Biography of Hon. J. Sandfield Macdonald

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Descended from an old Highland family which had early settled in Glengarry, Ontario, John Sandfield Macdonald was born at St. Raphael’s, December 12, 1812. A sketch of his younger brother, Hon. D. A. Macdonald, Lieut.-Governor, appears on another page in this volume. The younger days of the subject of this sketch were tinged with a spice of romance. Early chafing under the restraints of paternal control, he made several ineffectual attempts to escape from home. Finally, after a brief experience in merchandising, he was induced, by a lawyer who had become interested in him, to begin the study of law. Having but limited education, he was told that by hard study he might be able to prepare himself in three years to pass the Law Society as student-at-law. In 1832, he entered the school at Cornwall, Ont., taught by Dr. Urquhart, and so diligently did he apply himself that at the end of two years he was ahead of all his school fellows. Early in 1835, only a little more than two years after he had entered school, he passed the Law Society, and was articled to the Hon. Archibald McLean, then a practicing barrister at Cornwall, in whose office he remained about two years and a half. He then entered the office of the late Chief Justice Draper, with whom he finished his legal studies in 1840; practiced as an attorney at Cornwall for a few months was called to the Bar in June, 1840, and speedily built up a large and lucrative practice which he continued to retain and add to during his life. Although Mr. Macdonald achieved a high position as a lawyer of great ability, his name is more intimately associated with his reputation as a Loyal Canadian statesman. During his long and active public career, he rendered such eminent service to his country as fairly entitles him to a high place in the record of her honored dead. He was first elected to Parliament after the Union in March, 1841, and continued to represent his native county in the House of Assembly until 1857, being many times elected without opposition; in 1857, he was returned for Cornwall, his younger brother, the present lieutenant-Governor of Ontario, being returned for the county of Glengarry, and continued to sit for Cornwall until his death in 1872. In 1649 he was appointed Solicitor-General in the Baldwin-Lafontaine government, holding that office until that administration was dissolved in 1851. In 1852 was elected Speaker in Quebec, and held that position until the dissolution in 1854; and in 1858 he became Attorney-General in the Brown-Dorion government. In March 1862, upon the defeat of the Macdonald-Cartier government, he was called upon to form a new administration, holding the position of Attorney-General until March, 1864, when with his colleagues he resigned office. In 1867 he was elected to the first legislature for the Province of Ontario under Confederation, and was shortly thereafter entrusted by General Stisted, the first Governor of Ontario, with the formation of the Government. Although he had opposed the Confederation of the Provinces as an at of the Executive, without the people being consulted, yet he determined, as soon as it had become un fait accompli, to do all in his power to assist in the working and development of the scheme. Recognizing the fact that Confederation had been brought about by the combined assent of the Conservatives and a large majority of the Reformers, he decided that the Conservatives should have a share in the first Government, and accordingly he formed a Coalition Ministry, consisting of two Reformers besides himself, and two Conservatives. With this Cabinet he framed all the laws and system for the administration of the Province, and though he was ever ready to make ample provision for the unfortunates bereft of reason, and for the general development of the country, he was scrupulously careful to keep the expenditure far below the revenue. So well did he succeed in carrying out his policy of economy that, when he went out of office in December, 1871, he left a surplus of $3,000,000 in the treasury. His policy of economy was not the outgrowth of parsimonious instincts, but was based upon the conviction that the revenue of the Province would not always be so large, and it was therefore necessary to husband its resources and provide for the future. The wisdom of his policy is more appreciated now than it was whilst he was in power. To recapitulate the legislative Acts and important measures for which Canada is indebted to Mr. Macdonald, would occupy far more space than is available here. Indeed a complete biography of his active life would fill a volume. Although he was devoted to the Liberal cause, he was not an extreme Reformer, and, on that account, he never had the support of the Globe newspaper. It was, therefore, with a view of inaugurating a moderate tone in politics that he took a leading part in the organization of the Mail newspaper, which, shortly after the death of Mr. Macdonald, deviated from the intentions of the promoters, and became the mouth piece of the Conservative party. Mr. Macdonald was never very strong in body, but his indomitable will and extraordinary vitality sustained him until June 1, 1872, when, after a lingering illness of nearly eighteen months, he died at “Ivy Hall,” his residence at Cornwall. In private life Mr. Macdonald was exceedingly agreeable and entertaining, and lavishly hospitable.

In 1840 he was married to a lady from Louisiana, the daughter of the Hon. George Waggoman, United States Senator; she, with six children, two sons and four daughters, survived him. His remains are interred at St. Andrew’s, a small village in the centre of the Scotch portion of the community, whose allegiance to him was unswerving. A large granite monument, erected by some of his friends and admirers, adorns his grave. Besides Lieutenant-Governor Macdonald, another brother, Mr. A. F. Macdonald, represented Cornwall in the House of Commons from 1873 to 1878, so that it may be truly said that no other family in Canada had produced so many prominent politicians.



MLA Source Citation:

The Canadian Biographical Dictionary and Portrait Gallery of Eminent and Self Made Men, Ontario, Volume 1. Toronto: Toronto American Biographical Pub. Co. 1880. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 27 November 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/canada/biography-of-hon-j-sandfield-macdonald.htm - Last updated on Aug 7th, 2012


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