John A. Macdonald was born a Scot, he revered British culture and its institutions, and was also described by a colleague who knew him well, as a “Bay of Quinte boy.” As an immigrant child in the Loyalist, Kingston area of Upper Canada, he was raised in a community in continuity with the culture of his past. Born in Scotland in 1815, John Alexander Macdonald had immigrated with his family to the Kingston area in 1820. Kingston was already a Scottish enclave, created by Loyalists after the American Revolution, and by new emigrants from Scotland. In the Highland Clearances, thousands of Scottish ancestors and clan members of Macdonald had been uprooted, as much as Canada’s Aboriginals have, to clear the Scottish highlands in the 18th century for “improved” agriculture. Many had immigrated to North America. John A’s mother spoke Gaelic and John A. was raised and educated in a Scottish Presbyterian atmosphere. Gwyn writes that Macdonald never perceived himself as a Canadian, but rather as a British North American. He was a Scot, a North American loyal to the British culture and its institutions, and one who was raised in Loyalist Upper Canada. From such beginnings, Macdonald grew to become a savvy politician, able to relate to the 19th century “crazy-quilt” fabric of a largely immigrant society north of the 49th parallel which we today we call Canada. He genuinely liked all people and felt comfortable with everyone, states Gwyn. Important also politically in the political struggle in Canada for union, Scots, got along exceptionally well with the Catholic French. Gwyn suggests that most possibly, if it had not been for MacDonald’s ability at the “long game” and his stubborn tenacity, we would not be Canadian today; in that sense he was the man that made us. He had the ability to pull together the varied disparate social political elements of the time into a united will for Confederation, facilitating the main creative strategy for the formation of an “un-American” legislative union, a nation, above the 49th parallel remaining loyal to British values and institutions.
Gwyn writes in an easy to read narrative way hoping to encourage Canadians to know their past, and hence themselves (p. 442). Gwyn has researched original correspondence. He builds on the insights of Canadian Historian Donald Creighton and many other notable historians and biographers, designing to have John A. Macdonald act as a kind of “tour guide” for us. This book succeeds doing that in many ways, especially as the reader experiences with Macdonald, his personal and public sufferings and triumphs, and peers over his shoulder, as it were, into his work as a political strategist. We are also introduced to the lives and politics of the other key players working with Macdonald towards Confederation.
John A., as he was to be called later, received his early training in law, in Prince Edward County, Bay of Quinte area. I grew up there also as an immigrant kid, I was also five when I arrived, and feel a kinship with Macdonald, and still consider “home” the very area of his early legal and political life. In 1844 MacDonald entered politics as a Conservative MP in Kingston, Upper Canada (Ontario). This was just following the impact of Lord Durham’s report that ordered the formation one province, out of two British Colonies, and gave them a measure of independence with responsible government. (Colonial Nova Scotia had also achieved responsible government). This meant combining Catholic, French- speaking Lower Canada, and English-speaking Upper Canada, into the United Province of Canada. This was to forestall a revolution as had happened in the states, and to solve bitter sectionalism. Lord Durham had assumed that with continued British immigration, the French culture would be eliminated by assimilation. However, this actually spurred a search for a form of governance for a relative peaceful co-existence, into one political union of differentiated cultural-religious regional entities. Lord Durham in 1839 had characterized the relations as “two races warring in the bosom of a single state” (race then usually meaning an ethnic group) (p. 92). There were aggressive religious polarities, everything from avid Orange Order supporters in Upper Canada, to Catholic Ultramontanes in Lower Canada, and everything in between. It was in this conflicted atmosphere that Macdonald developed his political sills in the 1840’s and 1850’s. In the beginning, he was not so much seeking confederation, as maintaining unity with French Canada East, to stay together and avoid assimilation by the US. Gwyn notes that ultimately confederation became a tactical method for Macdonald to achieve his real objective of not being annexed or absorbed by the United States. A divided Canada would fall.
