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Canadian Confederation and its Leaders
John Sandfield Macdonald



(1812-1872)

THE “Sandfield Macdonald surplus” was for almost a generation a monument to the principles and parsimony of the first Premier of Ontario. During its accumulation its fate was ever the subject of teasing and speculation by the Reform Opposition. In after years the Conservatives never failed to discount the savings of the Mowat Government by laying credit to the economies of John Sandfield Macdonald. How a surplus of three million dollars could be gathered in four years from the frugal revenues of that period will ever remain a mystery to the spenders of to-day. With Sandfield Macdonald, retrenchment was a religion, and formed one of his vows on taking office. It was a justified and natural course in a new commonwealth barely emerged from pioneering, when food was plentiful but money was indeed scarce.

Sandfield Macdonald was opposed to Confederation until its passage was assured; then, with the ready adjustment which marked his whole career, he accepted it and responded to Sir John A. Macdonald’s call to form the first Government for Ontario. He was in public life almost continuously from 1841 till his death in 1872, was Premier of Canada for two years in the early ’sixties, and participated freely in the complex movements which preceded Confederation. By temperament he was unsuited to the compromises of office.

Conscious of this fact, he early described himself as a “political Ishmaelite.” In an era when political lines were indifferently defined, he frequently shifted his allegiance. In 1864 he moved the resolution in the Reform caucus requesting George Brown to join the coalition government to promote Confederation, but failed to recognize that this implied sanction of the movement. His advancement in public life was due to native ability—, courage and undoubted integrity, to popularity among the Highlanders of eastern Ontario, and to his adherence to his own opinions. He was caustic of speech and often irascible, though he was capable of geniality and craft in settling political problems that confronted him.

During most of his political life he was in opposition to George Brown, and at times exhibited jealousy of the Reform leader. While driving from Guelph to Elora to attend a meeting after the formation of the Brown-Dorion Government, a party of Reform leaders, including Sandfield Macdonald, Dorion, Mowat, Holton and others, were met by a reception committee en route. One of these, Col. Charles Clarke, who relates the story, made a general inquiry as to why Brown was absent. “Can’t you do without Brown for a single night?” came the snappish reply from a voice within the carriage, and the voice belonged to Sandfield Macdonald.

In 1858 John A. Macdonald, in a courteous and kindly letter, asked Sandfield Macdonald to join his Cabinet, offering him a choice of portfolios. The reply was a brusque telegram, saying simply: “No go.”

In spite of this, Sir John Macdonald had a kindly feeling for his namesake, and in 1863, while battering the walls of the Sandfield Macdonald-Sicotte Government in its declining days, was at pains to state that he bore no personal feeling against the head of the administration. The same kindly attitude—combined, it may be, with political sagacity—led Sir John to ask Sandfield Macdonald to form the first Cabinet in Ontario. The two new Premiers faced the electors in their respective spheres in 1867, in what the Liberals resentfully described as “hdnting in couples.” The one condition imposed by Sir John was that the new Ontario Cabinet should be a coalition government, which was to include two Conservatives, and three Reformers, including the Premier. This condition led to bitter attacks by the Reform press, which generally followed Brown’s lead in his denunciation of the “Patent Combination,” as Sandfield Macdonald named his own Cabinet.

The opposition of Brown and the bulk of the Reform party drove Sandfield Macdonald substantially into the Conservative camp, and his administration suffered a raking fire from Edward Blake and Alexander Mackenzie, then in their prime as destructive critics. Sir John Macdonald was at this time in poor health, and his last recorded references to his protege before the latter’s death were of sorrow and disappointment at the overthrow of the Government in Ontario, whose head refused to take advice. Writing to John Carling a few days after the Government had resigned in December, 1871, Sir John said:

“There is no use ‘crying over spilt milk,’ but it is vexatious to see how Sandfield threw away his chances. He has handed over the surplus, which he had not the pluck to use, to his opponents; and although I pressed him on my return from Washington to make a President of the Council and a Minister of Education, which he half promised to do, yet he took no steps towards doing so.”

