MACKENZIE, WILLIAM LYON (he also used McKenzie and MacKenzie), merchant, journalist, politician, and rebel; b. 12 March 1795 at Springfield, Dundee, Forfarshire (Angus), Scotland, the only child of Daniel Mackenzie, a weaver, and Elizabeth Chalmers, née Mackenzie; d. 28 Aug. 1861 at Toronto, Canada West.
William Lyon Mackenzie’s career can only be understood if the man and the legend are separated. Virtually all examinations of his life have concentrated on his political activities from 1824 to 1838, and such concentration has helped to develop the legend. Because he was most active in periods of stress when the post-Napoleonic despotism was breaking down, new waves of technology were shaking society, and the North American continent was being transformed from wilderness to farmland, his advocacy of radical changes brought him quickly into prominence. Moreover, his colleagues and opponents were less colourful. Fortune let him initiate a rebellion which to later generations seemed crucial in forging Canadian institutions and in establishing a national spirit of democracy, justice, and freedom from oppression. As a legend, Mackenzie has a role and importance that Mackenzie the man could never achieve. Thus he is one of the most documented and discussed and yet one of the most frequently misunderstood figures in Canadian history. He himself laid the basis for the confusion which has surrounded his career. He regularly recorded his own past and his objectives in great detail but his commentaries were often based on a faulty memory, or spurred by the exigencies of the moment.
Both branches of Mackenzie’s family came from Glenshee, in the parish of Kirkmichael, north of Dundee. His parents married at Dundee on 8 May 1794; his mother, the elder by 17 years, was a widow. On 9 April 1795, three weeks after Mackenzie’s birth, the father supposedly died, but no record of his burial exists. Although Charles Lindsey*, Mackenzie’s son-in-law and first biographer, stressed that Mackenzie and his mother suffered hardship, relatives looked after their welfare. Mackenzie certainly retained some fond memories of his youth at Dundee: “here also I was partly educated, and here I passed some of my happiest days . . . unencumbered with care.” His mother’s influence cannot be over-estimated. Like her son, Elizabeth Mackenzie was extremely proud, but unlike him she was deeply religious, a convert to the Secession or anti state-support branch of Presbyterianism which often produced reformers. Mackenzie early rebelled against her religious observances but retained a strict, puritanical outlook throughout his career.
Willie, as he was called, although the family also used Lyon, entered the Dundee parish school at age five, with the help of a bursary. He was subsequently taught at a Mr Adie’s school, but proved difficult to discipline. With the meticulousness which later made his filing system such a weapon against opponents, he listed by year and type the 958 books he read from 1806 to 1820. At 15 he was the youngest member of the commercial news room of a local newspaper. He also belonged to a scientific society where he met Edward Lesslie. Lesslie and his son James* were to be Mackenzie’s patrons throughout his life.
Mackenzie was apprenticed to several tradesmen in Dundee, but by 1814, with Lesslie’s backing, he and his mother were operating a general store and circulating library at Alyth, 20 miles north of Dundee; the business was bankrupted during the post-Napoleonic depression. Mackenzie’s last years in Britain are obscure. He returned briefly to Dundee, worked for a canal company in Wiltshire in 1818, visited France, and went to London, where he probably began newspaper writing. He later said that he led a dissipated life from 17 to 21, when he gave up gambling and drinking. On 17 July 1814 his illegitimate son James had been born at Alyth. Nothing is known of the mother, Isabel Reid, but Elizabeth Mackenzie assumed responsibility for the child.
In 1820 Mackenzie sailed to Canada with John Lesslie, another son of Edward. He worked briefly on the Lachine Canal, and wrote for A. J. Christie*’s Montreal Herald, but soon moved to York (Toronto) where he worked for Lesslie in a book and drug company. Mackenzie was immediately impressed with Upper Canada, which was to become his spiritual home. Before the end of 1820 he was writing for the York Observer under the name “Mercator.” In the summer of 1822 the rest of Edward Lesslie’s family came to Canada with Mackenzie’s mother and the girl she had chosen as William’s wife, Isabel Baxter (1805–73) of Dundee. Married in Montreal on 1 July, they were to have 13 children. Isabel was to make an ideal wife for Mackenzie, strong of body, yet submissive and uncomplaining through the many exigencies of his career.
Later that year Edward and John Lesslie established a branch store in Dundas. They provided the capital and Mackenzie was resident partner, dealing in drugs, hardware, and general merchandise, as well as operating a circulating library. Mackenzie also received a crown land grant, but his partnership with the Lesslies did not thrive and quickly degenerated into quarrelling so bitter that Peter Paterson* Sr had to act as intermediary in its dissolution in January 1823. Mackenzie unsuccessfully attempted to carry on but by October 1823 he had moved to Queenston. There he again attempted a business and became acquainted with Robert Randall*, a member of the assembly. Randall died in 1834, and Mackenzie, as executor and partial heir to the estate, was to wage a 20-year battle over Randall’s land claims. When business at Queenston proved unsatisfactory Mackenzie started his most famous newspaper, the Colonial Advocate. The first number appeared on 18 May 1824 with the avowed purpose of influencing voters in their choice of representatives in the approaching election. Initially, Mackenzie supported the British connection, primogeniture, and the principle of clergy reserves, but he also praised American institutions. The Advocate quickly ran into financial difficulties, and into problems with the post office and with its agents. Mackenzie was partly at fault for sending copies to many influential non-subscribers, a parallel to his habit of writing to anyone of consequence.
In November 1824 he transferred his operations to York, where he became increasingly critical of the Tory establishment as his debts increased. Although, according to Charles Lindsey’s estimate, circulation at the beginning of 1825 was 825 copies, Mackenzie was soon faced with a rival Reform paper, Francis Collins*’ Canadian Freeman, and from July to December 1825 the Colonial Advocate suspended publication. Yet in October Mackenzie purchased a new printing press and type from the United States. Early in 1826 he began to consider changing to an agricultural journal or selling to Charles Fothergill* and returning to Dundas as a merchant. An editorial change was taking place that spring. His attacks on leading Tories such as William Allan*, the Boulton family, and George Gurnett became more scurrilous, but yellow journalism, admittedly common to other editors, failed to improve circulation. In May 1826 he fled to Lewiston, N.Y., to avoid arrest for debt.
At this juncture Mackenzie was saved by an act of Tory stupidity. On 8 June 1826 a group of 15 young, well-connected Tories, perhaps organized by Samuel Peters Jarvis*, thinly disguised themselves as Indians, raided his York office in broad daylight, smashed the press, and threw type into the bay. The Tory magistrates did nothing to protect Mackenzie’s property. As Jesse Ketchum, a far-sighted Reformer, remarked: “the ministerial Party could not have done anything more against themselves.” Mackenzie, back in York, took the eight major participants to court, refusing a £200 settlement. The case was heard in October with James Edward Small, Marshall Spring Bidwell*, and Alexander Stewart of Niagara acting for Mackenzie. The jury awarded compensation of £625, a sum far beyond the damage done. The settlement enabled Mackenzie to pay off his most pressing creditors and re-establish himself on a sound footing. He never ceased to refer to the trial, joining himself to such martyrs for Upper Canadian liberty as Robert Thorpe* and Robert Gourlay. Yet his trial demonstrated that the Upper Canadian courts could be fair. Disgruntled Tories now began a campaign of minor harassment against the little Scot.
