Wednesday, July 17, 2019

How A Canadian Prime Minister Saved The Richest Family In America

Wall Street. Home to the New York Stock Exchange. The heart of the American economy. Every day, countless tourists flock to this spot — and to a statue just down the block: the Wall Street Bull is a symbol recognized around the world. But as dozens of tourists wait for their chance to take a photo with the bronze beast, no one pays any attention to the obscure piece of Canadian history standing right next to it. It was from this spot, at 26 Broadway, that a Canadian prime minister once saved the richest family in the United States. 

William Lyon Mackenzie King was born and raised in Toronto, but his family had roots in New York long before he arrived in the city. His grandfather was the very similarly named William Lyon Mackenzie — the notorious rebel mayor of Toronto, who once led an armed rebellion against the government of Upper Canada. When his revolution failed, the rebel mayor fled across the border into the United States. He and his wife Isabel spent a few years living in exile in New York City. That's where their daughter Isabella was born. And she, in turn, would have a son named after his rebellious ancestor. 

Mackenzie King followed in his grandfather's political footsteps. As a young member of parliament he served in the Liberal government of Wilfrid Laurier, appointed as Canada’s first ever Labour Minister. But when the Liberals lost the next election, King accepted a new job. He would head south to work for one of the world's most famously rich families.

John D. Rockefeller had made his fortune in oil. He was the first billionaire in U.S. history, founder of the company that has since morphed into ExxonMobile. But by the 1914, the Rockefellers were in trouble. The coal miners who worked for them in Colorado were on strike: thousands of miners demanded things like an 8-hour workday and the enforcement of safety regulations. 

The company refused. The miners and their families were evicted from their company-owned housing, forced to set up tent cities. And then the National Guard was sent in, along with strikebreakers and private detectives. Things turned brutally violent. There were gunfights. Bullets fired into random tents. A tent city burned to the ground in what become known as the Ludlow Massacre. No one is quite sure how many people died during the Colorado Coalfield War, but it was somewhere between 69 and 199 — even babies were killed. Historians have called it the “deadliest strike in the history of the United States” and “perhaps the most violent struggle between corporate power and laboring men in American history”.

The Rockefellers had put a lot of effort into establishing a positive public image. John D. Rockefeller Jr. had used his dad's money to set up the Rockefeller Foundation, one of the biggest charities the U.S. had ever seen. But now his reputation was taking a beating; many people blamed him for the massacre. So now he used the Rockefeller Foundation to hire Canada’s former labour minister to give him advice. King would delve into a deep study of labour relations… and help save Rockefeller’s reputation in the process.

King spent the next few years travelling back and forth between his home in Ottawa and the Rockefeller Foundation offices at 26 Broadway Avenue — right next to where the Wall Street Bull now stands — studying and learning, working on what would eventually become a book on the subject. He even travelled to Colorado himself, touring the mine and meeting with miners. 

His instincts seemed to lean toward the workers' cause. “One could not help feeling as one looked at the huge seams of coal," King admitted, "that this wealth of nature was never intended to be privately owned, but was intended in reality for society as a whole.” But he was also deeply fond of Rockefeller Jr. King admitted he knew “of no man living who I more admire.” And Rockefeller returned his admiration: “Seldom have I ever been so impressed with a man at first appearance.” His biographer claims King was “the closest friend he ever had. 

During his time in New York, King essentially organized a public relations campaign on Rockefeller’s behalf. He had him meet with labour leaders and personally orchestrated his tour of the coalfields. When Rockefeller was called to testify before Congress, King was there, passing him notes during his testimony. “I was merely King’s mouthpiece,” Rockefeller remembered, “I needed education. No other man did so much for me.” And it worked. Even the radical labour organizer Mother Jones gave them a glowing quote for the papers.

Mackenzie’s advice helped to bring an end to the strike as the union ran out of money — his “Colorado Plan” became a model followed by companies across the United States. In fact, things went so well that Rockefeller seems to have wanted King to stay on in New York, joining the oil company as an executive. But King was absolutely appalled by the idea. He had no interest in big business. He had even bigger plans.

With the Rockefeller crisis solved, King returned to Ottawa to finish his book — and to run for office once again. Soon, he was elected Prime Minister of Canada for his very first term. By the time he retired, the man who had once saved the richest family in the United States had been in office for more than 21 years — the longest-serving prime minister in Canadian history.


This post also appears on the Canadiana blog. It's the documentary web series I host, on the hunt for the most incredible stories in Canadian history. You should subscribe on YouTube — it's 100% free and you'll get an email letting you know when every new episode comes out.


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