II: 'My Duty and My Interest', 1841-1857



 ‘I carried my musket in 37’

‘Macdonald did not form his political ideas, interests or associations suddenly in 1844 when he was first elected member of parliament for Kingston.’

[1] With such a long political career stretching ahead, it is indeed tempting to regard his first election to the Assembly as the starting point, perhaps with his brief fling in municipal politics as a curtain-raiser. Kingston historian William R. Teatero reminds us that the intelligent young man who was practising law at the age of 21, from early in 1836, would have imbibed the political atmosphere of an earlier decade. Thus a career that Creighton’s biography places firmly in the era of the 1841 union of the Canadas and the Dominion created in 1867 in fact  had its roots in the period that popular historians romantically term Upper Canada’s ‘rebellion days’.


            Hugh Macdonald, his father, was a Conservative, and young John A. inherited his father’s principles. At this point, a word about labels may be helpful. In the adversarial forum of parliament, political interests generally grouped into two contending parties, Conservatives and Reformers, the forerunners of Canada’s two largest modern-day parties, Conservatives and Liberals. (After 1841, Upper Canada Reformers allied with the French-Canadian Rouges, ‘le parti libéral’, and after Confederation gradually adopted their name.)[2] However, behind this emerging government-versus-opposition system, four political ‘streams’ may be identified, and since two fell on each side of the basic divide, it becomes possible to understand why conflict within the political parties was often as bitter as confrontation between them. On the Reform side, moderates who sought to adapt British institutions to promote colonial self-government often co-existed uneasily with radicals who favoured republican forms of democracy. Conservatives were equally split between extreme Tories and more pragmatic progressives who combined respect for tradition with a desire for economic development. The former aimed to confine power within a narrow social elite, nicknamed the ‘Family Compact’, and ensure that the Church of England enjoyed a monopoly of privilege, especially in the allocation of the clergy reserves, land allocated by the British government for the support of Protestant clerics. It was not surprising that John A. Macdonald adhered to the rival wing of the Conservative party. As Scots, the Macdonalds supported the demands of their own ultra-Protestant Presbyterian Kirk for a share in the clergy reserves. The clever son of an unsuccessful immigrant, John A. Macdonald was naturally in favour of a meritocracy not an aristocracy. Hence, during his first two decades in politics, he sometimes found himself struggling against ostensible allies as much as fighting partisan opponents. This was a stance that Macdonald imbibed from his earliest political mentor, the Kingston barrister George Mackenzie with whom he studied law between 1830 and 1834. Mackenzie, remarked one Kingston newspaper, was ‘perfectly impartial’, attacking extreme Tories and wild radicals with equal ferocity.[3] He was poised for election to the Assembly when he died in the cholera epidemic of 1834. The ten-year gap before Macdonald’s first election in 1844 makes it impossible to claim that Mackenzie’s sudden death created a gap for his pupil to fill, but it is possible that John A. Macdonald would not have entered public life with such dramatic panache had his mentor lived.

            John A. Macdonald probably learned even more practical political skills from his first employer. In February 1832, Reformers called a public meeting in Lennox and Addington with the intention of passing a slate of anti-government resolutions. However, they organisers made the mistake of mobilising only a couple of dozen supporters and, on the night, it was George Mackenzie who seized control of the 150-strong gathering to argue for moderate reforms and confidence in the governor.[4] It is likely that the young John A. Macdonald had a hand in the plot to pack the meeting. He was not only Mackenzie’s law pupil but also a lodger in his home at the time. The Macdonald family had lived in Lennox and Addington from about 1823 to 1825 before moving further west: the young Macdonald would have been a familiar traveller through the district as he visited the family home in Prince Edward County. Thus the spindly teenager would have had both the contacts and the cover to make him an inconspicuous messenger who could help to arouse a network of George Mackenzie supporters. Whatever Macdonald’s part in the episode, the ambushing of the Reformers on their own ground was a lesson in the importance of effective and unobtrusive grass-roots organisation.

            We can reconstruct something of the political atmosphere of Kingston that surrounded the twenty year-old John A. Macdonald as he began his legal career. In September 1835, just a week after he had opened his first law office, Macdonald became a member of the grandly-named Celtic Society of Upper Canada.  It was loosely linked to a similar club in Edinburgh, formed by Sir Walter Scott with the aim of saving Scotland’s Gaelic culture by attending banquets and wearing kilts. Its Kingston offshoot reflected the enthusiasm of the city’s Catholic bishop, Alexander Macdonnel, who seems to have believed that celebration of ancient heritage would unite Scots of all denominations. John A. Macdonald not only joined but was immediately elected ‘recording secretary’, which made him deputy to a more senior figure, the redoubtable Angus Cameron, a retired sergeant-major of impressive physique.[5] The toasts proposed at the Celtic Society’s ‘semi-annual festival’, a dinner in celebration of the anniversary of the battle of Queenston Heights held at the city’s Commercial Hotel a few weeks later, give us a glimpse into the political culture of Kingston. ‘Our sovereign Lord the King’ was followed by the memory of General Brock. (At its next six-monthly extravaganza, the Society substituted ‘the immortal memory of Wolfe, and the heroes who conquered Canada.’) Other toasts saluted the governor, the armed forces, the cause of emigration and the ladies of Upper Canada. Another denounced ‘the attempts of external and internal enemies’ to create dissention among the symbols English, Irish and Scots. Glasses were also raised to a call for ‘[l]iberty without licentiousness’, a back-flip against American republicanism, and to the appropriately ecumenical theme of ‘religion without fanaticism’. The much-cheered thirteenth and last of the official toasts was to the British empire. ‘May her sun never set!’ Whether the Society’s most junior office-bearer was entrusted to propose any of the toasts is not recorded, but he was certainly present. A reporter noted that ‘Messrs. Angus Cameron and John McDonald [sic] appeared on this festive occasion, fully attired in the ancient Highland Garb’. The kilt obviously flattered ‘the fine figure and manly person of the former gentleman’, while the appearance of his young deputy was passed over in tactful silence.[6] It is hard to imagine that the slender, spindly John A. Macdonald ever looked impressive in a kilt, and this may explain why no photograph survives of him wearing Highland dress. Although he later moved away from the external trappings of the Celtic Society’s world of Gaelic fantasy, he never abandoned the bedrock of its loyal and Conservative principles.

            In 1836, at the age of twenty one, John A. Macdonald voted in his first election. His father gifted him one hundred acres of land in Lennox and Addington so that he could vote for the Conservative candidate, John S. Cartwright. Macdonald recalled the election in reminiscence over forty years later, during the 1878 campaign when one of his most implacable opponents was Liberal finance minister Richard Cartwright, nephew of the candidate whom Macdonald had supported decades earlier. The message was clear: John A. Macdonald had stuck by his inherited principles, but the same proud consistency was not to be found in the Cartwright camp.[7]

            Of course, opinions can change over a whole lifetime but, for most people, the first time we cast a ballot represents the starting point for the definition of our values. From that point of view, three features of the Upper Canadian election of 1836 throw some interesting light upon Macdonald’s view of politics, and not all of it particularly uplifting. First, it was characterised by a strident and unscrupulous use of the loyalty cry. Thanks to the dynamic but simplistic governor, Sir Francis Bond Head, the contest became a polarised choice between loyalty to honest British institutions and descent into anarchic American democracy. There is thus a certain chilling symmetry between the first election campaign in which John A. Macdonald participated and the last, 55 years later, when he waved the flag once again, proclaiming: ‘A British subject I was born ─ a British subject I will die.’ Second, behind the smokescreen of overblown rhetoric, a key reason for the Tory-Conservative victory was the party’s success in building a cross-denominational coalition of influential religious groups, including both the Catholics and the Methodists. The latter constituted a particularly important segment of the vote in Lennox and Addington, where pro-government candidates captured the two seats previously held by Reformers. In his later election campaigns, John A. Macdonald would pay due attention to securing the support of prominent religious leaders.

            However, it is the third and most controversial feature of the 1836 campaign that would echo through his subsequent electoral career. In rural constituencies, the right to vote was tied not simply to the ownership of land but, if challenged, to the voter’s ability to prove that ownership. The creaking administrative machinery of the pioneer colony was often years behind-hand in issuing the necessary documentation. The bureaucratic backlog was still a problem a decade later when Macdonald himself tried to shake up while serving as Commissioner of Crown Lands in 1847-48: the farm mortgage business of the Kingston-based Trust and Loan Company required borrowers to demonstrate clear evidence of legal title. But in the month immediately before the 1836 election, the lethargic government machine was kick-started into frenetic action. As an outraged Reform journalist put it, ‘heaps of new deeds, the ink scarcely dry on them, were sent in all directions’ right up to the start of polling.

Hugh Macdonald’s paternal generosity was perhaps less altruistic than it was portrayed in the golden glow of reminiscence. Even in 1878, John A. Macdonald was careful to specify that his father had handed over the land to him the previous year, but the fact that the transaction was sufficiently documented to allow the young lawyer to vote suggests that it formed just one more instance of a widespread plot to swamp ‘the old ─ the peaceable ─ the respectable settlers’ with ‘pensioners and paupers, who never before exercised the elective franchise’. While Tory-Conservative numbers were boosted by manipulating land titles, the ranks of Reform voters were allegedly depleted by a similar emphasis upon paperwork. Some Reform supporters, especially in the western part of the province, had come to Upper Canada from the United States. In some cases, returning officers imposed disqualification after insisting upon proof that they had taken the oath of allegiance and so had become British subjects and were qualified to take part in elections. True, the most lurid allegations of corruption were dismissed by a parliamentary committee ─ established by the Tory Assembly that emerged from the disputed poll.[8] Even so, it must be acknowledged that any informed colonist opting to vote Tory-Conservative in 1836 was accepting as normal a questionable standard of manipulative morality. Half a century later, John A. Macdonald’s own Franchise Act of 1885 placed similar powers to confer or deny the vote in the hands of government appointees.

The tactics used to secure the Tory-Conservative victory of 1836 were not only ruthless; they were also reckless. It became harder for moderate Reformers to argue that change could be secured by working within the system. The pace of opposition was forced by radical firebrands. In December 1837, following an insurrection in the Montreal area, minor rebellions erupted along Yonge Street, to the north of Toronto, and in the London district of western Upper Canada. It is reasonable to assume that the crisis of 1837 would have made an impression upon John A. Macdonald, an articulate young professional just short of his twenty-third birthday. Yet for long, little was known either of his participation in the events or of his reaction to them. In 1953 Macdonald’s biographer, Donald Creighton, cleverly finessed the slight available evidence to imply that Macdonald turned out in the militia ─ every adult male had to serve ─ to defend in Kingston, far from the actual conflicts.[9]

Over a decade after the publication of Creighton’s mighty biography, private correspondence became available which revealed that, far from cooling his heels doing garrison duty at Kingston, John A. Macdonald had in fact fought William Lyon Mackenzie’s rebels at Montgomery’s Tavern on Yonge Street. In fact the papers of J.R. Gowan demonstrated that Macdonald’s own reticence about his role in 1837 partly explained the inadequacy of the archival record. ‘I do not know how you were engaged fifty years ago,’ Gowan wrote in ebullient reminiscence to Macdonald on 7 December 1887, ‘─ but this day, half a century since, I was with the party who came on Montgomery’s house through the woods where the shooting was done.’ Back came a surprising reply. ‘I was there too’, Macdonald wrote. ‘I was in the Second or Third Company behind the Cannon that opened out on Montgomery’s house.’ Dr J.K. Johnson, who unearthed the correspondence, noted that it was ‘curious that Macdonald’s part in the Rebellion has remained so long unknown and especially surprising that he himself seems never to have spoken of it’.[10] It is certainly remarkable that Gowan evidently had no idea that Macdonald had been present at Montgomery’s: the two men had been friends for thirty years, and Gowan was something of hero-worshipper.[11]

It is possible that men who served in 1837 felt that it would have been bad taste to have praised themselves for simply performed their duty to the Crown. ‘We were on the right side,’ Gowan recalled half a century later, ‘yet we but followed an instinct, without question or doubt.’[12] Many influential contemporaries must themselves have known that John A. Macdonald had seen action at Montgomery’s Tavern. William Lyon Mackenzie made the tactical mistake of marching on Toronto when the law courts were in session, and barristers from across Upper Canada had gathered in the capital to argue their cases. The legal profession is not noted for sympathy towards violent revolution, and wigs were duly exchanged for muskets. Macdonald recalled marching up Yonge Street ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with Philip Low, a lawyer in nearby Picton. In 1860, Low was a political ally in Prince Edward County, and he too survived until 1891.[13] It is hard to believe that he never boasted of the day he and the famous ‘John A.’ had fought side by side for the honour of their young Queen. Even so, the overwhelming reticence in Canadian political culture regard towards personal courage shown in 1837 is in sharp contrast with the post-Civil War United States, where many a political career was founded upon military service.

