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William Lyon MacKenzie
Chapter II - Early Years


THE part played by William Lyon Mackenzie in the making of Canada embraces the political history of Upper Canada, and more particularly of the Reform party in Upper Canada, from the year 1824, when he came upon the scene as the editor and publisher of a newspaper in the interests of good government and constitutional reform, down to the outbreak in December, 1837. Mackenzie's work and influence may also not unfairly be held to extend to the results of the revolutionary movement with which he was identified—to Lord Durham's mission, his Report, which formed the basis of the Union Act of 1840, the beneficent change of imperial policy towards Canada, and the reforms which followed in its train. The good as well as the ill should be weighed in the balance of popular judgment. The period itself was one of unrest and growing discontent, of agitation and turbulence, of stress and storm, but it was also a period of rapid development of public opinion in favour of a radical change in the constitution of the Canadas. Mackenzie was conspicuous all those years as a journalist and parliamentarian, employing every legitimate means and power at his command for the progress and improvement of political conditions, and the betterment of the people. The culmination of the struggle was a civil war, undertaken and ended unsuccessfully for the concession to Canada of those principles of self-government within the Empire which were denied the advocates and friends of reform, and the denial of which, under circumstances of intolerable provocation, set the country aflame with insurrection.

In writing this biography it will be my duty, as far as convenient, to allow the subject of it to tell his own tale; and where opinions must be expressed, it will be my aim to make them judicial and just, though I may not conceive that he was always right, either in act or opinion.

Mackenzie's parents were married at Dundee, Scotland, on May 8th, 1794. Of this marriage, William Lyon Mackenzie, the subject of this biography, was the sole issue. He was born at Springfield, Dundee, on March 12th, 1795; and his father died when the child was only twenty-seven days old. His mother, by the death of her husband, who left behind him no property of any account, became to a great extent dependent upon her relatives, of whom she had several in the Highlands; and she sometimes lived with one and sometimes with another. Some of them were poor, others well to do; but the mother always managed, by some ingenuity of industry, to keep a humble home over the heads of herself and her boy. Her constitutional temperament always kept her busy, let her be where she might, her highly nervous organization rendering inaction difficult to her, except towards the close of her life. In this respect, there was a remarkable resemblance between herself and her son; and from her, it may safely be affirmed, he derived the leading mental characteristics that distinguished him through life.

Her dark eyes were sharp and piercing, though generally quiet; but when she was in anger, which did not often occur, they flashed out such gleams of fire as might well appal an antagonist. The small mouth and the thin, compressed lips, in harmony with the whole features, told of that unconquerable will which she transmitted to her son. The forehead was broad and high, and the face seldom relaxed into perfect placidity; there were always on the surface indications of the working of the indomitable feelings within.

Her strong religious bias made Mrs. Mackenzie an incessant reader of the Scriptures, and such religious books as were current among the Seceders. With this kind of literature she early imbued the mind of her son; and the impressions thus formed were never wholly effaced. The strongest reciprocal affection existed between her and her son, at whose house she spent the last seventeen years of her life, having followed him to Canada in 1822. She had attained the mature age of ninety years when she died, a fact which goes to show that it was through her that Mackenzie inherited a physical frame capable of extraordinary endurance, as well as his natural mental endowments.

Daniel Mackenzie, father of the subject of this biography, is described as a man of dark complexion ; and his grandfather, Colin Mackenzie, used to bear the cognomen of "Colin Dhu," or black Colin. Daniel learned weaving in all its branches; but, entering into an unprofitable commercial speculation, he was reduced to keeping a few looms for the manufacture of "green cloth."

In June, 1824, just when he had entered on his editorial career, Mackenzie was called upon to meet the charge of disloyalty; and his defence, which traces his ancestry, is in his happiest mood.

"My ancestors," he said, "stuck fast to the legitimate race of kings, and, though professing a different religion, joined Charles Stuart, whom (barring his faith) almost all Scotland considered as its rightful sovereign. Colin Mackenzie, my paternal grand-sire, was a farmer under the Earl of Airly in Glenshee, in the highlands of Perthshire; he, at the command of his chieftain, willingly joined the Stuart standard, in the famous 1745, as a volunteer. My mother's father, also named Colin Mackenzie, and from the same glen, had the honour to bear a commission from the prince, and served as an officer in the Highland army. Both my ancestors fought for the royal descendant of their native kings; and after the fatal battle of Culloden, my grandfather accompanied his unfortunate prince to the Low Countries, and was abroad with him on the continent, following his adverse fortunes for years. He returned at length, married, in his native glen, my grandmother, Elizabeth, a daughter of Mr. Spalding of Ashintully Castle, and my aged mother was the youngest but two of ten children, the fruit of that marriage. The marriage of my parents was not productive of lasting happiness; my father, Daniel Mackenzie, returned to Scotland from Carlisle, where he had been to learn the craft of Rob Roy's cousin, Deacon Jarvie of the Saltmarket, Glasgow, in other words, the weaving business, took sickness, became blind, and, in the second year of his marriage with my mother, died, being in his twenty-eighth or twenty-ninth year. I was only three weeks old at his death; my mother took upon herself those vows which our Church prescribes as needful at baptism, and was left to struggle with misfortune, a poor widow, in want and in distress. . . .

