Scottish Canadian Politicians
Alexander Mackenzie (1822-1892):
Stone Mason & Second Prime Minister of Canada
"I have always held those political opinions which point to the universal brotherhood of man, no matter in what rank of life he may have taken his origin"
~ Alexander Mackenzie, c.1875
Alexander Mackenzie was the third of ten children born to Alexander Mackenzie and Mary Stewart Fleming in Logierait, Perthshire. The Mackenzies were not financially stable, and they moved frequently - from Logierait to Edinburgh, and then to Perth, Pitlochry, and Dunkeld within ten years - as Alexander tried to improve his job prospects. He had done well as a carpenter during the Napoleonic Wars, but employment opportunities dropped in the 1820s and 30s. When he died in 1836 at the age of fifty-two, the three oldest sons, Robert, Hope, and Alexander left school to work full time to support the family. Alexander began an apprenticeship with a stone mason at the age of sixteen, and by twenty he had reached journeyman status.
At nineteen, Alexander left home to seek work in Irvine, where he quickly attached himself to the Neil family, whose daughter Helen had won his affections. When the Neil family left Scotland in 1842 to seek better employment opportunities in Canada, Mackenzie decided to follow them. The potential for social and economic mobility appealed to his liberal sensibilities, and indeed later formed an integral part of his conceptual Canadian landscape.
The Neils and Mackenzie settled in Kingston, Ontario, where his masonry training opened many working opportunities. He spent his first winter cutting stone on Wolfe Island; family-minded as he was, he braved the snow and cold to dutifully visit Helen every Saturday night. One night he arrived at the Neil family doorstep half-frozen and soaking wet from head to foot - in the darkness he had fallen into ice. Yet that harrowing incident did not deter him from visiting - he simply carried a pole with him should he find himself in the lake again! Even after the two sweethearts married in 1845, Mackenzie's fierce commitment and devotion to family life never wilted.
One of Mackenzie's first big assignments in Kingston was to build a bomb-proof stone arch at Fort Henry; next he was contracted to work on the Beauharnois Canal near Montreal. Thrilled with his new-found success, Mackenzie invited his brother Hope, a carpenter-cabinetmaker, to come to Canada in 1843. After Hope secured land in Port Sarnia in Upper Canada in 1846, he and Alexander wasted no time in bringing their mother and remaining siblings over from Scotland. The family, to which Mackenzie was so dedicated, was all together again.
Mackenzie continued to work as a mason throughout the 1850s, and many of his monuments still stand in Ontario, including the Welland Canal, the Martello Towers in Kingston, the Episcopal Church and bank in Sarnia, the jail in Chatham and the courthouse in Sandwich, Windsor.
Although Mackenzie had been forced to cut his formal education short, he worked the rest of his life to make up for his lack of schooling by studying literature, history, science, philosophy, and politics on his own. As a youth in Scotland, he had been attracted to the Chartist movement, a political group advocating democratic reform; thus he was naturally drawn to the Reform party in Canada, and by 1851 was secretary of the Reform Association of Lambton County. He laid his political grounding later that year when his campaigning efforts helped George Brown win nomination for the seat in the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada against Arthur Rankin. Mackenzie soon found himself editing the Reform newspaper, the Lambton Shield, although he had to close it after losing a libel suit against another Reformer, Malcolm Cameron, whom he accused of corruption.
Mackenzie's public activity as a census-taker and a member of Port Sarnia's fire brigade, temperance society, Dialectic Society, and school board, however, overshadowed this embarrassment, and in 1861 was elected to the Legislative Assembly to represent the Lambton riding. He soon established himself as a staunch economic liberal, a social egalitarian and a political libertarian, although he would compromise when the special interests of his constituency or region were at stake. He continued to represent Lambton after Confederation in federal Parliament until 1882.
After George Brown left electoral politics following the formation of the Great Coalition, the regional and sectional nature of the Reform and Liberal parties left them without a central authority figure to hold them together. Mackenzie's reputation as a Reform purist and loyalist, combined with his organizational activity, ideological commitment, and work ethic caused disparate Reformer and Liberal politicians to foster a national party around him.
He resigned from provincial politics in 1872 to concentrate fully on federal matters; in March 1873 he was formally elected leader of the new Liberal party. Within a month of his becoming leader, the Pacific scandal broke, which hardened his suspicions about large concentrations of wealth and the influence they could have on government. The Liberal party remained hostile to unfair competition and fearful of monopoly power while fiercely defending parliamentary supremacy.
After Sir John A. MacDonald resigned in November 1873, Governor-General Lord Dufferin called on Mackenzie to form his first administration. Although Dufferin had some reservations about Mackenzie's ability to serve as prime minister, he reassured himself by musing, "However narrow and inexperienced Mackenzie may be, I imagine he is a thoroughly upright, well-principled, and well- meaning man." Mackenzie's first pressing concern was to call for an election, and the Liberals trounced the Conservatives in January 1874.
During his four years as Prime Minister, Mackenzie established a solid record of reform legislation, largely involving organizational and regulatory rationalization. He began immediately with election reform: the January election introduced use of the secret ballot, required that all ridings hold their elections on the same day, and removed the property qualifications for House of Commons candidates. His administration introduced acts such as the insurance acts, the Customs Act, and the Weights and Measures Act to establish the legal context for free market forces. Other important accomplishments include the establishment of the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, creation of the Office of the Auditor-General, and creation of the Supreme Court of Canada. He also maintained his masonry roots by serving as Minister of Public Works, overseeing and drafting completions for Parliament buildings.
Mackenzie was proud of his humble origins: while touring Fort Henry in Kingston, he asked the soldier escorting him if he knew the thickness of the arch. When the soldier admitted that he did not, Mackenzie laughed and exclaimed, "I do. It is five feet ten inches. I know, because I built it myself!" Staying true to his egalitarian principles, he even went so far as to refuse the honour of knighthood - (Canada's first eight prime ministers were offered knighthood, and only Mackenzie refused it) - three times!
Unfortunately, recession and depression also accompanied Mackenzie's term in office, and although he knew that the tariff issue would lose some urban votes, he failed to appreciate how much it also affected rural feelings. The government's tight fiscal restraint and commitment to the free market only added to the Liberal party's negative uncaring image. The Liberals were swept out of power in the 1878 elections.
Although Mackenzie complained more than once of the burden of his office, its loss pained him deeply. He resigned as party leader in the spring of 1880, and the scope of his political life narrowed significantly, in part due to declining health. He rarely spoke in his last years of parliament, his voice having begun to fail in 1882, but nonetheless remained a strong party man, spending his last ten years as an MP for York East.
During those years, he also enjoyed several European holidays with his second wife, Jane, who he had married in 1853 after the death of Helen. He had met her through the Baptist church near Port Sarnia, and shielded her from the burdens of political society. His private life he reserved to enjoy in her company.
Although Alexander Mackenzie did not have a state funeral, his services in Sarnia and Toronto were nevertheless attended by large crowds who had come from all over to pay their proper respects.
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