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John A: The Man Who Made Us [Hardcover]

Richard Gwyn
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Sept. 25 2007 Life and Times of
The first full-scale biography of Canada’s first prime minister in half a century by one of our best-known and most highly regarded political writers.

The first volume of Richard Gwyn’s definitive biography of John A. Macdonald follows his life from his birth in Scotland in 1815 to his emigration with his family to Kingston, Ontario, to his days as a young, rising lawyer, to his tragedy-ridden first marriage, to the birth of his political ambitions, to his commitment to the all-but-impossible challenge of achieving Confederation, to his presiding, with his second wife Agnes, over the first Canada Day of the new Dominion in 1867.

Colourful, intensely human and with a full measure of human frailties, Macdonald was beyond question Canada’s most important prime minister. This volume describes how Macdonald developed Canada’s first true national political party, encompassing French and English and occupying the centre of the political spectrum. To perpetuate this party, Macdonald made systematic use of patronage to recruit talent and to bond supporters, a system of politics that continues to this day.

Gwyn judges that Macdonald, if operating on a small stage, possessed political skills–of manipulation and deception as well as an extraordinary grasp of human nature–of the same calibre as the greats of his time, such as Disraeli and Lincoln. Confederation is the centerpiece here, and Gywn’s commentary on Macdonald’s pivotal role is original and provocative. But his most striking analysis is that the greatest accomplishment of nineteenth-century Canadians was not Confederation, but rather to decide not to become Americans. Macdonald saw Confederation as a means to an end, its purpose being to serve as a loud and clear demonstration of the existence of a national will to survive. The two threats Macdonald had to contend with were those of annexation by the United States, perhaps by force, perhaps by osmosis, and equally that Britain just might let that annexation happen to avoid a conflict with the continent’s new and unbeatable power.
Gwyn describes Macdonald as “Canada’s first anti-American.” And in pages brimming with anecdote, insight, detail and originality, he has created an indelible portrait of “the irreplaceable man,”–the man who made us.

“Macdonald hadn’t so much created a nation as manipulated and seduced and connived and bullied it into existence against the wishes of most of its own citizens. Now that Confederation was done, Macdonald would have to do it all over again: having conjured up a child-nation he would have to nurture it through adolescence towards adulthood. How he did this is, however, another story.”

“He never made the least attempt to hide his “vice,” unlike, say, his contemporary, William Gladstone, with his sallies across London to save prostitutes, or Mackenzie King with his crystal-ball gazing. Not only was Macdonald entirely unashamed of his behaviour, he often actually drew attention to it, as in his famous response to a heckler who accused him of being drunk at a public meeting: “Yes, but the people would prefer John A. drunk to George Brown sober.” There was no hypocrisy in Macdonald’s make-up, nor any fear.
from John A. Macdonald

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“Judging by the first half, his two-volume biography will no doubt be ranked with Donald Creighton’s two-book landmark from the 1950s…Gwyn provides a more dispassionate analysis of this complicated man and his times…A welcome addition to the national library.” -The National Post

“Gwyn has performed a service to 21st-century Canadians by recreating a man of the 19th so well…This is a book that [Donald] Creighton, and perhaps even Sir John A. himself, could pick up and learn something.” -Winnipeg Free Press

“A vivid, multi-dimensional portrait of a fascinating character and his times…Gwyn, his trademark wry wit enlivening his text, brings a lifetime of political punditry to bear on his subject, surely one of the most intriguing political figures Canada even produced” -Montreal Gazette

“Gwyn’s book is also a hymn of praise to what he sees as a miraculous country, miraculous in its peacefulness, its diversity, its tolerance and its determined un-Americanness…Those positive national qualities can be traced back unmistakably to its first leader. This is the personal and contemporary insight that distinguishes this biography.”- Toronto Star

“Through historical documents, Gwyn gives great insight into this complicated character and his turbulent life… John A comes alive in these pages on many levels, including his most fallible.”HaH - Halifax Chronicle-Herald

“In a lively but thorough biography of John A. Macdonald up to the day of Confederation in 1867, Richard Gwyn brings to life the young Scottish-born lawyer who found himself unexpectedly entering politics in Kingston in 1844. Gwyn writes from a twenty-first century perspective while painting for his readers a vivid image of nineteenth century Canada: its society, customs, characters and politics. Gwyn helps us understand Macdonald’s genius and vision, which would shape the nation that grew to the north of the United States."
- Charles Taylor Prize Jury

About the Author

Richard Gwyn is an award-winning author and political columnist. He is widely known as a commentator for the Toronto Star on national and international affairs and as a frequent contributor to television and radio programs. His books include two highly praised biographies, The Unlikely Revolutionary on Newfoundland premier Joey Smallwood, and The Northern Magus on Pierre Elliot Trudeau. His most recent book, Nationalism Without Walls: The Unbearable Lightness of Being Canadian, was selected by The Literary Review of Canada as one of the 100 most important books published in Canada. Volume two of Gwyn’s biography of Macdonald will be published in 2009.

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Loved it! April 14 2008
By J J
This is the first of a two-volume biography. This book recently won the Charles Taylor prize for literary non-fiction in Canada. I scuttled down to the library I patronize in a town south of here and was pleased to find they had a copy. It was terrific, although Gwyn has an unfortunate writing style of frequently inserting commas to isolate one word or setting bits of a sentence apart in em dashes that I felt interrupts the flow.

He manages to make pre-Confederation parliament interesting. Usually in books about this time we get a lot about the Family Compact, but Gwyn has kept the focus on developments and personalities that I do not remember being featured in other Canadian history books.

