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John A

The Man Who Made Us

by (author) Richard J. Gwyn

Random House of Canada
Initial publish date
Oct 2008
General, Post-Confederation (1867-), Political
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Oct 2008
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The first full-scale biography of Canada’s first prime minister in half a century by one of our best-known and most highly regarded political writers.

The first volume of Richard Gwyn’s definitive biography of John A. Macdonald follows his life from his birth in Scotland in 1815 to his emigration with his family to Kingston, Ontario, to his days as a young, rising lawyer, to his tragedy-ridden first marriage, to the birth of his political ambitions, to his commitment to the all-but-impossible challenge of achieving Confederation, to his presiding, with his second wife Agnes, over the first Canada Day of the new Dominion in 1867.

Colourful, intensely human and with a full measure of human frailties, Macdonald was beyond question Canada’s most important prime minister. This volume describes how Macdonald developed Canada’s first true national political party, encompassing French and English and occupying the centre of the political spectrum. To perpetuate this party, Macdonald made systematic use of patronage to recruit talent and to bond supporters, a system of politics that continues to this day.

Gwyn judges that Macdonald, if operating on a small stage, possessed political skills–of manipulation and deception as well as an extraordinary grasp of human nature–of the same calibre as the greats of his time, such as Disraeli and Lincoln. Confederation is the centerpiece here, and Gywn’s commentary on Macdonald’s pivotal role is original and provocative. But his most striking analysis is that the greatest accomplishment of nineteenth-century Canadians was not Confederation, but rather to decide not to become Americans. Macdonald saw Confederation as a means to an end, its purpose being to serve as a loud and clear demonstration of the existence of a national will to survive. The two threats Macdonald had to contend with were those of annexation by the United States, perhaps by force, perhaps by osmosis, and equally that Britain just might let that annexation happen to avoid a conflict with the continent’s new and unbeatable power.
Gwyn describes Macdonald as “Canada’s first anti-American.” And in pages brimming with anecdote, insight, detail and originality, he has created an indelible portrait of “the irreplaceable man,”–the man who made us.

“Macdonald hadn’t so much created a nation as manipulated and seduced and connived and bullied it into existence against the wishes of most of its own citizens. Now that Confederation was done, Macdonald would have to do it all over again: having conjured up a child-nation he would have to nurture it through adolescence towards adulthood. How he did this is, however, another story.”
“He never made the least attempt to hide his “vice,” unlike, say, his contemporary, William Gladstone, with his sallies across London to save prostitutes, or Mackenzie King with his crystal-ball gazing. Not only was Macdonald entirely unashamed of his behaviour, he often actually drew attention to it, as in his famous response to a heckler who accused him of being drunk at a public meeting: “Yes, but the people would prefer John A. drunk to George Brown sober.” There was no hypocrisy in Macdonald’s make-up, nor any fear.
from John A. Macdonald

About the author


  • Winner, Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction
  • Short-listed, Shaughnessy Cohen Award for Political Writing

Contributor Notes

Richard Gwyn is an award-winning author and political columnist. He is widely known as a commentator for the Toronto Star on national and international affairs and as a frequent contributor to television and radio programs. His books include two highly praised biographies, The Unlikely Revolutionary on Newfoundland premier Joey Smallwood, and The Northern Magus on Pierre Elliot Trudeau. His most recent book, Nationalism Without Walls: The Unbearable Lightness of Being Canadian, was selected by The Literary Review of Canada as one of the 100 most important books published in Canada. Volume two of Gwyn’s biography of Macdonald will be published in 2009.

Excerpt: John A: The Man Who Made Us (by (author) Richard J. Gwyn)


The spirit of past ages never dies -
It lives and walks abroad and cries aloud.
Susanna Moodie, Victoria Magazine, 1847

If an international competition were ever to be staged to identify the world's most complex and contradictory country, Canada would be a serious contender. The winner, surely, would be India, with its sixteen official languages and more than two hundred local languages, its sacred cows and cutting-edge computer software, its combination of being both the world's largest democracy and the only nation-state with a caste system. Canada might well come in second. It's become a commonplace to describe the country as "the world's first postmodern country," given its unparalleled ethnic diversity, its decentralization (exceeded, if at all, only by Switzerland and Belgium), the in-rush of immigrants (the largest proportionately among developed nations), the expanding population of Aboriginal peoples (second only to New Zealand), and the ever-increasing number of "nations" within the nation-state - Quebec as the latest to join the list.