Mackenzie was becoming increasingly involved in the question of the political rights of American settlers [see John Rolph]. As secretary of a committee to gather petitions for redress Mackenzie played a central part in the selection of Robert Randall to bear them to England in 1827. With the aid of English Reformers such as Joseph Hume, Randall persuaded Colonial Secretary Lord Goderich that an injustice was being done, and the Upper Canadian legislature was instructed to introduce measures giving American-born settlers full rights. To Mackenzie this incident proved the efficacy of petitioning London directly.
Another petitioner in London in 1827 was John Strachan, rector of York, who was seeking a charter for his proposed King’s College, and pressing the claims of the Church of England to the proceeds from the sale of clergy reserve lands. Mackenzie and the Reverend Egerton Ryerson*, a Methodist leader, immediately protested Strachan’s claims. Mackenzie declared his candidacy for the spring elections, and corresponded with English radicals such as Hume and Lower Canadian Reformers such as John Neilson*.
The riding Mackenzie chose to contest was the two-member county of York, which included present-day Toronto north of Queen St, and the counties of York, Peel, and Ontario. The population, to a large extent of American extraction, promised to be Reform oriented. Three other leading Reform candidates declared themselves: J. E. Small and Robert Baldwin*, both moderates, and the more radical Ketchum. When Mackenzie received less support than the others at meetings, he turned to stating his case in the newspapers. As part of his newspaper campaign he published a “Black List” which dissected the opposition, but was himself taken to task by Collins and the Tory editors, the former dubbing him “William Liar Mackenzie.” Mackenzie’s tactics worked; he and Ketchum were victorious in a Reform landslide.
When the assembly met in early January 1829, it was Bidwell rather than Mackenzie who was elected speaker, the only position the Reform majority could then award its leader. Mackenzie, nevertheless, could now press for reforms. He immediately began organizing committees on agriculture, commerce, and the post office. As chairman of the last he clearly demonstrated that that British-controlled post office was run at a profit, and recommended transfer to local control. He also castigated the Bank of Upper Canada as a monopoly and as a limited liability company, an indication of his traditional agrarian conservatism, dislike of limited liability companies, and belief in hard money. He also opposed any further expenditures until the public debt was paid off, even though the debt had been largely created by public works essential to the colony. Later in this parliament he particularly criticized the Welland Canal Company for its close connections with the provincial executive and William Hamilton Merritt’s methods of financing the work. He involved himself as well in an altercation over whether or not the chaplain of the house should be an Anglican, a fine example of his inability to distinguish between the significant and the frivolous.
In March 1829 Mackenzie went to the United States to buy books for resale and to study the actions of the newly inaugurated president, Andrew Jackson. He saw the simplicity and low cost of the American government, as compared to that in Upper Canada, admired the spoils system – which could be a means of removing Family Compact officials – and approved of Jackson’s hard money, anti-bank ideas. Mackenzie, like Jackson, whom he met, was an entrepreneurial radical who strongly supported the independent proprietor and farmer but was hardly an agent for the common man. He returned to York filled with admiration of the United States and its institutions, an attitude soon supplemented by a growing dislike of Great Britain.
The death of King George IV necessitated the dissolution of the legislature in May 1830 and a new election. But the atmosphere of the province was very different from what it had been in 1828. Sir John Colborne, a more competent and popular governor than Sir Peregrine Maitland*, was undermining the power of Strachan and his cohorts and strengthening the British character of the province through assisted immigration. Conversely the Reform-dominated assembly had had little success, partially through inexperience and disorganization, but also because legislation was blocked by the Legislative Council. In York riding Mackenzie obtained 570 votes to Ketchum’s 616, and his nearest Tory opponent received 425. Over-all the Reform group won fewer than 20 of the 51 seats.
After the Reform defeat Mackenzie became frustrated with the democratic process in Upper Canada. Aside from his political conflicts he engendered further Tory hatred by violent personal attacks on all he disagreed with and by his attempts to politicize and reform any organization to which he belonged. For instance, when in the summer of 1830 the Tories organized an agricultural society, Mackenzie refused to subscribe yet insisted on speaking at its meetings. Around the same time he joined St Andrew’s Church, established by leading Presbyterian Tories who supported the state-church connection. Mackenzie had attended Anglican St James Church, as was appropriate for members of the legislature, as well as the independent Presbyterian church. Once a member of St Andrew’s, he began to agitate for its separation from any state connection, and the battle lasted four years, ending with the departure of both Mackenzie and the minister.
When the assembly met in January 1831 Mackenzie totally immersed himself in its proceedings, demanding inquiries into abuses, and, probably inspired by the reform movement in England, particularly insisting on a review of representation in the province. He chaired a special committee which recommended increased representation, especially for the growing towns, and such sound ideas as a single day’s poll and vote by ballot. His riding of York, despite its radical voting record, became four single-member ridings in 1833. On other points he was less constructive, and the new Tory assembly had little patience with his activities. Men with no love for Mackenzie were in control: Archibald McLean was the new speaker and the house leaders were Attorney General Henry John Boulton and Solicitor General Christopher Hagerman*. Moreover, the Tory ministerial group were simultaneously angered by assaults from Sir John Colborne, who was reforming the Legislative Council and ignoring Strachan and the Executive Council. The British government elected in 1830 was also suggesting the transfer of certain revenues to the control of the colonial legislature in return for an established civil list. The Reformers had long demanded control of these revenues, but Mackenzie nevertheless dubbed the enabling legislation the “Everlasting Salary Bill.” Caught in a vice between Reformers and the Colonial Office, some exasperated Tory members unsuccessfully moved to oust Mackenzie from the assembly; he considered the motion a “sign of the times.”
Mackenzie decided to appeal for redress to Britain, after the manner of the 1827 Randall mission. Throughout a great deal of 1831 he traversed the province, propagandizing and gaining signatures for petitions listing grievances; he also consulted with Lower Canadian Reformers. He gained many supporters, particularly among the new Irish immigrants and those of American descent. The Tories reacted by preparing counter petitions. When the legislature opened in November, Mackenzie was again demanding investigations of the Bank of Upper Canada, the Welland Canal, King’s College, the revenues, and the chaplain’s salary. The Colonial Advocate simultaneously became more strident. When he called the assembly a “sycophantic office,” the Tory majority expelled him on 12 December by a vote of 24 to 15. The Tories’ short-sighted action helped recreate his image as a martyr and raised him to a key position at the very time the system they represented was being changed by local moderates and a new attitude in England.
On the day of Mackenzie’s expulsion a mob of several hundred entered the assembly and demanded that Colborne dissolve parliament. He refused, but the Tories were quickly to find that if expelling Mackenzie was one thing, keeping him out was another. At the by-election on 2 Jan. 1832 he was re-elected by 119 votes to one. He was presented with a gold medal worth $250, and to the accompaniment of bagpipes a victorious procession of 134 sleighs made its way down Yonge St, headed by one bearing Mackenzie and a small press casting off leaflets. It was his greatest moment.
The Tories could have had no better demonstration of his political strength, but some of his opponents, particularly H. J. Boulton and Allan Napier MacNab, lacked political acumen. On 7 Jan. 1832, in response to new attacks, he was again expelled, and again re-elected. The province was by now in a turmoil, with Mackenzie organizing petitions to London, and the Tories founding the contrary British Constitutional Society. Inevitably there were incidents. Mackenzie disrupted a meeting at York called by Bishop Alexander Macdonell* to express Catholic support for the government. In Hamilton, William Johnson Kerr*, a Tory magistrate, lured Mackenzie out of his hotel and had him beaten by thugs. In York, Irish apprentices, incensed at the attacks on the bishop, pelted Mackenzie and Ketchum with garbage on 23 March. Later the same day riots broke out again and Mackenzie was only rescued from injury by the intervention of magistrate James FitzGibbon. He went into hiding until his departure for England in April 1832, after public meetings approved payment of his expenses.