With hindsight, it may seem easy to dismiss the engagement at Montgomery’s Tavern as a comic-opera battle at the end of a doomed uprising. Even so, there were casualties and, as the militia marched north to challenge the rebels, some reports indicated (wrongly) that they were considerably out-numbered: years later, Gowan admitted that the only reason he had to boast was that he ‘resisted a strong inclination to run away’.[14] It does not seem implausible to assume that, like many a citizen soldier caught up in battle, John A. Macdonald was shocked by bloodshed and refrained from mentioning the episode in any way that might seem to celebrate the experience. (Although he had never talked about Montgomery’s Tavern with Gowan, he did discuss one of the main engagements in the Lower Canadian insurrection, the battle at St Denis, with the rebel leader Wolfred Nelson, probably sometime during the years 1844 to 1851 when they both sat in parliament.[15]) In the eighteen-eighties, he resisted a parliamentary campaign to secure prairie land grants for 1837 veterans, an obviously cynical piece of planned jobbery since the proposed recipients were well past the age for pioneer farming. ‘This is a disappointment to myself,’ he jovially remarked as he blocked the initiative in 1884, ‘as I was one of the volunteers and carried my musket, and I suppose I fought as bravely as my confreres.’[16] His loyal secretary, Joseph Pope, knew little of his master’s service in 1837, beyond his repeated claim to have carried his musket ─ and yet Macdonald himself had identified Pope as his probable biographer.[17] Macdonald’s brief allusions to the turbulent events of fifty years before were brief but unexpectedly passionate. They were ‘days of injustice, days of humiliation’, he declared in April 1887, adding that ‘we can all look back and respect those men who fought on one side or the other, for we know that there was a feeling of right and justice on both sides’. But a month later, he sought to close the book on 1837 altogether. The rebellions had been ‘a war of fellow-subject against fellow-subject, which should, as much as possible, be forgotten’.[18]

In the context of the Canada of the eighteen-eighties, no doubt it made sense to deplore the tragedy of 1837. More significant is the evidence indicating that Macdonald was critical of the handling of events at the time. It is dangerous to infer their political opinions from the cases that lawyers argue, simply because they must defend clients regardless of their private views of their innocence or guilt. In 1837-38, John A. Macdonald was one of Kingston’s youngest barristers and it was likely that he would end up pleading unpopular causes because his more successful senior colleagues would tend to grab the best cases. Indeed, his best remembered venture, his attempt to assist the defence of Nils von Schoulz, the leader of a paramilitary attack on Prescott, barely counts at all: Macdonald agreed to help on compassionate grounds after two more senior lawyers had refused to become involved and, as the trial was by court-martial, he played no officially recognised role. Even so, his nephew recalled that ‘Macdonald’s popularity was terribly strained by his defence of these men’, while he himself can hardly have been indifferent to the fact that, despite his efforts, nine of them died on the gallows ─ and he himself interviewed von Schoulz in the death cell and drew up his Will.[19]

Macdonald did secure the acquittal of eight men from the Kingston region charged with high treason, a trial which pitted him in the courtroom against the man for whom he had voted in 1836. The case is generally seen as evidence for the growing acumen of the young lawyer, and Macdonald himself recalled the episode with pardonable pride in 1885, as he pondered whether Louis Riel should face a charge of treason. ‘I remember well the trouble the Crown had in 1837-8, when I tripped up John Cartwright more than once.’[20] Even more striking was Macdonald’s part in the case of Ashley versus Dundas. Colonel the Honourable Henry Dundas was almost the identikit hero for Tory Kingston. Not only was he commander of the imperial garrison, but he was set to inherit a seat in the British House of Lords. John Ashley was a local civilian whose job at Fort Henry included acting as gaoler for fifteen men arrested as suspected rebels. He was also that rare breed in the town, a Reformer. The prisoners managed to decamp, and the furious Colonel blamed Ashley and had him locked in the guardhouse. This was such an obvious over-reaction that even the loyal magistrates of Kingston had him released within hours. Ashley, however, resolved to sue his tormenter for damages. This, then, was not a case where the professional traditions of the Bar required a practitioner to step in to help a defendant, however unsavoury his conduct. Rather, the action was initiated by Ashley himself, and John A. Macdonald could easily enough have advised the angry gaoler to swallow his pride and refused to take his case. True, Macdonald was retained alongside Henry Smith, an undoubted Tory who was also an unscrupulous operator with an eye for the main chance. But it was the junior counsel who made the running in the courtroom, where he ‘displayed much ingenuity and legal knowledge’. In the opinion of the Kingston Chronicle, his acumen was mobilised in what ought to have been a lost cause. ‘The learned Judge established to the satisfaction of every unprejudiced person present, that a verdict should be returned for the Defendant.’ However, the jury ‘thought otherwise’, not only finding in favour of Ashley but awarding him a massive $800 in damages. The outcome ‘so astonished the community’ that the Chronicle threatened to publish the names of the jurymen, a thinly veiled threat to drive the tradesmen among them out of business, although in the end ‘the people of Kingston’ contented themselves with a whip-round to reimburse the gallant Colonel.[21] Evidently, by no means everybody accepted the cool arrogance which equated the local elite with the ‘community’ and ‘people’ of Kingston. The military establishment apparently did not think of John A. Macdonald as a young man doing his professional duty. One onlooker long remembered how Macdonald had handled officers in the witness box ‘with great severity, for which they never forgave him’. For some years, newly arriving regiments were briefed by their predecessors to maintain ‘this feeling of antagonism ... but John A. cared nothing for that.’[22]

 The cumulative impression that emerges from John A. Macdonald’s court-room battles in 1837-38 is thus one of somebody who was critical of the political elite and determined to limit the damage caused by their mistakes. Two other shreds of evidence support this interpretation. Augustus Thibodo, a local farmer, was an outspoken Reformer, and locally suspect as an admirer of Papineau. He was briefly arrested on suspicion of planning rebellion on the guilt-by-association grounds of being the intended recipient of overwrought correspondence from another prominent agitator, John G. Parker of Hamilton. Not surprisingly, Thibodo was released on bail within twenty-four hours, and turned to John A. Macdonald for help. Macdonald reportedly urged Thibodo to ‘get away from the city as quickly as you can’, surprising advice since, later as Attorney-General, he strongly disapproved of people who broke bail. Thibido should return when normal conditions were restored, but the situation in Kingston was ‘intolerable’ and his safety could not be guaranteed.[23] Thibodo was no starry-eyed worshipper: in 1843 he took a leading part in breaking up one of Macdonald’s earliest political meetings.[24] His recollection provides a vivid glimpse of Macdonald depressed by the political climate of Tory revenge.

One further piece of evidence rounds off the picture. John A. Macdonald marched against Mackenzie’s rebels as a lowly private. This was hardly the best use of a man of education and leadership skills, and so it was no surprise that the government’s official Gazette should have announced early in 1838 that he was to be come an Ensign, the lowest officer rank, in the Frontenac militia. However, within days, the appointment was mysteriously rescinded. Creighton offered the lame speculation that Macdonald had perhaps pleaded his responsibilities as a family man ─ effectively, his parents and sisters were dependent upon him. Once again, it was the archival detective work of Dr J.K. Johnson that threw additional light on the incident. On seeing the announcement, Macdonald had sent a curt note to the British officer in command of the militia, not pleading but demanding the removal of his name, ‘as I cannot accept of an Ensigncy in that Corps.’ His emphasis surely cannot imply that he was offended at not being offered a higher rank: John A. Macdonald would have known that there was a fixed ladder for military promotions, and a young man with almost no active service would hardly be bumptious enough to demand preferential fast-track advancement. It seems far more likely that Macdonald’s objection was to ‘that Corps’, that he felt the Frontenac militia had over-stepped the mark in harrying local Reformers. The fact that his appointment was so promptly rescinded also suggests a principled political objection: had Macdonald simply been trying to raise the stakes, the adjutant-general in charge of the militia would have told him to do his duty like any other man in the station to which he was called.[25]

John A. Macdonald’s career in public life spanned over twenty years of the Canadian Union followed by almost the founding quarter-century of the Dominion. It is tempting to dismiss any experience that he acquired prior to his first election to the Assembly in 1844 as little-league stuff, a mere prologue to his achievements on the larger stage. Yet it is important to appreciate that the man who helped build a national political structure was also the youth who imbibed his first political lessons during the confrontational decade of the eighteen-thirties in an Upper Canada that was still barely emerging from the pioneer phase. Those lessons were both positive and negative in quality, but arguably they were long-lasting. From his earliest mentor, George Mackenzie, he learned the importance of organisation when, at the age of 17, he witnessed and probably assisted in the capture of a planned Reform party public meeting. In voting for Tory-Conservative candidates in his first election in 1836, he was implicitly signing up to a belief that the end justified the means, that tendentious slogans and ruthless manipulation of the voting lists were a legitimate part of the electoral game. On the other hand, from George Mackenzie, and from his own Canadian-Scots background, he also inherited a moderate political stance, which sought to occupy the centre ground, rejecting both Anglican Tory supremacism and pro-American revolutionary radicalism.

Consequently, John A. Macdonald’s reactions to the crisis year of 1837-38 were complex. Here it is necessary to resort to some extent to surmise, largely because he himself apparently spoke so rarely about experiences that must have been among the most dramatic, and perhaps traumatic, in his entire life. Nonetheless, there are startling implications in the hypothesis that he was alienated by the extremism of both sides and horrified by the bloodshed and abuse of power that he witnessed. We are accustomed to think of Macdonald as an essentially amoral politician, a deal-maker and coalition-builder who sought metaphorically to square the circle of Canadian politics by squaring the politicians who danced around that circle, cynically and corruptly. A different interpretation of his career emerges if we think of him as a leader who knew from first-hand experience that the social fabric of Canadian society was frighteningly complex, and the political structure of Canada too fragile to bear heavy pressures.

Again, it has to be conceded that the interpretation depends to a dangerous extent upon drawing large assumptions from Macdonald’s own silence about his motives. During a speaking tour of the province in the winter of 1860-61, he did claim that he had confronted the secularisation of the clergy reserves six years earlier precisely because he feared that agitation of the issue might risk another upheaval like that of 1837. ‘In 1836 [sic] it was the cause of a rebellion. In 1854 it assumed almost the same formidable dimension … setting man against man and family against family’.[26] The evidence is perhaps slight: it does not seem to have been an argument to which he appealed during the secularisation debates, while in the aftermath of his quarrel with the Orange Order he had every need to project himself as a wise statesman capable of taking tough but visionary decisions for the common good. Yet it remains the case that however much John A. Macdonald waved the flag to trade on his loyalty to the empire, he rarely spoke of the events of 1837 so that it took half a century for one of his closest friends to discover that they had served as comrades in the routing of the Yonge Street rebels. John A. Macdonald’s political career began in a Canada on the verge of self-government in 1844, and closed in a Canada that had grown into a putative nation-state largely under his leadership. But we should not forget that the roots of his political outlook are to be traced still further back, to Upper Canada in rebellion times.


‘To Fill a Gap’: John A. Macdonald Enters Parliament, 1844


Kingston was so solidly Tory that elections in the ‘Loyal Old Town’ for the Upper Canada Assembly were invariably contests between different brands of Conservatism.[27] This factionalism carried over into the first decade of the Canadian Union. But by the time those first elections loomed, John A. Macdonald had put behind him those doubts about official handling of the crisis of 1837 and joined the Kingston elite. In June 1839, he became a director of the Commercial Bank. Once again, death played its part in his advancement, for shortly after he succeeded Henry Cassady as the Bank’s solicitor. Cassady was a barrister and former mayor of Kingston, and young Macdonald had acted as his junior when they had defended the hapless William Brass who was tried and hanged for allegedly raping a child two years earlier.[28] Now this long-time prominent citizen was replaced by a youngster with just four years’ professional experience.

            As a new recruit to the local power structure, it was in Macdonald’s interests to secure unity among prominent Conservatives before the province went to the polls. However, there were two unusual features that created a contest in which the local elite would not have all their way. The union with Lower Canada was being forced into being by a highly pro-active and presidential governor, Poulett Thomson, a former British cabinet minister soon to become Lord Sydenham. Sydenham was believed to favour the candidate who was already in the field, Anthony Manahan, born in Ireland but a long-time Kingston resident and businessman who had shown independence in politics as well as courage as a militia commander during the recent crisis. There was, said the British Whig, ‘but little fear of his sitting on the opposition benches, a circumstance of more consequence to the town than at first sight may be imagined.’[29] Manahan’s candidacy was means of harnessing discontent with the status quo.  Half a century later, a contemporary recalled that Macdonald ‘with all his numerous Scotch young friends, had supported Mr Manahan in the general election of 1840 or 1841’.[30]

This was not true of Macdonald himself. In fact, he had formed part of a two-man committee to secure an agreed Conservative candidate to oppose Manahan. Thomas Kirkpatrick and John R. Forsyth had both declared an interest, neither seeming to know of the ambitions of the other. The Macdonald twosome apparently applied discreet pressure to Kirkpatrick, ostensibly asking his intentions but effectively signalling that he should get out of Forsyth’s way. This would certainly have suited Macdonald’s new allegiance to the Commercial Bank. Kirkpatrick was the local agent of its direct rival, the Toronto-based Bank of Upper Canada.[31] The Forsyth family business interests, on the other hand, were reassuringly tied to the downriver trade with Montreal.

Kirkpatrick took the hint, thanking the unnamed friends who had urged him to come forward, but pleading that his ‘private interests’ would suffer if he ran. When nominations were called at a public meeting in August 1840, Kirkpatrick, a Protestant Irishman, dutifully nominated Forsyth, a Scots Anglican. Forsyth was well aware that the danger that shoving aside Kirkpatrick might transfer the all-important Irish vote to Manahan. He treated the meeting to an account of a holiday he had spent in Ireland, and of the welcome he had received: ‘He had never been asked if he was Englishman, Irishman or Scotchman.’ He hoped they would not ‘perpetuate national distinctions’ in Canada. ‘They were Canadians, and we would all be Canadians.’ This modern-sounding sentiment was perhaps made necessary by the fact that Forsyth had, two days earlier, taken a prominent part (with John A. Macdonald) in a public meeting to organise the Kingston Scots into a St Andrew’s Society, the Celtic Society having quietly expired after the death of Bishop Macdonnel.

The disadvantage of Forsyth, as the pro-Manahan British Whig pointed out, was that he had ‘a too intimate connection with the oligarchy of Upper Canada’ who regarded ‘the representation of certain towns and counties as their own private property’. But even the Whig had to acknowledge that Forsyth’s membership of the local elite ‘will not be deemed a defect in the minds of a vast number of our readers.’[32] It is also likely that Kirkpatrick resented being out-manoeuvred: he challenged Macdonald in 1847, and still cherished ambitions for an independent (but Tory) political career as late as 1858. 

