The Furious Rebel of Muddy York
A factious little wretch, a madman, a baboon, they called this Mackenzie, who dared to tilt at tyrants — and toppled them
Maclean's Ottawa Editor
WHEN William Lyon Mackenzie came to Canada in 1820, he first got a job as chain bearer on the Lachine Canal survey. On his second or third day at work, the gang knocked off as usual for lunch. They had just got the last, bite down and were filling their pipes, when the new chain bearer sprang to his feet.
“Come, lads, time for work,” he cried in a harsh Dundee burr. “We mustn’t waste the Government’s money.”
When the foreman recovered from his astonishment, Mackenzie was fired. The incident was not a lesson to him. All his life all through bis 13-year fight for Responsible Government in Canada, through the brief 1837 Rebellion which he led, through the long hungry years of exile and destit ution-Mackenzie continued to display that same exasperating rectitude, the same physical and moral courage, and the same lack of common sense.
As a boy, wanting to learn to swim, he plunged headfirst into the Tay; he was going down for the third time when he was fished out. As a sober man of 37, sailing for England to he spokesman of Upper Canadian grievances, he climbed to the ship’s masthead one night, just to see what it felt like. A storm was blowing that carried away a sail a few
minutes afterward, but it didn’t deter Mackenzie.
Five years later, on the first night of the 1837 Rebellion against the ruling oligarchy called the Family Compact, Mackenzie stood in Montgomery’s Tavern on Yonge Street, four miles from Toronto, while Sam Lount’s men collapsed around him in fatigue and hunger. There were only 80-odd men in the troop. They had marched 35 miles through deep mud that day, on the panicky and premature order of Dr. John Rolph. Now at the rendezvous they found no food, no arms, no blankets and no reinforcements.
Mackenzie wanted them to attack Toronto at once. None of them had muskets, onjy a few had fowling pieces. In the main their arms were crude pikes hammered out in Sam Lount’s blacksmith shop. But Mackenzie saw no reason why this weary handful should not march on the capital of Upper Canada and take it by storm.
As a matter of fact he was right. Toronto at that
moment was defenseless. The militia had not been called out, the 4,000 muskets at City Hall weren’t even unpacked, and no watch had been set. Eighty men would have been ample to take and hold the town until the rest of the rebel force could be mustered.
Mackenzie was overruled. His scheme was mad - as mad as General Wolfe’s single-file ascent to the Plains of Abraham. Common sense won the argument and lost the Upper Canadian Rebellion.
For Mackenzie if; meant ruin, sudden and complete. He was a prominent and solid citizen who had been first mayor of Toronto; an editor who owned his newspaper and the largest printing house iu Upper Canada; a family man with a tine home, a hit of property, and a bright future. Overnight, at 42, he became a fugitive with ¿1,000 on his head, hiding in cornricks to escape the gallows; then an exile, a prisoner, very nearly a pauper.
b or Canada it meantwhat ? Even today, we don’t really know.
(CANADA before the Rebellion was a colony in A tutelage. Policy was decided at the Colonial Office 4,000 miles away, by men who had never seen the land whose fate they were determining. It was administered by a Governor responsible only to the British Government, and advised by the little clique of irresponsible officials whom Canadians remember as the Family Compact.
hour years after the Rebellion, Canada liad a new constitution. The hold of the Compact was broken, the people’s wishes heeded, the nation fairly on the road to full Responsible Government. These things were not obtained immediately or directly by the Rebellion; they were the work of statesmen like Durham and Sydenham, who had the intelligence to see what the colony needed and lacked.
But would Durham ever have been sent to Canada if there had been no outburst in 1837? What would have happened if Mackenzie had been a “moderate man” like Robert Baldwin, who thought it prudent to retire from public life in the stormy 1830’s, and then come back to become the “father” of a Responsible Government which already had been virtually won’?
All such speculation is idle. For whatever else Mackenzie might have been, he could never have been such a “moderate.”
“I am hot & fiery,” he wrote to his friend John Neilson in 1835, “and age (he was 40) has not yet tempered as much as I could wish my political conduct and opinions.”
It was a disposition that got Mackenzie into a lot of trouble, infuriated his enemies and often dismayed his friends. But if ever a country needed a few “hot & liery” citizens, fanatically intolerant of jobbery and corruption, it was Canada in Mackenzie’s day.
