It is just a short note, a few sentences in all, but the signature gives it moment. Tucked into an ordinary manila envelope, it's among the many papers and documents my husband and I inherited from his mother. It says: I am, dear sir, Yours very truly, John AMacdonald. The letters run together like that, with a great looping flourish on the last "d." I notice that he doesn't use his title, even though Queen Victoria had knighted him at the country's birth, on July 1, 1867. He's just plain John A. - no "sir." I like that about him. A plain-spoken man, he's not putting on airs, not stuck on himself.
Writing from Earnscliffe, his home in Ottawa, on Sept. 11, 1889, Macdonald addressed the letter to W.Y. Emery, my husband's great-grandfather. An entrepreneur in Port Burwell, Ont., William Emery had a store and a mill as well as schooners that plied the Great Lakes. At one time or another, he'd owned the W.Y. Emery, the Lily Hamilton and, intriguingly, the Lady Macdonald. He was a true blue Conservative who faithfully abided by the saying, "Vote early, vote often." In those days, you could vote wherever you owned property. On election day, he would saddle his horse in the morning and ride, casting his ballot three times.
Macdonald got straight to the point. My dear sir, I have to acknowledge the receipt of your letter on the subject of a bonus for a railway to your town. What was this all about? Had Emery proposed a payment of some kind if the railway went through Port Burwell? Who was to get it? Was this a reprise of the Pacific Scandal? That was when Sir Hugh Allan gave the Conservatives $360,000 in campaign contributions on the promise that his company would receive the contract for building the railroad to British Columbia. An uproar ensued, Allan never got the contract and Macdonald's government had to resign over the affair, although some maintained he was guilty of an indiscretion rather than a serious offence.
Macdonald goes on: I saw Mr. Ermatinger for a moment at Toronto, but our conversation was postponed until the East bound train left. So he took the train like everybody else? He didn't travel cocooned, like politicians do today, surrounded by an entourage? You could bump into him at the station?
I was then so tired that I was obliged again to postpone the interview. Macdonald was 74 at the time, an age at which many men would have retired. He had been prime minister for 17 years and his achievements were monumental, ranging from passage of the British North America Act to the purchase of Rupert's Land and the punching of the railway through to British Columbia. These accomplishments were perhaps even more remarkable considering his demons. He was a legendary binge drinker, his first wife suffered from mysterious illnesses and his beloved first son, John, died at the age of 13 months. Macdonald was not close to his second son, Hugh, and his daughter, Margaret, was born hydrocephalic. No wonder he was tired.
He must have had a lot on his mind. And still he didn't delegate the task of dealing with a Port Burwell citizen to an assistant. What was the bonus all about? What had Emery written about it? Was there a scandal here? We did not have Emery's side of the correspondence.
Exploring the National Archives website, I found a letter he had written to "The Right Hon'ble Sir John Macdonald" about two proposals to develop new rail lines in his locality. Both were to end in Port Burwell - but one was to start in Aylmer and the other in Tillsonburg, farther east. Emery was worried that the Tillsonburg people weren't serious - that they would scuttle the Aylmer project without finishing anything of their own. He reminded the prime minister that 16 years earlier, the Tillsonburgers had received government assistance to the tune of $59,000 to build a line through Brantford and Norfolk to Port Burwell. But they hadn't finished it. To prevent a similar disappointment, he advised, "We hope if the government sees fit to grant them aid that they will make the proviso, that none of the money will be paid or forthcoming until the whole line is completed." In other words, it was a plea for fiscal responsibility. There was no great scandal at all - although Emery does finish by saying, "I do not intend to let the public know that I have written this letter."
It seems amazing that Macdonald would have paid so much attention to one citizen who was interested in 30 kilometres of track leading to a small town in Ontario. Tip O'Neill, the long-time speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, is credited with the observation that "All politics is local." But the trick is to combine that with a sense of the larger whole. Not many politicians manage this balancing act the way Macdonald did. He was no saint. Some of his policies were controversial. His refusal to commute Louis Riel's death sentence is contentious still.
But in 1891, when Macdonald died, Ottawa's storefronts were draped in black. Three months earlier, he had won his sixth majority under the slogan, "The old flag, the old policy, the old leader." Forty thousand people turned out to view the funeral cortege.
Macdonald ends his letter this way: He [Ermatinger]i> is coming here, I believe, in a day or two and I shall have great pleasure in discussing the subject of your note with him. Not only would he pay attention to the concerns of one individual, he would do so with great pleasure. There can be no doubt he was a master of both the grand scale and the minutely personal.