to comment on Brock’s staff appointments as “most judicious.” On 18 June the Americans declared war. Macdonell accompanied Brock to Sandwich (Windsor) in August and was at the council of war called on the 15th. Only Macdonell and Robert Nichol* approved Brock’s plan to attack the American army commanded by William Hull at Detroit. That same day Macdonell and Major John Bachevoye Glegg, Brock’s military aide-de-camp, were deputed by Brock “to conclude any arrangement that may lead to prevent the unnecessary effusion of blood.” Within an hour they returned with the conditions of the American capitulation. On 30 August Brock wrote to Lord Liverpool that Macdonell had “afforded me the most important assistance” at Detroit, and he asked Liverpool to confirm his appointment as attorney general because of “the very important Services which I have derived . . . both in his Civil and Military Capacity.”
After the victory at Detroit Brock and Macdonell returned to the Niagara frontier, alternating between their political duties at York and preparations for the next military crisis. When word reached Brock on 13 October that the Americans had attacked at Queenston he hastened there, followed by Macdonell and Glegg. After Brock met his death on the heights in an effort to retake a battery, a detachment of York militia, including Macdonell’s closest friends, Cameron and McLean, and his student Robinson, joined with the 49th Foot in a new attack led by Macdonell. In Robinson’s words, “McDonell was there mounted, and animating the men to charge.” He was wounded in three or four places as well as trampled by his horse, and was aided to safety by McLean and Cameron. He died the next day after 20 hours of “excruciating suffering, his words and thoughts appeared ever occupied with lamentations for his lost friend [Brock].” Brock and Macdonell were buried on 16 October in what George Ridout* described as “the grandest & most solemn [burial] ever I witnessed.” In 1824 and again in 1853 they were re-interred in the successive monuments to Brock.
Macdonell’s gallant death, like that of Brock, became part of the lore of the War of 1812 which flourished in the 19th century. The monuments at Queenston enshrined their heroic moment. Yet the ultimate victory at Queenston belonged to Brock’s successor Roger Hale Sheaffe*, and the charge led by Macdonell, although valiant, was perhaps foolhardy. Robinson observed the following day that “the attempt was unsuccessful and must have been dictated rather by a fond hope of regaining what had been lost by a desperate effort than by a conviction of it’s practicability. . . .” Less than two weeks after the battle Glegg wrote that Macdonell had “appeared determined to accompany him [Brock] to the regions of eternal bliss.” Possessed of a poetic sensibility and keen intelligence yet headstrong and violent, Macdonell was a man whose abilities marked him off from the generality of society. He was the epitome of a Highland gentleman. The bravery and impetuosity of his last act were entirely characteristic of such a man. His brief life was the stuff of legend. To Robinson’s mind he was “as noble a youth as ever inherited his name, which is saying much.”
Two stories have persisted about Macdonell: that at the time of his death he was engaged to Mary Boyles Powell, daughter of William Dummer; and that he had been converted to the Church of England from Roman Catholicism. There is no doubt that Macdonell was Mary Boyles’s ardent suitor. Books of poetry he gave her, dated 1805, are still in the possession of the Macdonell family. It has often been assumed that the 500 guineas Macdonell left Mary in his will proved their relationship, if not their engagement, but this is not the case. On 22 Feb. 1812 Anne Powell wrote that her daughter Mary “assiduously avoids every mark of [Macdonell’s] attention, as any other would court it. . . . Except herself no young Woman in the Province would reject a Man of 25; of Talents integrity & exemplary goodness & who at this early period is at the head of his profession.” In 1815 Anne described the tragic effect of Macdonell’s death: “Mary is changed beyond description . . . more to unceasing regret for her unkindness to one who merited and . . . possessed her best affection . . . the generous bequest of our ever lamented Friend was a proof of his regard, which she could not but feel a reproach for her capricious conduct.” For Macdonell’s religion the evidence is less conclusive. According to a still persistent family tradition Macdonell made the change at York, but the only supporting evidence is the payment of pew rent in St James’ Church by Macdonell on at least one occasion for his uncle Collachie’s family, with whom he had lived as a student; this does not seem significant since St James’ was then the only church in York and Collachie’s wife belonged to the Church of England. Collachie himself was a Catholic, as was Macdonell’s brother Donald*, and the first conversion within the family seems to have been that of one of Donald’s sons to Presbyterianism.
