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History General

Nation Maker

Sir John A. Macdonald: His Life, Our Times

by (author) Richard J. Gwyn

Random House of Canada
Initial publish date
Aug 2012
General, Political, Historical
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Aug 2012
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John A. Macdonald, Canada's first and most important prime minister, is the man who made Confederation happen, who built this country over the next quarter century, and who shaped what it is today. From Confederation Day in 1867, where this volume picks up, Macdonald finessed a reluctant union of four provinces in central and eastern Canada into a strong nation, despite indifference from Britain and annexationist sentiment in the United States.

But it wasn't easy. Gwyn paints a superb portrait of Canada and its leaders through these formative years and also delves deep to show us Macdonald the man, as he marries for the second time, deals with the birth of a disabled child, and the assassination of his close friend Darcy McGee, and wrestles with whether Riel should hang. Indelibly, Gwyn shows us Macdonald's love of this country and his ability to joust with forces who would have been just as happy to see the end of Canada before it had really begun, creating a must-read for all Canadians.

About the author


  • Short-listed, Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction
  • Winner, Shaughnessy Cohen Award for Political Writing
  • Winner, Dafoe Book Prize
  • Short-listed, Governor General's Literary Award - Nonfiction
  • Short-listed, British Columbia's National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction
  • Nominated, Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Non-Fiction Prize

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, Smallwood: The Unlikely Revolutionary on Newfoundland premier Joey Smallwood, and The Northern Magus on Pierre Elliott Trudeau. His 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.The first volume of Gwyn's biography of Macdonald was published in 2007, became a national bestseller and won the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction. The author lives in Toronto, ON.

Excerpt: Nation Maker: Sir John A. Macdonald: His Life, Our Times (by (author) Richard J. Gwyn)

In thirty days, for weal or for woe, the Confederate Government will be inaugurated. By the exercise of common sense and a limited amount of the patriotism which goes by the name of self-interest, I have no doubt the Union will be good for the Country’s weal.
—Macdonald to Newfoundland politician Ambrose Shea, June 3, 1867
Confederation Day, on July 1, 1867, passed tolerably well. All across Ontario, large crowds turned out to watch the parades and fireworks, listen to concerts by military bands, eat free steaks carved from oxen roasting on spits, sit through speeches by politicians, and cheer on games of cricket or croquet, with sack races for the children. The excitement was equally high in the English sections of Montreal. In Nova Scotia, though, several newspapers bordered their front page in black, and the government forbade distribution of the governor general’s proclamation. In Quebec, the crowds were sparse, Montreal’s powerful Bishop Ignace Bourget delayed expressing even grudging approval for Confederation until the day had passed, and George-Étienne Cartier’s own newspaper, La Minerve, informed readers that Confederation provided a direct route to “l’indépendence politique.”

All that really mattered was that Confederation had happened. For the first time ever, colonials had written their own constitution. They had done so despite having only two federal models as guides, in Switzerland and the United States. In Britain, the only role model that mattered, sovereignty was singular, residing in its entirety in the king in Parliament. The constitution itself, the British North America Act, if breaking no new ground politically or legally, was nevertheless in some respects remarkably ambitious. To join the Maritimes to the old Canada in fact as well as in law, the new dominion pledged to build a railway across the five hundred miles of wilderness between Quebec City and Halifax. It also declared itself ready to extend all the way to the Pacific—which, if the western colonies agreed, would make the country the second largest in the world after Russia.

John A. Macdonald was the man behind this extravagant commitment. Cartier, his Quebec ally, had originally opposed it, concerned that it would add too many anglophones to the new nation; George Brown, his long-time opponent but an irreplaceable partner in the Confederation project, preferred a mini-federation that excluded even the Maritimes. Macdonald himself had been skeptical at first, fearing that the West would attract immigrants away from the still under-populated Ontario. But then he had changed his mind: “The Americans must not get behind us,” he wrote to a friend. With the purchase of Alaska from Russia early in 1867, the United States had already turned its gaze northwards; other attempts to expand beyond the forty-ninth parallel were certain to follow.* The first came in December of that same year, when Minnesota senator Alexander Ramsey placed a resolution before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations proposing that Canada, in return for a favourable trade pact, “cede to the United States the districts of North America west of longitude 90 degrees.” The resolution failed, but the larger contest between Canada and the United States over dividing North America had begun. One country had to lose.

The contest was hopelessly unequal. The United States was much larger, incomparably richer, far more developed and, with the Civil War won, confident and energetic. Above all, after a near century as a nation-state, it knew what it was, while the new dominion did not. A great many Canadians didn’t even want to be Canadian, whether Canadiens in Quebec or, as would soon become apparent, Nova Scotians too. The uneven mix of support, indifference and resistance within the country to even the idea of a larger Canada, along with the U.S. interest in annexing its northern neighbour, measured the task ahead for Macdonald.

