Sir John A. Macdonald – Personal and Political Life

Early Life and Education

Black and white  photo of narrow street with row houses on either side and lanterns hanging from  the buildings, Glasgow, Scotland
Glasgow, Scotland
Source:© Library and Archives Canada

Early Life

John A. Macdonald was born in Scotland on January 11, 1815, the son of Hugh and Helen Macdonald. His family came to Canada in 1820 and settled in Kingston; they already had relatives living in the country. Macdonald had a brother who died in 1822 and two sisters, Margaret and Louisa.

For several years, Macdonald's father operated a general store in Kingston. Later the family moved to Hay Bay, a tiny village to the west of Kingston, and then took over running a flour mill in Glenora, in Prince Edward County. The family remained there for ten years.


Black and white  arial view of city rooftops. Kingston, Upper Canada
Kingston, Upper Canada
Source: © Library and Archives Canada

Kingston, in the 1820s, with a population of 3,000, was one of the most important settlements in Upper Canada and had the best schools available in the area. When Macdonald was ten years old, he  returned to Kingston, living as a boarder while he attended grammar school. At fifteen, Macdonald  left school to start his legal training. For five years, Macdonald worked in the law office of a prominent Kingston lawyer, George Mackenzie and, at the age of twenty, became qualified to practice as a lawyer and opened his own law office.

The Young Lawyer

Black and white  photo of two-storey limestone house next to fence and tree
110-112 Rideau Street, Kingston
Source: Library and Archives Canada / C-004508

As Macdonald was establishing his practice, he stayed with his parents and sisters who had returned to Kingston. When his father died in 1841, he became the head of the family and was  responsible for their financial support. It was not a heavy drain on Macdonald's wallet to look after his family. From the very start, his law practice had been successful and he was a popular and busy lawyer.

The Young Politician

Portrait of Sir  John A. Macdonald standing and motioning toward a table
Portrait of Sir John A. Macdonald by William Sawyer, 1863
Source: © Parks Canada

It was natural for a young, ambitious man like Macdonald to think of entering politics, which he did in 1843 when he was elected an alderman in Kingston. But he already had his eye on a broader vista - the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada.

At that time, the Province of Canada was a British colony, composed of Canada West and Canada East--only the southern and eastern parts of present-day Ontario and parts of Quebec close to the St. Lawrence River. It was governed by a governor general and a Legislative Assembly. Macdonald ran as a representative for Kingston for the Legislative Assembly in 1844 and won.

Personal Life and Family

As he began in political career, he also began life as a married man. In 1843, Macdonald 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 who sadly died 13 months later. They had a second son, Hugh John. Isabella passed away in 1857, leaving Hugh to be 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.

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

Macdonald devoted his time and energy into politics; however, he had amassed debts and several banks he had invested in personally and through his law practice, failed.  When his long-time law partner A.J. Macdonnell died in 1864, Macdonald was responsible for the firm's outstanding debts.  Macdonald was handling all of this as he was laying the groundwork for Confederation.

Macdonald would marry again on February 16, 1867 to Susan Agnes Bernard when he was in London finalizing the British North America Act that would make an assembly of provinces into the Dominion of Canada.  They had a daughter, Mary, who was born with a deformity and would never develop normally.  Nevertheless, Macdonald was devoted to her.  The second Mrs. Macdonald outlived her husband and became the Baroness Macdonald of Earnscliffe.

Many scholars and biographers believe that Macdonald’s legendary drinking was a response for the personal tragedies and disappointments he experienced throughout his personal life. "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."

Lady Susan Agnes Macdonald sits on a  feather-blanket-draped chair, clutching her fan
Lady Susan Agnes Macdonald, wife of Sir John A. Macdonald, January 1885
Source: Library and Archives/Online MIKAN no. 3486506 (1 item)
Photo of a large multi-storied house sits  atop a hill, surrounded by leafless trees.
"Bellevue," Kingston, where Sir John A. Macdonald lived during his early married life, n.d.
Source: Library and Archives/ Online MIKAN no. 3532568
Hugh  John Macdonald stands on some grass, holding a bowler hat
Hugh John Macdonald 1850-1929 circa 1866
©Library and Archives Canada / C-020317

Early Political Career

When Macdonald became a member in 1844, the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada was a chaotic mix of political groups. In Canada West, there were three identifiable groups: conservative members of the Family Compact, newer, moderate conservatives like Macdonald, and reformers. In Canada East, there were the radical Rouges and the conservative Bleus. No one of these political groups on its own had enough members to form a government. Sometimes the reformers of Canada West and Rouges formed a large enough coalition that they had a majority in the Assembly and became the government. Sometimes the conservatives and the Bleus along with some moderate reformers had enough members of the Assembly that they were able to form a government. Because these coalition governments rarely kept for long the support they needed to stay in office, elections were a frequent occurrence.  In short, there was a political stalemate.

Macdonald's star began to rise very early;  in 1847 he was offered his first government post. Thereafter, whenever the coalition that he supported had a majority in the Assembly, Macdonald was selected to join the ministry (known today as the cabinet). A political friend at the time said of Macdonald: "He can get through more work in a given time than anybody I ever saw and do it well." But provincial politics were very unstable in these years and Macdonald was out of the government about as often as he was in it.

The Conferences and Confederation

For years, people had talked about bringing the British colonies in North America together under one government. Macdonald had never been enthusiastic for the idea, believing that the Province of Canada had a great future ahead of it without being tied to Nova Scotia or New Brunswick or Prince Edward Island. But the Province of Canada was becoming more and more difficult to govern and in the early 1860sMacdonald came to believe that it would be better in the long run to divide the Province into two, giving each part its own government and then join with the other British colonies to form a new country with a federal government.

Fathers of Confederation posing in front of  neoclassical building, PEI
Fathers of Confederation at Fanningbank, Lieutenant Governor's residence
Source: George P. Roberts / Library and Archives Canada / C-000733

In 1864, the Maritime Provinces decided to hold a meeting to discuss forming a union between Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland.  Macdonald asked if representatives from the Province of Canada could attend and if the discussion could be broadened to include Canada.  In fact, the Charlottetown Conference and the Quebec Conference a month after ended up being about how to achieve a confederation between them all.  In Quebec, 72 resolutions were created what would be the constitution of Canada.  These were formulated into the British North America Act that was passed in London in 1867.

Macdonald after Confederation

Macdonald was knighted by Queen Victoria as a mark of appreciation for his role in bringing about Confederation. He became Canada's first prime minister and, between 1867 and his death in 1891, held that office for a total of nineteen years. Macdonald played a major role in the birth of Canada and he devoted the remainder of his life to giving shape to the new country.

After Confederation, he went to enlarge Canada's boundaries from sea to sea, built the Canadian Pacific Railway, defeated the North-West Rebellion (or North-West Resistance) and developed the National Policy.  He won the election of 1891 at age 76, still with a strong vision of Canada.  He suffered a stroke shortly after and died on June 6, 1891.

His accomplishments as prime minister were summarized by another great politician, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, in these words: "As to his statesmanship, it is written in the history of Canada. It may be said without any exaggeration whatever, that the life of Sir John A. Macdonald ... is the history of Canada."

Date modified: