William Lyon Mackenzie
William Lyon Mackenzie:
A publisher & rebel leader
A Scottish-born Canadian-American journalist and politician, William Lyon Mackenzie had fierce views on political equality and responsible government. These views led him to absolute rebellion in 1837 after a career as mayor of Toronto.
William Lyon Mackenzie: Video
William Lyon Mackenzie was born in 1795, in Dundee, Scotland. He was 25 years old when he immigrated to Upper Canada in 1820 in search of a better life. He settled in Queenston in 1823 where he opened a general store.
Dissatisfied with the government at the time, Mackenzie launched an independent newspaper called “The Colonial Advocate” in 1824. It was his way of speaking out against what he felt was a corrupt government. At the height of its popularity, the paper had 250 subscribers. A desire to make a difference politically, Mackenzie moved to York, present day Toronto, and continued printing the paper there.
He became involved in the legislative assembly, being kicked out and voted back in four times. His views became more radical and in 1834 he changed the name of his newspaper to The Advocate as he continued to push for a more responsible government in Upper Canada.
It wasn’t long before Mackenzie published the last edition of his paper and in 1836, he began planning the Upper Canada Rebellion that took place a year later.
The Printery - The Early Years
William Lyon Mackenzie would not have had the social reach that he did in the 1820’s and 1830’s without the invention of movable type and the printing press developed by Gutenberg around 1450.
The printing press was crucial in his political career. It allowed him to share his opinions with a wide audience, influencing his subscribers and those around him. Even though literacy rates were low, newspapers were frequently read in groups and in town for all to hear.
Mackenzie ran the first successful independent newspaper that wasn’t associated with the Family Compact called “The Upper Canada Gazette”. The Family Compact was a group of men who dominated most of the political, judicial, religious and economic power during the early 1800’s in Upper Canada.
The Upper Canada Gazette however, a government newspaper, enforced loyalist views. By creating an independent newspaper, Mackenzie became a voice for those who had grievances against the corruption found in government and as a result, Mackenzie developed a community of followers with a shared belief.
The Colonial Advocate
While Mackenzie ran the general store in Queenston, he realized there was a profound amount of corruption in government. This is what prompted his decision to launch his own independently run newspaper called the Colonial Advocate. Later, the name changed to The Advocate since Mackenzie began to seek an American-style Republic government in Canada.
Mackenzie supported education and read almost a thousand books before immigrating to Canada himself. The main focus of his newspaper was not to get others to think like him, but to give them the resources to do their own thinking.
Transparency was important to Mackenzie. He was true to his word and lived the ideals he spoke of. He did not use ads to fund his newspaper, he didn’t take political bribes, and he was passionate about his end goal – improving the circumstances of life for the average individual living in Upper Canada.
The Upper Canada Rebellion took place in December of 1837 at Montgomery’s Tavern in Toronto. It was not isolated in its time, but influenced by rebellions happening against oligarchies across the British Empire, including the Lower Canada Rebellion of Louis-Joseph Papineau.
Even though Mackenzie was highly educated, he was bad at planning and had no experience in leading a rebellion, thus the rebellion was incredibly unorganized. It became known as the “Farmer’s Revolt” since it ended quickly and was made up of mostly farmers with no military experience.
Over 500 rebels marched out of Montgomery’s Tavern to be confronted by a line of loyalists and militia. The rebellion dispersed quickly and Mackenzie, along with many others, fled to the United States.
Life after the Rebellion
The intention for the rebellion continued despite the failed attempt at Montgomery Tavern. It continued in the form of the Patriot War which saw conflict along the border until 1838.
Mackenzie set up the Republic of Canada on British-owned Navy island. He put up a flag and wrote a constitution. By attempting to build a country on Navy Island, Mackenzie broke the neutrality act in place after the War of 1812 and was imprisoned for 18 months.
Following his sentence, Mackenzie was exiled in the States for over 10 years due to his involvement in the rebellion.
Mackenzie was exonerated and allowed back into Canada in 1849. He moved into a house gifted to him by Queen Victoria in Toronto.
He continued to publish newspapers, though this writing wasn’t as widely read, or celebrated, as The Colonial Advocate was.
In 1851, Mackenzie was elected to Parliament for Haldimand, maintaining his steadfast views on independence and government corruption.
Mackenzie lived the rest of his life in Toronto. He died from a “softening of the brain” in 1861. Although he did not get to see Confederation unite Canada, his grandson, William Lyon Mackenzie King, became Canada’s longest running Prime Minister.
“The constitution of a country is not the act of its government, nor of any distant authority, but of the people constituting a government suited to their necessities — a constitution contains the principles on which the government shall be established”
-William Lyon Mackenzie
The Printery - Today
Who lived in Mackenzie’s house after he left is unclear, but he did return to Queenston at least twice.
By the 1890’s Mackenzie’s home started to deteriorate with just the walls remaining as well as s small stone marker, erected by the Niagara Historical Society read “Home of William Lyon Mackenzie. The birthplace of Responsible Government, 1823-24.”
In 1932, St. Catharines MP, J.D. Chaplain wrote a letter to Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King to initiate a project to restore the building. Five years later, the restoration work was finished and the official opening took place.
In 1950, the Queenston home became a historic museum site and is known as Canada’s largest working printing museum.
Owned by the Niagara Parks Commission, a joint venture was established in 1990 with a volunteer, non-profit Printery Committee to ensure the preservation of the printing equipment.
Today, visitors from around the world visit the Mackenzie Printery to discover over 500 years of printing technology.