The Life and Times of Sir John A. Macdonald, 1815-1891
This course will use the life of the Canada’s first Prime Minister to explore Canadian history in the period from 1815 to 1891. John A. Macdonald was probably the most important Canadian who ever lived. Some have argued that without Macdonald, northern North America would have been incorporated into the United States, a counterfactual state of affairs that most Canadians would regard as less desirable than the current arrangement. For the great Canadian historian Donald Creighton, Macdonald was a hero. Creighton praised Macdonald, arguing that in addition to being the Father of Canada, Macdonald was a truly progressive conservative who favoured policies that advanced the interests of women and trade unions. Donald Creighton died in 1979, but his books continued to be read. Moreover, Macdonald remains a hero to many Canadian nationalists.
Other Canadians have come to very different assessments of Macdonald’s legacy. During Macdonald’s lifetime, political opponents denounced the man for extreme corruption. They also argued that the Conservatives’ policies had ruined Canada’s economy and contributed to the massive outflow of people to the United States. During Macdonald’s long tenure as Prime Minister, many Canadians voted with their feet and left the country. Indeed, Canada was one of the world’s leading exporters of people in this period, rivalling Ireland and Germany in terms of the percentage of the population that left each year. Liberals did not doubt that Macdonald’s policies were responsible for this sad state of affairs.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Macdonald became the bête noire of the social historians. For them, Macdonald is remembered primarily for policies detrimental to the Métis, the First Nations, and Chinese immigrants. Marxist historians saw Macdonald as someone who helped to legitimize the exploitation of workers by employers. They argue that by throwing working-class voters a few legislative crumbs, Macdonald was able to deflect the attention of workers from truly radical social movements. More recently, Canadians on the right of the political spectrum have criticized Macdonald. The neo-conservatives deplore Macdonald’s anti-Americanism, his desire to centralize political power in Ottawa, and his propensity to intervene with the normal functioning of the free market. They also say that Macdonald relegated the Prairie Provinces to a semi-colonial status within Confederation. The fact that today’s conservatives have turned on Macdonald illustrates just how different modern Canadian neo-conservatism is from the progressive conservative tradition established by Macdonald.
This course aims to provide a balanced view of Macdonald’s actions. Students will be exposed to both Professor Creighton’s very positive interpretation and Macdonald’s many critics so that they can arrive at their own conclusions about the man’s legacy. As the 2015 bicentennial of the statesman’s birth approaches it is fitting to think about the legacy of Sir John A. Macdonald.
Ged Martin, John A Macdonald and Kingston: Elections and Politics 1841-1891 (Kingston: Kingston Historical Society, 2010), 230pp.
Nominally about politics in the Ontario city of Kingston, this book is really a study of Macdonald’s political career as a whole. Martin provides a very modern interpretation of Macdonald’s actions, using newly discovered primary sources to refine our understanding of key episodes in the man’s life. In a book that reveals both his famous capacity for close textual analysis and his dry sense of humour, Martin deconstructs the arguments of Macdonald’s earlier biographies.