John Sandfield Macdonald

John Sandfield Macdonald

The Hon. John Sandfield Macdonald
1st Premier of Ontario
In office
July 16, 1867  December 20, 1871
Monarch Victoria
Lieutenant Governor Henry William Stisted
William Pearce Howland
Preceded by None
Succeeded by Edward Blake
Personal details
Born (1812-12-12)December 12, 1812
St Raphael West, Glengarry County, Upper Canada
Died June 1, 1872(1872-06-01) (aged 59)
Cornwall, Ontario
Political party Liberal-Conservative
Spouse(s) Marie Christine Waggaman
Religion Roman Catholic

John Sandfield Macdonald, QC (December 12, 1812 June 1, 1872) was the Premier of the Province of Canada from 1862 to 1864, and was the first Premier of Ontario from 1867 to 1871,[1] one of the four founding provinces created at the confederation of Canada in 1867. He served as both premier and Attorney-General of Ontario from July 16, 1867, to December 20, 1871.[2]

He was personally referred to by his middle name Sandfield and often signed his correspondence and documents as "J. Sandfield Macdonald".

Personal life

Born in 1812 in Glengarry County, Upper Canada, Macdonald was the first of five children for Alexander and Nancy Macdonald, who were Roman Catholic Highland Scots. Leaving school at 16, he became a clerk at several general stores, before deciding to enter the legal profession, eventually articling under Archibald McLean. When McLean was later elevated to the Court of King's Bench for Upper Canada, Macdonald became his assistant, which allowed him to meet Allan MacNab, Thomas Talbot and William Henry Draper (with whom he would resume his articling). He was later appointed as queen’s messenger, charged with carrying dispatches between the Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada and the British Minister in Washington.

In 1840 while he was on one of his missions from the Lieutenant-Governor (the Earl of Durham) to the British Minister at Washington he met Marie Christine Waggaman, daughter of George Augustus Waggaman, a former Whig senator from Louisiana. They were married in 1840 and raised three children.

Before confederation

A Reformer and advocate of responsible government, Macdonald served in all eight Assemblies of the United Province of Canada prior to Confederation. He also served in several pre-confederation administrations, including a period as co-premier of the United Province from 1862 to 1864. It was this time when Macdonald suffered a collapsed lung from chronic tuberculosis.[3]

Macdonald was initially an opponent of confederation, but came to accept it and became an ally of Sir John A. Macdonald (no relation). John A. Macdonald helped manoeuvre Sandfield Macdonald into the position of first Premier of Ontario.

Premier and Attorney-General of Ontario

Macdonald instituted several notable achievements, in addition to setting up the initial machinery of government for the new Province:

  • An Act modelled on the US Homestead Acts provided for virtually free land for homesteaders on surveyed crown lands of Muskoka, Haliburton and north Hastings,[4] and a further Act encouraged the northern extension of railways into those areas.
  • Education aid was concentrated into the University of Toronto, at the expense of the denominational colleges.
  • The election laws were reformed in 1868 to establish a single date for elections to be held (as opposed to a range of dates), and to broaden the franchise.

His government was moderate and initially a coalition of liberals and conservatives (described in contemporary accounts as a "Patent Combination" government), but suffered from defections by more radical Reformers. This group joined with the Clear Grits to form the opposition Liberal Party led by Edward Blake and Oliver Mowat. In December 1871, Macdonald's government was defeated by Edward Blake's Liberals. Macdonald resigned, and died several months later.

In the early years of confederation, politicians were allowed to serve simultaneously in the House of Commons and in a provincial legislature. From 1867 to 1872, Macdonald was also a Liberal MP in the Canadian House of Commons.


Macdonald's brothers, Donald Alexander Macdonald and Alexander Francis Macdonald, were also politicians, and served as federal Members of Parliament. Donald, who served as an MP the longest of the three brothers, was in the House of Commons concurrently with both Sandfield and Alexander, although Sandfield and Alexander did not serve concurrently with each other.


Sandfield Macdonald would be the last Roman Catholic Premier of Ontario for 132 years; not until Dalton McGuinty became premier in 2003 would another Roman Catholic assume the office. After Macdonald's tenure, sectarian tensions in the province rose, and the Conservative Party increasingly became identified with the Orange Order and sectarian Protestantism. Even though most of the party's leaders were not sectarian themselves (with a few notable exceptions), Orange Ontarians became a core constituency of the party that leaders were loath to neglect. Catholics, meanwhile, increasingly voted for the Liberal Party. While the Liberals could never be called a Catholic party, the Catholic vote became as important a constituency to the Liberals as the Orange vote became to the Conservatives.

Nineteenth century religious tensions aside, Macdonald's election as Ontario's first Premier makes his Catholicity an important historic symbol. Similarly the election of John Thompson, Canada's first Roman Catholic Prime Minister only twenty five years after Confederation, was indicative of the ambitions of Roman Catholics to be full and equal participants in the newly created country.

Macdonald is buried in historic St. Andrews Cemetery in St. Andrews West, Ontario. The gravesite is marked by a bronze plaque, the first under a new (2007) program to honour Ontario premiers at their burial sites. The Ontario Heritage Trust plans to commemorate each of the province's 18 deceased premiers in a similar way, styled after a national program to mark the graves of prime ministers.[5][6]

He was portrayed by Aidan Devine in the 2011 CBC Television film John A.: Birth of a Country.


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Political offices
Preceded by
John A. Macdonald
Joint Premiers of the Province of Canada - Canada West
Succeeded by
John A. Macdonald
Parliament of Canada
Preceded by
Member of Parliament for Cornwall
Succeeded by
Darby Bergin
Legislative Assembly of Ontario
Preceded by
Member of the Legislative Assembly for Cornwall
Succeeded by
Alexander Fraser McIntyre
Preceded by
John Alexander Macdonald
Attorney General of Canada West
Succeeded by
John Alexander Macdonald
Preceded by
Augustin-Norbert Morin
Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of the United Provinces of Canada
Succeeded by
Louis Victor Sicotte
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