The Importance of This W.H. Bartlett Sketch
To visualize where John A. Macdonald spent his formative years from nine to twenty, one need look no further than the sketch shown above. It was drawn by William Henry Bartlett, an early nineteenth century English artist best known for his picturesque topographical illustrations of the many interesting places he visited from the Middle East to the Americas. His illustration of the Bay of Quinte viewed from the Lake on the Mountain depicts an idealized view of life in Upper Canada in 1838. Coincidentally, this sketch was made overlooking the place that John A. Macdonald called home for eleven years. Although the Macdonalds moved to Kingston two years before Bartlett captured this scene, the picture shows precisely where John A. Macdonald spent much of his youth. Like a photograph, it helps to capture a moment in time with the kind of precision that would be difficult to convey in words.
This scene represents some of the happiest years of Sir John A. Macdonald’s life growing up the son of a shopkeeper, magistrate and miller. Although John attended private schools and later worked in a law office in Kingston for several years, the Bartlett illustration shows his real family home. His parents Hugh and Helen, and his sisters Margaret (Mol) and Louisa (Lou) lived here throughout this time. They arrived here in 1824 when John was nine, and left in 1836 a year after he left the County to open his first law practice in Kingston.
 His sketches of Upper and Lower Canada in 1838 are especially important to Canadians since they provide a fascinating catalogue of life in British North America when photography was in its infancy.
The sketch you see above captures an expansive view of the Bay of Quinte looking north from Lake on the Mountain in Prince Edward County. This body of water is the important intersection of several arms of the Bay of Quinte near the first Loyalist settlement of Adolphustown. John knew this area intimately. He attended school here and worked for his father in the shop and mill. He also skated, fished, ran with his schoolmates, and got into mischief like most boys his age. He took steamboats, rode horses, travelled in stagecoaches, rowed boats and sailed during his many visits with his family and his cousins nearby. He was constantly on the move. He travelled often during his adolescence to Kingston (thirty miles to the north east), Napanee (fifteen miles due north) and Picton (five miles to the south west).
The Macdonald family, however, lived in only two places during this period — first at Hay Bay (north in the distance) for six years, and then at the Stone Mills of Glenora (below the escarpment) for another six years.
First Home in the Quinte Region — The Stores at Hay Bay and Adolphustown 1824-1829
The story begins in 1824, when John’s father, Hugh Macdonald, a recent immigrant from Scotland, was struggling as a shopkeeper in Kingston and saw an opportunity to open a shop in the United Empire Loyalist settlement on Hay Bay on the Bay of Quinte. Hugh moved his young family that year to a red clapboard house just east of the Quaker meeting house and just west of the Old Methodist Church on the third concession on Hay Bay three miles north of Adolphustown on the mainland. This is the inlet at the top of the picture to the right. Hugh set up shop there in the agricultural community north of Adolphustown in Lennox County. The house he rented served both as a home and as a store for the local residents and farmers. He also set up two more shops: one on the north shore of Hay Bay, and one in Adolphustown near the wharf. From Hay Bay, John and his sisters were known to have walked into town three miles to a small log schoolhouse every day for several years.
Hugh Macdonald’s business was simple. He sold basic supplies, such as sugar and salt, and bought raw materials such as ashes used to make soap. A year after he arrived, he purchased a small house for seventy-five pounds on the north shore of Hay Bay from Berger Huyck, yeoman. Presumably he bought the property so that he could vote, since this was an eligibility requirement reserved for a limited segment of the population — mainly affluent men. John inherited the property some years later and he too used the property to vote locally. Owning property was viewed in Upper Canada as an indication of one’s moral and legal status. Hugh would not have been able to work as magistrate without having first met this important requirement. Hugh also appears to have used the property for commercial purposes and then rented it to a residential tenant. It is worth noting that John A. kept the property until 1856.
It may seem odd that John’s father chose the remote region of Hay Bay to settle in 1824, but the area was one of the first farming communities in Upper Canada. One of the first parties of United Empire Loyalists to have settled in the region were the ones arriving from New York led by Captain Peter Van Alstine following the Revolutionary Wars. These Loyalists settled around Adolphustown and made great progress in clearing the land for agriculture, the mainstay of the colonial economy. Hugh also chose this region on the adivice of his family relatives, the Macphersons. They had all moved there from Kingston a few years earlier. Allan Macpherson, an adult half cousin of John A., owned of a saw and grist mill and was an influential member of the community. He was known locally as the “Laird of Napanee” — perhaps to indicate his political influence among the Scottish community of the Midland District. He had also wisely found a good match marrying the daughter of Judge Fisher of Hay Bay.
