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William Lyon MacKenzie
Chapter XVI - Last Years, Illness and Death


FEW men who have led a life of great mental activity long survive the abandonment of their accustomed habits of labour. Nor was it different with William Lyon Mackenzie. When he resigned his seat in the legislative assembly in 1858, few of his colleagues were equal to the endurance he underwent. It was no uncommon thing for him to burn the midnight oil till streaks of gray were visible in the eastern horizon. He would do this three or four nights in the week. Every one thought there were still many years of wear in his slender but wiry frame; but the seeds of mortality had been already sown in his system. During the last two years of his life he failed more rapidly than his most intimate friends were able to realize; and to declining health there supervened pecuniary embarrassments which cast a gloom over the close of his existence. But hopes of brighter days always cheered him even in the darkest hour of adversity, and he was constantly trying to inspire others, with whom he was in intimate relations, with the same feeling.

Of a highly sensitive nature and somewhat secretive, he was never fully understood, perhaps, even by his most intimate friends. There was no sacrifice which he would not cheerfully make for his children ; he could enter into all their childish feelings, and would at almost any time leave his studies to engage in their play; yet he was sometimes unapproachable. The rude collisions with the world, in which he received so many hard knocks, would temporally weaken the springs of his elastic temper, and, till the fit was over, the gloom that crowded upon his thoughts would cast its dark shade on all around. In his children he took the greatest pride ; and the stern politician, who carried on so many relentless contests, wore the watch of his eldest daughter around his neck for twelve years after her death, in almost superstitious veneration of her who had passed away.

After his return to Canada, his stern independence conciliated the respect of all parties. He was very far from being rich; but he taught the world this moral, that it is not necessary to be rich to be politically independent. Immediately after his return, Isaac Buchanan, with that princely munificence for which he was noted, offered to make him a gift of a thousand dollars; but he refused it, lest it should interfere with his independence of action.

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The late Robert Elay, afterwards M.P. for Centre Toronto in the House of Commons, generously offered to furnish his house from top to bottom —a kindness which was gratefully declined. Twice he was offered office under the government—once directly and once indirectly—but he treated the offers as little short of insults; such was his almost morbid jealousy of a covert attack on his independence. The county of York paid him some £300 due on account of previous legislative services; and the government paid for his services as Welland Canal director before the union. In 1856, some friends started a subscription for a "Mackenzie Homestead;" and after several years' exertions, some £1,250 were collected; of which £950 were invested in a house in Toronto, and the rest loaned by the committee to himself. Owing to a difference of opinion between himself and the committee, he inserted a notice in the public journals, in 1859, refusing to allow any more subscriptions—of which there were about fifteen hundred dollars outstanding—to be collected. From February, 1853, to the autumn of 1860, he published a weekly paper, Mackenzie's Message, but not with great regularity. Latterly he was unable, for various reasons, to give the business of the office the attention which it required; financial difficulties closed in around him, and hope, his constant companion, which had never before deserted him, failed him at last. The inevitable stood in his pathway, although he long refused to recognize it.

For months before he died it was painfully evident that his health was rapidly failing, but his stern will knew no yielding. He declined to admit his physical weakness, and, although complaining of dizziness in walking, persisted in taking this favourite exercise as long as it was possible. Even when confined to his sick chamber, and when recovery was hopeless, he insisted upon his ability to regain his strength, and clung to life with a tenacity that was marvellous. He refused all medicines or stimulants, and it was only by strategy that these could be administered. Towards the close of his illness he was unconscious for days together, his speech, in the periods of fever which was consuming his vitality, recurring pathetically to the Gaelic of his early years. At other times, with mind and faculties active and apparently unclouded, he would insist upon rising and being dressed as for a journey, only to lie down again dispirited and exhausted. On the Sunday preceding his death his indomitable spirit made what proved to be its final effort. He had members of his family about him ministering to his simple wants; he received the visits of a number of old friends, with 506 whom he had very touching interviews; and he listened reverently to the consolations of religion. During the following days he was for the most part unconscious of suffering, and of those who watched beside him, and on Thursday, evening, August 28th, 1861, as the sun was sinking, he passed away. He died broken-hearted with disappointment ; died because he no longer knew where to find the means of existence, and because his proud spirit forbade him to beg. From his most intimate friends, who might have helped him, he concealed" the embarrassments of his pecuniary position. Such was the end of this extraordinary man whose powers of agitation, at one period of his life, gave him an almost absolute command over the masses in his adopted country.

