An Unsentimental Portrait

From its realism, intensity and wrinkles emerges a Macdonald for our times

Upon finishing Richard Gwyn’s excellent biography Nation Maker: Sir John A. Macdonald: His Life, Our Times, I know our first prime minister much better. Surprisingly, I like him less.

Gwyn himself admires Macdonald and describes those qualities that attracted Macdonald’s contemporaries and Canadians more generally to him: his generosity of spirit; his ability to move easily among kings and paupers; his extraordinary skill in negotiation whether in Charlottetown or in Washington; and, of course, his exceptional wit. Who can resist Macdonald’s famous political analysis: “they prefer John A. drunk to George Brown sober”? Or his comment when his colleague George Foster married an apparently inappropriate woman: “beneath the belt, there is no wisdom”?

Macdonald was simultaneously charming and charismatic, a rare and invaluable political combination. He possessed, as Gwyn remarks, “the priceless political asset of being distinctive,” with his red cravat, checked trousers, flowing youthful locks and, in the words of Liberal Charles Langelier, “a nose that made up his whole glory.” The nose reddened at times and swelled as he aged, and his hair thinned; but his strong personal presence endured to the end. In 1884, on the 40th anniversary of his entry into political life, Macdonald lamented before a large Toronto rally that many of his colleagues were gone or “like myself, feeble old men.” A supporter yelled out, unforgettably, “You’ll never die, John A.” And it seemed he wouldn’t. He was, very simply, great company, too much alive to die.

He won two more elections, completed the Canadian Pacific Railway and accomplished his aim of hardening the “gristle” of Confederation into bone. To Gwyn, Macdonald is our nation maker, the “man who made us” into a separate North American political experiment extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific and almost to the North Pole. Without Macdonald, Gwyn argues convincingly, our shape would be much different, and—he suggests more controversially—the Americans would have chewed us up and cast us into a few new minor states in their great yet flawed democratic experiment.

Gwyn’s second volume begins with Macdonald, the Meiji Restoration in Japan and Bismarck’s fashioning of the new German Reich. It was the era of building new nations, and that task was Macdonald’s fundamental challenge. Gwyn later compares Macdonald’s turn away from free trade to the protectionism of his National Policy with Bismarck’s shift away from “blood and iron” and toward internal economic development and support for industrial workers. The means of nation making could change dramatically, but the end—a new nationality—persisted.

Gwyn’s assertion that Macdonald “built” the nation of Canada is similarly persistent, engagingly and eloquently presented, and finally convincing. It is not original; after all, Macdonald himself believed it and made it the famous slogan—“The Old Flag, The Old Policy, The Old Leader”—of his last campaign in 1891. Moreover, Donald Creighton’s celebrated biography of Macdonald, published in the 1950s, similarly placed Macdonald among Washington, Bismarck and Garibaldi as the fathers of their countries.

Although Gwyn generously acknowledges the historiographical significance of Creighton’s Macdonald and his own debt to Creighton’s classic work, his book is fresh with much new material and a different presentation. Creighton’s Macdonald became the personification of the Laurentian thesis developed in the interwar period. As brilliantly set out in Creighton’s 1937 The Commercial Empire of the St. Lawrence, the thesis disputes the continentalism fashionable at the time by tracing Canada’s development along the path of the St. Lawrence River in the heartland through the trade of staples. Linked through economics and empire with Europe, Canada became a nation because of geography, not in spite of it. In Creighton’s biography, eloquent and elegant though it is, Macdonald bears the heavy weight of the Laurentian thesis upon his shoulders.

Gwyn’s Macdonald carries no such burden and, as Michael Bliss observes in a publisher’s blurb, readers meet a more lifelike and credible person. Creighton paints like a Victorian portraitist where imperial robes and decorations swathe the subject and enhance his grandeur while most warts remain hidden behind shadows. Gwyn’s style is closer to Lucian Freud in its realism, intensity, wrinkles and honesty: a Macdonald for our times.