In London Mackenzie met with such reformers as Joseph Hume and John Arthur Roebuck*, and wrote for the Morning Chronicle to get public support. The Whig colonial secretary, Lord Goderich, a moderate man of considerable perspicacity, wanted to gain information and to redress any reasonable grievances. On 2 July he received Mackenzie as a private citizen, along with Denis-Benjamin Viger, from the Lower Canadian assembly, and the Reverend George Ryerson* of the Methodists. In this and subsequent interviews, Mackenzie felt he received a fair hearing. Goderich suggested Mackenzie report on Upper Canada, and was soon swamped with dispatches. Mackenzie found time to enjoy the sights of London, heard the debate in parliament on the Reform Bill, and presented his grievances to the British people in his Sketches of Canada and the United States.
As a result of Mackenzie’s presentations, Goderich sent a dispatch to Colborne on 8 Nov. 1832 which advised financial and political improvements and a halt to the assembly’s vendetta against Mackenzie. But the Tories had expelled him, in absentia, a third time early that month, only to see him re-elected by acclamation. Goderich’s dispatch arrived in Upper Canada in January 1833, and set off a furor among the Tories, who were no more ready than the most radical Reformers to accept dictates from England that went against their interests. The Legislative Council refused to accept the dispatch; after a violent debate in the assembly the dispatch was only narrowly approved for printing. The house deprived Mackenzie of his vote in February 1833 and refused to call a new election. When news of this action reached Goderich he dismissed Boulton and Hagerman, the attorney general and solicitor general. Colborne protested to the Colonial Office and Hagerman and Boulton left for England to object. Meanwhile, a triumphant Mackenzie and his wife left London for a tour of England, Scotland, and part of France.
In April, however, Lord Goderich was replaced at the Colonial Office by the more conservative Lord Stanley, who reappointed Hagerman and made Boulton chief justice of Newfoundland. Within three months, it seemed, all Mackenzie had accomplished was undone, and for him the setback was decisive. His belief in appeals to England was destroyed and his orientation towards the United States was accelerated. His mercurial disposition swung to despair, although the trip to England had not been without success in effecting governmental changes and in showing the Tories to be self-seeking. Mackenzie’s new attitude was symbolized by the disappearance of “Colonial” from the title of his newspaper on 5 Dec. 1833. He had returned to Canada in August and on 17 December was again declared expelled from the assembly. Later in December he was re-elected unopposed and twice unsuccessfully attempted to take his seat. It took Colborne’s orders to get him sworn in, thus ending a thoroughly discreditable series of expulsions.
At this time Mackenzie split with Egerton Ryerson and the Methodists. When Ryerson had begun the Christian Guardian in 1829 Mackenzie had welcomed it, although Ryerson and the Methodists were to prove anything but radical on issues unrelated to the breakdown of Anglican religious privileges. Ryerson was also in England in 1832, negotiating a union of Canadian and British Methodists, and thereby preparing to accept state aid. On his return Ryerson repudiated radicalism and attacked Joseph Hume in the Christian Guardian. Mackenzie countered, and an exchange of acrimonies followed which helped alienate the colony’s largest denomination, with the most widely circulated newspaper.
A new theatre of operations for Mackenzie appeared with the incorporation of York as Toronto on 6 March 1834. Both Tories and Reformers presented slates of candidates in its first election on 27 March. Mackenzie was elected alderman, and the Reformers obtained a majority on the council. Mackenzie was chosen Toronto’s first mayor by his fellow councillors, defeating John Rolph. As mayor, Mackenzie was both head of council and chief magistrate for the city. Deeply in debt, the city had an inadequate assessment law and needed many public works. The council was quarrelsome and difficult to manage. Yet, such as his opportunities were, Mackenzie failed to grasp them. In attack the “firebrand” could be magnificent, but he could not apply himself to the city’s problems. Instead, he spent time on his favourite causes or in preparing for the next provincial election. A typical politician of the era, he got rid of Tory officials, gave patronage to his supporters, and was readier to hear contested elections against Tories than Reformers. His demands that his dignity be recognized when presiding over either council or court were manifestations of his fierce personal pride. With little precedent and unsatisfactory associates, he had a difficult task, complicated by a cholera epidemic, but his mayoralty, the highest office he was to hold, demonstrates that he was not the man to institute the reforms he demanded. That much could be done in Toronto, with the same financial problems and many of the same council members, was to be shown by succeeding mayors, both Reform and Tory. By mid-summer 1834 the council was ineffectual. The Reformers were roundly trounced in the elections for the 1835 council, and Mackenzie received the smallest vote given any of the candidates for alderman in his own ward.
In the provincial election of October 1834, some months before his term as mayor was completed, Mackenzie won the 2nd Riding of York, and the Reformers a majority in the assembly. Their chances had not been hurt by the storm of criticism from both Reform and Tory sources, including Egerton Ryerson, which greeted Mackenzie’s publication in May 1834 of Joseph Hume’s “baneful domination” letter, with its seeming call for independence for the colonies, even by the use of violence. In November 1834, sure that his assembly seat gave him a platform from which to seek reform, and depressed over the Colonial Office’s inconsistency in the matter of Hagerman and Boulton, Mackenzie ceased publication of the Advocate. It passed to fellow Reformer William John O’Grady*. When the new Reform-dominated house met it quickly removed, at Mackenzie’s initiative, all record of his previous expulsions. It then appointed him chairman of a special committee which three months later produced the Seventh report on grievances, an idiosyncratic, ill-organized, but overwhelming compendium of major and minor grievances together with every possible remedy. Appointed one of the government directors of the Welland Canal Company by the assembly, Mackenzie made a penetrating examination of its financial affairs which resulted in a committee of the house condemning it for excessively bad management, although their report shied away from accusing the directors of the outright dishonesty which some of the evidence suggested.
Despite Mackenzie’s efforts, there was little chance reforms would be instituted because the new lieutenant governor, Sir Francis Bond Head*, had been instructed by the imperial authorities not to make concessions and Colonial Secretary Lord Glenelg had condemned the report on grievances. Head, originally seen as a reforming governor, soon disagreed with the moderate Reformers, including Robert Baldwin and Rolph, whom he had appointed to the Executive Council; he quarrelled with the Reform majority in the assembly, dissolved the legislature, and personally campaigned against the Reformers in the ensuing election. Mackenzie wept when he learned of his personal defeat by Edward William Thomson in July 1836. He could not believe that the people had deserted their champion. Corruption was the answer! He did not consider the possibility that Head’s loyalty cry, combined with damage to the Reform cause by his own quarrel with the Methodist press over Hume’s letter, might have influenced the outcome.
Within days of his defeat Mackenzie rushed into print a new paper, the Constitution, although he had forsworn journalism “forever” in 1834. It was supposed to appear, symbolically, on 4 July. Mackenzie’s flirtation with American constitutional practices was moving towards its zenith. But despite continued evidence of corrupt or unjust practices, such as the rejection on a technicality of his petition to the house for an investigation of his defeat, Mackenzie wrote only of constitutional change.
