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Sir John A MacDonald
Early Life and Training, 1815-1844


LIKE many other men who have won distinction in building up the empire abroad, the future premier of the Dominion was of Scottish birth. His ancestors, respectable merchants or farmers, had the usual traditional links with a remote past, but nothing apparently to distinguish them from other Highland families. His father, Mr. Hugh Macdonald, was a native of Sutherland-shire who had removed as a young man from his native village in the north to Glasgow, where he became a manufacturer in a small way, and was married to Miss Helen Shaw of that city, also of Highland descent. Of this marriage there were born five children, of whom John Alexander, the subject of this biography, was the third. The date of his birth was January 11th, 1815, the year of Waterloo.

The lad was in the fifth year of his age when in 1820 his father, whose business ventures in Glasgow had not been successful, resolved to emigrate to Canada.

Thus, while his extraction was Scottish, his whole training was essentially Canadian. His boyish inspirations came from the country which he was to consolidate and rule.

The family settled first in the town of Kingston, in the province of Ontario, then the most important military post and social centre of Upper Canada. The early attempts of the father to find a business footing in Kingston having failed, the family removed in succession to two of the small neighbouring settlements, Hay Bay and Stone Mills, on the Bay of Quinte. The years spent there seem to have been equally unsuccessful, from a business point of view, and in 1836 Mr. Macdonald returned to Kingston, where he was appointed to a position in the Commercial Bank. Here his health began to fail and he died five years later, in 1841, at the age of fifty-nine.

Though evidently unstable in purpose and unequal to the rough work of a new country, Mr. Macdonald seems to have been a man of some ability and a kindly heart, with a keen desire, truly Scottish, that his children should get education. But it is evident that the son owed little of his great qualities to paternal heredity. His mother, who lived until 1862, was of stronger fibre, and was apparently the binding force which held the family together through many anxious years. She is described as a woman of great intellectual vigour and strong personality, quiet in manner and with a keen sense of humour. Her son was devoted to her, and as she lived to the age of eighty-five, she watched the earlier stages of his brilliant career.

Meanwhile the lad had been for five years, between the ages of ten and fifteen, a pupil at the Kingston Grammar School. In this brief space was compressed his whole formal education, beyond what had been received at elementary schools. Even school life must have been weighted with anxieties. "I had no boyhood," he once said to a friend. "From the age of fifteen I began to earn my own living."

But already at school one quality which marked the man—that of winning the affection of those around him—seems to have asserted itself in the boy. "I like to remember those early school days when John Macdonald and myself were pupils at the same school, he being one of the older boys and I one of the younger," said Sir Oliver Mowat at the unveiling of Macdonald's statue in 1895. "He was as popular with the boys then as he afterwards became with men."

Of university training he had none. The circumstance was to him a matter of lasting regret; but it is one which brings out in stronger relief the natural ability and energy of a mind which triumphed over the deficiencies of education, and held its own among men of the highest culture. Omnivorous reading, to which he was passionately addicted to the end of his career, became the substitute for a university course.

On leaving school in 1830, he at once entered upon the study of law in the office of Mr. George Mackenzie, a friend of his father with whom he lodged. His school-boy age at this time suggests the duties of a junior clerk or office boy rather than serious legal study. Apparently during the whole course of his law studies he was earning his own living and probably assisting his family, so that he must have received wages for his office work.

He seems to have inspired confidence almost at once, for as early as 1832, while still a young student, he was sent to look after the business of a branch office opened at Napanee, and in 1833 he went, by arrangement with Mr. Mackenzie, to Picton to take charge of the law office of Mr. L. P. Macpherson, in the absence of that gentleman from Canada.

For a political career the experience thus gained was doubtless most valuable. The practice of a country lawyer in Canada brings him into singularly close touch with the difficulties and needs, the passions, prejudices and peculiarities of the farming population which forms the political backbone of the country. For the special work lying before him, this training perhaps meant as much as any that even a university could give.

