Post details: William Lyon Mackenzie


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Categories: Canadiana

William Lyon Mackenzie

W. L. Mackenzie

The fellow above is probably more famous in Toronto than other places... but he put into motions the wheels that would change the way Canada and much of the British Empire would be governed for years to come.

William Lyon Mackenzie was born in 1795 in Dundee, Scotland and emigrated to Canada in 1820 where, without a doubt, he left an indelible mark.

He initially settled in Queenston and set up a printing shop and newspaper... but moved in 1824 to the growing city of York (also the provinces capital... and now named Toronto) and started a new paper.

The Colonial Advocate was much more than just a news sheet... to be honest, it had Mackenzie's wit and biting commentary on the political situations of the day... which weren't too good for "The Little Guy".

York and Upper Canada were under the silly-but-far-too-firm thumb of a group of people known as "The Family Compact". Basically, the older, wealthier citizens basically ran every political and service situation in the province... and never did they let in "outsiders" unless forced to by the crown in England.

It was so bad that Mackenzie noted, in one of his more humourous articles, that in order for a fictional landed immigrant to get his papers in order, he needed to speak to a provincial clerk... in order to get his grants in order, he needed to speak to the land registrar... in order to get his banking in order, he needed to speak to the financial administrator... and even to buy his new hat, he needed to speak to the finest haberdasher... oddly enough, all these fellows were one man... "Mister William Allan".

Mackenzie busted the chops in his press about these "upstarts", reminding them that "back in dear old England", they were not the hoity-toity folks they made themselves out to be... "Boot blacks" and "Butcher's assistants" he reminded the ruling oligarchy what their TRUE roots were... not so high and mighty as they'd like to believe.

Mackenzie appealed through his wit and writings to the common man... so much so, that he became a member of the provincial legislature with an overwhelming majority.

The problem was, Mackenzie may have had a large following with the common folk, but was absolutely reviled and genuinely hated by the ruling classes. They saw to it that although he had a "say" in politics, it didn't last... finding every reason in the world to bar him from setting foot in the provincial parliament and government sittings.

This, of course, simply spurred more editorial venom from his newspaper which eventually got so bad, it led to an incident known as "The Types Riots". A gang of city-youth and supporters ransacked and destroyed Mackenzie's presses... and were determined to ransack and destroy him bodily as well! Had it not been for the intervention of another less-than-popular-with-the-ruling-folks York personality, the already mentioned James Fitzgibbon, it's a given they might just have succeeded. Mackenzie was basically trying to "stand his ground" (really meaning instant beatings from the group) but Fitzgibbon literally used his sheer presence to walk through the crowds and, kicking and screaming, drag Mackenzie to the safety of the town jail.

Fitzgibbon, from all accounts, had little love of Mackenzie who he thought was more than a little cuckoo, but none-the-less, and as acting constable, managed to raise the money from the very families Mackenzie loathed (most of who's sons were responsible for the riot) to replace the presses... This avoided serious consequences for the young men and allowed Mackenzie to continue his efforts... Fitzgibbon's double-edged sword didn't really make him many friends, but it was fair and just.

Growing more and more frustrated, Mackenzie (now being expelled from the provincial legislature and his rightful seat six times... mostly for flying into a rage on the floor...) finally had enough. He thought the only way to dislodge the Family Compact and the resident and even more unpopular Lieutenant Governor General at the time, Sir Francis Bond Head, was to do it with strength.

During this time, in 1834, Mackenzie ran and was successful at becoming York's (Toronto's) first mayor... as a lesser known fact, he was responsible for the city's first sidewalks. Sadly, not enough power to really make the changes he knew had to happen.

Now, before going too far here, Mackenzie REALLY wanted to avoid any sort of violent confrontation... and he was not an anti-monarchist... he was only an anti-Family Compact man... and wanted representation on the provincial level by popular vote without disruption.

To this end he did go to London... and met with then (extremely unpopular) Tory Prime Minister The Duke of Wellington who thoughtfully told him that he saw "Canadians" as "His Majesty's Loyal Yankees".

