John Sandfield Macdonald, QC (December 12, 1812 – June 1, 1872) was the first Premier of the province of Ontario, 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.
He was personally referred to by his middle name Sandfield and often signed his correspondence and documents as “J. Sandfield Macdonald”.
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.
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.[
He was portrayed by Aidan Devine in the 2011 CBC Television film John A.: Birth of a Country.