1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Mackenzie, William Lyon

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MACKENZIE, WILLIAM LYON (1795–1861), Canadian politician, was born near Dundee, Scotland, on the 12th of March 1795. His father died before he was a month old, and the family were left in poverty. After some six years’ work in a shop at Alyth, in April 1820 he emigrated with his mother to Canada. There he became a general merchant, first at York, then at Dundas, and later at Queenston. The discontented condition of Upper Canada drew him into politics, and on the 18th of May 1824 he published at Queenston the first number of the Colonial Advocate, in which the ruling oligarchy was attacked with great asperity. Most of the changes which he advocated were wise and have since been adopted; but the violence of Mackenzie’s attacks roused great anger among the social and political set at York (Toronto), which was headed by John Beverley Robinson. In November 1824 Mackenzie removed to Toronto, but he had little capital; his paper appeared irregularly, and was on the point of suspending publication when his office was attacked and his type thrown into the bay by a number of the supporters of his opponents. In an action against the chief rioters he was awarded £625 and costs, was thus enabled to set up a much larger and more efficient plant, and the Colonial Advocate ran till the 4th of November 1834.

In 1828 he was elected member of parliament for York, but was expelled on the technical ground that he had published in his newspaper the proceedings of the house without authorization. Five times he was expelled and five times re-elected by his constituents, till at last the government refused to issue a writ, and for three years York was without one of its representatives. In May 1832 he visited England, where he was well received by the colonial office. Largely as the result of his representations, many important reforms were ordered by Lord Goderich, afterwards earl of Ripon, the colonial secretary. While in England, he published Sketches of Canada and the United States, in which, with some exaggeration, many of the Canadian grievances were exposed. On his return in March 1834 he was elected mayor of Toronto. During his year of office, the heroism with which he worked hand in hand with his old enemy, Bishop Strachan, in fighting an attack of cholera, did not prevent him from winning much unpopularity by his officiousness, and in 1835 he was not re-elected either as mayor or alderman. In October 1834 he was elected member of parliament for York, and took his seat in January 1835, the Reformers being now in the majority. A committee on grievances was appointed, as chairman of which Mackenzie presented the admirable Seventh Report on Grievances, largely written by himself, in which the case for the Reformers was presented with force and moderation, and the adoption of responsible government advocated as the remedy.

In the general election of June 1836 the Tory party won a complete victory, Mackenzie and almost all the prominent Reformers being defeated at the polls. This totally unexpected defeat greatly embittered him. On the 4th of July 1836, the anniversary of the adoption of the American Declaration of Independence, he began the publication of the Constitution, which openly advocated a republican form of government. Later in the year he was appointed “agent and corresponding secretary” of the extreme wing of the Reform party, and more and more openly, in his speeches throughout the province, advocated armed revolt. He was also in correspondence with Papineau and the other leaders of the Reformers in Lower Canada, who were already planning a rising. Early in December 1837 Mackenzie gathered a mob of his followers, to the number of several hundred, at Gallows Hill, some miles to the north of Toronto, with the intention of seizing the lieutenant-governor and setting up a provisional government. Misunderstandings among the leaders led to the total failure of the revolt, and Mackenzie was forced to fly to the United States with a price on his head. In the town of Buffalo he collected a disorderly rabble, who seized and fortified Navy Island, in the river between the two countries, and for some weeks troubled the Canadian frontier. After the failure of this attempt he was put to the most pitiful shifts to make a living. In June 1839 he was tried in the United States for a breach of the neutrality laws, and sentenced to eighteen months’ imprisonment, of which he served over eleven. While in gaol at Rochester he published the Caroline Almanac, the tone of which may be judged from its references to “Victoria Guelph, the bloody queen of England,” and by the title given to the British cabinet of “Victoria Melbourne’s bloody divan.” He returned to Canada in consequence of the Amnesty Act 1849. A closer inspection had cured him of his love for republican institutions.

In 1851 he was elected to parliament for Haldimand, defeating George Brown. He at once allied himself with the Radicals (the “Clear Grits”), and, on the leadership of that party being assumed by Brown, became one of his lieutenants. He was still miserably poor, but refused all offers to accept a government position. In 1858 he resigned his seat in the house, owing to incipient softening of the brain, of which he died on the 29th of August 1861.

Turbulent, ungovernable, vain, often the dupe of schemers, Mackenzie united with much that was laughable not a little that was heroic. He could neither be bribed, bullied, nor cajoled. Perhaps the best instance of this is that in 1832 he refused from Lord Goderich an offer of a position which would have given him great influence in Canada and an income of £1,500. He was a born agitator, and as such tended to exaggeration and misrepresentation. But the evils against which he struggled were real and grave; the milder measures of the Constitutional Reformers might have taken long to achieve the results which were due to his hot-headed advocacy.

The Life and Times by his son-in-law, Charles Lindsey (Toronto, 2 vols., 1862), is moderate and fair, though tending to smooth over his anti-British gasconnade while in the United States. An abridgment of this work was edited by G. G. S. Lindsey for the “Makers of Canada” series (1909). In The Story of the Upper Canadian Rebellion by J. C. Dent (2 vols., Toronto, 1885), a bitter attack is made on him, which drew a savage reply from another son-in-law, John King, K.C., called The Other Side of the Story. The best short account of his career is given by J. C. Dent in The Canadian Portrait Gallery, vol. ii. (Toronto, 1881).  (W. L. G.)