In the spring of 1837, however, the tone began to change. The arrival of Lord John Russell’s “Ten Resolutions” which removed all assembly control over the executive in Lower Canada seems to have finally satisfied Mackenzie that nothing could be hoped for from the imperial government. Increasingly the Constitution had references to possible armed resistance to oppression, although it also stressed the need to carry out reform constitutionally. By the summer of 1837 Mackenzie was organizing committees of vigilance and political unions and during August and September carried the message of Toronto Reformers to a series of meetings in the Home District. Resolutions were passed expressing extreme concern over the present state of the colony and calling for a convention of delegates from the various townships and from Lower Canada to discuss remedies. Probably Mackenzie himself had much to do with the wording of many resolutions, a few of which vaguely suggested a resort to force, but there is evidence that he was ambivalent on the subject or even completely opposed to an armed rising. The purpose of the political unions, Mackenzie wrote, was only to convince the government of the solidarity of the people in desiring reform. As well, it seems that no preparations were made for a rising. Between late July and the end of October only one military training session was held north of Toronto, and as late as September none of the men who would later lead the rebellion appears to have known of plans for one.
Gradually, experiencing the abuse and physical attacks of Orange gangs on one hand and the support of large crowds on the other, Mackenzie came to the decision that the only way to sweep away the rule of Head and the Compact and their Orange supporters was to lead these enthusiastic crowds into Toronto to overthrow the government. But this action he knew would not be easy. The people might indicate their enthusiasm for reform by attending meetings and even, some of them, by attending shooting practice, but they were basically conservative; they would need a push to persuade them to action.
At first Mackenzie attempted to present them with a fait accompli. Around the middle of October he called a meeting of ten radical Reformers at the house of John Doel*, a common Reform meeting place. He offered a plan to use “Dutcher’s foundry-men and Armstrong’s axemakers,” employees of radical Reformers who were also important industrialists in the city, to seize the government that evening, after which a general call would be issued for support. Head was particularly vulnerable to such action for earlier that month, in response to a request from Colborne, he had sent to Lower Canada every regular soldier in the province. When objections to Mackenzie’s proposed coup d’état were raised at the meeting, he proposed instead that the farmers be organized to resist the government.
To circumvent the essential conservatism of even the reform-minded segment of the population and obtain respectability for his movement, Mackenzie resorted to an elaborate deception. He approached Rolph and Dr Thomas David Morrison* with the information that there were people outside Toronto preparing for a descent on the city. With the aid of one of his principal supporters in the country, Jesse Lloyd*, Mackenzie produced a letter from Thomas Storrow Brown* of Montreal which he claimed (untruthfully) conveyed a secret message that the Reformers of Lower Canada were prepared to rise, but desired a diversionary action by Upper Canadian Reformers to draw off the British troops. Rolph and Morrison, not entirely convinced, asked Mackenzie to do a further survey of popular feeling north of Toronto. Instead, in the third week of November he called a meeting of Reform leaders from strongly pro-Reform areas outside the city. Assisted by Lloyd and perhaps Silas Fletcher, Mackenzie convinced this group that they could, with the support of Rolph, Morrison, and some members of the Family Compact who were said to be in favour of the scheme, remove the government in Toronto.
Having set 7 December as the date for action, Mackenzie returned to Toronto and presented his completed plan to Rolph and Morrison. Although they protested at the high-handed manner in which Mackenzie had treated them, his arguments that supporters were ready overcame their resistance and they agreed to join once the force had entered Toronto. When Rolph suggested the need for a military leader, Mackenzie asked Colonel Anthony Van Egmond*, an ardent foe of the Compact and a man of extensive military background who lived in the Huron Tract, to take command of the rebel forces. On 15 November Mackenzie had published in his newspaper a draft constitution based mainly on the American model, but incorporating English radical Reform ideas and elements of utilitarianism. He now arranged for more blatant warnings of his intent to be published, and planned a notice for 29 November that a provincial convention would meet on 31 December. It has never been clear what Mackenzie expected to do if the rising succeeded. He probably intended to have a provisional government headed by Rolph hold office until the convention met, when the members could discuss the draft constitution and settle on a form of government for Upper Canada. His plan may not have been this fully developed, but certainly the elements mentioned had some part in his thinking.
Returning to the country north of Toronto on 24 November, Mackenzie set about haphazardly organizing his supporters, urging friends to recruit their neighbours. No attempt appears to have been made to coordinate activities with the rising in Lower Canada, where revolt had begun in the third week of November. At a large meeting on 2 December in Stoufferville (Stouffville), some 25 miles northeast of Toronto, Mackenzie presented an expanded version of the plan he had used two weeks before. The Lower Canadians had risen and were carrying all before them, thus barring troops from reaching Upper Canada from the sea. A general rising had been arranged across Upper Canada. His listeners were to march to Toronto and take over the government, not a difficult task as over half the city was prepared to join them, including Reformers such as Rolph and Morrison, and important men such as Peter Robinson*, George Herchmer Markland, and John Henry Dunn*, who would not normally be considered Reformers but who had shown their sympathy by resigning from Head’s Executive Council. What he required of his listeners was not fighting but simply an armed demonstration to overawe any small groups of die-hard Tories. Once the lieutenant governor had been seized, Rolph’s provisional government would distribute all the reserve lands to the people, notably 300 acres to each participant in the march on Toronto. Those who did not participate might, like the Tories of the American Revolution, have their land confiscated. Mackenzie was satisfied that enough men would rally on the appointed date at John Montgomery*’s tavern on Yonge St, several miles north of the city.
On Friday morning, 1 December, Mackenzie wrote a “Declaration of Independence” which would be printed over the week-end and distributed before Thursday’s march. It carefully did not specify what exactly was to be done or when, but it would prepare people for action when word of the “demonstration” at Toronto reached them. On Sunday, 3 December Mackenzie rode back towards Toronto. He learned that Rolph, upon hearing false rumours of preparations for defence by the government, had sent a message to Samuel Lount*, a Reform leader north of the city, requesting him to act with a few hundred men on Monday. Mackenzie tried to stop this action, but Lount and his men had already started to march south to Montgomery’s.
On Monday night, after the first few score had arrived at the rallying point, a dispute arose as to whether the men, tired from a long day’s march over muddy roads should go into Toronto immediately or wait till morning. Mackenzie’s position is unclear, but he did decide that a scouting expedition, including himself, should check Toronto’s preparedness. It met several persons investigating rumours, including Alderman John Powell, who, after killing Anthony Anderson, the only one of Mackenzie’s men with military experience, escaped and warned the city.
By Tuesday Mackenzie had become so overwrought that his actions were extremely erratic. He spent much of the day attempting to inflict punishment on the families or property of individual Tories instead of marching his men into Toronto. The secondary commanders, such as Lount and David Gibson, were astonished and tried to stop him and apologize to the victims. John Rolph, who had been sent by the lieutenant governor to dissuade the rebels from their plans, urged Mackenzie to enter the city in mid-afternoon. Finally, on Tuesday night Mackenzie and his force approached the city, but shots from a small party of loyalist guards led by Sheriff William Botsford Jarvis easily dispersed the confused marchers. Only now did Mackenzie show some sense of the necessities of command, but his efforts to reorganize his forces, who had been led to believe they would meet little or no opposition, failed. Many men who had come for an armed demonstration and found instead a violent rebellion went home that night and the next day.
