In our ongoing series of interviews regarding new book releases, I (Adam Coombs) talked with Richard Gwyn regarding his new biography of John A. Macdonald, entitled John A: The Man Who Made Us. This is the first volume of a projected two volume biography on Macdonald. The interview first aired in October and is available at the end of this post.
In the 1840s Britain began to move toward complete free trade. Combined with a worldwide economic downturn, manufacturers and farmers in the United Provinces of Canada began to rightly fear economic ruin. Over a three year period, property values in Montreal had fallen by over 50% while Canada’s exports had fallen by over 40%. In response, over 1000 Montreal businessmen, including two Molsons and two Redpaths, supported annexation into the United States. During this period John A. made no speeches nor did he write letters to a sympathetic newspaper. Rather, in typical fashion, he quietly helped to organize the British America League which argued for unrestricted reciprocity, or free trade, with the United States. By the time the group disbanded in 1850 the same Montreal businessmen had embraced the idea of reciprocity. Macdonald had never made any definitive statement regarding his own beliefs yet the current crisis was averted.
The entire annexation crisis and Macdonald’s reaction exemplify both his leadership style and the political culture of pre-confederation Canada. Macdonald was, by supporters and enemies alike, called “old tomorrow” for his strategy of avoiding taking positions on issues and delaying decisions until a suitable result was achieved. Fiery speeches and declarations caused division and in the multi-religious, multi-lingual patchwork of 1850s Canada and a successful politician could never afford to be divisive. Furthermore, Canada as such didn’t exist yet and was constantly threatened by both internal tensions and the ever preset specter of the United States. It is both the personal style of Macdonald and the challenges threatening our early country which Gwyn focuses on.
In popular culture and Canadian historiography, John A is portrayed either as the loveable drunk who was utterly corrupt or as a the mythic figure that created our nation with his own bare hands. Gwyn seeks to deal with both these perceptions and create a new version of Macdonald. Unlike other biographies of Macdonald, Gwyn focuses on the man’s personal life beyond simply his drinking. There are engaging accounts of his attempts to care for his sick wife Isabella and of his attempts to re-connect with his estranged son Hugh John. These snippets of his personal life serve to add much needed depth to a man who is too often portrayed as someone devoid of true human characteristics. Gwyn doesn’t minimize Macdonald’s accomplishments but rather seeks to allow the reader to understand the man behind the Canadian myth.
The largest complaint about the book is it is pop academia. While it is extremely well written and engaging, the lack of footnotes, for a history geek like myself, occasionally got annoying. As well anyone well versed in Canadian history will find many of the sections which provide context as dull. Gwyn even warns readers with a basic knowledge of early Canadian politics to skip certain sections. If you are expecting a scholarly, in depth biography then you will be disappointed. However if you want an entertaining and engaging read then this book is certainly highly recommended.