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Sir John Alexander Macdonald

the first Prime Minister of the Dominion of Canada

John Alexander Macdonald

John Alexander Macdonald was born in Glasgow, Scotland, on January 10, 1815. His family moved to Canada in 1820, and settled in Kingston, Upper Canada (now Ontario), where his father opened a small shop. The shop failed, and the family moved first to Hay Bay (1824), then to Glenora in Prince Edward County (1825), and finally back to Kingston. His father opened shops at each place, but each failed.

Macdonald's formal schooling ended in 1829. The following year he began studying law with George Mackenzie, a prominent Kingston lawyer. He lived with the Mackenzie family and worked in the law office, and, in 1832, became the manager of a branch office in Napanee. In 1833 he learned that a lawyer in Hallowell, Prince Edward, was ill, and agreed to take over the practice.

Legal Career

Macdonald returned to Kingston in 1835, and was admitted to the bar of Upper Canada in 1836. That same year he took on his first apprentice-lawyer, Oliver Mowat, who later became the Prime Minister of Ontario.

In 1838, a group of American supporters of George Mackenzie staged a raid into Canada. About 150 of the raiders were captured and Macdonald defended some of the raiders in court. Although several of his clients were ultimately hanged, Macdonald's reputation as a lawyer had been established.

Macdonald's practice prospered after the 1841 union of Upper Canada and Lower Canada (part of present-day Quebec) into the Province of Canada. In 1843 he began a partnership with his second apprentice-lawyer, Alexander Campbell. He would continue to practice law the rest of his life, concentrating primarily on commercial law.


On September 1, 1843, Macdonald married his cousin, Isabella Clark. The couple had two sons -- John Jr., who died at the age of 1, and Hugh John, who later became the Prime Minister of Manitoba. In 1845, Isabella was stricken by tuberculosis; she succumbed to the disease on December 28, 1857. On February 16, 1867, Macdonald married Susan Agnes Bernard, a widow, with whom he had one daughter, Mary.

Early Political Career

Macdonald's political career began in 1843, when he was elected an Alderman in Kingston. In 1844 he accepted the Conservative nomination in Kingston for a seat in the Legislative Assembly. He won the election by a considerable majority, and took his seat on November 28, 1844.

Although he spent the first couple of years in the Assembly learning procedures and staying out of the limelight, he eventually began to get notice within the Conservative Party. In 1847 he was appointed Receiver-General in the administration of William Henry Draper. His first major government position was short-lived, however, as the Draper government was defeated later that same year.

Macdonald spent the next several years helping to rebuild the Conservative Party, which he believed should include both liberals and conservatives, French-Canadians and English-Canadians, Roman Catholics and Protestants, rich and poor. The Conservatives regained a majority in 1854, and party leader Sir Allan McNab became Prime Minister; Macdonald was subsequently named Attorney General.

Associate Prime Minister

In 1856, Macdonald and Sir Étienne P. Taché became Associate Prime Ministers of the Province of Canada, with Taché as the senior Prime Minister. When Taché retired in 1857, Macdonald became the senior Prime Minister, with Georges É. Cartier as the junior Prime Minister. Both administrations favored a policy that would lead to the confederation of all British provinces in North America, an idea that at the time was not a majority view. The Macdonald-Cartier government was defeated in 1858, but, one week later, the Governor-General of Canada asked Cartier to become senior Prime Minister; Macdonald then took office as junior Prime Minister. Although the Conservatives were defeated in 1862, Macdonald won re-election to the Assembly. He served as the leader of the opposition until 1864, when the Taché-Macdonald government was re-formed.

Formation of the Dominion

Nova Scotia and the Province of Canada were the first provinces to seriously consider confederation. In Canada, Macdonald teamed with his Liberal opponent George Brown to achieve that goal.

In September 1864, Macdonald attended a conference in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, where he presented a confederation plan to the Maritime Provinces. The two sides agreed to the plan, and, in October, delegates from all of the provinces gathered in Quebec. There, Macdonald was the principal architect of the Quebec Resolutions, which outlined a plan for a confederation of all Canadian provinces. The provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Canada approved the Resolutions, but Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island rejected them.

In 1866, delegates from each of the various provinces attended a conference at London's Westminster Hotel in 1866 that ultimately resulted in The British North America Act. The British Parliament passed the Act early in 1867, and Queen Victoria gave her assent in March. The Act was formally proclaimed on July 1, 1867, and the Dominion of Canada was established.