To be fair, Gwyn employs brushes and colouring unknown to Creighton. He generously and correctly gives credit to the many academic historians who have written about the late 19th century and opened doors that were largely closed, particularly in the areas of aboriginal, western Canadian and feminist history. The rich texture of Nation Maker also draws deeply upon the finest book ever written about Ottawa, Sandra Gwyn’s The Private Capital: Ambition and Love in the Age of Macdonald and Laurier. These secondary works, which often revealed new primary sources and took new approaches, permit Gwyn to drill down into some of Macdonald’s greatest challenges and to evaluate his successes and failures more fully.

One constant remains: Macdonald’s greatness as a nation maker. Here there is no debate. He was the man who made us; and as we prepare to celebrate Macdonald’s bicentenary in 2015, we can safely predict that nearly all Canadians will toast their nation’s founder, no doubt with appropriate spirits. The party has already begun with John A. Macdonald Walking Tours in Kingston and a campus speaking tour by former Liberal prime minister John Turner on Macdonald as “the greatest Canadian.” Although Pierre Trudeau tops the public opinion polls as the greatest prime minister, his own principal secretary Tom Axworthy disagreed in a 2008 Toronto Star column, in which he picked Macdonald as our “greatest.” This year’s Maclean’s poll of historians, political scientists and journalists on the greatest prime minister saw Macdonald edge close to the top spot, a fraction behind Laurier. Out of step, I placed Macdonald in a first place tie with King.1

Macdonald’s greatness as the nation maker remains, but troubles come in the accumulated details in Gwyn’s biography. The first and least serious problem is Macdonald’s personal character; the second, the westward expansion of Canada, especially the Riel Rebellion; and the third, the shape of the nation Macdonald bequeathed to his successors.

What of his character? A wonderful subject for a biography, Macdonald was splendid company to nearly all he encountered. Few politicians, Gwyn writes, “have been so utterly at ease in their skin.” His colleagues were “mesmerized” by his charms and his opponents kept their distance “for fear he would seduce them into crossing the floor.” Women apparently “worshipped him” and he treated them more seriously than nearly all men of the time, even considering granting limited female suffrage in the 1880s. While experiencing personal tragedy—the death of his first wife and the birth of a severely disabled daughter to his second wife, Agnes—he bore his pain well privately while publicly remaining genial and committed to his great political tasks. In describing these qualities, Gwyn does not depart from Creighton or many other historians.

But he does elsewhere. While Creighton’s Macdonald drank too much, Gwyn’s Macdonald is a drunk. In the 1860s and ’70s, Macdonald was frequently carried from the Commons completely besotted. Parliamentary pages brought him water laced with gin, and alcoholic outbursts marked his days and even more the nights. Agnes would sit in the House gallery at night, apparently making notes but surely keeping an eye on her flailing and failing alcoholic husband. Her diary expresses relief when he is briefly on the wagon and then laments the darkness that falls when drink sloshes through his bloodstream.

Did it matter? Did Macdonald’s drunks impair his ability to govern? The evidence strongly suggests it did. The 1870s were bad years for Macdonald, with the Pacific Scandal, the mess he made of the birth of Manitoba and the uneven leadership he gave in opposition. A centralist, he fought Liberal Edward Blake’s attempt to limit appeals to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. Gwyn writes: “Macdonald, at times sounding as though he had imbibed too liberally, declared passionately that [the Blake proposal] threatened the ‘golden chain’ linking Canada to Britain.” Although the British had already agreed to end all appeals, Macdonald’s arguments stirred opposition and the proposal died because of a fear of “provoking a first-class transatlantic political row.” As a result, the arrogant and distant Judicial Committee of the Privy Council tore apart the legal sinews of Macdonald’s strong central Canada.

John A. drunk was not even as good as the sober Alexander Mackenzie, and Canadians were fortunate that his government fell and that he lost the election of 1874.

During this period, Macdonald became distant from his adoring Agnes, quarrelled bitterly with his son Hugh John and became careless about ties with others. In the 1880s he sobered up, but much time was lost not only for Macdonald but also for his party and country. In earlier biographies, Macdonald’s personal faults lay gently; in Nation Maker they are exposed and the reader often winces.

