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People > Scottish Canadian Politicians > William Lyon Mackenzie

Scottish Canadian Politicians

William Lyon Mackenzie (1795-1861):

Journalist, Politician, Rebellion Leader and the First Mayor of Toronto

"Politics is the science that teaches the people of a country to care for each other."
~ William Lyon Mackenzie [1836]
William Lyon Mackenzie
William Lyon Mackenzie

William Lyon Mackenzie was the only child of Elizabeth Chambers and Daniel Mackenzie. Both branches of the family were from Glenshee in Kirkmichael Parish, north of Dundee, Angus. Daniel died three weeks after his son's birth, leaving his widow and infant in the care of extended family. Although the two suffered many hardships, Mackenzie retained fond memories of his childhood in Dundee: "Here I passed some of my happiest days," he mused, "unencumbered with care." Despite Mackenzie's rebellion against formal religion later in life, Elizabeth's deep religiosity, moreover, influenced the strict, puritanical character of her son and nevertheless played a great role in shaping his world view.

Young "Willie" was rambunctious in school and difficult to discipline, but he developed a voracious appetite for books. Between the years 1806 and 1820, he maintained a catalogue of the 958 books he read, according to year and type. His interest in books prompted him to join the local newspaper at fifteen, making him the youngest member of the commercial newsroom. He also belonged to a scientific society, where he met the Lesslie family, who would, years later, become lifetime patrons of Mackenzie's Reform campaign in Canada.

Mackenzie & Lesslie Druggists
Mackenzie & Lesslie Druggists

In 1814, the Lesslies assisted Elizabeth and William in opening a general store and circulating library, but unfortunately the post-Napoleonic depression bankrupted both businesses. In search of work, Mackenzie traveled to Wiltshire, France, and London before accompanying John Lesslie to York in 1820. Mackenzie was instantly captivated with Upper Canada. He went to work for the York Observer while Lesslie operated a book and drug company, and in 1822 the young men sent for the people they had left behind: William's mother came from Scotland with the Lesslie family, bringing with her a Dundee girl she had chosen to be her son's wife. Isabel Baxter was married immediately to William, and she would prove to be an ideal partner as the years progressed.

William Mackenzie launched the Colonial Advocate, a newspaper dedicated to influencing the electorate to vote Reform in the upcoming election for the 9th Parliament of Upper Canada, on 18 May 1824. The advocate was critical of John Graves Simcoe's aristocratic Family Compact and approving of American institutions, but faced stiff competition from another Reform paper and did not gain a great deal of support. Mackenzie amassed a substantial debt over the next year, and finally fled to New York to evade his creditors after scurrilous attacks on the Tories failed to improve his paper's circulation in 1826. A stroke of luck brought him back to Canada later that year.

In June, a group of fifteen young Tories thinly disguised as indigenous peoples, took revenge on the Colonial Advocate in Mackenzie's absence. They broke into the York office in the middle of the day, smashed the printing press, and threw the type into the bay. The city magistrates, also Tories, did nothing to stop the men nor did they seek prosecution. Mackenzie returned to York to take the eight major participants to court. He refused a £200 damage settlement and insisted on trial. The jury awarded him with £650, a sum worth several times more than the cost of the printing press. Mackenzie used the money to reestablish his business on a secure financial footing, and took full advantage of the fame the trial brought him by launching himself into the ranks of martyrs for Upper Canadian liberty.

The Ruckus-Rousing Reformer

W.L. Mackenzie Photo
W.L. Mackenzie Photo

When John Strachan, rector of York and prominent member of the Family Compact, pressed London for the proceeds from the sale of clergy reserves to fund his proposed King's College, Mackenzie leapt to the offense by seeking to block Strachan in Parliament. The two seats of the York riding for the 10th Parliament of Upper Canada went to Mackenzie and his radical Reform ally, Jesse Ketchum, in a landslide victory that owed no small debt to the campaign tactics employed by the Advocate. In Parliament, Mackenzie immediately set about on a program of reform: he implemented committees on agriculture, commerce, and the post office (which was British controlled and run for profit). In 1829 he met with U.S. President Andrew Jackson and was quite impressed with the simple, low-cost American government, the spoils system - which he thought might be used to remove the Family Compact officials - and Jackson's anti-bank ideas. Mackenzie returned to Canada with a growing admiration for American institutions and a growing agitation towards Great Britain.

