John A. Macdonald’s biographers have understandably approached his career through the ‘top-down’ prism of his role as a provincial politician before Confederation, and as a nation-builder and Dominion leader thereafter.

Two implications of this  perspective may be noted. First, it has reinforced the tendency, already deeply entrenched in the writing and teaching of Canadian history, to highlight the year 1867 as the boundary between ‘the two great periods into which Macdonald’s career naturally falls.’[1] Second, it tends to shoe-horn Kingston into a larger picture in which it did not always comfortably fit. For Donald Creighton in particular, Kingston elections became occasional intrusions in a larger and far nobler story, little more than incomprehensible Saturnalia in which his hero was occasionally obstructed in his great mission by petty opposition.


If we invert the biographical approach, and view Macdonald’s career bottom-up, it is possible to identify more nuanced phases to his political life. During his first years as member for Kingston, his main priority was to secure his position against the city’s well-established tradition of Tory factionalism. From 1854 to 1863, local politics apparently began to settle into the standard two-party opposition of Conservatives and Reformers, with Macdonald winning a handy two-to-one majority in three of the contests, as well as the massive civic vote of endorsement on becoming premier in 1857. But beneath this comfortable surface, substantial shifts in the basis of his support were taking place, with the break-up of his original power-base among the Orangemen and the compensatory recruitment of votes from the Catholic community. Thus at local level, he was the beneficiary of a cross-community coalition which mirrored the shift in his strategy at provincial level, which from 1854 until his death would be based upon coalition with the Bleus of Lower Canada, conservative, Catholic and shrewdly competitive in the scramble for public resources.  On the positive side, Macdonald’s electoral support could now be described as broad-based. However, it was also vulnerable to the possibility of defections among its potentially discordant elements.

Macdonald’s easy victory in 1867 masked the extent to which his career at parliamentary and provincial level was becoming increasingly incompatible with the demands of his riding, a city in relative economic decline. The key to his political leadership was his consensual skill at trading off the diverse elements that constituted the province of Canada, and became even more disparate as the new Dominion, in his expressive phrase, grew from gristle into bone. It was his bad luck that he soared to the top at just the moment when the local demands of Kingston became all the more strident as the city woke up to the disappointment of its hopes. Although he was premier of the province, he could not deliver the seat of government. Although he was prime minister of the Dominion, he could not save the Commercial Bank. Worse still, his own financial problems further undermined his connection with the city. There might seem a certain savagely ironic symmetry between the economic decline of Kingston and the near-bankruptcy of its representative in parliament, but in practical terms, his shortage of cash meant that he could no longer operate as a major player in the local economy. The deaths of two of the key women in his life, Isabella his wife in 1857 and Helen his mother in 1862, further widened the gap between John A. Macdonald and Kingston, since he had neither the need nor the means to maintain a home in the city. In the eighteen-seventies, he paid the price and lost his seat. His return, in 1887, was a tailpiece to his career. It was no longer down to the voters of Kingston to decide whether or not he sat in parliament. He could certainly have found an alternative riding, although it was undoubtedly convenient to him to avoid too close an encounter with the Ontario farmers whose needs were supported (or exploited) by the mortgage business of his longest-running business interest, the Trust and Loan Company.  In the tight contest of 1887, he was the Conservative candidate best fitted to snatch the seat back from the Grits, and Kingston duly if narrowly fell into line. For his last campaign in 1891, Kingston was little more than a prop in a political melodrama, as the ‘Old Man’ defended the Old Flag from the citadel in which he had first set foot seven decades earlier.

To have been elected member of the provincial parliament for the second largest city in Upper Canada at the age of 29 was obviously a massive launching pad for the political career of John A. Macdonald. It was an additional bonus that, provided local factions were deftly managed, Kingston initially proved to be a safe seat, so that he could successfully leap the hurdle of his first ministerial by-election to join the cabinet in 1847, and remain in parliament during the opposition years of 1848-54, where he simply waited out the passing of reactionary allies until he could – in a famously prophetic, if perhaps accidental, phrase – ‘embrace every person desirous of being counted as a “progressive Conservative”.’[2] However, it may seem to follow from this that Kingston, the rock upon which he built the first two decades of his political career, was becoming by the eighteen-sixties a liability, and that he would have done better to have transferred to an eastern Ontario rural constituency. He would still have been under pressure to have deliver benefits to his riding, but the political tribute would have been paid in a currency that he could have handled, one of bridges and ferries, perhaps a local railway branch line. No rural riding would have fantasised Kingston’s impossible dreams of becoming an inland port-city, a railway hub and the capital of Canada.

