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Canadian History
Right Hon. Sir John Alexander Macdonald


Sir John Alexander Macdonald, K.C.M.G., D.C.L., LL.D., was born in Glasgow on the 10th day of January, 1815.

He was the second son of Mr. Hugh Macdonald, who lived originally in the parish of Rogart before moving to Dornoch, Sutherlandshire, but who early in life (at age 38) removed to Canada.

When the emigration movement began after the Napoleonic Wars, Mr. Hugh Macdonald and his family (John Alexander being then in his fifth year) took passage for British North America. Mr. Macdonald settled near Kingston, then the most important town in Upper Canada; and, after residing here for upwards of four years, the family moved to the Bay of Quinté area, leaving John Alexander, then in his tenth year, at school in Kingston. The lad was placed at the Royal Grammer School, under the tuition of Dr. Wilson, a fellow of Oxford University, and subsequently, under that of Mr. George Baxter.

After he had entered his sixteenth year, his father took him away from school and had him articled in the office of George Mackenzie, where he applied himself diligently to study of the law. When he began to practice law, there were heard the first mutterings of the storm soon to break over the country and the year following, numbers of disaffected persons, in Lower Canada under Papineau, and in Upper Canada under William Lyon Mackenzie, rushed blindly to arms.

A body of hunters - as the invaders were called - under the command of a Pole named Von Shoultz, crossed from the American side over to Prescott, but Shoultz was captured, and his followers killed and dispersed. Courts-martial were established at London and Kingston, and at the latter city, Shoultz and his accomplices were tried for there their crimes.

Young Macdonald was counsel for the unfortunate Pole, and by the skill and force of his address attracted wide notice. In 1844, during the most intolerable portion of Lord Mercalfe's rule, Mr. Macdonald was elected for Kingston in the legislature of Upper Canada, defeating Mr. Manahan.

On first entering the legislature, he sat unmoved at his desk while the frays for which that period of parliamentary history was remarkable went on, "looking", says a gentleman who remembers having seen him there, "half careless and half contemptuous. Sometimes in the thick of the mêlée he was busy in and out of the library.

I scarce ever remember seeing him then about the House that he was not searching up some case either then impending or to come up at a later date. He was for a great part of his time, too, buried in a study of constitutional history". His first speech was in reply to the Hon. Robert Baldwin, and though it was daring, it was based on a wide foundation of common sense. During the last days of toryism, Mr. Draper, the Attorney-General, came one day to our subject and said, "Your turn has come at last, Macdonald."

He became Receiver-General, but after a brief period assumed the management of Crown Lands, where, in a short time he reduced much confusion to harmony. But in 1849, the reformers under Mr. Baldwin and Monsieur Lafontaine were triumphant and during the riot and incendiarism of that year we see Mr. Macdonald's figure and hear some of his impassioned utterances.

On the downfall of the Hincks-Morin Cabinet, he became Attorney-General-West, under the leadership of Sir Allan MacNab, but this ministry becoming unpopular, both in and out of Parliament, and was forced to resign, and Mr. George Brown was called upon to form a Cabinet. He undertook the task, but the Governor-General having refused him permission to dissolve the House and appeal to the country, he, after a few days, resigned, and the old ministry was recalled to power.

After a short time, however, Sir Allan was relegated to the sick-room, and John A. Macdonald appeared as leader of the Upper Canada section, that ambitious and persevering spirit, George E. Cartier, leading the Lower Canada division. Then came the period of transition, during which political events seem to pass before the eye like objects in the kaleidoscope.

There was a wide gulf between the Upper and Lower Canada, though for a lengthy period John A. Macdonald in his own personality spanned the chasm. The seeds of discontent had borne Fruit, and public sentiment was in a feverish state of unrest.

Then came Sandfield Macdonald upon the scene as premier, but his administration crumbled away as if it had been reared on sand. The Taché-Macdonald (John A.) administration followed, but is tenure of life hung by the slimmest thread, and eventually it survived only by the mercy of those who were really its enemies. It was out of this dead-lock, or the "fatal balance of parties", that grew the impulse for a confederation.

A coalition was formed, of which George Brown, Oliver Mowat and William McDougall, on the part of the reformers, were members.

Thereafter the figure of John A. Macdonald stands boldly out. It was he who led and shaped the movement, and conducted negotiations in the maritime provinces and in England; and in recognition of his zeal and service he was called to lead the first administration under confederation, and had a knighthood conferred upon him. His career since that date is fresh in the memories of most who watch public events.

Though achieving many brilliant successes, once he found disaster, when in 1873 the Legislature declared him guilty of corrupt collusion with Sir Hugh Allan in a transaction relating to the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway; but whether this most successful and able statesman was guilty of the charge laid at his door or not, the people forgave him, and in 1878, with loud acclamation, took him back again to power.

Sir John has always stood in high regard in the mother country, and in 1879 was sworn in a member of Her Majesty's Privy Council. In 1865, he received the honorary degree of D.C.L. from Oxford University; he also received the degree of LL.D. from Queen's University, Kingston; and likewise a D.C.L. of the University of Trinity College, Toronto. Although he is now well advanced in years, he does not seem to have lost any of his old vigour; friends press more closely around him, and the circle of his admirers seems to grow larger every day.

Since 1878 he had been instrumental in accomplishing several important acts of legislation, noteable among those being the project, now nearly completed, of building the Canada Pacific Railway. Sir John resides at Stadacona Hall, Ottawa, and his social responsibilities are shared with admirable grace and success by his talented and exceedingly popular wife, Lady Macdonald.

The following are some of the measures of legislation accomplished by the right hon. gentleman since his entry into public life: The secularization of the clergy reserves; the extension of the municipal system; reorganization of the militia; the reorganization of the civil service; the ratification of the Washington treaty; confederation of B. N. A.; the construction of the Intercolonial Railway; the extension and consolidation of the Dominion; the National Policy; and the measure for the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

You can read a book about him in .pdf format here! (26.5Mb)


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