MACDONALD, JOHN SMALL, businessman, politician, militia officer, jp, and office holder; b. c. 1791 on Saint John’s (Prince Edward) Island, son of John MacDonald of West River and Margaret MacDonald of Glenaladale; m. at St Andrews, P.E.I., Isabella McDonald, daughter of Donald and Catherina McDonald, and they had at least seven girls and one boy who survived infancy; d. 20 Jan. 1849 in Charlottetown at age 58.
John Small Macdonald was, judging by his correspondence, well educated. He was a farmer and proprietor, and he lived most of his adult life near the West River in Queens County. His mother was sister to Captain John MacDonald* of Glenaladale, a major figure among Highland Scots on the Island. Along with Captain John’s son Donald*, John Small retained to some extent the prestige and responsibility of a Highland laird. The anomaly of this conceit in an increasingly democratic era made Macdonald’s political career a particularly interesting one.
When the political disabilities he and others suffered as Roman Catholics were removed in 1830, Macdonald that year contested and won a seat in the House of Assembly for Queens County. The enfranchisement of Catholics coincided with, and indeed may have fostered, pressure for a court of escheat to confiscate land holdings deemed in default of the terms of the original grants made in 1767. The practical result of escheat would have been the redistribution of land owned by large, mostly absentee, proprietors to tenant farmers. This issue immediately placed Macdonald in a dilemma. A large proportion of tenants were Catholic Highland Scots, many of whom were his constituents, and to all of whom he appears to have felt some responsibility. Conversely, he was himself a proprietor, albeit neither a large nor an absentee one, and was necessarily concerned by a movement which placed property rights in jeopardy.
Macdonald’s response was to push for almost any expedient short of a full escheat that would allay tenant agitation. Thus, while opposing the radicalism of the escheat leader, William Cooper*, Macdonald was willing to countenance such reforms as quadrennial elections, colonial responsibility for the civil list, and even a limited confiscation of lands held by grossly delinquent proprietors. This position was sufficiently acceptable that Macdonald won re-election not only in 1834, but also in the face of the Escheat party’s great victory in 1838. Given the defeat of other moderates that year, Macdonald’s position as a spokesman for the Catholic Highland Scots must have been crucial in tipping the balance in his favour.
As the escheat movement dissipated in the 1840s Macdonald’s political difficulties eased, and he was routinely returned to the assembly until his retirement in 1846. In 1839 he was appointed to the Executive Council by Lieutenant Governor Sir Charles Augustus FitzRoy*, and this post he held until his death. Never a major force in either body, Macdonald did interest himself in obtaining public funds for the temperance society and for Thomas Irwin’s book of elementary instruction in the Micmac language. His last major recorded speech was on the Bible question in 1845; his sage advice was that the less said on the topic the better.
A trustee of St Andrew’s College in St Andrews, and then of the Central Academy in Charlottetown, Macdonald was a member and president of the Highland Society and of the Central Agricultural Society. He also served as a captain of militia. From 1825 until his death he was a justice of the peace, and he was appointed high sheriff of Queens County in 1839.
An interesting correspondence took place between Macdonald and John Barelli and Company of London from 1843 to 1848. In common with many Island landowners Macdonald tried his hand at shipbuilding, and he used Barelli as an agent to sell both ship and cargo. Their exchange of letters charts the frustrations of a small shipbuilder dependent on local subcontractors and foreign agents. When Macdonald sent Barelli his barque Friendship its sale was long delayed, and accomplished only at a reduced price. According to Barelli, the barque was so badly built that claims from the new owners would more than wipe out any profits. The ship’s low quality gave Macdonald’s next vessels such a poor reputation that they could only be sold at a loss. This experience apparently stalled Macdonald’s career as a shipbuilder. He died some £4,000 in debt. It can only be surmised how many other small operations came to a similar end.
In 1841 the assembly had referred to Macdonald as a member of the “family compact.” Even if his cousin was a large proprietor, the label understates the importance of Macdonald’s consciousness of his ethnic and religious heritage and distorts his political record.
PAPEI, RG 1, commission books. P.E.I. Museum, File information concerning J. S. Macdonald. Private arch., Jean and Colin MacDonald (St Peters, P.E.I.), MacDonald family papers, docs.75–184 (copies at PAPEI). Supreme Court of P.E.I. (Charlottetown), Estates Division, papers of administration for J. S. Macdonald estate. P.E.I, House of Assembly, Journal, 3, 11 Feb., 6 April 1831; 26 Jan. 1835; 22 Jan. 1839; 1841: 151; 24 Jan. 1843. Examiner (Charlottetown), 22 Jan. 1849. Prince Edward Island Register, 27 Oct. 1825, 27 Nov. 1827. Royal Gazette (Charlottetown), 14 Sept. 1830; 24 Jan. 1832; 29 Jan., 5, 26 Feb., 19 March, 26 Nov. 1833; 1 April, 9, 23 Dec. 1834; 24, 27 Feb., 31 March 1835; 26 April, 7 June, 20 Sept. 1836; 9 Oct., 27 Nov. 1838; 12 Feb., 12 March, 7 May, 23 July 1839; 16 Feb., 20 April 1841; 19 July 1842; 28 March, 25 April, 9 May, 13 June, 11 July, 3 Oct., 26 Dec. 1843; 30 Jan. 1844; 15 April 1845; 9 April 1846; 23 Jan. 1849. Canada’s smallest province: a history of P.E.I., ed. F. W. P. Bolger ([Charlottetown, 1973]). MacKinnon, Government of P.E.I., 53. Herald (Charlottetown), 17 Oct. 1888. J. F. Snell, “Sir William Macdonald and his kin,” Dalhousie Rev., 23 (1943–44): 321.