William Lyon Mackenzie King (1874-1950) was prime minister of Canada for more than 21 years, a longer period in office than any other first minister in the history of countries in the British Commonwealth.
On Dec. 17, 1874, W. L. Mackenzie King was born at Berlin (later Kitchener), Ontario. His father, John King, was a lawyer, and his mother, Isabel Mackenzie King, was the daughter of William Lyon Mackenzie, leader of the short-lived rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada. His maternal spiritual inheritance was of some significance to King and may help to explain his lifelong ambivalence between his urge to be a reformer and his craving for social respectability.
King graduated from the University of Toronto in 1895, undertook postgraduate studies at Chicago, and secured a doctorate in political economy from Harvard. In Chicago he was associated with Jane Addams's work at Hull House, an experience which strengthened his interest in social reform.
Entry into Government Service
In 1900 King joined the Canadian civil service as deputy minister of labor, and in 1908, when he entered politics and won the riding of Waterloo North for the Liberals, the prime minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, appointed him Canada's first full-time minister of labor. In the prewar years he achieved considerable prominence in Canada as a labor conciliator and was chiefly responsible for drafting and presenting to Parliament the Industrial Disputes Investigation Act (1907) and the Combines Investigation Act (1910). These measures revealed King's tenaciously held faith that exposure of the facts of any situation to public scrutiny would create a public opinion strong enough to ensure the resolution of social problems.
During World War I King worked for the Rockefeller Foundation on labor research and served as an industrial counselor to the Rockefeller interests. His views on industrial relations were expounded vaguely and verbosely in Industry and Humanity (1918).
Party Leader and Prime Minister
Following Laurier's death a Liberal party convention in 1919 chose King as party leader, and he reentered the House of Commons as leader of the opposition. He became prime minister in 1921 as the result of an election which brought an end to the two-party system in federal politics. A large part of his support then and later lay in a solid block of conservative French-Canadian members of Parliament. While keeping their allegiance he endeavored to woo the 65 members of the second largest group in Parliament, the agrarian Progressive party, whom King described as "Liberals in a hurry," temporarily adrift from their true political home. By 1924 most of the Progressives had returned to the Liberal fold, thanks mainly to King's judicious concessions in the direction of a lower tariff.
By adroit maneuvering rather than through any correct constitutional interpretation, King survived the "King-Byng constitutional crisis" of 1926 and held office again after a few weeks in opposition until he was defeated in 1930, an event he later perceived as good fortune since it labeled the victorious Conservatives for years to come as the "party of depression."
On his return to power in 1935, where he was to remain until his retirement in 1948, King found a new force on the political scene in the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). He was not unwilling to use the existence of the new socialist group to strengthen reform elements within his own party. By the end of World War II he was genuinely alarmed by the apparently growing threat presented by the CCF, and this awareness did much to push through a program of postwar reconstruction measures, including the extension of social insurance and the establishment of family allowances.
In external relations King was a steady proponent of Canadian autonomy, and during his years in office complete sovereignty within the British Commonwealth was achieved. He exercised this sovereignty with great caution, pursuing a policy of "no commitments" in the League of Nations and toward collective security generally. As the threat of war increased in the 1930s, King consistently refused to declare Canadian policy beyond the assertion that "Parliament will decide." In 1939 Canada followed Britain into a war that saw Canada's contribution grow until it was for a time the second largest force after Britain, militarily and industrially, on the Allied side of the struggle.
Under King's leadership Canada moved into a new era of closer relations with the United States, notably during World War II, when the Ogdensburg Agreement of 1940, establishing the Permanent Joint Board on Defence, was followed by the Hyde Park Agreement of 1941, to promote cooperation between the two countries in defense production.
King's enormous skill as a politician was never better demonstrated than during the war, when he managed to prevent the conscription question from tearing the nation apart as it had in 1917. It was perhaps his greatest achievement that he brought French and English Canadians through the war in relative harmony. Indeed, the most consistent theme in King's political philosophy and practice was his commitment to Canadian unity, and increasingly he saw the unity of the Liberal party as synonymous with national unity.
King had no personal magnetism, he was no orator, and he aroused little affection even in his warmest supporters. His political longevity was due to his acute political sense and, sometimes, to his ruthlessness. He never married, and in his loneliness he confided his perpetual self-doubt and his ambitions to his voluminous diaries. He died 2 years after his retirement at Kingsmere, his country home near Ottawa, on July 22, 1950.
Further Reading on William Lyon Mackenzie King
Two excellent volumes of the official biography of King have been published: Robert R. MacGregor Dawson, William Lyon Mackenzie King: A Political Biography, 1874-1923 (1958), and H. Blair Neatby, William Lyon Mackenzie King: The Lonely Heights, 1924-1932 (1963). Bruce Hutchinson, The Incredible Canadian (1952), is a popular biography by a good journalist. J. W. Pickersgill and Donald F. Forster, eds., The Mackenzie King Record (4 vols., 1960-1969), portrays the years 1939-1948 largely in the words of King's diaries. Fred A. McGregor, The Fall and Rise of Mackenzie King, 1911-1919 (1962), recounts in detail King's work as a labor conciliator and his rise to party leadership. Henry Stanley Ferns and Bernard Ostry, The Age of Mackenzie King: The Rise of the Leader (1955), gives a less flattering account of roughly the same years.
Additional Biography Sources
Ferns, H. S. (Henry Stanley), The age of Mackenzie King, Toronto: J. Lorimer, 1976.
Granatstein, J. L., Mackenzie King: his life and world, Toronto; New York: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1977.
Mackenzie King: widening the debate, Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1977.
Stacey, C. P. (Charles Perry), Mackenzie King and the Atlantic triangle, Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1976.
Teatero, William, Mackenzie King: man of mission, Don Mills, Ont.: T. Nelson & Sons (Canada), 1979.