1: John A: The Man Who Made Us (Life and Times of)

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9780679314752: 1: John A: The Man Who Made Us (Life and Times of)

The first full-scale biography of Canada’s first prime minister in half a century by one of our best-known and most highly regarded political writers.

The first volume of Richard Gwyn’s definitive biography of John A. Macdonald follows his life from his birth in Scotland in 1815 to his emigration with his family to Kingston, Ontario, to his days as a young, rising lawyer, to his tragedy-ridden first marriage, to the birth of his political ambitions, to his commitment to the all-but-impossible challenge of achieving Confederation, to his presiding, with his second wife Agnes, over the first Canada Day of the new Dominion in 1867.

Colourful, intensely human and with a full measure of human frailties, Macdonald was beyond question Canada’s most important prime minister. This volume describes how Macdonald developed Canada’s first true national political party, encompassing French and English and occupying the centre of the political spectrum. To perpetuate this party, Macdonald made systematic use of patronage to recruit talent and to bond supporters, a system of politics that continues to this day.

Gwyn judges that Macdonald, if operating on a small stage, possessed political skills–of manipulation and deception as well as an extraordinary grasp of human nature–of the same calibre as the greats of his time, such as Disraeli and Lincoln. Confederation is the centerpiece here, and Gywn’s commentary on Macdonald’s pivotal role is original and provocative. But his most striking analysis is that the greatest accomplishment of nineteenth-century Canadians was not Confederation, but rather to decide not to become Americans. Macdonald saw Confederation as a means to an end, its purpose being to serve as a loud and clear demonstration of the existence of a national will to survive. The two threats Macdonald had to contend with were those of annexation by the United States, perhaps by force, perhaps by osmosis, and equally that Britain just might let that annexation happen to avoid a conflict with the continent’s new and unbeatable power.
Gwyn describes Macdonald as “Canada’s first anti-American.” And in pages brimming with anecdote, insight, detail and originality, he has created an indelible portrait of “the irreplaceable man,”–the man who made us.
“Macdonald hadn’t so much created a nation as manipulated and seduced and connived and bullied it into existence against the wishes of most of its own citizens. Now that Confederation was done, Macdonald would have to do it all over again: having conjured up a child-nation he would have to nurture it through adolescence towards adulthood. How he did this is, however, another story.”

“He never made the least attempt to hide his “vice,” unlike, say, his contemporary, William Gladstone, with his sallies across London to save prostitutes, or Mackenzie King with his crystal-ball gazing. Not only was Macdonald entirely unashamed of his behaviour, he often actually drew attention to it, as in his famous response to a heckler who accused him of being drunk at a public meeting: “Yes, but the people would prefer John A. drunk to George Brown sober.” There was no hypocrisy in Macdonald’s make-up, nor any fear.
from John A. Macdonald

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About the Author:

Richard Gwyn is an award-winning author and political columnist. He is widely known as a commentator for the Toronto Star on national and international affairs and as a frequent contributor to television and radio programs. His books include two highly praised biographies, The Unlikely Revolutionary on Newfoundland premier Joey Smallwood, and The Northern Magus on Pierre Elliot Trudeau. His most recent book, Nationalism Without Walls: The Unbearable Lightness of Being Canadian, was selected by The Literary Review of Canada as one of the 100 most important books published in Canada. Volume two of Gwyn’s biography of Macdonald will be published in 2009.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

ÉIntroduction

The spirit of past ages never dies -
It lives and walks abroad and cries aloud.
Susanna Moodie, Victoria Magazine, 1847

If an international competition were ever to be staged to identify the world's most complex and contradictory country, Canada would be a serious contender. The winner, surely, would be India, with its sixteen official languages and more than two hundred local languages, its sacred cows and cutting-edge computer software, its combination of being both the world's largest democracy and the only nation-state with a caste system. Canada might well come in second. It's become a commonplace to describe the country as "the world's first postmodern country," given its unparalleled ethnic diversity, its decentralization (exceeded, if at all, only by Switzerland and Belgium), the in-rush of immigrants (the largest proportionately among developed nations), the expanding population of Aboriginal peoples (second only to New Zealand), and the ever-increasing number of "nations" within the nation-state - Quebec as the latest to join the list.

In quite a few ways, we were postmodern before we ever became modern. That was the way we were in John A. Macdonald's time. In 1884, Goldwin Smith, the leading political commentator of his day, summarized Macdonald's lifelong mission as "to hold together a set of elements, national, religious, sectional and personal, as motley as the component patches of any 'crazy quilt,'and actuated each of them by paramount regard for its own interest." Here, Smith identified exactly Macdonald's supreme talent - that he knew how to herd cats.

No one else in Canada came close to Macdonald; after him, perhaps only Mackenzie King did, his paramount art being that of doing as little as possible for as long as possible. At the time, few others anywhere could match him. Even without the spur of chauvinism, any reasonable ranking of nineteenth-century democratic leaders would be Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Disraeli, William Gladstone, John A. Macdonald. (Otto von Bismarck, no democrat, would otherwise rank near to the top.) Macdonald happened to perform on a stage that was small and threadbare. But in the primordial political tasks - the managing of men (then, only them) and the winning of their hearts and minds, and so their votes - contemporary equals are not easy to identify. Nor were there many nation-builders like him in his day: Bismarck, Giuseppe Garibaldi and Sim–n Bol’var. His achievement may have been the more demanding because none of the others had to create a country out of a crazy quilt.