In quite a few ways, we were postmodern before we ever became modern. That was the way we were in John A. Macdonald's time. In 1884, Goldwin Smith, the leading political commentator of his day, summarized Macdonald's lifelong mission as "to hold together a set of elements, national, religious, sectional and personal, as motley as the component patches of any 'crazy quilt,'and actuated each of them by paramount regard for its own interest." Here, Smith identified exactly Macdonald's supreme talent - that he knew how to herd cats.

No one else in Canada came close to Macdonald; after him, perhaps only Mackenzie King did, his paramount art being that of doing as little as possible for as long as possible. At the time, few others anywhere could match him. Even without the spur of chauvinism, any reasonable ranking of nineteenth-century democratic leaders would be Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Disraeli, William Gladstone, John A. Macdonald. (Otto von Bismarck, no democrat, would otherwise rank near to the top.) Macdonald happened to perform on a stage that was small and threadbare. But in the primordial political tasks - the managing of men (then, only them) and the winning of their hearts and minds, and so their votes - contemporary equals are not easy to identify. Nor were there many nation-builders like him in his day: Bismarck, Giuseppe Garibaldi and Sim–n Bol’var. His achievement may have been the more demanding because none of the others had to create a country out of a crazy quilt.

Within the range of Macdonald's accomplishments, there are sizable gaps. The largest, surely, is that, unlike Lincoln, he never appealed to people's "better angels."He was a doer, not a thinker, although highly intelligent and omnivorously well read. He lacked the certitudes of a moralist, instead taking human nature as he found it and turning it to his purposes. He was, that is, a very Scottish Scot. He of course drank too much. And although he was in no way the first to use patronage and election funds for partisan purposes - a cherished and well-embedded Canadian tradition (which still thrives) - Macdonald gave the practice credibility and durability by his masterful exercise of it. That's a shoddy legacy for the father of a country to leave behind.

Yet 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 financial and economic insanity. Also, the National Policy of tariff protection, which endured in one form or other into the 1980s. And the RCMP or, more exactly, its precursor, the North-West Mounted Police. The first immigration from outside the British Isles, and Canada's first labour legislation. On the ledger's other side, he was responsible for the CPR scandal, for the execution of Louis Riel and for the head tax on Chinese workers.

He's thus not easy to scan. His private life was largely barren. Yet few other Canadian leaders - Pierre Trudeau, John Diefenbaker for a time, Wilfrid Laurier - had the same capacity to inspire love. One MP - a Liberal - wrote in a magazine article of Macdonald's hold on his supporters: "They would go through fire and water to serve him, and got, some of them, little or no reward. But they served him because they loved him, and because with all his great powers they saw in him their own frailties." The novelist Hugh MacLennan, in his Scotchman's Return, caught many of the layers within him: "This frail-looking man with the immense and rueful patience of a Celt. . . . This utterly masculine man with so much woman in him . . . this lonely man flashing gay out of his inner solitude . . . this statesman who understood that without chicanery statesmanship is powerless." Macdonald was as complex and contradictory as his own country.

Add a last, lesser, legacy of Macdonald's to the list. In writing this book, I have made a host of spelling "mistakes," but have paid them no heed. Each has been signalled clearly by a red line that my computer's U.S. text system inserts beneath the offending word. The mistakes aren't really mine, though; they are Macdonald's. He had an order-in-council passed directing that all the government's papers be written in the British style, as with "labour" rather than "labor."

Discoveries of this kind have been for me one of the chief delights of writing this book, and even more so of researching it. All historians, professional or freelance like myself, are keenly aware that these small epiphanies are the joy that more than compensates for the later pain of trying to transfer from mind to computer screen whatever it is one wants to say. The discovery, for instance, that, at least in parts of nineteenth-century rural Canada, unmarried mothers were often regarded far less as sinners than as a "species of heiress"; as one observer noted, their condition both confirmed their fecundity and, as dowry, they brought children who would soon be able to work on the farm. The discovery, one of slightly grander moment, that the principal reason the Confederation Fathers spent almost no time discussing the respective powers of the national and provincial governments - the obsession of our politicians ever since - was that most Canadians then were self-sufficient farmers (even making their own clothes and soap and candles) and didn't want governments to do much for them or to them. The discovery, most substantial of all, that the single most important decision Canadians made in the nineteenth century was not to become a confederation, but, rather, not to become Americans. And the discovery that the National Policy, a phrase always applied only to Macdonald's policy of tariff protection for Canadian manufacturers, began instead with Confederation itself, with tariff protection as a later sub-policy, together with other highlights such as his building a transcontinental railway.

