The Upper Canada Rebellion was an insurrection against the oligarchic government of the British colony of Upper Canada (present-day Ontario) in December 1837. While public grievances had existed for years, it was the rebellion in Lower Canada (present-day Quebec) that emboldened rebels in Upper Canada to openly revolt soon after. The Upper Canada Rebellion was largely defeated shortly after it began, although resistance lingered until 1838 (and became more violent) - mainly through the support of the Hunters' Lodges, a secret anti-British, US-based militia that emerged around the Great Lakes. They launched the Patriot War in 1838-39. The rebellion led directly to Lord Durham's Report on the Affairs of British North America and to The British North America Act, 1840 which partially reformed the British provinces into a unitary system.
Some historians argue that the rebellions in 1837 should be viewed in the wider context of the late 18th and early 19th century Atlantic revolutions. The American Revolutionary War in 1776, the French Revolution of 1789–1799, the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804, the Irish Rebellion of 1798, and the independence struggles of Spanish America (1810–1825) were inspired by similar democratic ideals, although they were tinged with republicanism as well. The United Kingdom's Chartists sought similar democratic goals.
|Upper Canada Rebellion|
|Part of the Rebellions of 1837|
Battle of Montgomery's Tavern
|Upper Canada||Reform Movement|
|Commanders and leaders|
Francis Bond Head|
William Lyon Mackenzie|
Anthony Van Egmond
The Upper Canada Rebellion is sometimes dismissed as a "farmers' revolt," an opportunistic action by misled backwoodsmen. The rebellion was, rather, the unintended consequence of a sophisticated political movement that copied the organizational forms of the British reform movement. The British Reform movement, organized as "Political Unions," had achieved the Great Reform Bill of 1832 which broadened the electoral franchise and helped eliminate political corruption.
The Upper Canada Central Political Union was organized in 1832-3 by Dr Thomas David Morrison (mayor of Toronto in 1836) while William Lyon Mackenzie was in England. This union collected 19,930 signatures on a petition protesting Mackenzie's unjust expulsion from the House of Assembly by the Family Compact. The Reformers won a majority in the elections held in 1834 for the Legislative Assembly of the 12th Parliament of Upper Canada and Mackenzie was again elected as member for York, but the Family Compact held the majority in the Legislative Council, and the two Houses of government were at loggerheads.
This union was reorganized as the Canadian Alliance Society in 1835. It shared a large meeting space in the market buildings with the Mechanics Institute and the Children of Peace. The Canadian Alliance Society adopted much of the platform (such as secret ballot & universal suffrage) of the Owenite National Union of the Working Classes in London, England, that were to be integrated into the Chartist movement in England. In pursuit of this democratic goal, the Chartists eventually staged a similar armed rebellion, the Newport Rising, in Wales in 1839.
The Canadian Alliance Society was reborn as the Constitutional Reform Society in 1836, when it was led by the more moderate reformer, Dr William W. Baldwin. The Reformers experienced a disaster at the 1836 elections for the 13th Parliament of Upper Canada, and the Society took its final form as the Toronto Political Union in 1837. It was this group of the disenfranchised that began organizing local "Vigilance Committees" to elect delegates to a so-called Constitutional Convention in July 1837. This became the organizational structure for the Rebellion; most of the rebel organizers were elected Constitutional Convention delegates.
The first of those meetings to select delegates to the constitutional convention were held at Doel's Brewery in Toronto on July 28 and 31. The second meeting was called to order by Samuel Hughes, a member of the Children of Peace, three days later, on August 3 in Newmarket. The meeting appointed Hughes, Samuel Lount, Nelson Gorham, Silas Fletcher, Jeremiah Graham and John McIntosh, M.P.P. as delegates to the convention (and all, with the exception of Hughes and MacIntosh, leaders in the Rebellion). A further eight public meetings across the Home District were scheduled over the next three weeks; each of these public meetings named a local committee of vigilance to organize reform support, prepare a registry of valid electors, and name their delegates to the proposed convention.
