The Great Enterprise
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Fathers of Confederation
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John A. Macdonald
In 1860, John A. Macdonald was Upper Canada's most prominent politician, a flawed and witty man with great organizational skills, an enviable stamina and a public taste for alcohol. Within the decade, Macdonald would be instrumental in creating the Dominion of Canada and become its first prime minister.
In the 1860s, John A. Macdonald was instrumental in creating the Dominion of Canada and became its first prime minister. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada)
In the 1860s, John A. Macdonald was instrumental in creating the Dominion of Canada and became its first prime minister. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada)

Macdonald was tall and loose-limbed, with dark, unruly hair and a bulbous nose which cartoonists loved to caricaturize. His was manner was courtly and flirtatious and he had many female admirers.

Born in Scotland, Macdonald had a Celtic's distrust of Englishmen. He was a clever, calculating man who joined the anti-Catholic Orange Lodge to maintain his political career but he was not personally prejudiced.

"Politics is a game requiring... an utter abnegation of prejudice and personal felling... if we get the right man in the right place, it does not matter what his race or religion might be," wrote Macdonald.

In his personal life, Macdonald had to overcome great sadness. He was born in Glasgow in 1815 and came to Upper Canada at the age of five. Two of his siblings died young and by 15 Macdonald was supporting himself, articling with a Kingston lawyer.

He became a prominent lawyer, with an impressive understanding of constitutional law, and won a seat on the town council before moving to provincial politics.

Macdonald married his first cousin, Isabella Clark, who was five years his senior. Isabella became an invalid soon after, bedridden with an undiagnosed illness. She became addicted to opium mixed with wine to deal with the pain.
John A. Macdonald was devastated by the premature deaths of his wife and first son. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada)
John A. Macdonald was devastated by the premature deaths of his wife and first son. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada)

Despite her illness, Isabella gave birth to their first child, John, in 1847. The baby died 13 months later. Macdonald never got over John's death, and he kept a box of the child's toys until his own death almost 50 year later. (Another son, Hugh, survived.) In 1857, Isabella died.

Macdonald was devastated by their deaths but continued to be one of the dominant politicians in Upper Canada. He played the political game through a combination of charisma, will, and shrewd negotiations. "Good or bad, able or unable, weak or strong, he wraps them around his finger as you would a thread," noted Joseph Rymal, a Liberal rival.

Macdonald formed a political alliance with a powerful politician from Lower Canada, George-Étienne Cartier. The two men shared a similar, conservative vision that included a vigorous commitment to economic growth and the accommodation of the religious animosities that plagued the United Province of Canada.

Their alliance helped break the political stalemates that were a regular part of Canadian politics. Macdonald and Cartier came to depend upon one another to deliver votes from their respective sides of the House.

They would also come to depend on one another to build a political movement that would create a nation.

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