Unfortunately there were two obstacles that prevented any such sideways move. The first was political: it was virtually impossible for Macdonald to abandon Kingston before it dumped him. A party leader who enters a campaign admitting that he cannot hold his own seat is scarcely issuing a bold rallying call to his followers. He probably contemplated seeking a quieter seat in 1872 and 1874, but the very fact that those battles to hold on to Kingston were so close run made it all the harder to walk away in 1878. But there was another, and deeply personal, obstacle to any move to a rural riding. It was not simply that his involvement with the farm mortgage business would have made him unpopular with many country voters: arguably, the grip of the loan companies only became oppressive in the eighteen-eighties.  It is rather that it well-nigh impossible to imagine John A. Macdonald discussing wheat prices with farmers, or joking with country people about their chickens and pigs. John A. Macdonald might easily have set himself up as a hobby farmer: cities such as Kingston and Ottawa were small enough for him to have bought country property nearby, and such a retreat might well have been useful for political entertaining and conspiratorial networking. But Macdonald was a townsman through and through. When he thought of land, and especially when he purchased land, his mind’s eye saw not cows and ploughs, but suburbs and subdivisions. That early decade spent out in the tiny communities of Lennox and Addington and out in Prince Edward County had left him determined to become an urban person.  He was not merely electioneering when he proclaimed, in 1872, that ‘his ambition was to die as he had lived, the member of Kingston.’[3] For nine years after Kingston rejected him in 1878, he lived his political life as a member for other places, but he returned to die in harness as member for the city that had first elected him 47 years earlier.

It is tempting to view nineteenth-century Canadian politics as nothing more than a process whereby local bosses, ‘patrons’ in political science vocabulary, shovelled out benefits to their constituents and harvested their votes at the polls. Once again, by studying John A. Macdonald’s relationship with Kingston over the long term, it becomes clear that the picture is not so straightforward. During his first decade in the Assembly, from 1844, he was first a government backbencher, with only limited access to patronage, and latterly in opposition, with none at all. Only for a few months in 1847-48 did he hold office, and neither of his portfolios provided much opportunity to channel favours towards Kingston. Yet this was a phase of relatively easy ascendancy in which his main problem was to fend off challenges from within the local elite. Only one opponent, Kenneth Mackenzie in 1847, formally identified himself as a Reformer, and the label garnered him few votes. There were three reasons that explain this apparent anomaly of a politician holding a safe seat while producing few benefits by way of government services. The first is that, at that time, John A. Macdonald was a prominent and prosperous resident, and his warm personality could work its legendary charm on a face-to-face basis, all the more so because the electorate was still relatively small. Second, an astute member of parliament could achieve a great deal for his constituents (and himself) by building cross-party alliances to secure legislation that chartered local companies. John A. Macdonald made himself the indispensible political arm of the local business community. Third, his electoral support rested upon a firm base that was not merely traditionally Tory (indeed, its intense Toryism tempted Thomas Kirkpatrick to consider challenging him in 1847) but also ferociously Protestant.

This triple underpinning of Macdonald’s local strengths began to shift during his second decade in politics. At first sight, it seems odd that he encountered problems in the decade after 1854: he was in office for eight years, which enabled him to endow the city with public buildings and bestow jobs upon at least some of its citizens. The answer lay in Canada’s sudden entry into the age of railways. Voters looked to larger prizes at just the moment when the size and cost of transportation projects required the formation of durable coalitions to sustain them, more permanent groupings than the cross-party exercises in log-rolling that the earlier Macdonald had manipulated to secure individual pieces of legislation favouring the Commercial Bank and the Trust and Loan Company. It was easy for Kingston critics to assume that, because he was the leading Upper Canada cabinet minister, Macdonald could deliver a downtown train station and perhaps even recover the lost seat of government. Unfortunately, leadership at provincial level required the pursuit of consensus and compromise which actually reduced John A. Macdonald’s ability to channel major benefits to his own riding. Moreover, the fact that coalition politics meant an alliance with French-speaking Catholics probably placed strains upon his Protestant power base, which placed him in an impossible situation in 1860 when the Orange Order dug in their heels and insisted on their right to welcome the Prince of Wales. In 1861, and probably also in 1863, John A. Macdonald made up some of his lost Protestant support by reaching out into the city’s important Catholic vote. But while this regrouping might seem to have broadened his support, it also made it vulnerable to defections within its component parts. To add to Macdonald’s difficulties, it was in this decade that he effectively ceased to live in Kingston. Those studies of Macdonald’s career that highlight his remarkable 1189-to-9 electoral victory in 1857 unwittingly distort his local strength by implying that an aberrant result represented a norm. The overwhelming size of his majority that year represented not so much affectionate loyalty to ‘John A.’ as an investment in a politician, indeed one whom they liked and trusted, but who was now expected to wave the magic wand of patronage and prosperity. Few public representatives could live up to such expectations. And in a city that was becoming marginalised by steam-power, the challenge was impossible.

