Alexander Mackenzie

Alexander Mackenzie (1822-1892) was a Scottish-born Canadian political leader. He was head of the Liberal party and the first Liberal prime minister of Canada.

On Jan. 28, 1822, Alexander Mackenzie was born near Dunkeld. His parents were poor, and young Mackenzie left school to apprentice himself to a stone mason. At the age of 20 Mackenzie emigrated to Canada, where he soon found work in his trade at Kingston, Upper Canada. Prospering, Mackenzie moved to Sarnia, further west, as builder and contractor. He was also a concerned citizen, and in 1852 he became the editor of the Lambton Shield, a tiny newspaper that nonetheless served to give him access to the world of politics. In 1861 he ran successfully for the Assembly as a Reformer, and in 1867 he was elected to the first Parliament of Canada, where he became the leader of the opposition to the government of Sir John Alexander Macdonald. For a time in 1871/1872 he was treasurer of Ontario, but in 1872 he determined to devote his time to federal politics.

The Macdonald government was pressing ahead with plans for a transcontinental railroad but had unfortunately become too close in its relations with financiers and contractors. The resulting "Pacific scandal" drove the government from office in disgrace, and Mackenzie became prime minister on Nov. 7, 1873. The Mackenzie administration had some able men in it, but the Liberals had bad luck in taking power at the onset of a long business depression. Mackenzie's only remedy was to trim expenses to the bone and to halt the construction of the railway. The depression continued unabated.

There were some real successes, however. As a convinced democrat, Mackenzie extended the right to vote and introduced the secret ballot. A Supreme Court was established, the Royal Military College of Canada was founded, and the nation was pushed toward independence after Mackenzie and his attorney general, Edward Blake, trimmed the powers of the governor general to interfere in affairs of state.

For all these accomplishments, however, the nation was unhappy, and when the Conservatives began to advocate a protective tariff to encourage the development of Canadian industry, they found ready audiences. Mackenzie, as a free-trade Liberal, regarded the tariff as an abomination, but not enough of the electorate agreed with him and the Liberals were defeated in 1878. For 2 years more the dour Scot led the Liberals. He remained in Parliament until his death on April 17, 1892, in Toronto.


Further Reading on Alexander Mackenzie

A study of Mackenzie is Dale Thomson, Alexander Mackenzie:Clear Grit (1960). There is also substantial material on him in J. M.S. Careless, Brown of the Globe (2 vols., 1959-1963). An excellent study of the history of liberalism in Canada, in which Mackenzie is discussed, is Robert Kelley, The Transatlantic Persuasion: The Liberal-Democratic Mind in the Age of Gladstone (1969).