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William Lyon Mackenzie King

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William Lyon Mackenzie King (1874-1950), prime minister of Canada, whose 21 years in office are the longest of any prime minister in the English-speaking world. He was the dominant political figure from the 1920s through the 1940s, leading Canada through prosperity, depression and war. His surname was "King" but he was usually styled "Mackenzie King."

Mackenzie King lacked the typical personal attributes of great leaders, especially in comparison with Franklin D. Roosevelt of the U.S., Winston Churchill of Britain, Charles de Gaulle of France, or even Joey Smallwood of Newfoundland. Voters did not love him. He lacked charisma, a commanding presence or oratorical skills; he did not shine on radio or in newsreels. His best writing was academic. Cold and tactless in human relations, he had allies but no close personal friends; he never married and lacked a hostess whose charm could substitute for his chill. He kept secret his beliefs in spiritualism and use of mediums to stay in contact with departed associates and particularly with his mother.

Mackenzie King had remarkable skills that were exactly appropriate to Canada's needs. He was keenly sensitive to the nuances of public policy; he was a workaholic with a shrewd and penetrating intelligence and a profound understanding of how society and the economy worked. He understood labour and capital. He had a pitch-perfect ear for the Canadian temperament and mentality, and was a master of timing. Mackenzie King worked tirelessly and successfully to bring compromise and harmony to many competing and feuding elements, using politics and government action as his great instrument. He conducted the Liberal party over 29 years, and established international Canada's reputation as a middle power fully committed to world order.


He was born on Dec. 17, 1874, at Berlin (now Kitchener), Ontario, the eldest son of John King and Isabel Grace Mackenzie, daughter of William Lyon Mackenzie, Scotch-Canadian political reformer and one of the leaders of the failed Rebellion of 1837. The father was a lawyer with a struggling practice in a small city, and never enjoyed financial security and lived a life of shabby gentility, employing servants they could scarecely afford. The son became a life-long practising Presbyterian with a dedication to applying Christian virtues to social issues in the style of the Social Gospel. He never favoured socialism.

Mackenzie King graduated college with honours in political science and law school at the University of Toronto (B.A. 1895, LL. B. 1896), taking the name "Mackenzie King" to replace his childhood nickname of Willie, and to boast his self-image in terms of his famous grandfather. He never practiced law. Instead of attending Oxbridge, he took advanced degrees in the United States at the University of Chicago (M.A.), and Harvard University (Ph.D.). His dissertation analyzed abour conditions in the American clothing industry. In 1900 became deputy minister of the new formed Department of Labour; he edited the government's Labour Gazette. As a civil servant Mackenzie King played an influential role in designing legislation, especially the "Industrial Disputes Investigation Act" of 1907, creating a plan of of voluntary conciliation in labour disputes.

In 1909 he began a political career, winning election from Waterloo County to the House of Commons. Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier appointed him minister of labour, with cabinet rank. During his term of office he initiated legislation empowering the government to investigate combines, trusts, and cartels. In the election campaign of 1911 he enthusiastically supported the Liberal government's policy of commercial reciprocity between Canada and the United States, the issue which defeated his party; it also cost him his seat in the House of Commons.

From 1911 to 1921 Mackenzie King was employed as a political organizer, journalist, and labour relations expert, primarily in the United States. In 1914 he was engaged as a research director by the Rockefeller Foundation, in which capacity he acted as labour relations adviser to John D. Rockefeller and his son in connection with their serious labour troubles in Colorado. Following the establishment of a company union in the plants of the Colorado Coal and Iron Company, Mackenzie King was engaged by a number of large American corporations as a labour relations adviser. His book, Industry and Humanity (1918), explained his views on the social service state, and notably on labour relations, including the idea that the nation at large was always the third and most important party in industrial disputes.

