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Richard J. Gwyn

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John A

John A

The Man Who Made Us
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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.

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Nation Maker

Nation Maker

Sir John A. Macdonald: His Life, Our Times
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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.”

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