Blogger's note: Copies of both Private Demons and John A. were provided by McClelland & Stewart and Random House Canada, respectively, for the purposes of this review.
Writing about contemporary Canada's relationship with Sir John A. MacDonald, former Prime Minister John Turner regretfully noted that "In few other countries would a national hero be so neglected." If only for that reason, it is fortunate that, in the past year, two biographies of our first prime minister have been published.
The first is Patricia Phenix's Private Demons: The Tragic Personal Life of John A. MacDonald. The book is an unflinching look at the numerous tragedies permeating MacDonald's life, as well as his personal weaknesses and failings. Phenix starts with the story of how, in 1822, a seven year-old MacDonald witnessed the murder of his five year-old brother, describing this event as the point where the young John A. started "running," never to stop until his death in 1891.
In the interim, MacDonald struggled with debt, alcohol, strained relationships, and loss. His marriage to his first wife, Isabella, would deteriorate as she remained bed-ridden with illness, and almost always in an opium-induced haze, for years until her eventual death. While they had two sons, the first died in infancy and the second, Hugh John, remained estranged from his father for years. Though his second marriage to Agnes Bernard was more successful, if sometimes strained, their child Mary was mentally and physically underdeveloped for her entire life, probably afflicted with cerebral palsy.
This latter suggested diagnosis was based on an assessment sought from a current doctor, and Phenix makes good use of modern insights in trying to better understand the past. Readers will also appreciate the photographs of key figures in MacDonald's life and of original documents, including handwritten notes by MacDonald and members of his family. Residents of Kingston (such as myself) will particularly enjoy recognizing the names of places and addresses in the city of MacDonald's upbringing. At about 300 pages, the book is not too long, and Phenix's writing style makes for engaging reading.
Overall, however, this is not an inspiring book (of course, it is not meant to be), and not only because of the stories of misfortune it contains. The MacDonald Phenix describes is deeply flawed, with vices including excessive drinking (to the point of delivering a speech in Parliament, as leader of the opposition, while visibly drunk), overt flirting with a number of women (while married), and a great deal of political cynicism. There are discussions of rumours that remain unconfirmed to this day, including a possible affair with his friend and political supporter Eliza Grimason, and a reported suicide attempt a few years following Confederation. Phenix notes the skepticism with which some view these rumours, but does not refute them herself.
MacDonald's personal strengths are also shown, including his notable intelligence, wit, and charm. Still, it is left largely to the leader to imagine how he managed to lead Canada through all the challenges that he did, mostly because Phenix does not focus on MacDonald's political life except insofar as it helps to explain his personal life. It would be unfair to see this as a shortcoming of the book, however, since the latter area is the declared focus of Phenix's work. And there are clear rewards to Phenix's approach: by the end of the book, one feels an overall understanding of MacDonald as a person, as well as the personalities of his close family members, that is unexpected and refreshing in a biography of a political leader. For those more interested in people than politics, Private Demons will prove well worth the read.
By contrast, Richard Gwyn's John A.: The Man Who Made Us, is quite heavy on MacDonald's political history, so much so that at almost 450 pages, this book only reaches as far as Confederation in 1867, with the subsequent years of MacDonald's life due to be outlined in a second volume. Having said that, there are no wasted pages here. Those who wish to understand Canada's history through the lens of MacDonald's achievements will be treated to extensive insights into the evolving relationship between English and French Canadians, the country's ongoing affection for the British crown (even as this affection became tempered by a more independent sense of identity), and the origins of Canadian anti-Americanism.
In fact, the boldest argument that Gwyn makes is that, for John A. and other Fathers of Confederation, the establishment of a new federation was not an end in itself, but rather a means of avoiding annexation of the provinces by the United States. In this area, Gwyn's case is persuasive, including numerous quotes and anecdotes of leading figures in both British North America (as the pre-Confederation Canadian provinces were known) and the rising superpower to the south.
Before discussing his best known political achievement, however, Gwyn goes through MacDonald's youth and early career. The study of MacDonald's legal career is fascinating in that it reveals more than just his ability to win cases and make a name for himself, but also his genuine respect for the integrity and proper application of the law for the protection of both individuals and society, particularly emphasized by his actions while he was attorney general of the province of Canada (which, before Confederation, consisted of what would become Ontario and Quebec). In the political realm, however, MacDonald's detailed understanding of legal loopholes would allow him to bring down the government of his rival, George Brown, and replace it with his own, without an election, through a maneuver which history would remember as the "double shuffle." Gwyn handles all of this material with both eloquence and wit.
It is in its second half, however, that Gwyn's book comes into its insightful and inspiring best. Gwyn covers a lot of ground, dealing with events in Upper and Lower Canada, the Maritimes, the United States, and Britain to establish the context in which Confederation came about. The lives of other Fathers of Confederation are discussed to better explain their role in Canada's inception and their relationship to John A. The reader is given not only a clear factual knowledge of how our country came to be, but also a thought-provoking discussion of the different political and even philosophical ideas that made us what we are today. Through it all, Gwyn emphasizes MacDonald's exceptional ability to deal with people (bringing together friends and rivals to pursue a common goal), to navigate through challenging circumstances and events, and to inspire others by a vision with which even he needed time to come to terms.
Gwyn's book, as implied by its title, is almost as much a history of ourselves as it is a biography of John A. It can be an involved and even challenging read, particularly as Gwyn is sometimes forced to break chronology to outline some of his arguments. It is certainly for the best that the biography was divided into two volumes. And yet, less than a day after finishing the first volume, I find myself already looking forward to reading the second. Gwyn's book will surely be noted as an undertaking of a scope not often attempted, much less achieved, and reading it will prove an enriching experience.