First World War

Mackenzie King attempted to reenter politics in the election of 1917, when he supported Laurier in his opposition to conscription for overseas service in World War I. He was defeated in the constituency of North York, which his grandfather had once represented. He was Laurier's chosen successor as leader of the Liberal Party, but it was deeply divided by Quebec's total opporition to conscription and the agrarian revolt in Ontario and the Priries. When Laurier died in 1919, Mackenzie King was elected leader of the Liberal Party In the election of 1921 his party won a bare majority in Commons. Mackenzie King became prime minister and enjoyed the support of the Progressive.

Prime Minister

During his first term of office, from 1921 to 1925, Mackenzie King pursued a conservative domestic policy with the object of lowering wartime taxes and, especially, wartime ethnic tensions, as wel as defusing postwar labour conflicts. He sought an Canadian voice independent of London in foreign affairs. In 1923 the British prime minister, David Lloyd George, appealed to Mackenzie King for support in the British quarrel with Turkey. Mackenzie King instead said the Canadian Parliament would decide what the policy to follow, making clear it would not be bound by London's suggestions; the episode led to the downfall of Lloyd George.

The constitutional crisis of 1926

In the election of 1925 the Liberal Party lost seats, as Mackenzie King struggled to retain office. Charges of corruption in the Customs Department, however, led to the government's defeat in the Commons. Mackenzie King advised the governor-general, Lord Byng, to dissolve Parliament and call another election, but Lord Byng refused the advice and called upon the Conservative Party leader, Arthur Meighen, to form a government. Meighen was unable to obtain a majority in the Commons and he, too, advised dissolution, which this time was accepted. In the ensuing election of 1926, Mackenzie King appealed for public support of the constitutional principle that the governor-general must accept the advice of his ministers, though this principle was at most only customary. The Liberals argued that the governor-general had interfered in politics and shown favor to one party over another. Mackenzie King and his party won the election and a clear majority in the Commons.[1]

The crisis of 1926 provoked a consideration of the constitutional relations between the self-governing dominions and the British government. During the next five years the position of the governor-general of a dominion was clarified; he ceased to be a representative of the British government and became a personal representative of the British crown. The independent position of the dominions in the Commonwealth and in the international community was put on a firm legal foundation by the Statute of Westminster (1931). In domestic affairs Mackenzie King strengthened the Liberal policy of increasing the powers of the provincial governments by transferring to the governments of Manitoba, Alberta, and Saskatchewan the ownership of the crown lands within those provinces, as well as the subsoil rights. In collaboration with the provincial governments he inaugurated a system of old-age pensions based on need.

Great Depression

The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 led to a Liberal defeat in the 1930 elections. In opposition, it was Mackenzie King's policy to refrain from offering advice and to let the Conservative government under R.B. Bennett make its mistakes; Mackenzie King's policy preferences were radically different. Though he gave the impression of sympathy with progressive and liberal causes, he had no enthusiasm for the New Deal of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (which Bennett tried to emulate), and he never advocated massive government action to alleviate depression in Canada. In 1935 the Liberals used the slogan "King or Chaos" to win a landslide. Mackenzie King returned as prime minister, until his retirement in 1948. During all but two years he was also secretary of state for external affairs, taking personal charge of foreign policy.

Second World War

Mackenzie King's last 12 years in office were about the preparation for, the fighting of, and the aftermath of the Second World War. Not alarmed by the rise of Hitler, Mackenzie King supported the policies of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain which concessions to appease Aldof Hitler in the hope he would stop threatening his neighbours. Canada voluntarily entered the war as few days after Britain, but Mackenzie King linked Canada more and more closely to the United States. Mackenzie King--and Canada--were was largely ignored by Winston Churchill, despite Canada's major role in supplying food, raw materials, munitions and money to the hard-pressed British economy, training airmen for the Commonwealth, guarding the western half of the North Atlantic against German u-boats, and providing combat troops for the invasion of France and Germany in 1944-45. Mackenzie King signed a private agreement with Roosevelt at Ogdensburg, New York, in August 1940 that provided for the close cooperation of Canadian and American forces in the defense of North America. The Americans virtually took control of the Yukon and Newfoundland. Mackenzie King proved high successful in mobilizing the economy for war, with impressive results in industrial and agricultural output. The depression ended and prosperity returned. On the political side, Mackenzie King rejected any notion of a government of national unity. He raised a million men (and some women) for the military but Quebec opposed conscription for service overseas. The fact that the main Canadian fighting came late in the war, after the landings in Normandy, enabled him to delay a solution to this controversy. Eventually, he agreed to send a limited number of conscripted men overseas to fight beside the volunteers, but the war ended before this policy provoked serious political dissension. He thus avoided the enormous political upheaval of the First World War on the same issue.