John A. Macdonald also had two other adult cousins in Prince Edward County: Lowther Pennington Macpherson was one of three lawyers in Hallowell/Picton, and John Alexander Macpherson was an entrepreneur, landowner and merchant in Hillier. The patriarch of the family living in Kingston was Lieutenant Colonel Donald Macpherson, a loyal Scottish warrior during the Revolutionary Wars in the Thirteen Colonies, and later the putative defender of Kingston during the early part of the war of 1812.
Their mother, Ann Macpherson (nee Shaw), second wife of the Lt. Col. Macpherson and half-sister of John A. Macdonald’s mother Helen (nee Shaw) also joined them in Hallowell following the death of the elder Macpherson in 1829.
During the five years that the family lived in Adolphustown township, Hugh was active in the community. Even though he was a Presbyterian, he attended the Methodist church nearby occasionally and also rented a pew in the Anglican church in Adolphustown. It appears that John A. learned a thing or two from his father about pragmatic values. Hugh later became a fee for service magistrate for the Midland District.
Canniff Haight, a native of the small community of Adolphustown, and amateur historian from the nineteenth century remembered the Macdonalds. In this passage from his personal reflections entitled Country Life in Canada Fifty Years Ago, he describes Hugh Macdonald’s third store and the Quarter Sessions held there.
Adolphustown . . . had been laid out for a town by some farseeing individual, but it never even attained to the dignity of a village. There was, besides the courthouse, a tavern, a foundry, a Church of England–one of the first in the Province–the old homestead of the Hagermans, near the wharf; a small building occupied for a time by the father of Sir John A. Macdonald as a store, and where the future statesman romped in his youth, and four private residences close at hand. When the court was held there, which often lasted a week or more, judge, jury, lawyers and litigants had to be billeted around the neighbourhood. (198)
 It is possible that this move to Picton/Hallowell was a reason for Hugh Macdonald’s decision also to move to Prince Edward County in 1830.
Throughout his life, John A. kept in touch with his many friends from this period and even invited them to visit with him in Ottawa from time to time. He said on more than one occasion that the times spent along the banks of the Bay of Quinte were among the happiest of his life.
Macdonald’s Association with Kingston
Hugh and Helen Macdonald were pleased with John’s achievements in the school in Adolphustown and in 1827, they decided to spend the seventy pounds a year needed to send their son to the Midland District Grammar School in Kingston. He did well there and in 1829, John was enrolled in the reputable John Cruikshank Grammar School, also in Kingston, where he received a “classical and general” education. There he learned some Latin, Greek and French. He also acquired foundational skills in arithmetic, geography, English reading, grammar, and rhetoric. He enjoyed his studies and even considered continuing in university, but his father was barely able to afford the tuition and boarding costs, let alone the costs of attending a university abroad.
While in Kingston, John stayed with two elderly Scottish ladies. But his home-away-from home just outside of Kingston was the estate of his uncle Lieutenant-Colonel Donald Macpherson, who was always available to assist his young relative. John enjoyed his time with the Macphersons and enjoyed learning about Cluny, the ancestral home of the clan in the highlands of Scotland.
As time passed, Hugh realized that business in Hay Bay was not enough to support his family and pay the costs of sending his son to school in Kingston. Winters were especially difficult for Hugh when the local farmers were watching their pennies. And so, John A. decided, with the encouragement and help of his father and three adult cousins living nearby, to pursue a career in law. Neither he, nor his parents, thought that shop-keeping, or the trades, would provide the opportunities for advancement that a career in law would afford. John was known to attend several of the churches nearby, but he showed no inclination to enter the clergy. The Kingston grammar school experience provided the requisite knowledge and skills for his future studies in law. Law seemed the better of the three options, and so, like his three older cousins, he came to see the clear advantages of understanding how the law worked. Since there was no law school available in the Law Society of Upper Canada (the population of York, or Toronto, was less than 3,000), students were required to article with a lawyer, which meant performing contractual clerical duties while receiving instructions in the principles of the practice of the profession. Today, John would have been called a paid trainee in his chosen profession.