            The first election for the legislature of the united province did not take place until March 1841. Polling was spread over three days in a close contest, but Forsyth eventually conceded defeat, the result being 180 votes for Manahan and 160 for Forsyth, a majority of twenty. The Chronicle reported that Forsyth was ‘ably and zealously supported’ by his legal adviser, whom it named as ‘John A. Macdonell, Esq.’, almost certainly the last time the Kingston media incorrectly identified its fast-rising citizen.[33]  Since the right to vote in that era depended upon technical qualifications, such as the rental value of property occupied, a candidate’s legal adviser played a key role in his campaign. John A. Macdonald might still have occasional problems of name recognition, but the 1841 election would have given him considerable knowledge both of election law and of the personal circumstances of its active citizens.[34] It soon appeared that an opportunity to put his talents to use might occur sooner than anyone would have expected. Within days of his victory, Manahan traded his seat for a government job, making way for S.B. Harrison, Lord Sydenham’s political agent. Since Kingston had become the seat of government, it seemed sensible for the town to establish a direct link with such a key politician, and the local elite swallowed the imposition of an outsider. Unfortunately, Harrison’s influence waned during the short-lived Reform Baldwin-LaFontaine ministry that took office in 1842, and he was unable to prevent the decision, in the fall of 1843, to shift the capital to Montreal. Barely two weeks after the Assembly had formally petitioned the Crown in favour of Montreal, the precarious modus vivendi between the governor-general and the Reformers broke down. Sir Charles Metcalfe dismissed the cabinet, and Kingston had a very direct reason for endorsing the loyal and abstract arguments against responsible government – a point which Macdonald drove home in his first major political speech in December.[35]

            Kingston Conservatives could draw a clear lesson from the 1841 election and its sequel. They needed a local candidate, and one who represented the city’s commercial interests without being too obviously a member of its narrow social elite. One man who fitted the description was Forsyth’s campaign manager, the solicitor of the Commercial Bank, the breezily popular John A. Macdonald. He had possibly turned his thoughts towards a political career as early as the general election of 1841. ‘If I were only prepared now I should try for the Legislature,’ he was said to have remarked, ‘but it does no harm to wait’.[36] It was not long before he was building up support. In November 1842 he was elected President of the St Andrew’s Society, making him symbolic head of the local Scottish community. Soon after, he greeted John Shaw, a Kingston businessman and subsequent political opponent, with the question: ‘what shall I do to become popular?’ Shaw advised him to join the Orange Lodge, and it was said that within a month, Macdonald was both an Orangeman and an alderman. Macdonald himself later offered a more disinterested explanation, claiming that he decided to join the Order, which was quintessentially an Irish organisation, as a gesture of solidarity when the Baldwin-LaFontaine Reformers sought to make Orangeism illegal.[37] If Shaw’s recollection was correct, Macdonald was assembling an impressive pan-Protestant power base, both Scots and Irish.

In March 1843, a month after he had issued an unusually terse manifesto announcing that he intended to run, Macdonald was elected a city alderman. The campaign was ‘fierce’, but a mixture of courage and humour, Macdonald won over hostile and sometimes often audiences, displaying a ‘wonderful way of casting oil on troubled waters’ – qualities which Forsyth had notably lacked. Speaking at a victory rally in the market place, he was plunged into the snow from an unstable platform, joking to the cheering crowd, ‘Isn’t it strange I should have a downfall so soon’. The Conservatives of Kingston had found a candidate who enjoyed electioneering. He had also taken a long step towards building up local support. Prior to reorganisation in 1846, Kingston was divided into four numbered wards. Macdonald had run in Ward No. 4. One year later, when he was elected to the Assembly, Ward No. 4 gave him 140 out of his 282 votes ─ almost half his total support.[38]

 ‘I Was Pitched Upon’: John A. Macdonald Enters Parliament

Decades later, when Macdonald was asked why he was selected as the candidate for the Assembly, he simply replied, ‘To fill a gap. There seemed to be no one else available, so I was pitched upon.’ This modest explanation perhaps tells part, but not all, of the story. The quarrel between Metcalfe and the Reformers, who still controlled the Assembly, pointed to an early election. Neither Harrison nor Manahan now had any claim upon the town. The Conservatives needed to have a candidate in place and, in the face of the crisis of losing the capital, it behoved them for once to unite. In many ways, the obvious man to command general support was the 39 year-old Kingston lawyer John S. Cartwright, who had represented nearby Lennox and Addington since 1834. (Indeed, in positioning himself to run for parliament, Macdonald perhaps had his eye on succeeding Cartwright in the riding where he had spent part of his own childhood.) However, in March 1844, Cartwright left for England in a last-ditch effort to lobby for retention of the seat of government. But Canada might be plunged into an election at any moment.


 It is likely that Macdonald was initially selected a ‘seat-warmer’: towards the end of his first term, there were moves among the high Tories to resume control of the riding. Over forty years later, he surprised a cabinet colleague by revealing that he had entered public life on the understanding that he might serve only a single term in parliament.[39] If, as he implied, Macdonald had been drafted, then it made sense for him to stipulate that, in the long run, he would have to put his personal interests first. But it is just as likely that the condition was forced upon him; the young self-made lawyer could have a term in the Assembly but, as soon as Conservative unity was safely re-established, the first families of Kingston, the Cartwrights and the Forsyths and the Kirkpatricks, would reclaim their aristocratic right to control the seat. This would help to explain the challenges that Macdonald faced from within the local elite at the elections of 1847 and 1854, and the subsequent paradox that his two most bitter critics from within the Reform party, Oliver Mowat and Richard J. Cartwright, both hailed from impeccably elite backgrounds in the city. But if, in 1844, John S. Cartwright was the expected eventual recipient of the Kingston seat, the lottery of nineteenth-century life expectancy once again intervened. Tragically, Cartwright returned from his mission with his health destroyed. Although he was barely forty, he knew he was dying. In a dignified farewell, he informed the voters of Lennox and Addington, that ‘it has pleased that Almighty Being, (who in his wisdom knows what is best,) to have laid his hand on me, and rendered me incapable of discharging my public trust.’ In one of his last acts, shortly before his death early in 1845, he sold his law library to John A. Macdonald on favourable terms, thus effectively designating him as heir to his own position in the local business elite.[40]

            In April 1844, Macdonald’s supporters organised a requisition, a petition asking him to run. Sometimes the requisition was a genuine device to draft a reluctant candidate on an irresistible wave of public opinion – for instance, in rural areas when there was a move to import a big name from the city. However, in a close-knit urban community, it is improbable that 225 signatures would be assembled without the knowledge of the beneficiary, and much more likely that the requisition was the product of careful organisation, a sign of strength intended to assert Conservative unity and warn off any rival aspirants. Headed by the veteran merchant John Kirby, a Kingston elder statesman, the signatures included, as Macdonald was careful to stress, ‘men of all shades of political opinion’. With such support, his election was already virtually guaranteed. Macdonald promptly assured his backers that he was ready ‘at once to lay aside all personal considerations’ and accede to their request.[41] Looking back almost thirty years later, he recalled that he had been ‘a young Liberal Conservative, and considered an adventurer when I started in public life’.[42] There was nothing inevitable about his capture of the plum seat of Kingston.

            On September 27, 1844, four days after the expected elections were called, Macdonald staged what would now be called a ‘media event’ which looks like a pre-emptive strike against any doubters in his own camp. He called a public meeting where he modestly suggested that some of the signatories to his requisition might ‘now prefer to select another candidate’. He was equally ready to come forward himself or to support an alternative nominee, the important point being to avoid ‘the slightest cause for a division among the Conservative electors of the town’. He then left the room, and John R. Forsyth proclaimed that ‘upon none could the choice of the electors fall more capable of representing the true interests of the town than Mr. Macdonald’. The meeting unanimously pledged its ‘undivided support’.[43]

            Macdonald’s claim that he was supported by ‘men of all shades of political opinion’ reflected a shift in the politics of Anthony Manahan. In 1841, he had looked good to the voters of Kingston because he was seen to be a supporter of Lord Sydenham, who controlled the loaves and the fishes of political patronage. But by 1844, he had become an adherent of the Reformers, a party never strong in Kingston and now forced into province-wide opposition. The centre of gravity in Kingston politics was skewed towards the Conservative end of the spectrum and so Manahan’s trajectory towards the Reformers could only leave John A. Macdonald in comfortable command of the middle ground. None the less, Manahan made a forlorn attempt to recover his seat, and still mustered enough followers, especially among his fellow Irish, to obstruct Macdonald’s campaign.[44] At the public nomination meeting, the ‘hustings’, on October 10, the speakers could hardly be heard at all. Macdonald’s technique combined courage with patience: he would ‘good-naturedly wait until there was a lull in the disturbance’, and then appeal to his opponents’ sense of fair play to give him a hearing. There is no doubt that he was a good campaigner, although we may doubt the story that one of his Irish opponents conceded that as a public speaker Macdonald was, if ‘not as forcible’ as the great Daniel O’Connell, ‘just as effective’.

Soon after polling began on October 14, Manahan announced his withdrawal from the contest, but Macdonald was keen to maximise his support, no doubt to discourage future challengers. Manahan protested that some of his supporters had been unfairly disfranchised: they had paid the required $40 (ten pounds) in annual rent, but ‘were not allowed to vote, merely because they had removed from one ward to another, which is contrary to the qualification appointed by law’.[45] At first sight, this suggests a rare instance of class division behind political allegiance, that Manahan supporters were less likely to own their homes, and consequently were more mobile than Macdonald voters. But the election result hardly bears this out. By the time the poll closed the day after Manahan struck his colours, Macdonald led by 282 votes to 42.[46] Of the 180 votes Manahan had won three years earlier, no less than two-thirds had now swung to Macdonald, a landslide victory by any standards. A technical dispute over the qualification to vote gave Manahan the chance to withdraw with some dignity and ─what is always helpful to a defeated politician ─ a stridently voiced grievance. 

            Accidental factors often play a part in the launching of a political career. In Macdonald’s case, what is more impressive is the extent to which he positioned himself to run for parliament as part of as co-ordinated professional strategy. In September 1843, he entered into partnership with his former pupil, Alexander Campbell – the same day, in fact, as he married his cousin Isabella Clark.[47] Most Kingston law offices were one-man operations. The firm of Macdonald and Campbell was evidently intended to support his political career – but, equally, his role in public life would be to bring business to the office. It was a bid to become specialists in the interface between corporate law and public affairs, and it worked. Dr J.K. Johnson has identified 25 episodes in the following 20 years in which Macdonald took charge of community or commercial projects relating to Kingston and steered them through parliament. Even though other prominent members of the local elite represented nearby ridings in the Assembly, or sat in the upper house, it was invariably John A.  Macdonald who took the lead and carried the burden of piloting projected charters and their subsequent amendment through the legislative process.[48]

            Hence in his two campaign documents – the reply to the requisition in April 1844 and his election manifesto in October[49] – Macdonald subordinated wider political issues to local prosperity, for instance even his ritual protestation of loyalty taking the practical form of a statement that ‘the prosperity of Canada depends upon its permanent connexion with the Mother Country’. Demands for responsible government, which he had condemned in his December speech as ‘clap trap’, he now swept aside as irrelevant. ‘In a young country like Canada, I am of opinion that it is of more consequence to endeavor[50] to develop its resources and improve its physical advantages than to waste the time of the Legislature and the money of the people, in fruitless discussions on abstract and theoretical questions of government.’[51]

Macdonald insisted that his sole aim was ‘a desire to advance the interests of the town in which I have lived so long and with whose fortunes my own prosperity is linked’.  He particularly promised ‘to press for the construction of the long projected plank road to Perth and the Ottawa [River], and thus make Kingston the market for a large and fertile, though hitherto valueless country’. Even in 1844, this was a remarkably optimistic view of the potential of the boulder-strewn wood lots of Kingston’s hinterland. He also pledged support for unspecified measures ‘assisting and concentrating the trade of this port’ and, as a member of the business community, invested in several projects, mainly abortive, to make the port a focal point for Lake, river and cross-border trade. In short, when he said that it was ‘alike my duty and my interest to promote the prosperity of this city and the surrounding country’, he was stating a plain fact.[52]

One grievance, however, was not mentioned in the two manifestos. He made no allusion to loss of the seat of government. For John A. Macdonald, it was time to move on. It must now be through projects such as the plank road to Perth that ‘the prosperity of our town will be established on a firm basis.’[53] Making the best of a bad job was always one of Macdonald’s principles of life, a lesson he had probably imbibed in childhood in the face of his father’s repeated financial misfortunes. But the seat of government issue was to affect Macdonald’s political career all the same. First, it is likely that when he originally projected his combined venture in business and politics, he expected to be advancing Kingston’s interests in a Kingston parliament. This was probably the plan he sketched to his Scottish cousin Isabella when he wooed her during a transatlantic visit in 1842 and married her the following summer. Soon afterwards she was felled by a mystery illness which may have been related to her distress at her husband’s absences from home on political business, and was perhaps obscurely related to veiled conflict with Macdonald’s larger-than-life mother, who was apparently keen to see him making his mark in public life.[54] Second, as Macdonald’s ministerial career took off, especially after 1854, he had to spend more time tending the government machine, and away from Kingston. Moreover, as he often proudly pointed out, the higher John A. rose in public life, the poorer he became – and hence the harder it became to afford two homes. Of course, all politicians who climb the ladder find themselves spending less time among their own people, but it may be that voters in a rural riding would more easily have accepted that their representative was anchored a desk in a distant city. To the Kingston mentality, Macdonald was not simply increasingly drawn into the life of distant cities, but of rival cities. Third, when the government departments decamped to Montreal in 1844, nobody could foresee that Canada’s largest city would so disgrace itself with violent disturbances that just five years later the seat of government would be up for grabs again, and would remain an alluring fantasy for the next decade. Macdonald’s dual success, both as the city’s ‘fix-it’ man and as a key figure in successive ministries combined to make leave some Kingstonians puzzled that he did not wave his magic wand and return the capital to them.

