William Lyon Mackenzie

Written by Nancy Luno

Reform politician & Mayor of Toronto in 1834. Born in Scotland in 1795. Arrived in Upper Canada in 1820.

“…from the roof of the Legislative Halls, the picture is quite lively….especially on the evening of the Queen’s Birthday. There were the fireworks…the firemen marching…with their lighted flambeaux – the railway trains’…peculiar prolonged whistle, and multitudes of people traversing the grounds. It was a grand sight to me, who remember when…lightning wires, gas lights and steam cars, railways and whistles were not dreamt of.”

-Mackenzie’s Weekly Message, July 11, 1856

Archives of Ontario, Series 3874

William Lyon Mackenzie emigrated to Canada from his native Scotland in 1820. The twenty-five year old no doubt hoped, like many others at the time and many since, to find a better and more prosperous life here. Unlike the usual stereotype of a 19th century Upper Canadian ‘pioneer,’ Mackenzie never farmed. In later years, he campaigned on behalf of farmers, but he was firmly of the ‘shopkeeper’ class.

After he left school, Mackenzie worked for a couple of merchants, and then ran his own general store in Scotland, and he continued in that line of work in Canada. For the first few years, he ran a book and drug store in the Town of York (Toronto) and later in Dundas, in partnership with John Lesslie, the son of a family friend.

For a number of years after his partnership with Lesslie ended, Mackenzie continued to sell books as part of his business, but his focus shifted from selling mere goods to selling ideas. He did this by writing – articles for newspapers (either his own, or when that outlet wasn’t available, for papers owned by others), pamphlets and books. In 1824, Mackenzie started the Colonial Advocate, the first of seven newspapers he published during his career. (1)

Given Mackenzie’s criticism of the government of the day, and his campaigns for reform, it is perhaps inevitable that he should enter the political arena himself. He was first elected in 1828, to represent the riding of York County in the Upper Canadian House of Assembly. He continued to serve in the Assembly, off and on, until 1836. In 1834, while he was a sitting member of the legislature, he was also elected for a one-year term as Alderman for St. David’s Ward in the newly incorporated City of Toronto. The City Council chose Mackenzie from amongst their number to be the Mayor – the new city’s first.

In 1836, Mackenzie and the other Reform members were defeated in the July election. By December 1837, frustration with a political system that gave more power to appointed officials than the elected legislature had grown so much that the agitation by Mackenzie and others for political reform grew into armed rebellion. Despite an attempt to take over the city, the ‘Patriots,’ as they called themselves, were defeated after a few skirmishes with the hastily gathered militia. Mackenzie, as the most vocal and public of the leaders, fled to the United States with a one-thousand pound reward posted for his capture. While the Rebellion of 1837 may have interrupted Mackenzie’s Canadian political career, it didn’t lessen his passion for politics. During the twelve years he was in exile in the United States, Mackenzie published three more newspapers, commenting on politics on both sides of the border.


Built in the early 1830s, this building housed the Upper Canadian House of Assembly, and later, the Ontario legislature. William Lyon Mackenzie would have been very familiar with this site – the legislature of the Province of Canada (the 1841 union of Upper and Lower Canada) also met here from 1856 to 1859 when he was the member for Haldimand. It is interesting to note, as shown in this photograph, that after decades of clearing away the forest, Torontonians were starting to deliberately plant trees in their somewhat barren-looking city.
For a good summary of the locations of the colonial and provincial government, see the Government of Ontario website -http://www.ontario.ca/en/your_government/004690.html?openNav=history_of_…. For more photographs and details about the building and its architecture, see William Dendy’s Lost Toronto: Images of the City’s Past. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1993.
(City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1498, Item 10)


In 1849, Mackenzie was granted an amnesty for his role in the Rebellion, and a year later he and his family moved back to Toronto. By 1851, Mackenzie was back in the political game, chosen in a by-election as the member of Haldimand in the legislature of the United Canadas. He was re-elected three more times, serving as Haldimand’s representative for seven years. In 1852, he started his third Toronto paper, Mackenzie’s Weekly Message.