Immediately preceding the Mackenzie rebellion John Doel's house and brewery were prominent gathering places for the Reformers. The large meetings were usually held in the brewery while smaller meetings of the leaders were held in the home. Mackenzie planned to take foundry-men and axe-makers and seize arms, ammunition, and the artillery from the garrison. They would then arouse the citizens of the town and country to proclaim a provincial government. Mr. Doel objected to the plan and there was a fight between Mackenzie, Doel, and Morrison. The meeting was broken up and Mackenzie left the house forever. From this point forward John Doel, his brewery, and his home were not longer part of the rebellion.
The meetings in the Home District met with an increasing amount of Orange Order violence, so that the reformers began to protect themselves and resort to arms to do so. Mackenzie was accompanied by 50 young farmers from the Lloydtown meeting, for example, after they heard that an Orange riot was planned for Albion. As the violence continued, peaceable reform meetings tapered off in October, to be replaced by instances of men drilling for battle.
There is no single cause for the Rebellion, only a context. The issues, from the perspective of the reformers, were to an extent summarised in The seventh report from the Select Committee of the House of Assembly of Upper Canada on grievances..., and can be related as follows:
Both before and after the War of 1812, the government of Upper Canada continued to fear what it suspected might be a growing interest in American-inspired republicanism in the province. Reasons for this can be found in the pattern of settlement across the province over the previous half-century. Although the British had originally hoped that an orderly settlement in Upper Canada would inspire the former American colonies to abandon their republican form of government, demographic realities intervened. After an initial group of about 70,000 United Empire Loyalists were thinly settled across the province in the mid-1780s, a far larger number of American settlers came after Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe offered cheap land grants to promote settlement. Although these settlers, known as "late-Loyalists," were required to take an oath of allegiance to the Crown in order to obtain land, their fundamental political allegiances were always considered dubious. By 1812, this had become acutely problematic since the American settlers outnumbered the original Loyalists by more than ten to one. It was this reality that led American legislators to speculate that bringing Upper Canada into the American fold would be a "mere matter of marching." Following the war, the colonial government took active steps to prevent Americans from swearing allegiance, thereby making them ineligible to obtain land grants. Relations between the appointed Legislative Council and the elected Legislative Assembly became increasingly strained in the years after the war, over issues of immigration, taxation, banking and land speculation.
The Family Compact was a small, tightly knit group of men who dominated the government of Upper Canada and the financial and religious institutions associated with it. They were the leading members of the administration: executive councillors, legislative councillors, senior officials and some members of the judiciary. Their administrative roles, however, were intimately tied to their business activities: "they were not a political elite taking political decisions in a vacuum, but an overlapping elite whose political and economic activities cannot be entirely separated from each other. They might even be called 'entrepreneurs', most of whose political views may have been highly conservative but whose economic outlook was clearly 'developmental'." For example, William Allan, one of the most powerful, "was an executive councillor, a legislative councilor, President of the Toronto and Lake Huron Railroad, Governor of the British American Fire and Life Assurance Company and President of the Board of Trade."
Mackenzie frequently complained about the manner in which members of the Family Compact utilized their official positions for monetary gain, especially through corporations such as the Bank of Upper Canada, and the two land companies (the Clergy Corporation and the Canada Company) that between them controlled two sevenths of all the land in the province. The Bank of Upper Canada, for example, had been founded by William Allan and the Rev. John Strachan, key members of the Family Compact, both of whom were Executive and Legislative Councillors. Although they lacked the minimum capital needed to found the bank, they persuaded the government to subscribe for a quarter of its shares. During the 1830s, a third of the bank's board were Legislative or Executive Councillors, and the remaining all magistrates. Despite repeated attempts, the elected Legislature - which had chartered the bank - could obtain no details about the bank's workings. Mackenzie saw the bank as a prop of the Government and demanded farmers withdraw their support from it, by withdrawing their specie. The small confidence in the security which most banks gave for their redemption of their issues and the managers refusal to answer reasonable questions put forth by the House resulted in public confidence plummeting. Mackenzie was attempting to drain the banks of their money as a political weapon against the Government in hopes to avoid an armed revolution. However, the bank rebounded from this attack, making this attempt at peaceful revolution a failure.
