University of Rochester Library Bulletin: William Lyon Mackenzie, Rochester Newspaper Man

Volume XVIII · Winter 1963 ·  Number  2    
William Lyon Mackenzie: Rochester Newspaper Man

The complete history of the Rochester press has yet to be written. From the time that Rochester boasted the first daily paper between Albany and San Francisco vigorous and interesting personalities have been connected with the editing and publishing of newspapers.

One of the most interesting of those who appeared briefly, before going on to other deeds in other places, was William Lyon Mackenzie (1795-1861). In the political history of the modern Dominion of Canada Mackenzie is a major figure. He is regarded by some as the father of responsible government in Canada, and his bronze statue guards the façade of the provincial Parliament buildings in Toronto. But it is less well-known that he spent four busy years in Rochester as a political exile, a prisoner and, above all, as a newspaper man.

He did not arrive in Rochester by chance; he was definitely invited by another newspaper man, George Dawson. It came about as follows: After the end of an unsuccessful rebellion in 1837 intended to establish a republican form of government in Upper Canada (which later became the Province of Ontario), Mackenzie, who had been the moving spirit behind the rebellion, was forced to run for his life. He progressed on foot, or on horses borrowed from sympathizers, from a spot just north of Toronto to the border of the United States near Niagara Falls. He was welcomed with enthusiasm in Buffalo and a committee was formed to assist him in preparing a military force to invade Upper Canada and to fight a war which would be modelled on the war of '76. As a base the committee chose Navy Island, a small island in the Niagara River belonging without question to Upper Canada, not to the United States.

As a military venture the invasion was a total failure and it had no strong political backing. The residents of Buffalo soon realized they were trying to assist a lost or non-existent cause.

Prior to the Navy Island episode, in fact even before the rebellion, Mackenzie, true newspaperman that he was, sent a statement to any and all newspapers along the border. He asked each paper, whether sympathetic or otherwise, to publish a statement of his aims and motives in rebelling against what he considered the tyranny of British control in Upper Canada.

It must be borne in mind that the word "tyranny" had a connotation in the 1830's that it has now lost. It is an almost quaint word now, found in history books or fairy tales along with similar words, "despot" and "pirate." But in the 1830's "tyranny" and "tyrant" were words to arouse the emotions. The "rights of man" was used as a battle cry and conscientious men the world over felt they must heed and follow. Canada then was not a peaceful country of British origin lying the other side of the long border. There was in fact no such country. There were various British colonies in the Maritimes and across the St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario. These colonies were regarded by many citizens of the United States (particularly if the individuals were Scots or Irishmen who had been subordinated on the other side of the Atlantic) as the stronghold of the ancient foe and an ever present menace.

George Dawson, Rochester newspaper man, was one of these robust spirits. It was claimed by his friends that his enthusiasm for Mackenzie's cause was so great that he rode from Rochester to Buffalo astride a cannon in the hope of participating in the invasion. The record does not state how he returned when the invasion was abandoned.

Mackenzie, at the end of a third attempt (an abortive invasion from Watertown), felt with justice that his cause needed a newspaper. He went first to New York City, where in April, 1838, he began to publish a paper called the Gazette. It was a small weekly devoted to the cause of freedom for Upper Canada. An impressive chain of agents throughout New York State undertook the task of soliciting subscribers and collecting subscriptions. In less than a year the Mackenzie family moved to Rochester, and in April, 1839, the Gazette appeared with a Rochester masthead.

Two months later Mackenzie was summoned to the Circuit Court in Canandaigua to a much-delayed trial. He was to be tried for violating the United States Neutrality Laws. He was charged with willingly and knowingly attempting to set foot a military expedition against a neighboring territory with whom the United States was at peace.

A jury composed entirely of Ontario County landowners listened for six hours while Mackenzie conducted his own defense and gave fourteen reasons why he should not be convicted. The judge admonished the jurors to leniency and reminded them that Mr. Mackenzie had done no deliberate harm but had acted from unselfish and patriotic motives. But after two hours deliberation they found him guilty. He was given what was considered a very lenient sentence; he was to spend eighteen months in the Monroe County jail in Rochester. The jail was then a new, uncompleted stone structure on an island in the Genesee River near the west bank, not far from the present castellated Police Headquarters.

It was Mackenzie's idea that after signing himself into custody he would be allowed to return to his home, a brick house on South Clinton Avenue about where Forman's store now stands. This would not have been too unusual in the case of a person seeking political asylum. But the Monroe County jailor immediately locked him into a cell.

