Happy (Belated) Birthday, John!

Yesterday, January 11, 2015, was Sir John A. Macdonald’s 200th Birthday.  I believe that such a date must be recognized.  And so, today, I will tell you a few things to know about him.

Canadian election campaign poster from 1891
Figure 1: English: “The Old Flag – The Old Policy – The Old Leader”. 1891 Canadian election campaign poster for Sir John A. Macdonald. Français : “Le vieux drapeau, les vieux principes, le vieux chef”. Campagne électorale de 1891.

Basic details of his life are:

  • He was born John Alexander Macdonald, on January 11, 1815 in Glasgow, Scotland, (UK)
  • He died June 6, 1891 at the age of 76 in Ottawa, Ontario
  • His final resting place is at the Cataraqui Cemetery in Kingston, Ontario
  • He was a Conservative
  • He married twice, first with Isabella Clark until her death (1843-1857) and Agnes Bernard until the day he died (1867-1891)
  • He had 3 children
  • He was a Lawyer
  • Though he was brought up a Presbyterian, he converted to Anglican
  • He was the first Prime Minister of Canada (1867–1873, 1878–1891)
  • The dominant figure of Canadian Confederation, he had a political career which spanned almost half a century
  • Macdonald served 19 years as Canadian Prime Minister (only William Lyon Mackenzie King served longer)
Animation of the changes to the borders of Canada
Figure 2: Animation of the changes to the borders of Canada. Date: 15 July 2009. Source Author: Golbez (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Golbez)

Macdonald was designated as the first Prime Minister of the new nation, and served in that capacity for most of the rest of his life, losing office for five years in the 1870s over the Pacific Scandal (corruption in the financing of the Canadian Pacific Railway). After regaining his place in the government, he saw the railroad through to completion in 1885, and it helped unite Canada as one nation. Macdonald is credited with creating a Canadian Confederation despite many obstacles, and expanding what was a relatively small country to cover the northern half of North America. By the time of his death in 1891, Canada had secured most of the territory it occupies today.  Figure 2 shows how the boundaries in Canada have changed since Confederation.

John initially attended local schools. When he was aged 10, his family scraped together the money to send him to Midland District Grammar School in Kingston. Macdonald’s formal schooling ended at 15, a common school-leaving age at a time when only children from the most prosperous families were able to attend university.  Nevertheless, Macdonald later regretted leaving school when he did, remarking to his private secretary Joseph Pope that if he had attended university, he might have embarked on a literary career. I wonder how different our history would be if hadn’t persued politics.

In March 1844, Macdonald was asked by local businessmen to stand as Conservative candidate for Kingston in the upcoming legislative election.  Macdonald followed the contemporary custom of supplying the voters with large quantities of alcohol.  In the era preceding the secret ballot when votes were publicly declared, Macdonald defeated his opponent, Anthony Manahan, by 275 “shouts” to 42 when the two-day election concluded on 15 October 1844.

Conservative Senator Hugh Segal believes that Macdonald’s true monument is Canada itself:

“Without Macdonald we’d be a country that begins somewhere at the Manitoba-Ontario border that probably goes throughout the east. Newfoundland would be like Alaska and I think that would also go for Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C. We’d be buying our oil from the United States. It would diminish our quality of life and range of careers, and our role in the world would have been substantially reduced.”

Macdonald’s biographers note his contribution to establishing Canada as a nation. Swainson suggests that Macdonald’s wish for a free and tolerant Canada became part of its national outlook:

“He not only helped to create Canada, but contributed immeasurably to its character.”

Gwyn said of Macdonald, his accomplishments were staggering: Confederation above all, but almost as important, if not more so, extending the country across the continent by a railway that was, objectively, a fiscal and economic insanity … On the ledger’s other side, he was responsible for the CPR scandal, the execution of Louis Riel, and for the head tax on Chinese workers. He’s thus not easy to scan. His private life was mostly barren. Yet few other Canadian leaders — Pierre Trudeau, John Diefenbaker for a time, Wilfrid Laurier — had the same capacity to inspire love.

To read more about Sir John A, I suggest CBC Archives where you can find a host of multimedia content; another impressive site would be the Dictionary of Canadian Biography article by J. K. Johnson and P. B. Waite; if you enjoy looking at archived documents, the best place would be the Library and Archives Canada: gallery of papers; another great place is the The Canadian Encyclopedia.

 

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