Would That I Could Love You

My mixed feelings about Sir John A. Macdonald

Sir John A. Macdonald has been much attacked of late; despising him is a reliable signal of progressive virtue, and a symptom of a broader pattern of contempt for people and institutions that have created the most prosperous, freest, and most egalitarian societies the world has ever known. The Faculty of Law at Queen’s has decided to remove Macdonald’s name from its building; his statues have been vandalised or removed; and so on.

For my part, I have been sufficiently provoked by all this to finally, and belatedly, read the late Richard Gwyn’s biography of the man. I have now finished the first volume, which runs from Macdonald’s birth in 1815 to Confederation. Having gone into it with a great deal of sympathy for Macdonald, I come out with very mixed feelings ― but not for the reasons that motivate his progressive critics. What diminishes Macdonald in my eyes is his nationalism ― and, if anything, I wonder that it does not raise his stature in theirs.

Before I explain myself, I should say something about the book itself. Mostly this: you should read it, if you haven’t yet. It’s a breezy read despite being fairly long. It is serious but no less engaging for that, and written with both sympathy for its subject and honesty about his flaws ― and I say this despite not being fully persuaded by Gwyn’s assessment of Macdonald. From a constitutional history perspective, the discussion of Confederation feels a little thin, but this is unfair reproach to level at a book meant for a general audience, and really doesn’t take away from Gwyn’s achievement.


Gwyn’s thesis regarding Macdonald (at least Macdonald as a politician and up to Confederation) is that, other than the enjoyment of the political game and of the power that it brought him thanks to his supreme ability at it, Macdonald’s motivation was above all to preserve Canada as a non-American, and if possible as a British, political community. He sought, first, to make the Province of Canada work, and then to build a strong, centralized federation as a means to prevent what seemed to many ― in Canada itself, but also in the United States and even in Britain ― like the inevitable annexation of the British North American colonies to the American republic.

Loyalty to Britain and opposition to America was both Macdonald’s inner spring and his go-to rhetorical trope. One of the book’s chapters is named “Canada’s First Anti-American”. Macdonald seized on opponents’ flirtations with annexationism or simply on hesitations and accused them of treason. He did not have a very definite view of what his Canada ― first the province, then the Dominion ― ought to be like; he was (to his credit!) no religious zealot or bigot, and ideologically he insisted on leading a broad, perhaps even a shapeless, party, which he cheerfully persuaded erstwhile opponents to join. But on Canada’s distinctiveness, he was unflinching and ruthless.

Gwyn further makes the case, and he makes it convincingly, that Macdonald’s political talents were absolutely necessary to pull it all off. Of course we cannot know how an alternative history without him would have turned out. But it seems fair to take the widespread belief of politicians and journalists of the time that Canada must in due course ― and sooner rather than later ― become American as indicative of something. Macdonald wasn’t alone in making sure that this did not happen, but, as Gwyn argues, the others ― Cartier, Brown, Galt, McGee, Tupper ― wouldn’t have done it without him. Confederation happened when he accepted that it ought to, and it happened because he put his boundless skill and energy into it. And it seems plausible, quite likely even, that had it not happened then, annexation to the United States would indeed have been inevitable.

For this reason, at the risk of concern-trolling, I would suggest that those who are all about pulling down Macdonald’s statues wherever they can still find them may want to reconsider. Much as they are keen to condemn Canada, the one polity they like still less is the United States. On the specific issue of the treatment of Aboriginal peoples, which most exercises them, shameful though Canada’s record is, would things have been better if the prairies, and then the rest of Canada, had become part of America? And of course on any number of other issues also, the Canadian left has long seen the border as demarcating, if not the good, then at least the tolerable from the evil. That border is Macdonald’s doing. It is the monument to him that they neither can nor, in their brightest nightmares, would want to pull down.


But my own reaction to Gwyn’s argument is not so enthusiastic. Something is missing from it: namely, any clear sense of why Macdonald’s anti-Americanism is something for us to admire. Macdonald himslef was moved, so far as I can tell from Gwyn’s book, by little more than a small-c conservative sensibility and consequent gut reactions. Macdonald believed in Britsh institutions and distrusted, perhaps even despised, American ones, but Gwyn insists that he did not know America well, and was not interested in understanding it. He was horrified by the Civil War, but his absolute rejection of an American future for Canada long pre-dated that conflict. He wasn’t actively rejecting American expansionism (except as it affected Canada), or slavery, or acting on some other grand moral belief. He was a nationalist, driven not by principle but by identity.