On Wednesday Mackenzie seized the mail coach which ran west of Toronto, while the majority of his forces, with new arrivals replacing men who went home on Tuesday, sat at Montgomery’s Tavern. On the original day set for the rebellion, 7 December, the defenders of Toronto, armed by the government and reinforced by large numbers arriving from loyal areas outside the city, marched to Montgomery’s and easily defeated the much smaller and poorly armed force of hard-core rebels and recent arrivals who had not yet learned the true situation. Van Egmond, reaching Montgomery’s Tavern only a few hours before because of the change of date, had warned that the position was hopeless, but Mackenzie, highly agitated, had “put a pistol to his head” and ordered him to carry out what was a hopeless defence.
The ease with which most leaders of the rebellion and many of the rank and file escaped to the United States gives some support to Mackenzie’s contention that the vast majority of people, both Tory and Reformer, did not actively oppose the rebellion and were favourable to reform, if not to rebellion. Still, Mackenzie suffered a great deal in trying to avoid his loyalist pursuers and reach the American shore near Niagara.
A growing interest in Canadian affairs among residents of the American frontier had been fed by a letter asking for assistance in the rising which Mackenzie had dispatched to a Buffalo newspaper from Montgomery’s on 6 December. The arrival of Rolph at Lewiston had also caused a great commotion. Mackenzie reached the American side on 11 December and spoke to a sympathetic audience the next day concerning the desire of Upper Canadians to be free. He then interested himself in a scheme to invade Upper Canada, with the help of American volunteers commanded by Rensselaer Van Rensselaer, from Navy Island in the Niagara River. Despite the arrival in the next several weeks of food, shot, cannon, and several hundred volunteers, the attempt failed because Van Rensselaer and Mackenzie disagreed on tactics and because British troops and Canadian militia led by Allan MacNab bombarded the island and destroyed the Patriot supply ship, Caroline. Many of the volunteers had already left when the American government warned the expedition to abandon the island or be prosecuted as criminals. At this time Mackenzie took his ailing wife, who had joined him, to Buffalo, and was arrested for having violated American neutrality laws. Released on bail, he returned to Navy Island, but on 14 Jan. 1838 Van Rensselaer insisted that the Patriot force withdraw to the American shore. Mackenzie settled in New York City that month.
He remained convinced for a time that a majority of Upper Canadians were ready to rise if given some sign of substantial aid, such as an invasion by sympathetic Americans. By the end of 1838, however, opposition from the American government, poor organization, and apathy prevented attacks against Canada. Mackenzie himself had taken little or no part in organizing raids after February 1838, and came to recognize that ill-organized expeditions, by increasing the pressure on the Upper Canadian government, intensified the persecution of Reformers without offering them any chance of freedom. In January 1839 he moved to Rochester, where in March he and John Montgomery founded an association to organize Canadian exiles and prevent further rash expeditions. Not all its resolutions were made public, but deduction suggests it would act against Canada only in case of war between the United States and Britain. Canadian exiles gave the association little support and funds were scarce. By late 1839 Mackenzie, beset by personal problems and discouraged by American attitudes and the failure of the association, turned his mind from thoughts of invading Canada.
In April 1838 the remainder of Mackenzie’s family had crossed to New York, though he had little income to provide for them and large debts incurred before the rebellion. Generous supporters had lent enought money to start a newspaper, Mackenzie’s Gazette, in New York in May 1838. At first, American interest in affairs on the border, curiosity about Mackenzie and his journalism, and a desire to help the Canadian cause, brought in many subscriptions. In August 1839, however, by attacking Whig banking policy, Mackenzie took sides in American politics for the first time. In December he attacked the Democratic government of Martin Van Buren as a tool of British tyranny because it had issued a neutrality proclamation. Gradually such political comments, and lagging interest in Canadian affairs, cut the number of readers and left Mackenzie in even more serious financial difficulties. Moreover, to his chagrin, many Canadian exiles, Rolph and Bidwell among them, would have nothing to do with him.
His trial for breaking the neutrality laws had finally been held in June 1839. Mackenzie, who fancied himself a legal expert, conducted his own elaborate and contorted defence, but was sentenced to a $10 fine and 18 months in jail. Already badly in debt, he found the added expense of carrying on his newspaper from prison the last straw. Cash donations and new subscriptions came in reply to his pleas for aid, but lack of money was a constant harassment. The Gazette appeared erratically.
Other factors made conditions worse. The unhealthy jail, set in a bog containing factory effluent, soon made Mackenzie very ill. In November one of his children was near death, and his wife became sick. The following month his mother, his greatest supporter through the many crises of his life, died. He learned that President Van Buren was loath to show him any mercy for fear of antagonizing Britain. By February 1840 Mackenzie was so depressed that he wrote a friend of being “entombed alive.” He memorialized the grand jury of Monroe County, the governor of New York, the attorney general, and the secretary of state, even the president himself. Numerous petitions were also presented on his behalf. Mackenzie’s memorials were at first carefully reasoned requests, later pleas, and finally harsh criticisms, a familiar pattern in his correspondence.
In May 1840 he was pardoned, after serving less than one year. With a keen sense of injustice he began to plot further violations of American neutrality, asking for “shrewd and daring fellows” to burn English-owned ships, barracks, and warehouses in Canada. The Gazette criticized American life for not being what it claimed, and Van Buren for his shabby treatment of Mackenzie. He was, however, too late for vengeance on either the United States or Britain. The frontier was settling down. In September 1838 Mackenzie had taken the first step towards becoming an American citizen. His future was now in the United States, a country with which he was already becoming disillusioned. Thus a recurring theme in Mackenzie’s correspondence during these unhappy years was the question of amnesty. As others, including Louis-Joseph Papineau*, were granted relief, he became increasingly frustrated. Too proud to petition directly himself, although he admitted the rebellion was an error, he asked such influential Reformers as Isaac Buchanan* to intercede on his behalf. Meanwhile, he watched impatiently while the changing political picture to the north passed him by.
Money problems, inability to find work he wanted or would accept, increasing family illness and death, continued to make his life a misery. He was constantly a focus of controversy. Nevertheless, he retained his ability to attract such friends and patrons as Horace Greeley*. Mackenzie’s Gazette died in December 1840 for want of donations and circulation, and the political patronage denied with the election of the Whig party. In April 1841 he successfully launched the Rochester Volunteer, which struggled through 17 irregular issues. In it Mackenzie examined Canadian affairs and attempted to whip up war between Great Britain and the United States over the trial of Alexander McLeod*, a Canadian arrested in New York State in November 1840 and charged with murder and arson for his part in the Caroline incident. Despite Mackenzie’s efforts, American public opinion was not aroused and McLeod was acquitted. The affair provides a good example of Mackenzie’s single-mindedness; in his determination to “free” Upper Canada by involving Americans he failed to grasp the possible consequences of his actions, including the ravaging of the province by war.
The Volunteer last appeared in September 1841, and Mackenzie, lacking both money and influence, voiced his disillusionment: “. . . the more I see of this country the more bitterly I regret the attempt at revolution at Toronto.” In June 1842 he and his family left Rochester for New York City, where he worked at various publishing ventures but refused to accept an editor’s post with a newspaper. In August, however, he became actuary and librarian of the mechanics’ institute. The small salary of about $400 was supplemented by a dwelling. Though his duties were “rather wearysome,” he was able to make ends meet. In April 1843 he took out American citizenship.