The funeral on the following Saturday afternoon, from the family homestead on Bond Street, was attended by a large concourse of people from the city and country. All classes and creeds, the high and the lowly, old opponents and old friends, were represented in the long cortage of mourning. Many came from distant places to pay their last tribute of respect to the memory of one whom they admired and loved. The remains were interred in the family plot in the Necropolis, with the simple religious service of the Presbyterian Church, of which the deceased was a member. There, "in the long silence of peace," Mackenzie lies buried beside his devoted wife, and surrounded by twelve of his children, a granite column crowned by a Celtic cross marking their last resting-place. One daughter, the youngest of a family of thirteen, alone survives.

The announcement of Mackenzie's death evoked many kindly tributes from the press of Canada, and the lapse of years has, as we have seen, added in grateful measure to the testimony of regard in which his name and services are held by the Canadian people. Considering the proximity of the event to the turbulent period in which he was so prominent an actor, it would have been natural to expect some harshness and severity to mingle, here and there, with the generous words which were published of him when "his tired life's story" came to an end. But of harshness or severity there was none. His appeal to arms against the tyranny of Sir Francis Bond Head and the official party, of which Bond Head was the ruling spirit, was censured in some quarters; but the appeal, it must be admitted, was not in vain. The constituency to which the censures were addressed, or which years, the minister. He was the secretary of the meeting at which the congregation was organized, and, along with the Hon. Mr. Justice Maclean and Mr. Alexander Morris, took a prominent part in the proceedings. He and his family were regular attendants at St. Andrew's, and also, in later years, at Knox Church.

When it became known that his illness had terminated fatally, the Toronto newspapers appeared in mourning columns, and with lengthy and appreciative obituaries. The local press in all parts of Canada was equally pronounced in its notices of the event. It was not forgotten that Mackenzie was not only a veteran of a stormy and exasperating period in the political arena, but that he was also a pioneer and veteran of their own profession ; that, as Sir Henry Lytton Bulwer said of Cobbett, he possessed "the spirit of change, of criticism, of combativeness, which is the spirit of journalism; that he was not only this spirit embodied, but that he represented journalism, and fought the fight of journalism against authority, when it was still a doubt which would gain the day."

Of the many notices of Mackenzie which appeared at that time, the following are fairly indicative of the opinions held of him, and of his character and work, by the newspapers of both political parties. They are necessarily abbreviated, but they are sufficient to show the "spirit of the press": "A man of very great, though sometimes misdirected, ability and energy, he played a great part in his adopted country, and exerted a very important influence over its material and political interests. No history of Canada can be complete in which his name does not occupy a conspicuous, and, we must add, notwithstanding his errors, an honourable position. Whatever may have been the means he employed, his aims were honest and public spirited. He was no money hunter; he was the friend of purity and economy in the administration of public affairs. Let no man who values the political freedom and enlightment we enjoy, fail to give a meed of praise to one who struggled for long years, amidst enormous difficulties, to secure for his country a free constitution and an efficient administration of affairs. Those who have known Mr. Mackenzie as a writer and speaker in his later years only, can form no idea of his power in his younger days. . . . He was at all times a man of impulse, prompt in action, full of courage and fire. No danger could deter him from the accomplishment of his designs; his courage commanded the admiration of his bitterest enemies. In the early struggles of the people of Upper Canada for the privileges of self-government, Mr. Mackenzie's services were invaluable; and, though he committed a grievous error in exciting the people to rebellion, it must be recollected that the insurrection was the immediate cause of the introduction of a new political system. It might have been gained without the rebellion, but the rebellion gained it. Mr. Mackenzie did good service by imparting to the early settlers a love of economy and sound principles in the administration of affairs, which has borne its fruits in the steady adhesion of the people of Upper Canada to these virtues, although they have been overborne under the existing regime by the power of Lower Canada. With many faults, Mr. Mackenzie is borne in affectionate and grateful remembrance by hundreds, we might say, thousands, of the honest yeomanry of Upper Canada, who recall his early labours on their behalf, and bear willing testimony that he never took part in a job, never advocated a measure, which he did not believe to be for the public good. Their regard for him is his best monument."