The second area where Gwyn raises doubts about Macdonald is the treatment of the West. Like the devil in Paradise Lost, Louis Riel gets the best lines in Nation Maker. Most supporting players are briefly sketched, but Riel emerges from these pages as a towering challenge that Macdonald cannot surmount. From the birth of Manitoba and Riel’s flight to the United States and Macdonald’s secret bribes to keep him there in the 1870s, Macdonald stumbles often. While Gwyn correctly credits Macdonald with many successes in the opening of the West, notably the creation of the Mounted Police, he is too honest to avoid hard truths. Here is Gwyn on the path to the Northwest Rebellion and Riel’s execution:

Macdonald remained as erratic as ever. In 1885, he tried to have it both ways, telling MPs, “The Indian will always grumble, they will never be satisfied … if there is an error, it is in exceedingly large supply being furnished to the Indians.” He was now in full Old Tomorrow mode.

Macdonald, Gwyn reminds us, was his own minister for Indian affairs where he heeded advice from the profoundly racist official Hayter Reed. When “Tomorrow” could no longer be postponed, Macdonald faced a rebellion both farcical and tragic and, to a considerable extent, of his own creation. Gwyn again:

The problem wasn’t that Macdonald had the powers of a dictator but that he was an erratically engaged dictator. When Opposition critic David Mills complained that Macdonald was letting his department “care of itself,” the prime minister admitted he often had to “rely on memory and the improvisation of the moment” to deal with questions about western affairs.

The rebellion erupted, failed and revenge came. Justice Minister John Thompson’s shrewd wife warned that “if you hang [Riel], you make a patriot of him. If you send him to prison, he is only an insane man.” But Macdonald would not waver. Gwyn again:

A way out for Macdonald did exist. After the trial, and after two appeals against the verdict and sentence had failed, Macdonald set up a hasty three-member medical commission to examine Riel’s mental health. His motive was to provide political cover to allow French-Canadian ministers to claim that every possible step to save Riel had been taken. Macdonald could have moved a further half-step forwards. He could have deliberately chosen experts likely to say that the accused had become insane since the beginning of the trial, thereby making him ineligible to be executed. Instead, he leaned towards alienists likely to judge Riel sane and so qualified to be hanged … Macdonald made no attempt whatever to avoid Riel’s execution. In fact, he seems to have regarded it as his duty to see it through.

Later, eight rebellious Natives were hanged on the advice of Hayter Reed, who urged that “the punishment be public as I am desirous of having Indians witness it … [as] would cause them to meditate for many a day.”

Gwyn meditates himself as he follows Riel to the gallows, struck by his religiosity and dignity before death. He describes how Riel wrote his wife, “Take courage. I bless you”; how the hangman placed the hood on Riel’s head; and how a sobbing Father André led Riel in the Lord’s Prayer, which ended abruptly with “thy will be done” when the trap door sprung. Gwyn makes it clear it was not His will: “Edgar Dewdney informed Macdonald by telegram that the deed had been done. Macdonald replied it was ‘satisfactory.’ It was the worst mistake of his entire career.”

When Macdonald learned that Donald Smith had driven the last spike of the CPR, he commented “We have been made one people by the road.” Gwyn again: “Just one week later, Riel made his last walk to the centre of the prison yard in Regina—and irrevocably divided the nation. Macdonald was talking about a Canada that no longer existed.”

Gwyn regards the current celebrations of Riel in opera, fiction, non-fiction and House of Commons resolutions as silly and profoundly ahistorical. And he’s right. Riel was deeply flawed as a leader and would not stand scrutiny as a rebel or martyr worthy of glory in the 21st century. Moreover, Macdonald was a 19th-century leader, far from the cruellest and not at all racist by contemporary standards. In defence of Macdonald’s policies, Gwyn often compares the bloody exterminations in the United States with the absence of massive removals and genocidal attacks in Canada. And yet Gwyn himself has written a strong indictment of the Macdonald government’s treatment of the West and readily finds in those policies the roots of 20th- and 21st-century western and aboriginal discontents. And he’s right again.

