Alexander Mackenzie (politician)

For other people named Alexander Mackenzie, see Alexander Mackenzie (disambiguation).
The Honourable
Alexander Mackenzie
2nd Prime Minister of Canada
In office
November 7, 1873  October 8, 1878
Monarch Victoria
Governor-General The Earl of Dufferin
Preceded by John A. Macdonald
Succeeded by John A. Macdonald
Member of the Canadian Parliament
for Lambton
In office
September 20, 1867  June 20, 1882
Preceded by District created upon Confederation
Succeeded by District abolished
Member of the Canadian Parliament
for York East
In office
June 20, 1882  April 17, 1892
Preceded by Alfred Boultbee
Succeeded by William Findlay Maclean
Personal details
Born (1822-01-28)January 28, 1822
Logierait, Atholl, Perthshire, Scotland, UK
Died April 17, 1892(1892-04-17) (aged 70)
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Cause of death Stroke from a fall by hitting his head
Resting place Lakeview Cemetery, Sarnia, Ontario
Political party Liberal
Spouse(s) Helen Neil (m. 1845; her death 1852)
Jane Sym (m. 1853; his death 1892)
Children 3
Religion Baptist
(Previously Presbyterian)
Military service
Allegiance Canada
Service/branch Canadian Army
Years of service 1866–1874
Rank Major

Alexander Mackenzie (PC; January 28, 1822 – April 17, 1892), was a building contractor and newspaper editor, and was the second Prime Minister of Canada, from November 7, 1873 to October 8, 1878.

Life and career

Mackenzie was born in Logierait, Perthshire, Scotland, the son of Mary Stewart (Fleming) and Alexander Mackenzie. He was the third of ten children. At the age of 13, Mackenzie's father died, and he was forced to end his formal education in order to help support his family. At the age of 20 he apprenticed as a stonemason and immigrated to Canada in 1842 to seek a better life as well as to follow his sweetheart, Helen Neil. Shortly thereafter, he converted from Presbyterianism to Baptist beliefs. Mackenzie's faith was to link him to the increasingly influential temperance cause, particularly strong in Canada West where he lived, a constituency of which he was to represent in the Parliament of Canada by age 20 Mackenzie married Helen Neil (1826–52) in 1845 and with her had three children, with only one girl surviving infancy. In 1853, he married Jane Sym (1825–93).

1875 Canadian Illustrated News cartoon shows Mackenzie the Mason and Governor General Lord Dufferin the Overseer

In Canada, Mackenzie continued his career as a stonemason, building many structures that still stand today. He began working as a general contractor, earning a reputation for being a hard working, honest man as well as having a working man's view on fiscal policy.

Mackenzie involved himself in politics almost from the moment he arrived in Canada. He campaigned relentlessly for George Brown, owner of the Reformist paper The Globe in the 1851 election, helping him to win a seat in the assembly. In 1852 Mackenzie became editor of another reformist paper, the Lambton Shield. As editor, Mackenzie was perhaps a little too vocal, leading the paper to a suit of law for libel against the local conservative candidate. The paper lost the suit and was forced to fold due to financial hardship. Mackenzie was elected to the Legislative Assembly as a supporter of George Brown in 1861.

Prime Minister (1873–1878)

When the Macdonald government fell due to the Pacific Scandal in 1873, the Governor General, Lord Dufferin, called upon Mackenzie, who had been chosen as the leader of the Liberal Party a few months earlier, to form a new government. Mackenzie formed a government and asked the Governor General to call an election for January 1874. The Liberals won, having garnered 53.8% of the popular vote. The voter support of 53.8% remains the record in Canada for all federal elections.[1] Mackenzie remained prime minister until the 1878 election when Macdonald's Conservatives returned to power with a majority government.

It was unusual for a man of Mackenzie's humble origins to attain such a position in an age which generally offered such opportunity only to the privileged. Lord Dufferin, the current Governor General, expressed early misgivings about a stonemason taking over government. But on meeting Mackenzie, Dufferin revised his opinions:

"However narrow and inexperienced Mackenzie may be, I imagine he is a thoroughly upright, well-principled, and well-meaning man."

Mackenzie also served as Minister of Public Works and oversaw the completion of the Parliament Buildings. While drawing up the plans, he included a circular staircase leading directly from his office to the outside of the building which allowed him to escape the patronage-seekers waiting for him in his ante-chamber. Proving Dufferin's reflections on his character to be true, Mackenzie disliked intensely the patronage inherent in politics. Nevertheless, he found it a necessary evil in order to maintain party unity and ensure the loyalty of his fellow Liberals.

