Sir John Alexander Macdonald GCB, KCMG, PC lived from 11 January 1815 to 6 June 1891. He was the dominant figure of Canadian Confederation and became the first Prime Minister of Canada. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Sir John A. Macdonald was born in Glasgow, the son of Hugh Macdonald, an unsuccessful merchant, and Helen Shaw. He was one of six children. In 1820 Hugh Macdonald and his family, including the five year old John, emigrated to Canada, settling in Kingston, Ontario. John was educated in Kingston until leaving school at 15. By the time his father died in 1841, John had already built up a range of lucrative business interests, and had become the director of the wealthy Commercial Bank of the Midland District as well as its lawyer. He also invested in property and ended up as a director of a dozen Kingston companies.
In January 1842 Macdonald met his first cousin Isabella Clark during a trip to Britain, and the two returned to Canada together, marrying in September 1843. Isabella subsequently suffered from bouts of serious illness that eventually resulted in her death in 1857. They had two sons together. One died in infancy while the other was raised by Macdonald's sister Margaret and her husband. Over the period of Isabella's illness, Macdonald had become an alcoholic. In 1867, at the age of 52, he married Susan Agnes Bernard. They had one daughter together.
Meanwhile, Macdonald was pursuing an active political career. He was elected to be an Alderman in Kingston in 1843, and by 1854 had risen to become Canada's Attorney-General. In 1856 he became Joint Premier of the Province of Canada with Sir Étienne-Paschal Taché. He was leader of the opposition Conservatives from 1862 to 1864, and spent the following three years driving forward the legislation needed to confederate the Canadian colonies into the state of Canada.
Macdonald was knighted for his role in unifying Canada on Canada Day, 1 July 1867. In a general election held the following month, Macdonald's Conservatives were victorious and he was asked to become the country's first Prime Minister. Macdonald set out to enlarge and unify Canada. During his first term, Canada purchased Rupert's Land and the North-Western Territory from the Hudson's Bay Company for £300,000 to form the Northwest Territories. In 1871 Britain added British Columbia to Confederation, making it Canada's sixth province. In 1873 Prince Edward Island joined the Confederation, and in the same year Macdonald established the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Macdonald resigned in November 1873 after being accused of taking bribes from railway companies, and Alexander Mackenzie's Liberals formed the government for the next five years. John A. Macdonald and his Conservative Government were returned to power in the 1878 General Election: and he remained Prime Minister until 1891. He finally delivered on a long standing dream, and promise, to link the entire nation of Canada together when the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed in 1885, despite huge costs. In the same year he put down the Saskatchewan Rebellion of separatists led by Louis Riel.
Sir John A Macdonald won the 1891 Canadian General Election and started his sixth term as Prime Minister. However he then suffered a severe stroke, and died a week later on 6 June 1891. His state funeral was held on 9 June, and he is buried in Cataraqui Cemetery in Kingston, Ontario.