"Few men have exercised a more potent influence on the affairs of Canada than that wielded by the subject of this notice. He it was who first directed attention to the necessity of those changes in the system of government which were afterwards effected under the auspices of others when he had been driven into exile. . . . Even the rebellion with* all its evils was not without its incidental advantages. It awakened the attention of the imperial government to the monstrous abuses of the oligarchical system which had previously existed, and brought about a beneficial change sooner than it could otherwise have occurred. During his long public career he did many things which he afterwards admitted to be wrong, and for which he expressed the deepest regret; but whatever errors may have blended with his exertions— errors which he himself afterwards frankly admitted —there can be no question that he did much to advance the cause of civil liberty in his adopted country. ... It is now all but universally conceded, that, however erroneous his views, Mr. Mackenzie did everything from a thoroughly honest motive, and in the belief that it was best for the country. He was no trading politician or office-seeker, and the best test of his political virtue is, that he resisted the most alluring temptations when he thought their acceptance would be contrary to the interests of the public. His most intimate friends best knew the value he set upon political honesty, and how deep and utter was his detestation of a tendency to dishonesty or corruption. His great ambition appears to have been to bequeath a name which should be free from the suspicion of corruption or selfishness; and in that we think it will be generally admitted that he succeeded."

"Mr. Mackenzie was all his life one of the most prominent public men in Canada—possessed of great natural ability, industry and perseverance. Though a poor man he was always strictly honest and independent. The part he took in the Rebellion of 1837 is familar to our readers. Mr. Mackenzie for a long time edited the then leading paper in Upper Canada; and was always connected with the press in some shape or other. His principal business in parliament was to scent out and expose jobs and corruption, and unhesitatingly denounce the perpetrators. He also kept a scrapbook ready at hand to pounce upon inconsistent politicians, and convict them out of their own mouths. Though a man of extreme views, there is no doubt as to his sincerity and honesty of purpose. His is, one of those names in the history of Canada that will not be let die. There are many who will regret Mr. Mackenzie's loss; though 'after life's fitful fever he sleeps well.'"

"Mr. Mackenzie, in his prime before the union, occupied a prominent position in the politics of Upper Canada, and, by his energy and power as a public writer and stump orator, lashed the people into rebellion in 1837. ... It is certain that, by the bitterness of his attacks upon the government and the governing class, he stung them to wrath; and possibly, in their exasperation, they may not have been overwise in the language which they in their turn used in denouncing him. It was he who commenced the system of printing extracts from the journals of the legislature, and obnoxious votes, interspersed with capitals and black letters as thick as plums in a pudding—a system of which Mr. George Brown has been an imitator, and which he has pursued with a success almost as great as that of Mr. Mackenzie. ... It must be said of him that, in all his bitter agitation, he was not actuated by any corrupt or sordid motives. The sacrifice of his property was sufficient proof of his sincerity. ... In the House he spoke frequently, and at times he rose to eloquence, and won cheers from all sides. When Lord Elgin strained the constitution at Quebec in favour of Mr. Hincks, by dissolving parliament before a bill was passed, the old man stepped out on the floor to raise his voice against that act of wrongdoing, and aimed his hot, quick words so well that they once again stirred men's blood and produced a marked sensation. . . . His real strength lay in detecting flaws in the public accounts, and to his credit be it said that, during a time of corruption and inflation, he never soiled his hands, or ever obtained any advantage whatever from any party. . . . He was small of stature but physically strong, and, almost to the last, he could spring over a table at a standing jump. He is now gone to his account for the good and evil he has done. We are willing to forget, in as far as may be, past political differences—to remember only the good in his career."