Of these early years of struggle and hard work little has been brought to light worthy of special record as illustrating the character of the young man, or as giving clear indication of the great career which awaited him. Few men of equal mark in later life have had a youth so devoid of memorable incident.

There are suggestions in fragments of correspondence that he had not only secured the trust of his employers, but had also attracted the special interest of others beside those under whom he worked. A cheerful disposition, joined to industrious habits, appears to have made him a favourite in the small circle in which he moved. His life at this stage was the life of many an ambitious and energetic law student in Canada to-day: a round of ordinary office duties, lightened by the pleasant social intercourse of a stirring provincial town.

The exceptional qualities of leadership which marked his later career were to be developed in the slow process of time and events.

On February 6th, 1836, he was called to the bar and immediately opened an office in Kingston, thus entering upon the practice of the law on his own account at the early age of twenty-one. Business seems to have come to him at once, partly no doubt from his previous connection with principals having a large practice, and partly through the impression which his abilities had already made on those who knew him.

That he had still to overcome the crudity and impetuosity of youth, a curious story shows. It is thus told by Mr. Pope: "In his first case, which was at Picton, Mr. Macdonald and the opposing counsel became involved in an argument, which, waxing hotter and hotter, culminated in blows. They closed and fought in open court to the scandal of the judge who immediately instructed the crier to enforce order. This crier was an old man, personally much attached to Mr. Macdonald, in whom he took a lively interest. In pursuance of his duty, however, he was compelled to interfere. Moving towards the combatants and circling round them he shouted in stentorian tones, 'Order in the court, order in the court,' adding in a low but intensely sympathetic voice as he passed near his protege, 'Hit him, John!' I have heard Sir John Macdonald say that, in many a parliamentary encounter in after years, he had seemed to hear above the excitement of the occasion, the voice of the old crier whispering in his ear the words of encouragement, 'Hit him, .John!'" This escapade does not seem to have affected his legal career.

The interesting fact was often recalled in later times that, during the first year of his practice, two young men marked out for future distinction, Oliver Mowat and Alexander Campbell, entered his office as students. Twenty-eight years later the three men were members of the same cabinet. Of the three, one died as prime minister of Canada; one as lieutenant-governor of his native province, after having been its premier for twenty-three years ; the third, after having held several of the most important offices in the Dominion cabinet, also ended his career as lieutenant-governor of Ontario. All had been knighted in recognition of their distinguished public services. The coincidence of ability, opportunity and of actual achievement is noteworthy.

The years which marked the beginning of Macdonald's career were critical ones in the history of Canada. As we have seen he was called to the bar in 1836. In 1837 rebellion broke out headed by Papineau in Lower Canada, and by William Lyon Mackenzie in Upper Canada. To aid in its suppression the militia and volunteers were called out, and the young lawyer along with others shouldered his musket in defence of law and order.

The force to which he was attached was sent to Toronto. The rising in the Upper Province was speedily quelled, and his military service was therefore brief and bloodless. It is worth noting that one of his closest political friends, and one on whose aid he chiefly relied in after years for carrying Confederation and harmonizing the conflicting elements in the different provinces, Georges Etienne Cartier, was among those who had been carried away by the fiery and revolutionary eloquence of the French leader, Papineau. Sharing in the defeat of the rebels he fled from the country, but later availed himself of the general amnesty and returned to become one of the most loyal upholders of British power in Canada.

In the year following the rebellion Macdonald was called upon in the course of his professional work to defend, under circumstances which attracted attention at the time, one of those who had participated in the uprising. During the rebellion much sympathy had been shown across the American border for those who had taken up arms against the government. This sympathy quickly took the form of active assistance. In November of the year following a party of Americans crossed the border at a point a little below Prescott on the St. Lawrence, captured a windmill there, and held it for some days against the forces sent to drive them out. The party was finally overcome, its leaders were arrested and tried by court-martial, and eleven of them were ultimately hanged. Among them was Von Schoultz, a Polish gentleman of independent means, who, after fighting in the cause of Polish liberty in Europe, had been led to believe that in Canada he would be equally serving the cause of freedom by joining the rebels.