"Well may I love the poor, greatly may I esteem the humble and the lowly, for poverty and adversity were my nurses, and in youth were want and misery my familiar friends; even now it yields a sweet satisfaction to my soul that I can claim kindred with the obscure cotter and the humble labourer of my native, ever honoured, ever loved Scotland.

"My mother feared God, and He did not forget nor forsake her; never in my early years can I recollect that divine worship was neglected in our little family, when health permitted; never did she in family prayer forget to implore that He, who doeth all things well, would establish in righteousness the throne of our monarch, setting wise and able counsellors around it. A few of my relations were well to do, but many of them were poor farmers and mechanics, (it is true my mother could claim kindred with some of the first families in Scotland; but who that is great and wealthy can sit down to count kindred with the poor?) yet amongst these poor husbandmen, as well as among their ministers, were religion and loyalty held in as due regard as they had been by their ancestors in the olden time. Was it from the precept, was it from the example, of such a mother and such relations, that I was to imbibe that disloyalty, democracy, falsehood, and deception, with which my writings are by the government editor1 charged? Surely not. If I had followed the example shown me by my surviving parent, I had done well; but as I grew up I became careless, and neglected public and private devotion. Plainly can I trace, from this period, the commencement of those errors of the head and of the heart which have since embittered my cup, and strewed my path with thorns, where at my age I might naturally have expected to pluck roses." . . .

His first school teacher was Mr. Kinnear, of Dundee, who was master of a parish school. One of his schoolmates, from whom I have sought information, describes him as "a bright boy with yellow hair, wearing a short blue coat with yellow buttons." Though very small when he first entered school, he was generally at the head of his class. His progress in arithmetic, particularly, was very rapid. He was often asked to assist other boys in the solution of problems which baffled their skill; and, while he rendered this service, he would pin papers or draw grotesque faces with chalk on their coat-backs.

At the age of ten years, some difficulty occurring between him and his mother, he resolved to leave home and set up on his own account. For this purpose he induced some other boys of about his own age to accompany him to the Grampian Hills, among which he had often been taken, and where, in a small castle which was visible from Dundee, and of which they intended to take possession, they made the romantic resolve of leading the life of hermits. They never reached the length of the castle, however, and after strolling about a few days, during part of which they were terribly frightened at the supposed proximity of fairies, they were glad to trudge their way back to the town, half famished. This incident is characteristic, and might have been regarded as prophetic; for the juvenile brain that planned such enterprises would not be likely to be restrained, in after life, where daring was required. It is probable that the difficulty between young Lyon and his mother, which led to this escapade, arose out of the long reading tasks which it was her custom to impose upon him. He was in this way thoroughly drilled in the Westminster Catechism and Confession of Faith; he learned the Psalms and large portions of the Bible by rote, and was early initiated into Baxter's Call to the Unconverted, and several similar works. When one of these tasks had been given him, his mother used to confine him closely till it had been mastered. This early exercise of the memory, it may be reasonably assumed, tended to give to that faculty the strength which in after life was a source of astonishment to many.

Those who did not know Mackenzie's personal habits often attributed to his unaided memory much that was the result of reference to those stores of information which he never ceased to collect, and which were so arranged as to admit of easy access at any moment. He has left in his own hand-writing a list of "some of the books read between the years 1806 and 1819," in which are fifty-four works under the head of "divinity," one hundred and sixty-eight on history and biography, fifty-two of travels and voyages, thirty-eight on geography and topography, eighty-five on poetical and dramatic literature, forty-one on education, fifty-one on arts, science, and agriculture, one hundred and sixteen miscellaneous, and three hundred and fifty-two novels; making, in all, nine hundred and fifty-eight volumes in thirteen years. One year he read over two hundred volumes. With his tenacious memory, Mackenzie must have been enabled to draw, from time t9 time, upon these stores, during the rest of his life. The works are confined almost exclusively to the English language; and the truth is, that he had only an imperfect knowledge of any other. Of a tendency to scepticism, of which he was accused in the latter part of his life— with what justice will hereafter be seen—there is, in the works which must have tended to give a cast to his mind, an almost entire absence.

In early youth, politics already possessed a charm for him, the Dundee, Perth and Cupar Advertiser, the first newspaper he ever read, serving to gratify this inclination. But he was soon admitted to a wider range of political literature; for he was introduced to the Dundee news-room at so early a period of life that he was for years after its youngest member.