The death of King George IV in 1830 necessitated the dissolution of the legislature and prompted new elections. The atmosphere of the province had changed dramatically in two years, largely through the efforts of new Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Colborne: and although Mackenzie and Ketchum returned as York's representatives, the Reform party won only 20 of the 51 available seats.

Frustrated with setbacks in the Reform movement and disappointed with the democratic process in Upper Canada, Mackenzie became rather boisterous in Parliament. Aside from publishing vitriolic attacks on his political opponents in the Colonial Advocate, he attempted to politicize and reform every organization to which he belonged. For example, when the Tories organized an agricultural society that summer, Mackenzie refused to join but insisted on speaking at the society's meetings. He also stirred up commotion by joining St. Andrew's Church, a Presbyterian-Tory establishment in support of maintaining connections between church and state, to agitate for its separation from any state connection.

W.L. Mackenzie Painting
W.L. Mackenzie Painting

Mackenzie plunged himself into the Assembly's 1831 January proceedings, demanding inquiries into abuse and, inspired by the success of the Reform movement in England, insisting on a review of representation in the province. But the new Tory-dominated Parliament had little patience for his antics, and some members moved to oust him from the assembly. Mackenzie then decided to appeal for redress from Britain, and embarked on a popular province-wide campaign to propagandize and gather signatures for grievance petitions. When the legislature opened again that November, he made no delay in accusing the Bank of Upper Canada, the Welland Canal, King's College, and the revenues of abuses. The tongue of the Colonial Advocate also grew more venomous. After Mackenzie accused the assembly of being a "sycophantic office" in December 1831, the Tory majority snapped and expelled him by a vote of twenty-four to fifteen.

Far from banishing Mackenzie, the Tories had only resuscitated his image as a martyr in a time of critical domestic change. The day Mackenzie was expelled (12 December), a mo several-hundred strong stormed the assembly and demanded Colborne dissolve Parliament. Colborne refused, but the Tories still learned a hard lesson about keeping Mackenzie out of office. He was reinstated at the 2 January 1832 by-election 119 to one, and celebrated the triumph with a parade of 134 bagpipe-accompanied sleighs down Yonge Street.

Five days later he was expelled and re-elected again. The province was in turmoil; incidents inevitably ensued. In York, Mackenzie and supporters disrupted a pro-government rally held by the Roman Catholic bishopric, only to have incensed Irish apprentices pelt him with garbage afterwards. Later a riot broke out, and Mackenzie was saved from injury only by the interference of the local magistrate. He fared worse in Hamilton, where he was accosted outside of his hotel by goons hired by the Tory magistrate. Mackenzie wisely went into hiding until he left for Britain in April 1832 to petition for redress.

Mackenzie was welcomed favourably in London; as a result of his presentations, Whig Colonial Secretary, Lord Goderich, sent a dispatch to Colborne instructing the Lieutenant-Governor to make certain financial and political improvements in Upper Canada and to halt the assembly's vendetta against Mackenzie. (The Tories had expelled Mackenzie in absentia again in November 1832, only to see him re-elected by acclamation.) When the Legislative Council rejected the dispatch, deprived Mackenzie of his vote, and refused to call for new elections in February 1833, Lord Goderich punished the insubordination by dismissing the Attorney General Boulton and Solicitor General Hagerman. As the left for London to seek redress, a triumphant Mackenzie took his wife on holiday to Scotland.

Breaking with Britain and the Battle of Montgomery's Tavern

Site of Montgomery’s Tavern
Site of Montgomery’s Tavern

Mackenzie's luck ran out, however, in April when Lord Goderich was replaced as Colonial Secretary by the more conservative Lord Stanley, who reappointed Hagerman and posted Boulton in Newfoundland. The setback was decisive: on 5 December 1833, Mackenzie removed the word "Colonial" from the title of the Advocate.

In 1834, the York populace elected Mackenzie to be the first mayor of the newly incorporated City of Toronto. He was, however, ineffectual in this post, concentrating his time on pet projects or the next provincial election rather than the city's debt or desperate need of public works. So although Mackenzie again took the York riding in the 1834 provincial elections, the municipal election was an easy Tory victory.

