Macdonald, Sir John Alexander, 1815–91, Canadian statesman, first prime minister of the Dominion of Canada, b. Glasgow. His parents settled in 1820 in Kingston, Ont. Macdonald first practiced law. With his election (1844) as a Conservative to the legislative assembly, he entered upon his long political career. A forceful man and a vigorous fighter, he quickly rose to leadership in the government of Upper Canada (Ontario). He and Georges Étienne Cartier of Lower Canada headed the Liberal-Conservatives (a coalition largely of Macdonald's creating), and he became prime minister in 1857. This government fell in 1858, but he continued as a cabinet minister until 1862. He briefly returned (1864) as prime minister before he was joined by George Brown and others in the "great coalition" ministry (1864–67), which paved the way for the union of the British North American provinces. Macdonald was the most potent figure in bringing about confederation (1867) of the provinces as the Dominion of Canada. His policy as prime minister was dominated by the vigorous attempt to build Canada. Believing that the dominion's prosperity required strong bonds with England, he worked throughout his career to that end. The Northwest Territories were taken over from the Hudson's Bay Company in 1869; to facilitate their development, Macdonald's government decided to construct the Canadian Pacific Railway. His personal popularity was not enough when the Pacific scandal, which involved the railroad, broke (1873), and the government resigned. Changing industrial conditions made Macdonald the advocate of a protectionist policy (known as the National Policy), and he was returned as prime minister in 1878 and served until his death. The transcontinental railroad was completed (1885), and other public works were accomplished. Macdonald was knighted in 1867.
See his correspondence, ed. by J. Pope (1921); biographies by his nephew, J. P. Macpherson (2 vol., 1891) and D. G. Creighton (1952 and 1956); study by D. Swainson (1971).