Macdonald made us by making a confederation out of a disconnected, mutually suspicious collection of colonies, and by later magnifying this union into a continental-sized nation. He could not have brought off Confederation without the others of the "Big Four" - George-Étienne Cartier, George Brown and Alexander Tilloch Galt. Among them, though, the irreplaceable man was Macdonald. He understood as well something more fundamental. The United States had emerged from its Civil War as a putative superpower. Britain, the global superpower, wanted to pull back from North America in order to attend to its empire. For Canada to survive on its own, it had to demonstrate that it possessed the will and nerve it took for a nation to survive. Confederation was the essential means to that end. What Macdonald understood as no other, excepting perhaps Galt, was that Confederation was only a means, not an end.

I began work knowing precious little about Macdonald and his times. What I knew was negative - that while Macdonald was the most important of all our prime ministers, the last full-scale, critical, biography of him had been written more than half a century ago. It is the greatest biography in Canadian historiography - Donald Creighton's two volumes The Young Chieftain and The Old Politician, published in 1952 and 1955. They are magisterial and encyclopedic, composed with narrative flair. But times move on, new evidence emerges, attitudes and assumptions change and open doors - maybe trap doors - to new interpretations of old givens. Anyway, why should the United States, where history was once dismissed as "bunk," each year publish up to a half-dozen biographies of historical figures or major studies of past doings that attempt to extract contemporary lessons from long-ago events, while Canada settles for so few - precariously close to none at all? Our history, as we know perfectly well, lacks the drama of revolutions and civil wars, of kings and queens losing their heads. But it is our history. It is us. It's where we came from and, in far larger part than often is recognized, it is why we are the way we are now, no matter all the transformational changes sinceÑdemographic, economic, technological, lifestyle. Moreover, as was always Macdonald's core conviction, human nature itself changes little.

I came to this biography sideways. This book started out to be a slim one, then threatened to grow obese, then was sliced into two more or less manageable halves. This is to say that I began boning up on Macdonald for a Brief Life series on historical figures for another publisher. Out of this cramming came one, to me, unarguable conclusion: Macdonald deserves a new full-scale biography, and Canadians deserve the chance to rediscover him. With quite considerable daring - in Canada, history really is often now treated as "bunk" - Random House of Canada accepted the challenge, eventually taking the double dare that an originally planned single volume should be divided into two. This book is the result of that dare.

A last note on my work habits. Early on, Carol, my wife, found a large poster of Macdonald created originally to promote Macdonald's cause in CBC-TV's The Greatest Canadian contest. She installed it in my attic office. Throughout my labours, he's looked down, quizzically and mischievously.

Lairds Ourselvess

Mark my words, John will make more than an ordinary man.
Helen Macdonald's judgment on her eldest son.

Where John A. Macdonald was born and when he was born are unknown. Or, rather, are not known exactly. About the essentials of his beginnings, there are no doubts whatever. He was born in the Scottish industrial city of Glasgow in 1815.

There were historical dimensions to both place and date. Glasgow was the lustiest child of Britain's Industrial Revolution: a sleepy town of only twenty thousand in 1791, its shipyards along the Clyde, its engineering works and factories and its "dark Satanic mills" had sent the town's population soaring above one hundred thousand by the time of Macdonald's birth, less than a quarter-century later. As well, 1815 was the year of the Battle of Waterloo. That cataclysmic military clash didn't so much ensure Napoleon's defeat (which was inevitable eventually, anyway) as ensure that Britain, its strength multiplied by its long industrial lead over all its rivals, would become the global powerhouse of the nineteenth century. By pure happenstance, Britain's global reach created a possibility that its leftover colonies in North America, strung across the top half of the continent like widely spaced and oddly sized beads, and having little in common other than their mutual Britishness (for the most part), might yet - just - remain independent from their overwhelming neighbour, the coming hegemon of the twentieth century. For that to actually happen, however, required the arrival of a leader who could cajole and bluff and bully these colonies into becoming a whole larger than the sum of their parts. In 1815, little of this was of the slightest interest to anyone in the British Isles. Yet it was in Glasgow in that year that Canada's future began to take shape.