John Sandfield Macdonald was a proud and fitting product of his environment. He was born at St. Raphael’s, Glengarry County, Ontario, on December 12, 1812, his father being a Highlander and a Roman Catholic. It was characteristic of Sandfield that he attempted to run away from home while yet a boy, and when his service in a Cornwall store led to gibes from other boys at the “counter-hopper,” he quit the store and took up the study of law. His education at this time was most imperfect, but so keen was his mind that in eight years, or by 1840, he was admitted as an attorney. The idol of the settlement, he soon developed a profitable practice and in 1841 was elected to the Assembly. His popularity with his constituents was without limit, and they returned him again and again, either by acclamation or with sweeping majorities, and once drove his opponent from the riding. He was an irresistible campaigner in his own riding, and his methods were not without originality. For electioneering journeys he secured a flimsy old vehicle, tied up its wheels with cord, and went among his people saying: “I am one of yourselves.” Though he lived in comfort for those days, the farmers respected him for his success, and listened gladly to his hesitating but pungent speech. He was a keen student of human nature, and once when leaving home for a few weeks enjoined the chief town “rough,” whom everyone feared, to guard his premises. The trust reposed in him led the incorrigible to half kill several prowlers. Macdonald’s standing in Glengarry was heightened by addresses to the electors in Gaelic, a form of appeal used to advantage by other public men in the Scottish settlements of Ontario up to recent years.

This tall, slight, impulsive young lawyer, with the massive head, speedily attracted notice in the Assembly of the new Union of Canada. He seconded the Address in September, 1841, and immediately joined in the Reformers’ fight against Sir Charles Metcalfe and the “Family Compact.” In 1849 he became Solicitor-General for Upper Canada. When the Hincks-Morin Government was organized in 1851 the portfolio of Commissioner of Crown Lands was offered to him, but he declined, seeking unsuccessfully the post of Attorney-General West. Although he was elected Speaker, he held a grudge against Hincks for the fancied slight, and in 1854 recorded an adverse vote on the Address, and thus forced Hincks to resign.

An illustration of Macdonald’s courage and independence was his advocacy of non-sectarian education, and for opposing Separate Schools he incurred the denunciation of his Church. Though brought up a Roman Catholic, he was not a specially devout church member, and laughingly referred to himself as “an outside pillar.”

Political alliances were often of unstable character in those days of deadlock. Though Sandfield Macdonald and George Brown had opposed each other for years, in 1858 the feud was healed and Macdonald joined the Brown-Dorion Government as Attorney-General West. Brown and Macdonald soon separated and the gulf between them steadily widened. During the succeeding Cartier-Macdonald regime, Sandfield Macdonald alternately attacked the Government and the Opposition. When that Administration resigned in March, 1862, the Governor-General, much to the people’s surprise, asked Sandfield Macdonald to form a Cabinet. The Macdonald-Sicotte Government was the result.

The new Premier faced the abashed country with an extensive program. He called for the “double majority,” a higher tariff for revenue purposes, retrenchment in expenditures, a new insolvency law, and a new militia bill, but his silence on representation by population offended the Upper Canadians and led to vigorous attacks by George Brown and The Globe. This dissatisfaction grew as the months passed, and in the following May the Government went down under a double fire from John A. Macdonald on one side and George Brown on the other.

Instead of resigning and retiring, the Premier came up with reconstruction. The expelled Ministers promptly joined the Opposition, and by March 21, 1864, the Sandfield Macdonald-Dorion Government resigned without even a want of confidence motion. Macdonald’s speech announcing the resignation of the Government possessed a wistful note. “The time has come,” he said, after reciting their troubles, “when we ourselves should make a fair acknowledgment of the difficulties in which we are constituted and place our resignations, as we have unanimously done to-day, in the hands of His Excellency.”

“Hear, hear. It ought to have been done long ago,” broke in D’Arcy McGee, cruelly.

“If I have said anything with the appearance of malice,” the Premier added, “I did not intend it in the sense in which it may have been understood. I owe no grudge against anyone on the other side. I desire, so far as I am concerned, to give and take, and shall be as ready to forget as to forgive injuries.”

Sandfield Macdonald’s opposition to Confederation was captious rather than profound. It is true he maintained that union ought not to be effective without submission to the people, but his various speeches during the debates of 1865 were marked by petty criticism. The delegates from the Maritime Provinces, he said, had gone to Charlottetown to form their own union, and their deliberations were interrupted by the members of the Canadian Government, who offered them greater inducements and undermined the plans for which they had met. The minds of the people of Canada, he said, had been unhinged by the proceedings of the past year, and political parties had been demoralized. “The Reform party,” he declared, “has become so disorganized by this Confederation scheme that there is scarcely a vestige of its greatness left. ... I never was myself an advocate of any change in our constitution; I believed it was capable of being well worked to the satisfaction of the people, and we were free from demagogues and designing persons who sought to create strife between the two sections.”

This disinclination to countenance change gives Sandfield Macdonald the color of a reactionary, despite his place in the Reform party during most of his public life. Sir James Whitney, who studied law in Macdonald’s office, used to say that he was by habit of mind Conservative rather than Liberal.

