Sir John Macdonald

Macdonald, Sir John Alexander (1815-1891), first prime minister of the Dominion of Canada (1867-1873, 1878-1891). Macdonald was a practical politician whose deals and maneuvers made possible the creation of the Dominion of Canada and its territorial expansion across the continent. He survived political scandal to complete a program of nation-building that included policies of tariffs to protect Canadian industry, the building of transcontinental railroads, and the encouragement of western settlement. For most of his career he was a powerful figure in Canadian politics.

Early Life

Macdonald was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1815. His father, Hugh Macdonald, came from Dornoch, Sutherlandshire. His mother, Helen Shaw, came from a farming family of Inverness. Both left the Highlands to go to Glasgow, where Hugh Macdonald set up a small manufacturing business. The business failed, and the Macdonald family emigrated to Canada when John was five years old. It was only through the perseverance of his mother that Macdonald received a good education.

At the age of ten Macdonald was sent away from home to attend the Midland Grammar School in Kingston, Ontario. When he was 15, he was apprenticed to George Mackenzie, a Kingston lawyer. By the time he was 18, he had inspired such confidence that Mackenzie sent him to open a branch office at Napanee in southeast Ontario. When Mackenzie died in 1835, Macdonald returned to Kingston to start his own legal practice. Macdonald was called to the bar a year later.

Macdonald’s legal reputation grew steadily, based on a series of small cases rather than on any dramatic triumph. By 1842 his law office had become one of the busiest in Canada. The next year he was appointed a councilman in Kingston. In 1844 he decided to run for a Kingston seat in the legislative assembly of Canada, which then consisted of the two colonies of Canada West (formerly Upper Canada, now Ontario) and Canada East (formerly Lower Canada, now Québec)

Although technically united as the Province of Canada, Canada East and Canada West each had their own legislative assemblies, with dual parties and dual premiers. Macdonald won by a large majority, although his opponent had the advantage of being the incumbent.

Early Political Career – First Ministry

From the beginning, Macdonald voted with the Conservative, or Tory, Party. During the next few years he helped to build the power of a more moderate group, the Liberal-Conservative Party, which then assumed the name of Conservative Party. In 1847 the 32-year-old Macdonald was made receiver general, an office he held for less than a year.


The election of 1848 swept a rival party, the Reformers, into office, and Macdonald was one of the few Conservatives to retain his seat. He worked to increase his influence among the Conservatives and to broaden the appeal of his party. He was willing to work with anyone who would serve his immediate or long-term aims. He demonstrated this attitude in the 1854 election, when the Conservatives and the radical Clear Grits (later Liberals) worked together to defeat the Reform government.


Sir Allan MacNab, a Tory and head of the Conservative Party, was asked to form a government. MacNab had few supporters, and Macdonald helped him organize a Liberal-Conservative coalition. In this administration, Macdonald served as attorney general for Canada West, a post he kept in the MacNab-Taché administration of 1855.

Macdonald formed his first cabinet in 1856. In an attempt to secure the support of primarily French-speaking Canada East, he nominated the French-Canadian Sir Étienne Taché for the post of premier of Canada East. Macdonald became the premier of Canada West. When Taché resigned in 1857 and the British governor-general asked Macdonald to form a new cabinet, he recommended another French-Canadian, Sir George Étienne Cartier, to take Taché’s place.

George Brown, the leader of the Grits from Canada West, was Macdonald’s chief opponent at that time. In 1858 the government introduced a measure making Ottawa the permanent capital of Canada. Brown prevented this measure from passing, and Macdonald and Cartier resigned, allowing Brown to become premier of Canada West. However, the new government lasted only two days, and when the governor-general asked Cartier to form a new government, he brought Macdonald back with him. Cartier then became premier of Canada East, and Macdonald attorney general.

At that time, ministers could switch positions in the cabinet without having to be reelected. Members of the cabinet exchanged posts with one another and then switched back the following day. This “double shuffle” allowed the Conservatives to maintain their hold on the cabinet, as well as allowing Macdonald to switch from attorney general back to premier of Canada West. One of the few newcomers to the cabinet was Alexander Galt, a railway promoter whose dream was the federation of Britain’s North American colonies, which would unite all the British and Canadian lands into one country. He entered the cabinet on the condition that it would attempt to bring about federation, but Macdonald did little about it at the time.

The next few years were mainly years of maneuvering by Macdonald to keep his party together. He fought against Brown’s solution of representation by population, which would have allowed the more populous section of Canada West to dominate the legislature. To preserve the union, Macdonald claimed, Canada East and Canada West must continue to have an equal number of members in the assembly.

