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Sir John A. Macdonald's papers hold pride of place in the Library and Archives Canada (LAC) collection. Macdonald's papers consist of approximately 270,000 pages and occupy almost 40 metres of storage space. Most of the records document the evolution of the issues that defined Macdonald's political career, such as Confederation, the construction of the transcontinental railway, and the relationship between the federal government and Aboriginal peoples. If you dive into the papers, however, you will also find invitations to dinners and parties, receipts of purchase, private notes and more than 100,000 letters to and from family and close friends, who themselves were often historic figures.
The subjects of these letters range from remedies for persistent ailments to the Masonic Knights Templar, and much more. Among the unusual items, for example, are reports by Gilbert McMicken that John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of American president Abraham Lincoln, had been seen in a hotel in London, Ontario, when many thought he was fleeing through Virginia. The papers also include some of the most visually striking items of Macdonald's documentary collection: gorgeously hand-painted and calligraphied addresses and commissions from civic groups all over the country hailing and congratulating Sir John A. and Lady Agnes Macdonald on their political and social triumphs. More ominously, there are death threats such as the one that Macdonald received after Louis Riel was sentenced to hang for his part in the North West Rebellion.
Macdonald's personal papers shed light on the private man behind the political legend. He kept his parents' marriage certificate, for example, as well as a journal belonging to his father. Curiously, this journal lists January 11, 1815, as Macdonald's birth date, while a Scottish Registrar's copy of his birth certificate cites January 10. Sir John also kept childhood notebooks, law school receipts and a handwritten copy of the Kingston Electoral Register for the 1872 elections (which, in a time before the secret ballot and women's suffrage, lists each voter's name, his religion and how he voted). Finally, there is also a copy of the North American Review from May 1891-a journal coincidentally founded in 1815, the year that Macdonald was born. A handwritten note on the journal's cover indicates that this is what Sir John was reading when he had his fatal stroke.
After Macdonald's death, his secretary and biographer, Sir Joseph Pope, began to compile and organize the papers, a task that took more than 20 years. Pope archived everything: political, legal and financial documents, as well as poems, prescriptions and private telegrams written in code. Agnes Macdonald, who was granted the title "Baroness" after Macdonald's death, later arranged for the transfer of the papers from Macdonald's estate to the Public Archives (which later became part of LAC), where Pope's meticulous organizational work is preserved today.
During his last election campaign in 1891, Macdonald's supporters famously took to calling out to him, "You'll never die, John A.!" In its task of collecting, preserving and making the Sir John A. Macdonald papers accessible, LAC continues to ensure that Macdonald will live on for each new generation of Canadians.
Visit the Gallery of Papers to see more from the LAC collection.