The same day the Dominion was created, Queen Victoria knighted Macdonald for his work. Once the act was proclaimed, Governor-General Charles S. Monck asked Macdonald to form Canada's first Dominion government. General elections were held in August, and the first Dominion Parliament was assembled on November 6, 1867.

First Term as Prime Minister

Macdonald's first term as Prime Minister saw Canada stretch across northern North America from the Atlantic to the Pacific. In 1869 the Canadian government purchased the vast land holdings of the Hudson's Bay Company. This action was not, however, supported by the métis (persons of mixed European and Indian descent), who constituted a sizable part of the region's inhabitants. Fearing that an onrush of settlers would deprive them of their lands, the métis, led by Louis Riel, rebelled. The Red River Rebellion, as the revolt came to be called, only lasted about a year, but the rebels succeeded in their cause. Parliament passed the Manitoba Act in 1870, and in July the lands purchased from the Hudson's Bay Company became the Province of Manitoba. British Columbia became the sixth province in 1871; Prince Edward Island became the seventh in 1873.

In 1871, delegates from Great Britain and the United States held a conference in Washington, D.C. Macdonald, who attended the conference as the Canadian member of the British delegation, tried to obtain a trade agreement with the United States, but failed. He did, however, sign the Treaty of Washington, which, among other things, granted the United States extensive fishing rights in Canadian waters. Macdonald feared that refusal to sign the treaty would encourage the United States to back its demands with force, and he did not wish to do anything that might endanger the young Canadian nation.

Macdonald next turned his attention to the building of a transcontinental railroad to unify Canada. Such a railroad had, in fact, been one of the conditions of British Columbia's agreement to join the confederation. Two financial groups competed with each other to build the line. In 1873, it was learned that Sir Hugh Allan, head of one of the groups, had contributed a large sum of money to Macdonald's 1872 re-election campaign. Although it was learned that Macdonald himself was innocent of any wrongdoing, many of his associates had received money from Allan in return for help in getting the contract. Macdonald offered to resign as head of the Conservatives, but he was persuaded by supporters to stay. The Conservatives still lost the 1874 election, and Macdonald was succeeded as Prime Minister by Alexander Mackenzie; Macdonald did, however, retain his seat in Parliament.

Leader of the Opposition

Macdonald spent the next four years as the leader of the opposition in Parliament, and working to rebuild his tarnished party. He formed a program of economic nationalism that he called the National Policy, which called for developing Canada by protecting its industries against those of other countries. On the strength of that policy, the Conservatives returned to power in 1878, with an election victory in almost every province.

Second Term as Prime Minister

Macdonald began his second term as Prime Minister on October 17, 1878. His government immediately put tariffs on a variety of goods to protect Canada's manufacturing and mining industries. He also renewed his push for a transcontinental railroad and, with support from the government, a new company was formed. The Canadian Pacific Railway was completed in November, 1885.

In 1885, the métis of northwest Canada rebelled for a second time; they were again led by Louis Riel. When Riel finally surrendered, the government found him guilty of treason and sentenced him to hang. Despite protests from French-Canadians, who threatened trouble if the sentence was carried out, Macdonald refused to back down and Riel was hanged in November, 1885.

In 1888, the provincial prime ministers met in Quebec and proposed changes in the British North America Act that would decentralize the government. Great Britain rejected their demands, but the conference showed the growing strength of provincial opinion against federal centralization.

In 1886 and 1887, a lingering economic depression led to calls for changes in Macdonald's National Policy. Some favored political federation with Great Britain, while others spoke of a commercial union with the United States. Macdonald opposed both proposals.

In 1891, the Liberals ran on a platform that called for unrestricted reciprocal trade with the United States. Macdonald strongly opposed the idea and, after a rather vigorous campaign, was elected to another term as Prime Minister.

The strain of the campaign proved severe for Macdonald. He caught cold after a long day of speaking, and suffered a stroke on May 29, 1891. He died in Ottawa on June 6, 1891, and was buried near his mother in Kingston.


The World Book Encyclopedia Chicago: World Book-Childcraft International, 1979

See Also

The Fathers of Confederation
Queen Victoria
Hudson's Bay Company

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This page was last updated on 10/01/2018.