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Canadian History
Hon. John Sandfield Macdonald


Cornwall, was descended from a Highland family of much antiquity and respectability, and was born at St. Raphael, on December 12th, 1812. His father, Alexander Macdonald, is said to have swallowed Solomon's maxim of "spare the rod and spoil the child", and the discipline to which he subjected young John Sandfield was of such a nature that the high-spirited lad frequently ran away from home. The first of these excursions took place before he had completed his eleventh year. He was pursued by his irate parent, and conveyed back again to his home; but he soon made a second attempt, with a similar result. His second capture was effected at Cornwall, just when he was in the very act of negotiating with an Indian to convey him across the river in a canoe. His entire capital at this time was a quarter of a dollar, and the noble savage was disposed to hold out for double that sum. The negotiation was abruptly put an end to by the arrival of the father in pursuit of his prodigal son. Subsequently the lad became a clerk in a store at Cornwall, but became disgusted with an occupation which he so often heard characterised as that of a "counter-hopper". He, therefore, set his face in another direction. He went to school at Cornwall, and afterwards studied law in the office of Mr. McLean, of Cornwall. He finished his legal studies in the office of Mr. Draper, afterwards chief justice of Upper Canada. He was first elected to Parliament after the union in March, 1841. In the last Parliament there were two beside himself, Sir Henry Smith and the Honourable W. H. Merritt. Lord Sydenham had been sent out to carry the union into effect; and with that view too many of the Lower Canada elections, where the people had been opposed to the union, were carried by violence. Mr. Guvillier, the nominee of the Government, was elected speaker, in opposition to Sir Allan MacNab. And here it may be remarked that, in Canada, a speaker seldom retains his seat, as such, more than one parliament. Every new House of Assembly elects its own speaker; so that there are often several ex-speakers in the prime of political life, who return, contrary to the English practice, to the floor of the house. The government was a mixture of politicians of different shades of opinion. The legislature was not free from placemen; and the government was not conducted by heads of departments who possessed the confidence of the representatives of the people. Neither the head of the crown lands office nor the surveyor-general was a member of the Executive Council. Family-compact Toryism had acquired a subdued tone in official circles, in consequence of the despatch of Lord John Russell, sent out in 1839, in which the alternative of supporting the government or retiring from their places was held out to the officials who had seats in either branches of the legislature. Mr. Macdonald was opposed to the government; but he was an Upper Canadian, and was far from being cordial with Sir Allan MacNab, the opposition leader for that section of the country. The rebellion, of which the effects had not passed away, had reduced everything to a question of loyalty and allegiance, especially in that part of central Canada which Mr. Macdonald represented. His position was a peculiar one. He voted with the Upper Canada Conservatives and the Lower Canada French leaders against the government; but he never attended a Tory "caucus", as party meetings are called in America, much less had he any intimate alliance with the Lower Canada opposition. In 1848, 1852 and 1854, Mr. Macdonald was elected without a contest in his old constituency of Glengarry. In the latter part of the year 1849, he was appointed solicitor-general under the Lafontaine-Baldwin administration, which office he held till the breaking up of that government in the autumn of 1851. He was elected speaker in Quebec in 1852, and held that position till the dissolution in 1854. In 1858 he was attorney-general in the Brown-Dorion government. In 1857 he was elected for Cornwall, his brother, D. A. Macdonald, succeeding him in the country, and this year was again returned for that town. He was one of the few Upper Canadians who was persistently opposed to representation by population; and although a Roman Catholic, he was never an advocate of separate schools. His opposition to them brought down upon him the censure of the priests; but although they from the alter recommended the electors to vote for Protestant candidates in preference to him, that recommendation was ever disregarded by the Highlanders. In 1862, on the defeat of the Cartier-Macdonald administration, Mr. Macdonald was called upon to form a government, which he succeeded in doing, Mr. Sicotte being the leader of the Lower Canada section of the Cabinet. In 1864, having resigned the seals, after the completion of Confederation, to which he was, by the way, strenuously opposed, he was called upon to form an administration in Ontario. In 1871 he retired from public life, and died the following year at his residence, Ivy Hall, in Cornwall. In 1840 he married a lady from Louisiana, the daughter of a United States Senator, who owned a large plantation of negroes, and who was shot dead in a duel in 1843.


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