No one else in the country knew politics as well…as he did…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.
It takes a great writer to make a his- torical figure come alive, a greater one to make the subject leap off the page and into the hearts and minds of his readers. In John A: The Man Who Made Us, author, columnist and political commentator Richard Gwyn does just that, as he deftly chronicles the first 52 years of the remarkable life of Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald.
Granted, the author had a more than colourful subject. Had he lived today, Macdonald’s patronage schemes would have made the Sponsorship Scandal look like petty larceny, while his personal shenanigans would have landed him in the Betty Ford Clinic. Nonetheless, Gwyn gets full credit for scripting the man’s triumphs and tor- ments with equal aplomb. In addition, the author takes us through the birth pangs of our country, midwifed by Macdonald almost against its will.
Gwyn begins at the beginning, with the arrival of the young John A. and his family from Scotland. Macdonald’s early life in Kingston, in what was then Upper Canada, is uneventful but for the tragic death of his younger brother, James, at the hands of a drunken servant. The influence of his mother is also noteworthy; she always held high hopes for her remaining son, telling him that he was destined to be ”œmore than an ordinary man.”
At the age of 15, Macdonald quit school and apprenticed himself to local lawyer George Mackenzie. Macdonald’s legal career advanced rapid- ly, due to a combination of circumstance and luck. The circumstances were those of his birth. As Gwyn notes, in Canada, ”œit was the right time to be a Scot… By 1880, even though numbering just one in seven European Canadians, half of Canada’s industrial leaders would be Scots or the sons of Scottish immigrants.” As for Macdonald’s luck, Gwyn writes that it was a classic case of schadenfreude. The deaths of two prominent local lawyers left a vacuum which Macdonald helped fill, first opening his own office in Kingston in 1835 and then becoming solicitor for the Commercial Bank of the Midland District.
For reasons more pecuniary than principled, Macdonald then decided to enter politics. The influence he would gain would be useful in serving his clients, to secure them patronage. And this was a particularly profitable time to enter public life. Upper and Lower Canada had recently joined together, and politicians Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine achieved responsible government for the new colony in 1848. This gave the colonial government full administration over domestic affairs and bestowed a greater role " and greater patronage powers " on both federal MPs and premiers.
Though first elected to office in 1844, as the Conservative MP for Kingston, Macdonald did not really show his promise until a decade later, when, in a letter to James McGill Strachan, a Toronto lawyer, he pro- posed a new kind of Conservative Party. Macdonald wanted the Conservatives to reach out to French members and embrace voters who were prepared to be progressive about some issues, while being conservative about others. He eventually formed his ”œLiberal-Conservative Party,” com- posed of ”œConservatives willing to be reasonably progressive, Reformers looking for a sanctuary, and a depend- able bloc of Canadiens.” Gwyn writes that this big tent would become ”œthe political edifice that almost every one of Macdonald’s successors down to today would attempt to emulate.”
This is but one of the important observations Gwyn makes about Macdonald’s influence on Canada’s political heritage. Another relates to the culture of patronage. Macdonald sprin- kled patronage like salt: In one case, he urged a candidate to ”œkeep the Whitby Post Office [position] open until after the election” because ”œit may be valu- able to have the office to give away.”
When party members in Toronto felt neglected, Macdonald asserted that ”œas soon as Toronto returns Conservative members, it will get Conservative appointments.” On other occasions, he gave positions to people in financial need or ill health, more out of compas- sion than to curry favour.
The legacy of this practice, Gwyn argues, was that instead of build- ing parties on lines of ideology, Canada built parties on lines of influence. ”œThe distinguishing difference is not in their titles, Liberal and Conservative, but in the fact that, at any one time, one party is in and the other is out.” Without patronage, Gwyn believes, it would have been impossible for either to function as a national party.
