I: 'Macdonald of Kingston'


John A. Macdonald: Father of Confederation  

Over a century after his death in 1891, John A. Macdonald remains the most famous product of the Ontario city of Kingston, and also its longest-serving member of parliament.

 First elected in 1844, he represented the riding for 38 of the 47 years until his death so that, for most of his career, the city gave him the political ticket that enabled him to make one of the most notable of all individual contributions to the history of Canada. Yet the most successful politician Kingston ever produced was not always popular with his own voters and during the latter part of his career his hold on the riding was far from secure. Indeed, in 1878 he was defeated and went into a nine-year exile.[1] One paradox in Macdonald’s relationship with the constituency was that his grip on the parliamentary seat seemed solid in the days when he was a little-known local lawyer, but became steadily less secure as he progressed to fame, national leadership and – presumably – the power to deliver benefits to his riding. That paradox requires explanation.

John A. Macdonald himself liked to say that elections were like horse races: it was easier to explain them the next day.[2] Unfortunately, while Kingston elections might well have been explicable to participants on the morrow of voting, it is not always easy to reconstruct them more than a century later. Of necessity, the attempt at retrospective explanation must include the suggestion of trends and hypotheses, some of which might be capable of being tested by detailed research, but others are probably now beyond any form of recovery. None the less, one central assumption behind this study is that the relationship between the statesman and the city requires to be viewed as a whole, through the half-century perspective of their up-and-down interplay. Only within this longer-term context is it possible to identify the underlying processes at work, to examine how Kingston’s fortunes and John A. Macdonald’s ambitions diverged.

The main points can be summarised at the outset. John A. Macdonald’s support among the local elite may not have been matched in the Kingston community as a whole. As a larger proportion of the adult male population came to participate in the electoral process, so the voting figures became closer. There are indications, too, that the nature of Macdonald’s support shifted over the decades, particularly as he antagonised some Protestants and had to bid for replacement Catholic votes. Macdonald also became one focus for increasing local discontent at Kingston’s failure to match the economic success of rival cities. Suspicion of his personal commitment was heightened by his gradual withdrawal from the city, so that the one-time favourite son was eventually perceived as an outsider. In combination, these causal elements may seem to offer a satisfying account of the reasons why Kingston rejected John A. Macdonald in 1878. However, the more persuasive they appear, the greater the difficulty we encounter in explaining how he managed to recover the seat in 1887 and retain it in 1891.

Four major achievements stand out in John A. Macdonald’s long career. When he first became active in Conservative politics, his party was reactionary and sectarian, characterised by resistance to responsible government ─ self-rule by a local ministry ─ and by its triumphalist Protestantism. In 1854, he helped to steer the Conservatives into an alliance with moderate Reformers and Catholic French-Canadians, to form a durable majority grouping that would dominate the centre ground for the rest of the century.  Thus Macdonald’s first achievement was the creation of a broadly-based and centrist Conservative party (Macdonald often called himself a ‘Liberal-Conservative’) which could combine consensus with predominantly stable government. His second achievement was a natural extension of the first. Between 1864 and 1867, he took a leading part in restructuring the existing province of Canada, which yoked together what became Ontario and Quebec, as part of a Confederation with the mainland Maritime provinces. Third, and in a dramatically short period, as first prime minister of the new Dominion of Canada, he presided over its territorial extension to the Pacific Ocean, carving out the new western provinces of Manitoba and British Columbia. Arguably, the expansion was more than Canada could digest, and its proposed crowning project, a transcontinental railway, placed unbearable strains on his coalition of political support. In 1873 he was forced to resign in the face of charges of corruption relating to the allocation of the railway contract and, for a time, his career seemed finished. However, he would bounce back in 1878 for a fourth and final period of notable activity, which saw the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway and the reorganisation of the country’s economy behind a tariff wall, grandiosely termed the National Policy.

To have played a role in any one of these four developments would be enough to earn a place in the history textbooks. Yet we should perhaps use distancing inverted commas to place John A. Macdonald’s ‘achievements’ in context and perspective. First, of course, many other politicians contributed to the success of each episode: for instance, it would be illogical to attribute political consensus to a solo effort. The most that can be argued is that without Macdonald, there would have been no Confederation, no Pacific railway and so on.[3] These claims are plausible, perhaps even probable, but by definition they are not susceptible to proof. It may also be worth remembering that at various times Macdonald himself identified three other episodes as his greatest successes in public life ─ the settlement of the Clergy Reserves issue in 1855, his defence of Canadian interests against the demanding Americans and duplicitous British during the triangular fencing match that constituted the negotiations for the Treaty of Washington in 1871 and, lastly, his reshaping of the Dominion franchise law in 1885. Second, we should note that Macdonald’s achievements were not always unmixed blessings. For a country so diverse and divided as Canada, political consensus was highly desirable, but it was fuelled by a disturbing measure of political corruption, some of which oozed down to the voters of Kingston. The annexation and rapid settlement of western Canada were indeed undertaken with remarkable speed, but the process allowed scant justice to the rightful claims of Aboriginal people, while it also left the incoming settlers with a feeling of powerless grievance, both of which would leave dangerous legacies for modern-day Canada. Third, Macdonald’s triumphs did not always endure, at least not in the forms that he helped to create.  By the end of the nineteenth century, the Conservative party was losing its French-Canadian support. At the start of the twenty-first, Macdonald’s party struck out in a direction he might not have recognised, reorganising itself to seek a new base in the West. The Dominion structure designed by John A. Macdonald was to a large extent a centralised union disguised behind some federal window-dressing. Confederation did not work out that way and, having  redesigned the constitution in response to the frustrations of Upper Canada, Macdonald soon found himself confronting an implacable Ontario. But this is simply to say that John A. Macdonald did not possess a crystal ball and did not foresee the future.

In Assembly division lists, he was ‘Macdonald of Kingston’, a necessary identifier for a man who bore a very common surname. Over the years, and especially in the century after his death, that simple label gradually resonated with deeper significance: John A. Macdonald became emblematic of the ‘Loyal Old Town’.[4] Yet there is an almost total contrast between John A. Macdonald’s political career, which flowed onward and upward from ward-heeler politicking to nation-building statesmanship, and the sluggish and downhill story of nineteenth-century Kingston and its relative decline. The challenges to Kingston’s prosperity, and even more cruelly, the disappointment of its hopes, along with the part played by Macdonald himself, are reviewed in Chapter Seven, but they constitute an essential context of this study and need to be outlined at this point.        

 The Loyal Old Town and the Limestone City

When the five-year-old John A. Macdonald arrived from Scotland in 1820, he became part of the largest urban centre in Upper Canada. By the time of the earliest more-or-less reliable population statistics, ten years later, Kingston was still just ahead of its more westerly rival York, which would soon be renamed ‘Toronto’. Throughout the seven decades of Macdonald’s association with the town, Kingston grew into something recognisably like the city of modern times. An observer of 1820 commented that the buildings of Kingston were ‘of such an inferior description as scarcely to be worthy of notice.’ Economically this small agglomeration of people fulfilled the functions of an urban centre for a thinly populated colony, but Donald Swainson is right to point out that ‘until well into the nineteenth century it was really just a large village.’[5] A politician with the warm personality of John A. Macdonald could make a major impact on so intimate a local community. Modern comparisons may be useful in illustrating just how small was the Kingston of a century and a half earlier. In 1842, as Macdonald was about to enter local politics, the town counted 6,292 people, slightly larger than the eastern Ontario town of Perth in the last decade of the twentieth century. Six years later, when he was beginning his second term in the legislature, the figure had jumped to 8,416, a shade behind modern-day Carleton Place. By 1891, with 19,263 people, Kingston was already too big to be dominated by a large-hearted, glad-handing political boss, especially one who now lived in Ottawa.[6] Even so, the city had less than half the population of today’s Ontario town of Cornwall.

