William Lyon Mackenzie (1795-1861) was a Scottish-born Canadian journalist, politician, and rebel. He became the leader of the radical Reformers, and the refusal of the authorities to institute certain reforms finally led him to open rebellion.
William Lyon Mackenzie was born on March 12, 1795, at Springfield, Dundee. After completing his formal education at the parish school, he entered business, becoming in 1817 managing clerk of a canal company in Wiltshire.
In 1820 Mackenzie emigrated to British North America. In 1824 he began to publish the Colonial Advocate and before the year was out had moved its place of publication from Queenston to York (Toronto). Through his newspaper he attacked the men of privilege and power within the colony so vigorously that on June 8, 1826, a number of young Tories smashed his printing press. This was an error on the part of the ruling clique, known as the Family Compact, for it publicized Mackenzie, his paper, and his reformist views more fully than he himself had been able to accomplish.
In 1828 Mackenzie won election to the Upper Canada Legislative Assembly for the county of York and was reelected in 1830. In 1831 he attacked the government so vigorously that he was expelled from the Assembly. He was repeatedly reelected and expelled, until in 1834 the Reform party won a majority of the Assembly seats, enabling Mackenzie to take his place once more. In 1835 he was elected to be the first mayor of the newly incorporated city of Toronto.
Mackenzie was the driving force in compiling the "Seventh Report of the Committee on Grievances," issued in 1835, which detailed the reform case in the province. In November 1835 Mackenzie visited Louis-Joseph Papineau and strengthened the alliance between the reformist groups in the two Canadas.
In the general election of 1836 Mackenzie lost his seat, and the Reformers their control of the Assembly. He was outraged at the open politicking of the new governor, Sir Francis Bond Head, and at the general intransigence of the Tory faction. Mackenzie became the center of a group of men advocating radical measures. In July 1837 a vigilance committee was appointed under his direction with the task of establishing centers for possible future revolution. Mackenzie and his followers moved toward open rebellion until, on Nov. 25, 1837, he proclaimed a provisional government.
Rebellion and Exile
It was not Mackenzie and his followers who moved to the attack, however, but rather the Tories, led by Governor Bond Head. On Dec. 7, 1837, the rebels were attacked by the loyal Tory forces; the rebels were soon in disarray, and Mackenzie fled to the United States. He proclaimed a provisional government from the sanctuary of Navy Island in the Niagara River but soon withdrew. In 1839 he was arrested by American authorities and sentenced to 12 months' imprisonment for breaking the neutrality laws.
For the next decade Mackenzie supported his family through journalism and, for a time, employment in the New York Customs House. In 1849 the Legislative Assembly of the United Province of Canada passed a general amnesty, and Mackenzie returned to Canada. In 1850 he was elected to the legislature for the Riding of Haldimand and sat in the Assembly until his retirement from politics in 1858. But he little understood responsible government and the institutions that had been fashioned to make that principle operative in the political life of the United Province of Canada, and he played no leading part in its political life henceforth, as he had prior to rebellion in 1837.
Though Mackenzie had failed to bring about those reforms which he had believed desirable, his actions and the abortive rebellion he led acted as catalysts for change, and much of the subsequent political history of the Canadas was influenced by what he had written and done. He died at Toronto on Aug. 28, 1861.
Further Reading on William Lyon Mackenzie
Mackenzie was a prolific writer. Of particular interest is Mackenzie's Own Narrative of the Late Rebellion (1838). Margaret Fairley, ed., The Selected Writings of William Lyon Mackenzie, 1824-1837 (1960), offers an excellent selection of his work. The best book on Mackenzie's life is William Kilbourn, The Firebrand (1958), although Charles Lindsey's earlier biography, The Life and Times of Wm. Lyon Mackenzie (2 vols., 1862), is still useful. See also Stephen Leacock, Mackenzie, Baldwin, La Fontaine, Hincks (1926), and Edwin C. Guillet, The Lives and Times of the Patriots (1938).
Additional Biography Sources
Gates, Lillian F., After the rebellion: the later years of William Lyon Mackenzie, Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1988.
William Lyon Mackenzie: a reinterpretation, Toronto: Macmillan of Canada; Ottawa: Institute of Canadian Studies, Carleton University, 1979.
1837: revolution in the Canadas, Toronto: NC Press, 1974.
Raible, Chris, Muddy York mud: scandal & scurrility in Upper Canada, Creemore, Ont.: Curiosity House; Toronto: Dundurn Press distributor, 1992.
Salutin, Rick, 1837: William Lyon Mackenzie and the Canadian revolution, Toronto: J. Lorimer, 1976.