By that fall he was preparing a collective biography of 500 Irish Patriots, planning a new paper, and negotiating for a patronage appointment as an inspector in the New York Customs House. He ended his connection with the mechanics’ institute and began publishing the Examiner, which failed after five issues. The customs post did not materialize, but the first part of The sons of the emerald isle appeared in early 1844, and came close to paying expenses. In July of that year he was appointed a customs clerk at a yearly salary of $700 but resigned in June 1845 when a conservative was appointed collector of customs.
While at the customs house Mackenzie copied, or appropriated, for publication the papers of Jesse Hoyt, a former customs official closely connected with President Van Buren and the Albany Regency which long ran New York State. The Hoyt book sold 50,000 copies, but Mackenzie, who made nothing on the work, was criticized for publishing private papers simply to air scandals involving his enemy, Van Buren. Undaunted, Mackenzie proceeded with the second part of his Irish biographies and in April 1846 published a highly critical life of Van Buren.
In May 1846 Mackenzie went to Albany to cover the state constitutional convention for Horace Greeley’s New York Daily Tribune. It proved to be a radical convention, establishing elected offices and abolishing institutions such as the Court of Chancery; its decisions greatly influenced Mackenzie’s political opinions in Canada during the 1850s. He stayed in Albany until the spring of 1847, editing the Albany Patriot. Returning to New York, in the winter of 1847–48 he worked at the Tribune and edited almanacs for Greeley.
In February 1849 the Canadian administration of Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine brought in sweeping reforms, including an amnesty act. Mackenzie had written abjectly to James Leslie*, the provincial secretary, and was included in the amnesty. He immediately began a tour of Canada from Montreal to Niagara, though he claimed that he was not so much anxious to return permanently as he was to obtain the right to come back if he chose. Repatriation involved problems of employment. Mackenzie’s independent ideas prevented him from working for Lesslie’s Toronto Examiner – he deplored its annexationist sympathies – and he wanted his own paper. He was also worried about legal action on his debts. Although he visited Toronto and Niagara again late in 1849, he did not remain. In January 1850 Greeley, who had proven to be as patient a patron in the United States as the Lesslies had been in Scotland and Canada, gave him a job as Washington correspondent for the New York Daily Tribune, but in April 1850 he left that paper and by early May was again a Torontonian, though fearful as to his reception and unsure as to how he could support his family.
He continued to write for the Tribune, contributed to the Niagara Mail, and wrote regularly for the Examiner. Lesslie offered him a permanent position with the paper in order to further the cause of uncompromising radical reform, but Mackenzie would not commit himself to full-time work for any employer. Instead he pinned his hopes on the collection of money he believed was still owed him from the 1830s. York County paid him $1,200, and he received from the provincial government £250 for his services as a Welland Canal commissioner. He ignored his creditors for the present and concentrated on being re-elected to parliament. In the spring of 1851 he won the seat in Haldimand County, defeating among others George Brown*, editor of the Globe, who was at a disadvantage because of Mackenzie’s current notoriety, and especially because of his own known anti-Catholic bias, in a riding with a large Catholic vote.
Once elected, Mackenzie supported measures of “true reform” no matter which party or faction in the assembly presented them. He became involved in many issues left unsettled from the 1830s, such as the clergy reserves, state aid to religious colleges, and the Court of Chancery. Always worried about government overspending and monopoly control, Mackenzie now became a foe of government aid to railways, and of railways which took state aid but had neither competitors nor public control to encourage economy and honesty while building. His long-standing suspicions of lawyers and the complications of law prompted him to introduce a measure to simplify and codify the law and to make it easy for citizens to plead their own cases. This latter measure, which he reintroduced in later sessions, was one of those policies which, together with his sometimes impish, sometimes waspish behaviour, caused him to be regarded as eccentric. On this and other measures he stood virtually alone, thus gradually earning the reputation of being harmless as well.
In 1851, however, he did not seem harmless. He carried out one of those damning investigations of government affairs for which he was always noted, and through his attacks on the Court of Chancery was considered instrumental in forcing the resignation of Robert Baldwin as premier. [see William Hume Blake]. It was also believed that Mackenzie, by campaigning against what he and Lesslie called “sham” Reformers, helped defeat several colleagues, including Baldwin, in the fall elections. As a result, Mackenzie could not be ignored in 1852 when Francis Hincks* was consulting with the new Clear Grit movement about a merger of Reform groups. Mackenzie was asked to attend the negotiations, but refused in order to maintain his “freedom of action.” Once Rolph and Malcolm Cameron* had entered the ministry of Hincks and Augustin-Norbert Morin, Rolph consulted Mackenzie on appointments in Haldimand and even offered him a well-paid job. This offer was refused when Mackenzie discovered the position would be specially created and would further burden taxpayers.
From this high point Mackenzie’s importance gradually decreased. His attacks on government mismanagement and hypocrisy towards reform soon alienated Hincks and Rolph. His indignation against false Reformers reached new heights with the revelation in May 1853 of the “£10,000 Job” in which Hincks and Toronto mayor John George Bowes had made profits at public expense by dealing in railway debentures. Mackenzie also strongly attacked the government, including Rolph and Cameron, for selling out principle to secure office. He did one final bit of damage to his relationship with Rolph in March and April 1854 with a detailed assault on him in Mackenzie’s Weekly Message (notably after Rolph had failed to consult Mackenzie over appointments in Haldimand) for what he asserted were Rolph’s treasonable actions during the flag of truce missions at the time of the 1837 rising.
In other areas affairs also went badly for Mackenzie. In late 1852 he had managed to offend his greatest Canadian supporter and perhaps truest friend, James Lesslie, by refusing to allow him to edit an intemperate letter on crown lands policy. Lesslie closed the columns of the Examiner to him and, although they were reconciled, Mackenzie at that time founded his own paper, the Message (later the Toronto Weekly Message). Friends put up $2,000 and subscriptions poured in at first, but within a year the paper was in financial trouble. At the same time old creditors increasingly bothered him. His well-documented attacks on the government reached only a limited readership in the Message, and the orgy of official patronage and reckless spending by an obviously corrupt government sickened Mackenzie of the whole process of responsible government. These abuses made him anxious for “democratic” reforms so that the government would be controlled by the people rather than politicians. Almost all of the legislation he proposed in the early 1850s did not pass, however. Mackenzie also managed to alienate the most important critic of the government, George Brown, by constant public reference to the hypocrisy of Brown’s Reform stance and to his impolitic attacks on Catholics. These actions served no purpose since Mackenzie regularly supported Brown in every election as the best of a bad lot.
Cut off from all the influential Reformers, disgusted with the politics of the day, in grave financial difficulties, by the summer of 1853 Mackenzie had started to question the value of the union as well. By mid 1854 he was convinced that the French Canadians received far more than they contributed, and all at the expense of Upper Canada. The answer, he increasingly believed, was to dissolve the union.
Mackenzie was given one more chance, in the years 1854 to 1857, to help create over-all policy for the Reform movement. By 1854 his advice was being sought in correspondence from most of the founders of the Clear Grit movement, as well as other prominent Grits, including James Lesslie, David Christie*, Charles Lindsey, William McDougall*, and Alexander Mackenzie*; all felt Mackenzie was a true Reformer, if a somewhat muddled thinker. They were disillusioned with the Hincks-Morin brand of reform but supported Hincks as long as he was in office because the Tory alternative was unacceptable. When the government resigned in September 1854, a defeat which Hincks rightly or wrongly partially attributed to Mackenzie’s well-argued attacks, they began to seek a more conscientious Reform party. Naturally enough they wanted to include Mackenzie.
