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Painting of John A. Macdonald, possibly done in Edinburgh, Scotland, by an unknown artist, ca. 1842–1843

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John A. Macdonald, possibly done in Edinburgh, Scotland, by an unknown artist, ca. 1842–1843

ARCHIVED - Sir John A. Macdonald
Canada's Patriot Statesman

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The Person

Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada's first prime minister, lies in a simple grave at Cataraqui Cemetery in Kingston. A grey, granite cross, no more than four feet high, marks the burial site. The words "John Alexander Macdonald, 1815-1891, At Rest," are carved into the foot of the stone. To see it, you might think John Alexander Macdonald was just another of his generation-a merchant, a sailor, a soldier-anyone but a nation-building statesman. But so the tombstone is, camouflaged in the stone sea of the cemetery, inviting not so much as a second glance.

Painting of Isabella Clark Macdonald, by William Sawyer, 1852
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Isabella Clark Macdonald, by William Sawyer, 1852

Perhaps it is fitting that despite Macdonald's life of political triumph, his resting place projects such a lonely, even solemn air. Macdonald's achievements in public life were often overshadowed by a private life filled with tragedy and heartbreak. Although a sturdy and formidable political warhorse, Sir John A. Macdonald was far from immune to personal pain.

Hugh Macdonald, Sir John's father, had moved his family from Glasgow, Scotland, to Kingston in Upper Canada in 1820, enticed by the promise of a new land and the opportunity for prosperity that had long eluded him. Sir John was then five years old. Two years later, the future prime minister would witness the violent murder of his five-year-old brother, James Shaw Macdonald, by a drunken babysitter. That horrific event was a family secret that Macdonald would keep until his twilight years.

Painting of Hugh John Macdonald as a baby, by William Sawyer, 1852
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Hugh John Macdonald, by William Sawyer, 1852

Macdonald shied away from athletics as a youth, instead immersing himself in academics. He mastered French and Latin by the time he was 12. His parents, who had only found marginal success as millwrights near Picton, Ontario, sent Macdonald to Kingston for his education. He was billeted and spent long periods away from home. Macdonald went into law as a teenager and later waded into Kingston's municipal politics, contesting and winning his first election in 1843. That year, Macdonald also met and married his first wife, a cousin named Isabella Clark. The marriage was happy at first, but became Macdonald's greatest source of grief after his bride developed a debilitating, mysterious illness. The disease would ebb and flow for the better part of 13 years, and eventually claim her life.

Despite her illness, Isabella was able to deliver the couple's first child, a son named John Alexander like his father, in August 1847. But the joy was short-lived. Young John died suddenly at 13 months of age. Macdonald had a second son, Hugh John, with Isabella in 1850, but father and son would never grow close. After Isabella's death in 1857, Hugh was raised mostly by his aunt while his father remained tied to his political duties. Hugh John Macdonald would go on to become premier of Manitoba.

Photograph of Lady Macdonald and daughter Mary dressed in mourning, May 1893
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Baroness Macdonald of Earnscliffe and daughter Mary, May 1893

Macdonald was Attorney General of the Province of Canada and only 33 years old when his first son died; the child's death, combined with his wife's lingering disease, drove Macdonald almost mad, and certainly contributed to his legendary struggle with alcohol. "Macdonald's heart was rent by [Isabella's] suffering," wrote Kingston historian Louis J. Flynn. "The shock and sorrow of the death of their infant son prostrated the parents and they grew closer together but Isabella continued to be frail and sickly . . . His political successes never wholly made up for the failures and tragedies of his domestic life."

Many Canadians seem willing to overlook, if not excuse, Macdonald's drinking problem, viewing it as a human failing in a man weighted down by human tragedy. "I kind of like the idea that the father of our Confederation wasn't the guy who couldn't tell a lie; he was the guy who liked to drink," Canadian journalist and author Pierre Berton once told CBC television.

Photograph of Lady Susan Agnes Macdonald, wife of Sir John A. Macdonald, January 1885
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Lady Susan Agnes Macdonald, wife of Sir John A. Macdonald, January 1885

While he was contending with a broken family life and binge drinking, Macdonald's financial problems mounted. By the time of Confederation, his personal debt had risen to about $1 million in today's dollars. Several banks he had invested in, personally and through his law practice, failed. And when his long-time law partner, A.J. Macdonnell, died in 1864, Macdonald was left holding the bag for all of the firm's outstanding debts.

Despite a personal life rife with sorrow, Macdonald's congenial, though sometimes melancholy, spirit continued to serve him in public life. As former prime minister John Turner said in a speech on Macdonald's birthday in 2001, "Magnetism was the quality Sir John held. Magnetism is that quality which compels a man to walk 10 blocks out of his way in order to meet you, instead of walking 10 blocks out of his way in order to avoid you."

Photograph of 'Bellevue' in Kingston, Ontario, the residence where Sir John A. Macdonald lived during his early married life, n.d.
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"Bellevue," Kingston, where Sir John A. Macdonald lived during his early married life, n.d.

Before the birth of Canada on July 1, 1867, Macdonald had found a new wife and the hope of new happiness. When the former Susan Agnes Bernard became pregnant, she referred to her expected baby as "my new hope" in her diary. That hope, however, was dashed when Mary Macdonald was born with a deformity. Doctors told the couple the infant would not develop normally, physically or mentally. Still, Macdonald loved his only daughter. He wrote more than 30,000 letters in his lifetime, but none reveal his tenderness and loving nature more than his letters to Mary, whom he affectionately nicknamed "Baboo."

"You remember that Mamma cut my hair and made me look like a cropped donkey," Sir John wrote to his daughter. "It has grown quite long again. When you come home, you must not pull it too hard." According to Macdonald historian and Queen's University professor Donald Swainson, "Mary's illness was but the latest in a chain of unhappy events in John A.'s private life. His first wife had died young, his first son died in infancy. He hardly knew his other son and their relationship was often stormy and unpleasant. Now, his only daughter was suffering from a debilitating disease. It is a marvel that Sir John was able to weather these tragedies and function as a creative statesman."

Indeed, Macdonald's great achievements as a politician and as prime minister seem to be all the more admirable when one considers the great challenges he experienced in his private life.