By twentieth-century standards the prisoner was given most unusual privileges. He had a constant stream of visitors, some of whom were sightseers who wanted to gaze upon a live, captive rebel; others were personal or political friends. His wife and children came and went, daily or oftener. He complained bitterly because his children were sometimes forced to wait either outside or inside, until the jailor, who was busy elsewhere, could come to unlock the door. On one occasion when one of the little girls was seriously ill, she and Mrs. Mackenzie came to stay in the cell for several days and nights. The reason given for this action was that Mackenzie could help his wife attend the sick child. Even so, it seems rather peculiar that Mackenzie would have permitted this, considering the fact that Mackenzie had begun legal proceedings against the County of Monroe charging it with keeping a jail which was unsanitary and dangerous to the health of the inmates.

But by far the most unusual activity carried on from the jail was the continuation of the Gazette. Another political refugee, William T. Kennedy, did the actual printing, but the proofs were brought to Mackenzie and he apparently directed all the activities of the small printing establishment which was on Exchange Street.

In addition to the Gazette, which was a weekly, Mackenzie was busy with the publication of the Caroline Almanac. This was intended as a practical almanac and took its name from the steamer Caroline. This was the ill-fated vessel which was burned by the British in an effort to prevent it from being used to provision the rebels on Navy Island. The cover of the almanac was decorated with a lurid, and totally fictional, woodcut showing theCaroline passing over Niagara Falls, burning and sinking and scattering its dead and dying victims in its wake. The truth is that only one life was lost and the vessel sank before reaching the Falls, but that did not prevent the picture from being used in the hope of stirring sympathy against British outrages.

Mr. Kennedy states in a letter that on October 26, 1839, 10,300 copies of the Caroline Almanac were ready for distribution. Only a dozen are known to exist now.

Concurrent with Mackenzie's journalistic activity, his friends, who were numerous and influential, were active in the attempt to have him freed. One of his warmest friends was a Rochester humanitarian and newspaperman, Myron Holley, founder of a newspaper called Rochester Freeman, devoted to the cause of abolition. A petition drafted by Myron Holley and addressed to President Van Buren is dated July 16, 1839. Soon thereafter another petition was drawn up by another Rochester newspaper man, Hestor L. Stevens.

Hestor Stevens and Henry O'Reilly, author of the famous Sketches of Rochester, were successively managing editors of the Rochester Daily Advertiser, the first daily paper west of Albany. In fact the Rochester Daily Advertiser stands in interesting contrast to Mackenzie's and many other short-lived journalistic ventures in Rochester. Begun in 1826 it has continued with several changes in name and management to the present and is now the Rochester Times-Union. A careful reading of its 136 years of reporting would give a very penetrating survey of Rochester history.

The Rochester Daily Advertiser gives many glimpses into Mackenzie's activities during his Rochester sojourn. On March 27, 1840, its pages carried an open petition to a Mr. Edwin Dean, a theatrical producer, begging him to stage a benefit performance "to ameliorate the condition of his [Mackenzie's] numerous and helpless family." Mr. Dean replied in the affirmative, also on the pages of the Rochester Daily Advertiser. A week later a performance of Molière's The Hypocrite was given and probably well attended.

By Presidential pardon in May, 1840, William Lyon Mackenzie was finally released from the Monroe County jail, having served eleven months of his eighteen-month sentence. He continued his newspaper until December and then ceased publication, giving as his reason the fact that he had been forced to neglect it while in prison. A more realistic reason was the waning interest in the cause of Canadian independence. There was little other subject matter in the Gazette and public interest in the United States was turning in other directions.

Four months later, in April, 1841, the hopeful journalist tried once more. A little weekly called the Volunteerappeared in Rochester and other New York State cities and villages. It resembled the Gazette but was smaller and appeared irregularly. However, Mackenzie left the edit- ing and publishing of the Volunteer to Henry O'Reilly during the summer of 1841 while he and his son James, a printer, went to Utica as reporters on the trial of Alexander McLeod.

The trial was of great international interest and importance. McLeod was an Upper Canadian Tory who was alleged to have boasted, while visiting in Buffalo, that it was he who killed Amos Durfee, a man who was killed during the boarding and firing of the Caroline. The case was strange and had grave possibilities. McLeod was arrested and tried by the State of New York for murder. When the British government assailed the United States with the threat of war, if McLeod was convicted, the State Department replied, with much justice, that it had no authority over due legal processes in the State of New York. William H. Seward, Governor of New York, promised the Secretary of State that he would pardon McLeod if convicted, but McLeod was acquitted and the peace was saved.

The Volunteer struggled on, finally to give up entirely in April, 1842. In the Rochester Public Library there is a little bound volume of all the issues, a slender effort compared to the products of Stevens and O'Reilly, who quite evidently did all in their power to keep the Volunteer alive.

1842 was also the year of a journalistic mystery. In the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, published in Toronto in 1926 and revised in 1945, the editor states that Mackenzie "wrote while in Rochester, Caroline Advocate(1840) and Trial of Reverend Washington Van Zandt for Seduction of Sophia Murdoch (1842)." The trial itself is no mystery; it was much publicized. An Episcopal clergyman, under fantastic circumstances, was charged with having attempted to seduce a sixteen-year old girl who was a member of his congregation. He was tried publicly in Monroe County and all Western New York editors devoted columns of space to the trial. The Volunteer was no exception, and toward the end of the year Mackenzie wrote to John O'Reilly, presumably the owner and editor of the Evening Advocate (another Rochester newspaper of the time), suggesting a collaboration on a published account of the trial.