 John A. Macdonald’s third decade in politics, from 1864 to 1874, was dominated by the greatest of all his achievements, the union of the British North American provinces. But Confederation was to have a curiously negative effect upon the city and its relationship with its most celebrated citizen. Initially, by existing disrupting political parties, it anaesthetised Kingston politics, so that Macdonald faced a joke opponent in 1867, coasting to a victory that almost certainly exaggerated his underlying support. Then, as the implications of the new constitution of 1867 sank in, it became clear that his scope for advancing the interests of Kingston was severely diminished. Local improvements now fell within the sphere of provincial governments and, throughout the four years when Sir John A. Macdonald’s namesake, Sandfield, held sway in Toronto, budgetary caution was the order of the day. By the time it became clear that Ontario had money to burn, after 1871, the Mowat Liberals were stoking the furnace. On the one crucial occasion where it seemed to lay in his power to defend the city’s interests, the crisis of October 1867 that engulfed the Commercial Bank, he proved powerless to act. Not only did Confederation fail to benefit Kingston, but the creation of the Dominion of Canada gave the British government the excuse to withdraw imperial troops and so terminate the city’s lucrative role as a garrison town. This was a heavy price to pay for the honour of electing Sir John A. Macdonald, no longer a mere colonial politician but now Canada’s first statesman. And Macdonald hardly lived up to the part, even when he did visit the constituency. He had drawn deep on his personal popularity in September 1866 when it was necessary for local supporters to wine and dine in his honour so that he could deflect criticism of his alcohol problem. His unpleasant personal attack upon the insignificant Stewart during the 1867 election was less than dignified, and his deplorable physical assault upon the respected Carruthers in 1872 was far worse.

In the immediate circumstances of the 1878 election, Macdonald’s rejection by Kingston in the midst of a Dominion-wide landslide seems remarkable, but in the longer term context he was probably lucky to have held on to the seat for so long. In 1878, it did not help that the vengeful Richard Cartwright was operating on the same patch, although Cartwright himself went down to defeat in Lennox. The lethal indictment against Macdonald was almost certainly the charge that he had personally deserted the city altogether. It was one thing for him to argue, as he had so ponderously pleaded in 1872, that duty forced him to live in Ottawa. It was another to swallow the insult that profit had lured him to Toronto.

It was probably a combination of motives that explains his apparently last-minute decision return in 1887. There was the belief that he could indeed win back the seat, a valuable gain in the face of an expected Liberal tide across the province. The steadily increasing pressure of debt upon Ontario farmers made an urban constituency all the more attractive to a politician so deeply involved in the farm mortgage business, while the desire to keep another Kirkpatrick out of Kingston flowed with the blood in his political veins. The Kingston and Pembroke railway was now complete and, even though a modest success, it had finally shattered the mirage, the dream that Macdonald himself had once fostered, of an El Dorado somewhere at the back of Frontenac County. Kingston had harvested its Ontario tax dollars to open up north-south communications through a railway to nowhere in particular. Now it was time to turn back and seek Dominion largesse to develop its port functions on the east-west Lake-and-river route.

Three hundred voters had turned out at Macdonald’s first election, back in 1844. By 1891, the figure had risen to over three thousand. It was no longer possible to manipulate such a large an electorate by the nods and winks of promissory glad-handing. The dry dock project was the necessary price that Macdonald had to pay for the seat, but the dry dock alone could not be guaranteed to win the gratitude of the people of Kingston. The contract for its construction had to be massaged and finessed to ensure that it ended up in the hands of political supporters who would actively mobilise the vote on his behalf, by whatever means such mobilisation would require. And so a political career that had begun with brave talk of plank roads to the Ottawa Valley reached a sordid climax more that forty years later in the sordid manoeuvre of the Bancroft contract.

