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Sir John A & Kingston

Born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1815, John A. Macdonald immigrated with his parents and three siblings to Kingston in 1820. The family was welcomed by his mother's half-sister and her husband, a retired army colonel. Macdonald's five years of formal schooling (ages ten to fifteen) ended when he was apprenticed to Kingston lawyer George Mackenzie, a close family friend. He always resented his lack of formal education. "If I had a university education, I should probably have entered upon the path of literature and acquired distinction therein," he confided years later to Joseph Pope, his personal secretary. "I had no boyhood … from the age of fifteen I began to earn my own living."


Kingston Connections

Macdonald opened a law office in Kingston in 1835 when he was just twenty, one year before receiving a license to practice law. Over the next decade he expanded the law practice while also pursuing other business interests, including real estate investment and directorships of companies involved in banking, roads and shipping. During the Rebellion of 1837 he served with the local defence militia. In 1843 Macdonald won a seat on Kingston Town Council. The following year he was elected Kingston's Member of Parliament, a post he held for most of his remaining 47 years.


Political Life

John A. Macdonald's political career spanned almost half a century and served Kingston at various times at the municipal, provincial and federal levels. Voters overlooked his severe alcohol problem and the ever-present whiff of political scandal. Macdonald delivered political plums to the Limestone City including a locomotive works, government offices and buildings, and the Kingston dry dock. To his friends and family he could do no wrong. As faithful supporter Eliza Grimason put it, "there's not a man like him in the livin' earth…"


Legacy

Who was John A. Macdonald? Statesman, politician, nationalist, consensus builder, visionary, pragmatist, drunkard, racist? Painted variously as saint or sinner, he remains an enigma. He often won elections in Kingston with razor-thin margins. But when he died four months after the 1891 campaign, the outpouring of sentiment was enormous. Ten thousand passed by his coffin in City Hall, and hundreds followed the cortege as it wound its way to Cataraqui Cemetery. Many of the attitudes and policies of Macdonald's time have changed; others live on in today's institutions. His views on immigration and First Peoples are currently being re-examined. The debate continues.