Within the range of Macdonald's accomplishments, there are sizable gaps. The largest, surely, is that, unlike Lincoln, he never appealed to people's "better angels."He was a doer, not a thinker, although highly intelligent and omnivorously well read. He lacked the certitudes of a moralist, instead taking human nature as he found it and turning it to his purposes. He was, that is, a very Scottish Scot. He of course drank too much. And although he was in no way the first to use patronage and election funds for partisan purposes - a cherished and well-embedded Canadian tradition (which still thrives) - Macdonald gave the practice credibility and durability by his masterful exercise of it. That's a shoddy legacy for the father of a country to leave behind.

Yet his accomplishments were staggering: Confederation above all, but almost as important, if not more so, extending the country across the continent by a railway that was, objectively, a financial and economic insanity. Also, the National Policy of tariff protection, which endured in one form or other into the 1980s. And the RCMP or, more exactly, its precursor, the North-West Mounted Police. The first immigration from outside the British Isles, and Canada's first labour legislation. On the ledger's other side, he was responsible for the CPR scandal, for the execution of Louis Riel and for the head tax on Chinese workers.

He's thus not easy to scan. His private life was largely barren. Yet few other Canadian leaders - Pierre Trudeau, John Diefenbaker for a time, Wilfrid Laurier - had the same capacity to inspire love. One MP - a Liberal - wrote in a magazine article of Macdonald's hold on his supporters: "They would go through fire and water to serve him, and got, some of them, little or no reward. But they served him because they loved him, and because with all his great powers they saw in him their own frailties." The novelist Hugh MacLennan, in his Scotchman's Return, caught many of the layers within him: "This frail-looking man with the immense and rueful patience of a Celt. . . . This utterly masculine man with so much woman in him . . . this lonely man flashing gay out of his inner solitude . . . this statesman who understood that without chicanery statesmanship is powerless." Macdonald was as complex and contradictory as his own country.

Add a last, lesser, legacy of Macdonald's to the list. In writing this book, I have made a host of spelling "mistakes," but have paid them no heed. Each has been signalled clearly by a red line that my computer's U.S. text system inserts beneath the offending word. The mistakes aren't really mine, though; they are Macdonald's. He had an order-in-council passed directing that all the government's papers be written in the British style, as with "labour" rather than "labor."

Discoveries of this kind have been for me one of the chief delights of writing this book, and even more so of researching it. All historians, professional or freelance like myself, are keenly aware that these small epiphanies are the joy that more than compensates for the later pain of trying to transfer from mind to computer screen whatever it is one wants to say. The discovery, for instance, that, at least in parts of nineteenth-century rural Canada, unmarried mothers were often regarded far less as sinners than as a "species of heiress"; as one observer noted, their condition both confirmed their fecundity and, as dowry, they brought children who would soon be able to work on the farm. The discovery, one of slightly grander moment, that the principal reason the Confederation Fathers spent almost no time discussing the respective powers of the national and provincial governments - the obsession of our politicians ever since - was that most Canadians then were self-sufficient farmers (even making their own clothes and soap and candles) and didn't want governments to do much for them or to them. The discovery, most substantial of all, that the single most important decision Canadians made in the nineteenth century was not to become a confederation, but, rather, not to become Americans. And the discovery that the National Policy, a phrase always applied only to Macdonald's policy of tariff protection for Canadian manufacturers, began instead with Confederation itself, with tariff protection as a later sub-policy, together with other highlights such as his building a transcontinental railway.

Macdonald made us by making a confederation out of a disconnected, mutually suspicious collection of colonies, and by later magnifying this union into a continental-sized nation. He could not have brought off Confederation without the others of the "Big Four" - George-Étienne Cartier, George Brown and Alexander Tilloch Galt. Among them, though, the irreplaceable man was Macdonald. He understood as well something more fundamental. The United States had emerged from its Civil War as a putative superpower. Britain, the global superpower, wanted to pull back from North America in order to attend to its empire. For Canada to survive on its own, it had to demonstrate that it possessed the will and nerve it took for a nation to survive. Confederation was the essential means to that end. What Macdonald understood as no other, excepting perhaps Galt, was that Confederation was only a means, not an end.

I began work knowing precious little about Macdonald and his times. What I knew was negative - that while Macdonald was the most important of all our prime ministers, the last full-scale, critical, biography of him had been written more than half a century ago. It is the greatest biography in Canadian historiography - Donald Creighton's two volumes The Young Chieftain and The Old Politician, published in 1952 and 1955. They are magisterial and encyclopedic, composed with narrative flair. But times move on, new evidence emerges, attitudes and assumptions change and open doors - maybe trap doors - to new interpretations of old givens. Anyway, why should the United States, where history was once dismissed as "bunk," each year publish up to a half-dozen biographies of historical figures or major studies of past doings that attempt to extract contemporary lessons from long-ago events, while Canada settles for so few - precariously close to none at all? Our history, as we know perfectly well, lacks the drama of revolutions and civil wars, of kings and queens losing their heads. But it is our history. It is us. It's where we came from and, in far larger part than often is recognized, it is why we are the way we are now, no matter all the transformational changes sinceÑdemographic, economic, technological, lifestyle. Moreover, as was always Macdonald's core conviction, human nature itself changes little.

I came to this biography sideways. This book started out to be a slim one, then threatened to grow obese, then was sliced into two more or less manageable halves. This is to say that I began boning up on Macdonald for a Brief Life series on historical figures for another publisher. Out of this cramming came one, to me, unarguable conclusion: Macdonald deserves a new full-scale biography, and Canadians deserve the chance to rediscover him. With quite considerable daring - in Canada, history really is often now treated as "bunk" - Random House of Canada accepted the challenge, eventually taking the double dare that an originally planned sing...

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