William Lyon Mackenzie
William Lyon Mackenzie, a journalist, politician, rebel and reformer, was born on March 12, 1795 in Dundee, Scotland. He was noted for being a bright, difficult student
In 1820, Mackenzie sailed to Canada. He settled in York and wrote for the York Observer.
In 1822, Mackenzie married Isabel Baxter. That same year he started printing his most famous newspaper, the Colonial Advocate.
Mackenzie was critical of the Tory government. In 1826, Tory supporters broke into the office of his newspaper, destroying the press and type faces. Mackenzie sued the eight major participants and won 625 pounds in damages. This indicated that despite the corruption in the government, the court system was fair.
William Lyon Mackenzie and Responsible Government
In 1827, Mackenzie ran for public office and used his newspaper to deconstruct his opponents’ policies. He won and pushed for reforms on everything from agriculture to commerce, attacking the Bank of Upper Canada and the Welland Canal Company for their close ties to the government.
In the 1830 election Mackenzie was one of the few reformers who won and he became frustrated by the democratic process in Upper Canada. His Tory opponents attacked him constantly for his attempts to politicize and reform any organization he joined.
When the legislature reconvened in January, 1831, Mackenzie continued to push for reforms in the colonial government, criss-crossing the province collecting names and signatures. He met with mixed success, as his Tory opponents blocked him at every turn but was successful in dividing York into four ridings.
He continued attacking the Bank of Upper Canada, the Welland Canal Company and King’s College. Mackenzie was expelled from the legislature after calling it “a sycophantic office.” This action made him a martyr in Canadian politics. Despite Tory attempts to get rid of him, Mackenzie was re-elected in 1832. In response, the Tories expelled him again. Mackenzie was re-elected again by acclamation.
In 1834, York became the city of Toronto. The Tories and the reformers presented lists of candidates to form Toronto’s first city council. Mackenzie was selected as an alderman and voted mayor by his fellow councillors, but proved unable to meet the demands that accompany running a city. Many of the reformers on the council, including Mackenzie lost in the 1835 election.
The Rebellion of 1837
Most of Mackenzie’s mid-1830s attempts at reform were blocked by the Tories, who had British support. Mackenzie believed that the only way to achieve lasting reform was to overthrow the government. During the spring and summer of 1837, Mackenzie’s newspaper, now called The Constitution, hinted at the possibility of an armed uprising. As the day of the rebellion neared, Mackenzie’s newspaper printed daily warnings of what was coming. At first, things seemed to be going Mackenzie’s way. There was an altercation with loyalist troops as the rebels approached the city. In the space of a single volley, Mackenzie’s rebellion was over.
William Lyon Mackenzie’s Legacy
He pushed for government reforms all through the 1840s and 50s, but his failure to achieve his goals during the Rebellion of 1837 discredited Mackenzie in the eyes of many of his contemporaries and he gradually faded from public consciousness. William Lyon Mackenzie died on August 28, 1861 following an apoplectic seizure.
Mackenzie did much to popularize the reform movement in Canadian politics and his influence remained in Ontario politics for decades after his death. His willingness to attack the corruption and cronyism of the Family Compact may have made him the first Ontario nationalist and ensured the establishment of responsible government in Canada.
Armstrong, Frederick H and Ronald J Stagg. “William Lyon Mackenzie.” The Canadian Dictionary of Biography Online. University of Toronto, 2000.
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