For a short time after leaving school, and when he must have been a mere boy, he was put into Henry Tullock's draper shop, Dundee ; but disliking the work he did not long remain there, probably only a few months. He afterwards became an indentured clerk in the counting-house of Gray, a druggist in a large way of business in Dundee. It was probably while in the counting-house of Gray, that Mackenzie acquired that knowledge of the mysteries of accounts which afterwards made his services of considerable value as chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts in the assembly of Canada, and which enabled him to render important service in the Welland Canal investigation, and on other occasions when financial mysteries had to be solved.

At an early age, apparently when he was about nineteen, he went into business for himself at Alyth, some twenty miles from Dundee, setting up a general store in connection with a circulating library. He remained there for three years, when the result of inexperience assumed the shape of a business failure. His creditors were all honourably paid after he had acquired the necessary means in Canada, at the distance of some years. It was about the middle of May, 1817, when he left Alyth; and he soon afterwards went to England, where at one time we find him filling the situation of clerk to the Kennett and Avon Canal Company, at another time in London; and he used to relate that he was for a short time in the employ of Earl Lonsdale as a clerk.

The idea of going to Canada is said to have been first suggested to him by Edward Lesslie, of Dundee. Before starting he visited France. The date of this visit cannot be fixed with certainty; but it was probably in November or December, 1819. He confesses to having, a little before this time, 42 plunged into the vortex of dissipation and contracted a fondness for play. But all at once he abandoned the dangerous path on which he had entered, and after the age of twenty-one never played a game at cards. A more temperate man than he was, for the rest of his life, it would have been impossible to find.

In April, 1820, Mackenzie was among the passengers of the Psyche bound for Canada, a young man just turned twenty-five years of age, who, without having enjoyed any other advantages of education than the parochial and secondary schools of Dundee offered, had a mind well stored with varied information which he had devoured with keen literary appetite and appreciation. It wag fated that this young man should change the destiny of the country to which the good ship Psyche was bearing him. He was of slight build and scarcely of medium height, being only five feet six inches in stature. His massive head, high and broad in the frontal region and well rounded, looked too large for the slight wiry frame it surmounted. He was already bald from the effects of a fever. His keen, restless, piercing blue eyes, which threatened to read your most inward thoughts, and the ceaseless and expressive activity of his fingers, which unconsciously opened and closed, betrayed a temperament that could not brook inaction. The chin was long and rather broad; and the firm-set mouth indicated a will which, however it might be baffled and thwarted, could not be subdued. The lips, firmly pressed together, constantly undulated in a mass, moving all that part of the face which lies below the nostrils; with this motion the twinkling of the eyes seemed to keep time, and gave an appearance of unrest to the whole countenance.

After his arrival in Canada, Mackenzie was for a short time employed in connection with the survey of the Lachine Canal; but it could only have been a few weeks, for in the course of the summer he entered into business in York, as the present city of Toronto was then called. There John Lesslie and he were in the book and drug business, the profits of the books going to Lesslie, and those of the drugs to Mackenzie. The question arose of finding another place at which to establish a second business, and Dundas was selected. Here he conducted the business of the partnership for fifteen or sixteen months, during which time, I have heard him say, a clear cash profit of £100 a month was made, until the partnership was dissolved, by mutual consent, in the early part of 1823. A division of the partnership effects was then made; and, in papers which have been preserved, Mackenzie appears as a purchaser from the firm of Mackenzie & Lesslie to the amount of £686 19s 3½d. The goods included in this purchase were as miscellaneous as can well be imagined, and with this stock a separate business was commenced; but it was not long continued, for in the autumn of the same year Mackenzie removed 44 to Queenston, and there opened a general store. He remained only a year; and before the expiration of that time he had abandoned commerce for politics ; the stock of goods was disposed of to a storekeeper in the country; and, as a journalist, he made the first step in the eventful career which opens with this period of his life.

While living in Dundas, Mackenzie was married on July 1st, 1822, at Montreal. Miss Isabel Baxter,1 his bride, may be said to have been a native of the same town as himself; for she was born at Dundee, and he at Springfield, a suburb of the same place; they both were at the same school together.

Up to this time, Mackenzie had not held any other office in Canada than that of school trustee; and he confessed that even that mark of public confidence inspired him with pride. He and David Thorburn were elected to that office at the same time, at Queenston.

1 Miss Isabel Baxter was the second daughter of Peter Baxter of Dundee, Forfarshire, Scotland, who settled near Kingston in the county of Frontenac, where he became the owner of a valuable farm property, which, after his death, passed into the hands of George Baxter, one of his sons. George Baxter was master of the Royal Grammar School at Kingston, and had, as two of his pupils, Sir Richard Cartwright and the late Sir John A. Macdonald. His sister, Isabel, who married Mackenzie, came to Canada with Mackenzie's mother, and the marriage took place three weeks after her arrival. The youthful bride, who had scarce attained her majority, has been described as "a bright, handsome, Scotch lassie, who preserved her refined features, and her gentle, winsome manner till past the age of seventy." Mrs. Mackenzie died at Toronto 011 January 12th, 1873, in her seventy-first year. See sketch of her life, with portrait, at page 221 of Morgan's interesting work on Types of Canadian Women (1903).


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