A Canadian icon: celebrating Sir John A. Macdonald’s bicentennial

It has been 200 years since the birth of Canada’s first prime minister and the interest in his political and personal life has not diminished. Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has an extensive and varied collection of records related to Sir John Alexander Macdonald, including a virtual exhibition that includes personal papers, photos, artwork, and publications. Within LAC’s Sir John A. Macdonald collection, there are over 100,000 letters to and from family and close friends, which gives researchers a rare glimpse into his personal life.

Black and white photograph showing Sir John A. Macdonald sitting on a chair, both his legs and his arms are crossed.

Sir John A. Macdonald, 1872, by William Topley (MIKAN 3333452)

As well as revealing a little bit about Sir John A.’s family life, LAC’s collection also contains artwork and objects that use the former prime minister’s image as a political symbol and, at times, a comic caricature. From political cartoons disapproving of the National Policy and Canadian-American relations, to a derisive phrenological chart of Macdonald’s head, the image of Sir John A. has become a part of Canadian iconography.

Lithograph showing Sir John A. Macdonald dressed as a marching British soldier in front of a locked gate. Behind his back, Uncle Sam is reaching for bags of money from some business men straddling the fence.

Electoral campaign sign reading, “We can’t undo the lock, Sir John is on guard. Hand it over the fence?” (MIKAN 2847973)

Beyond the more politically charged cartoons, Sir John A. Macdonald’s image has also been used commercially in beer advertisements, an endorsement for tomato chutney, and he has even been made into an action figure.

Print of a Molson’s ale ad featuring Sir John A. Macdonald seated and looking off to the side. Behind him is a map of the Dominion of Canada and underneath the image the text reads, “Fifty-six years ago when Sir John A. Macdonald was first Premier of the Dominion of Canada in 1867, Molson’s ale was then 81 years old! The ale your great-grandfather drank.”

Molson’s Ale, Sir John A. Macdonald. (MIKAN 3000462)

However, lest our mental image of Sir John A. Macdonald become a caricature, this bicentennial marks an opportunity to reflect on the personal history and life behind the icon. LAC’s Sir John A. Macdonald collection is a monument to the man and the myth, but his legacy extends beyond these images, back to his Scottish origins. In 1968, outside the tiny village of Rogart in the Scottish Highlands, a memorial cairn was dedicated to Sir John A. Macdonald and unveiled by the 13th Prime Minister of Canada, John Diefenbaker. This memorial is built on the site of the home of Sir John’s grandparents and is made of stones from the original family home. Accompanying the cairn is a plaque that states that the monument is but “a footnote to his greatness.” This type of disclaimer is a good one to keep in mind when examining Sir John A. Macdonald’s accomplished and storied life through such a diverse range of records.

To learn more about Sir John A. Macdonald and his legacy:

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