Macdonald the man
Statue of Sir John A. Macdonald
The tour starts at the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald located at the southern tip of Queen’s Park Circle in Toronto (near the Queen's Park Subway Station).
This is one of eleven memorials to Macdonald across Canada. There are two more in Ottawa and one each in Montreal, Hamilton, Kingston, Charlottetown, Regina, Victoria, Kitchener and Picton.
It has to be said from the outset that John A. Macdonald did not spend a great deal of time in Toronto personally, nor did he represent a Toronto riding at any time in his political career. All the same, the man had a profound impact on various aspects of this city. This memorial to him, erected in 1894, bears
witness to this fact. At that time, thousands of people heard Prime Minister John Thompson deliver a great speech about Macdonald right here. Thompson talked about the nation-building skills of his old boss, his loyalty to Britain, and his love of Canada. Thompson left for Britain a few days later and, while having lunch with Queen Victoria, died of heart attack (You have to wonder what she told him!).
Mackenzie Bowell, who succeeded Thompson, also gave a speech when this statue was unveiled. He said during this ceremony that Macdonald was “a master in the science of civil governing.”
Why did so many people gather at this statue three and a half years after Macdonald had died? Do you think they all wondered what Macdonald is pointing to? Evidently, Macdonald still had a grip on people.
In his eulogy of Macdonald, then Liberal Leader Wilfrid Laurier said that, “the place of Sir John Macdonald in this country was so large and so absorbing that it is almost impossible to conceive that the political life of this country, the fate of this country, can continue without him. His loss overwhelms us.” Sir Hector Langevin, a great friend of Macdonald’s, had just collapsed in his parliamentary seat, unable to complete his speech.
Left: Sir John A. Macdonald Right: Wilfrid Laurier
Credit: Library and Archives Canada
These eloquent words came from a man who had openly said a few moments before that the Liberals “did not believe in his policy, nor his methods of government.”
As you will discover, Macdonald embodied all the right things and many of the wrong things of his day, but people admired him for his character and for his ability to get things done. Some of these qualities are worth reflecting on.
Macdonald was not born with a knighthood. That came in 1867, with Confederation. In fact, John Macdonald came from circumstances far removed from royal favours. He was born in Glasgow on January 11, 1815, to parents who did not have a great deal of money. Hoping for a better turn in life, they immigrated to Canada in 1820 and settled in Kingston, Ontario. His father opened a few stores, first in Kingston and then in Adolphustown. For ten years he ran the stone mills at Glenora in Prince Edward County, but he was never wealthy.
Young John A. Macdonald
Credit: Library and Archives Canada
Young John attended the local schools and proved himself rather smart. As a teenager, he began to article in the office of Kingston lawyer George Mackenzie. (NOTE - In those days you did not need a university degree to be a lawyer). He quickly distinguished himself as an able young attorney. In August 1835 he opened his own office in Kingston, six months before being formally called to the bar in February 1836.
Macdonald was a bright young man, full of vigour and good humour, adaptiveness and readiness. He could break the force of an argument with a story or a joke. He was a lifelong student of the human character and he knew how to attract people. He had that mysterious quality known as ‘personal magnetism’.
Macdonald stood six feet tall and had a thin build most of his life. At the time, he was probably most recognizable by the fact that he always shaved - something that was positively unique in mid-19th century Canada. British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli also observed that the Canadian prime minister spoke with a high tenor voice and tended to end his sentences with a hint of singsong.
One of his colleagues noted that Macdonald had a habit of tossing his head back and biting his lips before delivering a wickedly effective response to a heckler. It was an announcement that the next story was going to be memorable. He had an endless store of funny anecdotes for every occasion,
and he used them to marvelous effect. It’s no wonder that parties at the Macdonalds were always popular. That disposition stood him well his whole life. His second wife, Agnes Macdonald, suspected that “his good heart and amiable temper are the great secrets of his success.”
As a lawyer Macdonald quickly attracted public attention, mainly by taking on a number of difficult and even sensational cases. Mostly though, his practice was geared towards business. In 1839 he became the lawyer for the Commercial Bank of the Midland District and soon after started to represent the Trust and Loan Company of Upper Canada. That account alone provided Macdonald with the bulk of his professional income. By the time he was 30, John Macdonald was a promising, prosperous young lawyer to whom people were paying attention.
Certainly business people liked him and when the opportunity presented itself in 1843, they pressed him to run for a seat on the Kingston City Council. He was elected, and John Macdonald found his calling. For the next half-century his name would be on the lips of anyone interested in Kingston or Canadian politics.
These were turbulent years, both in Toronto and in Kingston. Only six years before, in 1837, rebellion had broken out in both Upper and Lower Canada. Upper Canada, which we now call Ontario, was up in arms against a government run by a small aristocracy that did not respect dissent or care to account for how it spent tax dollars. In Upper Canada that movement was led by William Lyon Mackenzie. In Lower Canada, it was Louis-Joseph Papineau. John Macdonald did not count himself as one of the rebels. He was of Tory stock, like his parents, and considered that the ways of the Family Compact (the governing aristocracy) were just fine with him.
In 1844, he was elected to the province of Canada’s parliament as a Tory. He ran in Kingston as a conservative, stressing his belief in the British connection. He opposed responsible government, the secularization of the clergy reserves, the abolition of special rights for first-born males, and any extensions to the franchise. Such measures, in his mind, were un-British and could weaken the British connection or the authority of the governor and the few families that thrived in that context. In 1847, within three years of his election, Macdonald joined the cabinet as Receiver General. He lost his post in 1848 when the Reformers under Baldwin and Lafontaine were elected to government, but he remained a member of parliament.
Macdonald would not hold office again for six years, until September 1854, when he became Attorney General for Canada West. In this portfolio, he did many things that caused people to wonder if he really was a Tory. He pushed reforms on land holding, and on education, where he insisted that Catholics were entitled to the right to educate their children according to their own principles. As he said in November 1854, “You must yield to the times.”