At a time when the United States was all bustle and progress, Canada just across the Great Lakes was sunk in stagnation, poverty and squalor. In the back townships “not one in 70 could read or
write.” says a memoir of the time; even in the Legislature “many members could not read and more could not spell.”
"A very considerable portion of the Province,” Lord Durham reported, “has neither roads, post offices, mills, schools nor churches. The people may raise enough for their own subsistence, and may even have a rude and comfortless plenty, but they can seldom acquire wealth. Nor can even wealthy landowners prevent their children from growing up ignorant and boorish.”
In Toronto, the capital, reigned a little court of which an English visitor, Mrs. Anna Jameson, has left a vivid picture:
“Toronto is like a fourthor fifth-rate provincial town with the pretensions of a capital city. We have here a petty colonial oligarchy, a self-constituted aristocracy based upon nothing real, nor even upon anything imaginary . . . With an absolute want of the most ordinary mental and moral development, we have here conventionalism in its most oppressive and ridiculous forms.”
That was the milieu of the few “shrewd, crafty, covetous men,” as Mackenzie called them, who made up the Family Compact and who ruled Canada. They were the Executive Councilors who advised the Governor directly; they filled the appointed Legislative Council which was half the docile and servile half - of the colonial Parliament. The popularly elected Assembly might pass what bills it liked; if they were displeasing-to the Governor or the Compact, the obedient Legislative Council would vote them down.
The snobbery of these men, their empty pretension to superiority over the real pioneers who were building a nation in this wilderness, used to drive Mackenzie to fury.
“Often inferior to the yeomanry in education,” he fumed in his newspaper The Colonial Advocate, “they have no more resemblance to an English gentleman than a Canadian swamp to an English city, or Goose Creek to the Thames. Their manners are abrupt and vulgar; their policy is to play (he slave at York (Toronto) that in their respective neighborhoods they may the more safely act the tyrant.”
There was, for instance. Archdeacon John Strachan, the loftiest Tory of them all he made his fortune by renting his sweetheart for a couple of years to a rich old man. Strachan was engaged fo the belle of Cornwall, a Miss Wood, when she was courted by the aged and wealthy Andrew McGill (brother of James, who founded the university). McGill proposed that if she’d marry him, he’d leave her all his money. Thai would be a fine start in life, he pointed out, for her and young Strachan later on.
Miss Wood consulted her betrothed, who said “Take him.” So she took old McGill, who died in a year or two; then she married Strachan and made him the richest cleric in Upper Canada.
Or there was Hon. Peter Robinson, Commissioner of Crown Lmds, who as an Executive Councilor liad the pleasant duty of auditing his own accounts. All went well until Hon. Peter had a paralytic stroke and the books came under other scrutiny—it turned out that Hon. Peter had “borrowed” £11,(XX) from the public funds.
His brother, Chief Justice Sir John Beverley Robinson, wrote confidentially about it to the new Governor, Sir Francis Bond Head. He outlined poor Peter’s situation and asked but one small favor: Could the whole matter be kept quiet until the little difficulty was adjusted? Certainly, Sir Francis Head replied.
'T'HIS family Compact, said Lord Durham, possessed almost all the highest public offices, by which it wielded all the powers of Government * • • The Bench, the high offices of the Episcopal Church, and a great part of the legal profession are filled by adherents of this party. They are allpowerful in the chartered banks and till lately shared among themselves almost exclusively all offices of trust or profit.”
Into this barnacle-ridden ship of state William Lyon Mackenzie plunged like a suicide bomber. The explosion destroyed Mackenzie utterly, but it did sink the Compact for good and all.
Mackenzie didn’t look very menacing. “I am a diminutive little creature,” he once wrote five feet six, and with the high brow left prematurely bald by a fever, he must have looked even smaller. He was strong and vigorous. Sir William Mulock remembered him as a man near 60, still able to set his cane across the backs of two chairs and jump over it. He was capable of great endurance once worked for six days and nights continuously. But his contemporaries, especially his enemies, remember him as a whipper-snapper.
bir irancis Bond Head, who hated Mackenzie
like Satan, left this description of their first interview in 1836:
“He sat with his feet not reaching the ground . . . while with the eccentricity, the volubility, indeed the appearance of a madman, the tiny creature raved in all directions about grievances.” Settler John Langton, a Tory and a bit of a snob, wrote home his impression of "that factious little wretch Mackenzie”: “He’s a little red-haired man about fixa' feet nothing, and extremely like a baboon, but he is the Daniel O’Connell of Canada.” It’s probably true that Mackenzie was an oddlooking little man. He was odd and the child of an odd marriage.
