Early Life and Education
Macdonald's personal papers provide insight into his life, but his exact birth date remains a mystery. His father's journal lists 11 January 1815 as Macdonald's birth date and his family celebrated his birthday on 11 January. However, a certified extract from the registration of his birth cites 10 January. Macdonald was brought to Kingston, Upper Canada, by his parents, Hugh Macdonald and Helen Shaw, when he was five years old. As his father opened a series of businesses in the area, Macdonald grew up in Kingston, and in the nearby Lennox, Addington, and Prince Edward counties. Macdonald attended the Midland District Grammar School, as well as a private school in Kingston, where he was educated in rhetoric, Latin, Greek, grammar, arithmetic and geography.
At age 15 Macdonald began to article with a prominent Kingston lawyer. Both at school and as an articling student, he showed promise. At 17 he managed a branch legal office in Napanee by himself, and at 19 opened his own office in Kingston, two years before being called to the Law Society of Upper Canada.
Macdonald's early professional career coincided with the rebellion in Upper Canada and subsequent border raids from the US. He was in Toronto in December 1837 where, as a militia private, he took part in the attack on the rebels at Montgomery's Tavern. In 1838 he attracted public notice by defending accused rebels, including Nils von Schoultz, leader of an attack on Prescott.
Legal Career and Business Interests
Macdonald practised law for the rest of his life with a series of partners, first in Kingston (until 1874) and then in Toronto. His firm engaged primarily in commercial law; his most valued clients were established businessmen or corporations. He was also personally involved in a variety of business concerns. He began to deal in real estate in the 1840s, acquired land in many parts of the province — including commercial rental property in downtown Toronto — and was appointed director of many companies (which were located mainly in Kingston). For 25 years (including the years when he was prime minister), he was president of a Québec City firm — the St Lawrence Warehouse, Dock and Wharfage Co — and in 1887 he became the first president of the Manufacturers Life Insurance Co of Toronto.
Macdonald's personal life was marked by a number of misfortunes. His first wife, his cousin Isabella Clark, was an invalid during most of their married life and died in 1857. His first son died at the age of 13 months, while a second son, Hugh John (born in 1850) survived. In 1867, Macdonald married Susan Agnes Bernard, who gave birth in 1869 to a daughter, Mary. Sadly, Mary was afflicted with hydrocephalus and never walked, although she lived to 1933.
Door to Politics Opens
Macdonald entered politics at the municipal level, serving as alderman in Kingston 1843–46. He took an increasingly active part in Conservative politics and in 1844 (at age 29) was elected to the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada to represent Kingston. Parties and government were in a state of transition; a modern departmental structure had begun to evolve, but the British government had not yet agreed to responsible government in British North America, and the role of the Governor General was still prominent.
In this context Macdonald's political views proved cautious; he defended the imperial prerogative and state support of denominational education, and opposed the abolition of primogeniture (which stipulated that when a property owner died without leaving a will, his eldest son would inherit everything). Above all, he emerged as a shrewd political tactician who believed in the pursuit of practical goals by practical means. His obvious intelligence and ability brought him his first Cabinet post as receiver general in 1847 in the administration of W.H. Draper, which was defeated in the general election that year.
Macdonald remained in Opposition until the election of 1854, after which he was involved in the creation of a new political alliance, the Liberal-Conservative Party. This new party brought together the Conservatives with an already existing alliance between Upper Canadian Reformers and the French Canadian majority political bloc, the Bleus.
Premier of the Province of Canada
Once returned to office, Macdonald assumed the prestigious post of attorney general of Upper Canada. On the retirement of Conservative leader Sir Allan Macnab (which he helped to engineer in 1856), Macdonald succeeded him as joint-premier of the Province of Canada, along with Étienne-Paschal Taché (and then with George-Étienne Cartier 1857–62, with the exception of the two-day Brown–Dorion administration in 1858).
Macdonald and Confederation
During the years 1854–64 Macdonald faced growing opposition in Canada West (formerly Upper Canada) to the political union with Canada East (formerly Lower Canada); in 1841 the Province of Canada had been created, uniting the two colonies under one parliament. The Reform view, voiced by George Brown of the Toronto Globe, complained that the legitimate needs and aspirations of Canada West were frustrated by the "domination" of French Canadian influence in the government of Macdonald and George-Étienne Cartier. By 1864 the political and sectional forces in the province were deadlocked, and Macdonald reluctantly accepted Brown's proposal for a new coalition of Conservatives, Clear Grits, and Bleus, who would work together for constitutional change. Macdonald and the coalition played a key role in the Confederation of British North America in 1867, which brought together four new provinces (Ontario, Québec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia) to form the Dominion of Canada.