In November 1854 Lesslie proposed uniting the Examiner and McDougall’s North American with the Message and giving Mackenzie complete managerial and editorial control of this powerful “independent” journal. Mackenzie refused because others would hold stock in the journal, thus threatening his independence of action. His Grit correspondents next tried to get him to support Brown, whom they came to accept over the next year or two as the only viable leader, even if his reform principles were less satisfactory than they would have wished. But Mackenzie persisted in attacking Brown, though in 1857 he did briefly cooperate in establishing a Reform executive committee centred around the Globe editor. By that year only David Christie still attempted to include Mackenzie in any Reform grouping.
In the assembly Mackenzie doggedly advocated his own proposals. From 1854 to 1857 he successfully introduced measures to convert decimal currency, to simplify the handling of controverted elections, and to have mayors elected directly rather than by city councils, and he supported as well such popular measures as the abolition of the clergy reserves, the election of legislative councillors, privately financed railways, and reciprocity. As chairman of the finance committee in 1854–55 he dug out evidence of financial mismanagement and misuse of patronage so extensive as to embarrass the Conservative government of Sir Allan MacNab and John A. Macdonald*. His legislative accomplishments were impressive for a private member and his criticisms were pointed and effective, but his critics dismissed him because more was expected of him than of others. Mackenzie became convinced that the age was so corrupt and the union so intolerable a burden that little reform could be accomplished. His financial problems worsened, making him even more misanthropic. In February 1855 he was forced to stop the Message, but he refused full-time jobs with the Examiner and the Weekly Globe. When the Examiner ceased, Mackenzie resumed the Message in December 1855, although he could not afford it. Finally, in March 1856, Lesslie, Archibald Alexander Riddell, and others started a campaign to raise funds to reward Mackenzie for his untiring efforts. About $7,500 was ultimately collected and though Mackenzie wanted a trip to England, a house was bought and a loan made to keep the Message alive.
In August 1858, his strength failing and having lost all hopes for the future of Upper Canada, he resigned his seat. He published the Message only sporadically and refused requests that he run for the Legislative Council or for mayor of Toronto. He abandoned ideas for a new Upper Canadian constitution, and increasingly through 1858 and 1859 discussed annexation to the United States if the people became thoroughly disillusioned with responsible government. When he resumed regular publication of the Message in June 1859, he called for independence from Britain and suggested that annexation would inevitably follow.
His spirits improved a little as donations to the “Homestead” fund were received. He approved of the list of necessary reforms produced by the Reform convention of 1859, although he refused to sit on one of the committees because he represented no riding. His removal from day to day politics also improved his spirits. Although he helped friends in the election of 1861, the Message all but ceased noticing political events and its final comments on the fate of Upper Canada showed a certain mellowness. Mackenzie now saw not annexation but some union of Britain, the United States, Canada, and Ireland as the answer to problems. He even enjoyed friendly relations with George Brown in 1861. In fact, in late June 1861, only two months before he died, Mackenzie was improved enough in spirit to toy with the idea of again running for the legislature.
He could not be called a happy man, nevertheless. His creditors plagued him, he felt himself growing old, and no help seemed in sight for his beloved province. In his last months, periods of mental confusion must have discouraged him, for he refused all medicine. On 28 Aug. 1861 Mackenzie suffered an “apoplectic seizure” which proved fatal.
During the 1850s Mackenzie’s image of himself as a lone individual battling against overwhelming odds in an heroic struggle was reinforced by many letters praising his efforts, even if these were seldom successful. This praise probably as much as his own will sustained him in his struggle. Although he had the satisfaction of seeing George Brown adopt some of his ideas, his concern for popular democracy went largely unrewarded. He was not the leader in the 1850s that he had been in the 1830s: he was not an effective back-room political organizer; he did not hold the public meetings which had been his most effective means of reaching the people; and, as he quite rightly said, the age was too affluent. People were willing to accept corruption and mismanagement while their pockets were full. But although Mackenzie died without ever putting himself at the head of other men with similar views, the radical tradition he represented pervaded Ontario politics until well after confederation.
Historical evaluation of Mackenzie has continued to reflect the verdict of Charles Lindsey who in 1862 gave Mackenzie almost sole credit, or discredit, for the Upper Canadian rebellion. At the same time Lindsey elevated the rebellion to a place of respectability, incorrectly claiming that it was necessary to Canada’s attainment of responsible government. But this essentially heroic conception of Mackenzie ignores certain aspects of his character and perpetuates certain historical misconceptions; to place him in balance it is necessary to consider the whole man. He was very much the typical merchant, proprietor, and entrepreneurial radical of his era who, despite his talk of improving the status of workers and farmers, resisted strikes in his own shop and could be as ruthless as any of the great merchants in collecting debts. He displayed little love for minorities, especially Jews and blacks, and though he wrote enthusiastic articles about elevating the poor, his accomplishments in this area do not equal those of Jesse Ketchum, the Baldwins, or John Strachan. A puritan with a mission and an indefatigable journalist compelled to thrust himself into the public eye, Mackenzie did much to popularize other people’s ideas and expressed with complete sincerity the grievances felt by many Upper Canadians prior to the rebellion. The times were ripe for a man of his talents. However, his image as a solitary and fearless victim of Tory persecution ignores the fact that other Reformers also suffered and that the harassment was usually on a personal rather than an official basis and in numerous cases was occasioned by his own pugnacity. Despite his demand that others be consistent, he could not distinguish major grievances from trivia and was himself changeable. His economic thinking displays a dichotomy; he eulogized 18th century rural values, yet he admired the advance of commerce and technology. He resisted government intervention in the economy, but the development of Upper Canada was only made possible by long-term financing and public investment. Finally, the credit often given Mackenzie for creating a new political era in Canada through rebellion ignores the significance of new social and economic conditions, external influences, and the efforts of those moderate Reformers and Tories who actually negotiated new terms of government.
Though Mackenzie was consistent in his fear of monopolies, and in his demand for free government and an end to favouritism and prodigality, the events of his later years, which historians have badly neglected, show that he could not evolve beyond a certain set of ideas and that he never found an acceptable form of government in Upper Canada, the United States, or the union of the Canadas. His overwhelming urge to reform everything, his suspicion of all in power, and his fierce pride in his own independence suggest that Mackenzie’s only decided policy was je suis contre. Yet the very determination with which he attacked those he saw as enemies of Upper Canada was always fuelled by his desire to somehow make his adopted home a better place. His deep love for Upper Canada and his fervent devotion to its exclusive interests would suggest that Mackenzie was, in essence, an early Ontario nationalist.
[The two major collections of Mackenzie papers are those in the PAO (Mackenzie-Lindsey papers) collected by Mackenzie himself and those in the PAC (MG 24, B18) collected by William Lyon Mackenzie King*. The PAO collection has been augmented with facsimiles of Mackenzie correspondence from American collections such as the William Henry Seward papers at the University of Rochester Library (Rochester, N.Y.). Almost all of the pre-1837 Mackenzie papers were destroyed by his family during the rebellion, but a few letters from Mackenzie survive in the John Neilson coll. (PAC, MG 24, B1) and the Lesslie papers at the Dundas Hist. Soc. Museum (Dundas, Ont.). The latter collection, as well as the George Brown papers (PAC, MG 24, B40), contain material on Mackenzie’s later career. Three collections at the PAC contain statements by various participants regarding his conduct during the rebellion: RG 1, E3; RG 5, A1; and PRO, CO 42 (mfm.). The Rebellion of 1837 papers at the PAO also contain useful material. A critical view of Mackenzie at the time of the rebellion, as well as some material on his later career, can be found in the John Rolph papers (PAC, MG 24, B24). The David Gibson papers at the PAO contain occasional references to Mackenzie prior to and following the rising of 1837, as well as significant material concerning the rebellion itself and Mackenzie’s involvement in it.