Elizabeth Mackenzie was a spinster of 41 when she married her clansman,
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The Furious Rebel of Muddy York
Continued from page 17
Daniel Mackenzie; he was only 27. Elizabeth was a cut above Daniel socially. Her father, Colin Mackenzie, had been an officer with Prince Charlie in ’45 and one of his courtiers in exile. Daniel’s father, also named Colin, was only a private at Culloden. Elizabeth “could claim kindred with some of the first families in Scotland,” according j to her son; Daniel was a poor weaver who had already failed once in his business.
They’d been married a year, and William Lyon was three weeks old, when Daniel caught cold at a dancing party and died in a few days. That was April, 1 795.
Somehow Elizabeth brought the boy up. He could just remember her in the famine of 1800, selling a tartan she had woven with her own hands to buy a little barley meal. Mostly they lived with relatives; Willie, a bright boy, went to parish schools in Dundee.
Formal schooling was a small fraction of his education. His mother set him huge reading tasks—too much, he used to say later: All the Psalms by
rote, with other Biblical passages, the Westminster Catechism and the Confession of Faith.
Maybe she overdid it, hut she didn’t kill his taste for reading. He kept a record of the books he read between 1806, when he was 11 (that may have been the year he left school), and 1820 when he came to Canada. A queer list it is. It contains 958 volumes—histories, travel books, manuals like “Fvery Man His Own Farrier” and Haigh’s “Dyer’s Assistant” (“Very old and useless directions,” Willie noted of the latter work). It includes all of Shakespeare, Milton, Burns; Montesquieu and Benjamin Franklin; Swift and Addison and Steele. It also includes a three-volume work called “Fashionable Infidelity,” and two bound volumes of the Misses Magazine.
He got hold of some of these hooks j by keeping them for sale, in his own I general store at Alyth, near Dundee.
Maybe he spent more time reading ! books than trying to sell them ; anyway he failed for £500. Mackenzie was still ! a minor, not legally liable for the debts, but he paid them all in theend—though I not until years later. Meanwhile, after a great many odd jobs that came to nothing, he decided to emigrate, sailing at the age of 25.
Damn Them All
In Canada he prospered. Within two years he was able to marry Isabel Raxter, an old schoolmate whom he met again at Quebec, and wooed and wed in three weeks. He ran a store in Dundas, later in Queenston; for a while at least he made a cash profit of £ 100 a month.
But trade couldn’t satisfy Mackenzie. He had been watching the Compact at work and the indignation of a horn agitator rose in him to bursting point. In 1824 he started a weekly newspaper, The Colonial Advocate, published first in Queenston, then in York.
Naturally it was antimp act. “Not to gain the wealt h of the Indies,” he thundered, “would I now cringe to the funguses I have beheld in this country, more numerous and pestilential in the town of York than the marshes and quagmires with which it is environed.”
Mackenzie damned them all with equal fervor. He wrote an open letter
to the Attorney-General, John Beverley Robinson:
“You have been alternately the football and pincushion of power; you have retained the fawning cringing manner which is, to the acute discerner, the surest sign of political dependence and degradation.”
All that was mild. Ry 1826, in his second anniversary issue, Mackenzie really got down to personalities. The Attorney - General’s legitimacy was impugned, the Archdeacon’s wife was called an ex-housemaid, and young -Samuel Jarvis, who had once killed a man in a duel, was flatly described asa murderer.
Nobody sued him for libel. The Compact had just sued another critic, Francis Collins, editor of The Canadian Freeman, and made a hero and martyr of the fellow— no more of that. Ruta few young men of leading families, headed by “murderer” Sam Jarvis, decided to wreck Mackenzie’s printing plant ; they threw most of his type into the bay.
That was a godsend to Mackenzie. The Advocate had never made money — postage alone cost £800 a year, many subscribers didn’t pay, advertising was scanty and deficits chronic. Mackenzie was nearly bankrupt.