While conceding the necessity of a federal arrangement to accommodate strong racial, religious and regional differences, Macdonald's preference was for a strong, highly centralized, unitary form of government. Macdonald took a leading role in the drafting of a federal system in which the central government held unmistakable dominance over the provincial governments. His great constitutional expertise, ability and knowledge were quickly recognized by the imperial government. Lord Monck, former Governor General of the Province of Canada, and the first Governor General of the Dominion, appointed Macdonald as the first prime minister of Canada on 1 July 1867. Macdonald was also created Knight Commander of the Bath, becoming Sir John A. Macdonald.
The Nation Builder
During his first administration 1867–73, Macdonald became a "nation builder." In this period Manitoba, the North-West Territories (present-day Saskatchewan and Alberta), British Columbia, and Prince Edward Island joined the original four provinces of Confederation. The Intercolonial Railway between Québec City and Halifax was begun and plans were made for a transcontinental railway to the Pacific coast. These undertakings involved unprecedented expenditures of public funds and did not proceed without incident. Manitoba entered the union following an insurrection led by Louis Riel against the takeover of the area by the Dominion government, thereby forcing Macdonald's government to grant provincial status much sooner than had been intended and to accept a system of separate schools and the equality of the French and English languages.
The Pacific Scandal
Macdonald's involvement in the negotiations for a contract to build the Canadian Pacific Railway to British Columbia involved him eventually in the Pacific Scandal. During the 1872 election large campaign contributions had been made to him and his colleagues by Sir Hugh Allan, who was to have headed the railway syndicate. Macdonald claimed that his "hands were clean" because he had not profited personally from his association with Allan, but his government was forced to resign in late 1873 and in the election of 1874 was defeated. Some of these political problems stemmed from the fact that he, like many of his contemporaries, was at times a heavy drinker. By his own admission, Macdonald could not recall periods of time during the 1872 election and the negotiations with Allan. His drinking subsequently became more moderate.
Return to Power
Fortunately for Macdonald his defeat in 1874 coincided with the onset of a business depression in Canada, which gave the Liberal administration of Alexander Mackenzie a reputation for being ineffectual. In 1876, at the instigation of a group of Montréal manufacturers, Macdonald began to advocate a policy of "readjustment" of the tariff — a policy that helped him return triumphantly to power in 1878. He remained prime minister for the rest of his life.
The promised changes in tariff policy were introduced in 1879 and frequently revised in close collaboration with leading manufacturers; this became the basis for Macdonald's National Policy, a system which protected Canadian manufacturing through the imposition of high tariffs on foreign imports, especially from the United States. Appealing to Canadian nationalist and anti-American sentiment, it became a permanent feature of Canadian economic and political life. However, the economy as a whole continued to suffer slow growth, and the effects of the policy were uneven.
The Canadian Pacific Railway
The great national project of Macdonald's second administration was the completion of the transcontinental CPR, an extremely difficult and expensive undertaking that required extensive government subsidization. Macdonald played a central role in making the railway a reality. He was involved in awarding the contract to a new syndicate headed by George Stephen, which called for a government subsidy of $25 million and 25 million acres (10 million hectares) of land, and on two occasions, in 1884 and 1885, he agreed to introduce legislation for the further financial support of the railway. Its completion in November 1885 made possible the future settlement of the West (see Canadian Pacific Railway).
Canada's Growing Autonomy
The physical linking of the Canadian community was accompanied by the first steps towards eventual autonomy in world affairs. Macdonald did not foresee Canadian independence from Britain but rather a partnership with the mother country. Yet during his time in office Canada moved closer to independence. Macdonald himself represented Canada on the British commission that negotiated the Treaty of Washington of 1871. In 1880, the post of Canadian high commissioner to Britain was created, and in 1887 Finance Minister Charles Tupper represented Canada at the Joint High Commission in Washington.