It is an integral part of the life story of Sir John A. Macdonald that he died in harness, shackled to his burden of the duty to the very end.[4] The drawn-out story of his death forms a dramatic part of almost all the biographies. Aged 76 and fighting his final election on the revealing slogan of ‘The Old Flag, The Old Policy, The Old Leader’, he had collapsed early in March 1891 under the strain of the campaign, and there were fears for his heart. But when the seventh parliament of the Dominion of Canada assembled late in April, the Old Leader was in defiant form: ‘at the end of this present Parliament … I shall be some eighty-two years of age’ he taunted the Liberal leader, Wilfrid Laurier. ‘I tell my friends and I tell my foes: J’y suis, j’y reste.’[5] Here I am and here I stay: it was probably the longest speech in the French language that John A. Macdonald ever delivered in parliament. Unfortunately, it did not prove to be an accurate prediction. On 12 May he suffered a slight stroke, an episode known only to his closest associates. He was back in the House of Commons within a few days, and on Friday 22 May he was at his parliamentary desk for a dull discussion of government expenditures, business that gave a handful of opposition MPs occasional opportunities to conduct parliamentary trench warfare, seeking to gain a few yards here and there in the no-man’s-land of party warfare. The debate petered out around eleven o’clock. It was a warm night, and Sir John A. Macdonald lingered to chat with his cabinet colleague, Mackenzie Bowell. ‘Sir John,’ Bowell tactfully remarked, ‘don’t you think it about time that boys like you were home in bed?’ John A. Macdonald agreed that the hour was late and left. He would never return. Over the weekend there were renewed signs that his system could take no more. His doctor ordered him to bed and there, in the early hours of 27 May, he suffered a major stroke, the first of a series that left not only Macdonald himself but the whole of Canada paralysed until death quietly ended the saga on the early summer Saturday night of 6 June.[6]

John A. Macdonald’s first parliamentary action, on taking his seat back in 1844, had been to table three petitions on behalf of his Kingston constituents. On that final Friday night when he last appeared in the House of Commons in May 1891, he received a tribute for his constituency work from an unlikely source. Prominent among the Liberal party skirmishers was Richard Cartwright, nephew of the Tory for whom John A. Macdonald had cast his first-ever vote back in 1836, the rival who for twenty years past had stalked Macdonald with a particular venom that had been sharpened by their conflict to control the same small patch of Canada. But on this occasion, Cartwright adopted a different, and sarcastic, tack. The Langevin-McGreevy corruption scandal was starting to break, and the opposition knew that one of McGreevy’s associates, contractor Nicholas Knight Connolly, would also be implicated. Connolly had built the Kingston dry dock, and had actively supported Sir John A. Macdonald in his recent election campaign. The more Cartwright could fix in the public mind the notion that John A. Macdonald discriminated in favour of Kingston, the more mud would stick to the prime minister as the scandal unravelled. For scandal there would be, since the opposition had good reason to suspect that Connolly and his brother had secured the contract through trickery ─ a fraud in which Macdonald himself must have connived. Therefore Cartwright delivered an ironic paean of praise describing the favours that the prime minister had lavished upon his constituency since his return in 1887. ‘The First Minister,’ he said, ‘had been a good nursing father or mother, whichever he prefers to be called, to the citizens of Kingston for the last three or four years.’[7]

It might seem pleasant to conclude that, from his earliest days in the Assembly of the province of Canada through to that final evening in the Dominion House of Commons, the enduring thread in his political career was support for the welfare of Kingston, that the ambitious young politician of 1844 who had pledged that was ‘alike my duty and my interest to promote the prosperity of this city’[8] had remained as an elder statesman still ‘a good nursing father’ to his electorate. But there had been no such continuity in John A. Macdonald’s services to Kingston, either in intention or in capacity. There had been lengthy periods when he had been able to do little for the city, and Kingston had come to feel that he had never done enough.

Perhaps the ultimate irony is that his last pork-barrel project for the city that had once been his home very likely helped to kill him. John A. Macdonald had defeated Manahan and Kenneth Mackenzie, he had seen off Counter, brushed aside Shaw and Stewart and survived head-to-head confrontations with Mowat and Gildersleeve and Carruthers. He had even achieved electoral revenge on Alexander Gunn, the only challenger who had ever unseated him. These were all flesh-and-blood opponents each of them determined and most of them formidable. But in a very real sense, in 1891 he was killed by Andrew C. Bancroft, the fictional phantom dreamed up so that the Connolly brothers could cheat their way into the dry dock contract.