The closest Gwyn’s Macdonald comes to articulating a rational argument for his nationalism is his criticism of the US Constitution. As Alastair Gillespie details in his essay on Macdonald for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute (at 29), he equated American presidential system with despotism, and American federalism with anarchy. The president, he said, was unconstrained by his cabinet, while the States were sovereign and the federal government too weak, which he claimed was a cause of the Civil War. These complaints fit poorly together, and Macdonald’s interpretation of the Civil War’s causes is puzzling. I struggle to see what additional federal powers would have prevented the slave States’ rebellion, and it’s not clear that Macdonald ever explained this. I am inclined to think that he either misunderstood the American system (even the pre-1868 American system), or perhaps even gave a tendentious account of it the better to justify his own vision of highly centralized federalism.

To me, Macdonald’s nationalism, as described by Gwyn, is thoroughly unattractive. Like all nationalism, it is essentially negative, fueled by ignorance and incomprehension, which results in distrust and perhaps even contempt. Nationalism, as Macdonald’s fondness for rhetoric of treason shows, also provides easy means for rhetorical escalation, and for divisiveness under the banner of unity. Other forms of identity politics provide similar examples of intolerance in the name of diversity and inclusion.

Now, Macdonald was no ignoramus and no bigot. Quite the contrary! He was intelligent and well read, not only in history, politics, and law, but in literature too; he got on well with Catholics ― far too well for some of his more bigoted critics ―, and with French and Irish Canadians. He helped create a country where some of these differences could eventually be all but forgotten, while other, more enduring ones, have been peacefully accommodated. This is no accident: the accommodation and eventual diminishment of sectional, linguistic, and religious differences was both a motivation for and a consequence of the structure of government the Fathers of Confederation designed. But this is the tragedy of nationalism: it causes otherwise intelligent and open-minded people to act in thoughtless and petty ways. This is also, of course, the tragedy of other forms of identity politics, including those fashionable in progressive circles.

You might be wondering where rejecting nationalism ― Macdonald’s nationalism of all things, a civic-minded version of the doctrine and the sentiment that begat Confederation ― leaves me. Does it mean, for instance, that I must recant all the good I have said of Confederation and of the Constitution Act, 1867?

I don’t think so. I approach this question from an individualist position, expressed as well as anywhere else in Thoreau’s defence of civil disobedience: “Government is at best but an expedient”, he wrote, and “most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient”. The American government, the one Macdonald looked down upon without ever having seen it very clearly,

what is it but a tradition, though a recent one, endeavoring to transmit itself unimpaired to posterity, but each instant losing some of its integrity? … It is a sort of wooden gun to the people themselves. But it is not the less necessary for this; for the people must have some complicated machinery or other, and hear its din, to satisfy that idea of government which they have.  

But of course the Canadian government, whether that of the Province of Canada or the one set up in 1867, is not much different. It too is at best an expedient, and often not even that. It too is a tradition ― much older now than it, or even its American counterpart, was back then ― and a sort of wooden gun to the people themselves, and a piece of din-making machinery. There is nothing about it to be revered.

Now, thinking this does not prevent me thinking that, as governments go, the one contrived by the Fathers of Confederation under Macdonald’s leadership is more expedient than most, and while that is a low bar to clear, it is a real, and meaningful, accomplishment. We can, and should, measure existing institutions against the requirements of our principles, to see how they can be improved. But we can, and should, also measure existing institutions against plausible alternatives. By the first measure ― the one on which the left tends to focus, and of which the right often loses sight ― Canada certainly falls short in important ways. By the second ― which is of more interest to the right, and which the left tends to ignore ― Canada does well enough.

Confederation, moreover, was a real improvement over the system it predated on both measures. It got closer to at least some ideals, by implementing a meaningful federal system and thus advancing the principle of subsidiarity, and was about as good a system as, realistically, one might have conceived of given the facts on the ground and the state of minds in 1860s Canada. As Gwyn makes clear, its achievement was by no means a given; indeed it is quite remarkable. I have no hesitation in admiring it, and the fact that Macdonald’s motivations, and those of the other Fathers of Confederation for that matter, do not strike me as admirable has nothing to do with it. The intent of their creators is not a useful metric by which to assess institutions.


When it comes to individuals, though, motivations and intentions are more appropriately part of what we should base our judgments on. So of course are deeds and consequences. My own judgment on Macdonald ― based on the first part of Gwyn’s biography and of course on my perspective as a constitutional lawyer ― is thus very ambivalent. He helped create institutions that, on the whole, I admire, although they are not without their flaws. But he acted for reasons that are, from my perspective, quite unadmirable.

Indeed, I’m left with the impression that Macdonald, for all his political talent, for all his ability to achieve the seemingly impossible feat of confederation, was rather less wise than I would have liked him to have been. Whatever may be the case in other disciplines, I think it is very true that, in history, he who increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. Gwyn tells of an opposition MP rather pathetically telling Macdonald “I love you so! Would that I could trust you!” My feelings are the reverse. From my ― very different ― vantage point, I trust Macdonald, or at least I trust his accomplishment. Would that I could love him!