After describing Macdonald’s “worst mistake,” Gwyn celebrates the completion of the CPR and the election victories of 1887 and 1891. In the latter, Canadians remain true to “the old man” and the protectionist national policy, which, Macdonald argued, had assured our independence from the United States, a separation profoundly threatened by the Liberal policy of unrestricted reciprocity. These were bad times in Canada with the economy depressed, the people often desperate and hundreds of thousands crossing the border to work in the more dynamic and prosperous society in the south.

In 1891, proclaiming that “a British subject I was born, a British subject I will die,” while pointing to evidence of close ties of some Liberals to American annexationists, Macdonald “saved” the country and the system he had made. One could quibble with Gwyn’s suggestion, following Macdonald, that free trade would lead ineluctably to annexation. It was not, after all, Macdonald’s own earlier belief nor Gwyn’s late 20th-century opinion. It is also unfortunate that Christopher Pennington’s excellent study of the 1891 election came out too late for Gwyn to use because it does flesh out in much detail the ties between Canadian politicians and American annexationists and provides some striking new evidence based on discoveries in American archives.2

But conniving and “veiled treason” aside, what precisely did Macdonald save? What had he made? Certainly a better country than Bismarck whose blood and iron became Sturm und Drang and, for the Germans, a horrendous first half of the 20th century. Gwyn, superb journalist that he is, cannot resist the temptation to find traces of Macdonald in the peaceful and prosperous 21st-century Canada.

And yet it is this third problem, the “shape” of the Canada that Macdonald made, that emerges as the most troubling one in Gwyn’s book. Macdonald, Gwyn clearly recognizes, was no democrat: the American experiment chilled his blood and he was traditionally Tory in his belief that an elite should rule, generously but sometimes harshly. Not a philosopher, although more learned than he appeared, Macdonald applied these opinions—they were never an ideology—to Canadian political circumstances.

Just before the 1891 campaign, George Stephen of the CPR wrote to Macdonald complaining that he was being ignored even though he had “alone spent over one million dollars” for the Conservatives and that the CPR had given a million more. Stephen had earlier written to Macdonald that the CPR was “in reality in partnership with the government.” This “partnership,” in truth a profoundly corrupt arrangement, troubles Gwyn greatly. He comments decisively that “Macdonald embraced the wrong side of history.” Even after the Pacific Scandal that nearly destroyed him, Macdonald “continued to chase election funds in the wrong places as avidly as he ever did,” and he left the Canadian political system in those wrong places after he died. In Right Honourable Men Michael Bliss claimed that none of Macdonald’s biographers have “come to grips” with Stephen’s remarkable letter. Gwyn does, and in the process supports the doubts Bliss expressed in Right Honourable Men, and in his recent autobiography about the political system Macdonald created, one in which democracy was limited, cash was king, and party favour and3iled. A Gwyn anecdote is telling: as Macdonald’s health collapsed after the 1891 election and he lay in bed, he still found time to comment on whether the baggage master at Hampton merited $1.50 per day. The devil is indeed in the details.

The political shape Macdonald gave Canada survived him, but it caused endless problems for his successors, not least the underestimated Robert Borden who finally and eagerly, in the compelling moment of wartime sacrifice, ended the system of political corruption in the Canadian public service and stood up to the CPR at considerable cost to his successor.

In this honest, thoughtful and masterful biography, Gwyn has come to grips with this astonishing Canadian, and the portrait, like those of Freud, is often disturbing. It has many sores, the skin is rough, the mind less quick, but you see Macdonald clearly in his greatness and his flaws. He’ll never die.

  1. In the June 10, 2011, issue of Maclean’s Macdonald came second in the poll of 117 experts, the same position as in a 1997 Maclean’s poll, which ranked Mackenzie King first.  

  2. Christopher Pennington, The Destiny of Canada: Macdonald, Laurier and the Election of 1891 (Penguin, 2011).  

  3. Michael Bliss, Right Honourable Men: The Descent of Canadian Politics from Macdonald to Mulroney (HarperCollins, 1994). Bliss writes: “The Conservative Party must have been so flush with CPR and manufacturers’ money in the 1880s that general elections were close to meaningless.”