Despite a few glitches, Confederation Day passed better than tolerably well for Macdonald personally. It invested him with a quality he had long been lacking—gravitas. He now had the title of Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Sir John A. Macdonald, rather than, as earlier, Premier, the Honourable John A. Macdonald*. As further augmented his persona, after a decade as a rackety widower, he again had a wife, and so a portion of that prized Victorian virtue of respectability. She was Susan Agnes Bernard, twenty-one years his junior, whom he had married the previous February in London.

He was now, at fifty-two, in full middle age. He had changed little. He had no grey hairs. His torso was still angular, his indifference to food offsetting his excessive intake of liquor. He never exercised beyond walking the short distance to work, but his energy remained exceptional. He put in long hours and was still capable of ferocious bursts of effort. Even on holiday at the cottage he later bought in Rivière du- Loup, he diligently went through the official papers from Ottawa and replied to incoming letters until the early afternoon.

Liberal MP Charles Langelier, who sat across from him in the House of Commons in the 1880s, left the best description of Macdonald from these years: “His eyes lively and his look pleasant. A charming smile, an enormous mass of curly hair, a slim build, his walk an elegant nonchalance, and a nose that made up his whole glory.” Nature had indeed given Macdonald the priceless political asset of being distinctive. Wherever he went— out on the hustings, attending some grand public event or talking to urchins on the street—he was recognized and attracted a crowd. In political cartoons too, especially those by the brilliant J.W. Bengough in the weekly satirical magazine Grip, he jumped right off the page into the consciousness of readers. Bengough could be savage about Macdonald’s political and administrative misdeeds but not about him personally, casting him in the engaging roles of a naughty schoolboy, a street-smart scamp, an artful dodger.

A large part of Macdonald’s distinctiveness was of his own deliberate invention. In an era when shrub-sized beards were the style, he was always clean-shaven; he wore attention-getting clothes, such as bright red cravats and trousers with large checks. As time went by—the influence of a chatelaine, no doubt—he more often wore grey trousers and a matching Prince Albert jacket, although still with a red cravat. But that mass of hair and glorious nose ensured that almost everyone knew him at once. During his one trip out west, by train late in life, an old-timer, unaware who he was, described him as a “seedy beggar.” Macdonald, overhearing the comment, shot back, “Yes, a rum ’un to look at, but a rare ’un to go.”

Langelier was also correct in his description of the new prime minister’s “elegant nonchalance.” Macdonald’s habitual response to the flaws and follies of humankind was an amused insouciance. In the House of Commons, he typically reacted to some assault on his policies or his morals with a quip, the best of which made his outraged opponent laugh at himself. Wit, spontaneous and unrehearsed, was his hallmark: accosted by a suffragette demanding to know why he but not she had the vote, he pondered and then replied, “Madame, I cannot conceive.” Although all politicians are actors, or ought to be, few have been so utterly at ease in their skin as Macdonald was. He accepted himself for the bad as well as the good, never apologizing for his drinking or for his procrastination in making decisions. As Sir Joseph Pope, his last and ablest secretary, put it, “He knew every chord of the human heart; he understood every passion that swayed man’s nature.” This acceptance made him a good politician, but it was also innate. He understood women well and enjoyed their company, even though, lacking the vote, they were of no consequence politically. They, in return, “worshipped him,” in the judgment of editor John Willison of the Liberal Toronto Globe.

Macdonald’s knowledge of people earned him a collateral political gift—he knew how to manipulate them. By Confederation, he had won over to his side a former Liberal leader and premier, John Sandfield Macdonald, and a former Liberal cabinet minister with a strong following, Thomas D’Arcy McGee. His first cabinet included three Liberal front-benchers, lured there to sustain the illusion he was leading a Liberal-Conservative coalition.* Several Liberal members of Parliament deliberately avoided talking to him for fear he would seduce them into crossing the floor. One Liberal MP, talking to him in some corner of the Parliament Buildings, was overheard to say, “Oh Sir John, I do so love you. If only I could trust you.”

The bond between him and his own MPs and supporters was even closer, of course, almost intimate. Scarcely any of them ever turned away from him, mesmerized by his charm and the hours he spent in the Commons listening to the incoherent addresses of backbenchers and then praising them lavishly. He distributed patronage plums, either directly to his supporters or to others they wished to please. In fact, though, many got nothing—yet, as Willison noted, they still “went through fire and water for him,” because they loved him.

