The Many Vices of Sir John A. Macdonald


Quick—what’s an interesting fact about Sir John A. Macdonald?

Well—he was Canada’s first Prime Minister.

And he really, really liked his drink.

He’s probably one of Canada’s most famous drunkards, which is a fact that seems to get bandied about a lot. Of course, it’s worth pointing out that Sir John A. wasn’t perpetually drunk. No, he went on binges. Sometimes, he was quick, calculating, and stone-cold sober—and sometimes, the Governor-General was writing letters explaining that they weren’t entirely sure where the erstwhile politician was.

There are a few anecdotes that always get retold. In one, Macdonald is notably…ah, “unwell” on the campaign trail (likely a by-election). During the debate, he vomits. When his opponent points this out, he responds, ““I get sick…not because of drink [but because] I am forced to listen to the ranting of my honourable opponent.”

In June 1866, the Fenian Brotherhood launched an invasion into Canada from Buffalo. The Battle of Ridgeway was the first battle fought on Canadian soil, led by Canadian officers, and also marks the last foreign invasion in Ontario. At the time, Sir John A. was the Minister of Militia and Defence. So of course, news of the attack went straight to him.

And…he was passed out drunk.

Bills failed and languished. Telegrams went unanswered. International relations could be embarrassing at best and dangerous at worst—during the London Conference that sought final British approval before Confederation, Sir John A. nearly set himself and his hotel room on fire when a candle tipped over while he slept.

(In fairness, he might not have been drunk that time—but his fondness for the Athenaeum Club and its libations is well-known.)

The Globe attacked his habit viciously. In fact, one article was so eloquent, I wanted to show a larger extract:

“The truth is that the prime minister has again yielded to the temptation of drink, and has again rendered himself incapable of attending to his duties at a most critical period of affairs. It would almost seem that Sir John A. Macdonald choose those seasons when his vice is calculated to bring the greatest disgrace upon himself and upon the country.

His pitiable condition during the Fenian raid when telegram after telegram was left unanswered because he was in such a state of intoxication that he could not comprehend them, was a matter which would have brought severe retribution upon a Minister in England; his disgraceful condition during the visit of Prince Arthur will long be remembered to the discredit of Canada; and now when every energy should be devoted to the affairs of the North-West…Sir John A. Macdonald again flies to the bottle.

It is really an outrage to the country. The spectacle of the Prime Minister staggering into the refreshment room of the House, and being taken out thence first by one colleague and then by another, or babbling in maudlin intoxication in a hotel bar-room, is a thing to which no other country would submit for an hour. We are not a nation of drunkards, and we have a right to expect that men occupying the most exalted position their country can bestow upon them shall, at least, behave with decorum.”

The Globe: April 30, 1870.

 

The Globe’s editor George Brown was one of Macdonald’s bitterest rivals, which may explain some of the acerbity, but clearly, there was genuine upset at his functional alcoholism. Macdonald himself shrugged off such criticisms: “…the people would prefer John A. drunk to George Brown sober.”

1873 political cartoon. Note the bottle in his back pocket.

Would they, though? The fact that Macdonald managed to accomplish as much as he did in spite of his alcoholism makes one wonder—what if he hadn’t had it? How might Canada look today? Would he have proven a more able leader, or would there simply have been more Pacific Scandals and exclusionary policies towards Asian and Indigenous peoples?

It’s impossible to say, of course. “Coulda, woulda, shoulda” history is probably best left to thought experiments. I’ll end by saying that Macdonald’s second wife Susan Agnes Bernard is largely credited with fighting Macdonald’s demons—biographer Richard J Gwyn claims she literally kept him alive long enough to see the new nation through its formative years.

So—I think John A. has had plenty of glasses raised to him over the years. If you must toast, perhaps consider toasting Susan Bernard.

To Queen, country, and Mrs. Macdonald!

Katie  

 

 

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