John A. Macdonald Biography

(The First Prime Minister of Canada (1878 - 1891))

Birthday: January 11, 1815 (Capricorn)

Born In: Glasgow, Scotland

Sir John Alexander Macdonald was the first Canadian prime minister who served in that position for 18 years, with two separate terms. Before joining politics, he was a successful businessman and lawyer. The British North America Act and the amalgamation of Canadian provinces were his ideas. As the prime minister, he played a significant role in laying the foundation of the Canadian economy that we see today. He built a stable federal government and formed a robust political party, which protected Canadian needs and interests. He supervised the construction and expansion of the Canadian Dominion and laid a clear roadmap of policies for the upcoming leaders. Macdonald introduced a protective tariff and oversaw the building and completion of the railways. He refused to accept provincial legislation because he believed in a unified central government. In 1885, he approved the execution of Métis leader Louis Riel, which sparked heated debates and caused outrage among French Canadians. It also caused a divide between the English and French-speaking nationals within his party. One of the founders of Canada, Macdonald, passed away while still in office. Even though he was criticized for his policies like the Chinese Head Tax and the Pacific Railway scandal, he remains a key figure in Canadian history.
Quick Facts

Canadian Celebrities Born In January

Also Known As: Sir John Alexander Macdonald

Died At Age: 76


Spouse/Ex-: 1st Baroness Macdonald of Earnscliffe (m. 1867), Agnes Macdonald, Isabella Macdonald (m. 1843–1857)

siblings: James Macdonald, Louisa Macdonald, Margaret Macdonald

children: Hugh John Macdonald, John Alexander Macdonald Jr., Margaret Mary Theodora Macdonald

Born Country: Scotland

Prime Ministers Canadian Men

Died on: June 6, 1891

place of death: Ottawa, Canada

Ancestry: Scottish Canadian

Diseases & Disabilities: Paralysis, Stroke

City: Glasgow, Scotland

More Facts

awards: Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath
Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George

Childhood & Early Life
John Alexander Macdonald was born on January 10, 1815, in Ramshorn parish in Glasgow, Scotland. He was the third of five children that Hugh Macdonald and Helen Shaw had.
In 1820, his family moved to Kingston in Canada after his father's business ventures incurred heavy losses. Later, in 1829, his father was elected as a magistrate for the Midland District.
John studied at the Midland District Grammar School in Kingston, but his formal education ended at 15. Later in life, he expressed regret over not pursuing further education.
As per his parents’ wish, he cleared 'The Law Society of Upper Canada' examination and began his apprenticeship with George Mackenzie, who was a distinguished corporate lawyer.
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Following George Mackenzie's untimely death from cholera, John Macdonald took over some of his cases.
One of the most controversial clients that he inherited from Mackenzie was an accused child rapist, who was eventually tried and hanged. However, Macdonald was praised for his line of defence and arguments in the courtroom.
Macdonald expanded his business and became a director of several local companies in Kingston. He also became the in-house counsel and director of Commercial Bank in the Midland District.
He won the election against Colonel Jackson for the post of alderman on 29 March 1843.
In March 1844, he decided to run for office in the local legislative election in Kingston.
In the 1848 - 1849 elections, he was re-elected with a majority in Kingston; but the Conservatives lost their seats in the legislature.
While in opposition, he laid the groundwork for forming the new coalition government, which came to power in 1854, better known as Liberal-Conservatives.
Macdonald and Confederation
From 1854 to 1864, John Macdonald faced opposition in the assembly when Canada West and Canada East were being brought under one parliament. He wanted Queen Victoria to decide Canada’s new national capital, but the assembly expressed dismay when Ottawa was chosen by her.
When his government fell in 1864, Canada was facing a political deadlock. Under such conditions, Macdonald grudgingly agreed to opposition leader George Brown's proposal of a new coalition of Conservatives, Bleus and Grits, which was set to bring about a constitutional change.
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The coalition proved to be an important factor in the formation of Confederation of British North America in 1867, which saw the emergence of four new provinces, Ontario, Québec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia to form the Dominion of Canada.
Macdonald preferred a strong and centralized government to unify the provinces and settle the political differences amongst them.
He drafted the federal system and gave dominance to the central government over provincial governments. The imperial government recognized the depth of his constitutional knowledge.
On 1 July 1867, Lord Monck, the former Governor-General of the Province of Canada, appointed Macdonald as the first Prime Minister of Canada. He was also knighted as 'Knight Commander of the Bath.'
His first administrative tenure was from 1867 to 1873 during which, he gained recognition as "nation builder." Provinces like Manitoba, the North-West Territories (present-day Saskatchewan and Alberta), British Columbia, and Prince Edward Island also joined the Confederation.
He began the development of The Inter Colonial Railway between Québec City and Halifax. The plans were also laid down for a transcontinental railway to Pacific Coast.
The Pacific Scandal
John Macdonald allocated vast sums of money for the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway to British Columbia. These were mainly campaign contributions from 1872 elections.
While he claimed his "hands were clean," his association with Hugh Allan dragged his name through the mud, and his government was defeated in 1874 elections.
Return to Power
John Macdonald's defeat in 1874 election proved to be disastrous for Canada as the country fell into economic depression, and the new administration was deemed inefficient to deal with it. In 1878, he contested with a promise to implement several reform policies and won a landslide victory.
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His policy to readjust tariffs was initiated in 1879 and was timely updated in collaboration with Canadian manufacturers. He introduced a system under which Canadian manufacturing sector was safeguarded, while heavy taxes were imposed on the import of foreign goods, especially from America.
He also saw to it that the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed in November 1885. He made the railway a reality and gave the contract to George Stephen. He provided a subsidy of 25 million and introduced legislation to further support the railways.
Canada moved towards autonomy under his government. He negotiated the Treaty of Washington in 1871. The post of High Commissioner to Britain was made in 1880, and Finance Minister Charles Tupper served Canadian interest in Joint High Commission in Washington.
The later part of his career was plagued by many challenges. The North-West Resistance and the execution of Louis Riel in 1885 caused a rift between the French and English speaking Canadians. Eventually, he lost support in Quebec.
Premier of Ontario, Oliver Mowat, initiated several legal proceedings that resulted in more provincial autonomy in Canada than Macdonald had ever envisioned.
Family & Personal Life
While John Macdonald was still grieving his father's death in 1841, he went to Britain for a holiday. He met his first cousin Isabella Clark there. In 1842, she visited Kingston and stayed there for almost a year. On 1 September 1843, Isabella and John got married.
In 1844, Isabella moved to Savannah, Georgia, with her husband to recuperate from an illness. Macdonald returned to Canada, but she remained in Georgia for three years. He travelled to Georgia often, and by the end of 1846, she was pregnant. In August 1847, their first son John Alexander Macdonald Jr. was born.
In August 1848, his firstborn John Jr. suddenly passed away, and two years later, in March 1850, Isabella gave birth to another boy, Hugh Macdonald. By this time, Macdonald had become a heavy drinker.
On 28 December 1857, Isabella Macdonald passed away, leaving behind him and his seven-year-old son.
He married Susan Agnes Bernard on 16 February 1867. They had a daughter called Margaret Mary Theodora Macdonald, who was both physically and mentally challenged.
By the end of the nineteenth century, his health had begun to deteriorate. He called for an election on 5 March 1891and soon after that, he suffered a stroke that rendered him paralyzed and unable to speak. He was mentally active but physically incapacitated. He died on 6 June 1891 in Ottawa, Ontario.

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