As for ordinary Canadians, they, according to the journalist M.O. Hammond, flocked to his railway coach, they hung about his carriage, and they invaded his hotel rooms.” Macdonald’s own analysis was even better: “They prefer John A. drunk to George Brown sober.” He made them laugh, never talked down to them, and paid them the compliment of always speaking spontaneously, never from a text, and usually without notes. To make his points, he ambled along in a conversational style, waiting until a heckler intervened to give him the chance to be rude about Brown or to “hive the Grits.” Macdonald treated all people as his equal, whether a coach driver or a British duke. He once walked out on George Monro Grant, the principal of Queen’s University and one of the country’s most eminent men, so he could talk to a barber.

Grant had persuaded Macdonald’s sister Margaret to invite him to her Kingston house so he could have a private after-dinner conversation with the visiting prime minister, no doubt about university funding. Through the meal they chattered amicably, but before any business could be done, Macdonald slipped away. When Margaret remonstrated with Macdonald later, he explained that he had gone to a pub to converse with a barber “who controls thirty votes”—in contrast to Grant, who, like all high-minded intellectuals, “prefers to make up his own mind.” The everpolitical Macdonald made sure this story leaked out.

After Confederation, he gained another asset. The event turned him into Canada’s first celebrity—the only one until Toronto’s Ned Hanlan won the world rowing championship in England in 1879. People wrote to him not just to ask for patronage or to complain about some policy, but also to tell him their personal concerns. Among Macdonald’s responses to these letters is one to Francis Jones of Kemptville: “I have your letter of the 25th informing me that there are suspicious strangers about Smiths Falls. Many thanks for the information. I shall cause immediate inquiries to be made.” Another, to an E. Stone Wiggins, reads: “I am not a sufficient mathematician to be able fully to appreciate your long sought for solution to the bisection of an Angle by purely mathematical means.” In a country where the people across its expanse had so little in common, Macdonald belonged to everyone. He was both their leader and their friend.

All these attributes diverted attention from the most considerable of Macdonald’s qualities: he was exceptionally intelligent, with a subtle and capacious mind. Usually, Macdonald sheathed his intelligence, so as not to block voters’ sight of him. He only brandished it offstage, as when he held his own in private discussions with Britain’s ablest public figures, including a late-night, brandy-fuelled review of politics and literature with Benjamin Disraeli, his “twin” in wit, theatrical looks and Machiavellian guile. His schooling had ended at sixteen, but he never stopped learning. Pope described him as an “omnivorous” reader; he read not just politics, law and biography, but novels and poetry. He dropped lines from Shakespeare, Milton, Sheridan, Trollope and Dickens into his speeches, not to impress but to illuminate an idea or advance an argument. When he reached the town of Victoria on his western tour, he remarked that there “the day is always in the afternoon”— an apt allusion to Tennyson’s “The Lotos-Eaters.”

Once, while praising the “good memory and a vicious fluency of speech” of a leading Conservative member, he dismissed the MP’s career prospects because he was “altogether devoid of reading.” He most certainly had his defects. He drank far too much, regularly going on prolonged benders. “John A. carried out of the lunchroom hopelessly drunk,” the senior official Edmund Meredith recorded in his diary after one early cabinet meeting. (Besides cold beef and mutton, sherry, port and whisky were all available in the cabinet room, and at reduced prices.) Macdonald also had a quick temper. On one occasion he suffered a defeat in the Commons after he ruined a make-up meeting with a key, wavering MP by showering him with abuse over past wrongs. He could be cynical too, as when he exclaimed, “There is no gratitude to be expected from the public; I learned that long ago.” And he could be crass. In 1872, in advance of an imminent election, Macdonald enacted legislation to protect the legal status of unions, but wrote soon after to the editor of the Conservative Mail newspaper, reminding him that it was one thing to attack capitalists but “when the present excitement is over, you must look to them & not to the employed for support.” Over time, he became careless about administration, describing his early attempts to advance efficiency, long since abandoned, as those of “a devil of a reformer.”

Editorial Reviews

WINNER 2012 – Writers’ Trust of Canada Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing
WINNER 2012 – Dafoe Book Prize
FINALIST 2011 – Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction
FINALIST 2011 – BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction
FINALIST 2011 – Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction
FINALIST 2011 – Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-Fiction
A Globe and Mail Best Book

"Gwyn...has given us a first prime minister for the 21st century.... The book is a towering achievement, a glittering career-capper, and it may prove impossible to beat." The Globe and Mail
"Writing with his usual elegance and insight, Richard Gwyn has done full justice to the man whose own story is inextricably interwoven with that of Canada." Margaret MacMillan, author of Paris 1919

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