Victoria's Prime Minister: The Tale of Sir John A. Macdonald

By Norman K Archer

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The year that saw the Duke of Wellington bring the arrogant Napoleon to his knees at the Battle of Waterloo in Belgium was the year that witnessed the birth of Canada’s first Prime Minister. John Alexander Macdonald, the third of five children born to Hugh Macdonald, an unsuccessful businessman in Glasgow, Scotland, arrived in January 1815.

Five years later, Hugh and his wife, Helen, immigrated to Kingston, Upper Canada in search of a better life. But his business ventures were no more successful in Canada than they had been in Scotland. John was fortunate enough to get some good schooling before he left at the age of 15, but he never went on to university – a decision he always regretted.

While still only 15, he went to Toronto (then called York) to apprentice as a lawyer. He was a voracious reader and a keen student with wide interests, so he had no trouble working under a brilliant and ambitious young lawyer named George Mackenzie. His mentor’s sudden death opened the door for Macdonald to start his own law practice in Kingston and he soon rose to the top of his profession. Moving from commercial to criminal law brought him into the public eye and his courtroom experiences honed his powers of argument and persuasion that prepared him well for his future political career. He discovered he could win over a jury with his charming personality, sharp wit and storytelling gifts, far more than by his legal expertise.

Then came the rebellions of 1837. In Lower Canada, the French and English rebels were pitted against the British Colonial government. In Upper Canada, William Lyon Mackenzie (the grandfather of future Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King) spearheaded a violent revolt against the current political powers for economic decline, nepotism, patronage and unfair favouritism of certain religious groups.

When the rebellions were finally quashed, Mackenzie was exiled and a series of sensational trials for treason against the perpetrators began. This gave Macdonald the opportunity to rise to stardom as he successfully battled the causes of eight of the accused, securing their acquittals.

But then he took an enormous risk when he agreed to advise some American raiders who had stormed over the border with a madcap scheme of liberating Canada from the yoke of British Colonialism. In the skirmish, several Canadian soldiers had been killed, one of the bodies apparently mutilated and at the ensuing court martial, bitter feelings were running high. Macdonald found himself in an unpopular position. Even his amazing persuasive powers were not enough to save the accused from the gallows. However, the event disturbed him profoundly and was forever seared in his memory, colouring some of his policies in later years.

Following a short term as a Kingston alderman, his political career began when he was elected to the Provincial Legislature in 1844, as Conservative Representative for Kingston. His rise to a Cabinet position was soon eclipsed when the Conservatives were not returned to power and, being somewhat disenchanted with the leadership, he helped establish a new forward-thinking party, the Liberal-Conservatives. When this party came to power in 1854, Macdonald became Attorney General, then joint Premier.

Macdonald was the driving force that brought together the haphazard, chaotic and disjointed political scene to a consensus at Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, resulting finally in Confederation on July 1, 1867. The uniting of the two Canadas (Upper and Lower) was of paramount importance to secure the stability of the country on the world stage. He drafted the British North America Act to enshrine the union in the statute books. The Conservatives formed the government and Macdonald became Canada’s first Prime Minister. He was knighted the same day.

He was an extremely active political leader. Throughout his career, he balanced aggressive self-interest groups adroitly, often walking a knife-edge, but managed miraculously to keep Canada together during the crucial early years. He enacted legislation to help the poor and homeless and he introduced a welfare system. He bought “Rupert’s Land” (about one-third of Canada) from the Hudson’s Bay Company, he persuaded British Columbia to join Confederation in 1871, he founded the North West Mounted Police (now known as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) and he laid the initial plans for a trans-continental railway to unite the fledgling country from coast to coast.

Then the “Pacific Scandal” broke. Macdonald was accused of taking bribes for railway contracts and the mud stuck. He was forced to resign in 1873 and the Liberals came to power.

All his life, he was plagued with sickness, unhappiness, grief, debt, drunkenness and a wide range of other personal problems. He quipped, “Fortune has emptied her chamber pot on my head.” He lost his Kingston seat at the next General Election in 1878, but Victoria rose to his defence and accepted him as their Conservative Candidate. He was elected with an overwhelming majority and represented Victoria in Parliament for the next four years, serving again as Prime Minister. Victorians were delighted that their Member of Parliament was the Prime Minister because they were convinced it meant the promised railway connection to the rest of Canada that was to be their reward for joining Confederation. But it was not to be. During his second term of office, the Canadian Pacific Railway was finally completed after enormous cost overruns, terminating in the new city of Vancouver, much to Victoria’s chagrin.

He dealt firmly with the Louis Riel rebellions that enhanced his popularity with many of the English, but soured his reputation with the French, causing him considerable trouble for the rest of his life.

Following one of his bouts of sickness, when he was 34, he took a vacation in England, paid for by his gambling winnings, where he married his stunningly beautiful first cousin, Isabella Clark. All was well for the first few months, until Isabella developed undiagnosed severe pain. To relieve her symptoms, she drank large quantities of liquid opium and alcohol and their life together became a nightmare. Their first son, Alexander, was born in 1847, following a particularly agonizing labour. Alexander was the victim of crib death a year later. In 1850, their second son Hugh was born. His father was never fond of Hugh and his aunt raised him after Isabella’s death in 1857. Even when Macdonald had the honour of introducing his son as a new Member of Parliament, the young man received little praise from his father.

Isabella’s protracted illness drove Macdonald into heavy debt and he turned to the bottle for relief, seeking his comfort in bars and lounges. Once, he flooded the podium with vomit during an election debate. His opponent seized the opportunity to shout, “Is this who you want to represent you? A drunk?” Macdonald is said to have replied, “These constituents would rather have a drunk Conservative than a sober Liberal!”

At the age of 52, Macdonald married Susan and their only child, Margaret, suffered from severe physical and mental handicaps.

Strain, overwork, excessive drinking and gallstones took their toll as Macdonald quickly aged. A severe stroke robbed him of his powers of speech and the old warhorse died a week later on June 6, 1891. He was 76. Having held the position for 19 years, he was the first of only two Canadian Prime Ministers to die in office.

Canada owes an enormous debt of gratitude to Sir John A. Macdonald, charismatic leader, volatile firebrand, incisive thinker, powerful orator and dynamic personality, rightly described as the “Father of the Confederation” and “Founder of the Nation.” A 2004 Public Opinion Poll ranked him among the 10 greatest Canadians and while his portrait continues to adorn the $10 bill, he will still be admired – fortune’s chamber pot notwithstanding.



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