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Response to Review of John A. Macdonald and Thomas D’Arcy McGee

The great imperial historian W. P. Morrell once told me that, when his first book was published in 1930, it received a favourable assessment from a prominent academic. Meeting the senior colleague on the streets of Oxford soon after, he enquired: ‘Does one thank for reviews?’ and was told ‘No’. However, one can express appreciation for the spirit in which a review is written, and I am obliged to Andrew Smith for his comments.

I add a word about the context and content of Favourite Son? as part of a larger biographical study of Canada's first prime minister. In working towards a new interpretation of the career of Sir John A. Macdonald, it seemed necessary to confront several issues about his life. One of these was his legendary alcohol problem which, as Dr Smith notes, still forms an embarrassed element in Canadian public folklore. I have written about this in ‘John A. Macdonald and the bottle’ in the Journal of Canadian Studies.(1) Macdonald engaged in episodes of binge-drinking for about 20 years from the mid-1850s. Ironically, this period spanned the creation of the Dominion of Canada in 1867: evidently, his career prospered despite, not because, of this still-remembered weakness.

Favourite Son? is an attempt to unravel another enigma. For a decade and a half after he first entered parliament for his home city of Kingston in 1844, Macdonald was virtually unchallenged on his home turf. Then, for the next 20 years, there is a curious paradox: the politician who steadily became a dominant figure at Dominion level found himself increasingly unpopular in his own riding. The culminating irony came in 1878 when he led his party to a landslide victory across Canada but lost his own seat – a combination virtually without parallel in the history of parliamentary democracy..

In attempting to explain what happened, I sought also to challenge the pervasive approach ‘Our hero’ approach to political biography that is standard in both Canada and Britain, in which the subject gets elected to parliament in chapter one, and is then steadily returned by loyal and admiring electors until he (it's a masculine tradition) finally ascends in a fiery chariot either to Heaven or the House of Lords. Of course there were politicians – Peel at Tamworth, Lloyd George in the Carnarvon Boroughs, Baldwin in East Worcestershire – who could take their voters for granted. Equally there are careers that historians recognise can only be understood by taking account the subject's search for a dependable constituency: for instance, Gladstone's long march towards liberalism. Joseph Chamberlain's national and imperial career depended first on capturing Birmingham for radicalism and then on reconquering it for unionism. Churchill's career seems to fall into both categories: the political zigzags of his first quarter-century in politics are closely linked to electoral upheavals, but it is easy to assume that his problems were solved by his election for Epping (later Woodford) from 1924. In fact, facing a dangerous revolt among local Tories in 1938–9 over his opposition to Munich, Churchill threatened that if his critics carried a censure motion against him, he would resign and fight them at a by-election, raising the possibility that he would have been either an independent MP in 1940 or out of parliament altogether.

Thus my attempt to examine Macdonald's career from the bottom up represents a wider attempt to counter the shortcomings of the standard top-down approach to a life in politics. The book has seven chapters, the first setting the scene about the personality and the town in which he lived. Kingston today projects itself as a Scots and Loyalist city. In fact the majority of its population (although not its local elite) was of Irish origin, with the two traditions about equally represented. This meant that, by Ontario standards, Kingston had an unusually high percentage of Catholics, as well as the deeply suspicious cohort of Orangemen whom Dr Smith mentions. At Dominion level, Macdonald was brilliantly successful at building a partnership between French- and English-speaking Canadians. His constituents were less easy to reconcile.

Four chapters discuss Macdonald's election campaigns over a 50-year period. My contention is that individual campaigns make more sense in the longer context, but I am conscious that attempting to survey half a century is a challenge. One chapter explores franchise qualifications, voter participation and issues of malpractice and corruption. Dr Smith comments generously on the final chapter which compares Macdonald's own chaotic personal finances with the relative decline of Kingston itself. A major theme is the steady disappointment of hopes that the city could develop its rock-strewn hinterland, and I am intrigued by Dr Smith's suggestion that environmental history could provide new tools in this discussion.

As Favourite Son? is part of a continuing project, I was glad to publish the book with the Kingston Historical Society. As would be expected, its members honour and preserve local sites associated with John A. Macdonald (not all of them licensed), but the Society is also developing an impressive programme of scholarly publishing. I am grateful to the volunteer production team for creating a handsome volume, and I am also obliged to Dr Smith for his comment that Favourite Son? transcends the narrow category of local history.

Notes

  1. Ged Martin, ‘John A. Macdonald and the bottle’, Journal of Canadian Studies, 40 (2006), 162–85.Back to (1)