Sir Francis Bond Head, the newly appointed Lt. Governor, was initially warmly greeted by the Reform movement. His first move was to broaden the representation on the Executive Council by including the advocate of "responsible government", Robert Baldwin. Disappointment soon followed when Bond Head made it clear he had no intention of consulting the Executive Council in the daily operations of the administration. The whole Executive Council unanimously resigned, provoking widespread discontent and an election.
Unlike previous Lt. Governors, Bond Head threw himself into the electoral fray in support of the Tory candidates, and utilized Orange Order violence in order to ensure their election. In the face of what was believed to be widespread fraud, William Lyon Mackenzie and Samuel Lount lost their seats in the Legislature. The reformers prepared a petition to the Crown protesting the abuses, carried to London by Charles Duncombe, but the Colonial Office refused to hear him. These three men became core organizers of the Rebellion.
The now Tory dominated Legislature passed a series of laws that exacerbated tensions:
After the 1836 elections, political rhetoric in the province was divisive, and did not allow for dissent. The Royal Standard, a short lived Tory daily, clearly called out for repressive measures.
William Lyon Mackenzie launched a new newspaper, the Constitution, on July 4, 1836. Lest the symbolism of the name and date be missed, he began serializing the American Revolutionary, Thomas Paine's tract, Common Sense. A year later, in July 1837, the newly formed Toronto Political Union called for a constitutional convention. The "Declaration of the Reformers of the City of Toronto" contained provocative references to the American Revolution and included a direct attack on the recently deceased monarch who they held personally responsible for the colony's unrepresentative government.
In November 1837, in the lead-up to the Political Union's Constitutional Convention, Mackenzie published a satire in the Constitution, a round table discussion by such luminaries as John Locke, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Oliver Goldsmith and William Pitt and others, said to be a "convention sitting in this township for the purpose of circulating political information, weighing opinions as to the best means of improving the civil institutions of the country, and endeavoring to determine whether the British Constitution, Sir F. Head's government or Independence would be the most likely to prove advantageous to the people." As part of this satire, he published a draft republican constitution for Upper Canada. This constitution closely resembled the objectives spelled out in the constitution of the Canadian Alliance Society in 1834; it called for an elected governor, legislative council (senate), House of Assembly and magistracy, all by secret ballot. It was egalitarian, prohibiting both slavery and the granting of "hereditary emoluments, privileges, or honors." It also called for a separation of church and state, and barred the clergy from seeking election, or serving in any civil or military office. It guaranteed the rights to personal property, to freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly. But tied to these rights to personal property and egalitarian democracy were severe restrictions on chartering corporations; starting from the premise that "Labour is the only means of creating wealth" it placed a constitutional prohibition on chartering either banks or trading companies.
The reformer party in the Legislative Assembly desired that the Jury system be reformed, to the extent that they passed a Jury Law Amendment Bill no less than four times over eight years. This was a contentious issue, and the Legislative Council replied again for the last time in favour of the status quo on February 25, 1836. The defeat of the reformers in June 20, 1836 elections for the 13th Parliament of Upper Canada silenced this legislative outlet of steam, and thus was the stage set for rebellion.
On July 10, 1832, President Andrew Jackson vetoed the bill for the refinancing of the Second Bank of the United States, arguing that it was utilized by a "moneyed aristocracy" to oppress the common man. The dismantling of the bank plunged the Anglo-American world into an enormous depression (1836–38) that was worsened by bad wheat harvests in Upper Canada in 1836. Farmers were unable to pay their debts. Most banks - including the Bank of Upper Canada - suspended payments (i.e. declared bankruptcy) by July 1837 and requested government support. While the banks received government support, ordinary farmers and the poor did not.
Among the more than 150 lawsuits they launched that year, the Bank of Upper Canada, which served the same purpose as the Bank of the United States, launched a suit against Sheldon, Dutcher & Co., a foundry and Toronto's largest employer with over 80 employees in late 1836, bankrupting the company. Not surprisingly, Mackenzie's first plan for rebellion involved calling on Sheldon & Dutcher's men to storm the city hall, where the militia's guns were stored.