The last stage of Macdonald's public career was plagued by difficulties. The North-West Resistance occurred when Macdonald himself was superintendent general of Indian Affairs. The subsequent execution of Louis Riel in 1885 greatly increased animosity between French-speaking and English-speaking Canadians, and cost Macdonald political support in Québec, where Riel was regarded as a martyr to the forces of Anglo-Saxon imperialism. In addition, Ontario Premier Oliver Mowat launched a series of successful legal challenges to the powers of the central government, resulting in a federal system that was much less centralized than Macdonald had intended. The federal power of disallowance, which enabled the federal Cabinet to cancel provincial legislation, had been freely used during the early days of the Dominion, but was virtually abandoned by the end of the 19th century due to provincial opposition.
Macdonald's contribution to the development of the Canadian nation far exceeded that of any of his contemporaries, yet he was not by nature an innovator. Confederation, the CPR, and the protective tariff were not his ideas, but he was brilliant and tenacious in achieving his goals once convinced of their necessity. As a politician he early developed shrewdness and ingenuity. He kept a remarkable degree of personal control over the functioning of the Conservative party and was adept in using patronage for political advantage. He was a highly partisan politician, partly because he genuinely believed it was essential to maintain certain political courses. He was particularly concerned with maintaining the British connection to Canada — including the tradition of parliamentary supremacy — against the threat of American economic and political influences, such as the doctrine of constitutional supremacy.
Macdonald was an Anglophile, but he also became a Canadian nationalist who had great faith in the future of Canada. His nationalism was primarily central Canadian and English Canadian; his concern with Québec was largely political. He accepted the existence of a unique French Canadian community and especially a French Canadian claim to a due share of government patronage, but after Cartier's death in 1873 he did not share equal political power with a strong "Québec lieutenant," nor did he give senior Cabinet positions to French Canadian politicians. His overriding national preoccupations were unity and prosperity. An 1860 speech summed up his lifelong political creed and political goals: "One people, great in territory, great in resources, great in enterprise, great in credit, great in capital."
As both prime minister and minister of Indian Affairs, Macdonald was responsible for Indigenous policy, including the development of the residential school system and increasingly repressive measures against Indigenous populations in the West. To Macdonald, the building of the CPR took priority over almost everything else. According to historian James Daschuk, Canadian officials withheld food from Indigenous people until they moved to reserves, thus clearing the land needed for railway construction — thousands died.
Yet, Macdonald also tried to extend the federal vote to all Indigenous males, as long as they met the same conditions as other British subjects. Under his proposal, they would not have to give up Indian status in order to vote (as was the case under previous legislation). Macdonald’s proposal was controversial, and the final Electoral Franchise Act of 1885 was a compromise. The Act extended the vote to Indigenous men who lived on reserves if they owned land and had made at least $150 worth of improvements to their property. However, it excluded all Indigenous men in the West — this was likely influenced by the North-West Resistance of 1885. In 1898, the legislation was repealed and many Indigenous men were again disqualified.
Although Macdonald proposed extending the vote to all Indigenous males, he at the same time passed legislation to exclude those of Chinese origin.
In the 1880s, around 15,000 Chinese labourers helped to build the Canadian Pacific Railway — working in harsh conditions for little pay, they suffered greatly and historians estimate that at least 600 died. Their employment had caused controversy, particularly in British Columbia, where politicians worried about the potential economic and cultural impact of this influx of Chinese workers. Macdonald, however, defended their employment in constructing the railway.
As the project neared completion, though, Macdonald and the Canadian government excluded “persons of Mongolian or Chinese race” from voting, because they had “no British instincts or British feelings or aspirations” (Electoral Franchise Act, 1885). The same year, they passed the Chinese Immigration Act, which stated that anyone of Chinese origin had to pay a “head tax” of $50 upon entering the country.
Macdonald’s policies and his personal views about Chinese immigration have been hotly debated. While some have accused him of racism, others argue that he was quite progressive by the standards of the time. As Richard Gwyn has pointed out, some criticized him at the time for being too moderate — in comparison, the United States had banned all Chinese immigration in 1882 — and the Canadian government under Liberal leader Sir Wilfrid Laurier soon increased the head tax to $500 in 1903.
Two hundred years after Macdonald’s birth, we have a more complex and more complete picture of Canada’s first prime minister. One of the most influential and important Canadians of all time, Macdonald was not without flaws. New generations and scholars continue to examine and debate his political ruthlessness, as well as his Indigenous policies and his approach to Chinese immigration. For good and ill, Macdonald helped make Canada what it is today.
See also Prime Ministers of Canada: Table.