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Rebellions of 1837

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The Pretext to the Act of Union in 1840

In 1791, as a result of the American Revolution to the south, the British Parliament passed the Constitutional Act of 1791. The Constitutional Act split the area known as Quebec established by the Quebec Act of 1774. The two areas were known as Upper and Lower Canada. Upper Canada contained a mostly Anglophile population; Lower Canada had a majority of French speaking Canadiens (Chennells, 60-63). This act did not establish a free governing people for either colony, though it has assemblies. However, the power of the assemblies were subject to the executive powers of an unelected governor and Legislative or Executive Councils. The impact of the British minority in Lower Canada attracted little debate in the House of Commons. As William Pitt summed up the question:

It appeared to ministers . . . that there was no probability of reconciling the jarring interests and opposite views of the inhabitants, but by giving them two legislatures. . . If one of the parties had a great ascendancy over the other, the party having the superiority was very unlikely to give satisfaction to the other party. It seemed to his majesty's servants the most desirable thing, if they could not give satisfaction to all descriptions of men, to divide the province, and to contrive that one division should consist, as much as possible of those who were well inclined towards the English laws, and the other, of those who were attached to the French laws. It was perfectly true, that in Lower Canada there still remained a number of English subjects; but these would hold a much smaller proportion than if there was one form of government for every part of the province. It was in Upper Canada particularly that they were to expect a great addition of English inhabitants (Chennells, 63). (William Pitt, House of Commons, 11 May 1791, Parliamentary History 29: 402).

Overall, the Constitutional Act of 1791 was intended to accommodate the Loyalists as best they could. However, a degree of attention had to be focused on the French inhabitants, for they were the largest part of the population. It was hoped that British Upper Canada would become an attractive emigration colony for the British.

The Rebellion in Lower Canada.
Photograph | Louis-Joseph Papineau, Montreal, QC, 1861 | I-849.0.3

The Rebellion of French Lower Canada began over the political tensions between the Legislative Assembly, an elected assembly, and the Legislative Council appointed by the governor. Constitutionally, the Assembly alone could initiate money bills concerning taxes and expenditures, but the executive itself also possessed revenues from Crown Lands, the military budget, and even from London that enabled it to distribute patronage in the form of positions, salaries, and pensions to its supporters. (Francis, Jones, Smith, 246) In addition, the Legislative Council could refuse the prerogatives of the Assembly. The governor held the ultimate veto power over both institutions.

One of the early signs of political confrontation occurred in 1805 over financial matters. The Assembly passed a bill designed to raise money to build prisons provoking a debate that illustrated the increased English-French tensions within Lower Canada. French members favored increasing import duties; British merchants favored to tax the land. This is a classic Agriculture-Merchant conflict that mirrored the French-English split within the colony. The Assembly voted for import duties; the merchants appealed their decision to the Legislative Council, the governor, and then finally to London. London showed the usual disconnect: If the [French]-Canadians succeed in building so many churches, why couldn't they pay for the construction of prisons, was the reaction from the Colonial Office in London. (Francis, Jones, Smith, 246-247).

By the 1820s, Louis-Joseph Papineau had emerged as the leader of the Parti Canadian or Parti Patriote leading the charge on the provincial revenue question. Papineau had entered politics earlier in the 19th century and became the speaker of the Assembly in 1815. Between 1805 and 1837, Lower Canada had known agricultural hardship: crop failures in 1805, 1812, 1816, 1818, 1828, 1833, and 1836 competed with depression between 1819 and 1821, 1825 and 1828, 1833 and 1834, and again in 1837. For the habitants of Lower Canada, there was no escape because of the lack of arable land for an increasing population (Mann, 72). Tensions with the new English immigrants would also rise to new heights because the British government has set aside immense tracts of land in the Eastern Townships for these English newcomers. The British American Land Company had formed for the purpose in 1832 of selling land to English immigrants. The French Canadians began to squat on Township lands (Mann, p. 72). This tension between French and English rose to new heights over the land issues. So much so that the Assembly in 1837 petitioned the King in opposition to the British American Land Company (BALC), while the English controlled Legislative Council wrote briefs in support of the BALC. Tensions further increased as the crop failures of 1837 became apparent throughout the Atlantic world. Crop prices rose to such an extent that farm families in Lower Canada could not even feed themselves let alone procure seed grain for the next year (Mann, p. 73). The harsh economic situation of the 1830s did not improve the political situation. The Parti Canadian⁄Parti Patriote (hereafter the Patriots) had been striving for increased political control over the colony. They controlled the Assembly, but had little power as their work could be overturned by the Legislative Council, Governor, or, finally, by the Privy Council in Great Britain.

The Parti Patriote members of the assembly in late 1834 drafted 92 resolutions as the basis for their electoral program, a veritable manifesto that the then governor Lord Aylmer, interpreted as nothing less than a declaration of independence.(Francis, Jones, Smith p. 248). Parliament had given the Assembly a compromise to its 92 resolves. It gave the Assembly control of all expenditures on the condition that it vote a permanent civil list to defray civil servants salaries in the colony ( Ibid, p. 248). To help Lord Aylmer's financial difficulties in the colony, The BALC was established and granted 400,000 acres of land in return for the promise that the company would make internal improvements and make annual payments to the Crown (ie. Lower Canada Colony). The Parti Patriote had obtained increased support in the countryside for its 92 resolves. In the 1834 election , the last election before the 1837 rebellion, the patriotes swept the Assembly elections virtually eliminating all moderates. In early 1835, Lord Aylmer was replaced by Lord Gosford to govern the colonies and assess the political situation in Lower Canada. At first Gosford was a welcome change to the practices of Lord Aylmer. Gosford was so conciliatory and understanding to the French that many of the English began to complain. He attempted to understand the reasons behind the 92 resolves in order to formulate a proper British response. However, Gosford's good will attitude would be undermined upon the discovery and publication of secret instructions Gosford had carried with him from London. The secret instructions were discovered by a radical from Upper Canada, William Lyon Mackenzie who had obtained them and passed along the information to Papineau (Mann, p. 74). From these instructions there would be no elective legislative council nor Assembly control of Crown lands; nor any concessions in the financial tug of war between the Assembly and the governor.