Okay, before I move forward... Many American assume (incorrectly) that Yankees ONLY came from above the Mason/Dixon line... sorry to say, this is not accurate. All Americans, before the American Civil War, were proud to be Yankees and "Yankee Doodle" was a popular marching tune in 1812 for Kentucky riflemen! "Yankee", to many Canadians and Englishmen, is a general pejorative for all Americans... The Confederate Forces during the American Civil War were hoping for Britain to come in on their side... Ergo: The South weren't those awful "Yankees" the Brits and Canadians hated so much... and that's how the name became ONLY synonymous with Northerners... despite it being a coverall earlier on.

...moving on...

The Duke's words stung... and Mackenzie was in a fit of pique. It was Rebellion or nothing!

In 1837, he rounded up 800 "patriots" and started to plan his attack on York... the provincial capital housed the main armourments for the militia and he figured, take those, and it's all but over... Bond-Head and the Family Compact would have to sue for peace.

Interestingly enough, Fitzgibbon knew of the plans... had warned Bond-Head and tried to muster the militia early under his command. Bond-Head, not believing the news, told him to relax and called up Allan McNab, a member of the family compact to command the York militia SHOULD anything come up thus removing Fitzgibbon from his post. For three days, Fitzgibbon laid "sick" in bed... realistically, he was ticked and depressed... McNab had little military experience and every day they didn't check the rebels, they could grow stronger... and he was feeling helpless about it.

Finally, in December, Mackenzie put his bold plans into operation... He rallied 400 men North at Montgomery's Tavern (near present-day Yonge and Eglinton) and was to meet up with Napoleonic War veteran and fellow "patriot", Anthony van Egmond, who would lead the other 400 West from the area around present day Todmorden Mills. The plan was to meet at a central location and then on to Fort York to grab the militia's arms... when they would be joined by rebels from London (further West) headed by a fellow named Charles Duncombe. A three-pronged attack by a large group of patriots!

The problems started immediately... First issue was Anthony van Egmond lost his nerve... he felt the plan and operation foolish and didn't bother to muster his troops... thus half the forces for the patriots never even made it across the Don River from their homes.

The next problem was a small group of militia officers, headed by Colonel Robert Moodie, were behind the rebels and saw the road blocks they'd set up... the men rode through them to warn Bond-Head of the advance... Moodie was killed, but his comrades managed to make it in time... more than enough time...

With McNab still in Hamilton, Bond-Head could only do one thing, in a panic, he called on Fitzgibbon.

Oh, again, I should interject... there was a considerable force of British Red Coat regulars in Upper Canada... but in the Autumn of 1837, another much more bloody and sad rebellion failed in Lower Canada... and Bond-Head thoughtfully sent these well-trained warriors off to assist in quelling that rebellion... thus leaving York defended only by the militia.

Fitzgibbon mustered the militia and had them out and in column heading to the tavern... 300 militia faced 400 patriots...

...but the patriots were not trained... and the militia, under the firm hand of Fitzgibbon, fired a few volleys that wreaked havoc on their ranks... they fired a few canon rounds at the tavern... the patriots turned and fled. Mackenzie was now a wanted traitor... his rebellion shattered in a few short hours.

Oh, by the way... the vacillating McNab did also fight that day, turning the forces from London around in Hamilton.

Mackenzie, however, knew the game was up... he mounted his white pony and raced for sanctuary South of the border... he raced without pause to a cemetery near the Niagara river, boarded a small boat and made tracks safely to America.

Once there and reasonably safe, Mackenzie wasn't through... he was a patriot... and with many of his fellow patriots now under arrest and two eventually being sentenced to hang, Mackenzie was not about to give in so easily.

Oh, the two gentlemen who would hang... Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews... Their exectution was considered by most to be a very unpopular move with pretty much the populace as a whole... even one of York's more famed residents, Joseph Sheard, who was a carpenter and builder refused to build the gallows for the men saying to the government, "I'll not put a hand to it, Lount and Matthews have done nothing that I might not have done myself and I’ll never help to build a gallows to hang them", but they were built by others and they hung them anyway.

On December 13th, Mackenzie set up a "provisional government" in Rochester, New York, (and eventually, moved his HQ to Navy Island... but we'll get there...) for what he declared to (eventually) be "The Republic of Canada"... heck, he even had a flag designed! Two large white stars (one for Lower Canada, the other for Upper Canada... which he saw entering the American union at the time) on a field of blue... below, in red letters on a field of white, the word "LIBERTY". He mustered the aid of a little steamer ship named The Caroline which he saw transporting troops and supplies for his cause. Mackenzie's plan was to muster American supporters and planned a new attack.

