“Macdonald made us by making a confederation out of a disconnected, mutually suspicious collection of colonies, and by later magnifying this union into a continental-sized nation.”
This is part 1 of Gwyn’s classic biography of the first Prime Minister of Canada, John A MacDonald; part 2 is on my shelf, so I imagine a review of that will appear in time. For non-Canadians reading, I provide this interesting fact: The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, the year of the American Revolution, while Das Kapital (Pt 1) was published in 1867, the year of Canadian Confederation.
A worry of mine with biographies is that they can sometimes feel like they’re trying to cut the subject down to size. A key role of biographies is to explore the weaknesses as well as the strengths of an individual, but to try to insult Napoleon’s strategic sense, for example, seems to me to reveal more about the biographer than the biographee.
Fortunately, Gwyn’s biography of John A Macdonald does none of that. Instead, it is an insightful, well researched analysis of a great man who is often considered one of the Fathers of Canada, but was also a raging alcoholic, happy to distribute appointments to his friends and to buy support, and at best mediocre father of his actual child. My only criticism is that for an international reader, it might feel too Canadian in its focus, but as a biography written for a Canadian audience, that’s hardly a surprise.
It explores themes both large and small: from how the origins of Canada lie with the first alliance between French and English politicians, which John A would wholeheartedly adopt, to how he appears to have coined the word Shero for a female hero. It also studies John A himself, arguing his greatest strength was his practicality, in contrast to Lincoln’s idealism, which allowed John A to understand the lives of the people of Canada as they were actually lived.
Summarizing the history of Canada in a blog post is a bit beyond my brief, and so instead of attempting to do so I’d say for those interested in Canadian history and even world history of the time (John A traveled frequently to the UK for political reasons, and as a contemporary of Lincoln the book also takes on the Civil War, though from a Canadian perspective), the book is an exciting read. For those of us who experienced high school Canadian history, which seemed to suggest that the only thing that happened in Canadian history was something about coureurs de bois, the book is almost required reading.
Plus, John A’s a fun guy! When accused of being drunk (he was – he repeatedly threw up in the House of Commons), he replied “Yes, but the people would prefer John A. drunk to George Brown sober.”