Lawyer, politician, and land speculator are words that describe
Sir Allan Napier MacNab but somehow fail to convey the
complexity of the man who could be brave yet sneaky, charming
yet bullying, moderate yet extreme. He continued to baffle
people right up to his death.
MacNab's father, also Allan, had been born
at Dundurn, a farm on Loch Earn, in Perthshire, Scotland. The
older MacNab joined the Army at an early age and became a
lieutenant in Simcoe's
during the Revolutionary War. After the war, he went on half pay
and moved to Quebec. In 1792, he married Anne Napier, and
hearing that his old commander had been appointed to Upper
Canada, he decided to move there to improve his fortunes. They
settled in Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake). However, by the time
the MacNabs got to Newark, all of the best jobs had been taken.
The older MacNab had to take such jobs as he could find. After
the capital of Upper Canada moved to York (Toronto), the MacNabs
moved with it. That was where Allan Napier was born in 1798, the
first child to survive infancy. The family lived reasonably
prosperously and young Allan was educated at the Home District
Grammar School under the Rev. Strachan and alongside many of the
other future leaders of the Family Compact.
the Americans attacked York during the War of 1812, McNab fought
with the defenders and joined them in the retreat to Kingston.
Young MacNab managed to get appointed midshipman aboard Sir
James Yeo's flagship, the Wolfe. The Navy did not suit him so
Yeo recommended his transfer to the Army. He eventually ended up
in the 100th Regiment. He was in the storming of Fort Niagara in
December 1813, followed by the burning of Black Rock and
Buffalo. For this work, he was commissioned ensign in the 49th
Regiment, in which rank he remained until going on half pay in
the war, MacNab came under the influence of D'Arcy Boulton, the
Attorney General of Upper Canada and became a lawyer. He also
married Elizabeth Brooke, a sister of one of his schoolfriends,
in 1821. They had three children before Elizabeth suddenly died
in 1826. He moved to Hamilton and set up his own law office,
which prospered, soon leading him into land speculation.
In 1830, he was elected to the Legislative
Assembly and immediately, with the style of oratory that made
him a success as a lawyer, began to exert an influence on the
Assembly. Two years later, to highlight his success, he bought
the estate of Col. Richard Beasley
on Burlington Heights and built a
magnificent house, now known as Dundurn Castle. In the meantime,
he had married again, to Mary Stuart.
When William Lyon
Mackenzie was elected to the Assembly,
MacNab saw a natural enemy. By hook or by crook, he schemed to
get Mackenzie expelled from the Assembly. Three times Mackenzie
was expelled and each time he was re-elected by the voters. When
Mackenzie and his supporters eventually rebelled, MacNab was
called upon by the Lieutenant-Governor, Sir Francis Bond Head,
to lead government forces against the rebels. At first, MacNab
demurred, giving way to Col. James
FitzGibbon, but when FitzGibbon
resigned, MacNab assumed command over the Upper Canada militia
against the rebels. After the defeat of the rebellion, MacNab
was knighted for his part in suppressing it.
after the rebellion ended, Upper and Lower Canada were united
once more. MacNab became leader of the Conservatives in
opposition to the reformist Baldwin-Lafontaine government. When
the government was defeated in 1844, MacNab became Speaker until
1848, when the Conservatives were defeated. Once again MacNab
became leader of the Conservatives. In 1854, the
Governor-General, the Earl of Elgin, asked MacNab to form a
cabinet. He managed to form a coalition cabinet, becoming
premier of the Canadas until he became too ill to carry on in 1856.
When he left office, he was created a baronet.
died in 1862 but did not go without a parting shot at Upper
Canada society. His sister-in-law, Mrs. Sophia MacNab, was with
him at the end and she revealed that he had had a death-bed
conversion to Roman Catholicism. So he was buried according to
Roman Catholic rites.