Gwyn states that, “The single most important decision taken by Canadians in the nineteenth century was not to form a confederation but, rather, not to become American” (p.419). A confederation of separate provinces was the outcome in 1867 of the political search for a non-revolutionary, “un-American” solution. Macdonald’s political skills developed and flourished with the political challenge. Macdonald loved law; but worshiped politics, Gwyn writes (p.160). He loved power for its own sake, and usually managed to use it for the common Good. Macdonald masterfully brought together disparate elements of society and maintained them on a more or less even keel. He has been described as an “artificer in chief.” Gwyn notes, “By whatever combination of deviousness and magic it took, Macdonald had made Confederation out of scraps and patches and oddments of thread and string, many frayed and few fitting naturally, but at last it actually existed” (pp. 439-440).
Gwyn contends, though, that Macdonald was not simply a pragmatic politician without ideas or a guiding political philosophy; Macdonald did not prize ideas or ideology as ends in themselves. He was a Scottish common sense realist, an heir of the Scottish Enlightenment. However, writes Gwyn, “Inside almost every Scot though, there is, somewhere, an urge handed down across the generations to behold the Hebrides in dreams. Confederation, while about such practical matters as ending political deadlock, was at its core an absurdly romantic project. Its end objective was to create a new nation that might actually survive in North America without becoming American” (pp.294-295). Macdonald read voluminously and certainly had ideas and did have a political philosophy, but did not parade his intellect, Gwyn notes. The common person felt comfortable with him. Macdonald, it is suggested, was probably influenced by Edmond Burke’s thought, embodying prudence and experience. For Macdonald, politics was about people in their institutional contexts, not about ideology as such; Macdonald understood in a philosophical manner why he should be expedient (p.295). In a sense I suspect that Macdonald had a Celtic, Loyalist, sense of the organic unity of society and all its interrelating aspects and powers, and a sense of the immanence of God the Creator, not seeing a society merely as a sum of its parts, but in its magnificent interrelatedness. Perhaps biographer Ken Mc Googan is right in saying that Macdonald is more a Scottish Presbyterian after the sense of Robbie Burns than John Knox (How the Scots Invented Canada, Harper Collins, 2010, p. 130).
Loyalty to British culture and its revered institutions defined Macdonald’s perspectives, as it did for most of his generation. He reflected the Loyalists’ opinion of the Americans as treasonous revolutionaries against the British crown and its historic institutions. The Canadiens, likewise, saw the Americans as being secular and immoral. Macdonald described the American Civil War as a failure of the American political system which had given too much independent power to the states. Gwyn identifies Loyalty to Britain, and fear of annexation by the Americans, as the two catalytic issues that spurred on the work for political unity and union first in Upper and Lower Canada and the Maritimes, and then later Rupert’s land and the West. Macdonald and his society, except for the Clear Grits, regarded American style democracy as mob-rule. Too much state sovereignty had contributed to the Civil War, Macdonald insisted, and instead desired a strong central government; universal suffrage was not advocated at all from Macdonald’s perspective, in the sense of the individualism and direct democracy espoused. Representative democracy was the norm in Macdonald’s society, not primary democracy. Macdonald also reflected the virtues shared in his Loyalist heritage, which was not simply attached externally to British institutions as such, but reflected an inner spirit of attitudes and beliefs about society. Gwyn, Quoting from historian Carl Berger (The Sense of Power) identifies inner assumptions such as, “….the primacy of the community over individual selfishness, society conceived of as an organism of functionally related parts….religion as the mortar of the social order and the distrust of materialism”(p. 367). Macdonald’s generation for the most part did not look south with much reverence or fondness for things American.
Macdonald and his generation looked south with concern about American militaristic aggression. Pre Confederation “Canadian’s” were concerned that after the Civil War, America’s insatiable expansionist appetite, spurred by its grandiose manifest destiny, would annex the rest of British North America. It was MacDonald’s opinion that Confederation was a way to make a public statement to the States, and to Britain, that the British in the Maritimes and the United Province of Canada had the collective will to be an un-American federation or nation. (Britain too was quietly looking for ways to lessen its military obligations to colonial Canada and the Maritime Provinces). Differences of opinion did exist within Macdonald’s centrist coalition of “Liberal-Conservatives,” but Macdonald managed to maintain a working consensus; most were bound together in their loyalty to British institutions, and by fear of annexation by the US. The British values of strong institutional support for the common good would prevail in Confederation, with it’s the emblematic phrase, peace, order (or welfare), and good government, inscribed in Confederation’s British North America Act.