Idol of the Voters
He was out of town when the attack took place. As a matter of fact, he had retreated to the United States, out of reach of the sheriff, until he could make an amicable arrangement with his creditors and get out of the publishing business. Rut the assault on his plant proved a windfall. Mackenzie sued for £2,000 damages; a jury awarded him £625, assessed against the young rioters who had smashed his press.
From then on he prospered again. The Advocate itself still lost money, but Mackenzie built up a job printing business on the side. At the time of the Rebellion, when he lost everything and had to run for his life, he had the biggest and best printing establishment in Upper Canada, and was very comfortably fixed. He had a fine home and the few of his possessions now preserved. odd hits of mahogany or table silver, indicate a standard of living that bordered on luxury.
Meanwhile he went into politics— the 1828 election returned him member for York in the Legislative Assembly. This first Assembly had a Reform majority; the second, after the 1830 election, was again dominated by the Tories. This Tory Assembly proceeded to expel Mackenzie for an alleged libel upon itself. (He said it was “a sycophantic office for registering the decrees of a mean and mercenary Executive."
The expulsion created the kind of Roman holiday Mackenzie loved. Four times the loyal electors of York returned him again—in one by-election his opponent got. one vote, the rest were acclamations. Four times t he stubborn Assembly reiterated its decision to keep him out, once ejecting him bodily.
The affair was spun out through most of the Assembly’s four-year term, partly because it was interrupted by Mackenzie's departure for England. He was sent as the Reformers’ delegate to carry their grievances directly to the Colonial Office. He took his wife with him, spent a year and a half in England and had a wonderful time.
Not that he was idle or indolent-—k was at this time he performed his feat of working six days and nights without sleep—but it was work Mackenzie adored. He had several interviews with the Colonial Secretary, Lord Goderich, and was also invited to submit his casé in writing, which he did at length. On*
letter ran 250 foolscap pages, another 184: the whole correspondence fills four large volumes.
Mackenzie’s reward was a snub. Goderich was bored by the verbosity and offended by the invective of his petitioner.
Rut if Mackenzie had a talent for putting himself in the wrong, the Tories back home had a genius for it. Goderich’s dispatch favored them rather more than the Reformers, but it contained some concessions to Reform demands. At sight of these deferences to the hated Mackenzie, the Tories flew into a temper tantrum.
Happiness and Frustration
Very few people read the Goderich dispatch, of course. The Tories were taking it as a rebuke and an affront: therefore the Reformers hailed it as a victory. Mackenzie came home in complete triumph, for still another re-election in York. He was expelled again, but it didn t matternext year brought a general election, the Reformers got a big majority and Mackenzie and his friends were in full control of the Assembly. That didn’t mean much, under the dictatorial system of governorship then established, but at least it guaranteed him a seat and a free tongue.
The next two years were probably the peak of Mackenzie’s personal happiness. He tore into the accounts of the Welland Canal Co. and discovered some fabulous frauds. He wrote, almost singlehanded, the famous “Seventh Report on Grievances,” by far the best summary of the Canadian Reformers’ case and the one to make the greatest impression on the British Government. He entered municipal politics as a sideline, was elected the first mayor of the new city of Toronto, and incidentally distinguished limself for coolness and bravery during a cholera epidemic that took great toll in the city in 1835.
He’d had plenty of sadness, too. The Mackenzies’ first daughter had been born within a year of their marriage—“a lovely child,” her father wrote in the great family Bible, recording her death from smallpox at the age of 11 months. Their third daughter died of the same plague at the same age; the second had lived but nine hours. Isabel Mackenzie bore seven children in her first 13 years of marriage, but only two survived infancy. One of them was to become the mother of Canada’s present Prime Minister.
Loss of his son Joseph Hume, who was born and died during the trip to England, nearly broke Mackenzie’s heart. He decided to drop journalism ■—felt he had no spirit for it—and he sold the Advocate in 1834. Rut though he’d had grief and trouble, and though his indignation at the Compact was chronic, William Lyon Mackenzie was not yet a really bitter man.
“I am none of your warlike sort, except in a quiet way and upon paper,” he wrote—and the wars on paper were a joy. As the late T. R. Roberton remarked, Mackenzie was “that happiest of mortals,” a born radical in a country with real grievances.
