New Research on John A. Macdonald

24 12 2010

John A. Macdonald, 1875. Image from Library and Archives Canada

Ged Martin, Professor Emeritus at the University of Edinburgh has recently published a string of new research on Macdonald.  These include:

“Macdonald and his Biographers” [review article] BRITISH JOURNAL OF CANADIAN STUDIES, xvi (2001), pp. 300-19. Essential reading for all PhD students in Canadian history.

“Sir John Eh? Macdonald: Recovering a voice from History” BRITISH JOURNAL OF CANADIAN STUDIES, xvii (2004), pp. 117-124. In this article, Martin determines whether the adult Macdonald spoke with a Scottish accent, a more North American one, or something in between. Researching this paper required very careful archival research as no recordings of Macdonald’s voice exist.

“John A. Macdonald and the Bottle” JOURNAL OF CANADIAN STUDIES, xl (2006), pp. 162-185. This article on Macdonald’s drinking is always very popular with undergraduates. The students in my honours seminar voted it their favourite reading.

“John A. Macdonald: Provincial Premier” BRITISH JOURNAL OF CANADIAN STUDIES, xx (2007), pp. 99-122

“Archival Issues in John A. Macdonald Biography” JOURNAL OF HISTORICAL BIOGRAPHY, i (2007), pp. 79-155}

“John A. Macdonald: Scotsman or Canadian” (University of Edinburgh Standard Life Lecture in Canadian Studies, 2004.

“John A. Macdonald and Kingston Voters” HISTORIC KINGSTON, lviii (2010), pp. 56-63

I just finished reading Martin’s new book about Macdonald.

FAVOURITE SON? JOHN A. MACDONALD AND THE VOTERS OF KINGSTON 1841-1891  (Kingston, Ont., Kingston Historical Society, 2010, 214 pp.)

Martin’s book is local history at its finest. On one level, it isn’t really fair to call this “local history” since that term often conjures up images of antiquarians arguing about insignificant details. Martin’s book is essentially the study of the relationship between Macdonald, the creation of the Canadian nation state, and this particular community. The book deals with an interesting paradox in Macdonald’s career: as Macdonald’s national and international stature increased, he became progressively less connected to popular with Kingstonians. Kingston, a city in relative economic decline since the 1840s, ceased to be a focus of Macdonald’s energies. Macdonald relocated his law office and residence to Toronto. Kingston voters reciprocated his growing disengagement from them by voting Liberal, which forced Macdonald to seek nomination in safely Conservative ridings in distant parts of the country.

Martin’s book was interesting to me as a historian of Canada and its place in the North Atlantic world. One learns something about Canada’s relationships with the United States, the United Kingdom, and even the Vatican here. Don’t let the title fool you into thinking that this is a book just for residents of the city.

The parts of the book I liked the most were the sections devoted to Macdonald’s career as a businessman, in particular his involvement in Kingston-based Commercial Bank and the Trust and Loan Company of Upper Canada. The Commercial Bank failed in October 1867 in part because Macdonald’s government refused to provide it with the financial lifeline it needed to deal with a liquidity crisis. Macdonald, who owed a great deal of money to this bank, probably would have favoured government aid, but the members of his Cabinet who hailed from the financial centres of Toronto and Montreal were powerful enough to thwart this idea and Kingston’s sole independent financial institution was allowed to fail.

The case of the Commercial Bank raises the interesting question of what Kingston’s got from being represented in parliament for so many years by the Prime Minister. Very little, it would seem. Kingston, which had once been the largest city in Upper Canada/Toronto experienced relative economic decline through Macdonald’s political career. By the early twentieth century, it had become an economic afterthought halfway between the great economic centres of Toronto and Montreal. Kingston probably would have experienced relative economic decline regardless of who was the Prime Minister, since its backcountry consists of rocky soil and marginal farms. What is striking, however, is that Macdonald did so little to try to help the city’s economy aside from a few high visibility projects, such as the controversial dry dock built at the end of his career.

This raises another question for me– to what extent have the ridings/home towns of other Canadian Prime Ministers benefitted from pork barrel spending. When Jean Chrétien was Prime Minister, he arranged for theme park with a high observation tower to be built in the very centre of his riding, Shawinigan. This project created a local landmark, but only a few long-term jobs.

Similarly, Brian Mulroney arranged for a federal prison to be built in his riding, Baie-Comeau.

Baie-Comeau Prison

This provided a nice injection of cash into the local economy, but it certainly did not arrest the steady decline of that pulp-and-paper town, which has a declining population. It would seem that being represented by a Prime Minister does very little for the long-term economic prospects of a Canadian community.

It would be interesting to know whether the Canadian political system’s bias towards targetting public works spending to the ridings of Prime Ministers is stronger or weaker than the similar bias that undoubtedly exists in other countries? Has any political scientist has compared the level of pork-barrel spending in the ridings of Canadian Prime Ministers with similar practices in other Westminster-style democracies.

In the US, the districts of members of Congressional Committees tend to funnel lots of pork-barrel spending to this districts: the bias in military spending towards the districts of members of the Armed Services Committee is striking. According to political scientist Brian Roberts, when Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, died suddenly in September 1983, the share prices of arms merchants based in his home state of Washington declined. The share prices of contractors based in Georgia, the home state of the next-most-senior Democratic Senator on the committee, Sam Nunn, shot up.

Roberts, B.E. (1990) “A dead senator tells no lies: Seniority and the distribution of federal benefits” American Journal of Political Science 34: 31–58.

P.S. Arthur Milnes of Queen’s University has created a Macdonald-themed walking tour of Kingston. You download it to your Ipod and then walk the streets of the historic city centre. You can choose your narrator for the tour from a growing list that includes the Rt. Hon. Jean Chretien, the 20th Prime Minister of Canada, the Hon. Peter Milliken, 34th Speaker of the House of Commons and the local MP, and hockey personality Don Cherry. See here.