No copy of such a book or pamphlet has ever been seen by anyone so far encountered. There is no such volume in any library in Rochester or Buffalo or Albany, nor is there one in the Library of Congress. No manuscript of such a work exists in Mackenzie's papers among the Lindsey Papers in Toronto. It is possible that an account of the trial was one of the projects planned by Mackenzie but never carried out. If this were the case how could the item have reached the Dictionary of Canadian Biography in 1926? It is a tantalizing problem and there is a possibility even yet that such a pamphlet may turn up somewhere in Western New York.

Early in June, 1842, the Mackenzie family went to New York City where Mackenzie found employment in various offices. One of his jobs was a minor position in New York's famous Custom House. In his spare time he began what was to have been a series entitled Sons of the Emerald Isle, a collection of biographies of Irish immigrants and their sons. The first installment was published and fifty copies were sent to Rochester. None remain; the only copy in Rochester, so far as is known, is a facsimile of the copy in the State Library in Albany.

The sojourn in the Custom House gave Mackenzie access to material far more exciting than the biographies of five hundred Irishmen. There he found the correspondence of Jesse Hoyt, former Collector, and Benjamin Franklin Butler. Jesse Hoyt had embezzled $250,000 and freely admitted it. William Lyon Mackenzie felt it his duty to publish this scandalous discovery for the benefit of the public good. He gave up his position and his house and borrowed money to support himself while he devoted his entire energies to the work. The book was an immediate financial success, but in order to remove himself from any stigma of having published the letters for any other motive than public service he signed all his rights over to the publishers who did very well financially on the venture. Unfortunately there is no evidence whatsoever that American politics improved because of public indignation following the disclosure.

Another of Mackenzie's publications, a biography of Martin Van Buren, appeared in 1845. Mackenzie never quite forgave Van Buren for his eleven months in the Monroe County jail, and the biography while not scurrilous was not intended to be flattering. In fact, friends of Mackenzie were sure that this biography dealt Van Buren his political death blow. This charge may have been exaggerated but the biography most certainly did not increase Van Buren's popularity.

The following year a very well-known journalist, Horace Greeley, employed William Lyon Mackenzie as the Albany reporter for the New York Tribune. The same George Dawson who had invited Mackenzie to Rochester and who had ridden a cannon to Buffalo was now Horace Greeley's partner. He may have been responsible for the crossing of the paths of the other two newspapermen. At any rate, Mackenzie's first assignment was that of covering the New York State Convention for the Revision of the Constitution. He seems to have dispatched his duties well, and shortly thereafter moved into the house just vacated by the Greeleys on Fiftieth Street near the corner of Third Avenue in New York City.

For years efforts had been under way to grant amnesty to Mackenzie and his family. Finally it was granted so that on May 1, 1850, they returned to Toronto, the city they had left twelve years before. There Mackenzie re-entered politics and became once more a newspaperman. He published the Examiner and finally the Message. Both these papers are mentioned in the Rochester newspapers indicating that they and their editor were known to Rochesterians in general and particularly to the Rochester press. When Mackenzie died on August 28, 1861, his death was reported by the Union Advertiser, the successor to the Rochester Daily Advertiser which had supported him faithfully.

Thus ended the career of one of Rochester's most colorful journalists. His place in the history of the British Empire is a much greater one, but nonetheless he deserves to stand with Myron Holley, Thurlow Weed, Henry O'Reilly, Frederick Douglass, and Leonard Jerome, all of whom published or edited newspapers in Rochester before 1850.

The Rush Rhees Library is fortunate indeed to have a nearly complete representation of William Lyon Mackenzie's writings and publications. There are microfilm copies of all of Mackenzie's newspapers, some of which were published in Upper Canada before he came to Rochester. There is at least one copy of each of his books. Sketches of Canada and the United States (1833) is one of the more interesting and contains descriptions of Rochester, probably based on his experiences in 1830. Life and Times of Martin Van Buren, andLives and Opinions of Benj'n Franklin Butler . . . and Jesse Hoyt, and Sons of the Emerald Isle have already been mentioned. Probably his most famous and widely distributed work is the Seventh Report from the SelectCommittee of the House of Assembly of Upper Canada on Grievances; this was the work which was read by Cabinet ministers in England and which helped shape the history of the British Empire.

Finally, in the manuscript collections at Rush Rhees Library will be found twelve letters written by William Lyon Mackenzie, eight addressed to William Henry Seward and four to Thurlow Weed. Most of them are not of great interest or importance, but they are further reminders of an almost forgotten local figure of international importance.