"Mr. Mackenzie's name is mixed up with the constitutional history of Canada to a greater extent, perhaps, than that of any other individual; and, with his many faults, there can be no doubt that he had, throughout all his career, the interests of Canada and of human freedom at heart. In the great struggle in Upper Canada against the Family Compact, as it was then called, which terminated in the Rebellion of 1837, he was a leading spirit, trusted, not only by his own party in that province, but by the French-Canadian majority in Lower Canada then led by Papineau. In the civil war he was the most prominent leader, and had several very narrow escapes. . . . Latterly, those who had sympathized with the man who had laid all his energies, means, and opportunities, on the altar of his country without meeting any reward, contributed a sufficient amount to purchase for him a comfortable homestead where he quietly ended his days."

"The late Mr. Mackenzie appears to have been sincere in all his proceedings. He believed the country, as a colony, oppressed, and he was "determined to bring it immediate relief. He erred, however, in using the sword instead of the pen, and in fostering rebellion instead of loyalty. ... To err, however, is human. Mr. Mackenzie was not, with all his faults, an office seeker, and in this respect presents a strong contrast to the 'look to Washington' men of the present day. He is gone—peace to his ashes."

"As a politician, Mr. Mackenzie was exceedingly-industrious, and brought a vast amount of energy to bear upon whatever he undertook. As a newspaper writer his style was peculiarly his own, and latterly he wrote but little. Few men have gone through so many varying and trying changes as Mr. Mackenzie; yet he flinched not in anything he undertook. He was a man of extraordinary energy and possessed an unconquerable will. Whatever may be said of his faults and follies, and he had many, he was certainly sincere in all he did. As one of the most remarkable men of this country, Mr. Mackenzie departs at a ripe age leaving behind him many memorials of the past."

"No man's career, perhaps, is better known here than his, and while he had his faults as well as other men, it may truly be said of him, that he was ever above those influences which act so powerfully on many public men in Canada. He was always above the money power, and never succumbed to the blandishments of executive patronage; but was ever actuated, we doubt not, by the conviction that he was doing right, however far from it he may have been, so that with all his faults we respect his memory."

"We make no excuse for inserting a lengthy notice on the death of the late W. L. Mackenzie from the columns of the Globe. He played too conspicuous a part in Canadian politics to be passed over with a mere paragraph. Would that it could be said of all politicians, what is universally admitted in regard to Mr. Mackenzie—rhe sought not his own advancement or wealth, but the good of the country. Wayward and impracticable though many esteemed him, yet his aims were not to enrich himself, and he has descended to the grave after a long and busy life with the enviable character of ' An honest man, the noblest work of God.'

"It is unfortunate that a man's death must precede a general appreciation of his character and services. Being dead, all parties praise him, and his funeral cortege would do honour to the memory of a king. In the sad procession all classes of citizens were amply represented. The mayor and corporation were there to dignify the ashes of the first chief magistrate elected to preside over the affairs of the city. Radical and Tory walked and rode together, the more pointedly to prove the sincerity of their conviction that the dead man's errors were on the side of his country. It was a funeral which demonstrated that in the long run honesty is cherished ; that blunders and even crimes are forgiven by the people, if their author has but acted under the pressure of disinterested impulses. The pity is, that the generous verdict is postponed until the being most concerned is placed beyond the jurisdiction of earthly tribunals."

The press of the United States, which, to say the least, was quite competent to form a dispassionate judgment, and many of whose journalists were well acquainted with Mackenzie, was particularly appreciative of his labours as a constitutional reformer. In common with other newspapers, the New York Tribune, whose famous editor, Horace Greeley, watched the progress of events in this country with the closest attention, expressed an opinion on this point that has met with very general acceptance. "William Lyon Mackenzie," said the Tribune, referring particularly to the conflict in Upper Canada, "was the leader of the real struggle for responsible government in Canada. He conducted the political siege, and headed the storming party that effected the breach. Mackenzie personified the vim and virtues, personal and political, that fought the fight and won it."