The romance of political biography long credited Macdonald with a defence of the accused man so brilliant as to establish his legal reputation, but this myth has been dispelled by the sober facts of authentic history, which show that the counsel for the defence neither made nor could make before the court-martial any speech at all in behalf of the prisoner, who pleaded guilty from the first, and, in the absence of all extenuating circumstances, was condemned and executed. A sum of money which he arranged to bequeath to his counsel, Macdonald declined to accept. In connection with the same events he was entrusted with the defence of Mr. Ashley, the jailer at Kingston, who was accused on insufficient grounds by the military authorities of having connived at the escape of some political prisoners. The vigour of his defence secured an acquittal for his client and increased his reputation as a lawyer, but damaged for a time his popularity, so strongly did public feeling run against the Americans who had wantonly invaded the country.

The years which immediately followed were marked only by hard work and increasing prosperity. In 1839 he became solicitor for the Commercial Bank, and soon after for a large Trust and Loan Company. The death of his old principal, Mr. George Mackenzie, greatly increased the circle of his clients.

In 1842 he paid his first visit to England, partly for the sake of his health, which had been shaken by a severe illness in 1840, and partly to make purchases for his law library.

His home letters during this time show that he entered with zest into the usual round of sightseeing—visited in London the law-courts, where he saw the great judges of the day on the bench; and parliament, where he listened to Peel, Lord John Russell, Stanley, O'Connell and others. He visited Oxford and Cambridge, admired the splendour of Windsor Castle and travelled much through his native Scotland as well as through England. He returned at the end of a few months with renewed strength and eager to take up the laborious professional work which now constituted the ordinary round of his life.

In 1843 he took into partnership in his growing business his former student, Alexander Campbell, a connection which continued till 1849. He had already begun to take an interest in municipal affairs, and in 1843 was elected an alderman for the city of Kingston. In this position he is said to have displayed good business ability and to have made himself popular. But larger fields of public employment were about to open before him.

Meanwhile, his increasing prosperity had enabled him to assume the cares of domestic life. He was married on September 1st, 1843, to his cousin, Miss Isabella Clark, whose acquaintance he had made in Scotland. [Two children were the offspring of this marriage; the elder, John Alexander, was accidentally killed by a fall when quite young; the second, Hugh John, has been well known to Canadians as member of parliament for the city of Winnipeg and premier of the province of Manitoba.] Soon after their marriage Mrs. Macdonald became a confirmed invalid, and for many years constant anxiety about a wife to whom he was devoted went hand-in-hand with professional and political cares.
In the search for health Mrs. Macdonald was compelled to spend long periods in a warmer climate, and so was unable to take any considerable part in the public life of her husband, so much of which was passed away from home in prolonged attendance on his parliamentary duties. This lack of a continuous home life was one of the disabilities against which he had to struggle throughout his earlier political career.

It was in 1844, the year after his marriage, that his opportunity came for entering political life. In September of that year, Sir Charles Metcalfe, who had been for many months trying to carry on the government with a ministry which did not command a majority in the assembly, resolved to make an appeal to the country. This event had been expected for some time and the people of Kingston had prepared for it as early as the preceding June, when an address, signed by more than two hundred of the electors, was presented to Macdonald asking him to be a candidate for the representation of the town. As the time for the election approached, this requisition was endorsed at a large gathering of the Conservative party. A few days later Macdonald issued the first of his many addresses to a Canadian constituency. One paragraph of this address is worthy of special remark, since it strikes the keynote of his future political career. "I, therefore," he says, -need scarcely state my firm belief that the prosperity of Canada depends upon its permanent connection with the mother country, and that I shall resist to the utmost any attempt (from whatever quarter it may come), which may tend to weaken that union." Thus he enunciates at his very entrance into public life the central thought around which the political activities of nearly half a century were to revolve. When the polling day arrived he was elected by an overwhelming majority, and so became the member for Kingston, a constituency which, with one short break, he represented throughout his whole public career.