The brunt of this economic distress was felt by the common farmers. One fifth of British immigrants arrived in Upper Canada impoverished. Most immigrant farmers lacked the capital to pay for purchased land. The large debts they owed were compounded by the bad harvest, and debt collection laws that allowed for them to be jailed indefinitely until they paid their loans off to merchants. The situation was made worse in March 1837 when the Tories passed a law making it cheaper to sue farmers: city merchants could sue in the middle of harvest, and if the farmer refused to come to court in Toronto, they would automatically forfeit the case and be subjected to a sheriff's sale.
The Reformers were incensed at the debt that the family compact had managed to incur as the results of general improvements to the province, such as the Welland Canal. These debts stemmed mostly from investments in canals. A man and his team of oxen hired at two dollars per day. The population of the province was estimated at 400,000, while the debt of the province amounted to around 1,000,000 pounds. The annual revenues amounted to 60,000, a sum almost insufficient to pay the interest on the debt. The dissolution of the 12th Parliament of Upper Canada in spring of 1836 resulted from the denial of money bills by the Reformist Legislative Assembly.
When the Lower Canada Rebellion broke out on October 9, 1837, Bond Head sent all the British troops stationed in Toronto to help suppress it. At the beginning of November, a meeting of 15 reformers at John Doel's house rejected Mackenzie's call for an immediate attack on City Hall. They instead decided to send Mackenzie north to investigate public sentiment. At a secret meeting in East Gwillimbury, Samuel Lount, Silas Fletcher, Peter Matthews of Pickering, Nelson Gorham of Newmarket, Jesse Lloyd of King township and James Bolton of Albion township heard Lloyd report on the revolt in Lower Canada. All were delegates to the Constitutional Convention. They decided to set the date for a supportive Upper Canadian revolt on December 7.
On November 15, Mackenzie published his draft constitution. On November 27, Mackenzie printed a handbill declaring "Independence!". On November 29, Mackenzie set the date for the Constitutional Convention for December 21, exactly 6 months after the date of King William's death - the Tory dominated elected assembly, which refused to prorogue, would at that time become illegitimate.
The delegates to the Convention, like Samuel Lount, downplayed the armed aspect of the Rebellion to the farmers he tried to enlist. Lount called a meeting in Hope (now Sharon), the village of the Children of Peace, where he told them "there was war in Lower Canada and there was reason to believe that Martial Law would be proclaimed… he thought the city would be taken without firing a gun."
Dr. Rolph, however, had heard that the Lt. Governor had been informed of the plan, and sent a note to Lount moving the march from the north forward to December 4, 1837. When hearing about this change of plans, Mackenzie quickly tried to send a messenger to Lount to tell him not to arrive until December 7. This message was not received in time, with Lount replying that the rebels had already been ordered to march to Toronto and were on their way. Barely armed with pikes and guns for hunting fowl, the farmers from York County marched from Newmarket down Yonge Street towards Toronto and Montgomery's Tavern.
Before the direct confrontation between Mackenzie’s rebels and Bond Head’s militia forces on December 7, there were various encounters between both sides which resulted in small skirmishes. On December 4, Mackenzie and some fellow rebels encountered Alderman John Powell (Canadian politician) and Archibald McDonald when riding down Yonge Street to scout the city. Upon meeting them, Mackenzie took both men prisoner and sent them to Montgomery’s Tavern. Although there were concerns over whether Powell and McDonald possessed arms, Mackenzie accepted their denials and said, “well, gentlemen, as you are my townsmen, and men of honor, I would be ashamed to show that I question your words by ordering you to be searched.” Despite such assurances, Powell had hidden a pistol and shot rebel Captain Anthony Anderson before escaping back to Toronto, thereby dealing a large blow to the rebel’s military expertise.
