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The Private Man
 

Sir John A. MACDONALD, Canada’s first prime minister, was described by its fourth prime minister, Sir John Sparrow David THOMPSON, as the country’s “father and founder.” Macdonald’s biographers, J. K. Johnson and P. B. Waite, characterize him in this way:

“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.”

 

Macdonald was born in Scotland in 1815 and immigrated, at the age of five, with his family to Upper Canada. He had a difficult family life. His first marriage was to his cousin Isabella Clark, and they had two children. Only one, Hugh John MACDONALD, survived past infancy. Isabella was an invalid during much of the marriage and died in 1857. Ten years later Macdonald married Susan Agnes BERNARD, the sister of Macdonald’s friend and private secretary, Hewitt BERNARD. The couple had one child, Margaret Mary Theodora, who was born with hydrocephalus and never learned to walk.

Professional success did not mitigate these personal tragedies, which took a toll on Macdonald’s own health. His reputation as a hard drinker is an enduring one, and his biographers tackled it directly:

“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.”

 

This pattern of behaviour is further described in the biography of Susan Agnes Macdonald:

“His drinking would break out from time to time. The only person who could do anything with him, said Charles Belford* of the Toronto Mail, was Lady Macdonald, but even she was not always capable of handling him. When Macdonald was sober, which was most of the time, he tried to gratify her wishes. What he would not do, even to please her, was allow her influence in public decisions.”

 

Macdonald’s political career kept him away from his family for long stretches of time. If politics was hard on Macdonald, its effects were also endured by his son, who was raised in Kingston by Macdonald’s sister Margaret and her husband, the Reverend James WILLIAMSON, described in his biography as “a warm, generous, absentminded, and kindly man” but intolerant and anti-Roman Catholic. Like his father, Hugh John became a lawyer and a Conservative mp; later, he was, briefly, premier of Manitoba. Hugh John Macdonald’s life reveals something of the challenges of being a great man’s son:

“In the federal general election of 1891 he reluctantly accepted the Conservative nomination in Winnipeg and he won the constituency with a majority of 500 votes. Up to that time he had been known as Hugh and signed Hugh J. During the campaign, newspaper advertisements referred to him as Hugh John (thus emphasizing the link to his father) and he was known by those names ever after. He resigned his seat on 4 May 1893. Although he claimed the primary reason for his resignation was financial, there were several others. One was his shy and retiring nature combined with a distaste for public life. A second was his determination to elude the shadow of his illustrious father…

“…His principal value lay in the surname he had inherited. Ironically, he had grown up apart from his father and thus did not share the tolerant views long associated with the Macdonald name. When the Conservative party called on the Old Chieftain’s heir, it found not another John A. but a second James Williamson. Throughout his life he had tried in vain to escape the comparisons to his father. In the end, his loyalty to the party and to the memory of his father overcame his natural aversion to public life, with consequences which were often not in his own best interests.”

 

For more information on Macdonald’s private life, please consult the following biographies.

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