Donald Creighton’s two-volume biography of Canada’s first Prime Minister, completed in 1955, is in two substantial volumes. The first volume, which traces his life from 1815 to 1867, is entitled ‘The Young Politician.’ The second, which proceeds though the critical years of 1867 to his death, in 1891, is entitled ‘The Old Chieftain.”
Because he was the presiding political figure over the confederation of the British North American territories into the federation of Canada, as we know it in its basic outlines today, MacDonald is more than a figure of national importance in a Canadian context only. His impact upon the history of the North American continent is immense. Canada, although a “little sister” to the great American republic to the south, with a foundation of common cultural ground and cordial relations that stretch back for over a century and a half, may also be considered a kind of counterpoise to the United States. Historically, it is a federation of the vast territories that rejected the American Revolution and stayed inside the British Empire. When it emerged in the nineteenth century, Canada represented the northern limits of the aggressively expanding United States, except for Alaska. Behind the creation of Canada lay the energies spawned by the United Empire Loyalists, who had fled the United States during the Revolution. The vast, newly developing territories that lay under the Union Jack would be self-governing, but would also remain loyal to the British Crown.
John Alexander MacDonald’s family did not come from old North American Loyalist stock. Rather, they came from Glasgow, Scotland, where he was born in 1815. They emigrated in 1820 and settled in the town of Kingston, Upper Canada (present Ontario.) They came from the breed of lowland Scots that was strongly loyal to the Crown in London, and thus John was bred with a strong sense of being staunchly British that was the basis of his life.
He studied and practised law before entering politics in the 1840’s. He was elected to the colonial Assembly as a conservative, but found himself soon enmeshed in the difficult politics of his colony. In 1840, Great Britain had forced English-speaking, protestant Upper Canada (Ontario) into an uneasy union with predominantly French-speaking, Catholic Lower Canada (Quebec.) What emerged was a complex split between French and English members and liberal, reform vs. conservative members. As MacDonald rose to become a political leader, he found (as did others) that it was necessary to forge a close alliance with French-Canadian politicians of similar ideological stripe.
During the 1850’s, when MacDonald’s political career was being firmly established, the various parts of British North America were agog with talks of union¾the creation of a British dominion that would stretch from the Atlantic to British Columbia on the Pacific Coast. MacDonald was at first opposed to the idea of a grand confederation, but soon, as a strong Loyalist, very wary of any possible American expansionism, he came to champion the concept fiercely.
After preliminary political conferences in 1864 and 1866, the principles of Confederation were presented to the British Parliament and were heartily endorsed. Canada had its beginnings as a confederated nation on July 1, 1867, (the national holiday.) The process began with a union of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, but in 1869, the huge territories of the Hudson’s Bay Company stretching north into the Arctic and west to the Rockies were purchased by the new Dominion government and, in 1871, British Columbia was talked into joining with the promise of a transcontinental railway to be built by the federal government. John A. MacDonald was elected as the first Prime Minister of the vast Dominion and received a knighthood.
The year 1867 forms a dividing line in the rise of the young nation and also in the career of Sir John A. MacDonald. A political ffederation had been created on paper, but the only way it could be physically held together was by the construction of a huge railway, and it was the transcontinental railway that became the central focus of MacDonald’s life for over a decade. Complex problems in financing the scheme saw the fall of MacDonald’s government in the Pacific Scandal of 1873, and he remained out of office for the five years, the only significant lapse in the life of this consummately professional politician. When his Conservative government was returned in 1878, construction was resumed in earnest, although funding remained difficult. The Canadian Pacific Railway Company was faced with looming bankruptcy in the spring of 1885, but MacDonald pressured his Conservative Party into granting one final loan to the company and the railway was completed in November of 1885. The remaining six years of MacDonald’s life were an anti-climax, and he died of a stroke while in office in 1891.
Although revered as the principal ‘founding father,’ MacDonald had his contemporary enemies and has his modern critics. He was capable of being sly, manipulative and even high-handed in the difficult political life he led and the principal marks against him were two rebellions of the half-breed Metis in the West, along with the fact that many western Indians temporarily were reduced to virtual starvation during his nation-building. He remains, however, probably as the most important Canadian who has ever lived, and Creighton’s work remains as the seminal biography.