As Mackenzie and his forces marched towards Toronto, Bond Head sent a flag to the rebels and asked for their demands, to which Mackenzie demanded “Independence and a convention to arrange details.” By the time Mackenzie and his followers had reached College Street, Bond Head sent another party to tell Mackenzie that his demands had been rejected. That same day, Colonel Moodie attempted to ride through a roadblock to warn Bond Head, but the rebels shot him.
With the truce faltering, Mackenzie and his forces continued into Toronto, eventually confronting a small loyalist force estimated to be between 15 and 30 members strong. The last real engagement prior to the Battle of Montgomery’s Tavern occurred on December 6 via a raid on a mail coach which was suspected to have government intelligence regarding future actions towards the rebels. It was from this raid that the rebels learned of government plans to soon attack Montgomery’s Tavern.
When the revolt began, Mackenzie hesitated in attacking the city until December 7, when his military leader, Anthony Van Egmond, arrived. Van Egmond, a veteran on both sides of the Napoleonic Wars, advised immediate retreat, but Mackenzie remained hesitant. Mackenzie waited for Bond Head's force of about 1000 men and one cannon, led by Colonel James FitzGibbon, which outnumbered Mackenzie's approximately 400 rebels. When the battle started, Mackenzie split his troops into two groups and put one group on each side of Yonge Street, with the western flank taking the brunt of Bond Head’s assault. Outmatched both in weaponry and skill, Mackenzie's rebels lasted about 15 minutes in the battle before retreating. The untested forces dispersed in a panic after the first round of firing thinking the rebel’s front row had been killed when they were simply dropping to the ground to allow those behind them to fire.
News of the intended rebellion had reached London and the surrounding townships by December 7. It was initially thought that the Toronto rebellion was successful, contributing to Charles Duncombe wanting to rise up as well. Upon hearing more details about the rebellion in Toronto, Duncombe convened a series of public meetings to spread news of the supposed atrocities committed by Bond Head against all suspected reformers to help increase anti-government support. It is estimated that there were between 400-500 rebels who assembled under Duncombe  Colonel Allan MacNab, who had just finished leading Upper Canadian militiamen during the Battle of Montgomery's Tavern, was sent to engage Duncombe's uprising. He left Hamilton, Ontario on December 12 and arrived in Brantford on December 13. Although many rebels, including Duncombe, had fled prior to the upcoming battle due to hearing about the failure of Mackenzie in Toronto and general disorganization, there were still some present in Scotland, Ontario and MacNab commenced his attack on Scotland on December 14, causing the remaining rebels to flee after only a few shots were fired. The victorious Tory supporters burned homes and farms of known rebels and suspected supporters. In the 1860s, some of the former rebels were compensated by the Canadian government for their lost property in the rebellion aftermath.
Mackenzie, Duncombe, John Rolph and 200 supporters fled to Navy Island in the Niagara River, where they declared themselves the Republic of Canada on December 13. They obtained supplies from supporters in the United States, resulting in British reprisals (see Caroline affair). On January 13, 1838, under attack by British armaments, the rebels fled. Mackenzie went to the United States where he was arrested and charged under the Neutrality Act. The other major leaders, Van Egmond, Samuel Lount, and Peter Matthews were arrested by the British; Van Egmond died in prison, and Lount and Matthews were executed at 8 AM on April 12, 1838, in Toronto. Their last words were: "Mr. Jarvis, do your duty; we are prepared to meet death and our Judge."
The rebels continued their raids into Canada, however, using the U.S. as a base of operations and cooperating with the U.S. Hunters' Lodges, dedicated to the overthrow of British rule in Canada. The raids did not end until the rebels and Hunters were decisively defeated at the Battle of the Windmill, nearly a year after the initial battle at Montgomery's Tavern.
