Sir John Alexander Macdonald


Photo of Sir John Alexander Macdonald
Sir John Alexander Macdonald, KCMG, GCB, QC, PC, DCL, LL.D (January 11, 1815 – June 6, 1891) was the first Prime Minister of Canada from July 1, 1867 – November 5, 1873 and October 17, 1878 – June 6, 1891. He was born in Glasgow, Scotland.

Macdonald did prosper, becoming a lawyer in 1836 and earning the esteem of many in his defence of American raiders in the Rebellions of 1837. In 1843, at the age of 28, he married Isabella Clark (1811 - 1857). They had two children: a son John who died at the age of one, and a second son Hugh John who went on to become premier of the Province of Manitoba. Ten years after the death of his wife, in 1867, the year of Canadian Confederation, he married Susan Agnes Bernard (1836-1920). They had one daughter, Margaret Mary Theodora Macdonald (1869-1933).

As Prime Minister, Macdonald's vision was to enlarge the country and unify it. Accordingly, under his rule Canada bought Rupert's Land and the North-Western Territory from the Hudson's Bay Company for £300,000 (about $11,500,000). This land became the Northwest Territories. In 1870 Parliament passed the Manitoba Act, creating the province of Manitoba out of a portion of the Northwest Territories in response to the Red River Rebellion led by Louis Riel.

In 1871 the British parliament added British Columbia to Confederation, making it the sixth province. Macdonald promised a transcontinental railway connection to persuade the province to join, which his opponents decried as a highly unrealistic and expensive promise. In 1873 Prince Edward Island also joined Confederation, and Macdonald created the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (then named the North-West Mounted Police) to act as a police force for the vast Northwest Territories.

After the Pacific scandal in 1873, in which Macdonald was accused of taking bribes to award contracts for the construction of the railway, Macdonald was forced to resign and Liberal leader Alexander Mackenzie formed a caretaker government. The subsequent 1874 federal election were won by the Mackenzie Liberals. Macdonald was returned to power in 1878 on the strength of the National Policy, a plan to promote trade within the country by protecting it from the industries of other nations and renewing the effort to complete the previously promised Canadian Pacific Railway, which was accomplished in 1885. That year, Louis Riel also returned to Canada and launched the North-West Rebellion in the territory of Saskatchewan, but now that there was a railway through the area the North-West Mounted Police were quickly sent to put it down. The trial and subsequent execution of Riel for treason caused a deep political division between French Canadians, who supported Riel (a culturally French Métis) and English Canadians, who supported Macdonald.

Macdonald stayed in office until his death in 1891. His career spanned 19 years, making Sir John A. Macdonald the second longest serving Prime Minister of Canada. He is the only Canadian Prime Minister to win six majority governments. He died while still Prime Minister, winning praise for having helped forge a nation of sprawling geographic size, with two diverse European colonial origins, and a multiplicity of cultural backgrounds and political views. Grieving Canadians turned out in the thousands to pay their respects while he lay in state in the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa and they lined the tracks to watch the train that returned his body to Kingston, Ontario where he was buried in the Cataraqui Cemetery.

Macdonald was well known for his wit and also for his alcoholism. He is known to have been drunk for many of his debates in parliament. One famous story is that during an election debate Macdonald was so drunk he began vomiting violently on stage while his opponent was speaking. Picking himself up Macdonald told the crowd, "see how my opponent's ideas disgust me."

In another version of the story, he responded to his opponent's query of his drunkenness with "It goes to show that I would rather have a drunk Conservative than a sober Liberal.".

Sir John A. Macdonald is depicted on the Canadian ten-dollar bill. He also has bridges, airports, and highways named after him (such as the Macdonald-Cartier Freeway), as well as a plethora of schools across the country.

Macdonald and his son, Hugh John Macdonald briefly sat together in the Canadian House of Commons prior to the elder Macdonald's death. Hugh John later became premier of Manitoba.

On May 29, 1891, Sir John A. suffered a severe stroke, which he would never recover from. He died on June 6, 1891 at the age of 76. He would lie in state in the Canadian Senate Chamber (Prime Ministers now lie in state in the Hall of Honour in the Centre Block) and his state funeral was held on June 9, attended by hundreds of thousands of people. He is buried in Cataraqui Cemetery near Kingston, Ontario.

In 2004, Sir John A. Macdonald was nominated as one of the top 10 "Greatest Canadians" by viewers of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He is considered by some Canadian political scientists to be the founder of the Red Tory tradition.

The following is the speech that Wilfrid Laurier gave to parliament following the death of John A. MacDonald.

"The place of Sir John A. Macdonald in this country was so large and so absorbing that it is almost impossible to conceive that the politics of this country -- the fate of this country -- will continue without him. His loss overwhelms us. For my part, I say, with all truth, his loss overwhelms me, and that it also overwhelms this Parliament, as if indeed one of the institutions of the land had given way. Sir John A. Macdonald now belongs to the ages, and it can be said with certainty that the career which has just been closed is one of the most remarkable careers of this century ... As to his statesmanship, it is written in the history of Canada. It may be said without any exaggeration whatever, that the life of Sir John Macdonald, from the time he entered Parliament, is the history of Canada."