‘Nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action,
but not the execution of any human design.’
Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767)

11 January 2011

The Conflicting Legacy of Sir John A. Macdonald

To-day, 11th January, conservatives in Canada celebrate the birthday of Sir John Alexander Macdonald (1815): principal author of the British North America Act, first Dominion prime minister, and enduring role model of Anglo-Canadian Toryism.

Yet while the general outlines of Macdonald’s legacy is clear, specific beliefs are less certain in the popular mind, particularly when it comes to charting a contemporary course. Thus he has been made the exemplar for every ideological and mutually exclusive position. Poor Sir John A! If he could find his way to a bar—or a bottle—in his present capacity, surely no angelic observer (I refuse to countenance the alternative!) would begrudge him.

With the merger of the Reform-Alliance and the Progressive Conservative parties in 2003, the dominance of the former has resulted in a Macdonald who is portrayed as a proponent of ‘provincial rights’ on the American states’ rights model and of an elected Senate, just to name two offences of the right.

On the left, too, Macdonald has been claimed as the guiding spirit of active government and the social and economic interventions of the welfare state.

Macdonald, his advocates notwithstanding, was by no means a supporter of greater provincial autonomy; every school child knows (or should!) that a unitary government was his first choice for Canada—indeed, his hope was that the provinces would shrink to little more than municipal entities, with the Dominion government eventually assuming the preponderance of authority. Sir George-√Čtienne Cartier and French delegates at the Quebec conference were instrumental in convincing him that without local guarantees of French religious, language, and cultural rights, there would be no Confederation.

Likewise, while Macdonald may have harboured early favour for an elected upper chamber, the experiences of the united Province of Canada in the 1850s soon soured his sympathies. As his colleague and biographer Joseph Pope remarked in his Memoirs of Macdonald,

It is true that, at an early period of his career, he favoured an elective Upper House, but eight years’ experience of this system was sufficient to change his views, and to convert him into a firm upholder of the nominative principle. Every year since Confederation strengthened the conviction of his matured judgment, and showed him more and more clearly the advantages of the nominative over the elective system. To his mind the chief among the objections to a Senate chosen by the popular vote, was the ever-present danger of its members claiming the right to deal with money Bills, and the consequent possibility of disputes with the House of Commons. The proposal that the provincial legislatures, whose members are elected for purely local purposes, should choose the senators to legislate on matters of general concern, was also objectionable, being opposed to the spirit of the constitution, which confined the local assemblies to a strictly limited sphere of action. He held that the system unanimously agreed to at the Quebec Conference had worked well, and should be undisturbed. A senatorship, in his opinion, was an important and dignified office, and a worthy object of ambition to any Canadian. [1]

The left is guilty of a similar story of dissimulation. The Liberal-Conservative party which Macdonald led in its formative years of existence and in the House of Commons as premier was not the social democratic party that is often betrayed by the sobriquet Red Tory. It was a merger of moderate Liberals and moderate Conservatives who were not, respectively, either Grits or ultra Tories. And, although Macdonald did speak of himself as a progressive conservative, he spoke much as did Sir Robert Peel in his famous Tamworth Manifesto:

...if the spirit of the Reform Bill implies a careful review of institutions [...] undertaken in a friendly temper combining, with the firm maintenance of established rights, the correction of proved abuses and the redress of real grievances,—in that case, I can for myself and colleagues undertake to act in such a spirit and with such intentions.

Indeed, the Liberal-Conservative label did not denote Progressive Conservatism per se, as contemporaneously understood, but simply the merger of like-minded Liberals and Conservatives. Think rather of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, or the Cunard-White Star line.

As such, the Liberal-Conservative party may best be considered a mix between Liberals of the ‘night-watchman state’ with the latter appropriating pis aller responsibilities—i.e., in addition to law and order oversight, welfare prerogatives as a last resort, when individual and voluntary associations are overwhelmed—and Tories who still have faith in the ability of the State to foster the Common Good: the ‘National Policy’ and the Canadian Pacific Railway were nation-building exercises undertaken in co-operation between government and the business community.

‘Free Trade’, then, was a fine principle in the abstract, and no doubt true, but the young Dominion—with fledgling business interests, her trade competing with powerful countries with varying degrees of protection and with strong robust industries of their own—was at a distinct disadvantage. Moreover, Macdonald had a nation to build on the North American continent, its very existence an irritant to the American behemoth to the south, whose siren call of wealth and opportunity was siphoning off Canada’s youth and future promise.

And so, in the economic depression of the mid-1870s that struck during the Reform ministry of Alexander Mackenzie, Macdonald raised a motion in the House of Commons:

...the welfare of Canada requires the adoption of a National Policy, which, by a judicious readjustment of the Tariff, will benefit and foster the Agricultural, the Mining, the Manufacturing and other interests of the Dominion; that such a policy will retain in Canada thousands of our fellow countrymen now obliged to expatriate themselves in search of the employment denied them at home, will restore prosperity to our struggling industries, now so sadly depressed, will prevent Canada from being made a sacrifice market, will encourage and develop an active interprovincial trade, and moving (as it ought to do) in the direction of a reciprocity of Tariffs with our neighbours, so far as the varied interests of Canada may demand, will greatly tend to procure for this country, eventually, a reciprocity of Trade (12 March 1878). [2]

If not exactly free trade, nor is it an unflinching nationalist programme: Macdonald would accept economic liberalisation, but only with reciprocal responsibilities. Free market adherents may deride Sir John’s protectionist programme, but its ‘open borders’ under-current can give no comfort to economic autarkists. [3]

Furthermore, if Macdonald wanted to campaign under the banner of social democracy, the works of Marx and Engels and their brethren were undoubtedly at his disposal, as were the theories of Rousseau’s collectivised general will. That he did not do so is an indication that he was first a believer in the free economy, if not necessarily a capitalism left to furrow the field unaided or unscrutinised.

Sir John’s legacy, then, provides challenges for his twenty-first century admirers. While a few of his ideas have fallen into disfavour and desuetude—such as the withering away of the provinces—many more remain resilient and key to Canada’s continuing prosperity. Strong central government with ‘holistic’ oversight over the country; the complementary, symbiotic roles of Ottawa’s upper and lower parliamentary chambers; accommodating and respecting the cultures of the founding peoples, while welcoming all immigrants who aspire to adopt the Canadian identity as their own; fealty to the monarchical principle and to the Commonwealth of shared history and traditions—all this, and more, we owe to Macdonald.

So long as the Dominion endures, Macdonald will live on. A supporter once cheered in a crowd, ‘Sir John A., you’ll never die!’ We echo those sentiments on his birthday.

For more on Macdonald and his legacy, see the Centre for Confederation Politics.


1. Joseph Pope, Memoirs of the Right Honourable Sir John Alexander Macdonald, Volume II (Ottawa: J. Durie & Son, 1894), 235 (emphasis added). Nor is this view of upper chambers in the Westminster parliamentary system antiquated; see the Parliamentary Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber and the excellent essay by Lord Norton of Louth, ‘Complementing the Commons’.

2. Quoted in Pope, Memoirs, 200.

3. Any serious student of contemporary Toryism—with its economic roots firmly planted in the soil of protectionism—must reconcile his beliefs with the free market critique of state intervention and its consequences. See Ludwig von Mises’s Planning for Freedom (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008)—its eponymous first essay plus ‘Middle-of-the-Road Policy Leads to Socialism’.