Macdonald did not value change for its own sake, and did not value social reform because he was of the opinion that human nature was basically fixed. Macdonald desired strong and stable structures in order to achieve and maintain peace, order and good government. However, change was in the wind regarding social-structural values. George Brown, a Liberal (Reform then) opponent of Macdonald’s, who came to support him for Confederation, was considered ahead of his time in penal reform according to Gwyn. Brown urged that abuses at Kingston penitentiary must be addressed, that prisoners be treated as human beings. Macdonald disagreed with Brown on reform, suggesting that prisons should not be too comfortable. People basically did not change, and prisons were for punishment, not for rehabilitation, according to him. On this issue of criminal justice, a bitter struggle ensued between Brown and Macdonald. Gwyn suggests, however, that the difference was more about personalities than theory.
George Brown also actively opposed slavery, and pushed for representation by population, something Macdonald opposed. Macdonald was a man of his times, in that typical paternalistic manner he dealt with Aboriginal issues, and he was, as was his Conservative party generally, opposed to welfare for the poor. People in those days were self-sufficient and poverty was seen to people’s own problem and the responsibility of the church, not the state. Crime and poverty associated with crowded industrial cities did not yet exist in pre-confederation Canada. Theoretically, MacDonald was Kantian (deontological) in his view of justice; the law is to be upheld as an end in itself. However, with his political existential, prudence, and his political savvy, Macdonald was open to entertain new ideas while maintaining the stability of trusted institutions. For him though, “forms are things,” in other words, “…the way something is done matters as much as what is done” (152). On the other hand, his savvy and prudence led him to evaluate any policy by its results (p. 295).
Macdonald’s political behaviours must be seen in the context of his time. Gwyn locates Macdonald as a representative of the pre-Victorian Regency era, noted for its aristocratic lifestyles of frivolous excess. Patronage was expected. Macdonald’s binge drinking was not exceptional in that culture, and the concept and term, “alcoholic,” was not to be common in society until after his death in 1891. Representative democracy was the norm in Macdonald’s day, not direct democracy or universal suffrage. The shortcomings that we perceive from a 21st century perspective are ours to resolve. The BNA of 1867 was left vague and unsatisfactory in the lack of amending processes, unspecific regarding the powers of the provinces in relation to Ottawa, and lacking in the area of Aboriginal issues. The relation of the “two races”, the English and the French, was an unspecified pact. Not everything was cast in stone. Perhaps the omissions leave open opportunities for creative political savvy, relevant to 21st century realities. Macdonald did leave us a model of how to work from a centrist posture, favouring political power at the center, focussing on the common good. His Progressive-Conservative model, or more popularly, his Liberal-Conservative party model exemplified a centrist, broad, consensus seeking mode, opposed to the populist Clear Grits of his day. He would have little to do with the possessive individualism popular in today’s conservative circles.
Slowly, penal reform did progress in Canada during the 20th Century, but sadly, the Conservatives today are more in line with the populist Clear Grits of MacDonald’s day, and instead of prudently keeping abreast with modern evidence based criminology, or listening to voices advocating restorative justice, Canada’s prisons today are reflecting attitudes and conditions about which George Brown and Macdonald were arguing about almost 150 years ago. I doubt that John A. would call that prudent or politically wise; nor do I think would he be an avid supporter of a US style prison policy based simply on the pragmatics of public opinion for political advantage. Macdonald left us a legacy of the use of power in governance for the common good, as he and his generation saw it; and, he was intellectually flexible enough, I think, to listen to “modern” theoretical thought as well as use his intuitive Scottish good sense of what works for the common good. Gwyn notes that Macdonald has been described as the embodiment of Burkean prudence and experience: for Macdonald, “Politics is about people, not ideology – and that of course, is an ideology in itself” (p.296).