The 12th Parliament of Upper Canada voted to reverse all of Mackenzie's previous expulsions from the Legislative Assembly. He opened his term as the chair of a special committee to detail grievances in Upper Canada, but his reports came to naught: Lieutenant-Governor Head had been instructed to disregard the grievances. After quarreling with the Reformers, he dissolved the Assembly in May 1836. Head actively campaigned for the Tories in the election, seeing to it that the Tory majority was returned and that Mackenzie lost his seat. Now convinced that only wholesale constitutional reform could rectify the colony's grievances, Mackenzie launched a new paper 4 July 1836: the Constitution.

In the spring of 1837, British House of Commons Leader Lord John Russell authored "Ten Resolutions" for Upper and Lower Canada, which removed the Legislative Assembly's few means of controlling the Executive Council. It was the last straw for Mackenzie. He swung from reformer to revolutionary, now advocating for Upper Canada's complete severance from Great Britain with armed revolt. Large crowds attended his Reform meetings, and he intended to march them into Toronto to overthrow the government and sweep away the rule of the Family Compact and Lieutenant-Governor Head.

When the Lower Canada Rebellion broke out in October 1837, drawing British troops out of Toronto to help suppress it, Mackenzie pounced. He and other radical Reform leaders rallied support from the surrounding country and put forth the plan of attack on December 2 in Stouffville. With British troops in Lower Canada, the farmers would be able to march on Toronto unhindered; there they would unite with other groups gathered from the city by other leading men. Mackenzie believed that the Tories would be overwhelmed by the armed demonstration and that there would be no need for actual violence. He instructed the rebels to assemble at John Montgomery's tavern on Yonge Street, several miles north of the city, on Thursday, December 7. There they would be joined by more groups raised by other Reform leaders, and the whole army would march on Toronto together.

But while Mackenzie was traveling back to Toronto the next day, he learned that another leader, upon hearing a false rumour that the government was preparing to mount a defense, had sent to the Simcoe area for a militia several hundred strong to march on Toronto on Monday, December 4, three days before schedule.

As the first score of men arrived at the rallying point, Mackenzie's nerves tightened. The leadership debated whether to lead the men into the city that night or wait until the next day. They decided to march on Tuesday afternoon - but the men, who had been led to believe that they would face little to no opposition, were confronted on the way by a small party of loyalist guards. Upon meeting a violent rebellion rather than an armed demonstration, hundreds of men deserted that night.

Mackenzie and company waited out Wednesday while new arrivals joined them at Montgomery's Tavern. The next day, a group of a thousand armed militiamen (including a young John A. MacDonald) from the city and surrounding area began the march up Yonge Street toward the tavern. Colonel Anthony Van Egmond, who had been chosen to lead the rebel military operations, warned Mackenzie that their position was hopeless. Mackenzie, in response, put a pistol to his head and demanded that he carry out the impossible defense.

One hundred and fifty rebels were stationed in the woods behind the tavern while sixty more took up positions behind a line of rail fencing. The remaining three hundred, largely unarmed, gathered about the tavern proper. When both rebel parties faced artillery fire from the militia, they abandoned their posts and rushed to the tavern, causing panic in those assembled there. Within twenty minutes, the rebel force had dispersed, fleeing for the safety of the United States. Before returning to Toronto, the loyalist forces looted the empty tavern and burned it to the ground.

The American Years

"Wanted Notice"
"Wanted Notice"

Mackenzie landed unperturbed on the American side of the Niagara River on December 11. He recruited a force of sympathetic American volunteers and developed a scheme to invade Upper Canada from Navy Island in the Niagara River. On December 13 he declared himself head of a provisional government called the Republic of Canada and began a campaign to build up a base on Navy Island. Over the next several weeks, food, artillery, and several hundred men gathered; but recruitment hurt when U.S. President Martin Van Buren warned the rebels to disperse of face prosecution for violation of neutrality laws. Then, on December 29, a force of British troops and Canadian militiamen destroyed the American ship that was supplying the rebel forces on the island.