Later in life, Sir John A. Macdonald told his private secretary, Joseph Pope, that he wished he could have continued his formal education so that he could have pursued a literary career. But in spite of his interest in academics, John A. wrote his entrance examination to the Law Society of Upper Canada in September of 1829 and passed. Shortly after, he began working for the well-known corporate lawyer, George Mackenzie of Kingston. John A. would never again return to school. In his new role, he discovered at the age of fifteen, not only a satisfying vocation, but an opportunity to rise above his status in life as the son of a merchant.
The Stone Mills in Prince Edward County, 1829-1836
In 1830, the Macdonald family moved to the Stone Mills of Glenora where Hugh Macdonald rented the stone gristmill, seen below the escarpment in the Bartlett sketch. This was the property of the Van Alstine family, heirs to Captain Peter Van Alstine’s landholdings. He was leader of the original United Empire Loyalist settlers who sailed from the port of New York to pitch their tents at the original settlement of Adolphustown in 1784 on the north side of Adolphus Reach (to the east of the sailboat in the foreground).
Some time later to supplement the family income, Hugh Macdonald also tried his hand at processing wool in a fulling-and-carding mill at the top of the escarpment beside Lake-on-the-Mountain seen in this illustration above from Belden’s Atlas in 1878. Today, visitors can enjoy the same view of the grist-mill from the ferry boat that still operates at Glenora. To enjoy the view of the mill from the opposite direction on top of the escarpment where Bartlett sketched the famous Bay of Quinte scene, one can visit the café and restaurant beside the picturesque Lake on the Mountain and look out over the Bay of Quinte as Canada’s first prime minister did in the 1830s.
Napanee Branch Office – 1832-1833
For two full years, Macdonald worked diligently in the Kingston office and grew to be a competent assistant. Mackenzie was so impressed with his young apprentice that he sent him to open a small branch office in the hamlet of Napanee in the late summer or early fall of 1832. The office was probably nothing more than his own bedroom, or a corner of a store owned by Thomas Ramsay, a friend and confidant. Although only seventeen, John accepted the new responsibility with enthusiasm and worked there for a year providing legal advice to local landowners and merchants.
During this brief period, John A. enjoyed a newly found independence and social life. He developed a talent for telling anecdotes and for performing his comic improvisations during parties and dances. He also gained a reputation as a somewhat mischievous adolescent. There are many anecdotes recounted later by his friends and colleagues about his pranks in Napanee. On Sundays, however, he wisely attended church services and sang in a church choir. The rest of his time was devoted to the practice and study of law. Throughout his stay there, Macdonald kept in touch with his family and made a point of visiting them by boat when he could at nearby Glenora much to the delight of the family.
A year later, on learning that Lowther had developed a debilitating lung disease, John offered to help his cousin with the law practice in Hallowell. He resigned from the Mackenzie law firm, and under the counsel of his adult cousin, he took over the practice as pro tem (i.e. temporary, replacement) lawyer. For the next two years he proved himself to be a competent lawyer and well-liked in town.
The grist and carding mill business was modestly successful and provided an income for the enterprising Hugh Macdonald. Around 1830, while he was running the mills at Glenora, Hugh was appointed magistrate (a.k.a. justice-of-the-peace) for Upper Canada’s Midland District in Lennox and Addington Counties. He was paid on a fee-for-service basis in the magistrates’ court.
First Law Practice in Hallowell/Picton — 1833-1835
John came of age and began his career as an attorney
In the fall of 1833, when John A. was eighteen, he left his position with the Mackenzie law firm at the branch office in Napanee and moved to the town of Hallowell to take over the law practice of his chronically ill cousin. John ran the firm competently for two years and demonstrated his skills in the practice of law.
The second W.H. Bartlett illustration shown above captures a view of Picton harbour on the Bay of Quinte from the actual location of the Macpherson law office where John practised from 1833 to 1835. It is quite remarkable that the only two Bartlett illustrations of the Bay of Quinte in 1838 coincide with the significant events in Macdonald’s life: his home of eleven years at Glenora, and the site of the Macpherson law office, where he began his career in law and public administration.
In the sketch, his home at Glenora lies only five miles away to the right of the picture over the hill following the York/Kingston Road (now known as the Danforth) seen in the foreground. This was the famous road built by the American contractor Asa Danforth in 1802 for the settlement of the British colony of Upper Canada. The road runs through Hallowell/Picton as you see here and connects with the ferry at Glenora and then on to Kingston as shown in the Belden illustration.
