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John A

Cover of John A

John A

The Man Who Made Us
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The first full-scale biography of Canada's first prime minister in half a century by one of our best-known and most highly regarded political writers.The first volume of Richard Gwyn's definitive...More
The first full-scale biography of Canada's first prime minister in half a century by one of our best-known and most highly regarded political writers.The first volume of Richard Gwyn's definitive...More
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Description-
  • The first full-scale biography of Canada's first prime minister in half a century by one of our best-known and most highly regarded political writers.

    The first volume of Richard Gwyn's definitive biography of John A. Macdonald follows his life from his birth in Scotland in 1815 to his emigration with his family to Kingston, Ontario, to his days as a young, rising lawyer, to his tragedy-ridden first marriage, to the birth of his political ambitions, to his commitment to the all-but-impossible challenge of achieving Confederation, to his presiding, with his second wife Agnes, over the first Canada Day of the new Dominion in 1867.

    Colourful, intensely human and with a full measure of human frailties, Macdonald was beyond question Canada's most important prime minister. This volume describes how Macdonald developed Canada's first true national political party, encompassing French and English and occupying the centre of the political spectrum. To perpetuate this party, Macdonald made systematic use of patronage to recruit talent and to bond supporters, a system of politics that continues to this day.

    Gwyn judges that Macdonald, if operating on a small stage, possessed political skills--of manipulation and deception as well as an extraordinary grasp of human nature--of the same calibre as the greats of his time, such as Disraeli and Lincoln. Confederation is the centerpiece here, and Gywn's commentary on Macdonald's pivotal role is original and provocative. But his most striking analysis is that the greatest accomplishment of nineteenth-century Canadians was not Confederation, but rather to decide not to become Americans. Macdonald saw Confederation as a means to an end, its purpose being to serve as a loud and clear demonstration of the existence of a national will to survive. The two threats Macdonald had to contend with were those of annexation by the United States, perhaps by force, perhaps by osmosis, and equally that Britain just might let that annexation happen to avoid a conflict with the continent's new and unbeatable power.
    Gwyn describes Macdonald as "Canada's first anti-American." And in pages brimming with anecdote, insight, detail and originality, he has created an indelible portrait of "the irreplaceable man,"--the man who made us.

    "Macdonald hadn't so much created a nation as manipulated and seduced and connived and bullied it into existence against the wishes of most of its own citizens. Now that Confederation was done, Macdonald would have to do it all over again: having conjured up a child-nation he would have to nurture it through adolescence towards adulthood. How he did this is, however, another story."

    "He never made the least attempt to hide his "vice," unlike, say, his contemporary, William Gladstone, with his sallies across London to save prostitutes, or Mackenzie King with his crystal-ball gazing. Not only was Macdonald entirely unashamed of his behaviour, he often actually drew attention to it, as in his famous response to a heckler who accused him of being drunk at a public meeting: "Yes, but the people would prefer John A. drunk to George Brown sober." There was no hypocrisy in Macdonald's make-up, nor any fear.
    --from John A. Macdonald

    From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpts-
  • Chapter One

    The spirit of past ages never dies -
    It lives and walks abroad and cries aloud.
    Susanna Moodie, Victoria Magazine, 1847

    If an international competition were ever to be staged to identify the world's most complex and contradictory country, Canada would be a serious contender. The winner, surely, would be India, with its sixteen official languages and more than two hundred local languages, its sacred cows and cutting-edge computer software, its combination of being both the world's largest democracy and the only nation-state with a caste system. Canada might well come in second. It's become a commonplace to describe the country as "the world's first postmodern country," given its unparalleled ethnic diversity, its decentralization (exceeded, if at all, only by Switzerland and Belgium), the in-rush of immigrants (the largest proportionately among developed nations), the expanding population of Aboriginal peoples (second only to New Zealand), and the ever-increasing number of "nations" within the nation-state - Quebec as the latest to join the list.

    In quite a few ways, we were postmodern before we ever became modern. That was the way we were in John A. Macdonald's time. In 1884, Goldwin Smith, the leading political commentator of his day, summarized Macdonald's lifelong mission as "to hold together a set of elements, national, religious, sectional and personal, as motley as the component patches of any 'crazy quilt,'and actuated each of them by paramount regard for its own interest." Here, Smith identified exactly Macdonald's supreme talent - that he knew how to herd cats.

