Journal of Canadian Studies, Fall 2006 by Martin, Ged
Many Canadians recall John A. Macdonald as a politician with an alcohol problem. This view of a key architect of Confederation affects perceptions of national identity and inhibits biographical analysis. Macdonald had a serious but intermittent drink problem for 20 years from 1856. It is unhelpful to relate this to the medical concept of "alcoholism," although he was a recurrent binge drinker; however, he was not consistently drunk. Recognition of his problem underlines the ability that enabled him to survive politically. A secure marriage plus growing public disapproval of inebriation in the 1870s probably explain his changed behaviour.
Beaucoup de Canadiens se rappellent de John A. Macdonald comme d'un politicien ayant un problème relié à la boisson. Cette vision d'un des architectes clés de la Confédération influe sur les perceptions de notre identité nationale et a inhibé les analyses biographiques. M. Macdonald a eu un problème de boisson grave mais intermittent pendant 20 ans, à partir de 1856. Il est inutile de relier ce problème au concept médical de l'alcoolisme. Bien qu'il buvait souvent de grosses quantités de boisson, il n'était pas toujours ivre. La reconnaissance de son problème fait ressortir les aptitudes qui lui ont permis de survivre dans l'arène politique. Un mariage solide et une intolérance publique de plus en plus grande envers l'ivresse dans les années 1870 expliquent probablement son changement de comportement.
Two incarnations of John A. Macdonald survive in Canadian popular memory: the creative statesman of Confederation, and the politician who could not handle his drink. Impressionistic evidence suggests that, as many Canadians become vague about their history and cynical towards their politics, his achievements are forgotten while his weakness is emphasized. Although a survey of 2001 found that barely half the adult population could name Canada's first prime minister, some of those who identified him highlighted his failings: "Sir John A. rarely thought of much beyond his next drink," one citizen remarked (The Globe and Mail, 11 February 2001). In popular history, the legend of an inebriated architect of Confederation has fed into the self-deprecating insecurity of national identity: "Canada, like many a child, was conceived under the influence of alcohol" (Ferguson 1999, 82). The problems of the Conservative party in recent decades have also been associated with this aspect of his character. The Tories ruled under a leader "preserved in giggle-juice," claimed one acerbic commentator, but they "have never got over the shock of Sir John A. Macdonald shucking his gin bottle for the last time" (Fotheringham 1984, 20). Thus, the investigation of Macdonald's relationship with alcohol represents something more than sensationalizing prurience, and contributes to a wider understanding of how Canadians have memorialized their history.
Macdonald's biographers throw little light on this central aspect of his life. Although E.B. Biggar openly referred to "Sir John's unfortunate habit of indulging in strong drink," Joseph Pope's allusion to "an occasional irregularity" was so oblique that Goldwin Smith missed it altogether (Biggar 1891,192; Pope 1894,2: 325; Pope 1960, 130; Martin 1999b, 300-19). In 1902, one intending biographer even consulted the governor general "as to the advisability of mentioning the intemperance question" (Stevens and Saywell 1983, 2: 115). Half a century later, in his first volume, Donald Creighton awkwardly described Macdonald's "irresponsibility" as both "comic and awful," while a discreet indexer buried pre-Confederation drinking bouts under entries such as "sickness." While Creighton was clear that Macdonald "was occasionally a hard drinker," the biography does not convey the full extent of his hero's difficulties (Creighton 1952, 217, 331-32, 519; Creighton 1955, 40-41, 67,158-59,175, 621).
By 1856 and at intervals for 20 years, Macdonald was a problem drinker, subject to intermittent binges that rendered him incapable of attending to his responsibilities. Some caveats are required to this general statement. The combination of public discretion and private gossip creates unusual problems in assessing evidence: some episodes were glossed over in the press, while others were perhaps magnified in the telling. One allegation, the Toronto Globe's 16 April charge that Macdonald "was drunk in the plain ordinary sense of that word" during an all-night session of Parliament in April 1878, was probably invented by opponents bidding for the temperance vote at the upcoming elections (Thomson 1960, 325; Waite 1972, 21-22)
Modern writers have applied the terms "alcoholism" and "chronic alcoholic" to Macdonald (B. Roberts 1975, 60; Travill 1981, 85). A historian lacking medical qualifications must tread carefully. While the "disease theory" of excess drinking was long discussed in the medical profession, the concept of "inebriety" only gained attention in Canada during the 1870s (Heron 2003, 9-10, 48, 141-43). The term "alcoholic" was coined in 1891, the year of Macdonald's death (Compact Oxford English Dictionary 1991, 34). In his lifetime, critics usually attributed Macdonald's drinking to moral weakness. The disease theory is also unhelpful in grouping different forms of behaviour under one label. Macdonald resembles one category, "bout drinkers," people who for long periods cope with alcohol in moderation, but who "suddenly start to drink excessively, for days on end ... neglecting all their responsibilities," before equally abruptly stopping (Kessel and Walton 1969, 90-91). As Heron notes, however, alcoholism is no longer "a recognized disease in the medical community" although "it retains that status in popular consciousness" (Heron 2003, 10). Given the generalized popular use of the term, it would be unhelpful to label Macdonald as an alcoholic because his behaviour sometimes conformed to one manifestation of a contested concept. For instance, in the disease theory "chronic alcoholism" implied mental or physical damage (Kessel and Walton 1969, 71). This can hardly apply to someone who held the office of prime minister until he was 76. Macdonald was not consistently drunk throughout a period of 20 years. He succumbed occasionally, under various forms of pressure. Johnson and Waite challenge "the legend that Macdonald was a chronic drunkard," but concede that he was "a spasmodic one" (1990, 605).