With the assistance of his three adult cousins, John learned about the law and commerce in Upper Canada. He learned real estate and some corporate law, but he was also learning trial law with his father by observing the Courts of Quarter Sessions and the Assizes. As his confidence grew, he ventured into public administration on the advice of Lowther Macpherson by volunteering as the first secretary of the Prince Edward Young Men’s Society, the Prince Edward District School Board and the Prince Edward Agricultural Society.
Hugh Macdonald was already a Justice of the Peace for the Midland District, but now in the new County courthouse, he became one of the magistrates for the Courts of Quarter Sessions for the new District of Prince Edward. Hugh attended the first session in the new courthouse with his son — the future Father of Confederation.
Seven months later, John argued his first recorded case in the Picton courthouse, the historic District Court House and Gaol (Quinte) on Union Street in Picton, completed in 1834.
Although not yet a lawyer, he successfully defended himself against an indictment of assault in the October Quarter Sessions of 1834. Not much is known about the incident that led to the indictment except that there may have been a political disagreement on some issue. Moore was a Reformer, and Macdonald, a Tory. There are at least five versions of the practical joke on Dr. Thomas Moore. Most accounts of the incident and trial are versions of the entertaining anecdotes taken from the Macdonald biographies by E.B. Biggar (1891), or Sir Joseph Pope (1915). Both were written decades after the incident and both rely on John A. Macdonald’s own story telling for their entertainment value – not a reliable source of court information. John A. was known for exaggerating his stories during dinner parties or political speeches. He was a likeable individual who knew how to win friends and supporters with his self-deprecation and dry wit.
As was the custom in the Court of Quarter Sessions during this period, the court reporter recorded only the basic facts relating to the indictment in the two trials and nothing related to the actual occurrence, or any evidence presented at trial. In the absence of these facts, many have tried to piece together the occurrence with anecdotal evidence. The truth is that the incident was minor and was treated as such by the presiding judge. Dr. Moore was found guilty of the assault and fined a token six pence, a mere slap on the wrist. Both men worked together following the trials and appeared to get along without further incident.
Following is the transcription of the actual trials, courtesy of Linda Corupe UE, professional archivist. The misspellings and errors made by the court reporter provide some indication of just how unreliable proceedings were in the magistrate-run courts of Upper Canada before responsible government was introduced in 1841.
|CASE||The King vs. Thomas Moore|
|CHARGE||Assault upon J.A. McDonald|
|PETIT JURY sworn to try||1. Peter Head
2. John D. Dulmadge
3. John Hale
4. James Weeks
5. Hiram Clapp
6. John Sprole
|7. Henry VanVlack
8. John McCan
9. Joseph Martin
10. James Walker
11. George Martin
12. Miles O’Leary
|PLEA||Defendant arraigned and pleaded not guilty|
|WITNESSES for the PROSECUTION||John A. McDonald, David Barker, Henry J. Bonnycastle, Francis W. Smith, Benjamin Hubbs, Esq., Thomas Nash, Esq.|
|WITNESSES for the DEFENCE||Thomas Wilson, Edward Fegan, William Saunders|
|VERDICT||The jury having retired from the Court and again returned into Court, say the defendant is guilty. The defendant was then put to the bar and fined six pence.|
|CASE||The King vs. A. McDonald|
|CHARGE||Assault upon Dr. Moore|
|PETIT JURY sworn to try||1. Samuel Locie
2. Henry Hart
3. Gershom Clark
4. Lewis Smith
5. Daniel Locie
6. Jacob Newman
|7. George Moore
8. William Graham
9. Benjamin Pine
10. Isaac Saunders
11. Andrew Patterson
12. David B. Cronk
|PLEA||Defendant arraigned and pleaded not guilty|
|WITNESSES for the PROSECUTION||David Barker, Henry J. Bonnycastle, Benjamin Hubbs, Esq., Francis W. Smith|
|VERDICT||The jury having retired from the Court and again returned into Court say the defendant is not guilty.|
Transcripts of the trials Dr. Thomas Moore and John A. Macdonald, October 8, 1834 (cf. Minutes, Corupe)
There are other stories of Macdonald in Hallowell that live on as part of the legend: how he would take off his shoes to walk the five miles from Glenora to Hallowell to save shoe leather; how he erected a fence with his friends on Main Street to stop a mad street-racer; and how he placed a frozen horse in the Methodist church pulpit one night with his friends much to the consternation of the imaginative parishioners. These are all part of the legend of a teenager prior to his coming of age in Prince Edward County.
