One of the only Canadian prime ministers who never worked as a lawyer, stone-mason Alexander Mackenzie is usually remembered as an honest, honourable guy who was nevertheless completely ill-suited for the rough-and-tumble world of 19th century Canadian politics. Serving a short tenure between the two terms of John A. Macdonald (1815-1891), his prime ministership was forgettable at best.
A Scottish immigrant like Macdonald, Mackenzie was never one of the leading lights of the Canadian Liberals, and only became head of the party because no one else wanted the job. Elected to the first Canadian Parliament in 1867, he was appointed prime minister by Governor General Lord Dufferin (1826-1902) a mere five years later, after Macdonald resigned in shame following the Pacific Scandal, which had exposed a complex web of corruption surrounding the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Mackenzie called an election and was properly elected to the prime ministership in 1874.
Mackenzie’s four-year tenure passed largely without any huge achievements — on purpose. On the opposition bench, Mackenzie’s Liberals had blasted the Macdonald administration for spending money with reckless abandon, and ratcheting up enormous debts that could only be repaid with equally massive corruption. Under Mackenzie the pace of government was slowed down considerably, particularly the construction of the cross-country railroad that had been at the root of so much trouble.
The late 1800s proved a time of considerable economic recession in Canada, and the opposition Conservatives were quick to blame the downturn on Mackenzie’s mellow style of rule. To make matters worse, Mackenzie faced opposition within his own ranks for not being nearly liberal enough, and ambitious cabinet ministers were soon openly coveting his job. Losing an 1878 election rematch against Macdonald, Mackenzie promptly retired into anonymity.