On the other hand, while Kingston undoubtedly developed from an untidy village into regional city, it also experienced a spectacular decline in Canada’s urban hierarchy. By 1891, it still ranked fourth in Ontario, but its population was barely one-eighth that of Toronto. As recently as thirty years earlier, its citizens had hoped to function both as a major financial centre and as a transportation crossroads to the United States.  By the time of Macdonald’s death, Kingston was struggling to corner even a small share of river and railway trade, and its economic function had become confined to a relatively small enclave of eastern Ontario.[7] The relative decline in the city’s importance almost certainly explains many of John A. Macdonald’s problems in maintaining electoral support.

Most cities, however grim they may be, are claimed by devotees to possess a unique identity. With Kingston, the process goes further. The historian Arthur Lower wrote, if slightly tongue-in-cheek, of its ‘character’. Brian S. Osborne and Donald Swainson made its ‘personality’ a central theme in their authoritative chronicle of its past.[8] In both cases, the atmospheric invocation of twentieth century writers specifically drew upon Kingston’s relative lack of dynamism in the nineteenth. Osborne and Swainson identified ‘continuity’ as the key element in civic personality. For Lower, it was ‘stability’, although he sardonically hinted that this was a euphemism for ‘stagnation’. As Margaret Van De Wetering has more tactfully put it, ‘decisions not of Kingston’s making have forced it to become less than it could have been’ but  with the beneficial result that ‘there is something about the city, something rare and beautiful’, something ‘that makes Kingston special’.[9] On the other hand, Robertson Davies, who barely bothered to disguise the city in his ‘Salterton’ novels, curtly dismissed the patronising view that Kingston was ‘quaint’ as the worthless opinion of ‘the unthinking or the imperceptive’, for its real character lay ‘beneath the surface, and beyond the powers of gush to disclose.’[10]

One element that makes the Salterton series so enjoyable to read also resolves a doubt raised by Arthur Lower and indirectly tells much about the Kingston of John A. Macdonald. Robertson Davies wove his stories around the same cohort of people, a diverse and quirky group of individuals, often locked in conflict over apparently minor questions of status. Lower wondered whether it was possible to generalise about ‘a group of humans, some thousands of them, whose personnel changes from day to day.’[11] It was certainly true that many thousands of people passed briefly through Kingston, notably immigrants arriving by way of the St Lawrence river route or the Rideau Canal before travelling on further west. Some stayed for a time, and it was Kingston’s tragedy that there were relatively so few of them. The second prime minister of the Dominion, Alexander Mackenzie, practised his trade as a stonemason in the city during Macdonald’s first term in the Assembly. It is unlikely that they were associates, although in John Mowat, father of Oliver, they had one friend in common, and ‘Sandy’ probably knew ‘John A.’ by sight.[12] Mackenzie soon moved on to establish himself in distant Sarnia but, in the stable, even stagnant core world of Kingston public life, continuity was the dominant theme. True, by 1889, forty-five years after Macdonald’s first election, only eleven of the 225 signatories who had drafted him as a candidate were still alive and traceable. Yet, measured by a decade or two at a time, the same people interacted to make the Kingston stage a Saltertonian menagerie: the ambitious visionary John Counter, sensible figures like O.S. Gildersleeve, John Carruthers and Alexander Gunn, the mercurial Shaw brothers, the half-mad John Stewart. Sometimes family allegiance would shift, as when E.J.B. Pense took over the Whig from his grandfather in 1872 and shifted it into the anti-Macdonald camp, or in the even more notable and near-contemporary defection of Richard Cartwright, whose uncle had helped launch Macdonald’s political career. We should remember that, when he captured the Conservative nomination at the age of 28, John A. Macdonald was a brash interloper, the son of an immigrant who had failed in Scotland and who struggled to make good in Canada. It may not be entirely coincidental that two of the most bitter foes of his later years, Cartwright and Oliver Mowat, were both scions of the local elite. ‘Macdonald of Kingston’ he may have been in the Assembly, but for many years elements among elite Kingston, old Tory Kingston, found it hard to swallow the attribution

Two formative elements seemed to shape the character of Kingston. The first was its Loyalist foundation in 1785 and its accompanying role as an imperial outpost, a nest of reactionary Anglican Toryism. The second was the Presbyterian overlay brought in by immigrants from Scotland in the succeeding decades. ‘No sketch of the character of Kingston would be complete without emphasis on the contribution of the Scots,’ wrote Lower. ‘There is no doubt of the mark that the founding generation of Scots made upon Kingston.’[13] Even the built environment of the city seemed to be defined by these two dominant forces, with the imperial fortifications of the Loyal Old Town pointing their cannon at the rebel republicans to the south and protecting the civic buildings and downtown commercial blocks of the Limestone City that faintly echoed the distant Georgian grandeur of Edinburgh itself. As Gerald Tulchinsky suggested, the close link between Queen’s and Edinburgh University ‘perhaps tended to emphasize the North British imprint upon the city.’[14] The Loyalist founding myth and the supporting legend of the successful Scots neatly and conveniently intersected through the personality and career of John A. Macdonald so that, when the citizens of Kingston came to erect a statue in his honour, they carved into the plinth those ringing words from his final campaign: ‘A British subject I was born ─ a British subject I will die.’ Indeed, John A. Macdonald and loyalist Kingston became such coterminous images that it was embarrassing to face the fact that the city had rejected him in 1878 and only narrowly re-elected him almost nine years later. Public life, Lower remarked, ‘took him away from Kingston, but, save for short intervals, he never ceased to represent it.’[15] To make the personality of John A. Macdonald emblematic of the character of Kingston, it was necessary to tweak the historical record.

In fact, the Loyalist and Scots elements have been interwoven so impressively that for long they largely obscured the importance of a third influence. Demographically, and to a large extent culturally, Kingston was an Irish town. Immigrants from Ireland coloured the nature of Kingston Protestantism, and gave it a Catholic community that was proportionately far stronger than most other places across Upper Canada and its successor province of Ontario. In contrast to his enthusiastic emphasis upon the Scots, Lower gave the Irish only a passing mention. It may be easy to write a community out of the history books, but they cannot be so easily ignored when they make their way on to the electoral registers.       

