John A. Macdonald and “presentism”


While allowing that the first prime minister’s “policy toward the Chinese cannot be defended” and that “his exclusion from the vote of those living here was an act of explicit discrimination,” Richard Gwyn, the author of a two-volume biography of John A. Macdonald, attempts to counter Timothy Stanley’s position that Macdonald was a “white supremacist.”

Tim Stanley, in his recent Citizen opinion article, is quite right to severely criticize John A. Macdonald for revising the Franchise Act to withdraw the vote from Chinese-Canadians. In my biography of him, Nation-Maker, I did the same.

But to go on to describe Macdonald as “a racist” is pure, and smug, “presentism,” or the judging of the past by the standards of the present, thereby proclaiming our moral superiority to all Canadians who lived earlier. It’s the equivalent of condemning Macdonald for not having implemented same-sex marriages. More to the immediate point, it is grossly inaccurate. On most matters concerning race and ethnicity, Macdonald was far ahead of his times and he would remain ahead for decades to come in many respects.


John A. Macdonald and “presentism”

  1. I think Gwyn is engaging in ‘presentism’ as anyone else. If you read Hansard debate Cosh linked to other day, other MPs are giving Sir John A are hard time for his racial views. The idea that all men are created equal was from 1770s, wars were fought to establish more equal societies. Sir John and his talk of aryan society is not remotely like Sir John being against gay marriage today.

    Also, Gwyn using Natives as an example of Sir John A’s great humanity is peculiar to say the least. I think it was Libs who introduced heinous Indian Act 1876 but Sir John was a big fan of assimilation and wiping our Native culture and had his own odious amendments when he regained power.

    • Don’t often agree with you but i do here. I like Gwyn a lot but he’s wrong. As you say there’s evidence that others knew Macdonald’s policy was racist even if he lacked our historical hindsight. We don’t have a right to feel smug but neither should we gloss over the available evidence. Sir John may have been a progressive in some areas for his time but he still had blind spots that amounted to racism. But hell the whole policy of the Empire was essentially racist – he didn’t invent the stuff.

  2. I suspect that the future will not look kindly on today’s treatment of Muslims in many Western contexts.

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