In his two years of office following the war, Mackenzie King vigorously supported the formation of the United Nations and opposed the emergence of power blocs. In domestic policy he accepted the notion that the economy of Canada could be in some degree controlled by fiscal and monetary means. In August 1948 he resigned the leadership of the Liberal Party, and he retired from office and from Parliament on November 15. He died in his country house at Kingsmere, near Ottawa, on July 22, 1950.


  • Allen, Ralph. Ordeal by Fire: Canada, 1910-1945, (1961), 492pp online edition
  • Bothwell, Robert, Ian Drummond, and John English. Canada 1900-1945. and Canada since 1945 (2d. ed. 1987-1989), college textbook
  • Creighton, Donald. The Forked Road: Canada, 1939-1957 (1976) standard survey
  • Cuff, R. D. and Granatstein, J. L. Canadian-American Relations in Wartime: From the Great War to the Cold War. Toronto: Hakkert, 1975. 205 pp.
  • Dawson, R.M. William Lyon Mackenzie King: A Political Biography. Vol. 1: 1874-1923, (1958) online edition
  • Donaghy, Greg, ed. Canada and the Early Cold War, 1943-1957 (1998) online edition
  • Dziuban, Stanley W. Military Relations between the United States and Canada, 1939-1945 (1959) online edition
  • Eayrs James. In Defence of Canada. 5 vols. 1964- 1983. the standard history of defense policy
  • Ferns, Henry, Bernard Ostry, and John Meisel. The Age of Mackenzie King (1976), 396pp; scholarly biography to 1919; excerpt and text search
  • Granatstein, J. L. Canada's War: The Politics of the Mackenzie King Government, 1939-1945 (1975)
  • Granatstein, J. L. Conscription in the Second World War, 1939-1945;: A study in political management (1969)
  • Granatstein, J. L. Mackenzie King: His life and world (1977)
  • Hou, Charles, and Cynthia Hou, eds. Great Canadian Political Cartoons, 1915 to 1945. (2002). 244pp
  • McGregor, F. A. The Fall & Rise of Mackenzie King, 1911-1919 (1962) online edition
  • Neatby, H. Blair. "King, William Lyon Mackenzie," Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online
  • Neatby, H. Blair. The Politics of Chaos: Canada in the Thirties (1972)
  • Neatby, H. Blair. William Lyon Mackenzie King, 1924-1932: The Lonely Heights (1963) standard biography
  • Neatby, H. Blair William Lyon Mackenzie King: 1932-1939: the Prism of Unity (1976) standard biography online edition
  • Perras, Galen Roger. Franklin Roosevelt and the Origins of the Canadian-American Security Alliance, 1933-1945: Necessary, but Not Necessary Enough (1998) online edition
  • Stacey, C. P. Arms, Men and Governments: The War Policies of Canada, 1939-1945 (1970) standard survey
  • Stacey, C. P. A Very Double Life: The Private World of Mackenzie King (1985) excerpt and text search
  • Stacey C. P. Canada and the Age of Conflict, 1921-1948. Vol. 2. U. of Toronto Press, 1981. the standard history
  • Thompson, John H., and Allan Seager. Canada 1922-1939. (1985). standard survey

Primary sources


  1. For primary documents see Bruce Ricketts, "The King-Byng Affair - Canada's Government in Minority" (2007) online version