In 1871, the census began the practice of asking people to define themselves by ethnicity, either by their country of birth if they were immigrants, or through the identity of their first male ancestor to arrive in Canada. Much to the surprise of subsequent historians, almost a quarter of the entire Dominion population (24.3 percent) claimed to be Irish, compared with one fifth (20.3 percent) with roots in England and less than a sixth (15.8 percent) of Scottish origin or descent. In Ontario, the Irish proportion rose to about one third.[16] In Kingston, they formed a majority, accounting for no less than 53.28 percent of the city’s population. One result of this concentrated Irish influence was a larger than average Roman Catholic element. As early as 1851, Catholics had made up 32 percent of the city’s population, and they still constituted 31 percent in 1881.[17] Lower declared that by 1900 ‘Queen’s University and John A. Macdonald had become the city’s most distinguishable landmarks.’[18] In reality, the nineteenth-century Kingston experience that posterity came to view as Scots and Presbyterian was to a far greater extent Irish and notably Catholic (the two categories not being identical). Even the architect who built so much of the Limestone City, George Browne, was a Belfast man. Indeed, his most overtly Scots and Presbyterian commission, St Andrew’s Manse, could have been lifted straight out of Georgian Ireland.[19] ‘Ontario is intensely Protestant’, John A. Macdonald warned a political associate in 1875. Kingston, far from being the archetype of a loyalist province, was in fact considerably out of line, its population having twice the proportion of Catholics as the province as a whole.[20] (Overall, early Ontario was about seventeen percent Catholic.) Nor was the concentration necessarily a by-product of urbanisation: the revisionist research of Queen’s professor Donald Akenson strongly argues that the Ontario Irish were ‘not a city people’.[21] Even in Toronto, which was turning into a real city while Kingston remained a country town, Catholics formed barely twenty percent of the population between 1851 and 1871, a share that fell for the rest of the century.[22] Of the other large urban centres in Ontario, only Ottawa had a major Catholic element, and here the situation was complicated by the mixture of Irish and French. There may be some validity in Alan G. Green’s suggestion that Kingston’s atypical population mix can be explained by the likelihood that many Irish immigrants lacked the resources to travel on even as far west as Hamilton, where they were comparatively under-represented.[23]

This is not the place to summarise the vigorous research of recent decades that has rescued the Canadian Irish from contemptuous obscurity, and still less to explore the revisionist work of historians on Ireland itself that has dismissed much simplistic and sometimes dangerous nationalist mythology. None the less, in stressing the often-overlooked importance of the Irish in Kingston, it is useful to challenge some of the stereotypes that such an emphasis may unwittingly convey. First, as the statistics quoted above will indicate, ‘Irish’ was not synonymous with ‘Catholic’. In the nineteenth century, before Ireland was partitioned between North and South, three-quarters of the population were Catholics, with the remainder split among various forms of Protestantism. The Orange Order, founded in 1795, was important in providing common ground for members of those various denominations. The Order spread rapidly in Canada, especially after 1830, functioning as a fraternal welfare organisation and an employment agency.[24] Both aspects probably help to explain why two-thirds of the Irish in Upper Canada in 1842 were Protestants and ─ even more remarkably, given the legendary impact of the Irish Famine of the eighteen-forties on emigration ─ two thirds of the Irish in Ontario in 1871 were still Protestants.[25] Their pan-Protestant constituency and grass-roots organisation ─ there were over 900 Orange Lodges functioning in Ontario in 1870[26] ─ also provided the basis for a potentially formidable political machine: the Irish’ (apparently mainly Protestant) dominated municipal elections in Kingston during the first decade after incorporation in 1838.[27] Its political clout made the Order attractive to ambitious outsiders. Although proud of his Scots identity, John A. Macdonald joined in the early eighteen-forties, explicitly to advance his political career. In Kingston, a city where Irish Protestants and Irish Catholics were about equal in numbers, the statesman who eventually helped create Canada’s bicultural partnership depended throughout his first decade in public life upon a sectarian electoral machine. In 1860 the British cabinet minister in charge of the first royal tour refused to allow the young Prince of Wales to give countenance to Orange triumphalism by landing at Kingston. Many of the Orangemen blamed Macdonald for this debacle, and his hold on the parliamentary seat was severely shaken.

While it is vitally important to remember that ‘Irish’ was not synonymous with ‘Catholic’, for practical purposes the converse was true: for most of John A. Macdonald’s political career, Kingston’s Catholic community was overwhelmingly Irish in character. This had not always been the case. The town’s first Catholic chapel, back in 1808, was known as the ‘French Church’ but, despite the importance of the downriver trade, few French Canadians settled in Kingston, and it seems unlikely that francophones represented as much as ten percent of the Catholic population after 1850.[28] There was also a leavening of Highland Scots. The great founding bishop of the diocese of Regiopolis, Alexander Macdonell, had died in 1840, but his namesake, Archie John Macdonell, would later be Macdonald’s law partner and one of his contacts with the Catholic community.[29] However, from 1843 to 1898, Kingston’s Catholic bishops were all from Ireland, clear evidence that the Vatican regarded the city as an Irish stronghold. If we recall the two key statistics ─ that Kingston was just over fifty percent Irish by ethnicity and just over thirty percent Roman Catholic by religion ─ and then allow for small numbers of French Canadians and Highland Scots among the latter, it would appear that the Irish community was almost equally split between Catholics and Protestants. Given the divide between the two in their homeland, this numerical balance made it likely that any conflict between them would be exceptionally bitter.

In identifying the presence of an Irish Catholic population as a major element in Kingston politics, it may also be timely to confront the underlying negative stereotypes that probably explain why for so long historians passed over their significance. It is too often assumed that Irish Catholic immigrants were no more than hapless and helpless refugees from the Famine of 1845-49, too poor to take part in public life. Priest-ridden and mired in republican hatred for British rule ─ according to the pastiche ─ they voted at the behest of their Church and were solely motivated by a desire to secure the freedom of their homeland. At best, these are exaggerated misconceptions.

Kingston did indeed witness harrowing scenes during the Famine years: the peak year of 1847, 1400 Irish immigrants died in the city and the British Whig wrote sympathetically of ‘the famished and disease-ridden population of downtrodden Ireland’. In fact, most of the Famine migrants came from families of small farmers and artisans, for the obvious reason that they alone could afford to pay for the transatlantic passage. In crowded and primitive emigrant vessels that took weeks to the ocean, it only needed one sick passenger to infect a whole shipload of people. As refugees from a mighty disaster, many arrived destitute: in its first month of operation, in 1847, the House of Industry, Kingston’s workfare project, admitted 183 paupers, of whom 175 were from Ireland.[30] But Catholics were a force in Kingston elections before the Famine migration.

First-generation immigrants, whatever their backgrounds, were more likely to work in unskilled occupations than the native-born: in 1844, before the Famine influx, a Church survey found that the majority of Irish males were working as labourers, with a substantial female contingent in domestic service. One possible explanation for the size of the Catholic Irish community in Kingston was the constant availability of labouring work on defence and penitentiary construction projects for two decades from the eighteen-forties. A sample survey by Alan G. Green of Kingston’s adult males from the 1871 census suggested that native-born Canadians were twice as likely as immigrants from Ireland to work in white-colour occupations, while conversely the Irish were twice as likely to end up at the bottom of the employment heap, with labouring and cleaning jobs. However, the middling range of blue-collar and semi-skilled occupations accounted for 36 percent of the Irish sample but only 28 percent of the native-born. Steady growth in the range of participation in elections probably brought such men into the political process and gave increasing weight to their votes. Even in the 1844 survey, over one hundred Irish males had been listed in skilled and semi-skilled occupations, including carpenters, stonemasons, tailors and shoemakers.[31] While there was some concentration of Catholics in the city’s northern wards, there was no ghetto, although ‘Lot 24’, the slum area of Stuartsville originally outside the city limits, came close to being such.