Two other aspects of the 1844 campaign had longer-term implications, as they give clues both to the extent and the character of his local support. At the hustings, the returning officer closed proceedings by calling for a show of hands in support of the candidates. This vote was a mere ritual: anyone could take part, and a formal poll was invariably demanded. In 1844, despite Macdonald’s easy victory at the poll, the preliminary show of hands seems to have been inconclusive. At the next three contested elections, Macdonald supporters were outvoted in the show of hands. What did this mean? One tradition is that, in 1844, ‘a number of his own young friends held up their hands against him’ to prolong the fun.[55] There was certainly an element of Saturnalia about contemporary electioneering, for men seeking to exercise power were expected to subject themselves to the raucous indignity of popular disrespect. But candidates used the hustings to create an impression of strength, and it is unlikely that committed supporters would deliberately undermine those tactics. It is more likely that the hustings provided a safety valve for the resentments of those who were not qualified to vote, at that time by far the majority of adult males, and many of them Irish labourers. Indeed, it may be no accident that the first election at which Macdonald carried the show of hands was that of 1861, when Catholics rallied to save him from defections among the Orange Protestant elite.[56] Demanding a formal poll after failing to carry the hustings at the 1847 election, Macdonald defiantly said that that he was ‘quite content to take the voters’ and leave the unqualified remainder to his opponent.[57] About five percent of the total population of Kingston voted in those first two elections, which meant that around three-quarters of the adult males were not enfranchised. Twenty years later, the percentage of Kingstonians casting a vote had doubled. The likely reasons for this trend are examined in Chapter Six. At this point, however, we should note that it is may be entirely misconceived to ask why Macdonald lost support in his own riding through precisely those decades during which he climbed to the top in first in provincial, and then in Dominion politics. From the outset, he enjoyed wide support among the local elite, but was not necessarily the choice of the broader community. As the effective electorate increased, so his hold on the seat was undermined.

            Only one private document penned by Macdonald seems to have survived from the 1844 election campaign, an appeal to a voter who lived in Prince Edward County but who owned property that qualified him to vote in the city. ‘I shall be hard run by the Papishes on Monday next,’ he wrote, ‘and will require all the support I can get’.[58] ‘Papishes’ was a jocular nickname for Irish Catholics: there were many more offensive terms in the vocabulary of sectarian abuse. None the less, its use in private correspondence confirms that John A. Macdonald began his electoral career in 1844 as a Protestant candidate. His strategic achievement from 1854 was the creation of a parliamentary partnership with conservative French-speaking Catholics. At some point it was likely that Macdonald would find himself caught between his sectarian local power base and the consensual alliance he headed at provincial level. However, as he looked towards re-election in 1847, he remained essentially a Protestant politician, although one hoping to tack on Catholic support – on his own terms.

 ‘I don’t like to be too sure’: Ministerial Office and Tory Factionalism, 1847

In May 1847, Macdonald joined the Executive Council, the provincial cabinet. Until 1930, newly appointed ministers from the lower house were required to return to their ridings and seek re-election by their constituents. This curious political ritual reflected an antique belief that members of parliament were elected to act as a check upon the Crown. Hence any representative who took office was assumed to have changed sides, and had to return to his constituents to ask if they still wanted him. Since a government minister was in a position to direct material benefits to his own riding, the voters generally pronounced that they did. However, John A. Macdonald was joining a failing ministry, one that seemed destined to defeat by the Reformers at the looming general election. Indeed, he owed his appointment in part to the fact that he was one of the few backbenchers whose seat was safe enough to fend off a Reform challenge at a by-election. But Macdonald seems to have suspected moves from within his own camp to oust him in favour of a high Tory candidate. He decided to take them by surprise, secretly mobilising his own supporters while holding up the official announcement of his appointment until barely a week before nomination day, June 1. It was in the context of these internecine party rivalries that Macdonald’s alliance with the Orange Order was so important. In the modern world, Orangeism is usually associated with sectarian and triumphalist politics. However, there was also an egalitarian side to the movement. Because it was a fraternal Order open to all Protestant denominations, it implicitly challenged established hierarchies. Macdonald’s friend Ogle R. Gowan, who brought the Order to Canada and served for two decades as its Grand Master, was a controversial figure held at arms’ length by the Tory elite. But when Macdonald sought to secure his safe return at the ministerial by-election, it was to Gowan he turned, begging him to visit Kingston and ‘talk to the Boys’, as the Orangemen were nicknamed. ‘I think everything looks fair for certain success, and perhaps without opposition,’ he wrote of his prospects, adding cautiously: ‘But I don’t like to be too sure.’[59] His tactics worked, and he was returned unopposed.[60]


            At the general election a few months later, the Conservative split emerged into the open. Macdonald’s major legislative project during his few months in office had been a University Bill, which aimed to re-allocate a government grant promised to the purely Anglican University of Toronto among four denominational colleges. Macdonald’s bill had stalled after it was unexpectedly denounced by Bishop Strachan but, since two of the institutions which would benefit, Queen’s and Regiopolis, were fortuitously located in Kingston, he regarded it as ‘a good question to appeal to the people on’. However, discontented Kingston Anglicans planned to take their revenge by running a rival Conservative candidate ─ Thomas Kirkpatrick, who had been interested in the seat in 1840. Except that he was ten years older, Kirkpatrick was a Tory mirror image of John A. Macdonald. Both were immigrants and lawyers, both had taken part in civic politics – Kirkpatrick was mayor in 1847 – and both were allied with powerful banks. But where Macdonald was a Presbyterian from Scotland who had imbibed middle-of-the-road ideas in George Mackenzie’s law office, Kirkpatrick was an Episcopalian from Ireland who had trained under the arch-Tory Christopher Hagerman. Macdonald was a pillar of Kingston’s Commercial Bank; Kirkpatrick was the local agent for the Bank of Upper Canada, a ‘Torontowegian’ organisation, to use a Macdonaldian term of disapproval, and closely linked to the old Family Compact.[61]

With the benefit of advance knowledge of the election date, Macdonald was already organising to head off his rival in late October. ‘The move in Kingston was most admirable,’ he reported to Gowan, ‘and puts Kirkpatrick on his back.’ However, three weeks later, on the verge of the campaign, he was less confident. Kingston was ‘awfully split up’ by sectional quarrels, and Macdonald was ‘apprehensive’ that Kirkpatrick would take enough votes to give the seat to the Reform candidate, Kenneth Mackenzie. ‘Of course I keep this opinion to myself, and keep a stiff upper lip’. Publicly, the Macdonald camp capitalised on the need for party unity: the Kingston Chronicle thundered that ‘no Conservative, who understands his duty … will for a moment countenance such a division as Mr. Kirkpatrick threatens.’[62] Privately, Macdonald once again sought to mobilise the Orange Order, urging Gowan to ‘write to some of the Boys, pointing out the suicidal course of splitting the Conservative vote.’ Since Kirkpatrick was an Irish Protestant, mobilising the Order against him would deprive him of vital support. Macdonald suggested an approach to leading Orangemen, including John Shaw, who had recruited him to the Order ─ but warned ‘let it not appear to be a suggestion of mine’.

The threat of a Conservative split suddenly underlined the importance of the city’s Catholic minority, for Kirkpatrick was reported to be confident of winning their support. Although he had run in 1844 as a Protestant candidate, Macdonald had quickly accepted the reality that he also represented Catholic constituents. His first three official acts in the House were the presentations of constituents’ petitions, and two of these were on behalf of the Catholic Church.[63] The 1847 election was his first bid for Catholic votes, and its very limited success illustrated some of the problems he would face in broadening his political base while conciliating his original core support. In standard Protestant fashion, he assumed that the Catholic vote was at the disposal of the local bishop, assuring Gowan that ‘if Old Phelan is worth his salt, he should get me the Romans.’ From Monsignor Patrick Phelan (who was only 52), bishop of Regiopolis, Macdonald received a confidential assurance ‘that the priests of his diocese would charge their congregations not to vote for any man opposed to the University Bill,’ a handy boost as the bishop’s nominal authority extended well beyond Kingston. His clergy announced that, although ‘naturally disconnected … by the duties of our sacred ministry from what are usually termed politics’, they urged their flocks to vote for candidates pledged to support Catholic education.[64]

Unfortunately, Macdonald found that the bishop ‘has not a very great hold on his people.’ Phelan was merely the acting bishop. His predecessor, Rémi Gaulin, had been removed of his responsibilities in 1843 because he was suffering from delusions, one of which was the belief that he was still running the diocese.[65] But there was a deeper reason for Macdonald’s difficulty in sewing up the Catholic vote. The University question mattered to Catholics in a symbolic sense, and Macdonald no doubt gained some goodwill by according equality to their Church in the division of public money. But, in practice, few Canadians of any denomination were likely to put their children through higher education in that era. Far more important to most lay Catholics was the right to establish their own schools – with, if possible, public money to pay for them. When Macdonald was tackled on the issue by a deputation of Catholic voters, he took the lofty ground that as a minister, he was bound by collective responsibility and so had no right to offer personal opinions. He attempted to dismiss the concerns of Catholic voters as ‘too vague … to admit of a precise answer’, and took refuge in generalities, declaring himself ‘strongly in favour of affording children of the earliest age the means of religious as well as secular education’.[66] Macdonald was walking a tightrope, attempting to secure support from two confrontational religious groups. In 1847, he believed that he could secure the Catholic vote on his own terms. A decade later, as religious issues inflamed politics, the foundations for such a coalition of support moved still further apart.

In the event, Macdonald hardly needed the Catholic vote. Kirkpatrick went as far as issuing an election address, in which one biographer thought that the reasons for his candidature ‘were not made quite clear’, but he backed off from contesting the seat. The Reformers ran Kenneth Mackenzie, but Macdonald won by 386 votes to 84.[67] Although the challenge was probably only a token effort designed to pin down a member of the government, the margin of Macdonald’s victory suggests that his camp had exaggerated the dangers of splitting the Conservative vote. An acerbic Reform supporter consoled himself with the thought that the Macdonald supporters were ‘a few respectable men and a great many loafers, some drunk and some sober’.[68]   The assessment came from the outspoken medic, John Stewart, whose rhetorical stock-in-trade was to denigrate the social pretensions of his numerous enemies: his assessment reads like an unsolicited tribute to John A. Macdonald’s skilful manipulation of Orange Order support to construct a cross-class electoral base.  Ostensibly, Macdonald was never to be challenged for the Conservative nomination again, although moves were made to run eminent local candidates against him on a non-party basis at the following three elections. We should not discount the possibility that the strand of Anglican-Tory rivalry within the party which assailed him in the 1840s resurfaced as Protestant-Reform opposition in the 1860s.[69] Kingston memories could be long: twenty years later, when Macdonald had to fight much harder for his seat, even the cantankerous John Stewart would re-appear to threaten his career.

            The ‘turmoil’ of the 1847 election ended in an unfortunate anticlimax, one which may explain Dr Stewart’s reflection upon the sobriety of the Macdonald camp. Supporters of the victorious candidate carried him shoulder-high in triumph through the streets of Kingston to his home. But 1847 saw not only a provincial general election. It was also a landmark in Canada’s communications revolution, the year that the telegraph arrived, festooning urban streetscapes with its poles and cables. At several points in the downtown area, Macdonald supporters tore through the overhead wires with their flags and placards.[70] It is not surprising that many citizens of Kingston regarded elections as a nuisance.

John A. Macdonald in the Ascendant, 1851-1857

The three elections of the eighteen fifties represent a golden age of Macdonald’s relationship with his home town, a period in which he also extended his influence over nearby ridings to become a small-scale regional ‘boss’. Indeed, his skills as a political organiser almost certainly explain the decision of the British American League to meet at Kingston in 1849. Creighton portrayed him as an interested spectator of the proceedings of this Tory campaigning movement: ‘Macdonald could not fail to be deeply interested in the approaching convention … and the unsolved problem of Conservative policy.’[71] However, it is implausible that such a major party gathering could have been held in the riding of a former cabinet minister by accident. True, John A. Macdonald kept a low profile throughout the meetings. His was a backstage role. The Globe reported that he ‘acted constable’ to smooth over ‘the small quarrels that have taken place among the leaguers.’ Thus when the splendidly named John O. Hatt denounced the Kingston Whig for allegedly misreporting his remarks, John A. Macdonald was on hand to make light of the episode. The member for Kingston, of course, had no intention of getting into row with a friendly home-town newspaper, least of all on behalf of a Hamilton politician who was brother-in-law (and presumed spokesman) for that most unreconstructed of Tories, Sir Allan MacNab. Brushing the issue aside, Macdonald deprecated wasting time on a dispute between a hat and a wig.[72] It was characteristic of Macdonald that one of his few interventions was a proposal for regular meetings of the League wherever the provincial parliament was in session. (The Globe sardonically called it ‘the worst resolution of the convention’.) Shrewd convention managers know that it is never a good idea to allow the party’s rank and file to take control of declaring policy. When delegates argued for the inspirational but impractical demand that Canada should elect its own members to the imperial parliament at Westminster, he was on hand to support a procedural motion that kicked the idea into touch by referring it to a drafting committee.[73]

            Indeed, on the policy front, John A. Macdonald seems to have been ambivalent even towards the League’s officially adopted nostrum, the union of all the British North American provinces. (If so, this would not necessarily imply that he was hypocritical in endorsing the project in 1858 and working for it from 1864. The British American League saw the union of the provinces as a means of placing French-Canadians in a permanent minority, whereas later Confederation schemes recognised the need to guarantee their cultural autonomy within a province with its own protected rights.)  Macdonald did not include the union of the provinces in his only recorded list of ‘the ruling principles of the League.’[74] Creighton reports that he intervened in the debate on a motion in favour of general federation and ‘suggested mildly that the scheme was premature’.[75] However, even this may overstate his enthusiasm for the idea since ─ and it was a rare lapse by so notable a scholar ─ Creighton’s statement rests upon a mistaken identification.[76] John A. Macdonald’s ‘great aim’ was primarily the creation of a broad-based organisation, ‘not so much a political or party as an economical movement’, as he put it.[77]

For Macdonald, holding the League’s convention in Kingston was probably useful in demonstrating the city’s potential to act, once again, as Canada’s capital. In April 1849, rioting by disaffected Tories had destroyed Montreal’s parliament buildings and so created pressure to punish the province’s largest city by shifting the seat of government yet again. Even the Toronto Globe thought Kingston had a reasonable case to reclaim its earlier status. Unfortunately, the Assembly was now dominated by followers of LaFontaine and Baldwin, the politicians responsible for depriving Kingston of the seat of government back in 1843. An attempt in May 1849 to name Kingston as the new capital received only ten votes, a humiliating four votes fewer than were gained by backwoods Bytown. The only hope now was to bypass the politicians. The City Council promptly launched a petition to Queen Victoria, in the hope of involving the imperial government.[78] Hosting a convention of over one hundred delegates might persuade public opinion that Kingston now had the necessary facilities to support the 84-strong provincial Assembly and the far smaller Legislative Council ─ and thus could shrug off the criticisms of its inadequacy that had dominated the years from 1841 to 1843.[79] If so, the strategy was counter-productive, since the gathering of so many opponents of the Reform ministry drew attention to the city’s reputation as a ‘Tory hole’.

