William Lyon Mackenzie

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William Lyon Mackenzie (1795-1861) was a Canadian rebel who led the failed 1837 rebellion in Upper Canada (now Ontario). A puritan with a mission to bring democracy to Canada, and a tireless journalist, he dominated the political opposition to the hated pro-British Tories. Mackenzie did much to popularize other people’s ideas and expressed with complete sincerity the grievances felt by many Upper Canadians prior to the rebellion. Only a small minority of reformers joined his poorly organized rebellion. The 1837 revolts led to a series of reforms that eventually led to democracy in Canada, but historians debate how much credit he deserves.

Born in Scotland, he immigrated to Canada in 1820, where he soon became a spokesman and an influential leader of the political reform movement that eventually erupted in rebellion. He advocated republicanism based on the American model. In 1824 he established a newspaper, the Colonial Advocate. He repeatedly attacked the oligarchic rule of the "Family Compact", the elite of Upper Canada. His forthright and forceful crusading journalism gained him widespread popularity. Mackenzie attracted more attention for his opinions than for his information. After moving to the capital at York (Toronto), his readership spread throughout Upper Canada. The government enlisted young toughs to ransack his shop, smash his press and throw his type in the river but he won a lawsuit against them that made his business financially stable. Elected to the assembly in 1828, he was expelled five times by the Tory majority and reelected five times by his constituents. He became the first mayor of Toronto in 1834.

Mackenzie admired American republican institutions and advocated the election of executive officers. The more moderate reformers, led by the Methodist spokesman Egerton Ryerson and the respected Anglican lawyer Robert Baldwin, drew back as Mackenzie and his supporters moved closer to open rebellion

In 1837 spontaneous republican uprisings broke out in both Upper Canada (Ontario), led by Mackenzie, and Lower Canada (Quebec), led by Louis Joseph Papineau. They were unplanned and disorganized, and British troops and loyal militia quickly scattered the rebels. Mackenzie and Papineau escaped to the United States where they hoped to enlist help to liberate the British provinces. Although sporadic border raids occurred in 1837 and 1838, Washington remained neutral, and the raids merely strengthened Loyalism. Mackenzie was pardoned in 1849 and returned to Toronto. He was elected to Parliament, 1851-58, where he advocated reforms but managed to alienate most of his allies.

His grandson William Lyon Mackenzie King was long-time prime minister of Canada in the 20th century.

Further reading

  • Armstrong, Frederick H., and Ronald J. Stagg. "Mackenzie, William Lyon," Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online (2009), the best place to start. online edition
  • Clark, S. D. Movements of Political Protest in Canada, 1640–1840 (1959), sociological perspective
  • Flint, David. William Lyon Mackenzie: rebel against authority (1971), scholarly biography
  • Gates, Lillian F. After the Rebellion: The Later Years of William Lyon Mackenzie. (1988). 413 pp. excerpts and text search
  • Gates, Lillian F. "The Decided Policy of William Lyon Mackenzie", "Canadian Historical Review" 40 (1959)
  • Greer, Allan. "1837-38: Rebellion Reconsidered". Canadian Historical Review 1995 76(1): 1-18.
  • Kilbourn, William. The Firebrand: William Lyon Mackenzie and the Rebellion in Upper Canada (1956) online edition
  • J. Edgar Rea. "Rebellion in Upper Canada, 1837" Manitoba Historical Society Transactions Series 3, 22 (1965-66) online, historiography
  • Lindsey, Charles. The life and times of Wm. Lyon Mackenzie (1863) full text online
  • Read, Colin. The Rising in Western Upper Canada, 1837-8: The Duncombe Revolt and After. (1982). 327 pp.
  • Read, Colin and Stagg, Ronald J., eds. The Rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada. (1985), primary sources.
  • MacKay, R. A. "The Political Ideas of William Lyon Mackenzie", Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science 3 (1937) in JSTOR
  • Sewell, John. Mackenzie: A Political Biography of William Lyon Mackenzie‎ (2002) 249 pages; latest scholarly biography excerpt and text search

Primary sources

  • Mackenzie, William Lyon. The Selected Writings of William Lyon Mackenzie, 1824-1837‎, ed. by Margaret Fairley (1960) - 383 pages
  • Read, Colin, and Ronald Stagg, eds. The Rebellion Of 1837 In Upper Canada - A Collection of Ducuments (1985), 100pp intro and 370pp of primary sources
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