Even allowing for the challenges that faced Irish Catholics as an immigrant community, it is clear that they were an established force in Kingston politics prior to the Famine and certainly from the outset of the political career of John A. Macdonald. Its existence helps explain why Bishop Macdonell moved his diocesan headquarters from Alexandria in 1836, and the formation that same year of a St Patrick’s Society, a welfare organisation to help newcomers, suggests that some at least of the Irish were prospering. The only surviving personal document from John A. Macdonald’s first election campaign in 1844 is an appeal to a supporter to turn out and vote against ‘the Papishes’, and by 1847 he thought the Catholic vote worth bidding for.[32] When Catholic constituents lobbied him in 1847, two spokesmen with Irish surnames were grocers ─ respectable tradesmen ─ one of them, Matthew Rourke, being a City alderman.[33] In material terms, Irish Catholics were probably much like anybody else in Kingston. In 1861, the Catholic vote probably saved Macdonald from defeat, and certainly gave him an apparently comfortable majority that exaggerated his grip on the Kingston seat.

When he first set his eyes on the Catholic vote, in 1847, John A. Macdonald made the standard Protestant assumption that their bishop could ‘get me the Romans.’[34] He soon found that this was not necessarily the case. The Church hierarchy defined a political agenda for the faithful, just as the Orange Order tried to mobilise Protestant opinion on key issues, but Catholics did not always vote at the behest of their clergy. While the demand for tax-funded separate schools was a specific demand insisted upon by their Church, Catholics as a group probably also placed greater emphasis as a community than Protestants upon access to patronage, simply because government appointments were closely linked to status issues. By the eighteen-sixties, John A. Macdonald clearly recognised that allocating jobs to individual Catholics was a means of ingratiating himself not merely to influential bishops but to Catholic voters as a whole.

Far from manipulating the laity as a block vote, most Catholic bishops recognised that in the divided society of English-speaking Canada there were limits to the exercise of clerical power. Indeed, they could not always rein in outspoken and obstreperous parish priests. Not until 1887, when John A. Macdonald returned to Kingston to encounter the authoritarian James Vincent Cleary did he have to deal with the full authoritarianism of resurgent ultramontane Catholicism. He kissed the crosier, and then quietly lobbied as high as the Vatican to block Cleary’s subsequent career. Although Orangemen claimed a monopoly on loyalty to the Crown, the notion that nineteenth-century Irish Catholics were all agents of the paramilitary Fenian nationalist movement is also a distortion. Republican uprisings in Ireland itself in 1848 and 1867 were almost ludicrously unsuccessful. By 1880, it is true, the Irish Catholic vote in Canada was influenced by support for Parnell’s Home Rule movement, but even that was primarily a demand for a form of provincial status within the United Kingdom. For any Irish resident of Kingston who could not tolerate the thought of living under the Union Jack, there was a simple solution: a short one-way boat ride to New York State. If Irish voters were perhaps indifferent to the type of loyalist rhetoric in which John A. Macdonald specialised when he was under political pressure, that was probably because they knew from experience that it was usually mobilised as a cover for Protestant supremacy. But neither a Catholic social agenda for their own schools, nor a the existence of Irish grievances against British governments represented insuperable barriers to building the type of electoral coalition in which John A. Macdonald specialised.

It is important to realise how the rhetorical image of the ‘Loyal Old Town’ and the prominence of its Scottish and Presbyterian elite, both of which John A. Macdonald has come to symbolise, have obscured the fundamental significance of that third and crucial element in the personality of Kingston, its unusually large Catholic population. Far from representing a city that was the quintessential microcosm of Ontario society and attitudes, Macdonald operated in a constituency where the Catholic share of the population was twice the provincial average. Even in the eighteen-forties, when only a minority of adult males participated in elections, the Catholic vote was worth courting. As the franchise widened over the decades, so the relative electoral weight of the Catholic community seems to have increased. This made Kingston a highly atypical constituency, forcing a sharp choice on any successful politician between mobilising the Protestant majority on sectarian lines and reaching out to build a cross-denominational alliance.

At first sight, John A. Macdonald might seem to be the ideal political operator for such a constituency. After all, the first of his major achievements at national level, and the one that provided the foundation for everything else, was the creation of a political partnership between predominantly Protestant anglophone Conservatives and the Catholic politicians of French Canada. Hence it might seem that he was ideally equipped to construct the same alliance at constituency level. Unfortunately, this apparent equation of circumstances is misleading. First, as already noted, John A. Macdonald started out as a sectarian politician, mobilising the Protestant vote through his Orange Order friends. Thanks to his belief that he could tack on Catholic support simply by conciliating the hierarchy, he almost certainly underestimated the difficulty of broadening his electoral base, as he found when he tried to ride both horses during the crisis of his relations with the Orange Order in 1860-61. Second, in a liberal society, it is generally easier to secure cross-community collaboration at elite level. Democratic politicians tend to be more flexible than the mass electorate in accepting compromise: half a political loaf is preferable to sterile opposition. Ordinary voters are more likely to stick by their prejudices.

It is here that the full significance of the under-stressed Irish element in Kingston life was so crucially unhelpful. Ireland in the nineteenth century was not an open society. Its two communities strove not for compromise but for supremacy, with the privileged Protestant minority in particular having much to lose from concession. In fact, although successive British cabinets were neither markedly progressive nor notably sympathetic to the Catholic Church, they concluded that Protestant supremacism was not so much a symptom of Ireland’s problems as its fundamental cause. Hence arose the curious situation that the Orange Order, which in Canada pre-eminently and noisily protested its loyalty to the Crown, was declared an illegal organisation in its country of origin.  In Ireland, there was often a gap between the aspirations and the effectiveness of government. The Orange Order was officially outlawed in 1825 but it could not be persuaded to dissolve its formal structure until 1836 ─ just six years after a parallel body, the Grand Lodge of British North America, had been formed across the Atlantic. In 1850, after a particularly bloody factional battle in Ulster, the British parliament had legislated against Orange parades, a ban repeated in 1860, the year of the abortive royal visit. It was for this reason that the Prince of Wales was barred by his handlers from landing at Kingston. Canadian reality pointed to cross-cultural co-operation at parliamentary level, but on the streets of Kingston Irish memories were determined neither to surrender nor forget. It would take an unusually impressive personality to soar above such ancestral hatred.        