Out of Power

Macdonald’s government fell in 1862 as an indirect result of the American Civil War. The Union resented the sympathy that Great Britain and Canada were giving the South. As a result, the Union allowed the Fenians (Irish patriots who hoped to gain Ireland’s independence from Britain) to raid Canada from the United States. Macdonald introduced a militia bill to protect Canada, but the bill was defeated, Macdonald resigned, and a Liberal administration took office. The Liberals had far less political skill than the Conservatives, and could do even less than the previous ministry about the colonies’ problems. This government fell early in 1864.

Return to Office

The new Conservative government, in which Macdonald was attorney general, remained in power for only three months. In June 1864 the political impasse of the Canadas became so serious that a broad government coalition was formed. This was known as the Taché-Macdonald government. Brown, Macdonald’s old enemy, joined the government on the understanding that it would press for a general federal union of all the British North American colonies. If this project were to fail, Brown would demand a dissolution of the existing union.

The Maritime colonies, which consisted of Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland, were considering the question of their own union and planned to meet at Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, on September 1, 1864. Macdonald saw his opportunity and secured an invitation for the Canadians to attend. The Maritimers put off their own discussion until they had heard the Canadians. Macdonald spoke of the advantages in strength that federation would bring, Cartier stressed the preservation of provincial rights, Brown pointed out the safeguards of an upper house on the lines of the U.S. Senate, (see Congress of the United States) and Galt explained the financial advantages of federation. Together they persuaded the Maritimers to attend a formal conference to be held in Québec on October 10.

Macdonald then showed himself at his greatest. He said in a speech at Halifax, Nova Scotia: “I have been dragging myself through the dreary waste of colonial politics. I thought there was no end, nothing worthy of ambition, but now I see something which is well worthy of all that I have suffered in the cause of my little country.” Under the stress of internal political difficulties and external dangers, Macdonald was changing from a dabbler in politics to a man with an ideal: the creation of a new nation.

At the Québec Conference, Macdonald fought for a strong central government. He proposed 72 resolutions, all of which were passed. These later formed the basis of the federal constitution. In Canada the motion to join the confederation was passed with large majorities in both houses of the legislature. However, it failed in the first instance in all four of the Maritime colonies. Canada would have settled for its own union, but by then the British government was also pressing for federation. Macdonald never lost hope, and in 1865, long before federation was a fact, he proposed to Great Britain that all British territory east of the Rocky Mountains be turned over to Canada.

Taché died in 1865. Macdonald would ordinarily have succeeded to the premiership of Canada West, but he still faced the obstacle of Brown’s jealousy. Rather than risk the cause of federation, he made Narcisse Belleau the new premier. The work of persuading the Maritime colonies went on, and finally, after a change of cabinet in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick consented to join the new union. On March 28, 1867, the British North America Act was passed, creating the Dominion of Canada with the provinces of Ontario, Québec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. Even in triumph, Macdonald was soberly cautious: “We are all mere petty provincial politicians at present; perhaps by and by some of us will rise to the level of national statesmen.”

Prime Minister of Canada

Lord Monck, the first governor-general of Canada, swore in Macdonald as the first prime minister on July 1, 1867. He formed a coalition government drawn from the Conservatives and Reformers who had supported confederation, giving each party approximately equal weight in the new Cabinet. Brown remained in the opposition that later developed into the Liberal Party.

In the August legislative elections the government won overwhelmingly in Ontario and Québec and did well in New Brunswick. The results in Nova Scotia, however, showed that the dominion’s troubles were not over. Led by Joseph Howe, all but one of the members elected were opposed to the federation. The province threatened to withdraw. When Britain refused to allow this, some elements in Nova Scotia even advocated joining the United States. Macdonald settled the problem by increasing the federal subsidy to the province by $140,000 and by taking Howe into the cabinet. Although the opponents of federation protested that the province had been sold for 80 cents a man, they won only one seat in the next election.

In 1868 the British Parliament transferred the whole of the northwest east of the Rockies to Canada. Macdonald treated the territory as if it were virgin land and appointed a lieutenant governor without consulting the settlers, who were mostly indigenous peoples and métis (people who were a mixture of the French and indigenous peoples). In 1869 Louis Riel, a métis, led the Red River Rebellion that, although unsuccessful, gained provincial status for the Red River area; this area became the province of Manitoba and joined the dominion in 1870.

One of Macdonald’s greatest achievements was persuading British Columbia to join the federation. In 1871 the colony was in severe debt. One faction wanted to join the United States, another to remain British, while only a few considered joining the dominion. Nevertheless, a small party of federationists, favored by the British government, was organized in 1867. As an inducement to British Columbia, Macdonald offered to build a railway connecting Québec to British Columbia. Moreover, he promised to complete it within ten years. Convinced, British Columbia joined the dominion on July 20, 1871, and Canada stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Prince Edward Island joined two years later, making Newfoundland the only holdout.

