Monday, October 10, 2011

John A. Macdonald: 2. Starts Political Career

The Patriot War launched the career of a young, gangly, curly-haired barrister from Kingston Ontario. By taking on intensely political clients that others dared not touch and by winning cases that seemed lost from the start, John Alexander Macdonald (January 10, 1815-June 6, 1891) became a household name. He later leveraged that popularity (and his orator gifts) for a foray into politics.

At just 22, Macdonald, a militia private, raced to Toronto in early December 1837 to help put down the rebellion led by William Lyon Mackenzie. He saw no direct military action then or for the rest of the war. He fought his battles in court rooms.
Young J. A. Macdonald

When Bill Johnston and other Patriots planned a raid on Gananoque in February 1838, hundreds of farmers gathered in Kingston to attack Fort Henry as part of the plot. Lt.-Colonel Richard Bonnycastle's successful defense of Kingston and Upper Canada included the arrest of 50 of those farmers.

Defends Farmers

In July 1838, nine farmers went on trial, charged under the British Treason Act. Eight had the great fortune to hire Macdonald as their lawyer. At the start, convictions looked assured, since the accused had signed confessions.

Ahead of the trial, Macdonald rigorously challenged jurors. During the trial, he cast grave doubts on the validity of the signed confessions and had them set aside. His cross-examinations caused prosecution witnesses to contradict one another, and he demonstrated the crown's failure to prove intent.

The court tried Nelson Reynolds, said to be the leader, on July 4. Macdonald's legal tactics saw Reynolds acquitted July 6. The prosecution dropped one case because evidence matched Reynold's case. The trials of the six others resulted in acquittals. Upper Canada newspapers ran the story and praised Macdonald's skill.

Defends Kingston Jailer

In late July, John Montgomery and 12 other political prisoners broke out of Fort Henry and successfully crossed the St. Lawrence River to America. The day before the big escape, Montgomery's gang suggested their jailer, John Ashley, who had married only days earlier, take his new wife to church on Sunday and skip the prisoners' usual exercise period. The jailer happily obliged, thus giving the prisoners enough time alone to execute their plans.

Lt.-Colonel Henry Dundas, commander of the British 83rd Regiment of Foot, believing the fort inescapable, hastily arrested Ashley for aiding the prisoners. When the escape's facts came to light, Dundas released Ashley. Ashley, his reputation tarnished, hired Macdonald to sue Dundas for damages. Macdonald won the case and further respect for his skills.

Defends Hunter Officers

After the capture of Hunter raiders at the Battle of the Windmill in November 1838, Macdonald agreed to defend three officers: Nils von Schoultz, Daniel George, and Dorephus Abbey. Von Schoultz, George and Abbey lost their cases and soon their lives. Macdonald lost no credibility with his strikeout.

Begins Political Career

In 1843, Macdonald successfully ran for city alderman. The next year, voters elected him to sit in the colony's legislature. He became a cabinet minister for the first time in 1847 and attorney-general in 1854.

In response to the rise of the Fenians in the 1860s and raids by Confederates from Canada into America during the Civil War, Macdonald formed Canada's first secret service to spy on both groups.

In 1867, Macdonald joined other colonial leaders in negotiations to unite into a single country. At the birth of Canada July 1, 1867, Macdonald became the first prime minister the same day he received his knighthood. He led Canada through its first formative decades.
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