 ‘The kind, open-hearted friend of every man’

There is an onward-and-upward quality about the life story of John A. Macdonald, and hence it is understandable that his arrival in Kingston, at the age of five, in 1820 tends to be seen as the essential first step on his road to greatness. In reality, this golden glow of hindsight obscures the fact that, for the Macdonalds, emigration to Canada was a humiliation brought on by his father’s failure in Scotland. Nor did Hugh Macdonald retrieve the family’s fortunes in their new country. In what was almost certainly a discreet allusion to alcohol abuse, an early biographer discreetly remarked that he was ‘unequal to the responsibilities of the head of a family.’[35] John A. Macdonald’s sole surviving brother died in 1822, the victim of violent abuse from a drunken soldier whom his parents unwisely recruited as a child-minder. This left the seven year-old Macdonald as the sole focus for the transfer of his parents’ disappointed ambitions, and hastened the day when he had to become the family’s real breadwinner.  His claim in 1844 to have spent his ‘boyish days’ in Kingston was a slight exaggeration, for between 1822 and 1835, the family lived on the Bay of Quinté about fifty kilometres west of the town. However, from about 1824, young John A. Macdonald was sent to school in Kingston, and from the age of nine he spent much of the year in lonely boarding houses, a regime which lasted for the next six years of his life. In 1830, he began to study law with the outgoing and popular Kingston lawyer George Mackenzie, but from 1832 to 1835 he was out of town, managing law offices in Napanee and Hallowell (now part of Picton). Mackenzie’s early death in the cholera epidemic of 1834 opened the way for the twenty-year-old John A. Macdonald to establish his own Kingston law practice in 1835. From then on, his rise to success was rapid. At 24, he was not only a director of the city’s Commercial Bank, but handling its legal work as its official solicitor. In 1843, he married, converted his practice into a partnership and began to plan to enter politics.[36]

Although there is no reason to doubt the tradition that he was a star pupil, it is likely that his education was a struggle which involved the sacrifice of normal family life. ‘I had no boyhood,’ he once observed in later life.[37] His sole recorded failure as a public speaker occurred at a public meeting in 1839, when he was called upon to speak in support of one of a slate of resolutions supporting the campaign for a Presbyterian college. It seems to have been a motion which deplored ‘the limited means afforded the youth of this country of acquiring a liberal education’, and the ‘eloquent oration’ which he recalled having prepared probably drew personal experience which he could not bring himself to talk about.[38] The uneasy relationship between Macdonald and the Tory elite which marked the early years of his political career was probably also have a legacy of his initial marginal status. He enjoyed the enormous advantage of kinship with Colonel Macpherson, the one-time garrison commander who had steered Kingston through the crisis of the American attack in 1813.[39] None the less, John A. Macdonald had to gatecrash the local elite through sheer force of ability and personality. 

Soon after he had sent his teenage law pupil off to manage the branch office in Napanee, George Mackenzie gave him some friendly counsel. ‘I do not think that you are so free and lively with the people as a young man eager for their good will should be,’ he wrote. ‘A dead-and-alive way with them never goes.’[40] From the fact that the young Macdonald saved the letter, many years before he commenced the regular accumulation of a personal archive, we can be sure that he took his employer’s advice to heart: his own father, a stiff and sometimes confrontational individual,  was notably unsuccessful in life and the genial Mackenzie provided a preferable role model. An early biographer, almost certainly drawing upon Kingston folklore, insisted that although, because of their scarcity, professional men were ‘garrisoned round with importance’ in those pioneer times, ‘no client, however poor, came out of Mr Macdonald’s office complaining of snobbery’.[41] An element of retrospective hagiography may be suspected in the portrait, if only because Macdonald was evidently determined that the practice should specialise in corporate law: stories of his courtroom performances belong very firmly to his early years. But there is contemporary evidence to confirm that ‘John A. (the familiar name which all here love to call him)’, in the words of a Kingston newspaper of 1858, was indeed ‘the affable, the kind, open-hearted friend of every man’.[42] (He was popular with women too.

Macdonald possessed a remarkable ability not merely to remember people by name, but to make them feel that he was genuinely interested in them. James Porter, a Picton shopkeeper whom Macdonald had known during his brief exile in Hallowell, could always count on a friendly welcome when he visited Kingston: ‘whenever I saw John A. on the street, why, bless you, he wouldn’t wait for me to come and speak, but he would duck his head in that peculiar way of his, and come right across the street to shake hands. “Damn it, Porter,” he would say, “Are you alive yet?”’[43] Almost forty years after they first met, the Queen’s medical professor Michael Lavell ‘pleasantly remembered’ his first introduction to Macdonald, at the parliament house in Toronto sometime in the eighteen-fifties. ‘When my name was mentioned he made some enquiries and then said he remembered me as a lad, having seen me with my brother Charles in the book store of the old Chronicle office, and playfully remarked he hoped I would be as good as my brother, as he had known him intimately.’[44]  Macdonald’s legendary memory bank was probably supplemented by discreet prompting, but even that confirms that he thought it worth doing a little homework in order to make ordinary people believe that they mattered. The historian Donald Swainson recounts the story of a visit to the Kingston satellite community of Garden Island in the mid-sixties, where he noticed and half-recognised an elderly man. A quiet word with a local supporter was enough to supply him with enough information to greet an old friend and praise him for his manly support in a previous campaign. Not for the first time, a supporter was turned into a devotee.[45] In a city of six thousand people, the warmth and energy of such a personality would constitute a formidable political force. ‘His social qualities – his wit and inexhaustible fund of anecdote – made him the soul of every social assembly at which he was present,’ wrote a journalist in 1859.[46] However, most of the stories of his remarkable memory relate to people he had met in his early days. It remained to be seen whether his personality alone could retain Kingston’s loyalty when the population trebled and his own political trajectory removed his usual political base from the city. ‘There was in him some indescribable charm that acted by presence, seemingly without means or argument’, commented a long-time Kingston supporter in 1891.[47] The problem was that by 1891, Macdonald’s magical ‘presence’ was rarely felt in the city, and he was obliged to resort to some highly questionable ‘means’.

John A. Macdonald quickly recovered from his platform failure of 1839 to become an effective public speaker. Unlike some of his contemporaries, such as the Nova Scotian Charles Tupper, he did not bludgeon his audience by oratorical lung-power. Rather, he specialised in an informal, conversational style designed to win people to his point of view. ‘Sometimes, by a familiar word or two, you see him levelling the distinctions between himself and the audience,’ a perceptive commentator wrote of him in 1883, so that ‘one and all, the farmer, the labourer, the mechanic, feel that they and the prime-minister are assembled there on a common mission ─ the prime-minister only happens to be prime minister, and speaking then; any one else, also, might have been ─ the I is lost in the we’. The speech would then proceed ‘in clear, terse language’ and ‘incisive and logical’ style to demonstrate to his hearers that ‘the speaker is the man who is doing their work best.’[48] First, conversational inclusivity, then authoritative leadership ─ that was the John A. Macdonald style of public speaking. No doubt it contributed to the ascendancy he achieved in the politics of Kingston throughout the first two decades of his career, when he was a familiar figure in the city, and the population remained small. It is likely that through gesture and eye contact as he spoke from a platform, Macdonald could make many members of that Kingston ‘we’ feel a direct link to the friendly and glamorous ‘I’ of their fast-rising parliamentary representative. His opponents sometimes combined to shout him down, as they did, for instance, during the nomination meeting of the 1863 campaign. It was a sign of his weakening grip on the constituency that by 1872, he could be unsettled by challenging questions from hecklers: the Kingston ‘we’ was ceasing to identify with the Macdonald ‘I’.

It is impossible to account for the successes of John A. Macdonald’s political career without reconstructing something of his warm and engaging personality. But there was another and darker side to the man, one that made him intensely competitive and carelessly amoral in the methods he was prepared to employ to ensure that he triumphed. Much of this probably stemmed from the pressures to succeed that had characterised his early years. That sense of being driven almost certainly also explains one other major problem in John A. Macdonald’s life, his twenty-year battle with alcohol, a battle that he did not always fight with conviction.