This happy pugnacity soured in 1836. The Reform Assembly collided head-on with the new Governor, Sir 1‘rancis Head. Head was a fool—he bragged later of having precipitated the Rebellion on purpose— but he was not. without skill as a demagogue. He virtually took to the hustings himself, adroitly misrepresented the issues and won a complete victory for the Tories. Mackenzie was even defeated in his own riding of York.
It was a terrible blow to him: when the polls closed, he retired to a friend’s
house and burst into violent weeping. He couldn’t accept the defeat, couldn’t believe it. The Tories must have used fraud—not unlikely, for the Government took care to prevent an enquiry into the York election. Mackenzie from that moment was profoundly embittered, vindictive and implacable.
He started a new paper, The Constitution, which from the outset was revolutionary in tone.
“The conduct of the Executive toward the people of Upper and Lower Canada,” he said, “has been such as, in effect, to absolve them from their allegiance.”
That was his keynote all through 1837. In Lower Canada, for somewhat different reasons, irresponsible colonial government was heading into the same kind of impasse; rebellion there was imminent and the authorities knew it. The Reformers’ plans in Upper Canada had no direct connection with those of “Les Patriotes,” and the two outbreaks were not even simultaneous, but Mackenzie did keep in fairly close touch, and expressed warm sympathy, with his fellow Canadians of French speech.
The “Declaration of the Reformers of Toronto to Their Fellow Reformers of Upper Canada,” passed at an open meeting in July, was a virtual Declaration of Independence. Mackenzie carried it through the countryside, organizing and speaking at some 200 meetings where the Declaration was endorsed, building up a rebel force.
Probably few realized what they were getting into. Some meetings naively discussed plans for buying Canadian freedom from England, for cash. Sam Lount, one of the two hanged as rebel leaders, said at his trial “I had no idea it was to be a rebellion. I was led to believe what we wanted could be got easily, without bloodshed.” But Sam Lount’s smithy had been used for forging the pikes—surely he must have known there was more than argument afoot.
Fear Spoils the Plot
Anyway there were plenty who didn’t know, and plenty more who wished they knew less than they did. Of the best-known leaders, all but Mackenzie seem to have been badly frightened.
There is still doubt about the intended leadership of the Upper Canadian Rebellion. The inner group of conspirators included Dr. John Rolph, a well - known Reform politician. Mackenzie later said Rolph had been named “Executive” or supreme commander of the affair, though Rolph never admitted this. At any rate he did not, in fact, lead the Rebellion— he wasn’t there at all when the fighting took place, though it was he who had ordered the troops out.
The uprising had been set for Thursday, Dec. 7, and Mackenzie was off on an organizing trip, when Rolph heard a “probable rumor” that the plot was discovered. In a panic he sent word to Lount at Lloydtown, 35 miles away, to march his men in to town at once. That was Sunday, the 3rd, and on Monday Lount set out.
This was the fatal, premature order that set the whole Rebellion off at half cock; fear led Dr. Rolph to issue it. Fear led people like Marshall Spring Bidwell and Dr. T. D. Morrison to drop out of sight altogether— Morrison was the man who introduced the famous “Toronto Declaration,” and who then proposed that neither he nor any other member of the Legislature should be asked to sign it, as it was too dangerous to be signed by any but the rank and file.
Worst of all, fear led Dr. John Rolph
to accept. Governor Head’s invitation to carry a flag of truce on behalf of the Government to the very rebels of whom he was a leader. They’d been expecting him to arrive with a rebel troop; his appearance as a Government agent bewildered and dismayed them. Next day, before the only episode that can be called a battle, Rolph ran away.
Mackenzie at least wasn’t frightened. He had no experience or talent for military leadership and the figure he cut during the four days of Rebellion is a bit absurd—riding about on a small white horse with “a greatcoat buttoned up to the chin and presenting the appearance of being stuffed.” Thus reported one eyewitness, who added: “His men intimated that he had on a great many coats, as if to make himself bulletproof.”
At a Single Shot
He showed poor judgment during the days of crisis. It was Mackenzie who let their first prisoner, Aid. John Powell, ride behind his captors without having been searched. Powell had a pistol and killed Anthony Anderson, the only man at Montgomery’s with any real military experience; Powell also escaped and gave the alarm.
