Sir Alexander John Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, is a known in history as a practical politician and great tactician. He devised his political maneuvers to ensure his swift climb to the political ladder. He started from the Tory party or the conservatives until his death. Among his political achievements is building Canada as a nation. He pushed for its independence from Great Britain and sought support from British North American colonies in creating a federation of colonies. He also made possible a seemingly impossible railway when the transpacific railway was realized.
The paper contains an elaboration of the colorful political career of Macdonald, the people he worked with, political enemies and the advocacies that he promoted. It also contains a discussion of the scandals that he was involved in and the effects of these scandals on his career.
Sir John Macdonald: Shaper of the Canadian Nation
Born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1815, Sir John Alexander Macdonald was destined to shape the political history of Canada.
Considered as a practical politician, he worked for the creation of the Dominion of Canada and its expansion throughout the continent. He faced a political scandal just to complete his vision of building the Canadian nation and encouraged western settlement.
His father, Hugh Macdonald, came from Dornoch, Sutherlandshire and his mother Helen Shaw, is from a rich family in Inverness-shire. When they got married, they decided to leave the Highlands and transfer to Glasgow. Settling there, Hugh started a cotton manufacturing business with a partner, but the venture failed so the couple decided to migrate to Canada with their four children: Margaret, John Alexander, James and Louisa. The family stayed with the family of Helen’s half sister, Anna Macpherson. The Macphersons had been living in Canada for twelve years at that time. Hugh engaged in commerce to sustain his family (Creighton, 1998).
At age ten, he was sent to one of the best schools in Canada, the Midland District Grammar School in Kingston, Ontario. He was educated in Latin and French, mathematics and writing. At 15 years old he finished formal school and became an apprentice in Kingston to a young Scottish lawyer, George Mackenzie. Among the tasks that he was required to complete were transcribing letters and documents, establishing titles and running errands. He worked by day and studied law at night. Mackenzie’s law firm grew through time and he felt the need to expand it sometime in 1832. Due to the dedication and confidence that Macdonald exuded, Mackenzie sent him to Napanee, southeast Ontario to set up a new branch office. His experience as a branch manager opened him to an avenue to better understand the law and to establish a name of his own. He also continued studying law despite the hectic schedule that his job required. Mackenzie helped him in his studies by sending some of the law books which Macdonald needed (Creighton, 1998). Two years after the opening the new office Mackenzie died, so Macdonald returned to Kingston where he started his own legal practice. In 1835, he passed the bar exams (MSN Encarta online encyclopedia, 2008).
As a legal practitioner, Macdonald built his reputation gradually by taking small cases. The triumph that he received in these cases made his law firm the busiest in Canada in 1842. Through the success that he reaped as a law practitioner, he was appointed in 1843 as a Kingston councilman and a year later, he won by a large majority against an incumbent in the legislative assembly of the Province of Canada which then had two colonies—Canada East, which in modern day is Quebec, and Canada West, which is now known as Ontario.
In 1842, he visited Scotland and met his cousin, Isabella Clark. The two got along well together and entered a romantic relationship. Thereafter, their romantic involvement with each other, ended in marriage in 1843. They had two sons, one of whom died in infancy (Atwell, n.d.).
After his Scotland vacation, he went back to Canada and started to shape his political career. He first ran under the Conservative, or Tory party, and later on helped in forming his new party- the Liberal-Conservative party. He was elected as an alderman in 1843, winning a legislative seat in 1844 (Atwell, n.d.). He became the receiver general in 1847 and held the office for a year. In 1848, the reformers nearly won all the seats, Macdonald just among the few who was able to retain their seats. Being among the few in his party who was able to remain in power, he took the opportunity to heighten the appeal of his party to the people and increase his influence among the members of the conservatives, showing willingness to work go across the aisle, with anyone who espouses the same interests as he does. This willingness was evidenced in the 1854 election. During this election the radical Clear Grits (Liberals) and the Conservatives connived to topple down the Reform government which was ruling the political climate in Canada then (Oneil, n.d.).
As a player in the political field, he defended denominational education and opposed the primogeniture’s abolition. He also believed that practical goals can be pursued by practical means. He devised tactics that would shift the political table in his favor, making his climb to the political ladder faster (Canadian Encyclopedia, 2008).
In 1855, Macdonald supported of Sir Allan Macnab, the head of the Conservative party, helping in organizing the coalition of the conservatives. Their efforts resulted in the birth of the Liberal conservative coalition. His efforts in forming the coalition gained him the attorney general position for Canada West (Marianopolis, n.d.). In 1856, Macdonald was given the chance to form his own Cabinet, securing support for his political group by nominating Sir Etienne Tache as premier of Canada East. Macdonald became the premier of Canada West, being Macnab’s successor.
