Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

John A. Macdonald: Provincial Premier

Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

John A. Macdonald: Provincial Premier

Article excerpt

Although textbooks describe ministries in the province of Canada as dual premierships, contemporaries regarded the senior sectional leader as Premier. John A. Macdonald's tenure of the office from November 1857 to August 1858 was unsuccessful. The loss of seats in Upper Canada in the midwinter general election left him dependent upon French-Canadian support, and his ministry came under prolonged attack from Reform leader George Brown. Macdonald's ability to resist was undermined by the death of his wife, causing poor health and an alcohol problem. The ministry ended in the inglorious episode of the 'double shuffle', in which Brown was outwitted, and Cartier succeeded as Premier. In deciding to stage a tactical resignation over the seat-of-government issue, Macdonald probably expected Brown to fail to form a ministry. He considered leaving politics, and his brief premiership makes his emergence as the dominant post-Confederation leader surprising.

AS PRIME MINISTER of the Dominion of Canada for nineteen years, John A. Macdonald is remembered for his bold policies and his ascendancy over rivals and colleagues. By contrast, his sole experience as head of the government in the pre-Confederation province of Canada, from November 1857 to July 1858, was marked by political failure and personal setbacks. Had he abandoned public life after briefly grasping its highest prize - and he was tempted to retire late in 1858 - he would occupy only a minor place in the textbooks. During his eight-month term, he lost seats from his own section of the province at a general election, thus revealing the depth of sectional tensions. His ministry proposed no inspiring policies and carried little legislation. It resigned on a technicality: the alleged insult given to the Queen by a single vote against her selection of Ottawa to be the permanent capital. In private life, Macdonald's experience was still worse: his wife died during the election campaign, his health suffered, he had financial worries and he was drinking heavily. So nugatory was the Macdonald premiership that most studies of the period move direct from the inconclusive midwinter elections of 1857-8 to the bizarre episode of the 'double shuffle', in which Macdonald and his colleagues evaded the usual obligation to fight by-elections on taking office by re-emerging under the leadership of George-Etienne Cartier.

There are some mitigating elements to this negative verdict. Most studies of the period note that the distinct administrative systems of the two sections created a 'system of dual First Ministers'.1 As J.M.S. Careless puts it, 'Premiers under the Union were really co-premiers, each heading his own half of the government and the country', hence the hyphenated labelling of successive cabinets: LaFontaine-Baldwin, Hincks-Morin, Cartier- Macdonald. Careless accepted that one co-premier took precedence as technical head of each ministry, 'but the political necessities that stemmed from sectional differences produced the practical reality of dualism in that cabinet's operation.' According to W.L. Morton, 'dual leadership ... made it impossible for the office of prime minister fully to develop before 1867.'2 The internal balance varied according to the power relationships of each cabinet. In the Reform ministry in 1848, Robert Baldwin 'seemed desirous to yield the first place' to his political partner Louis LaFontaine.3 Francis Hincks from 1851 to 1854, and John A.'s namesake, Sandfield Macdonald, in 1862-4, were dominant figures in their ministries. From June 1864, the factions making up the Great Coalition accepted the compromise leadership first of Etienne Taché and then, notionally, of Narcisse Belleau. Thanks to his loss of seats in Upper Canada, John A. Macdonald was undoubtedly one of the weakest government leaders during the Union period, and he openly admitted that without the support of his Lower Canadian ally, Cartier, 'he would never have been able to form an administration which would have been satisfactory to the country. …

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