Private Demons: The Tragic Personal Life of John A. Macdonald

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McClelland & Stewart, 2007 - Biography & Autobiography - 328 pages
The first book to expose the turbulent personal life of this fascinating Father of Confederation.

Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald once remarked, “I had no boyhood,” an understatement if there ever was one. Indeed, John A.’s Dickensian childhood, filled with poverty, alcoholism, and the beating death of his five-year-old brother at the hands of a drunken babysitter (a friend of his father, Hugh’s), set the stage for a political power grab that has seen no equal in Canadian history.

In Private Demons, bestselling author Patricia Phenix explores through Macdonald’s family journals, diaries, and never-before-seen letters the troubled man behind Canada’s most successful politician. Phenix describes a man of myriad contradictions: patient, yet prone to settle fights with his fists; ethical, yet capable of pilfering corporate profits to pay private debts; shy, yet wildly flirtatious; sociable, yet so desirous of solitude he built escape hatches into the walls of his homes. She also examines reports that Macdonald’s depression became so deep that he once attempted suicide. Ultimately, in an obsessive need to escape his childhood demons, he sacrificed friends, family members, and financial security to achieve his single greatest ambition — to design and control the destiny of Canada.

Private Demons paints a vivid portrait of nineteenth-century society while exploring the amazingly tumultuous domestic life of our most famous prime minister.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Johnny We Hardly Knew Ya
The idea behind Phenix’s book is to take John A. Macdonald’s story and move his personal and family life to the foreground, while shifting his political life to the
background except when the two realms overlap. Obviously the intent is not to supplant traditional political biography, but to supplement it with a perspective on John A. as primarily a human animal as opposed to primarily a political animal. It’s a worthwhile endeavour and I believe Phenix succeeds in it. I now feel certain that if I pick up one of the conventional Sir John A. bios, I’m going to be way ahead of its readers in deciphering the man.
The year 2017 marks the 150th anniversary of Confederation. No one is more identified with Confederation than Sir John A, and for good reason. If the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation were smart, it would weave a film drama around the stories Phenix tells in her book. Such a film would ease up on the strictly-political and go full throttle on Macdonald’s tumultuous private life.
What follows are a number of nuggets that I plucked from my reading of Private Demons, most of which beg for inclusion in the proposed CBC drama:
Few incidents could be more traumatic than what John A. witnessed as a seven-year-old, namely a drunken assault by the family ‘baby-sitter’ with a cane upon John A.’s 5-year-old brother. It happened in the roadway returning from a tavern where the scoundrel tried to force liquor down the boys’ throats. The lad died of his injuries. Due to peculiarities of the times, the killing was never so much as investigated by either their father or by police. How could his not have scarred John A. for life and contributed to the drinking binges that punctuated his adult life?
John A.’s father High was mainly a shopkeeper in his early years in Canada West. He was rather mediocre at it, despite “…Hugh’s novel advertising practice of strapping billboards to the sides of sheep and herding them through the town’s streets.” I daresay that this might rivet peoples’ attention on Bay Street in the downtown Toronto of 2014. Hugh would often tell customers, pointing at his son, “There goes the star of Canada.” Four decades later John A. was precisely that.
To back up for a moment, how did the Macdonald family get to Canada? It got here via a nightmarish voyage upon a ship called The Earl of Buckingham. Forty-two hellish days from Liverpool to Quebec City. And then, worse and even more dangerous, by Durham boats upriver to Kingston. Phenix’s graphic description of the awful journey will make any reader thankful for all the improvements in transportation in the intervening two centuries. But nature could inflict far worse damage. By sheer luck, John A. escaped the cholera epidemics that swept thru in 1832 and 1834 killing off more than a quarter of Kingston’s population. His legal apprenticeship had taken him elsewhere.
Unbelievably, by today’s standards, John A. began his law career at age 14, as an apprentice in a lawyer’s office. And, he was drinking in Kingston’s taverns at age 15. There were no liquor laws in 1830. Friends were amazed at his capacity to imbibe whisky even at 18. His favorite motto was, “Be to our faults a little blind, and to our virtues always kind.” It rationalized his drinking. John A.’s periodic binge-drinking offset depression brought on by loneliness, or by deaths of the near-and-dear, or by mounting debt, or by political reverses or exhaustion, or by bad memories. Former-Fenian turned Canadian nationalist D’Arcy McGee was also a serious drinker. Slighted by critiques of alcoholism within Conservative ranks, John A. implored McGee, “This government can’t afford two drunkards—you’ve got to stop.” At the Quebec conference the Governor General’s sister-in-law reported that “John A. Macdonald is always drunk now, I am sorry to say, and when someone went to his room the other night, they found him in his night shirt, with a railway rug thrown over him, practicing Hamlet before a mirror

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About the author (2007)

Patricia Phenix is the author of the bestselling Olga Romanov: Russia’s Last Grand Duchess and Eatonians: The Story of the Family Behind the Family. She lives in Toronto.

From the Hardcover edition.

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