Mackenzie was scarcely in his grave when the newspaper press called for some "tangible testimony" to his memory. "Mr. Mackenzie dead and buried," said the Toronto correspondent of the Ottawa Citizen, " is nothing more to be heard concerning him? Is the long procession which followed his remains to the grave to be the last sign of the public estimate of his honesty and usefulness?" The erection of a monument to commemorate his public services has been frequently suggested. As in the case of the portraits of Mackenzie, which were hung in the legislative and municipal 518 buildings at Toronto, the proposal has been favourably received by the press of both parties, and, although it has never taken practical shape,1 the comments on the subject possess a certain historic interest, apart from the references to Mackenzie himself.

"It is surprising, not a few will say ungrateful, that, during all these years of political progress, no memorial of a personality so picturesque and strenuous as Mackenzie should have come into existence. The late Sir M. C. Cameron used to say that, Conservative as he was, he would gladly contribute to such an object. The first premier of Ontario, the Hon. J. S. Macdonald, was also one of Mackenzie's ardent admirers. Mackenzie proved his faith by his works as a fearless public man. He was the leader of a movement which, though not faultless, hastened a radical change in British colonial government; and he staked his life on the issue. Such a man may well be honoured by a monument to his memory." "Apropos of tablets," said the Westminster, "is it not time for a monument to be erected to the memory of William Lyon Mackenzie? . . . The fierce political animosities of '37 have died away, and Canadians of to-day can see the great men of those troublous times in a clearer light, and do them juster honour than their fellows did. What though our fathers killed the prophets, if they were true prophets we should not be ashamed to build their sepulchres."

A writer in a Toronto morning paper, who described himself as a "Loyalist in the stirring times of 1837," felt impelled, as he said, to declare himself in favour of this public recognition of Mackenzie's patriotic labours. Commenting on the Loyalist's letter, a leading Conservative journal said, in its article of the day: "This proposal is not a new one, but it is none the less laudable, and, coming from a Conservative source, is significant of the just sentiment which eventually prevails with respect to sterling honesty and self-sacrifice in public life. The strong contrast in this respect presented by Mackenzie's patriotic career, with the utter selfishness of not a few in high places since his day, is making itself felt as time goes on. The events of the last few years in Canada have made the Reform leader more appreciated than ever he was. The movement which he headed was less a movement against the Crown's authority, than against the abuse and prostitution of it by men unworthy of the Queen's confidence. The rash and tyrannical Sir Francis Bond Head did more to goad the long-suffering people of Upper Canada into revolt than any man living at the time. ... By all means give him a monument. He well deserves it, if only because he hastened by many years the reign of responsible government, and taught, by shining example as well as precept, the much needed lesson that fearless, unpurchasable independence in the people's service should be, as too often it is not, the highest aim and reward of political ambition."

Any further reference to the personal and public character and career of Mackenzie seems scarcely necessary. Like others who have passed through the fires of political persecution, he said and^ did some things which it may not always be possible to defend or excuse. There is no desire to defend or excuse them in these pages; nor, in an impartial estimate of his life work, is it necessary to do so. Neither is it necessary to endorse his own manly confessions of fault or error, although, as he himself once said in his place in parliament, he believed " there was more true nobility of mind in confessing an error than in persisting in one."

A few years ago, a correspondent in a Toronto newspaper took exception to the Reform party being classed with Mackenzie and his associates. A prominent Liberal journal2 resented the distinction in a strong article in defence of the "rebels" of 1837, and was supported by other Liberal newspapers throughout the province. "This protest," said a Toronto journal, referring to the correspondent's letter, "doubtless expresses the opinion of a small section of the Reform party, but a section whose numbers are diminishing, and which will become extinct. A Reformer of the present day who calls it 4 disloyal' to rebel against unbearable tyranny is out of date. Whether or not Mackenzie—the man Mackenzie—was headstrong, vain, and visionary, future generations will care less and less to enquire. Men will remember only that the world has too little of that courage which counts not the cost of political protest, and will not compromise with tyranny. By the foolhardiness of such men as those of '37 and later, those crazy men' at Harper's Ferry, men who follow the path of their convictions, though it lead them to the scaffold, the race of men is honoured." " We who enjoy the liberties for which Mackenzie and his followers fought would be ungrateful if we weighed their actions in too nice a balance. They suffered for us, and the principles for which they fought proved to be the best not only for Canada but for the Empire." "But for the strenuous and protracted fight Mackenzie made for pure administration and democratic institutions, the oligarchy he sought to overthrow might have retained its hold much longer on the provincial machinery. To very many people he is only a 'rebel,' or an unsuccessful patriot; to those who know most about his efforts and achievements, his career was remarkably successful as well as admirable."

