CanLit Canon Review #14: Donald Creighton’s John A. Macdonald: The Young Politician

In an attempt to make himself a better Canadian, Craig MacBride is reading and reviewing books that shed fascinating light on Canada’s history.

Of all the books I’ve read as part of this project, John A. Macdonald: The Young Politician has most improved me as a Canadian. Published in 1952, this book explores Canada’s beginnings through the life of the man who directed its creation.

The first volume of Donald Creighton’s two-tome masterwork, The Young Politician, covers the first 52 years of Macdonald’s life, from his birth in Glasgow, Scotland, to July 1, 1867, the day four British North American colonies officially became the Dominion of Canada and Macdonald became its first prime minister.

The bulk of the book documents the endless political maneuvering that led to that day, but Creighton also fills pages with touches of Macdonald’s unfortunate family life.

When Macdonald was a child, his two older brothers died. Later in life, his wife Isabella fell ill after only a year of marriage, suffering for eleven years before finally dying. His first child with Isabella passed away at just a year old. The second was forced to grow up without a mother, and, most of the time, without a father—an orphan to politics .

“People sometimes dimly suspected that he must have his unhappy moments—that there were thoughts which, with all his prodigal camaraderie, he had no intention of sharing with others. ‘I am of opinion,’ Spence wrote, with rather ponderous kindness, ‘that with all your appearance of almost continual mirthfulness you are not without your seasons of serious reflection.’ But these seasons he kept to himself. Then he was either a solitary or his one companion was a bottle.”

Macdonald’s life is handled expertly but dryly by Creighton. The sentences are utilitarian, each one doing its part to move the story along without drawing attention to itself. Only in small sections, and particularly in the epilogue, as Creighton describes the country on July 1, 1867, does poetry seep into the prose:

“And in Toronto the Queen’s Park and the grounds of the private houses surrounding it were transformed by hundreds of Chinese lanterns hung through the trees. When the true darkness had at last fallen, the firework displays began; and simultaneously throughout the four provinces, the night was assaulted by minute explosions of coloured light, as the roman candles popped away, and the rockets raced up into the sky.”

While this book offers a wonderful education in Canadian history, there is a price to pay for it. First, the entry fee: to enjoy this, you need some prior understanding of Canadian politics. Second, you need patience—the book can be a bit of a slog; after all, it’s an academic biography meant to be a comprehensive record as much as a piece of entertainment.

But, provided you’re willing and able to pay the price to become a better Canadian, you will be justly rewarded. This is among the most worthwhile and enjoyable books on Canadian history you could read.