Dear Sir or Madam,
Sir John A. Macdonald is known for two things, being Canada’s first Prime Minister and drinking heavily. However, he was more than both those things. He was instrumental to establishing the British North America Act (BNA Act), and given his life and the time he lived his heavy drinking was quite understandable.
John A. Macdonald watched his beloved wife die for more than ten years. During that time, his son died in infancy and his daughter was born with Hydrocephalus, which caused swelling and brain damage. She spent her entire life extremely disabled, cared for by her father.1
Macdonald’s drinking was often triggered by stress. In an age when magistrates drinking in court was expected and it was not uncommon for people to consume upwards of 26 litres of alcohol per year, our first Prime Minister was known for his binges. One of his worst binges coincided with the 1872 election, during which he vanished from time to time and often could not remember the day’s events. His drinking habits had real consequences. There were times when bills failed because he was too drunk to defend them, and in 1870 he was almost felled by acute pancreatitis caused by alcohol abuse.2
The most terrifying incident occurred in London in 1866. Macdonald and others had travelled there for final negotiations with the British government to establish the BNA Act. After a particularly wild night, Macdonald fell into a sleep so deep that he did not immediately notice that he and his room had caught fire. Only his thick flannel shirt and the quick actions of fellow delegate George-Ếtienne Cartier saved his life. Also on this trip was a rare bright note in Macdonald’s personal life. He ran into an old friend by the name of Susan Agnes Bernard. By the end of the trip they were married.3
His drinking frustrated his contemporaries. The Governor General would write home to London about Macdonald’s benders. Lord Carnarvon, the colonial secretary who presented the BNA Act to the British parliament, described him as plagued by a “notorious vice”. However, he also called him “the ablest politician in Upper Canada”.4 He was still a brilliant and charismatic leader, emerging as a celebrity during the London Conference, recognized in the streets.5 He often said that the people preferred him drunk to his enemies sober, and his many election victories and success at forging Confederation proved that sentiment correct.6
Sir John A Macdonald was a fascinating figure, with great strength for oratory and great weakness for drink. Despite all his flaws (which could fill many more blog entries), it cannot be denied that his strength of personality was an important factor in the creation of the BNA Act.
Your Humble Servants,
1 “Sir John A Macdonald”, www.canadahistory.com, online: <www.canadahistory.com/sections/Politics/pm/johnmacdonald.htm> [Macdonald].
2 Tristin Hopper, “Everyone knows John A. Macdonald was a bit of a drunk, but it’s largely forgotten how hard he hit the bottle” (January 9, 2015), The National Post, online: <news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/everyone-knows-john-a-macdonald-was-a-bit-of-a-drunk-but-its-largely-forgotten-how-hard-he-hit-the-bottle> [Hopper].
3 The Toronto Dreams Project, “Sir John A. Macdonald, Drunk & In Flames” (January 5, 2015), The Toronto Dreams Project (blog), online: <torontodreamsproject.blogspot.ca/2015/01/sir-john-macdonald-drunk-in-flames.html>.
4 Hopper, supra note 2.
5 The Toronto Dreams Project, “Sir John A. Macdonald, Drunk & In Flames” (January 5, 2015), The Toronto Dreams Project (blog), online: <torontodreamsproject.blogspot.ca/2015/01/sir-john-macdonald-drunk-in-flames.html>.
6 Macdonald, supra note 1.