In 1835, Macdonald Returned to Kingston
During the summer of 1834, upon hearing of the untimely death of his mentor George Mackenzie during a cholera epidemic, Macdonald realized that greater opportunities lay ahead of him in Kingston, and so, in spite of the fact that the leading citizens of Hallowell offered him one hundred pounds to stay, Macdonald moved to Kingston the following year to begin his career in law after graduating from the Law Society in 1835. John was now an attorney and had indeed finally come of age.
When he turned twenty-one, he was called to the bar. That year, his father, mother and two sisters left the Stone Mills in Prince Edward County to join him at his new home on Rideau Street. He was now a barrister with a promising future. Shortly after his first trial, a rebellion in Upper and Lower Canada broke out followed later by the Patriot War. This was a time of insurrection against the oligarchic regime of the four remaining British North American colonies. John A. volunteered to defend York from the insurgents led by William Lyon Mackenzie, a well-known Reformer and republican sympathizer. John carried a musket as a member of the Upper Canadian militia during the abortive rebellion of 1837 at Montgomery’s Tavern in Toronto. The following year he showed his true mettle by defending eight young men from Hastings, Lennox and Addington Counties who were charged with treason for their participation in the same rebellion. He had by now gained a reputation as a conservative who was not afraid to defend the rule of law and the right of every British citizen to a fair trial.
During this time, he took on four challenging and difficult cases and won two of them. Donald Creighton, the acclaimed Macdonald biographer, summed up his reputation in Kingston in 1838:
Without any question he was the preferred legal advisor of the Scottish community and it might even be argued now that he was one of the most popular lawyers in the town as a whole. He was getting to be known professionally as an ingenious young man, persuasive with juries, adroitly clever in the management of cases—“ a dangerous man to encounter in the courts”, as one of his contemporaries phrased it long afterwards. (72)
He was now only twenty-three, but his talents were clearly evident. He was a gifted individual destined to play a greater role on a much greater stage.
His cousin, John Alexander Macpherson and the widow and children of Lowther followed him to Kingston some years later. By 1840, John A. had developed a successful practice in criminal and corporate law and was investing heavily in real estate; but he was also ready for new challenges. Around this time, John A. was suffering from an undetermined illness and his father’s health was failing also. He decided to explore other career opportunities. According to archivist Linda Corupe,
John wrote to the civil secretary in a letter dated January 6, 1841 to ask that he be appointed Judge of the District Court of Prince Edward, a position that would have included the role of chairman of the Quarter Sessions court. Although Archibald Gilkison actually got this position at the end of 1841, written on Macdonald’s application is “Send the usual reply.” (Upper Canada Sundries)
It was a turning point in John’s life and likely for the future of Canada. It is difficult to imagine how the nation would have evolved were it not for this timely rejection. John would never again live in Prince Edward County, but his happy memories lived with him for the rest of his life. In later years, he was known to visit old friends and family as he passed by on his many political excursions.
In 1841, John’s father died, leaving his twenty-six year old son as the sole supporter of the family. The law practice continued to prosper as John became even more popular. In two short years, he was to marry his first half-cousin Isabella and shortly after enter politics for the first time as alderman for Kingston. The next year, he was elected again as its representative in the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada. He had finally found his true calling in life.
Macdonald Returned to the “Good Old County” in 1861 as Premier of Canada West
In 1861, six years before Confederation, Macdonald made a visit to Picton. This time he was the Hon. John A. Macdonald now the Attorney General and Joint Premier (with George-Étienne Cartier) of the Province of Canada. He spoke at the courthouse where he had first demonstrated
his talents as a lawyer. He began by saying he had been absent for many years, but had not forgotten
. . . the good old County . . . . my early associations are connected with Prince Edward – some of the happiest days of my life were spent here – I here obtained my earliest professional education, and here, in this good old town of Picton, I earned my first fee and made my first speech to a jury in this very Court House, at the first Quarter Sessions that were held in it.
