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Bellevue House National Historic Site of Canada

History

Sir John A. Macdonld: The Man
Sir John A. Macdonald
Library and Archives Canada / C-005327

Sir John A. Macdonld: The Man

Sir John A. Macdonald's Early Life

Macdonald goes to School

The Young Lawyer

The Young Politician

The Young Husband

Bellevue House

Life at Bellevue House

Sir John A. Macdonald's Early Life

Glascow, Scotland
Glascow, Scotland
© Library and Archives Canada

Sir John A. Macdonald was born in Scotland in 1815, the son of Hugh and Helen Macdonald. His family came to Canada in 1820 and settled in Kingston because they already had relatives living here, Lt. Colonel Donald Macpherson, a retired British officer, and his wife Anna, who was Mrs. Macdonald's sister. Macdonald's brother, James, a year younger than he was, died accidentally in 1822. He had two sisters, Margaret and Louisa. Margaret was born in 1813, and Louisa in 1818.

For several years, Macdonald's father operated a general store in Kingston. As was usual at the time, the store was on the ground floor and the family lived above it. In 1824, Hugh Macdonald moved to Hay Bay, a tiny village to the west of Kingston. He operated a store there for two years until he decided to try a very different kind of job: running a flour mill. The mill was located at Glenora, in Prince Edward County, and not too far from Hay Bay. The family stayed there for ten years.

Macdonald goes to School

Kingston, Upper Canada
Kingston, Upper Canada
© Library and Archives Canada

Kingston, in the 1820s, with a population of 3,000, was one of the most important settlements in Upper Canada. It was by far the biggest community in the eastern part of the colony and had the best schools available in the area. As a result, Macdonald, when he was ten years old, left home in Hay Bay and returned to Kingston, living as a boarder while he attended grammar school. At that time, some public money was spent on schools, but normally students had to pay tuition. It must have been expensive for the Macdonalds to educate their son, especially when they had to pay board as well. But they knew that if he was going to make something of himself he would have to get the best education that they could afford.

Macdonald was only fifteen years old when he left school. His parents had decided that he should become a lawyer and, at fifteen, he was old enough to start his legal training. The usual way to study law was to work in a lawyer's office and gradually learn everything that was needed to write the law exams. For five years, Macdonald worked in the law office of a prominent Kingston lawyer, George Mackenzie and, at the age of twenty, became qualified to practise as a lawyer and opened his own law office.

The Young Lawyer

110-112 Rideau Street, Kingston
110-112 Rideau Street, Kingston
Library and Archives Canada / C-004508

Macdonald's father was never a very successful businessman. In 1836, he gave up the mill at Glenora and got a job working in a bank in Kingston. For the next few years, Macdonald lived with his parents and sisters. When his father died in 1841, he became the head of the family and responsible for their financial support. It was not a heavy drain on Macdonald's wallet to look after his family. From the very start, his law practice had been successful and he was a popular and busy lawyer.


The Young Politician

Portrait of Sir John A. Macdonald by William Sawyer, 1863
Portrait of Sir John A. Macdonald by William Sawyer, 1863
© Parks Canada

It was natural for a young, ambitious man like Macdonald to think of entering politics. And he did just that in 1843 when he was elected an alderman in Kingston. But he already had his eye on something more important than serving on the Kingston town council. He wanted to become Kingston's representative to the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada.

The Province of Canada was a British colony, composed of Canada West and Canada East. It was rather small, being only the southern and eastern parts of present-day Ontario and parts of Quebec close to the St. Lawrence River. It was governed by a governor-general, a man named to the position by the British government. To help him to run the Province, there was a Legislative Assembly whose members were elected by the fairly small number of people in the Province who had the right to vote. Macdonald ran for the Legislative Assembly in 1844 and won.

In those days, a person had to be able to afford to be a member of the Legislative Assembly. Members did not receive a salary. Whenever they went to meetings of the Assembly they received an allowance to help them cover their travel costs and the costs of room and board. When Macdonald became a member, he had to go from Kingston to Montreal, which was the capital of the Province of Canada. Then he had to rent a hotel room or stay at a boarding house for weeks at a time. Being a member also meant that Macdonald could not give much attention to his law practice when he was away from Kingston.

The Young Husband

Sir John A. Macdonald
Sir John A. Macdonald
© Parks Canada

By the time that Macdonald became a member of the Legislative Assembly, being away from home meant being away from his new wife. Her name was Isabella Clarke. Like Macdonald, Isabella was born in Scotland. She was Macdonald's first half-cousin and they first met when Macdonald visited Great Britain in 1841. In 1843, Isabella made the long sea voyage across the Atlantic to visit her Macdonald and Macpherson relatives. She stayed to become Macdonald's bride. Isabella took sick about two years after her marriage. She never recovered her health and from 1845 until 1857 when she died, she was rarely well. It is not known for sure what caused her illness, but she suffered from head pains and often had a bad cough. There were days when she was so tired and in so much pain that she could not get out of bed.

Isabella Macdonald
Portrait of Isabella Clarke Macdonald, Artist unknown
Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1960-123-5

In the first couple of years of her illness, Isabella spent a great deal of time away from Kingston. Macdonald took her to New York to see if the doctors there could do anything for her. To escape the cold Kingston climate she visited for months at a time in Georgia, staying with her sister who lived in Savannah. Her name was Margaret Greene and she had married a well-to-do Georgian.
In 1847, Isabella was expecting a baby and went back to New York to be looked after by a doctor there. In August, the baby was born and named John Alexander after his father. Isabella, at first, was too ill to leave New York. It wasn't until June of 1848 that she finally was able to undertake the trip back to Kingston.


Bellevue House

Bellevue House
Bellevue House
©Library and Archives Canada

When they married in 1843, Macdonald and Isabella shared their house with Macdonald's family. And that is where she returned in 1848. It was, however, located in downtown Kingston, not the best place for someone in Isabella's state of health. Macdonald decided to find somewhere else for Isabella to live, where it was quiet and away from the dirt and noise of downtown. The place he chose was Bellevue House.

Bellevue House was a mile away from Kingston. It was on a big piece of property with lots of trees and views of the lake. There were neighbours nearby but every house had big gardens around it. The air was clean. It was a restful place for Isabella to try to recover her health.

Life at Bellevue House

The Macdonalds' life at Bellevue House was quiet. Macdonald went to work every morning unless he was out of town on business. Isabella supervised the servants, making sure that the house was kept clean, the laundry done, and that Macdonald's dinner was ready for him when he got home at night. When she was unwell, she kept to her bed.

There were happy times at Bellevue House. Macdonald often had a little table set up in Isabella's bedroom and the couple had dinner together by the fireplace. Sometimes she was well enough to join Macdonald in the dining room. After dinner, he read aloud to her as she knitted or sewed. Their life was not very exciting but it was pleasant for Macdonald as long as Isabella was not too ill. There was, though, one great unhappiness. A month after they moved to Bellevue House, their baby died. He was only a year old.

Bellevue House was a pleasant place to live, particularly in the summertime when the trees were in leaf, the flowers blooming and the kitchen garden producing fresh vegetables for the dinner table. But Macdonald had heavy expenses, having to pay the rent for Bellevue House while still supporting his mother and sisters in his house in Kingston. In September, 1849, sadly and with many regrets, they left Bellevue House and moved to a smaller, less expensive house in downtown Kingston. Perhaps their sadness at leaving Bellevue House was a little lessened by the knowledge that Isabella was expecting another child.

Sir John A. Macdonald: The Politician