If Mackenzie made a poor general, his men didn’t make very good soldiers, either. Marching down Yonge Street 700 strong, on the Tuesday evening (Dec. 5) they met Sheriff Jarvis’ picket of 30 men. Both sides fired a volley; a rebel named Henderson dropped with a bullet in his head, though no man knew which side had killed him. Both sides then took to their heels, the 30 Loyalists running south and the 700 rebels running north “with a speed and steadiness of purpose,” said Mackenzie, “that would have baffled pursuit on foot.”
Mackenzie rode back to try to stop them. He offered to lead another advance if 20 men would go with him — no answer. He gave them such a tongue-lashing that a man named Styles raised his rifle to shoot Mackenzie and was only prevented by a soberer comrade.
Another troop, marching downYonge Street, saw a wagonload of cordwood on the brow of a hill and mistook i: for artillery. “The brave warrior* leaped fences right and left like squirrels,” says Samuel Thompson, a Loyalist volunteer, “and could by nc effort of their officers be induce« again to advance.”
At the only real skirmish of the four days, the Battle of Montgomery.Farm on the Thursday, the rebels had no chance. They had lost the greater part of their men by desertion by thaï time; the Loyalists had been greatly reinforced. Moreover the Loyalist; were armed with muskets and two cannon; the rebels had shotguns an« sporting rifles, those who had firearm; at all. They did not face the cannor and musket fire very long; only om man had been killed and a very fe" wounded when the rebels scattered an« the battle was over.
Altogether it wasn’t much of s rebellion. But unlike his “moderate colleagues, Mackenzie at least wa.; there. He didn’t run away until tin battle was over, the force utterh dispersed and no recourse left bu: flight.
Sir Francis Head put a price o: £1,000 on Mackenzie’s head. Anyone caught helping him would be throw: into jail, as several actually were. V he made his way from Toronto t Niagara, hiding in garrets and barn and haystacks; he met dozens 1 people who knew him and some wh hid and helped him were Tories. H
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was not betrayed. A man who could do that must have been more popular than his enemies pretended.
Once in the United States, he did let his grievances get the better of his judgment. He raised troops for the silly, futile capture of Navy Island, a little wooded knoll in the Niagara River just above the falls, which he and his makeshift “army” of American adventurers held, to no purpose at all, for some days. Mackenzie had the good sense to stay out of the various subsequent attempts to invade and “liberate” Canada, but his activity at Navy Island was a violation of the neutrality laws of the United States — a crime for which he had to serve over a year in jail at Rochester, N.Y.
Change of Heart
And whatever may be said of his language previously, it now became unquestionably seditious. The English Government was “the most cruel and tyrannical on the face of the earth”; its servants and soldiers “as cowardly ruffians as ever received the thanks of a she-tyrant.” As for the “shetyrant” Victoria, Mackenzie went so far as to imply that the young Queen was the mistress of her Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne—referred to the English Cabinet as “Victoria Melbourne’s bloody Divan.”
Yet in a few years, he was trying to get back into the land of tyranny and oppression which he had fled. He I didn’t like the United States, once he I got there.
Partly that was because he suffered, in 12 years of exile, the most desperate poverty. When he left Rochester to I .go to New York, after his term in prison, he had to borrow $12, plus j $39 for transportation. In New York he got a job as “actuary of the Me| cha nies Institute,” whatever that may have meant; later he got a clerkship in the New York Custom House at $700 a year. Not until 1846, when he became a staff writer for Horace i Greeley’s New York Tribune, did he really earn enough to keep his family.
Meanwhile the family itself had been growing. Isabel had borne her eighth baby and seventh daughter a few months before the Rebellion; during the exile three boys and two more girls were born. The youngest, Isabel, arrived in 1843 at the very depth of the Mackenzie fortunes: her parents debated quite seriously whether it was worth-while even trying to raise the child for they could see no way to feed another mouth. But she did survive, to become the wife of John King and the mother of the present Prime Minister of Canada.
All this gave Mackenzie a dark view of the United States. “The more I see of this country,” he wrote privately in 1842, “the more do I regret the attempt at revolution . . .” And he wrote to his son in 1847: “I frankly confess to you that had I passed nine years in the United States before, instead of after, the outbreak, I am very sure I would have been the last man in America to be engaged in it.”