Although Sandfield Macdonald’s comments on Confederation revealed a waspish habit of speech, there was much humor which the solemn 1865 Assembly enjoyed. He attacked the Coalition Government then in power, and said its record would be as bad as that of 1854.

“Who moved that the honorable gentlemen representing the Liberal party should go into the Government?” asked Alexander Mackenzie, significantly.

“I found they were going—that the honorable gentlemen had full speed and that nothing could restrain them,” was the evasive reply.

Annexation talk was prevalent in the Maritime Provinces at this time, and Sandfield Macdonald used this fact in arguing against Confederation. If an attempt were made to coerce them to join Canada, he said, they would be like a damsel who is forced to marry against her will, and who would in the end be most likely to elope with someone else.

“Sir,” he added with dignified emphasis, “it has been my misfortune to have been nearly nineteen years of my political life in the cold shades of Opposition, but I am satisfied to stay an infinitely longer period on this side of the House if that shall be the effect of my contending for the views which I have expressed.” Even the enactment of Confederation was slow to mellow Macdonald’s opposition, though he became at once a Provincial Premier. On July 23, 1867, speaking at Greenwood, in South Ontario, he said the new constitution “would not remedy the evils complained of in the past, but would increase them.”

Macdonald’s political position was anything but clear from his addresses at this time. “If the Conservatives expected I would yield to them,” he said at Greenwood, “they were mightily mistaken.” He said he was the most obstinate man in existence except George Brown, and yielded his opinions to nobody. He would like to see “John A.” or anybody else dictate to him the course he would follow.

Late in August, in his nomination speech at Cornwall, Sandfield Macdonald spoke of the peaceful revolution in Canada as evidence of the high enlightenment of the people and of their eminent fitness for self-government. He sincerely hoped there might be no cause to regret the step taken. He had said in the last session that “now that the change was accomplished, he would give all the aid he possibly could to the new constitution.”

When Sandfield Macdonald met the Legislature in the autumn of 1868 he startled the House with his radical program. He proposed and put through measures to abolish the property qualification for members of the Legislature to establish one-day elections, increase free grants to settlers from 100 to 200 acres, and to sweep away legislative grants to sectarian institutions. Problems of drainage, boundary awards and settlement of accounts with Lower Canada crowded on the Government during these early days of Ontario.

As the years passed, the Premier was growing petulant and at times gave offence to deputations by his outspoken utterances. A famous instance is when a party of men from Strathroy asked for a grant and were met by the insolent query, “What the h— has Strathroy done for me?” In the elections of March, 1871, the Liberal Opposition made undoubted gains. They claimed to possess a majority, though the same claim was made by the Government. When the House met on December 7 there were eight vacancies, and Premier Macdonald played for time that these might be filled. The Opposition, however, saw their chance, and bombarded the Government with want of confidence motions. The Government were unequal to the struggle. Their railway subsidies were especially attacked, and four times they failed to secure a majority on divisions. Edward Blake, then Liberal leader, demanded a declaration of policy with regard to the surplus, and said the country was crying out for its disposal. Alexander Mackenzie and Sandfield Macdonald indulged in recriminations as to whether the latter had betrayed the Reform party, and who was really the leader of that party. Macdonald said that he was “now and since 1867 had been denounced simply because he organized his own party and manned his own ship.”

One of the Ministers, E. B. Wood, gave way under the storm and resigned, and finally on December 19 the Premier announced that he and his colleagues had handed in their resignations. Then, in a rather painful scene, as all recognized that the end of a long, useful public career had come, concurrently with physical weakness, the Premier “appealed to the honorable gentlemen opposite if he had said anything of a personal character in the heat of the debate which had given offence, he asked forgiveness now, as he had intended no offence and hoped that this would be accepted as an apology, and if they were as ready to forgive as himself, it would be mutual.”

Edward Blake succeeded to the Premiership of Ontario; Sandfield Macdonald retired to his home in Cornwall, where he died on June 1, 1872, his end hastened by the sting of defeat. He was buried among his beloved Highlanders.

Sir James Whitney, as Premier of Ontario, speaking at the unveiling of a monument to John Sandfield Macdonald in Toronto, in November, 1909, said:

“Mr. Macdonald was a man of great force of character and individuality. These were his dominant characteristics. Once he formed an opinion or came to a conclusion, it was not easy to turn him aside. Consequently party limitations and conditions galled him, and as a rule he went his own way and voted as he thought proper. The position he occupied in the political world was indeed unique.”

On the same occasion, The Globe, writing of Mr. Macdonald, for so long a political opponent, said: “It fell to Mr. Macdonald’s lot to organize the public service of this Province and give direction to its legislation. How well he did this work is best shown by the fact that the lines he laid down and the precedents he set have never since been greatly departed from.”


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