There are indications that Macdonald was always a convivial personality, which was probably a necessary quality in Kingston: in 1842, the city had 136 licensed premises, compared with 220 for Montreal which had five times the population.[49] He seems to have made the transition from a fondness for strong drink ─ common enough among professional men at the time ─ to an alcohol problem in 1856, at the time when it may have become clear that his first wife, Isabella, bed-ridden for years, was facing death from tuberculosis. He remained vulnerable to bouts of drunkenness for about twenty years, until his second wife, the formidable Agnes, weaned him off the bottle in the mid-seventies. It is important to take account of the extent of Macdonald’s drink problem, which occasionally left him helpless for days at a time and incapable of responding to crises. It is, however, less helpful to label him as an alcoholic, if only because in popular usage the term conveys wholly pejorative connotations of permanent inebriation. The theory of alcoholism as a disease only began to influence Canadian opinion in the eighteen-seventies, at the time when Macdonald finally overcame his own difficulties. Opinion among modern health-care professionals is divided over the utility of the term, and those who lack medical qualifications should be wary about using the label. However, two points are worth noting. First, the condition known as ‘chronic alcoholism’ implies physical and mental damage, which can hardly be true of a man who was still prime minister of Canada at the age of 76. Second, practitioners who employ the diagnosis divide alcoholism into distinct categories of behaviour. John A. Macdonald conformed to one of these, the unpredictable binge drinker who took refuge in what contemporaries termed a ‘spree’, usually triggered by some personal or public crisis and often lasting for days on end. In that sense, and in that sense only, John A. Macdonald was an alcoholic, but it should be stressed that this means that he was intermittently liable to be succumb to alcohol abuse and not, as a raucous popular mythology sometimes celebrates, that he was permanently intoxicated.[50]

The phase of John A. Macdonald’s drink problem, from 1856 to around 1876, correspond closely with the years in which his electoral support in Kingston declined from his triumphant victory of 1857 to his eventual defeat in 1878. Was there a connection? Prior to 1867, the most severe of his recorded lapses occurred away from his home city, at the seat of government, first in Toronto and later in Montreal and Ottawa, where he lived a bachelor, boarding-house existence. The restoration of normal home life thanks to his second marriage in 1867 briefly restored his balance, but the problem flared up again two years later and at intervals thereafter. The extent of Macdonald’s problem was widely known, and was probably occasionally visible in the constituency. The decision to import the high-profile teetotaller Oliver Mowat to run against him in 1861 may have been an attempt to highlight Macdonald’s vulnerability on this issue.  The following year, it was announced that he had set his face against strong drink and joined a temperance society in Kingston ─ partly an exercise in damage limitation after a ‘spree’ had contributed to the defeat of the Cartier-Macdonald ministry, but probably also a bid to shore up his support among the city’s Protestants after his breach with the Orange Order. During the nomination meeting at the 1872 general election, he attempted to punch his opponent, and was widely assumed to be drunk. How far this affected local opinion it is difficult to say: Victorian newspapers tended to combine long periods of discretion with short bursts of exaggerated outrage, and neither their predominant silence nor their occasional stridency generates wholly reliable historical evidence. The most that can be said is that the two decades which saw the peak of John A. Macdonald’s alcohol problem coincided with the years when an increasing slice of Kingston opinion felt that he was not doing enough for the city.

Biographers and Ballots

Thus Macdonald was a far more complicated personality than the genial and persuasive ‘John A.’ of popular legend: as a Kingston supporter put it in 1891, ‘there was that in him which refused to be defined.’[51] The difficulty in reconstructing the balance of warmth and darkness in his character is a reminder of the extent to which posterity is reliant upon biographers to bring historical figures to life. By its nature, biography is an exercise in selection, and this is especially true a life so long and full and well-documented as that of John A. Macdonald. In the case of political biography, that selection is usually top-down in nature. The politician’s achievements in government seem to matter most and hence finding a constituency and getting into parliament become viewed simply means to an end, a phase in the story that tends to fade as the main action develops.

Two biographers in particular have shaped the way we see John A. Macdonald.[52] Joseph Pope, his private secretary and Agnes Macdonald’s choice as official biographer, published his two-volume Memoirs in 1894. (In modern terms, the title seems misleading: the book was a biography by Pope, not an edited set of recollections from Macdonald himself).[53] Pope was under instructions from the formidable Agnes to produce ‘a faithful and agreeable biography’ and, as an Ottawa civil servant, he decided to ‘walk warily’ in dealing with political issues.[54] Indeed, he refused to provide ‘a connected narrative later than 1873’, which left his post-Confederation volume notably short on solid material.[55] Above all, he was loyal to his former boss, and hardly the man to lift the lid on the less elevating aspects of electoral politics.

The first modern scholarly biography, by Donald Creighton, appeared in two volumes in 1952 and 1955, sub-titled The Young Politician and The Old Chieftain.[56] Creighton’s work remains a magnificent achievement, but it is important to grasp that he infused his study with the particular ideological agenda of the University of Toronto History school, one that subtly influenced his portrayal of the role played by Kingston in the life of his subject. Known as the ‘Laurentian thesis’, it argued that the transcontinental Dominion of Canada emerged not, as casual observers assumed, in defiance of geography, but rather because of it. The east-west thrust of the St Lawrence river and the Great Lakes, so the thesis ran, overcame the pressures for a north-south orientation, and with it subordination to the United States, thus enabling Canada’s St Lawrence core to project itself across the continent, first through the fur trade and later by means of the railway to the Pacific. There was more than a touch of nation-building dogma about this argument, not least because there was an awkward gap between 1821, when the Montreal-based fur trade went into decline, and 1885, when the Last Spike was driven home to make a reality of the transcontinental railway. (Creighton, to his credit, rejected the extreme view of a Canada predestined   to straddle the continent, preferring to see the St Lawrence valley as possessing a mighty potential given the right leadership.) There was, too, an ambiguity about Canada’s external relationship in the other, Atlantic, direction. The Laurentian westward thrust was powered by economic links with Europe and these, after 1763, were focused upon Britain. Canada’s transcontinental destiny was inextricably bound up with its membership of the British empire ─ but, infuriatingly, at key moments the British themselves sold Canada short, sacrificing its natural hinterland south of the Great Lakes to the Americans in 1783, and undermining its economic prosperity by adopting free trade after 1846.

Creighton’s first book, The Commercial Empire of the St Lawrence, 1760-1850, had ended with the apparent collapse of Canadian hegemony over the continental interior, thanks to the British abandonment of imperial tariff preferences that had channelled trade from the Ohio country through Montreal. The St Lawrence itself, he would later recall, had been his ‘protagonist’, but it had proved to be ‘a stream which dashed itself upon the rocks and broke the hopes of its supporters’. He wanted to carry his story forward, ‘but it was obvious that the River itself could not play the same dominating role in the story after 1850’. By writing about the life of John A. Macdonald, Creighton ‘stumbled upon the only satisfactory method of writing the second phase of the history of the Empire of the St. Lawrence.’ He came to see the two-volume biography completed ‘a trilogy on one theme.’[57] It was Macdonald who rebuilt the shattered hegemony of Canada’s river, first through Confederation and then by building the railway to reinvigorate the Laurentian thrust to the west, the whole project ring-fenced by the protectionist tariffs of the National Policy. His career also resolved the ambiguity of Canada’s imperial relationship, since Macdonald often had to combat the timidity of a British elite who seemed incapable of embracing the Canadian vision of an imperial realm in North America.  His great and terminal slogan, that he had been born and would die a British subject, neatly conflated two forms of Britishness. The first was inherited from his parents and had been fastened upon him by his birth in Glasgow. The second, by contrast, was a form of British identity negotiated by Canadians themselves, one that harnessed Britain’s empire to their own national ends, rather than vice-versa.