    No one else in Canada came close to Macdonald; after him, perhaps only Mackenzie King did, his paramount art being that of doing as little as possible for as long as possible. At the time, few others anywhere could match him. Even without the spur of chauvinism, any reasonable ranking of nineteenth-century democratic leaders would be Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Disraeli, William Gladstone, John A. Macdonald. (Otto von Bismarck, no democrat, would otherwise rank near to the top.) Macdonald happened to perform on a stage that was small and threadbare. But in the primordial political tasks - the managing of men (then, only them) and the winning of their hearts and minds, and so their votes - contemporary equals are not easy to identify. Nor were there many nation-builders like him in his day: Bismarck, Giuseppe Garibaldi and Sim--n Bol'var. His achievement may have been the more demanding because none of the others had to create a country out of a crazy quilt.

    Within the range of Macdonald's accomplishments, there are sizable gaps. The largest, surely, is that, unlike Lincoln, he never appealed to people's "better angels."He was a doer, not a thinker, although highly intelligent and omnivorously well read. He lacked the certitudes of a moralist, instead taking human nature as he found it and turning it to his purposes. He was, that is, a very Scottish Scot. He of course drank too much. And although he was in no way the first to use patronage and election funds for partisan purposes - a cherished and well-embedded Canadian tradition (which still thrives) - Macdonald gave the practice credibility and durability by his masterful exercise of it. That's a shoddy legacy for the father of a country to leave behind.

    Yet his accomplishments were staggering: Confederation above all, but almost as important, if not more so, extending the country across the continent by a railway that was, objectively, a financial and economic insanity. Also, the National Policy of tariff protection, which endured in one form or other into the 1980s. And the RCMP or, more exactly, its precursor, the...

About the Author-
  • Richard Gwyn is an award-winning author and political columnist. He is widely known as a commentator for the Toronto Star on national and international affairs and as a frequent contributor to television and radio programs. His books include two highly praised biographies, The Unlikely Revolutionary on Newfoundland premier Joey Smallwood, and The Northern Magus on Pierre Elliot Trudeau. His most recent book, Nationalism Without Walls: The Unbearable Lightness of Being Canadian, was selected by The Literary Review of Canada as one of the 100 most important books published in Canada. Volume two of Gwyn's biography of Macdonald will be published in 2009.

Reviews-
  • -The National Post

    "Judging by the first half, his two-volume biography will no doubt be ranked with Donald Creighton's two-book landmark from the 1950s...Gwyn provides a more dispassionate analysis of this complicated man and his times...A welcome addition to the national library."

  • -Winnipeg Free Press "Gwyn has performed a service to 21st-century Canadians by recreating a man of the 19th so well...This is a book that [Donald] Creighton, and perhaps even Sir John A. himself, could pick up and learn something."
  • -Montreal Gazette "A vivid, multi-dimensional portrait of a fascinating character and his times...Gwyn, his trademark wry wit enlivening his text, brings a lifetime of political punditry to bear on his subject, surely one of the most intriguing political figures Canada even produced"
  • - Toronto Star "Gwyn's book is also a hymn of praise to what he sees as a miraculous country, miraculous in its peacefulness, its diversity, its tolerance and its determined un-Americanness...Those positive national qualities can be traced back unmistakably to its first leader. This is the personal and contemporary insight that distinguishes this biography."
  • Halifax Chronicle-Herald "Through historical documents, Gwyn gives great insight into this complicated character and his turbulent life... John A comes alive in these pages on many levels, including his most fallible."
  • Charles Taylor Prize Jury "In a lively but thorough biography of John A. Macdonald up to the day of Confederation in 1867, Richard Gwyn brings to life the young Scottish-born lawyer who found himself unexpectedly entering politics in Kingston in 1844. Gwyn writes from a twenty-first century perspective while painting for his readers a vivid image of nineteenth century Canada: its society, customs, characters and politics. Gwyn helps us understand Macdonald's genius and vision, which would shape the nation that grew to the north of the United States."
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