William Lyon Mackenzie King was three times Prime Minister of Canada, serving in the office for a record 22 years. Known mostly as a mild-mannered passive conciliator, he helped revive the flagging Liberal Party of Canada and instituted many of the basic building blocks of the Canadian welfare state.
King was born in 1874 in the town of Berlin, now the city of Kitchener, Ontario to John King, a lawyer, and Isabel Grace Baxter. Isabel's father was a man young William idolized, William Lyon Mackenzie, leader of the 1837 Upper Canada Rebellion. Isabel was a major influence her son, who became a legendary mama's boy; she favoured William over his three younger brothers, and William in turn was devoted to her all his life.
King was the best educated of all Canadian PMs and the only one to have a PhD. He earned a Bachelor's degree in economics in 1895, a law degree the following year, and a Master's the year after that, all from the University of Toronto. After a short stint at the University of Chicago, he went to Harvard, from whence he received an MA in Political Economy in 1898 and a doctorate in 1909.
Mackenzie King became a civil servant in 1900, when he was hired to be editor of the Labour Gazette, a publication of the newly formed Ministry of Labour; he soon attained the additional position of Deputy Minister of Labour. In 1908 he left the civil service and ran for Parliament, winning a seat in the Waterloo North, Ontario, riding; he held that seat till 1911, and from 1909 to 1911 he was also Minister of Labour. From 1919 to 1921 King was leader of the Opposition, representing Prince, Prince Edward Island; he became Liberal Party leader in 1919, a position he held till just before his retirement from politics in 1948. For much of his time as Prime Minister he was also Minister of External Affairs. Other constituencies he represented: 1921-1925 North York, Ontario; 1926-1945 Prince Albert, Saskatchewan; and 1945-1949 Glengarry Ontario.
King became Canada's tenth Prime Minister in 1921, taking over from fellow Liberal Wilfred Laurier. At that time tariffs and freight rates were a major concern, and though King attempted to appease prairie farmers by lowering them, the reductions were not enough for him to gain their support. They instead favoured the newly formed Progressive party, which was created specifically to represent western farmers' interests. Though King's party formed a majority government after the 1925 election, the Progressives were able to defeat him when he lost a vote of confidence in 1926. King wanted to dissolve parliament and call a new election, but Governor General Viscount Byng refused, instead allowing Conservative opposition leader Arthur Meighen to form a government. King got his revenge four days later when he called for a vote on the basis of an argument that Meighen didn't have a constitutional right to govern. When the Conservatives lost the vote, Byng had to call for an election. King was again victorious and served as PM until 1930. During this second term he reduced the World War I debt; he introduced the old age pension in 1926 and, another memorable milestone, appointed Canada's first female senator, Cairine Wilson, in 1930.
In 1930 Canadians blamed the Liberals for a disasterous fall in the price of wheat, and elected a Conservative government, a blow for King that ended up benefitting his party, as the worst years of the Great Depression were blamed on his foes. The Liberals were re-elected in 1935, and King was once again PM. He led the country through World War II, having argued in Canada at Britain's Side (1941) and Canada and the Fight for Freedom (1944) that a strong and independent Canada must be at the forefront of the Allied movement. His personal friendships with US President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British PM Winston Churchill helped solidify Canada's involvement in world events of the time. He worked with Roosevelt to ratify agreements which resulted in a permanent joint defense board for Canada and the US. In Europe, Canada contributed substantial troops and resources to the war; many Canadians lost their lives on European soil and King was forced to go against French Canadian wishes and begin conscription to continue the war effort. During the same period, he oversaw the establishment of unemployment insurance in 1940 and the family allowance in 1944. He was chair of the Canadian delegation which drafted the Charter of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945 and met at the Paris Conference in 1946.
In 1948 King retired from politics; his successor, Louis St. Laurent, won the next election, and the Liberals enjoyed eight more years in power, before being toppled by the Progressive Conservatives, led by the formidable John Diefenbaker. Less than two years after his retirement, King died at Kingsmere, Quebec. He is buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto.
Mackenzie King never married - he could never find a woman as good as his mother - and was very attached to his pets, particularly a terrier named Pat. He kept a diary for over 50 years, and when it was published after his death (against his wishes), another side of this man who led the country for so long was revealed. King had always been interested in spiritualism and religion, and as a young man even considered entering the religious life. As an adult he developed an interest in the occult, and while PM he held seances, engaging spirit mediums to help him communicate with the dead, including his grandfather and his beloved mother, who died in 1917. Though he did not ask the dead for their advice on governing Canada, he did seek reassurance for the decisions he had already made.
There is a two-volume biography of King by Dawson (volume 1) and Neatby (volume 2), as well as one called Knight of the Holy Spirit by J. E. Esberey. The National Archives of Canada holds a huge collection of his personal papers, including his diaries, which can also be viewed on microfiche at the University of Toronto.