For the only time in his career, John A. Macdonald was returned by acclamation at the general election of 1851.[80] In retrospect, his supremacy throughout the eighteen-fifties may seem puzzling, since these were the years when Kingston began to realise that it was falling behind in the race for metropolitan status. Indeed, his easy ascendancy may have been illusory and perhaps even a hostage to subsequent misfortune, leading to the backlash of criticism that he faced for failing to develop the city in the eighteen-seventies. Sensing Macdonald’s local strength, John Counter, a prominent figure in local politics, refused to be drafted in 1851, and hence there was no contest. The British Whig observed that ‘there is no political question before the people.’[81] Six months before the election, Macdonald seemed confident that he would face no opposition.[82] One potential issue was notable by its absence. The city’s boundaries had been expanded in 1850 to incorporate various suburban settlements, notably Stuartsville, which two noted historians have called ‘Archdeacon Stuart’s slum’. Macdonald had tried unsuccessfully to annex these areas when he steered the first city charter through the Assembly back in 1846. Presumably the new citizens were unwilling Kingstonians, but they were not given the opportunity to punish Macdonald at the polls. Probably relatively few of them would have qualified to vote anyway, and they could also have reflected that it was Reform government legislation, Robert Baldwin’s Municipal Act of 1849, that had made them part of a city with such a huge debt burden.[83]

The 1851 election provides an instructive example of the way in which Macdonald’s biographers have viewed him principally as a provincial political leader, with the result that they discount his concern for his local base. Of Macdonald’s hustings speech in 1851, Macpherson remarked that ‘after dealing with local matters, [he] passed on to those of more general interest’. Creighton was evidently puzzled that for ‘the first two-thirds of his speech’, Macdonald spoke ‘in a severely parochial strain’, before eventually turning to ‘really provincial affairs’.[84] John A. Macdonald knew what his voters wanted to hear.  

With hindsight, it may seem curious that the sole general election at which Macdonald was returned by acclamation was also the one occasion when he ran not only as an opposition candidate but with the near-certainty that he would not return to office: the Conservative display of violence and disarray during the crisis year of 1849 hardly marked them out as a party of government. ‘I have no influence whatever’, he had commented in 1849 to a Queen’s professor who was engaged in the perennial academic humiliation of hustling for funding.[85] The city’s loyalty to Macdonald was partly a by-product of a cussedly Tory-Loyalist culture that made it, to a Reformer like George Brown, ‘the Ultima Thule of political hopelessness’.[86] But the 1851 election was also a twilight episode of a political world that was passing, one in which an opposition member could achieve material benefits for his riding through cross-party combinations (the process that Americans call ‘log-rolling’), as Macdonald had shown by steering the Trust and Loan Company charter into law the previous year.[87] Upper Canada was about to enter the railway era, and railway construction added massively to the power of government power and patronage. By the time of the 1857 election, when formally Macdonald faced only token opposition at the polls, he was already the target of an undercurrent of criticism for allegedly failing to ensure Kingston’s position as a railway centre.

            John Counter did run in 1854, to be comfortably defeated by 437 votes to 265. In some ways, this election resembled the pre-1836 factional contests. Counter was a business associate, a fellow director of the Trust and Loan Company. Thus on the face of it, this was just another example of personal rivalry within the civic hierarchy: symbolically, Counter and Macdonald had jointly gifted the clock on the City Hall.[88] A prominent figure in local business and municipal politics ─ he served eight terms as mayor ─ Counter seemed eminently qualified to fight for the city’s interests. In 1852 he had reorganised and consolidated the city’s huge debt (although, in fairness, it has to be added that his dynamic campaign to build the City Hall had been largely responsible for the burden). The following year he had launched a cargo ferry service to New York State.[89] His slogan, ‘Kingston’, was sardonically interpreted by the pro-Macdonald British Whig as meaning ‘that he will do anything and everything (if he can do anything)’ for the city, by selling his vote irrespective of the politics of the government of the day.[90] It says something for the quality of civic debate that this should have been perceived as a dishonourable strategy.

            Every community needs the vision of a John Counter, but it was probably a tribute to the solid common sense of the voters of Kingston that they did not prefer him to John A. Macdonald, even though the challenger offered them a Big Idea as the central plank in his campaign. ‘The scheme of Mr Counter was to build a Tram Road from the Marmora Iron Works to convey iron ore thence to the Penitentiary, to be there smelted by the convicts.’ It was a quintessentially Counter-esque project, imaginative but impractical. The Marmora Iron Works struggled to survive precisely because the mines were located inland, far from the cheap water transport facilities of the Lakefront. If a tramway was the solution, it would best run forty kilometres south to Trenton or Belleville, not eighty kilometres, and half a dozen river crossings, east to Kingston. In any case, transporting bulk cargoes along a light rail track would involve high maintenance costs, especially in winter. But if the Marmora end of the project was impractical, the Kingston aspect was downright foolhardy. Any prison population will include people who are unbalanced or anti-social. It makes little sense to expose them to molten metal, and still less to give them opportunities to forge weapons. Nor was the idea likely to be popular, for the city’s artisans regarded convict labour as unfair competition. John A. Macdonald had the political antennae to appreciate this. In 1849, he had backed a petition from the city’s shoemakers that denounced the teaching of their craft to prisoners, and in 1850 he spoke in the Assembly against forcing honest tradesmen to compete with Penitentiary inmates. Counter asserted that his scheme could operate ‘without infringing upon the ordinary rights of mechanics.’ Working men were perhaps more likely to regard the whole idea as an insult to the concept of skilled labour.[91]

Although Counter ran as an independent, his support probably came from Reformers. Indeed, at 62 percent, Macdonald’s share of the vote was almost identical to his performance in the elections of 1861 and 1863, when he was opposed by party nominees.  Thus if 1854 hearkened back to an earlier era of personal and factional rivalries, it may also have foreshadowed the two-party politics and closer contests of later years.

            In the aftermath of the 1854 election, the Conservatives formed a coalition with a section of the Upper Canada Reformers and the massed ranks of the Lower Canada Bleus. Since it was the Bleus who provided the numbers, their philosophy naturally also shaped ministerial policy. They combined a traditionalist attachment to the Catholic Church with a very modern interest in development projects: for instance, George-Etienne Cartier was the political front man for the Grand Trunk Railway, while J-E. Cauchon resigned the government when it refused to back his pet project of a North Shore railway linking Quebec City directly with Montreal. This grouping of Upper Canada moderates and interventionist conservatives from French Canada would dominate politics for the rest of Macdonald’s career. He would hold office for almost thirty of the remaining thirty-seven years of his life, and from 1856 was generally undisputed first as sectional party leader and later as prime minister of the Dominion.

            The politics and programme of the successive MacNab-Taché, Taché-Macdonald, Macdonald-Cartier and Cartier-Macdonald versions of the ministry over the next eight years are only obliquely related to the electoral politics of Kingston. That divergence is in itself of importance: Macdonald’s attention was increasingly focused upon wider issues. Of course, being in office helped him to direct benefits to the city; ‘we had better lose no time as in this uncertain world no one can say, how long we are to last,’ he wrote in January 1855.[92] Visible evidence of his patronage was soon to be seen: the Frontenac Court House, a new custom house, a post office and the purchase of the Cartwright property at Rockwood for use as an asylum.[93] However, these pork-barrel plums may have been a mixed blessing. Construction projects provided short-term work and added to the elegance of the cityscape, but they created few long-term jobs: generally, existing staff continued their work in better conditions. Worse still, some Kingstonians came to believe in a Macdonaldian magic wand, so much so that he came under criticism for failing to prevent the Grand Trunk Railway from locating its station on the northern fringe of the urban area. In 1854, John Counter’s supporters had boasted that he would compel the railway to come downtown.[94] In 1857, John Shaw was to run on the same grievance. It was a forewarning of the gap that would open even wider after Confederation between Macdonald’s eminence and Kingston’s expectations.

             The coalition ministry formed in 1854 proved to be an effective reforming administration. Within two years, it carried legislation for the secularisation of the clergy reserves, the abolition of seigneurial tenure in Lower Canada and the introduction of the elective principle in the upper house of parliament, the Legislative Council. The ministry also claimed credit for ensuring the completion of the Grand Trunk Railway, although that was largely because the bankrupt but blackmailing company had quartered itself upon the Canadian taxpayer.[95] The abolition of seigneurial tenure effectively converted landholding in Lower Canada to freehold (we would now term it deregulation) and as such, mainly concerned French Canadian politicians. Macdonald was not an enthusiastic supporter of an elected second chamber,[96] and he was happy to reinstate the principle of nomination in the Confederation settlement a decade later. His major personal contribution to the whirlwind programme of reforms was the successful resolution of the long-running sore of the clergy reserves. Indeed. Macdonald handled the issue with such masterly subtlety that, even today, the history textbooks fail to convey the extent of his triumph.

            Back in 1791, the British parliament had decreed that one seventh of the unoccupied land in Canada be allocated to the support of ‘a Protestant clergy’. Since most of the cultivable land down-river was already occupied by the French, the clergy reserves were primarily a feature of the Upper Canadian landscape. As often happened in those days, the legislation had been loosely drafted: context and the prejudices of the British elite indicated that they intended exclusively to privilege the Church of England. Presbyterians like John A. Macdonald, members of Scotland’s established church, demanded a share, since their clergy were even more Protestant than the Anglicans. In 1840, the British parliament tried again, dividing the reserves among several denominations, with even the Catholics now receiving some benefit. The compromise did not work.[97] In 1843-44, first in Scotland and then in Canada, the Presbyterians split into two rival groups over the general issue of democratic control of church affairs. (Leaders of the breakaway faction in Upper Canada invited the New York-based Scots journalist Peter Brown to move to Toronto and edit a newspaper that would fight their cause. Peter brought his son George, who quickly launched the fiery and far more political Globe.) The religious radicals of the Free Kirk (who b€ecame the backbone of the Reform party in politics) not only refused to take any cut of the clergy reserves themselves, but joined with other groups, such as the Baptists, in denouncing all forms of State support for religion. Although John A. Macdonald scornfully pointed out that the ‘voluntary principle’ would mean that ‘those worthy people in the Kingston Penitentiary ought to be allowed to pay for their own clergymen out of their own resources’,[98] it was not an issue on which he put up much of a fight. He would later argue that controversy over the clergy reserves had helped trigger the 1837 rebellions.[99] Moreover, while the Church of England in particular clung to this symbol of privilege, the reserves did not even function very effectively in supporting its clergy, since in years when land sales were sluggish the clergy reserves fund hardly generated enough money to pay their stipends. On the eve of the 1854 election, the Conservative caucus quietly agreed to bow before the storm: if Upper Canadian voters clearly declared against the clergy reserves, the party would accept the verdict of the people and help put an end to the running sore of this divisive issue.[100]

            Macdonald was almost certainly the driving force behind the decision to abandon a lost cause, which made possible the formation of a coalition with the moderate Reformers. (The French Canadian cabinet ministers regarded the whole matter as an internal dispute among Protestants, and were reluctant to create a precedent that might be used to strip the Catholic Church of its wealth. They accepted secularisation as a trade-off for their own project of land reform in Lower Canada.) Thus when it fell to John A. Macdonald, the new Attorney-General West, to introduce the necessary legislation, he seemed to be demonstrating flexible conservatism, capturing and neutralising a dangerous question from his opponents. It was, he said, ‘a great mistake in politics… to resist when resistance is hopeless’.[101] In fact, by combining a lawyer’s mastery of detail with a politician’s skill at manoeuvre, he succeeded in turning issue inside out. The British parliament had handed over control of the reserves to the Canadian legislature on condition that the life interest of existing beneficiaries was protected. Macdonald proposed to commute those annual payments into lump sums. With interest rates at six percent, the existing recipients could be bought out for sixteen years’ purchase ─ which, given the longevity of the undemanding clerical profession, might well prove to be a bargain for the taxpayer.