Is the author right? Since Macdonald’s day, most historians agree there have been few major poli- cy differences between the two parties, and they have also reversed positions on key issues, based on practical con- siderations. For example, Macdonald’s Conservatives were anti-free trade at a time when the stance was popular and America posed a clear threat to Canadian sovereignty. A hundred years later, Brian Mulroney’s PCs sup- ported free trade when a royal com- mission said that it would benefit Canada, and when the popular tide had turned, particularly in Quebec. Gwyn also debunks the importance of the phrase ”œpeace, order and good government.” He claims it was merely ”œlegal boilerplate that was inserted rou- tinely into all kinds of British colonial constitutions.” Only since 1961, when historian W.L. Morton seized on the phrase as proof of difference between the nature of Canada and that of America (whose motto is ”œLife, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”), did it suddenly become a means of defining the national character.
Apart from political analysis, John A. is replete with fascinating descrip- tions of political drama, much of it per- sonal. Gwyn chronicles the long-running feud between Macdonald and George Brown, owner and publisher of the Toronto Globe. He relates Macdonald’s ousting of his leader, Allan MacNab. He describes Macdonald’s rela- tionship with George-Étienne Cartier, Macdonald’s ”œFrench lieutenant,” and the role it played in crafting the English- French alliance necessary for Confederation. Gwyn also sketches other important personalities of the period, including D’Arcy McGee, Alexander Tilloch Galt and the anti- Confederation premier of Nova Scotia, Joseph Howe. Finally, the author brings all this theatre to a boil in describing the events leading up to Confederation " the cajoling, conniving and plain hard work in ”œherding cats,” as Macdonald called it, into a brand new country.
The only thing more colourful than Macdonald’s politics was his drink- ing. Here Gwyn has also assembled a series of sometimes humorous, some- times pathetic tales of Canada’s first prime minister in various states of inebri- ation (in one instance, vomiting on a chair in the drawing room of Lady Monck). It is incredible to think that Macdonald achieved so much while being so frequently and so completely intoxicated, sometimes for days, in plain sight of political friends and foes alike. Clearly, Macdonald was a master- ful politician, a great strategist and tremendous leader. But it is when Gwyn describes Macdonald’s personal life that one really gets a sense of his strength of character and ability to rise above tragedy. His first marriage, to Isabella Greene, began with promise but quickly became a source of despair when a mysterious malady afflicted his young bride. For 12 of their 14 years together, Isabella was a bedridden invalid, slipping into longer and longer periods of stupor due to larger and larger quantities of painkillers. Yet Macdonald loved his wife, and tended to her until the end.
The couple had two children, both named John. Here tragedy struck as well. The first boy died in infancy, while the second was raised mostly by relatives and had but a distant rela- tionship with his father. Both of these situations were apparently great sources of sadness for Macdonald.
In 1867, Macdonald married again, to Susan Agnes Bernard, the sis- ter of Hewitt Bernard, his principal civil service aide. As Gwyn wryly notes,
Their marriage was a union of mutual self-interest. He, now on the verge of becoming prime minister… would soon need a hostess and a chatelaine. She, by now aged thirty-one, needed to escape a future of ever-dimin- ishing choices.
This is not to say that there was no love in the relationship. By this point, Agnes and Macdonald both pas- sionately loved the same thing: power. Agnes claimed, ”œMy love of power is… so strong that I sometimes dread it,” while Macdonald wrote, ”œI don’t care for the office for the sake of money, but for the sake of power…,carrying out my own view of what’s best for the country.” They were both also highly intelligent and read a great deal, and made a formidable political couple.
Agnes also made a crucial contribu- tion to both Macdonald’s health and the future of the country. It was due to her influence that he finally controlled his drinking, which, Gwyn notes, prob- ably extended his life for another 20 years. From the nation’s perspective, this was a good thing, considering that Confederation marked not the end but the beginning of the great project that was Canada. Nurturing the new coun- try, from its childhood to adolescence, would occupy the remainder of Macdonald’s life until his death in 1891.
But to enjoy that story, readers will have to wait for the second instal- ment in Richard Gwyn’s masterful biography. This is one reader who is eagerly anticipating the sequel.