BY common consent Sir
John Alexander Macdonald has been assigned the foremost place among the
statesmen whom the public life of Canada has hitherto produced. Popular
opinion on this point has been ratified by the stricter and measured
judgment of the ablest men among his Canadian contemporaries with whom
he was brought into close personal and official contact. It was equally
ratified, even during his lifetime, by opinion in Britain, where those
who best knew his work recognized in him one of the foremost statesmen
of the empire. At his death the creation of a peerage for his widow put
a special stamp of national recognition upon the singular services which
he had rendered to Canada and the nation. A memorial tablet in the crypt
of St. Paul's Cathedral—his statue adorning the squares of most of the
larger Canadian cities—indicate the general desire to perpetuate his
If special honour is due
to those who by wise constructive statesmanship lay broad and deep the
foundations of a great state, then to such honour Sir John Macdonald is
No public man has ever in
Canada won in an equal degree the sustained admiration of his
fellow-citizens, and at the same time their affection, as had Macdonald
at the time of his death. That he should have done this in spite of
grave political errors and acknowledged personal defects, and as the
general outcome of a life spent in the very furnace of party conflict,
makes the achievement all the more striking.
For many years before
Confederation his history is an essential part of the political history
of the province of Canada as then constituted; for nearly twenty-five
years afterwards it is practically that of the whole Dominion. While
many men and many forces contributed to that great end, it is scarcely
an exaggeration to say that it was his personality which in 1867 made
the confederation of British North America possible. Rightly understood
this period was as critical for the empire as it was for the colony
itself. No one can doubt that the whole future development of the
imperial system is destined to be profoundly affected by the course of
action then taken.
It was fortunate that at
such a time Canada possessed a public man who was versed in all the
intricacies of local politics, and endowed with the peculiar skill which
creates and holds together parliamentary majorities, and who at the same
time had a mind capable of grasping the problems of a broad national
statesmanship. The colonial politician, guided by a few dominant
principles, gradually developed, under the pressure of circumstances and
the needs of a great occasion, into an imperial statesman who has left a
lasting stamp upon the policy of the nation.
The confederation of
Canada under the Crown inaugurated the new idea and the new organization
of the empire. That organization is still far from complete. Other great
groups of colonies are feeling their way towards a consolidation similar
to that which has conferred such immense advantage on the Dominion. The
empire as a whole begins to realize that it has not yet reached its
final goal in the process of political evolution.
The period in which we
live is, therefore, one of national transition where every lesson of
experience has extreme value. The work of the men who laid well and
truly the constitutional foundations of the Dominion has now stood the
test of nearly forty years of stress and strain. A political system
which commands public confidence, a healthy national spirit, great
material prosperity, and well grounded hope for an ever-widening and
successful future are results apparent to the ordinary observer.
The labours of Macdonald
and his fellow-workers in adapting British constitutional principles to
a federal system have become a part, and no unimportant part, of our
national heritage. A recognition of the value of the work they
accomplished will facilitate further national development.
The historical facts of a
period tend to group themselves around its strongest and most
representative personality. The man's history becomes the history of his
time. Thus Canadians will always associate with the figure of their
great leader the group of events which transformed their country from a
number of isolated colonies, provincial in thought and policy, into a
consolidated and self-reliant Dominion, filled with those hopes of a
vast future which are naturally inspired by the possession of one-half.
of a great continent.
Even before the end of
his life Macdonald had come to be looked upon as embodying, more than
any one else, the spirit and purpose of the Canadian people. The
tradition is one which seems likely to grow with the growth of the
Dominion and with the fuller and more general recognition of the
significance of the work he did and of the critical character of the
period in which that work was accomplished.
My aim in this volume
will be to bring this tradition within the limits of true historical
perspective, so far as this is possible in a limited space and in
dealing with events still close at hand. I wish to outline concisely,
but at the same time clearly, the career of the man who guided the
destinies of my country through the anxious years which preceded
Confederation and the difficult and not untroubled ones which followed
the union of the provinces.
For such a condensed
biography there seems a distinct need. Sketches of Macdonald's career
were written during his life, but mainly for party purposes and with a
strong party bias. The two large volumes in which, since his death, Mr.
Pope has ably redeemed the trust committed to him of being the literary
executor of his old chief, and those in which Colonel Macpherson has
embodied many of his uncle's most important speeches, may be recommended
to all who have the wish and the opportunity to study the details of
Canadian politics. To both I have been constantly indebted. But either
of these works is too voluminous, in these days of many books, for
readers who can only spare the time to master essential facts. It is for
such readers that this short biography is intended. I hope that in
trying to condense I have not become obscure; that in the effort to be
brief, no fact of major significance has been omitted.
It is not an easy task to
separate in all cases the false from the true, or to form an impartial
judgment in writing of a man whose every public word and deed was
regarded from a party point of view at a period when party passion was
extreme; whose actions and purposes are perhaps as unfairly judged by
the adulation of supporters as by the hostile interpretation of
It may be a century
before the final biography of Macdonald can be written, and his true
place among contemporary statesmen assigned to him on clear historical
grounds. Meanwhile, an attempt to separate the kernel of his achievement
as a statesman from the husk of political controversy, in which the work
of public men is so often hidden, may serve a patriotic purpose. It is
in this belief that the present volume has been prepared.
I have to acknowledge
valuable assistance given to me in the preparation of Chapters V, VI and
VII, by Mr. W. L. Grant, Beit Lecturer in Colonial History in the
University of Oxford; assistance which he was specially qualified to
give through his own studies of contemporaneous Canadian history made in
connection with the biography of his distinguished father, the late
Principal Grant. I must also gratefully acknowledge my indebtedness to
Dr. W. D. Le Sueur, whose sound judgment and full knowledge have been of
inestimable advantage in the revision of the MS. and proof.
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