Available only in typescript form is a biography of Mackenzie written by W. D. Le Sueur* which deals principally with his political career (copies may be seen at the University of Toronto Archives, the PAC, and the PAO). The biography was challenged in the courts by the Lindsey family on the grounds that it misinterpreted material in the Mackenzie-Lindsey papers, and was never published.
Printed primary sources relating to Mackenzie’s career are also numerous. The various publications of the government when he was a member should be noted, especially Upper Canada, House of Assembly, The seventh report from the select committee on grievances . . . (Toronto, 1835). A very useful account by a contemporary is F. B. Head, A narrative (London, 1839), which was published in 1969 edited by S. F. Wise. Mackenzie himself was a prolific writer of books and pamphlets. Most important of these are A new almanack for the Canadian true blues . . . (2nd ed., York [Toronto], [1833?]), written under the pseudonym Patrick Swift; Sketches of Canada and the United States (London, 1833); Mackenzie’s own narrative of the late rebellion, with illustrations and notes, critical and explanatory . . . (Toronto, 1838); The sons of the emerald isle, or, lives of one thousand remarkable Irishmen . . . (New York, 1844); The lives and opinions of Benj’n Franklin Butler . . . and Jesse Hoyt . . . (Boston, 1845); and The life and times of Martin Van Buren . . . (Boston, 1846).
Mackenzie’s own newspapers are invaluable sources, the main ones being the Colonial Advocate, 1824–34; the Constitution (Toronto), 1836–37; the Correspondent and Advocate (Toronto), 1834–37; Mackenzie’s Gazette (New York), 1838–40; the Rochester Volunteer (Rochester, N.Y.), 1841–42; and Mackenzie’s Weekly Message (Toronto), 1852–60. Selections have been made by Margaret Fairley. The selected writings of William Lyon Mackenzie, 1824–1837 (Toronto, 1960), and A. W. Rasporich, William Lyon Mackenzie (Toronto, 1972). Another newspaper to be consulted is the Canadian Correspondent ([Toronto]), 1832–34; it was edited by William John O’Grady and took a radical view. Egerton Ryerson’s Christian Guardian, begun in 1829, shows the Methodist view of Mackenzie’s activities. Papers in opposition to Mackenzie were the Canadian Freeman (York [Toronto]) edited by Francis Collins, a Reformer, and the Courier of Upper Canada (Toronto) edited by George Gurnett, a Tory; only incomplete runs of these papers survive. The Patriot and Farmers’ Monitor (Toronto), begun in Kingston in 1828, was edited by Thomas Dalton*, who moved from the Reform to the Tory camp. Mackenzie also wrote for a great number of newspapers which he did not edit, including Horace Greeley’s New York Daily Tribune and James Lesslie’s Examiner (Toronto).
An account of Mackenzie’s Toronto appears in Scadding, Toronto of old (Armstrong) and a description and valuable documents in Town of York, 1815–34 (Firth). The first major interpretation of Mackenzie’s political career was by John Charles Dent* in Last forty years and Upper Canadian rebellion. The latter provoked a response by John King, Mackenzie’s son-in-law, The other side of the “Story,” being some reviews of Mr. J. C. Dent’s first volume of “The story of the Upper Canadian rebellion,” and the letters in the Mackenzie-Rolph controversy . . . (Toronto, 1886). At the end of the 19th century two more accounts appeared: Robina and K. M. Lizars, Humours of ‘37, grave, gay, grim: rebellion times in the Canadas (Toronto, 1897), and D. B. Read, The Canadian rebellion of 1837 (Toronto, 1896). A decade later the original Mackenzie biography by Charles Lindsey, Life and times of Mackenzie, was revised by G. G. S. Lindsey, Mackenzie’s grandson, and published as William Lyon Mackenzie (Toronto, 1909).
Modern studies of the Mackenzie era began with Aileen Dunham, Political unrest in Upper Canada, 1815–1836 (London, 1927; repr. Toronto, 1963). This work was followed many years later by Craig, Upper Canada. There are two modern biographies: William Kilbourn, The firebrand: William Lyon Mackenzie and the rebellion in Upper Canada (Toronto, 1956), and David Flint, William Lyon Mackenzie: rebel against authority (Toronto, 1971). S. D. Clark, Movements of political protest in Canada, 1640–1840 (Toronto, 1959), provides a sociological analysis of the rebellion.
There is also a large periodical literature, including two comprehensive and analytical articles: Eric Jackson, “The organization of Upper Canadian Reformers, 1818–1867,” OH, LIII (1961), 95–115, and F. C. Hamil, “The reform movement in Upper Canada,” Profiles of a province: studies in the history of Ontario . . . (Toronto, 1967), 9–19. Articles more specifically on Mackenzie’s career written by L. F. Gates, who is also preparing a biography of Mackenzie’s later years, include “The decided policy of William Lyon Mackenzie,” CHR, XL (1959), 185–208; “Mackenzie ‘s Gazette: an aspect of W. L. Mackenzie’s American years,” CHR, XLVI (1965), 323–45; and “W. L. Mackenzie’s Volunteer and the first parliament of united Canada,” OH, LIX (1967), 163–83. R. A. MacKay provides an interesting discussion in “The political ideas of William Lyon Mackenzie,” Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science (Toronto), III (1937), 1–22. John Moir discusses his American journalism in “Mr. Mackenzie’s secret reporter,” OH, LV (1963), 205–13, and John Ireland [M. L. Magill] discusses the Caroline incident in “Andrew Drew: the man who burned the Caroline,” OH, LIX (1967), 137–56. F. H. Armstrong has written “The York riots of March 23, 1832,” OH, LV (1963), 61–72; “Reformer as capitalist: William Lyon Mackenzie and the printers’ strike of 1836,” OH, LIX (1967), 187–96; “William Lyon Mackenzie, first mayor of Toronto: a study of a critic in power,” CHR, XLVIII (1967), 309–31; and “William Lyon Mackenzie: the persistent hero,” Journal of Canadian Studies (Peterborough, Ont.), VI, no.3 (August 1971), 21–36. J. E. Rea has prepared a bibliography in “Rebellion in Upper Canada, 1837,” HSSM, Trans. (Winnipeg), 3rd ser., no.22 (1965–66), 87–94, as well as “William Lyon Mackenzie – Jacksonian?” Mid-America: an Hist. Quarterly (Chicago), L (1968), 223–35. f.h.a. and r.j.s.]
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Cite This Article
Frederick H. Armstrong and Ronald J. Stagg, “MACKENZIE, WILLIAM LYON,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 31, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mackenzie_william_lyon_9E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Frederick H. Armstrong and Ronald J. Stagg|
|Title of Article:||MACKENZIE, WILLIAM LYON|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1976|
|Year of revision:||1976|
|Access Date:||March 31, 2023|