Even that conclusion didn’t last. He was cured of rebellion, when an amnesty let him come back to Canada in 1849. “Canada is now as bitter as it was in 1836,” he wrote to a friend in 1854, “but they'll not catch this child within the revolutionary circle. One remembers burnt fingers.”
But he did swing around against Britain again. “My reading and personal experience enable me to say that the (United) States are far preferable to Canada” in their government, he said in 1860 in what must have been his last publication, An
Almanac of Independence and Freedom. “Having long been aware that good government and British power here are incompatible, I have counseled the advocacy of independence.”
Indeed, it’s hard to define any one political principle for which Mackenzie stood throughout life. He was the first to suggest Confederation of all British American colonies, which he urged in his newspaper in 1824. But by 1827 be had decided it wouldn’t be much good and he took no part in the real work for Confederation in the late 1850’s.
For Responsible Government, he fought 13 years and sacrificed all he had, yet he became highly dubious of it once it came into effect—“a mockery of Responsible Government,” he called it, “responsibility to the majority of an hour in the Assembly.” By 1846 he had come to think the best solution for the colonies would be “a direct, real, uncorrupt, equal and efficient representation in the (British) House of Commons.”
But though he might have denied the wayward child, Mackenzie does perhaps look more like the Father of Responsible Government than any other single man. He never formed a firm, permanent conclusion as to the best means of establishing responsibility. But he spent his whole life before the rebellion and through the years of exile and return, striving for the essence of responsibility, the control by the governed of their governors.
William Smith, in “Political Leaders of Upper Canada,” an excellent book which is the source of several of the foregoing quotations, sums up Mackenzie’s role very neatly: “Mackenzie’s essential service to the country— perhaps the greatest it was given to a man at that time to render-—was to awaken in his fellows the self-respect befitting members of a free country, and to inspire them with a resolution to exercise due control over their Government.”
Independence of spirit—that was Mackenzie’s quality. He was fanatically and fantastically honest, in a day when corruption was taken for granted. When he appealed for reform of the Canadian postal system, Lord Goderich offered to make him Deputy Postmaster-General for Upper Canada, a very lucrative post. “So far as I am concerned the arrangement would be very beneficial,” Mackenzie said, “but your lordship must see that the evil I complain of would be perpetuated instead of remedied. I must therefore decline the offer.”
That is the kind of thing which explains Mackenzie’s remarkable hold on the people of his time. When he came back after 12 years of exile, during which a steady stream of vilification had been poured on his name by foe and by ex-friend, he decided to re-enter politics. He didn’t wait for a general election in order to stand in his old riding of York, he took the first by-election that came along, which happened to be Haldimand. George Brown, a leading Reformer and editor of the powerful Toronto Globe, was running there, and a Tory candidate as well. Mackenzie ran as an independent and beat both of them.
Once in Parliament, he kept away from all party ties—but like a true idealist he inclined to the Opposition, even though his old Reform friends were now the Government.
It wasn’t inconsistency. Mackenzie’s hatred was of privilege of the power that corrupts.
One memento of William Lyor.
ylackenzie, now in possession of his grandson, Prime Minister King, is a ¿mall and battered Bible which he used for controversy.
He’d clip texts from it to save jopying them out, so that half its pages have holes in them, but other Favorite texts are underscored in pencil. All these chosen passages breathe hatred of the “Scribes and Pharisees —hypocrites”:
“Woe unto you, lawyers! for ye have taken away the key of knowledge: ye entered not in yourselves and them that were entering in ye hindered.”
“Go to now, ye rich men, weep and how! for your miseries that shall come upon you. Your riches are corrupted
and your garments are moth-eaten.” That for the Family Compact. Egerton Ryerson, whom Mackenzie had been attacking off and on for nearly 30 years as a “canting hypocritical priest,” wrote this estimate of him at the time of his death:
“With a Scotsman’s idea of justice and freedom, Mr. Mackenzie felt a longing desire to right the wrongs he saw everywhere around him. This constituted, as he believed, his mission as a public man in Canada, and it furnishes the key to his life and character . . . Every evil which he discerned was in his estimation truly an evil and all evils were about of equal magnitude.” ★