Later in the day, he spoke at the Agricultural Hall. He admitted the path of a politician could be a thorny one. He again recalled his early days spent in Picton, “long before he thought he should occupy his present position, when he was an idle sort of boy, liking everybody, and a good many people liking him.” The townspeople enjoyed this kind of good-natured reminiscing.
At another place in another time, Macdonald is reported to have said—somewhat tongue-in- cheek : “I love the people of Prince Edward County. They vote for me time after time and they never ask me for anything. And they never get anything.” (Lunn 9) In fact, all his political life, people of the County wrote to him unabashedly to ask for favours, and he wrote back to offer his assistance as if he were their member of Parliament.
The Importance of the Quinte Years
Sir Joseph Pope, secretary to Sir John A. Macdonald from 1882 to 1891, wrote in his Memoirs of the Right Honourable Sir John Alexander Macdonald:
To the last he never forgot the Bay of Quinté, and whenever I passed through that charming locality in his company he would speak with enthusiasm of the days when he lived there. He would recall some event connected with each neighbourhood, until, between Glasgow and Kingston, Adolphustown, Hay Bay, and the Stone Mills [Glenora], it was hard to tell what was his native place. I told him so one day, and he laughingly replied: ‘That’s just what the Grits say. The Globe has it that I am born in a new place every general election!’ (Chapter 1)
Macdonald was a man of the people and spoke, not, as his parents did with a full Scottish brogue, but with a slight Bay of Quinte inflection. Throughout his life, in spite of the fact that he used the rhetoric and manner of a nineteenth century politician, he was able to use the unsophisticated local colloquialisms, wit, and sly social observations that he learned along the Bay of Quinte to win friends and influence jurors, constituents and members of Parliament. He would often begin his election speeches in the Adolphustown with “Yeomen…I remember well when I ran about in this district a barefooted boy.” His future law partner, Alexander Campbell, was well-acquainted with his mannerisms and wrote in his memoirs:
He never became in my judgement a good lawyer, but was always a dangerous man to encounter in courts. His power before a country jury was always marked chiefly if not wholly owing to his knowledge of the jurymen and his appreciation of their habits of thoughts and ways of speaking. He was in tone of voice and manner as thoroughly a Bay of Quinté boy as if he had been born there. I have for instance heard him say to a jury in speaking of an assault, say of the defendant that ‘he took & went & hit him a brick.’ (Archives Ontario, Campbell Papers)
John A. identified strongly with the people of the Bay of Quinte and Kingston, but later in life he began to view himself as more than a resident of Upper Canada: he thought of himself as a Canadian. He visited and lived in many places. The list of his residences is long and varied. Across Canada, in villages, towns and cities people felt a connection with him as if he were one of their own.
The British prime minister, Disraeli, who met him in 1879, found his Dominion counterpart ‘gentlemanlike, agreeable, and very intelligent, a considerable man, with no Yankeeisms except a little sing-song occasionally at the end of a sentence’. Disraeli’s comment is confirmed by some verbatim evidence to show that John A. Macdonald rounded off his sentences with that harmless but distinctively Canadian interrogative ‘eh?’ Canada’s humorists have got it right: he was indeed Sir John Eh? Macdonald. (Martin “Scotsman”)
Looking back on his childhood, it is important to remember that he was only five in 1820 when he arrived in Canada as the son of an immigrant and struggling merchant from Glasgow. John came to Canada as a European immigrant, not as a refugee from the American War of Independence. These new colonists, known as United Empire Loyalists, represented a significant proportion of the population of the former thirteen colonies. They had kept their allegiance to the British Crown at the outbreak of the American Revolution. They later chose to leave or were forced to flee to the protection of their King within the British Empire. The Macdonald family shared many of their values and beliefs. Throughout his life, John A. championed British institutions, not republican ones.
Childhood Influences Growing Up in Loyalist Upper Canada on the Bay of Quinte
John A. Macdonald’s character was shaped during this important period of his life. These were his salad days–the mainly happy memories of childhood and adolescence living with his family in the pastoral setting of the famous Bartlett’s sketches. There along the shore of the Bay of Quinte, he remembered intimate moments with his family and friends. There, he also developed his legendary sense of humour. He acquired a remarkable gift for story telling that helped him to win over acquaintances and audiences throughout his political career. It was in the old rustic schoolhouse in Adolphustown that he first discovered his early passion for reading and the legendary work ethic—these were two important characteristics that were to sustain him throughout his long and challenging career. Without these, it is difficult to imagine how he could have faced the burden of caring for his chronically ill first wife, Isabella Clark; the death of his first son, John; the long separations from his family; the financial challenges; the estrangement from his son Hugh; the birth of his hydrocephalic daughter; the stress of serving continuously as M.P. for forty-seven years in the legislative assembly of Canada—most of it as either Premier or Prime Minister; and the many other hardships in his personal and political life to come.