The minutiae of Macdonald's birth need to be cleared up. Throughout his life and for the near century and a quarter that has followed his death, his birthdate has been commemorated as January 11, 1815 - as in the joyous celebratory dinner staged each year in Kingston, Ontario, for example, and in the inscriptions on all the plaques and statues that honour him. But this particular day may be a mistake. The January 11 date is taken from the entry for his birth made by his father, Hugh Macdonald, in his memorandum book. The entry recorded in the General Register Office in Edinburgh, though, is January 10.* Similarly, precision about where specifically Macdonald was born, while a matter of lesser consequence, is as difficult to determine. The delivery may have taken place at 29 Ingram Street in Glasgow or, not far away, at 18 Brunswick Street, both on the south side of the Clyde River, because the family moved between these locations around the time of his birth. To pick at a last unknowable nit, Macdonald's father recorded the moment of birth as 4:15, without specifying afternoon or early morning.

The other defining attributes of Macdonald's birth are known beyond argument. His parents were middle class, if precariously so. They were Scots, and so of course was he. And soon after his birth, they chose to immigrate to Canada rather than take the advice of Samuel Johnson about the most attractive prospect that any Scotsman could ever come upon and follow the usual road to London.

Immigration always happens for one of two reasons or for both simultaneously: either individuals or families are pushed out from their homeland by poverty, oppression, failure or plain bad luck, or they are pulled towards a new country by the tantalizing promise it holds for new beginnings and new opportunities. Both factors applied to the Macdonalds, but in distinctive ways, when they set out across the Atlantic in 1820. John A. himself was then five years old. An early biographer described him as having "a bright eye, a lively manner and a head of curly brown hair which darkened into black as he grew up." At least supposedly, he showed early promise of having the gift of the gab, once giving a speech to a gathering of relatives by mounting a table, from which, as his gestures became ever more dramatic, he projected himself to the ground.

As soon as the Napoleonic wars ended, England was gripped by a depression that cut most deeply into its farming counties; the same outwards push existed in Scotland, given force there by the clearances of people from the land to make way for sheep - as often, despite later myth, by Scottish landowners as by English ones. The great migration from the British Isles to both Canada and the United States dates from this period, although it remained relatively small until the 1830s, later multiplying exponentially through the 1840s as the Irish fled from the horrors of their Great Famine. To magnify the force of the outwards push, the British governments of the day accepted the thesis of Thomas Malthus that population growth would always outpace the growth in food production. To avoid social unrest, perhaps even the ultimate horror of a revolution of the kind from which Napoleon had sprung, successive governments encouraged the "idle poor" to move elsewhere.

Editorial Reviews

“Judging by the first half, his two-volume biography will no doubt be ranked with Donald Creighton’s two-book landmark from the 1950s…Gwyn provides a more dispassionate analysis of this complicated man and his times…A welcome addition to the national library.” -The National Post

“Gwyn has performed a service to 21st-century Canadians by recreating a man of the 19th so well…This is a book that [Donald] Creighton, and perhaps even Sir John A. himself, could pick up and learn something.” -Winnipeg Free Press

“A vivid, multi-dimensional portrait of a fascinating character and his times…Gwyn, his trademark wry wit enlivening his text, brings a lifetime of political punditry to bear on his subject, surely one of the most intriguing political figures Canada even produced” -Montreal Gazette

“Gwyn’s book is also a hymn of praise to what he sees as a miraculous country, miraculous in its peacefulness, its diversity, its tolerance and its determined un-Americanness…Those positive national qualities can be traced back unmistakably to its first leader. This is the personal and contemporary insight that distinguishes this biography.”- Toronto Star

“Through historical documents, Gwyn gives great insight into this complicated character and his turbulent life… John A comes alive in these pages on many levels, including his most fallible.”HaH - Halifax Chronicle-Herald

“In a lively but thorough biography of John A. Macdonald up to the day of Confederation in 1867, Richard Gwyn brings to life the young Scottish-born lawyer who found himself unexpectedly entering politics in Kingston in 1844. Gwyn writes from a twenty-first century perspective while painting for his readers a vivid image of nineteenth century Canada: its society, customs, characters and politics. Gwyn helps us understand Macdonald’s genius and vision, which would shape the nation that grew to the north of the United States."
- Charles Taylor Prize Jury

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