While these events transpired, Mackenzie traveled to Buffalo to seek medical attention for his ailing wife, where he was arrested. He was released on bail and returned to Navy Island in January; but by the middle of the month, the American volunteers had grown weary of the invasion and withdrew from the island.

Mackenzie and his wife settled in New York City while he awaited a trial to be held the following summer. Despite his elaborate defense, he was sentenced to a ten dollar fine and eighteen months in jail. During the incarceration, Mackenzie was beset by deep personal suffering: his beloved mother passed away, one of his children nearly died, and his wife fell sick. His own health failed and he plummeted into deep depression. Van Buren pardoned Mackenzie in May 1840 after succumbing to a heavy petitioning campaign.

Mackenzie spent the remainder of the 1840s in America as a writer for newspapers such as the Albany Patriot and the New York Tribune. Although he naturalized to the United States citizen in 1843, he never took his eyes off Canada. In 1848, Upper and Lower Canada merged to become the Province of Canada, which was granted with responsible government. The 3rd Parliament of the Province of Canada was dominated by reformers who enacted sweeping reforms, including an amnesty act for the rebels of 1837. After having been away for a decade, Mackenzie returned to Toronto in May 1850.

The Lone Wolf Returns

Mackenzie took advantage of his notoriety to jump back into the political arena. He defeated Globe owner George Brown, who had alienated the Catholic vote, in the 1851 by-election for the Halimand County seat, and touted himself as a "true reformer" for the next seven years.

Aside from resuming his previous stances on opposition to the clergy reserves and state funding for religious colleges, he also fought government overspending, and kept a watchful eye on state aid for railway monopolies. Although he was the loudest advocate for reform and one of the most vocal opponents of the Tory majority, he alienated all of his old friends and allies with his increasingly rancorous mood. He branded them "sham reformers", and even had a falling-out with James Lesslie, who had been his patron since the two emigrated from Scotland thirty years ago. Mackenzie accused former allies who had staunchly supported him during the rebellion of selling out and rebuffed the most important Tory critic, George Brown, as a hypocrite.

Mackenzie became completely disillusioned with the possibility of reform. Lower Canada, he increasingly believed, was benefiting at the expense of Upper Canada, and he saw dissolution as the only remedy. But by 1854, other disillusioned Reformers such as Alexander Mackenzie and William McDougall were seeking his advice for the creation of an overall policy for the Reform movement to combat the Hincks-Morin brand of reform, believing him to be truly devoted to the cause if a bit muddled in his thinking. But Mackenzie snubbed Lesslie's reconciliation attempts and persisted in attacking Brown, so that by the end of the year no one sought to include him in any more of the Reform groupings.

Mackenzie House
Mackenzie House

Mackenzie instead continued to be a dogged, one-man advocate for his own legislative proposals. Although he succeeded in passing several acts and made effective use of criticism against the Tories, he suffered the belief that little reform could be achieved in his intolerably corrupted, too-affluent age. Faltering finances further added to his burden; when his paper, the Message, was on the brink of shutting down in 1856, James Lesslie started a campaign to raise funds to reward Mackenzie for the untiring efforts he made in service to his country. The seventy-five hundred dollars Lesslie collected was enough to buy Mackenzie a house on 82 Bond Street and secure a loan to keep the Message running.

Nevertheless, Mackenzie's strength was failing and he saw no help in sight for his beloved province. Convinced that he could do no more, he resigned his seat in August 1858. The Message called for independence from Britain and annexation with the United States before it ceased to cover political events at all. The hope of annexation mellowed Mackenzie, as did his removal from daily politics; by 1861 he was even able to enjoy friendly relations with George Brown, who had adopted some of his ideas.

William Lyon Mackenzie left behind a legend more than a legacy: yet the dogged determination with which he attacked those he believed to be enemies of his beloved Upper Canada was fuelled by a true nationalistic desire to - somehow - make his home a better place. He died in the evening of 28 August in 1861 following an apoplectic seizure. By his side lay a Bible open to the Book of Job with passage 19:7 circled: "Behold I cry out of wrong, but I am not heard. I cry aloud but there is no judgment."

W.L. Mackenzie's Grave
W.L. Mackenzie's Grave
W.L. Mackenzie Bust
W.L. Mackenzie Bust
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