Once the principle of commutation was agreed, the government played its surprise card. Ministers announced that they would negotiate commutation with the churches themselves, not with individual clergymen. This meant that the two churches which were the principal existing beneficiaries of the reserves each received a permanent cash endowment under their own independent control ─ far preferable to dependence upon a dribble of income from an unpopular public land bank. The Church of England received almost a million dollars, while the Presbyterians netted over four hundred thousand. A century later, the Ontario dioceses of the Anglican Church of Canada were still drawing around $170,000 each year from their clergy reserve funds, and in 1956 that paid for a lot of priestly manpower.[102]  The Reform opposition was aghast. Since they had persuaded the people of Upper Canada that the clergy reserves were an abomination that must be removed at any cost, they could hardly oppose Macdonald’s solution, although they did try to amend it.[103]

Ironically, Macdonald’s political standing as a far-sighted moderate was further enhanced by the obdurate refusal of Anglican supremacists to accept that he had done them a huge favour: the inflexible and arrogant Bishop Strachan denounced the measure as ‘the most atrocious specimen of oppressive legislation’ since the French Revolution. [104] As the governor-general, Sir Edmund Head, commented, the vehemence of attacks upon the clergy reserves settlement ‘by the two extreme parties may be held … to be the best voucher for its justice and moderation.’[105]  John A. Macdonald himself boosted the myth of his own political wizardry. ‘Whatever questions might in future be discussed,’ he told the Assembly in 1855, ‘this of the Clergy Reserves, which had involved so much of religious prejudice, and stormy feelings, would not be one of them.’[106] Six years later, he went still further, expressing the hope that it would be ‘engraved upon my tombstone that I was concerned in the settlement of the clergy reserve question.[107] There was, too, a less high-minded and immediate dividend from the repeal legislation. The clergy lands were diverted to the support of the municipalities, enabling local councils to engage in an orgy of borrowing against their notional value.

The episode of the secularisation of the clergy reserves merits inclusion in a study of Macdonald’s relations with Kingston because it demonstrates just how rapidly and how brilliantly he made the political transition from being a local lobbyist to a dominant policy-maker in provincial government. If anything, his deft handing of the clergy reserves question may have been almost too clever. He certainly deprived the opposition Reformers of a dangerous political cry, but they quickly regrouped behind the even more disruptive demand for ‘representation by population’. Abbreviated to ‘rep. by pop.’, this apparently innocent slogan amounted to a demand for a massive shift in political power towards rapidly growing Upper Canada, and the consequent marginalisation of the French. When, in 1864, Macdonald joined in a subsequent coalition to contain the demand through the wider scheme of Confederation, some suspected him of a yet another insincere attempt to hijack a controversial issue. However, on the face of it, his growing status ─ underlined by his ousting of MacNab to become Upper Canada leader in 1856, and his succession to Taché as premier a year later ─ might have been expected to have enhanced his position in his own constituency in the eighteen-fifties. Insofar as it added to his aura as a source of actual or likely patronage and pork projects, it almost certainly did so, as was shown by his unopposed return in 1857. But there were also potential weaknesses in the developing divergence between his local and provincial roles.

Carrying a major legislative programme with the support of only a skeleton civil service imposed a grinding workload upon ministers: John A. Macdonald was the sole member of the cabinet to serve all the way through from 1854 until their eventual defeat in 1862, by which time he too was exhausted. During his first three years in office, he carried the additional burden of his wife’s illness: when the capital shifted to Toronto, during the winter of 1855-56, he brought Isabella from Kingston and the couple settled for a time in lodgings, an upheaval which caused a dramatic downturn in her health. Even without domestic pressure, the simple fact of being in office probably meant that he spent more time at the seat of government and less in his riding.

While in terms of personnel and internal cohesion, the Upper Canada ministerial team was impressive, it is important to note that the coalition was formed after the 1854 elections. Thus while the principals were pragmatic politicians who adjusted easily to working together, at local level their enthusiastic followers did not easily abandon cherished factional feuds. The point may be illustrated by one of the most amusing legends of Canadian political history. At the time of the secret negotiations to form the coalition in 1854, the Conservative journalist Robert Smiley of the Hamilton Spectator was carrying on a war of words with the Reformer Robert Spence, whose power base was in nearby Wentworth County. As Smiley was generally regarded as MacNab’s mouthpiece, and MacNab was about to include Spence in his cabinet, Macdonald despatched an urgent telegram urging a ceasefire. Famously, Spence was said to have wired back: ‘It’s a damned sharp curve, but I think we can take it.’[108] The image of a ‘sharp curve’ was testimony to the impact of the sudden railway revolution upon a journalistic imagination, and in Hamilton, the prospect of completing the Great Western line down into the western peninsula was sufficient  incentive for former opponents to unite. But when Macdonald came to head up an election campaign across the province at the end of 1857, he found rival pro-government candidates springing up in far too many ridings. ‘We are losing every where from our friends splitting the party’, he complained despairingly.[109] To some extent, the comment was obtuse. A coalition government does not rest upon a single party. Macdonald and his colleagues had been too pinned down by their ministerial responsibilities to build a solid supporting organisation in the field.

Of course, friction between rival supporters was not a problem in Kingston, where formally declared Reformers were still thin on the ground. The potential threat to Macdonald’s support base in his own constituency lay not in musical chairs of Upper Canadian politics, but more fundamentally in the price that the whole section was perceived to be paying for Macdonald’s French-Canadian alliance. Five years earlier, at the time of when the British American League had met in Kingston, he had included ‘no French dominance’ among its ‘ruling principles’.[110] Now he was a leading member of a ministry that had to respond to the needs of its French-Canadian supporters.

A small incident soon after the formation of the coalition illustrated how those demands would put pressure upon John A. Macdonald. In October 1854, he had to defend a measure making a number of Catholic festivals into public holidays. When George Brown objected that the bishops were seeking to use the power of the State to force Protestant shopkeepers to close their premises, Macdonald offered the weak reply that only eleven days of the year were affected, and that five of those were honoured by Protestants too. The man who just ten years earlier had rallied his Kingston supporters to vote against ‘the Papishes’ was now reduced to deploring Brown’s ‘fanatical attempt to wound the feelings of our Roman Catholic friends’. The incident spurred Macdonald into one of his most notable ─ perhaps one of his most truly ‘Canadian’ ─ pleas for tolerance. He argued that ‘the mutual comfort of the inhabitants of Canada’ that they should ‘agree as much as possible, and the only way they could agree was by respecting each other’s principles, as much as possible, even each other’s prejudices. Unless they were governed by a spirit of compromise and kindly feelings towards each other, they could never get on harmoniously together.’[111] It was not an argument that appealed to George Brown, and the Globe would damn Macdonald as a politician who was ‘ready for any work that … the plotting priests, who have selected him for their champion, may demand.’[112]

In the categorisation of political scientist S.J.R. Noel, in 1854 John A. Macdonald made the transition from a local-level ‘patron’ to a provincial-level ‘broker’.[113] There would prove to be no question but that he could brilliantly handle the second role, for he was to become perhaps the most adept ‘fixer’ ever to operate in Canadian politics. The challenge he would increasingly face was whether he could carry his own constituency with him. In the mid-eighteen fifties, he seemed to be riding high, using office to deliver brick-and-stone benefits to Kingston. But it may be that we should trace the origins of the stresses that split his Protestant support in 1860-61 back to the concessions required to create the coalition of 1854.

The trend in Kingston towards regular two-party contests underlines the uniqueness, indeed, the aberration, of Macdonald’s ‘coronation’ election in 1857, when he had just become premier of the province. In days when polling was spread over several weeks, he could control the order in which elections were held. To outface a strong Reform challenge across Upper Canada, Macdonald’s aim was to create the impression of a government bandwagon, by starting the election with his own unopposed return for Kingston, and then concentrating his energies in securing the success of supporters in nearby ridings.[114] Local barrister and businessman, O.S. Gildersleeve, was ‘twice waited on by deputations from those who are not friendly to you’, but he assured the incumbent that he did not intend to run against him. Macdonald’s consciousness of his own strength was reflected in his patronising reply, congratulating Gildersleeve for preferring ‘the interests of Kingston to the indulgence of a natural ambition to represent your native town.’[115]

Unfortunately, when nominations were called on December 9, Macdonald’s hopes were thwarted. ‘Some fool called “John Shaw” has prevented his return by acclamation,’ his private secretary noted, adding that John A. Macdonald was ‘much disgusted.’[116] Half-apologising for his intervention, Shaw explained that ‘three years ago he had pledged himself to oppose Mr McDonald [sic] and he intended to redeem that pledge’. He also ‘called upon his Irish friends to support him.’ Since Shaw was a prominent Orangeman, this was probably an appeal to Irish Protestants. Thus it may be that support for Macdonald among Orangemen was already declining in advance of his celebrated clash with the Order in 1860-61, perhaps as a result of distrust of his alliance with conservative French-Canadian Catholics.[117] If so, matters had evidently not yet reached crisis point, for Shaw’s appeal notably failed to secure much response. Having forced Macdonald to the inconvenience of a poll – at a time when it was becoming obvious that the ministry was losing ground across the upper province, Shaw formally withdrew. Officially, he was crushed by 1189 votes to 9.[118]

            Supporting Macdonald’s re-election, the British Whig had argued that ‘not only has he done everything in his power to benefit the city he has represented, but his position as Prime Minister of Canada, is such that the power to do the city further good is almost illimitable.’[119] The unabashed self-interest of this statement points up how remarkable had been Macdonald’s victory by acclamation in 1851, when he had been three years in opposition and his party could look to no realistic chance of returning to government. In office, he could deliver more: by 1855 he was planning to supplement the city’s new court house with a custom house and a post office, ‘thus getting up three fine buildings in old Kingston’.[120] But could he deliver enough? The mid-eighteen fifties, the peak period of his easy ascendancy, were also the years of Canada’s sudden entry into the railway age, which fuelled civic ambitions at just the moment when the Grand Trunk showed its estimation of Kingston’s potential by building its station four kilometres from the downtown. In 1854, Counter’s policy platform was summarised in a spin-doctoring repetition of the slogan ‘Kingston!’.[121] In 1857, John Shaw was not ‘[s]ome fool’, but the Orangeman who had helped both launch Macdonald’s political career in 1843 and save it in 1847. Shaw criticised him because ‘he had not used his influence with the Grand Trunk Company to consent to bring the road into the city before granting the aid they supplicated for.’ Even John R. Forsyth, who nominated Macdonald, insisted, to cheering, that ‘he would never be satisfied until the Grand Trunk not only came into the city but through it’.[122] Despite threats of revenge from Macdonald supporters, Shaw was immediately afterwards elected a city alderman, and by acclamation too.[123] The renewal of demands for a permanent seat of government in this period also inconveniently reminded Kingston of what it had lost. Macdonald indulged in some unwise banter on the hustings in 1857, reportedly claiming that the decision to refer the location of the capital to Queen Victoria was a device for ‘humbugging’ the French. To borrow a term from the career of Richard Nixon, John A. Macdonald probably ‘mis-spoke’ himself in the exuberance of triumph.[124] It was unwise to foster hopeless dreams of past glory, especially at a moment when he was undoubtedly strong enough to tell Kingston the truth. He had only himself to blame when failure to restore the seat of government was thrown back at him in the 1870s.

            It is not surprising that the general election of 1857 stands out in the political life story of John A. Macdonald and has been emphasised in many of the books about him. Donald Swainson rightly called it ‘his most spectacular triumph’, one of only two contests for which he supplied the figures in his compact and useful biography.[125] As W. Stewart Wallace put it, Macdonald ‘was returned as usual by a large majority in his faithful constituency of Kingston’.[126] Selective reporting has made 1857 into a benchmark, implying that he held a safe seat backed by a faithful constituency. But in the longer perspective, the result appears less as a norm than as an aberration. At the time, it did indeed represent the city’s enthusiasm for its member of parliament, but it also reflected its hopes and, more important still, its expectations. All of these would be dashed in the years that followed, and the disappointments were discernable even during John A. Macdonald’s brief term of office as provincial premier.

It was not merely that the months that followed Macdonald's triumphant return for Kingston in December 1857 were politically disappointing. Worse still, the immediate aftermath of the election was followed by the personal tragedy of his wife's death. Immediately after crushing John Shaw at the polls, Macdonald had hurried back to Toronto to oversee the continuing electoral campaign across Upper Canada, and it seems likely that he intended to remain there even during Christmas. But on December 23rd, news that his mother was "unwell" hurried him back to Kingston.[127] Although Helen Macdonald had suffered a series of strokes over recent years, it is possible that on this occasion the household had been struck by a virus, for seven year-old Hugh John was also "seriously ill". Grandmother and grandson would recover, but on December 28th death claimed Macdonald's wife, Isabella. A newspaper report spoke of "a long and painful illness, which she bore with Christian fortitude", a standard contemporary formula for tuberculosis.[128] Isabella had been seriously ill in January and February 1856, probably as a result of the stress of moving to Toronto for the parliamentary session, but the few surviving reports suggest that her health had then stabilised.[129] In March 1857, she was "in very unusual health and strength", and Macdonald would hardly have travelled to England on an official mission that summer had there been a serious prospect that his wife was likely to die.[130] Tuberculosis was a death sentence, but it did not kill immediately. Isabella's death was evidently unexpected, and could hardly have happened at a more pressured moment. There seems to be no other example in Canadian history of a party leader suffering such a devastating bereavement in the middle of an election campaign.[131]

            Isabella's funeral, on December 30th, was 'the largest ever witnessed in Kingston'. The three-kilometre procession out to 'the picturesque Cataraqui cemetery' included just about every notable resident of the city, defying winter weather to turn out in sympathy with their popular member of parliament. "Politics and everything else is forgotten," commented a local newspaper on New Year's Day, as everybody's thoughts turned to the popular "'John A.' ... sitting sorrowing at his desolate fireside."[132] But two days later, Macdonald was back in Toronto, where his private secretary found him "pretty well under the circumstances."[133] In the short term, John A. Macdonald needed all his strength, for he faced a merciless parliamentary opposition: it was ominous that the unforgiving Toronto Globe did not even bother to report his bereavement.  But in the longer term, Isabella's death would mark a major step in his gradual disengagement from Kingston. There was no way he could combine premiership and parenthood, so young Hugh John was left with his mother and sisters, leaving Macdonald himself even less reason to maintain a home in the city. He continued to own property in Kingston to secure the necessary residential qualification, but from now on his firesides were not only desolate but distant, and for the next decade his sorrows would intermittently drive him to take refuge in alcohol.  December 1857 had indeed seen his greatest electoral triumph, but Isabella's death and the sectarian Reform tide among the voters of Upper Canada combined to make it a month of personal and political disaster. The people of Kingston had given him their largest-ever vote of confidence at precisely the moment when his fate and theirs were about to diverge.