In his will Macdonell left his two lots in York to his cousin James Macdonell (Collachie), another lot in Whitby Township to William Powell, grandson of William Dummer Powell, several pieces of property in Scarborough and Saltfleet townships to his niece Ann, the daughter of Miles Macdonell*, various personal bequests, and the remainder to his father.
AO, ms 4, Memoranda, 14 Oct. 1812; J. B. Robinson to Lord Seaton, 30 March 1854; address to the Law Society of Upper Canada, 1862; ms 88, W. W. Baldwin to William Firth, 22 April 1812; ms 496, J. B. Glegg to William Brock, 25 Oct. 1812; letter from “Archy” McLean, 15 Oct. 1812; J. B. Robinson to F. B. Tupper, 15 April 1846; ms 537, George Ridout to Samuel Ridout, 21 Oct. 1812; MU 1537, “Notice of the progress of William Dummer Powell, chief justice of the province of Upper Canada”; MU 2143, 1797, no.2, John Macdonell, “To the free and independent electors of the county of Glengary,” 12 March 1812; RG 22, ser.155, will of John Macdonell; RG 53, ser.2–2, 1. Arch. of the Archdiocese of Toronto, Macdonell papers, ser.1 (added material), Archibald McLean to Alexander Macdonell, 20 May 1812. MTL, William Dummer Powell papers, A93: 287–90, 299–302, 347–60; B32: 84–85; York, U.C., minutes of town meetings and lists of inhabitants, 1797–1822. PAC, RG 5, A1: 3314–16, 5006–97, 5575–76, 5737–38, 5743–44, 5747–48, 6231–32, 6295–97; RG 8, I (C ser.), 683: 133; 688A: 183; 12031/2A: 47. PRO, CO 42/351: ff.113–15; 42/352: ff.66, 140–41, 144–45; 42/353: ff.117–19. St James’ Cathedral (Toronto), Minute and record book, 1807–30, 5 Feb., 3 April 1810; 14 March, 30 Dec. 1811. Select British docs. of War of 1812 (Wood), 1: 461, 468, 471, 584–88, 614; 3, pt.ii: 47, 554. York Gazette, 26 Dec. 1811, 25 March 1812. Chadwick, Ontarian families. J. G. Harkness, Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry: a history, 1784–1945 (Oshawa, Ont., 1946). J. A. Macdonell, Sketches illustrating the early settlement and history of Glengarry in Canada, relating principally to the revolutionary war of 1775–83, the war of 1812–14 and the rebellion of 1837–8 . . . (Montreal, 1893). Riddell, Life of William Dummer Powell. W. M. Weekes, “The War of 1812: civil authority and martial law in Upper Canada,” The defended border: Upper Canada and the War of 1812 . . . , ed. Morris Zaslow and W. B. Turner (Toronto, 1964), 191–204. Alexander Fraser, “Stirring career of heroic soldier: sketch of life of Lieutenant-Colonel John Macdonell,” Daily Mail and Empire (Toronto), 12 Oct. 1912: 15, 25. W. L. Scott, “Glengarry’s representatives in the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada,” CCHA Report, 6 (1938–39): 19–37; 7 (1939–40): 27–42.
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Cite This Article
Carol Whitfield and Robert Lochiel Fraser III, “MACDONELL (Greenfield), JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 30, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/macdonell_john_5E.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:||Carol Whitfield and Robert Lochiel Fraser III|
|Title of Article:||MACDONELL (Greenfield), JOHN|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1983|
|Year of revision:||1983|
|Access Date:||March 30, 2023|