Statue of Alexander Mackenzie on Parliament Hill, Ottawa

In keeping with his democratic ideals, Mackenzie refused the offer of a knighthood three times, and was thus the only one of Canada's first eight Prime Ministers not to be knighted. His pride in his working class origins never left him. Once, while touring Fort Henry as prime minister, he asked the soldier accompanying him if he knew the thickness of the wall beside them. The embarrassed escort confessed that he didn't and Mackenzie replied, "I do. It is five feet, ten inches. I know, because I built it myself!"[2]

As Prime Minister, Alexander Mackenzie strove to reform and simplify the machinery of government. He introduced the secret ballot; advised the creation of the Supreme Court of Canada; the establishment of the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston in 1874; the creation of the Office of the Auditor General in 1878; and struggled to continue progress on the national railway.

However, his term was marked by economic depression that had grown out of the Panic of 1873, which Mackenzie's government was unable to alleviate. In 1874, Mackenzie negotiated a new free trade agreement with the United States, eliminating the high protective tariffs on Canadian goods in US markets. However, this action did not bolster the economy, and construction of the CPR slowed drastically due to lack of funding. In 1876 the Conservative opposition announced a National Policy of protective tariffs, which resonated with voters. When an election was held at the conclusion of Mackenzie's five-year term, the Conservatives were swept back into office in a landslide victory.

After his government's defeat, Mackenzie remained Leader of the Opposition for another two years, until 1880. He remained an MP until his death in 1892 from a stroke that resulted from hitting his head during a fall. He died in Toronto and was buried in Lakeview Cemetery in Sarnia, Ontario.[3]

In their 1999 study of the Prime Ministers of Canada, which included the results of a survey of Canadian historians, J.L. Granatstein and Norman Hillmer found that Mackenzie was in the No. 11 place just after John Sparrow David Thompson.[4]


Mackenzie Building at the Royal Military College of Canada

The following are named in honour of Alexander Mackenzie:


Supreme Court appointments

A painting of Mackenzie

Mackenzie chose the following jurists to be appointed as justices of the Supreme Court of Canada by the Governor General:

See also


  1. Éric Grenier, "Size of Justin Trudeau's government breaks records, for better and worse Biggest seat gains in Canada's history delivered a majority government — with one of its smallest mandates" (Dec 2 2015): <>.
  2. Canada's Prime Ministers, 1867 – 1994: Biographies and Anecdotes. [Ottawa]: National Archives of Canada, [1994]. 40 p.
  3. "Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada – Former Prime Ministers and Their Grave Sites – The Honourable Alexander Mackenzie". Parks Canada. Government of Canada. December 20, 2010. Retrieved March 5, 2014.
  4. Hillmer, Norman; Granatstein, J. L. "Historians rank the BEST AND WORST Canadian Prime Ministers". Diefenbaker Web. Maclean's. Retrieved March 27, 2012.
  5. Archie Cairns – Bk1 Pipe Music 'Alexander Mackenzie' (Slow March) by Pipe Major Don M. Carrigan 1995
  6. Source: Royal Military College of Canada – Review Yearbook (Kingston, Ontario Canada) Class of 1965page 191

Further reading

  • J.L. Granatstein and Norman Hillmer Prime Ministers: Ranking Canada's Leaders. Toronto: Harper Collins Publishers Ltd, A Phyllis Bruce Book, 1999. P. 29 – 36. ISBN 0-00-200027-X.
  • Dale C. Thomson Alexander Mackenzie, Clear Grit, 1960. 14960, Macmillan of Canada, 436 pages

External links

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Party political offices
Preceded by
George Brown
Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada
Succeeded by
Edward Blake
Political offices
Vacant Leader of the Opposition
Succeeded by
Sir John A. Macdonald
Preceded by
Sir John A. Macdonald
Prime Minister of Canada
Preceded by
Hector Louis Langevin
Minister of Public Works
1873 – 1878
Succeeded by
Charles Tupper
Preceded by
Sir John A. Macdonald
Leader of the Opposition
Succeeded by
Edward Blake
Parliament of Canada
Preceded by
district created
Member of Parliament for Lambton
1867 – 1882
Succeeded by
district abolished
Preceded by
Alfred Boultbee
Member of Parliament for York East
1882 – 1892
Succeeded by
William Findlay Maclean
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