Kingston played an important part in Creighton’s intellectual construction, but its role was far more as a symbol than as a real place. True, the front endpapers of the original hardback edition of The Young Politician carried a map of the downtown area as the youthful Macdonald would have known it, but if there was perhaps a certain sleight of hand in this, implying that the story would be imbued with the sounds and smells from the streets of the town where he grew up. Kingston marked the point where the St Lawrence emerged from Lake Ontario, it was the western outlet of the Rideau Canal and it was the base where the imperial garrison stood ready to defend the whole river system against any threat from the south. Thus it was fitting that Kingston should be the home town of the man who fashioned Laurentian potential into Canadian destiny. In the final pages of the Commercial Empire of the St Lawrence, the city was already positioned as the link between Creighton’s two great historical projects. A Tory convention, the British American League, had met at Kingston during the chaotic year of 1849, and called for a union of the provinces and a protective tariff, ‘thus anticipating confederation and Sir John A. Macdonald’s national policy.’[58]

The downside of Kingston’s symbolic centrality in Creighton’s grand construct was that the city itself tended to fade from view whenever it failed to play its ascribed role ─ in other words, at precisely those times when its electoral behaviour most seemed to call for explanation. This was especially true of the years after Confederation when the ‘headline’ story of Macdonald’s work at Dominion level crowded out lower-level complications. Creighton skipped the 1867 election together. He wove an evocative account of the local challenge to his hero in 1872 into his account of Macdonald’s attempts to broker a deal between rival entrepreneurs feuding over the Pacific railway contract. At that point, he needed to portray a beleaguered prime minister tied down by the petty demands of his constituency, which may explain why he glossed over the embarrassing fact that Macdonald, apparently drunk, assaulted his opponent on the hustings. Similarly, Creighton recorded that Macdonald’s election for Kingston in January 1874 was challenged, threatening him with ‘a long and exasperating legal wrangle’, but there was no mention of the fact that he was temporarily unseated, a setback that threatened his hold not just his seat but on his continued ability to lead the party. Even more inconvenient was Macdonald’s defeat in 1878, which Creighton announced with an exclamation mark and the comment that ‘Kingston had deserted her son’ ─ the inverse of the charge made against him by his censorious constituents, who complained that he had abandoned them. Macdonald’s re-election in 1887 appears in passing as if it represented a restitution of right conduct in the universe, with no mention that he scraped home by just a dozen votes in a poll of 2,700, and certainly no speculation that his controversial Franchise Act of 1885 might have played a part in shaping the electorate.[59]

The historian Peter Waite likened Creighton to ‘a sorcerer around a campfire telling the story of a great adventure’.[60] There was drama enough in the life of John A. Macdonald for a great story-teller, and Creighton should not be criticised for highlighting some themes and playing down others. To some extent, the sorcerer conjured Kingston out of the story as the city increasingly failed to live up to its supporting role in John A. Macdonald’s re-creation of Canada’s Laurentian destiny. In Creighton’s defence, it can be said that this was at least partly because Kingston and its concerns also retreated into the background of John A. Macdonald’s own consciousness. However, because Creighton did not engage with the changing needs and attitudes of the voters of Kingston, his classic account leaves us with an unresolved problem. The politician who steadily became so central, so vital, to the fortunes of Canada as a whole was also the candidate whose rock-solid parliamentary seat gradually became electorally insecure to the point where his own voters rejected him at one of the most triumphant moments of his career. How could this be?

In attempting to answer this conundrum, this study has two basic aims. First, it sets out to redress the balance, supplementing the ‘top down’ approach to Macdonald’s career with a ‘bottom up’ account of his electoral fortunes in the city that sent him to parliament on twelve occasions. Second, it argues that the electoral performances of John A. Macdonald and the accompanying economic vicissitudes of Kingston are both best viewed over the entire half century during which their fortunes were entwined. Other scholars have studied individual election campaigns. Their evidence has been gratefully embraced but it is argued here that we need the long-term perspective for a full understanding of the relationship between politician and constituency. This study offers neither a complete account of the life of John A. Macdonald nor a full political history of nineteenth-century Kingston. Rather it is an attempt to explore the intersection between the two, to discover what light can be thrown upon the character of Kingston and the personality of its most celebrated citizen.


[1] Strictly speaking, the interval between Macdonald’s defeat in 1878 and his return in 1887 was eight years and five months, but it seems less confusing to use the simple arithmetical calculation of nine years throughout.

[2] Pope, Memoirs, II, p. 202.

[3] This is the view taken by one of Canada’s liveliest and most distinguished biographers, Richard Gwyn, in his John A. The Man Who Made Us: The Life and Times of John A. Macdonald, I, 1815-1867 (Toronto,  2007).

[4] Donald Swainson, Macdonald of Kingston (Toronto, 1979).

[5] Quoted, Jacob Spelt, Urban Development in South-Central Ontario (Toronto, 1972), p. 53; Donald Swainson, ‘Chronicling Kingston: An Interpretation’, OH, 74, 1982, p. 304.

[6] I have measured the historical figures against population figures for 1996, but eastern Ontario demography changes only slowly.

[7] Brian S. Osborne, ‘Kingston in the Nineteenth Century: A Study in Urban Decline’, in J. David Wood, ed., Perspectives on Landscape and Settlement in Nineteenth Century Ontario (Toronto, 1978 ed.), pp. 161-2; J.M.S.  Careless, Toronto to 1918: An Illustrated History (Toronto, 1984), p. 202.

[8] Arthur Lower, ‘The Character of Kingston’, TPD, pp. 17-35; Brian S. Osborne and Donald Swainson, KBP, pp. 1-2 and passim.

[9] M. Van De Wetering, A Kingston Album (Toronto, 1999), p. 7. This view can be traced from early in the twentieth century. Agnes Machar, The Story of Old Kingston (Toronto, 1908), p. 286: ‘her aesthetic advantages may yet be found to outweigh the more material ones she has missed.’

[10] Robertson Davies, Tempest-Tost (first published 1951), ch. 1.

[11] TPD, p. 17.

[12] W. Buckingham and G.W. Ross, The Hon. Alexander Mackenzie: His Life and Times (Toronto, 1892), pp. 86-96.

[13] TPD, pp. 32-33.

[14] Gerald Tulchinsky, ‘Introduction’, TPD, p. 9. But for a visiting Scotsman in June 1845, Kingston was ‘an uninteresting Canadian town’ that struck no chords. Homesick for his adopted island of Jamaica, Alexander Dunlop disliked ‘lounging through Kingston streets, looking at cold stone houses, and cold-looking women with a frosty expression of face often witnessed in Canada.’ D. Sinclair and G. Warkentin, eds, The New World Journal of Alexander Graham Dunlop 1845 (Edinburgh, 1976), p. 54.