In 1857, Tache resigned from his post so the governor general of the British government asked Macdonald to establish a new cabinet. He recommended George Etienne Cartier to replace Tache (MSN Encarta online encyclopedia, 2008).
In 1858, George Brown, Macdonald’s main political opponent, challenged the proposal of the government to recognize Ottawa as Canada’s permanent capital. Brown prevented the proposal from passing, airing his frustration to the domination of French Canadian influence in the government (Canadian Encyclopedia, 2008). Due to the dismay experienced by the government, Macdonald and Cartier resigned, thus, Brown took over the position of premier of Canada West. Brown’s stay in power was short-lived—he only enjoyed the position for two days as the governor general asked Cartier to form a new government. In the new government, Cartier was designated as the premier of Canada East ,while Macdonald served as the the attorney general. During this time, a double shuffle was allowed. The system worked in such a way that the ministers could switch positions in the cabinet without going through a re-election thus, Cabinet members may take one position today and go back to their original position the next day (MSN online encyclopedia, 2008).
The years that followed proved to be a challenge for Macdonald as he tried to keep his party united. He was also at logger heads with Brown regarding party representation. Brown was pushing for representation by population which would allow Canada West to dominate the legislature; Macdonald pushed for an equal number of members in the assembly.
In 1862, the American Civil War erupted and Macdonald’s government fell partly due to the war. The Union allowed the Irish patriots to claim Canada from the United States. Macdonald tried to fight the invasion by introducing a bill that will protect Canada; however, the bill was defeated. He resigned from his post thus, the Liberal administration took over governance. The Liberals lacked the skill to devise plans that would solve the political problems, so the government fell in 1864.
During the same year, there was a political impasse; as a result of which, a broad government coalition was formed—Tache-Macdonald government. Brown also joined the coalition on the condition that there would be a general federal union of all the British colonies in North America and if the project fails, Brown may demand a dissolution of the existing union.
Macdonald played a lead role in achieving a unitary and highly centralized form of government. He took over in drafting the federal system. He sought the support of the Maritime colonies during their meeting with Prince Edward I. Macdonald discussed the advantages of having a federation and persuaded the maritimers to attend a formal conference in Quebec. At the conference, Macdonald advocated for a central government. He made 72 resolutions which were all passed, later on becoming the basis of the Constitution of the Federation. The motion to join the Federation was approved in Canada, however, it suffered a different fate in the maritime colonies, failing in every single one. With this event, Canada thought of pushing its own union, but by then, the British government was working on creating its own federation.
In 1865, Macdonald proposed to Great Britain to turn over to them the territories that they are holding east of the Rocky Mountains, but Great Britain did not heed to this request. During the same year, Tache died, leaving Macdonald as the most likely candidate for the post, but, he declined on the verge of Brown’s jealousy and the future of the federation. Narcisse Belleau took over the seat left by Tache (MSN online encyclopedia, 2008).
With the strong command and great abilities that he exuded in creating the Federal government, Macdonald was proclaimed as the Knight Commander of the Bath and designated as the first governor general of Canada on July 1, 1967 when the British North America Act was passed. The act created the Dominion of Canada and made Ontario, New Brunswick, Quebec and Nova Scotia as its provinces. As governor-general, he created a coalition government with an equal number of Conservatives and Reformers. Brown remained to be on the side of the opposition and created the Liberal party (Oneil, n.d.).
During the August legislative elections, the government received overwhelming support in Quebec, Ontario and New Brunswick, however, support was weak in Nova Scotia. There were even threats of withdrawal from the Federation. In addressing the problem, Macdonald increased the federal subsidy of the province and gave a Cabinet seat to Joseph Howe, the prime opposition in the province (MSN online encyclopedia, 2008).
The year 1867 proved to be lucky for Macdonald politically and emotionally, as he married his second wife, Susan Agnes Bernard, his first wife dying prior to this marriage. The new couple had a daughter, but she did not grow up normally as she was mentally challenged and crippled. Despite his daughter’s disability, Macdonald was affectionate to her (Atwell, n.d.). In the year 1868, the British government finally ceded their territories in the whole northwest east of the Rockies to the Canadian government (MSN online encyclopedia, 2008). MacDonald appointed a lieutenant governor without consulting the settlers called the “Metis”. The locals did not accept the cession made the British government of the their land and feared that they will not be given land titles. They also desired to set up their own government and in pursuit of this vision, Louis Riel led the Metis in pushing for a “Red River” rebellion in 1869; unfortunately the rebellion dis not prosper (History web, 2008). Despite its unsuccessful result, the rebellion won a provincial status for the Red River area. The Red River area later became the province of Manitoba. A year later, Macdonald was able to convince its leader to join the Dominion (MSN Encarta online encyclopedia, 2008).