Many of the earliest pleasant memories of Macdonald’s life are captured in the amusing anecdotes found in the many biographies of John A. Macdonald (see Selected Sources). These legendary stories help to illustrate the life of the young son of a Scottish cotton broker living in Hay Bay and Napanee reading independently and practicing law for the first time as a pro tem lawyer. The most popular stories of the early life of John A. Macdonald are told in E.B. Biggar’s The Anecdotal Life of Sir John A. Macdonald published shortly after Macdonald death in 1891 and Sir Joseph Pope’s The Day of Sir John Macdonald: A Chronicle of the First Prime Minister of the Dominion published in 1915.
The somewhat risqué anecdotes portray Macdonald as a kind of educated version of Huckleberry Finn or Tom Jones. He was not afraid to play practical jokes on friends or colleagues, who perhaps deserved a reality check once in a while. But it was the experience of living in Hallowell, actually working as a young lawyer for the first time, meeting people and becoming involved in civic affairs that gave Macdonald the confidence to aspire to greater things.
Always John was good-natured, fun-loving, mischievous and amiable. But behind the caricature of the local legend was a bright, hard-working, enterprising, ambitious and fiercely competitive young man. The truth is that John A. Macdonald was dedicated to advancing his station in life while providing for his family and working for the betterment of the British colony of Upper Canada. He was hardly a saintly figure in Canadian history, unlike his virtuous and heroic counterpart south of the border, who has been portrayed as openly admitting to cutting down a cherry tree as a child and throwing a silver dollar across the mile-wide Potomac River as an adult.
John A. Macdonald would have been the first to admit his mistakes during his time in office—some of them egregious—but he would also be the first to defend his good intentions. Historian Richard Gwyn describes those shortcomings in his opinion piece in The Ottawa Citizen in 2012. He reminds those who are quick to criticise that they should be careful not to judge the past by the standards of the present, thereby proclaiming moral superiority to all Canadians who lived earlier:
On most matters concerning race and ethnicity, Macdonald was far ahead of his times and he would remain ahead for decades to come in many respects . . . . Rather than dismissing our past or posturing our superiority to it, we’d do a lot better to set out to learn from it.
Sir John A. Macdonald’s Legacy:
Sir John A. Macdonald travelled extensively throughout his life and lived and stayed in many places in Canada and abroad. Joseph Pope wrote in his biography, however, that Sir John A was probably most at home along the eastern shores of Lake Ontario. He called this area home, especially Kingston, where he had strong family roots and civic interests. However, as he became more of a statesman involved with all regions of what was to become the Dominion of Canada, he considered his home to be more than Kingston, Ottawa, the Bay of Quinte, Toronto, Victoria, Quebec, Montreal, and Rivière-du-Loup . His home was Canada. He was proud to call himself Canadian. He said in a speech in St. Thomas in 1860:
Since I was five years old, I have been in Canada. All my hopes and dreams and my remembrances are Canadian; not only are my principles and prejudices Canadian but what — as a Scotchman — I feel as much as anyone else, my interests are Canadian.
In those words, John A. Macdonald defined his identity in an emerging Canada. He saw himself as more than a provincial politician with Scottish roots: he was now a statesman representing all Canadians from all regions and backgrounds. He was to become the nation builder and leader of the country we know today. John A. Macdonald rose from humble beginnings to become Joint Premier of the Province of Canada and later the principal architect of the British North America Act of 1867, Canada’s principal constitution act. On July 1, 1867, he became the first Prime Minister of the Dominion of Canada.
- Armstrong, Alvin. Buckskin to Broadloom: Kingston Grows up. Kingston: Kingston Whig-standard, 1973.
- Ashton, E.D. Taylor. On the Edge of History. Ottawa: Hermitage Publishing Corporation. 1995.
- Biggar, E.B. Anecdotal Life of Sir John Macdonald. Montreal: Lovell, 1891.
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By David Warrick