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John Alexander Macdonald emigrated to Canada with his parents at age five. By age nineteen, he had his own legal practice and by 1842 his law office was one of the busiest in Kingston, Ontario. He was appointed councilman a year later and then decided to run for the legislative assembly of Canada.

Macdonald always supported the Conservative party and became receiver general in 1847. In 1848 the rival party, the Reformers, swept into victory. Macdonald was one of the very few Conservatives who retained his seat and put his position to good use soliciting support wherever he could. By 1854 the Conservatives and the radical Clear Grits (later known as the Liberals) worked hand in hand to defeat the Reformers.

Macdonald proposed to make Ottawa the permanent capital of Canada in 1858. George Brown, Macdonald’s fierce political rival, vetoed the measure, and Macdonald and the premier of Canada East, Sir George-Etienne Cartier resigned. This gave Brown the chance to form a new government but it collapsed after a mere two days. Macdonald was quickly appointed attorney general and was kept busy trying to keep his party together for the next few years.

His government fell in 1862 as an in-direct result of the American Civil War. Canadian and British sympathies were with the Confederate States. Canada feared reprisal in the form of an American invasion. Macdonald tried introducing a militia bill but it was defeated. This forced him to resign and once again the Liberals swept into office. Their government fell within two years due to the Liberals lack of political skill and continued unrest within the colonies.

The Atlantic colonies were considering breaking away from the rest of the country and forming their own union. Macdonald hastily agreed to an alliance with George Brown, who agreed to set aside animosities because he too saw the benefits of a British North America federation. In September of 1864 Macdonald addressed delegates of the Atlantic Colonies in Charlottetown, heatedly explaining the political and economic advantages of a united Canada. The Atlantic delegates held off their vote and agreed to attend a formal conference in Quebec City.

At the Conference, Macdonald proposed 72 resolutions for a strong central government, all of which were passed and formed the basis for the federal constitution. Confederation, as it was later known, was passed with large majorities in both houses. However Macdonald failed to convince the Atlantic colonies. It took another two years before they agreed to the new union. On March 28, 1867, the British North America Act was passed. Canada was now known as the Dominion of Canada, its provinces: Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia.

John Alexander Macdonald was sworn in as the first prime minister of the Dominion of Canada on July 1, 1867. He created a coalition government with equal representation from the Conservatives and the Reformers. George Brown headed the Liberal Party, now the official opposition.

The political climate within the new Dominion remained unstable, however. Nova Scotia’s elected members still opposed Confederation and wanted to withdraw. Britain wouldn’t allow it and Nova Scotia threatened to join the United States. Macdonald’s quick thinking saved the day. He granted Nova Scotia an additional federal subsidy of $140,000, and offered Joseph Howe, the man who’d organized the dissension, a position in the cabinet.

During Macdonald’s first administration, his goal was to build a strong nation and good communication between the provinces. He proposed an Intercontinental Railway that would run from Halifax to the Pacific coast and also include the Northwest Territories. He introduced tariffs
as a way to protect Canadian products from imports, the majority of which were from the United States.

Macdonald also had to deal with more difficult situations as prime minister. The “Pacific Scandal” broke in 1873, and while he denied charges of corruption and political “pay-offs” to the tune of $350,000, a personal telegram proved that Macdonald was indeed involved. He and his government were forced to resign in 1874. But by 1878 he was elected prime minister once again. Macdonald’s handling of the North-West Rebellion, also known as the Red River Rebellion, and the subsequent hanging of Loius Riel in 1885, outraged French Canadians and this antagonism would continue through all the years he held office.

Macdonald’s personal life was also affected by unfortunate circumstances. His first wife, Isabella, was an invalid and of their two sons, only one survived. Macdonald married again in 1867. His wife, Susan Agnes Bernard, gave birth to a girl two years later, however the child suffered from mental and physical handicaps.

In 1891 Macdonald won his fourth victory but died within three months of re-claiming his office. Canadians remembered him as a man who remained fiercely loyal to the Commonwealth and to Canada’s independence from the United States. They arrived by the thousands to pay their final respects and lined the tracks for miles as the funeral train pulled out of Ottawa to take Macdonald’s body back home to Kingston, Ontario, where Canada’s “Father of Confederation” was laid to rest.