The year 1971 marked the greatest achievement of Macdonald when he was able to persuade the British Columbia colony in joining the Federation. He convinced the colony in joining their Dominion by promising a railway connecting Quebec and British Columbia, realizable in ten years.
Macdonald suffered a severe political setback in 1872. His party, the Liberal Conservatives, lost because their dream on the future of Canada did not match the policies they advocated.
The railway project which exuded the height of his power proved to be also his downfall. The idea was a good one but funding it was a difficult matter. Macdonald declared that wanted a private investor group to complete the project. There were tow groups that competed for the project, but it was Sir Hugh Allan’s company who was granted the project. In 1873, it was revealed through stolen letters from a lawyer and a telegram that the company of Allan had a great connection with the Conservatives, Macdonald’s party (Atwell, n.d.). The money which funded the campaign of the Conservatives came from Allan and Macdonald, the former accused of bribery. However, Macdonald said that there was no bribery and pleaded innocent. The Parliamentary commission which investigated the occurrence also cleared him from blame. Nevertheless, he resigned from his post. Alexander Mackenzie, a Liberal, replaced Macdonald (Canadian content, 2008).
In realizing the railway project in British Columbia, the Liberals found difficulty in looking for a private investor thus, it was undertaken as a public venture. Since the project was not originally an idea of the Liberals, the effort they exerted was only half-hearted. The people of British Columbia were “on the verge of secession”. Despite leaving his post, Macdonald found ways in realizing the project and even assisted the Liberals in establishing Canada’s Supreme Court as well as the legal system (MSN Encarta online encyclopedia, 2008).
After the political menace he experienced, Macdonald strove to bring the luster of his name in the 1878 elections. He formulated a National Policy wherein all the needs of the people were addressed. With this political maneuver, Macdonald gained support for the Conservatives. Two years later, negotiations for the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway were spearheaded by Macdonald. Five years thereafter, the railway was completed (MSN Encarta online encyclopedia, 2008).
Macdonald visited England in 1884 to join the British government’s discussion of the independence of Canada. for he believed that the country should enjoy an independent status. He was appointed as a Canadian High Commissioner in London in 1880, with the task of aiding western settlement and other concerns of the Canadians. Macdonald was unsuccessful with this bout; people still emigrated to the United States due to economic depression and increasing dissatisfaction of the people to the national growth. These circumstances, however, did not affect the political career of Macdonald as he won in the 1887 elections. Among the factors that aided his victory are bribery and the giving of promises which are difficult to achieve. His party once again won in 1891 in spite of the political scandals it faced. Macdonald died on March 29, 1891 from a stroke in Ottawa. His death occurred after his fourth consecutive electoral victory and was still serving as prime minister. Many Canadians grieved and thousands paid their respect to his memory (Collections Canada, 2008).
Among the highlights of his career as prime minister was the building of the transcontinental railway, which connected Quebec and British Columbia; the building of a nation when he was able to urge the leader of the British North American colonies, British Columbia and Prince Edward Island to join the confederation; creation of the North-West Mounted police and the creation of a national policy of tariffs in order to protect the local industry (About, 2008).
Macdonald can be considered as the true architect of Canada, for without his genius political maneuvers, Canada would not have emerged as a nation. He may have organized most of his tactics for his personal glory and climb to the political ladder, but these moves were substantial enough for Canada to enjoy its present day status.
He was wise enough to convince the leaders of the colonies to join the coalition and create a federation, brave enough to promise an unthinkable railway connecting the Pacific with Canada. The federation did not only bring additional support for the Canadian force but it was also essential in creating economic stability in the country. These colonies were not only politically necessary, but also economically essential. They provided additional supplies and markets for goods. The tariff policies that he imposed were also helpful in protecting the Canadian market as it espoused patronizing Canadian products and markets. Had he not exerted efforts for the realization of these projects, it would have been difficult for Canada to press for independence from Britain. He showed strong determination and perseverance in achieving his goals and he never gave up no matter how difficult or gruesome the situation was. He also managed to stand up in every downfall and restore the luster of his name.
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