[1] William R. Teatero, ‘John A. Macdonald Learns  ─  Articling with George Mackenzie’, HK, 27, 1979, pp. 92-112.

[2] In this study, the term ‘Reformers’ is used prior to 1867, and ‘Liberals’ thereafter, although the old name continued to be used until the time of Wilfrid Laurier.

[3] British Whig, 1 April 1834, quoted Teatero, ‘John A. Macdonald Learns’, p. 106.

[4] Teatero, ‘John A. Macdonald Learns’,  pp. 99-101 and cf. DCB, 6, pp. 467-68.

[5] Kingston Chronicle and Gazette, 2 September 1835. At the age of 60, Cameron started physical training classes for Queen’s students. In 1855, Macdonald put him in charge of militia recruitment, with rocket-like promotion to the rank of Colonel. In 1862, Cameron foolishly attempted to bully the eccentric Dr John Stewart, who described him as ‘no gentleman’. Cameron was evidently sensitive about his other-ranks background, and rather proved Stewart’s point by punching him in the face. A black eye and an egg-sized swelling earned Stewart $75 in damages. H. Neatby, Queen’s University: I, 1841-1917 (Kingston, 1978), p. 81; ML I, p. 298; Kingston Daily News, 7 October 1862.

[6] Kingston Chronicle and Gazette, 23 September 1835, 6 February 1836.

[7] Biggar, Anecdotal Life, pp. 171-72. 100 acres is just over 40 hectares.

[8] G.M. Craig, Upper Canada: The Formative Years 1784-1841 (Toronto, 1963), pp. 236-40; Bruce Walton, ‘The 1836 Election in Lennox and Addington,’ OH, 67, 1975, pp. 153-67.

[9] YP, pp. 46-49.

[10] Letters of 7 and 13 December 1887, in J.K. Johnson, ‘Sir James Gowan, Sir John A. Macdonald, and the Rebellion of 1837’, OH, 60, 1968, pp. 61-64.

[11] For the Gowan-Macdonald relationship, Ged Martin, ‘Archival Evidence and John A. Macdonald Biography’, Journal of Historical Biography, 1, 2006, pp. 79-115, esp. pp. 96-106 (on-line journal, http://www.ucfv.ca/history/JHB.htm).

[12] Gowan to Macdonald, 7 December 1888, OH, 60, 1968, p. 63.

[13] OH, 60, 1968, p. 62; ML II, p. 246.

[14] One contemporary estimate was seven killed and seventeen wounded, and there were rumours of up to twenty killed. A modern account reports three deaths (two from wounds), plus two fatalities in clashes during the preceding days. One prominent rebel died shortly afterwards because of harsh prison conditions. The Duncombe rising in western Upper Canada was so obviously disorganised that scholarly accounts generally do not bother to note that nobody was hurt.  Casualties were small partly because much of the Yonge Street encounter took place in the natural cover of woodland. More important was the decision of the governor, Sir Francis Head, to send the small detachment of regular soldiers of the Toronto garrison to Lower Canada, where several hundred rebels were killed. Similarly, the Patriot attack on Prescott in November 1838 produced heavy casualties because of the involvement of trained and disciplined regular soldiers. Craig, Upper Canada, pp. 248, 258; C. Read and R.J. Stagg, eds, The Rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada: A Collection of Documents (Toronto, 1985), pp. 166, 178; OH, 60, 1968, p. 61.

[15] Debates of the House of Commons of Canada, 4, 15 February 1878, p. 344.

[16] Debates of the House of Commons of Canada, 15, 1 February 1884, p. 89. In 1887, he resorted to the parliamentary expedient of reading out his earlier position, but broke off abruptly after ‘myself’. Later debate usually referred to ‘1837’, even though disturbances had continued throughout the following year. Debates of the House of Commons of Canada, 23 [recte 18], 10 May 1887, pp. 367-68.

[17] Pope, Memoirs, I, p. 9.

[18] Debates of the House of Commons of Canada, 23 [recte 18], 15 April, 10 May 1887, pp. 12, 367-68.

[19] Pope, Memoirs, I, pp. 9-11; YP, pp. 61-68; DCB, 7, pp. 779-80; Macpherson, I, p. 91.

[20] OA, Campbell Papers, F23, Macdonald to Campbell, 19 May 1885.

[21] Chronicle and Kingston Commercial Advertiser, 19, 22 September 1838; YP, pp. 55-59. Dundas inherited the family title and became Viscount Melville in 1851, and rose to the rank of general. His grandfather, also Henry Dundas, had been Prime Minister William Pitt’s political boss in Scotland and (as Viscount Melville) holds the dubious distinction of being the last man in Britain to be impeached, unsuccessfully and on a charge of corruption. On his last evening in the House of Commons, in 1891, Macdonald became involved in a parliamentary sparring match over alleged comparisons between Lord Melville’s case and the emerging McGreevy scandals. In May 1838, Colonel Dundas was guest of honour at the Celtic Society banquet where he delivered a highly convivial speech. Chronicle and Gazette, 2 June 1838.

[22] Macpherson, I, p. 88.

[23] Collins, pp. 26-7. Correspondence from Parker, an American-born Hamilton businessman, was seized early in December. It seems that Parker had no connection with Mackenzie or other rebel leaders, and was guilty of little more than writing inflammatory letters. Nor did Thibodo receive the letter that allegedly incriminated him. Thibodo was arrested on 12 December and freed the following day. Macdonald was serving in the militia in Toronto until 17 December. Read and Stagg, eds, The Rebellion of 1837, pp. xxxiv-xxxv, and see pp. 103-4 for a sample of Parker as a letter-writer; B.D. Boyce, The Rebels of Hastings (Toronto, 1992), pp. 81, 191; OH, 60, 1968, p. 63n. Thibodo’s surname probably had French-Canadian origins (‘Thibaudeau’) and this would partly account for prejudice against him.

[24] Kingston Chronicle, 6 December 1843.

[25] YP, pp. 48; ML I, p. 2.

[26] Address, pp. 51-2, and cf. pp. 10, 102.

[27] S.F. Wise, ‘Tory Factionalism: Kingston Elections and Upper Canadian Politics, 1820-1836’, OH, 57 (1965), pp. 205-25. Party labels were fluid for much of Macdonald’s career. I use ‘Conservative’ as the umbrella term for all Macdonald’s supporters, and ‘Tory’ for the wing of the party that stood for Anglican privilege and was associated with the Family Compact and the ascendancy of Toronto interests.

[28] DCB, 7, pp. 102-3. As Commissioner of Crown Lands in 1848, Macdonald helped Cassady’s executors wind up his estate by confirming a mis-spelt land grant made to Cassady as far back as 1797. ML I, p. 111.

[29] British Whig, 7 August, quoted Kingston Chronicle and Gazette, 8 August 1840.

[30] YP, p. 79; Biggar, Anecdotal Life, pp. 309-11, quoting undated (c. 1891) letter to the Empire from William Gunn of Walkerton. Despite this unreliable recollection, Biggar is an undervalued source – one that Creighton did not cite at all.

[31] TPD, p. 148.

[32] Kingston Chronicle and Gazette, 8 August 1840.

[33] Kingston Chronicle and Gazette, 27 March 1841. A city official who heard him argue one of  his earliest cases in court thought he as an Irishman called Macdonough.  G. Mercer Adam, Canada’s Patriot Statesman: the Life and Career of ... Sir John A. Macdonald (Toronto, 1891), p. 542

[34] During his first term in the Assembly, he spoke rarely but intervened with authority in debates on election law.

[35] Knight, pp. 85-91; Kingston Chronicle, 6 December 1843. Patricia Phenix describes Macdonald addressing a political meeting, apparently as a candidate, at an election in 1837. There was no general election in 1837, and the story probably belongs to the campaign of 1882. P. Phenix, Private Demons: The Tragic Personal Life of John A. Macdonald (Toronto, 2006), pp. 17-18; Lena C. Newman, The John A. Macdonald Album (Montreal, 1974), p. 24.

[36] Collins, p. 51.

[37] Biggar, Anecdotal Life, p. 51; Address, p. 38.

[38] Macpherson,  I, pp. 91-4 for the manifesto and Ward No. 4 vote; eye-witness account in Collins, p. 53; Biggar, Anecdotal Life, pp. 51-2; YP, p. 89. Having used the Council as a springboard, Macdonald took the opportunity to resign in February 1846 when his law firm was retained to sue the municipality. ML I, p. 30.

[39] Pope, Memoirs, II, 435.

[40] Toronto British Colonist, 16 October 1844; Pope, Memoirs, I, p. 33; DCB, 7, pp. 158-59.

[41] ML I, pp. 12-13.

[42] Toronto Mail, 17 November 1873, reporting speech at Ottawa.

[43] Macpherson, I, pp. 92-93. One amusing aspect of this event was that the chairman, local shopkeeper James Williamson, was not aware that a few years earlier Macdonald had led a group of pranksters who had bricked up his front door late one night. Biggar, Anecdotal Life, pp. 46-49.

[44] Anthony Manahan long gained a bad historical press for opposing John A. Macdonald’s path of destiny: Collins, pp. 62-63; Pope, Memoirs, I, p. 34. Pope retracted his denigration on the basis of testimony that probably came from Alexander Campbell: J. Pope, ed., Correspondence of Sir John Macdonald (Garden City NY, 1921), p. 2. Manahan is rescued  by J.K. Johnson, ‘Anthony Manahan and the Status of Irish Catholics in Upper Canada’, HK, 31, 1983, pp. 32-44. His personal qualities were shown in December 1837 when he led a party of Kingston militiamen on a march to Belleville, despite ‘the severity of the weather’ as a precaution against a rumoured outbreak of rebellion. Kingston Chronicle & Gazette, 13 December 1837. In DCB, 7, pp. 579-81, J.K. Johnson notes that the shift in Manahan’s political views is ‘difficult to explain.’

[45] Toronto Examiner, 23 October 1844.

[46] Macpherson, I, p. 94; Collins, pp. 62-64; YP, pp. 98-99. Seven Macdonald votes were later disallowed. The total poll had thus dropped by around 20 votes since 1841, which does not suggest that many Manahan supporters were barred from voting. But 470 votes were polled at the election of 1847.

[47] YP, p. 91. The Kingston tradition that the Macdonalds were married at St Andrew’s Presbyterian church is not entirely correct. A notice in the Chronicle & Gazette, 2 September 1843, makes clear that the ceremony took place at ‘the residence of J.A. Macpherson, Esq.’, i.e. the home of Isabella’s sister Maria. Scots weddings were often held in family homes. But the celebrant was the Reverend John Machar, and so the couple were indeed married under the auspices of St Andrew’s.

[48] J.K. Johnson, ‘John A. Macdonald and the Kingston Business Community’ in TPD, pp. 141-55, esp. p. 153.

[49] Macdonald’s two manifestos are in ML I, pp. 12-14.

[50] In 1890, Sir John A. Macdonald issued a recommendation in favour of following the English, rather than the United States, practice of spelling such words ‘-our’. In his earlier years, he was not so precise. Pope, Memoirs, II, p. 349.

[51] In a sense, Macdonald was right. ‘Responsible government’ meant that the governor-general must act on the advice of a ministry backed by a majority in the Assembly, which implied coherent political parties. But to raise taxes, the governor needed a majority in the Assembly anyway. Thus in seeking a majority pledged to oppose responsible government, the governor-general was creating a party, and so conceding the larger issue by a back door. In 1847, Macdonald joined the Executive Council composed of Conservatives and acknowledging the headship of a politician: whether this was the end of the old regime or the start of a new one hardly matters. See P.A. Buckner, The Transition to Responsible Government: British Policy in British North America, 1815-1850 (Westport, Conn., 1985), esp. pp. 267-71.

[52] Technically, Kingston did not become a city until 1846. For persistent Kingston hopes to secure a prosperous back country, Brian S. Osborne, ‘The Settlement of Kingston’s Hinterland’, TPD, pp. 63-79 and KBP, pp. 169-89.

[53] ML I, p. 12.

[54] A ‘profile’ of Macdonald in 1859 stated that his ‘political advancement at first owed something to the tact and address of his mother’ and that her house was a campaign headquarters during his early election campaigns. When she died in 1862, a Kingston newspaper stated that she was ‘known all over the Province’ and that ‘hundreds’ had ‘partaken of her hospitality.’ Helen Macdonald probably wanted her son to cut an impressive public figure as compensation for the repeated failures of her husband, who had died in 1841. According to a contemporary account, the new member of parliament was farewelled by his mother and sister when he boarded the steamboat to Montreal, but his wife was not mentioned. Canadian News (London, England), 5 January 1859, pp. 10-11; Kingston Daily News, 27 October 1862; Biggar, Anecdotal Life, p. 58; J. McSherry, ‘The Illness of the First Mrs John A. Macdonald’, HK, 34, 1986.