Compared to the Lower Canada Rebellion, the initial portion of the Upper Canada Rebellion was short and disorganized. However, the British government in London was very concerned about the rebellion, especially in light of the strong popular support for the rebels in the United States and the more serious crisis in Lower Canada. Bond Head was recalled in late 1837 and replaced with Sir George Arthur who arrived in Toronto in March 1838. Parliament also sent Lord Durham to become Governor-in-Chief of the British North American colonies, so that Arthur reported to Durham. Durham was assigned to report on the grievances among the British North American colonists and find a way to appease them. His report eventually led to greater autonomy in the Canadian colonies, and the union of Upper and Lower Canada into the Province of Canada in 1840. The populations of Upper and Lower Canada are listed on the Province of Canada wiki, and that of Canada West was not to exceed that of Canada East until 1850.
A number of the rebels were hanged including Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews, others were shot. Their deaths were a strong motivation for the continuing Patriot War. Many more prisoners were transported, but most were pardoned, e.g. Enoch Moore (Loyalist turned rebel). A general pardon (for everyone but Mackenzie) was issued in 1845, and Mackenzie himself was pardoned in 1849 and allowed to return to Canada, where he resumed his political career. Mackenzie was strongly disillusioned after his time in the United States, writing to his son that "after what I have seen here, I frankly confess to you that, had I passed nine years in the United States before, instead of after, the outbreak, I am sure I would have been the last man in America to be engaged in it." In later life however, Mackenzie advocated annexation of Canada by the United States.
In total 93 Americans and 58 Canadiens prisoners from Lower Canada were transported to Australia after being convicted in Montreal in late 1838 or early 1839. Almost all were taken on HMS Buffalo, leaving Quebec in September 1839 and arriving off Hobart, Van Diemen's Land in February 1840. The Americans were disembarked at Hobart but the French-Canadians were taken to Sydney, New South Wales. They were interned near the present-day suburb of Concord, giving rise to the names Canada Bay, France Bay and Exile Bay. The French-Canadians were treated better than the Americans, liberated sooner and assisted in getting home. Of the 93 Americans, 14 died as a direct result of transportation and penal servitude. By the end of 1844, half of those in Van Diemen's Land had been granted pardons, nearly all were pardoned by 1848, but five remained in penal servitude until at least 1850. None chose to stay in Van Diemen's Land after being pardoned.
From Upper Canada 150 were sent to the penal colony of Van Diemen's Land and Sydney, Australia. In December 1838, more than a dozen convicts, amongst whom Grant, Miller, Reynolds, Parker, Malcolm, Walker, Bedford, Wixon, Watson, Brown, Anderson and Alves, were transferred through Liverpool, where those named interested in their case a local Member of Parliament, Joseph Hume, who brought an affidavit and petition of Habeas Corpus on their behalf. Grant had been sentenced in Niagara to death but pardoned if he would be transported. Miller and Reynolds were convicted in Niagara of felony to the same effect. The nine others were convicted in Toronto to the same effect. They depended, amongst other artifices, on the difference in status between convicted as they had been and pardoned by the time they were in Liverpool. But, in the end, the judges confirmed their transportation.
The Rebellion – a "fact that every school child knows" – has overshadowed all else in the Canadian narratives on the struggle for democracy and responsible government. Allan Greer has argued that "though the 'Progress of Liberty' was a favorite theme of history for earlier generations, it is difficult today to get anyone interested in the history of democracy… Canadians in particular, taught in school to see their national past as a story dominated by transcontinental railways and Fathers of Confederation, have trouble imagining the struggle for democracy as an important historical theme. The history of democracy, we tend to believe, happened somewhere else."
Paul Romney explains this failure of historical imagination as the outcome of an explicit strategy adopted by reformers in the face of charges of disloyalty to Britain in the wake of the Rebellions of 1837. In recounting the “myths of responsible government”, Romney emphasized that after the ascendancy of Loyalism as the dominant political ideology of Upper Canada any demand for democracy or for responsible government became a challenge to colonial sovereignty. The linkage of the "fight for responsible government" with disloyalty was solidified by the Rebellion of 1837, as reformers took up arms to finally break the "baneful domination" of the mother country. Struggling to avoid the charge of sedition, reformers later purposefully obscured their true aims of independence from Britain and focused on their grievances against the Family Compact. Thus, responsible government became a "pragmatic" policy of alleviating local abuses, rather than a revolutionary anti-colonial moment.