Parliament was dissolved in 1872, and in the subsequent election, Macdonald suffered a severe setback. The Conservatives’ campaign was vigorous and heavily subsidized, but their dream of a federated Canada was not matched in appeal by their local policies. They lost Ontario and barely won Québec. It was only majorities in the Maritime provinces that kept them in power, but that power was not to last long.

The idea of a railway to the Pacific was a good one, but the government’s plans for carrying it out were not. Macdonald wanted the railway built by a Canadian company, and in 1873 he created one for that purpose. Sir Hugh Allan, a shipping magnate, was the chief promoter. However, it soon became clear that the money behind Allan was mainly from the United States and that this money was subsidizing the Conservatives. In July 1873, letters stolen from Allan’s lawyer showed that Allan had provided $350,000 in campaign funds for the previous election. Macdonald maintained his innocence, but a personal telegram made it clear that he was deeply involved. Although a Parliamentary commission later cleared him of blame, Macdonald resigned. It seemed that his political career had come to an end.

Once More in Opposition

Macdonald was succeeded by the Liberal Alexander Mackenzie. The Liberals were now faced with the overwhelming problem of building the railway to British Columbia. The world economic depression after 1873 meant that no private investment could be found, so the Liberals attempted to build the railway as a public venture. Their efforts were half-hearted, and British Columbia was on the verge of secession. During these years, Macdonald played a responsible opposition role. He even helped the Liberals reform the legal system and establish the Supreme Court of Canada.

The election of 1878 showed Macdonald’s greatness, which lay in his faith in Canada’s capacity to achieve a firm union. He knew what to do to attain this goal, and he knew he could do it. Everywhere he campaigned, Macdonald played to the local audience. He discovered what people needed and promised it to them. There was something for everyone in his National Policy, as his program was called.

The Conservatives gained an overwhelming victory. Macdonald himself was defeated at Kingston but ran again in Victoria, British Columbia. In spite of his casual manner, his drinking bouts, and his chronic indebtedness, he had become the grand old man of Canada. Without his leadership the election campaign would have been a failure.

Second Macdonald Government

The greatest achievement of Macdonald’s last years was the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). The decision to go ahead with the railway, after the Allan scandals, was a display of remarkable courage, as well as unusual stubbornness. Macdonald was fortunate that there was a temporary recovery from the depression about that time, and he negotiated the contract for the railway’s construction in 1880. The line was built with incredible speed and was completed in November 1885.

Although the engineering was superb, the financing proved inadequate. The older Northern Pacific Railway went bankrupt in 1883, just before the CPR needed more funds. When Macdonald declared that the money could not be raised, one of his advisors quickly reminded him that “The day the Canadian Pacific busts, the Conservative Party busts the day after.” The government and the railway were both saved by the second métis rebellion in 1885. The speed with which the troops arrived via the railway gave Macdonald the necessary arguments to persuade his cabinet and Parliament to reduce previous railroad debts and to make a further loan to the CPR.

The second métis rebellion had, in fact, been partly caused by the CPR. The métis themselves had wiped out the buffalo. The railroad was bringing settlers to destroy what little remained of their old way of life. Louis Riel was invited by the métis to return to western Canada to set up a provisional government. Troops were brought up on the CPR, the rebellion was easily crushed, and Riel was hanged.

Meanwhile, in 1882, the Conservatives had won another election. Macdonald himself ran and won in Lennox and Addington County, Ontario.

He visited England again in 1884 to participate in discussions with the British government regarding a more independent status for Canada. Although Macdonald declared in one of his last speeches that “A British subject I was born, a British subject I will die,” he believed that Canada could be a “powerful auxiliary to the Empire.” His view of Canada as enjoying equal status with Britain was expressed in his appointment in 1880 of a Canadian High Commissioner in London to aid western settlement and to deal with other Canadian concerns.

Macdonald’s settlement program was not faring well. Canada was again in the throes of an economic depression, people were emigrating from every province to the United States, and there was an increasing dissatisfaction at the slow pace of national growth.

In spite of these circumstances, Macdonald managed to win the election of 1887, although his victory was achieved through a variety of dubious political methods that included bribery and promises that were unlikely to be kept. He was so successful that, despite Riel’s execution, even Québec gave a slim majority to the Conservatives.Macdonald himself won in his old constituency of Kingston.

Even more surprising, the Conservatives succeeded again in 1891, in spite of a series of scandals. The Conservatives had done little in the intervening years, and the campaign was fought on the slogan, “The old man, the old flag, and the old policy.” Macdonald, although 76 years old, campaigned until he died in 1891. His legacy to his country was the structure of a transcontinental dominion.