[55] Biggar, Anecdotal Life, p. 57.

[56] For the show of hands: YP, p. 129 (1844, 1847); Macpherson, I, pp. 94 (1844, quoting Kingston Daily News), 121 (1847); 273 (1854), 330 (1857), 425 (1861), and cf. Kingston Daily British Whig, 15 December 1857. The division of opinion in 1861 was close, and two years later it was alleged that ‘the sheriff declared in favor of the corruptionist candidate when the majority was for his opponent.’ (Kingston Daily News, 13 June 1863). ‘Corruptionist’ was a term popularised by the Toronto Globe to describe Conservatives, and Macdonald in particular.

[57] YP, p. 129.

[58] Macdonald to John Thirkell, 10 October 1844, ML I,  p. 14.

[59] Macdonald to O.R. Gowan, private and confidential, 14 May 1847, in F.H. Armstrong, ‘The Macdonald-Gowan Letters, 1847’, OH, 63, 1971, pp. 9-10. Macdonald contested two further ministerial by-elections in Kingston. He met token opposition in 1854 and was returned by acclamation in 1864. Through the notorious manoeuvre of the ‘double shuffle’, he evaded the need to defend his seat on returning to office in 1858.

[60] On the eve of nominations, he addressed a protest to fellow-minister William Morris against reports that J-E. Turcotte was to be appointed Solicitor-General for Lower Canada, and insisting upon ‘resistance to the factious demands of the French Canadian party.’ Since the ministry needed French support, this seems a curious outburst. Macdonald’s final comment, that he was ‘busy electioneering’, may have been a signal that this was a ‘bunkum’ communication designed to protect his own flank. Turcotte may have been objectionable not so much because he was French as from the fact that he represented Trois-Rivières, a middle-ranking St Lawrence port which would be in competition with Kingston for government projects. ML I, p. 55.

[61] TPD, p. 149; DCB, 9, pp. 431-32. His son, George Airey Kirkpatrick, was lieutenant-governor of Ontario, 1892-99, and is commemorated by a statue in front of the Frontenac Court House. For George Mackenzie’s influence on Macdonald, W.R. Teatero, ‘John A. Macdonald Learns’.

[62] Chronicle and News, 1 December 1847, YP, p. 128.

[63] Debates of the Legislative Assembly of United Canada 1841-1847 (ed. E. Gibbs, 4, Montreal, 1973), pp. 27, 110, 217.  The petitions were on behalf Regiopolis College and the diocese of Kingston. The third was from Henry Smith, Warden of the Penitentiary.

[64] Macdonald to O.R. Gowan, private and confidential, 3 November 1847, in Armstrong, ‘Macdonald-Gowan Letters’, pp. 11-14; Macpherson, I, p. 112.

[65]Macdonald to O.R. Gowan, private, 22 November 1847, in Armstrong, ‘Macdonald-Gowan Letters’, p. 14; DCB, 8, pp. 316-19 (Gaulin), 702-4 (Phelan).

[66] Macdonald to P.J. Buckley et al, 10 December 1847, in ML I, pp. 86-88.

[67] Macpherson, I, pp. 112-13, 121.

[68] Quoted, James A. Roy, Kingston: The King’s Town (Toronto, 1952), p. 246.

[69] This impression may be strengthened by the fact that the two prominent late-Victorians Liberals with Kingston origins, Oliver Mowat and Richard Cartwright, both had strong Tory roots. But Mowat declared for the Reformers in 1857, after fourteen years in Toronto, and Cartwright broke with Macdonald over specific issues in 1872-73.

[70] Toronto British Colonist, 31 December 1847.

[71] YP, pp. 141-42.

[72] Globe, 4 August 1849. John A. Macdonald was deplorably addicted to puns. Why was adulterating sugar ‘a more heinous crime than murder?’, he asked his sister-in-law in 1848. The answer was that murder was a gross offence, but adulterating sugar was a grocer offence. The greatest horror of all formed part of a set-piece double act with D’Arcy McGee. McGee would ask why the Minotaur, the monster of Greek legend, ‘sometimes fell into a deep sleep after having devoured his morning meal of a young maiden’. Macdonald would reply that the creature was ‘overcome by a great lass he chewed.’ (Lassitude, get it?)  This ‘humorous’ horror almost certainly dates from the years 1864-68, the period when John A. Macdonald and D’Arcy McGee were close friends. It is a chilling though that the same brain, at the same period, was designing the foundations of modern Canada. ML I, p. 148; James McCarroll, ‘Some Social and Other Characteristics of the Late Sir John A. Macdonald’, Belford’s Magazine, August 1891, p. 406.

[73] Globe, 2 September 1849.

[74] ML I, p. 155.

[75] YP, p. 145.

[76] Creighton’s source was the Montreal Gazette, 31 July 1849, which briefly mentioned the comments of ‘Mr A.J. Macdonald’ in a continuation of its report on 1 August. It is highly unlikely that any journalist would have garbled the initials of a politician so generally known as ‘John A.’, while as a former minister he would not have been referred to as ‘Mr’. Even the hostile Globe, although careless about his surname, called him ‘Hon. J.A. McDonald’. The speech probably came from Archibald John Macdonnell, whom the Globe lampooned as ‘the richest specimen of the lot’. Although a mere 29 years of age, and representing ‘some out-of-the-way never-before-heard-of place’ in Frontenac County, ‘Archie John’ had a lot to say for himself. Other newspapers appear to have ignored his contribution. In 1854, he became Macdonald’s law partner. His unexpected death in 1864, at the early age of 44, revealed the disastrous confusion of Macdonald’s finances. Globe, 4 August 1849; ML I, p. 56n.

[77] ML I, p. 155.

[78] Knight, pp. 106-15. Bytown was chosen as the future seat of government in 1858, three years after changing its name to Ottawa. A frivolous alternative suggestion, that Bytown should be renamed ‘Byzantium’, might have contributed an appropriate adjective to Canadian politics. Biggar, Anecdotal Life, p. 79.

[79] On 25 July 1849, there were 119 accredited delegates. The following day, 94 voted in a policy debate. A.G. Doughty, ed., The Elgin-Grey Papers 1846-1852 (4 vols, Ottawa, 1937), I, pp. 445-46.

[80] He was also elected by acclamation at three ministerial by-elections in 1847, 1854 and 1864.

[81] Daily British Whig, 21 November 1851, quoted TPD, p. 252.

[82] ML I, p. 178.

[83] KBP, pp. 118-21; TPD, pp. 240-44.

[84] Macpherson, I, p. 220; YP, p. 171.

[85] ML I,  p. 153.

[86] J.M.S. Careless, Brown of the Globe: II, The Statesman of Confederation 1860-1880 (Toronto, 1963), p. 33.

[87] YP, p. 158.

[88] Macpherson, I, pp. 220, 272-73. Macpherson stated Macdonald’s 1854 majority as 162. The Kingston British Whig, 28 July 1854, gave the same majority, but apparently incomplete voting figures of 428 to 247 (majority 181). Creighton, YP, p. 206, citing the Toronto Globe, 28 July 1854, accepts 437 to 265 (majority 172). Macdonald was so clearly the winner that the precise figure probably did not matter. For Counter, TPD, pp. 144-48.

[89] KBP, p. 107; TPD, pp. 148, 155, 240.

[90] YP, pp. 205-6.

[91] Toronto Examiner, 26 July 1854; D. McCalla, Planting the Province: The Economic History of Upper Canada 1784-1870 (Toronto, 1993), p. 110; ML I, p. 160; Debates of the Legislative Assembly of United Canada, 9, 1850, pp. 1242-43.

[92] ML I,  p. 228.

[93] As the Rockwood asylum was originally intended for the confinement of criminal lunatics (to use the contemporary term) and was housed in the basement of the Penitentiary, the project might well have been allocated to Kingston whatever government was in office. The Cartwright family evidently retained adjacent land, for Richard Cartwright found himself living next door to undesirable neighbours. In 1866 he pressed Macdonald to erect a fence to give him privacy. Macdonald did his best to comply, but on 25 May, facing a Fenian invasion, he pleaded ‘I really have not time just now to look into the matter’. Queen’s University Archives, John A. Macdonald Correspondence.

[94] YP, p. 205.

[95] J.M.S. Careless, The Union of the Canadas:  The Growth of Canadian Institutions, 1841-1857 (Toronto, 1968), pp. 192-201.

[96] ML I, p. 228.

[97] Alan Wilson, The Clergy Reserves of Upper Canada: A Canadian Mortmain (Toronto, 1968) covers the overall history of the complicated and far from exciting subject. John S. Moir, Church and State in Canada West (Toronto, 1959), pp. 3-81 focuses on the period after 1840.

[98] Debates of the Legislative Assembly of United Canada, xi, pp. 546-48 (17 September 1852).

[99] Address, pp. 10, 51-2, 102.

[100] YP, pp. 204-5; Address, p. 51.

[101] YP, p. 215.

[102] Moir, Church and State in Canada West, pp. 79, 206. The Presbyterians lost some of their endowment when Kingston’s Commercial Bank foundered in 1867.

[103] J.M.S. Careless, Brown of the Globe, I: The Voice of Upper Canada 1818-1859 (Toronto, 1959), pp. 197-98.

[104] DCB, 9, p. 763.

[105] Moir, Church and State in Canada West, p. 81.

[106] Debates of the Legislative Assembly of United Canada, 12, part 6, p. 2933 (23 April 1855).

[107] Address, p. 49.

[108] John Willison, Reminiscences: Political and Personal (Toronto, 1919), pp. 61-2.

[109] ML I, p. 472 (14 December 1857). Patricia Phenix states that Macdonald returned to Canada on 30 November 1857 after an official mission to Britain, and immediately plunged into campaigning without visiting Kingston.  In fact, he was home by mid-September, and was appointed Premier on 26 November. Phenix, Private Demons, p. 125. Richard Gwyn similarly states that Macdonald ‘skipped spending Christmas with Isabella’. That may well have been his intention, but in fact he left for Kingston on December 23 (see n. 116 below). Gwyn does not mention that Macdonald was trying to head a province-wide general election campaign. R. Gwyn, John A: The Man Who Made Us (Toronto, 2007), p. 184.

[110] ML I, p. 155.

[111] Debates of the Legislative Assembly of United Canada, 12, part 2, pp. 830-31 (27 October 1854) and cf. ML I, p. 14.

[112] Globe, 23 November 1857.

[113] S.J.R. Noel, Patrons, Clients, Brokers: Ontario Society and Politics, 1791-1896 (Toronto, 1990), esp. p. 185.

[114] ML I, pp. 464-65.

[115] TPD, pp. 144-45; Pope, Memoirs, I, pp. 172-73; ML I, pp. 462-63. Gildersleeve’s letter contained a heavy hint that he expected Macdonald to push the Wolfe Island canal project, in which they were both investors, in return for his forbearance, and Macdonald equally deftly promised to show his appreciation.

[116] P. Oliver, ed., The Conventional Man: The Diaries of Ontario Chief Justice Robert A. Harrison, 1856-1878 (Toronto, 2003), pp. 142-43 (11 December 1857).

[117] Canadian News (London), 6 January 1858, p. 6.

[118] Daily British Whig, 15 December 1857. Macpherson, I, p. 330; YP, pp. 258-59. Shaw and Macdonald had been partners in a steamship venture the previous year. ‘Young Non-Politician’, p. 145. The 1857 election is discussed by Ged Martin, ‘John A. Macdonald: Provincial Premier’ in British Journal of Canadian Studies, 20 (2007), pp. 99-122.

[119] Daily British Whig, 8 December 1857. The phrase ‘Prime Minister of Canada’ was grandiloquent for the time.

[120] ML I, pp. 227-29.

[121] YP, pp. 205-6. Counter’s bankruptcy in 1856 suggests that Kingston voters backed the right candidate to sustain their interests. TPD, p. 155.

[122] Daily British Whig, 15 December 1857.

[123] Daily British Whig, 12 January 1858.

[124] Daily British Whig, 24 December 1857; Globe, 18 January 1858; Pope, Memoirs, I, pp. 173-74.

[125] D. Swainson, Sir John A. Macdonald: the Man and the Politician (Kingston, 1989), p. 46. See also his Macdonald of Kingston (Don Mills, 1979), p. 39; ‘his poor opponent received seven votes to 1,189 for John A.’.

[126] W. Stewart Wallace, Sir John Macdonald (Toronto, 1924), p. 40.

[127] Oliver, ed., The Conventional Man: The Diaries of Ontario Chief Justice Robert A. Harrison, pp. 142-44 (11, 23 December 1857)

[128] Canadian News (London), 20 January 1858, p. 24.   

[129] ML I, pp. 343, 348, 355, 360, 422. Passing allusions to Isabella in Robert Harrison's diary do not suggest that her health was unusually poor in 1856-57: in July 1856 she was "very talkative". Oliver, ed., The Conventional Man: The Diaries of Ontario Chief Justice Robert A. Harrison, pp. 129-30, 138.

[130] ML, I, pp. 425-26. But a month earlier, the Macdonald household had been felled by an outbreak of influenza, ML I, p. 423.

[131] There seems to be no doubt that Isabella had tuberculosis but aspects of her illness remain a mystery. She was coughing blood as early as 1848, and most tuberculosis sufferers died within five years. James McSherry, "The Illness of the First Mrs John A. Macdonald", HK, 34, 1986; ML I, pp. 146-47; F.B. Smith, The People's Health

1830-1910 (London, 1979), pp. 287-91.

[132] Canadian News (London), 20 January 1858, p. 24, quoting the now-lost Kingston Commercial Advocate, 1 January 1858. 

[133] Oliver, ed., The Conventional Man: The Diaries of Ontario Chief Justice Robert A. Harrison, p. 145.

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