Writing of Macaulay, in his beautiful little essay, "Nil Nisi Bonum," Thackeray says: "He is always in a storm of revolt and indignation against wrong, craft, tyranny. How he cheers heroic resistance; how he backs and applauds freedom struggling for its own; how he hates scoundrels ever so victorious and successful;"—words not inapplicable to Mackenzie, and that might have been said or written of him, ever and anon, in the vicissitudes of fortune that marked his chequered career. He was unquestionably one of the strong personalities of his time, and whatever be the reason, he has retained his hold on the imagination of the people. Old men of the rebellion period have recounted with pride how they were " out with Lyon Mackenzie in '37." Possessed of popular gifts, and' of unswerving honesty and independence, he was animated by strong convictions, and, when needs be, could express them with persuasive eloquence. "He was an uncompromising friend of civil and religious liberty, and had an innate hatred of wrongdoing, injustice and oppression. This is the true test of his political propaganda. He encountered a thoroughly bad system of government and administration and enormous public abuses. These he persistently assailed, and, in the long and bitter conflict which closed with the rebellion, he received no quarter."1 Although not always right, he always believed he was right, and he had the power of inspiring that belief in others. He was what his physical features and make-up suggest, a dynamic man, all energy, activity and force, capable of long sustained physical and mental exertion in the prosecution of his labours, masterful, impatient of opposition, suspicious of the political caucus, no friend of the "machine," and undaunted in any purpose by its unpopularity, difficulty, or danger. At the same time, as described by one who knew him well, he was "a pleasant companion and associate, full of vivacity and good humour and the ready mother wit of a Highlander. Despite all the bufferings of fortune, he never lost, even in his latest years, the freshness, buoyancy and brightness of youth. He frolicked with his children, delighted in their society, and was as young in heart as any of them."

Although not unwatchful of the currents of public opinion, "the great support of the State," Mackenzie struck down below the surface to the working of those social forces beneath, which seldom fail to influence communities in the discussion of public questions and the promotion of political movements. He believed in trusting the people, but he was not of those who thought that the people were never wrong. On the contrary, he thought they were wrong on many occasions, and he so declared with some bitterness; but he believed with Burke, "that in all disputes between them and their rulers, the presumption is at least upon a par in favour of the people;" and that when popular discontents are prevalent, something is amiss in the constitution or the administration. "The people have no interest in disorder," wrote Burke. "When they do wrong, it is their error, and not their crime," adding the famous passage from the Memoirs of Sully (whom he describes as a great man and minister of state and a zealous asserter of monarchy), that "the revolutions that come to pass in great states are not the result of chance, nor of popular caprice. ... As for the populace, it is never from a passion for attack that it rebels, but from impatience of suffering." "A passage," said John Morley, "which practical politicians and political students should bind about their necks and write upon the tables of their hearts."

The "impatience of suffering," thus emphasized by Lord Morley, had everything to do with inspiring and determining the public career of the man whose life story has now been told. The story is not perfect in every detail, but the readers of to-day are far enough removed from the violent things which were said and done on both sides at that time, from the bitter warfare of the parties and the long train of mutual animosities to which it gave rise, more especially in the pre-confederation years of our history, to regard with dispassionate feelings the character and work of the man himself—to remember his unselfish patriotism, his noble integrity, his many and great services and sacrifices for the public welfare. These must always ensure him a high place in the affections of a people who have gained so much from his vindication of liberty and justice, and his advocacy of those great constitutional reforms which are inseparably connected with our present system of government. Posterity, which generously veils the follies and frailties of public men, who have honestly and patriotically served their country in their day and generation, can never forget the debt of gratitude which it owes to Mackenzie for the just cause which he made his own, and history, in passing judgment, will not unfairly adjust the balance with respect to one whose faults and errors were so far overshadowed by his virtues.


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