On 11 April, Joseph-Israel Tarte rose in the House of Commons and formally charged Langevin and McGreevy with corruption. Sir John A. Macdonald sat alongside Langevin as his long-time lieutenant denied the charges, but the matter was referred to a parliamentary committee that quickly showed a business-like determination to get to the bottom of the affair. Macdonald was always urbane, even jaunty, in the House of Commons, affecting confident contempt for the perennial overkill of opposition outrage. But we cannot know the stresses that must have been seething within the complex interior of his impenetrable personality. The Langevin-McGreevy investigation would expose certainly corruption in the Public Works and this would extend the range of enquiry to the Connolly brothers and the Kingston dry dock contract. Sooner or later, Sir John A. Macdonald would have to give evidence. He would be asked about Andrew C. Bancroft. Had he ever met Bancroft? Had he even made enquiries about Bancroft? Was it not curious that the representative for Kingston, the head of government who had gifted Kingston with such a major project, should have made no such enquiries? Sir John A. Macdonald would not have forgotten his downfall in a similar episode, the Pacific Scandal of 1873. It had taken him five dogged years to work his way back into power after that setback and, however much he might brag to Laurier in parliamentary swordsmanship, there would be no come-back for ‘Old Tomorrow’ this time. The day after Tarte’s dramatic intervention, Sir John A. Macdonald suffered that first, slight stroke.

It was in this context that we should place Cartwright’s ironic praise on 22 May for the prime minister’s generosity to the voters of Kingston. For the first time, Cartwright named the contractor who had done so much to secure Macdonald’s re-election, assuring the House that it would be hearing a great deal more about ‘Mr Connolly’. These were the Liberal tactics of 1873 all over again, the dribbling out of allegations to build up an agonisingly detailed picture of alleged Conservative villainy. As he bid goodnight to Mackenzie Bowell and boarded his cab to ride home on his final Friday evening in the Commons, Sir John A. Macdonald would have known that the whole discreditable story was going to come out, and that his political career would end in disgrace. The stress upon him must have been enormous. It proved to be unbearable.

Just as it was the needs and the hopes of Kingston that had provided the foundation for his political career, so ─ indirectly at least ─ it was the needs and the hopes of Kingston that killed him. ‘To Kingston he had always turned with a feeling of warm affection felt for no other place in the wide Dominion,’ his nephew recalled in 1891, and to Kingston his remains were brought for burial.[9] It was an appropriate final resting place, but it should not disguise the fact that John A. Macdonald had achieved far more for the country that he created than for the city which had for so long sustained his political career, more for Canada with its great potential than for Kingston with its narrow prospects.  


[1] YP, p. vii.

[2] ML I, p. 202 (9 February 1854).

[3] Daily News, 26 July 1872.

[4] Only one other prime minister of Canada has died in office: Sir John Thompson suffered a heart attack while lunching with Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle in 1894. Tragically,Thompson was only 49 and his death was unexpected.

[5] Debates of the House of Commons of Canada, 1891, 1 May 1891, col. 1135.

[6] OC, pp. 562-63; Biggar, Anecdotal Life, p. 283. The prolonged death-bed scene was not only deeply poignant but also ineffably bizarre. The governor-general, Lord Stanley (of Stanley Cup fame) refused to appoint a new prime minister until Sir John A. Macdonald died, so he was clinging not only to life but to office. During his last few days, Macdonald was almost completely paralysed, and could only signal ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to questions by eye movements. He was not of course governing Canada by his eyelashes; rather, all government was in abeyance. Barbara J. Messamore, ‘”On a Razor Edge”: Canadian Governors-General, 1888-1911’, British Journal of Canadian Studies, 13 (1998), p. 376.

[7] Debates of the House of Commons of Canada, 1891, 22 May 1891, co. 432.

[8] Pope, Memoirs, I, p. 32.

[9] Macpherson, II, p. 466. In his Will, Macdonald directed that he be buried ‘near the grave of my mother, as I promised her that I should be there buried.’ Helen Macdonald maintained control over her son to the end. Biggar, Anecdotal Life, p. 319.