By 1859 Mackenzie had left parliament and retired to the ‘Homestead’, a row house on Bond Street which had been purchased for him by friends and supporters in appreciation of his long years of public service. He died there on August 28, 1861, aged 66 years. (2)

Ad for Mackenzie’s printing business, reproduction of Mackenzie’s Toronto Weekly Message, July 16, 1859

Much of the material found in Mackenzie’s three Toronto newspapers – the Advocate, The Constitution and the Message – takes the form of opinion pieces, written by Mackenzie about Canadian politics, or news pieces about Europe or the United States that he reprinted from other papers, a common practice in the 19th century. But if one takes the time to look through the papers carefully, one also discovers wonderful titbits about Toronto and everyday life, of interest both to the serious researcher and the merely curious. The description of the view from the parliament buildings quoted in the “First Impressions” poster is one such example. Other pieces cover topics such as the merits of a paid choir versus congregational singing in church (3), a comparison of prices for coal and wood in the 1850s (4), and a complaint about the city’s private waterworks system (5). More personal items include thanks for the gift of a “Thanksgiving goose from the rear of Pickering” (6), an ad on behalf of Katherine, the Mackenzie family’s servant girl, asking her 14 year old sister Helen, believed to be somewhere in Hamilton, to contact her (7), and an appeal from Mackenzie for the return of his “walking-stick” which he left behind at the Post Office (8).


Reproduction of the front page of the first edition of The Colonial Advocate, May 18, 1824. Mackenzie started the paper in Queenston, but moved it to York (Toronto) in the fall of 1824, to be closer to the political action in the capital.

In some respects, these smaller pieces can be viewed as filler, the attempts of a harried editor to fill all the space in the next edition. But they’re more than that. Mackenzie seemed to have an innate curiosity about all sorts of things, and a passion to share the knowledge he acquired. And once he got going, he seemed to have an opinion on everything! However he was not alone. His was an era when newspapers were known for their strong opinions and partisan affiliations. Through their ads and articles – both large and small – Mackenzie, and other 19th century editor-printers like him, left us a fascinating window into Toronto’s past.







(1) Mackenzie’s three Toronto papers were the Colonial Advocate (1824-34), The Constitution (1836-37) and Mackenzie’s Weekly Message (1852-60).
Short descriptions of them, as well as other early papers are outlined in the handy reference catalogue edited by librarian Edith G. Firth, Early Toronto Newspapers: 1793-1867. Toronto: Baxter Publishing Company & the Toronto Public Library, 1961. The Toronto Reference Library has an extensive collection of early Toronto papers on microfilm.
The Welland Canal (December 1835) was Mackenzie’s investigation into the finances of the Welland Canal Company which ran for three issues.
His American publications were Mackenzie’s Weekly Gazette (New York city & Rochester, 1838-40); Rochester Volunteer (1841-3) and New York Examiner (1843)
(2) Many books and articles have been written about the Rebellion of 1837 and Mackenzie, far too many to mention here. For an easily accessible summary of his career and politics, see the article by Frederick H. Armstrong and Ronald J. Stagg in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online http://www.biographi.ca/index-e.html. The story of his family life is outlined in Nancy Luno’s “The Private Life of a Very Public Man: William Lyon Mackenzie and His Family” article elsewhere on the Heritage Toronto website (http://www.heritagetoronto.org/news/story/2011/08/18/private-life-very-p…) and in more detail in A Genteel Exterior: The Domestic Life of William Lyon Mackenzie and His Family. Toronto Historical Board, 1990. Additional articles on this website by Chris Raible and Andrea Terry look at other aspects of the Mackenzie legacy.
(3) Mackenzie’s Weekly Message, February 3, 1854.
(4) Message, November 5, 1859.
(5) Message, December 19, 1856.
(6) Message, December 21, 1855.
(7) Message, March 14, 1856.
(8) Message, February 8, 1856. The description of the cane is interesting for aficandos of gentlemen’s fashion. It was, Mackenzie wrote, “a handsome BAMBOO CANE, ivory handle, silver mounted, with figure of the Canadian Bear rampant.”

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