I found the book bogged down slightly during the pages about Confederation which is why I only gave it 4 stars. It's hard to make political wrangling interesting, although I did find it fascinating that we were not quite the valued colony I had thought; Britain was pretty happy to let us go. Anti-Americanism literally made Canada a country but our fear of the American military after the U.S. Civil War never came to fruition. I have a keen interest in the U.S. Civil War so appreciated some analysis of how that affected Canada.

I can't wait for volume two!!! I'll be interested to compare Pierre Berton's writing about Macdonald in The National Dream and The Last Spike to what Richard Gwyn has to say about those times. This is an excellent book and it's wonderful to see a fresh treatment of this period in Canadian history.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Beginning of Canada July 31 2011
I just finished this book. Although not a great academic read, there are several things to recommend it.

1. It's interesting for anyone who likes history, biographies or politics, and is very well researched.

2. It portrays Macdonald as very human. Not only does it point out his weaknesses (all too well known and discussed) but points out the reasons for his successes and offers reasons that he suffered.

3. It reminds me of Canadian history that I had forgotten and it helps explain why some of the current political events feel like they're going against the grain.

4. It is so clearly written that it can be put down for a while if work or life gets in the way, and then picked up again when time allows, and continued without too much difficulty.

Canada was unique and continues to be unique. It is sometimes a good thing to be remind of how good it is.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing and opinionated June 27 2013
Gwyn gives his opinion of events and omits important background. I could give numerous examples but have selected only one.
He describes the Privy Council's rulings in favour of the Provinces after Confederation on constitutional matters as 'quirky'.
In fact the rulings were guided by the arguments of Edward Blake, leader of the Liberal Party after Confederation, the man who would have been our second Prime Minister, had he not resigned the leadership in favour of his lieutenant, Alexander Mackenzie.
The Privy Council was the highest court in Canadian jurisprudence for a very long time; it has now been replaced by the Supreme Court, members of which are appointed by the federal government, which of course does not want interpretations of the BNA Act which favour the Provinces.
In fact it was a Canadian lawyer - a man, who, unlike Gwyn, was Canadian born - Edward Blake, who persuaded the Council in favour of the Provinces. Below is a passage from one of his speeches to it. Blake was perhaps the greatest orator in the English language in our history. Macdonald was afraid of him. He is mentioned only once, briefly, by Gwyn.

Read it and ask yourself: should a decision influenced by such a speech be fairly described as 'quirky'?

Edward Blake to the Privy Council, 1888

"The word federal is the key which unlocks the clauses and reveals their contents. It is the glass that enables us to discern what is written. By its light the Act must be construed. What then was the general scheme of this Act ? First of all, as I suggest, it was to create a federal as distinguished from a legislative union, but a union composed of several existing and continuing entities.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars John A MacDonald's Practical Politics Oct. 13 2012
Vision, principle, honesty, integrity. These are the qualities of virtuous men and the epithets of political losers. Just ask author Richard Gwyn. In John A MacDonald: The Man Who Made Us, Gwyn provides the reader with the historical context and honesty to paint a realistic picture of MacDonald's early life and rise to power.

This isn't a heroic story of one man's will and passion to build a nation. Rather, it's a story of crass political expediency to obtain power. Forget about principles, ideology and John A demonstrates, these things are merely impediments to Canadian statesmen.

John A: The Man Who Made Us, shows the real formula for power is having the political savvy to see shifts in public attitude and opinion and knowing the right time to adopt the cause. Once again, Richard Gwyn does an excellent job of highlighting the very practical nature of John A's political modus operandi and the wheeling and dealing amongst provincial politicians, businessmen and colonial officials in Britain, that brought about the Dominion of Canada.

This is a great read for anyone wishing to have a deeper understanding of Canada's history and of our first Prime Minister.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars A must read for every Canadian!
Super read. As a born and bred Canadian I possessed a surprising lack of knowledge related to our regional and national history. Read more
Published 1 day ago by Dean G.
5.0 out of 5 stars I need this volume to do some research that I ...
I need this volume to do some research that I am doing on Sir John A., and this is exactly what I needed. aej
Published 15 months ago by Allan E. Jones
5.0 out of 5 stars The man who made us - an independent confederation
An excellent book that brings John A to life, warts and brilliance combined. We need more books to celebrate and illuminate our Canadian history. Read more
Published 19 months ago by discriminating consumer
5.0 out of 5 stars The man whop made us (Canada): Sir John A.
This biography of John A, Macdonald, our first Canadian prime minister is truly inspiring. Every Canadian ought to read it. Sir John A. Read more
Published 23 months ago by Gerrit Bilkes
4.0 out of 5 stars For History Buffs
Found this a most enlightening book as an immigrant with little to no knowledge of Canadian History. I look forward to reading Volume 2. Read more
Published 23 months ago by McTwachle
4.0 out of 5 stars Personal but confused
Good picture of the man but sometimes difficult to fit the time and events into this picture. Still, very much worth the price.
Published on July 29 2013 by Gordon
5.0 out of 5 stars Very interesting
I highly recommend getting the 2-part biography for all who want to know more about this Scotsman and how he shaped our country. Very well written and very interesting.
Published on March 24 2013 by Cattieluver
4.0 out of 5 stars Accessible and entertaining biography of Canada's first PM, volume 1
Richard Gwyn has done a great service to Canadians by providing a new biography of John A Macdonald for the general public. Read more
Published on Feb. 13 2013 by Rodge
5.0 out of 5 stars great read
If you like Canadian history and like reading books, you will like this book. Simple to understand and very helpful to get an understanding of who John A. really is.
Published on Oct. 17 2012 by jwatt
5.0 out of 5 stars Great biography of a great Canadian!
This is a great up-to-date biography of John A Macdonald. It follows Macdonald from when his family first moved to Upper Canada to when Canada achieved Confederation in 1867. Read more
Published on June 26 2012 by Foxtrot
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