[15] TPD, p. 33.

[16] D. Wilson, The Irish in Canada (Canadian Historical Association pamphlet, 1979), p. 11.

[17] TPD, p. 26; KBP, p. 246. For a brilliant essay on the pitfalls of decoding such statistics, Donald H. Akenson, The Irish in Ontario: A Study in Rural History (Kingston and Montreal, 1984), pp. 3-47.

[18] TPD, p. 21.

[19] Illustrated in TPD, p. 45.

[20] OA, T.C. Patteson Papers, F1191, Macdonald to Patteson, private, 15 January 1875; P.B. Waite, Canada 1874-1896: Arduous Destiny (Toronto, 1971), p. 7.

[21] Akenson, The Irish in Ontario, p. 47.

[22] B.P. Clarke, Piety and Nationalism: Lay Voluntary Associations and the Creation of an Irish-Catholic Community in Toronto, 1850-1895 (Kingston and Montreal, 1993), p. 16.

[23] TPD, p. 321. Gananoque also had an above-average Catholic population.

[24] C.J. Houston and W.J. Smyth, The Sash Canada Wore: A Historical Geography of the Orange Order (Toronto, 1980), pp. 8-56, 112-41.

[25] Akenson, The Irish in Ontario, p. 27.

[26] Houston and Smyth, The Sash Canada Wore, p. 38.

[27] George M. Betts, ‘Municipal Government and Politics, 1800-1850’, TPD, pp. 223-44, esp. pp. 238, 372-73 (endnotes).

[28] KBP, p. 248; TPD, p. 26.

[29] DCB, 7, pp. 544-51. Although ‘Regiopolis’ (derived from the Latin word for king and the Greek word for city) has an impressively classical ring today, it is likely that in the nineteenth century educated people winced at the mixture of the two languages. As late as 1942, the poet T.S. Eliot condemned another hybrid word, ‘television’, as an example of linguistic ‘ill-breeding’.

[30] Kingston British Whig, 21 August 1847, quoted Akenson, The Irish in Rural Ontario, p. 241, and cf. J.A. Roy, Kingston: the King’s Town, p. 237; Patricia E. Malcolmson, ‘The Poor in Kingston, 1815-1850’, TPD, pp. 281-97, esp. p. 293. The Famine dead were buried in a mass grave. Their remains were re-interred and a memorial unveiled in 1966.

[31] Alan G. Green, ‘Immigrants in the City: Kingston as Revealed in the Census Manuscripts of 1871’, TPD, pp. 311-30, esp. p. 322; TPD, pp. 285, 289. Although illuminating, Green’s sample of Irish immigrants was of necessity small (92 names), with no attribution by religion.

[32] ML I, p. 14; F.H. Armstrong, ‘The Macdonald-Gowan Letters, 1847’, OH, 63, 1971, pp. 11-14.

[33] TPD, pp. 10-11, 27; ML I, p. 86; TPD, p. 373.

[34] Armstrong, ‘Macdonald-Gowan Letters, 1847’, pp. 11-14.

[35] Memoirs, I, p. 6.

[36] The major source for Macdonald’s early career remains Donald Creighton, John A. Macdonald: The Young Politician (Toronto, 1952), esp. chs 1-4 [cited as Creighton, YP], supplemented by the important article by William R. Teatero, ‘John  A. Macdonald Learns – Articling with George Mackenzie’, HK, 27, 1979, pp. 92-111. The useful brief overview of his life by Donald Swainson, Sir John A. Macdonald: The Man and the Politician (Kingston, 1989 ed.) contains a comprehensive bibliography.

[37] Pope, Memoirs of Macdonald, I, p. 6.

[38] ‘John A. at the Cradle’, Douglas Library Notes (Queen’s University), 14, 1963, pp. 14-16.

[39] G.F.G. Stanley, ‘The Macpherson – Shaw – Macdonald Connection in Kingston’, HK, 13, 1965, pp. 2-20.

[40] Pope, Memoirs, I, p. 7; Creighton, YP, p. 27. The letter is in LAC, Macdonald Papers, vol. 336.

[41] Collins, p. 50.

[42] Commercial Advocate, undated, quoted Canadian News (London), 20 January 1858, p. 24.

[43] Biggar, AnecdotalLife, p. 34.

[44] Daily British Whig, 8 June 1891. This reminiscence extends the information given on Lavell’s early life in DCB, 13, pp. 580-82, which implies that Lavell first came to Kingston in 1858, after training at the Toronto Medical School. Lavell was born in 1825 and seems to have been living in Toronto by 1839, which suggests that Macdonald had indeed recalled him as a young boy. The Kingston Chronicle was the town’s leading newspaper in the 1820s and 1830s.

[45] Donald Swainson, Macdonald of Kingston: First Prime Minister  (Toronto, 1979), p. 63

[46] Canadian News (London), 5 January 1859, pp. 10-11.

[47] Macpherson, II, p. 472.

[48] Collins, pp. 502-3.

[49] John W. Spurr, ‘Garrison and Community, 1815-1870’, TPD, pp. 103-18, esp. p. 107.

[50] This paragraph is based on Ged Martin, ‘John A. Macdonald and the Bottle,’ Journal of Canadian Studies, 40, 2006, pp. 162-85.

[51] Macpherson, II, p. 472.

[52] This following paragraphs draw upon Ged Martin, ‘John A. Macdonald and His Biographers’,  British Journal of Canadian Studies, 14, 1999, pp. 300-19. Another recent overview is Phillip Buckner, ‘Macdonald, Sir John Alexander, 1815-1891’ in Oxford Dictionary of National  Biography (2004), available on-line through subscribing libraries.

[53] J. Pope, Memoirs of the Right Honourabl,e Sir John Alexander Macdonald (2 vols, Ottawa, 1894) [cited as Memoirs]. Pope subsequently published a more informal account, The Day of Sir John Macdonald: A Chronicle of the First Prime Minister of Canada (Glasgow, 1920) and edited a valuable volume, Correspondence of Sir John Macdonald (Garden City, NY, 1921).

[54] L. Reynolds, Agnes: The Biography of Lady Macdonald (Ottawa, 1990), p. 149; Maurice Pope, ed., Public Servant: The Memoirs of Sir Joseph Pope (Toronto, 1960), p. 82.

[55] Pope, Memoirs, II, p. i.

[56] Both published in Toronto, and cited as YP and OC.

[57] Donald Creighton, Towards the Discovery of Canada: Selected Essays (Toronto, 1972), p. 160. The Commercial Empire of the St Lawrence (Toronto, 1937) was reissued as The Empire of the St Lawrence (Toronto, Toronto, 1956), and cf. p. 384.

[58] Creighton, Empire of the St Lawrence, p. 381. Donald Creighton was not closely related to John Creighton, mayor of Kingston 1863-66 and warden of the Penitentiary 1871-84. (Information from Dr Donald Wright of the University of New Brunswick).

[59] OC, pp. 136-40, 183, 242, 470.

[60] From p. viii of Waite’s introduction to the single volume edition of Creighton’s John A. Macdonald (Toronto, 1998).