There is no indication that Macdonald was fired by any strong ambition or great political ardour in first seeking a seat in the legislature. When asked long after how he came to contest the election of 1844, he said, "To fill a gap. There seemed to be no one else available, so I was pitched upon."

Sir John Thompson, his colleague for several years, and later one of his successors in the premiership, mentions that he once consulted him about a friend's coming forward at an election when there was a prospect of his having to retire at the end of a single session, and that Macdonald in giving his approval added, "Those are the terms on which I came into public life."

The passionate devotion to politics which marked his later life was a plant of slow growth. An increasing sense of public duty and the knowledge that he was necessary to his party, added to a consciousness of power to rule men, and of pleasure in the exercise of that power, were the forces which, contrary to his original intention, gradually led him on to devote his life entirely to the politics of his country. And assuredly no country ever had more need of the services of its best minds than had Canada at the time when Macdonald entered the legislature in 1844. This will be realized if we recall for a moment the number and complexity of the still unsettled problems with which the public men of the time were confronted. In the Canada of that day race was pitted against race, religion against religion. Men's minds were still inflamed by the wrongs, imaginary or real, which had produced the Rebellion of 1837, and by the passions kindled during its progress and suppression. The losses incurred during that rebellion had still in part to be dealt with, and when taken in hand for final settlement were destined to bring to a critical test the question of responsible government. The vexed and long-standing question of the Clergy Reserves embittered the public life of Upper Canada. Closely connected with this was the almost equally disputed issue of university endowment. Whether the Family Compact was the safeguard of British connection or a selfish combination working chiefly for personal ends, was a question fiercely debated on every hustings and at well-nigh every fireside. In Quebec, seigniorial tenure, a heritage from the feudal past, awaited some solution which would set the habitant free to enjoy the full fruits of his labour, while not inflicting an injustice on proprietors whose legal rights were undisputed. Representation according to population had not yet become a question between the two provinces, but the stream of immigration into Upper Canada, which was soon to make it a burning subject of dispute, had already begun to flow.

Behind all these large questions was one yet larger. British North America still consisted of a disjointed series of provinces; those on the Atlantic coast separated from old Canada by hundreds of miles of unbroken forests; the settlements of the Pacific still more effectually cut off from the central provinces by well-nigh two thousand miles of intervening prairie and mountains, only inhabited by the wandering Indian or the adventurous trapper. The physical isolation of the provinces was matched by the social and commercial isolation due to inadequate means of communication, separate postal systems, independent fiscal arrangements, and varying commercial laws.

Another condition, too, we are bound to note. The men who were to deal with these vast problems involving the future of half a continent had hitherto been provincial politicians, with views limited and passions concentrated by the narrow circle in which they moved. Would their range of vision widen to meet the new needs of Canadian life? Would the provincial politician merge into the national statesman?

The career of Macdonald as a public man embraced nearly half a century. To the very end of that extended period the political development of Canada was sensibly influenced by events which had happened, conditions that existed and passions which had been aroused long antecedent to the time when he entered parliament. The business of a statesman is to make the most of the circumstances in which he is placed; to utilize to the advantage of the State the forces with which he has to deal. The skill and ability with which he builds up the fortunes of his country on what has been inherited from its past; the degree in which his powers respond to the new demands made upon them, establish his place on the page of history. To understand fully the tangled skein of Canadian politics which had to be unwound between 1844 and 1867 the reader must study, as he can do in earlier volumes of this series, the complicated train of events which occurred between the conquest in 1759 and the time when Macdonald's parliamentary career began.

But if we remember that, in the settlement of many of these vital questions to which reference has been made, Macdonald took a leading part; that in constructing the systems and framing the compromises which furnished their ultimate solution, his was the guiding hand; we shall understand the long and difficult road upon which the young legislator was entering when the people of Kingston first chose him as their representative; we shall be prepared to make allowance for many a mistake, as well as for those changes of policy or conviction which come from enlarged experience; and it will be difficult not to mark with admiration that gradual widening of power which enabled him to grapple successfully with the higher problems of statesmanship.


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