Of course, Allan McNab also got wind of this and had two-thousand, five-hundred men waiting in Chippawa for him.

For two weeks, McNab and his men watched as Mackenzie built up his supplies and men on Navy Island (in the middle of the Niagara River above the falls... and American territory...) but didn't act. They didn't want to incite an American response to something on their own soil...

Finally, on December 29th, Andrew Drew, a former Royal Navy commander who had served under Lord Admiral Nelson, picked a group of men and quietly made their way to Navy Islands... they found The Caroline, quietly attacked her guards, sliced her hawsers, set her on fire, and let her drift, ablaze, over the falls... and went back over to Canada.

Truth to tell, however, it's more likely that The Caroline ran aground on a small island and burned into the water... but the image of the burning Caroline going over the falls is much more romantic... and is the "popular" version told even then.

The official American reaction was initially anger... Americans had been hurt and killed in the raid... American property destroyed! Drew was "charged" with murder in a New York court and found guilty in absentia... The US federal government eventually sent General Winfield Scott in to quell the issues on the American side... The United States weren't (officially) too thrilled with Mackenzie's exploits and didn't want a war with Canada and Britain... so it was "put to bed". were the dreams of The Republic of Canada...

Mackenzie eventually abandoned Navy Island and his plans for "The Republic of Canada"... his troops were experiencing fire from the British on the Canadian side which prompted this decision...

He initially went to Buffalo, but was still so incensed over the lack of American support for his cause, he left Buffalo for New York City. While en route, he was arrested by the Americans for breaching neutrality laws and spent 18 months in jail. While there, and with his newfound understanding of the Glorious American Republic's political workings... those that he so wished to mimic in his own republic, he wrote a book that was quite popular in the States condemning the graft, corruption, and general misdeeds of American politicians... and the system itself.

Mackenzie had come full circle and realised... the grass really wasn't that much greener... The same problems existed, but instead of a small group of pseudo-peerage running things poorly, in America, it was a small group of the very wealthy running things poorly.

Believe it or not, this rebel... this warlord... this traitor... was granted access to come home to Canada six years after his arrest in New York under a general amnesty in 1849. His supporters ended up winning his arguments and Queen Victoria enacted "Responsible Government" for the colonies... thus, the Governor Generals of Canada would now be selected by the elected parties... not appointed by the crown. The Family Compact ended with a whimper and the force of Vox Populi had won...

His followers (which had actually grown in number) bought him a modest town home and welcomed him back in grand style... these same folks would also eventually place a huge memorial in the Toronto Necropolis for Lount and Matthews... the two men that were hanged for their part in the rebellion.

In 1851, Mackenzie was again elected to provincial legislature (again, remember... the traitor... the rebel... the man who led an armed revolt... he's now back in government!) where he served until 1858.

Mackenzie, the rebel... the firebrand... one of the true fathers of responsible government... died in Toronto in 1861... and is buried in the Necropolis... the same burial ground as his Lount and Matthews.

It's quite striking, really... most Torontonians only know this man by his painted image on the College Street subway station... that "old guy", I've heard him referred to.

They also have a small inkling of him thanks to the house that was bought for him being a museum now... but it's more of a "pioneer village" type home in downtown Toronto where the guides concentrate on furnishings and how it's "heated" rather than the man who inhabited it.

Mackenzie was an oddity in Canada... a little crazy, perhaps, but not one to acquiesce to the ruling authority.

...and although his methods were extreme... his and a handful of others paved the way to a good democratic government in Canada.

His importance was vast... despite the fact that many only are aware of him for his grandson... William Lyon Mackenzie King... who was Canada's prime-minister throughout World War II and beyond... in fact, King was Canada's longest termed Prime Minister...

...but where would he be without Grandpa?



Comment from: Chris [Visitor] ·
I just love Canadian history and this is just fabulous! Please keep on blogging about my favorite topic and we will help you hold the torch of history forever!

PermalinkPermalink 03/15/07 @ 16:46
Comment from: Admin [Member] Email ·
Chris -> Thank you for your kind words ... :) We appreciate them!
PermalinkPermalink 03/15/07 @ 17:24

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