As Gosford began the process of preparing his report to London, the Assembly continued to hold out. It has approved finances for 6 months only setting itself up for a crisis gambling that the governor or his councils would not dare dip into provincial funds without constitutional sanction (Mann, p. 74-75). The Assembly had moved to take charge of all colonial finances raised within the colony. After his first few months in power neither Gosford nor his council relented. Seeing an impasse, the Assembly adjourned appropriating no funds for public programs. Gosford submitted his report to the British government in early March of 1837. His recommendations included no real increased power for the Assembly. There was a concession that the assembly could control all provincial revenue, if the civil list voted for a mere 7 years rather than for life peerage. The tie of the governor being responsible to London and not elected either directly or indirectly through the Assembly by the colony would remain (Mann, p. 74-75). Within a few short days of the Gosford report, Lord John Russell, a government leader in the House of Commons, moved for the approval of the Gosford Recommendations. In the end the government of Lower Canada would be able to defray its administrative costs from the consolidated revenue without the Assembly's approval. There would be no elective Legislative Council; he English speaking minoritty's political influence would thus be preserved through the Legislative Council representing wealth and enterprise being responsible to the governor alone (Francis, Smith, Jones, p. 248). Responsible government whereby the governor would be forced to choose his ministers from the majority party of the Assembly would not occur.

The reaction to Russell's resolutions in London, were met in Lower Canada with increased defiance on the part of the Patriote led Assembly. Papineau and the Parti Canadien no longer hid their lack of confidence in the governor. The Assembly moved toward a showdown over financial matters. Gosford offered last minute bargaining in the summer of 1837 by offering to suspend some of the resolutions in return for a vote of funds. The Assembly rejected this bargain, whereby the governor dissolved the last Lower Canadian Assembly. The members of the Assembly would adjourn to their ridings⁄districts where they explained that the die was cast. By the summer of 1837, the patriotes were holding mass meetings in the most populated areas. The patriotes' Permanent Central Committee became a center for political discussion in Montreal. The Committee only a few years old orchestrated large mass meetings throughout the summer and fall of 1837. In Montreal, Papineau reminded the crowds that the English had used violence in the past to secure their rights. This was the signal that many young men took to organized military groups rivaling English clubs in Montreal. They called themselves Fils de la Liberte (Sons of Liberty). North of Montreal, crowds up to 4000 gathered to hear Papineau justify the American revolt against England (Mann, p. 76). In the aftermath of the mass meeting, plans were made for a convention in December in Montreal.

All of this would be to no avail as violence between the Fils de la Liberte and the English Doric Club took place on the streets of Montreal on November 6, 1837 (Mann 76). Gosford responded by summoning up British troops from the other colonies. He also had prepared warrants for Papineau and other patriote leaders. Whether intended or not patriotes were not committed to the fight and obliged to show their resolve. The key incident occurred in St. Denis where under the direction of Wolfred Nelson the habitants and townspeople defeated a force of British soldiers on November 23, 1837 (Mann 76). The victory was short lived when two days later they were defeated by the British at St. Charles. This defeat resonated with the rebels who gathered in the aftermath. St Denis was destroyed by the British on December 1 to emphasize their victory. Many rebel leaders including Papineau fled across the boarder to the United States. Where on December 6, rebels had rallied momentarily only to be pushed back by English Volunteers (Mann, 77).

By the middle of December 1837, the rebellion subsided with most of its leaders having fled across the American boarder. After the crushing defeat of December there remained little enthusiasm for rebellion. As an uprising the rebellion in Lower Canada was a fiasco. However, it nevertheless signified a problem that Britain needed to address due to the large 450,000 French habitants living in Lower Canada (Mann 77). With little military skill and grandiose promises, there was little that habitants could do when revolt broke out. They had two choices: 1. they could wait and watch the skirmishes to see which way fate would direct them; or 2. they could take leadership into their own hands (Mann 77). In the end, most preferred to take a wait and see attitude; those that took an active part found that there were too many leaders and not enough followers. Thus, with little organization and centralization of the movement, and the hesitance on the part of the habitants of French Lower Canada, the Rebellion disintegrated quickly.


The Rebellion in Upper Canada and Responsible Government

Economic and political problems would dominate the issues confronting Upper Canada in a very similar manner as in Lower Canada. William Lyon Mackenzie arrived in Upper Canada from Scotland (Francis, Jones, Smith 226). The government of Upper Canada resembled that of Lower Canada. It had an elected Assembly and a Legislative Council appointed by the governor, who was answerable to London. By 1824 Mackenzie had established a newspaper The Colonial Advocate dedicated to the Reform cause. Mackenzie was so eloquent at leading the attacks on the leading families of Upper Canada, the Family Compact, that its members and friends broke into his office and threw his typesetting equipment into Lake Ontario (Francis, Jones, Smith, 226). However, such acts only made Mackenzie a celebrity among reformers. By 1828, Mackenzie ran for office and was elected to the Assembly. That same election returned a Reform majority and many moderate Reform party leaders such as: John Rolph, Marshall Spring-Bidwell, and William & Robert Baldwin (father and son) (Ibid). The vision of the Reformers had a different tone than in Lower Canada. They had aligned themselves with the thinking of other reform movements in Britain and in the Unites States around the issue of universal suffrage.

Mackenzie began a shift in the 1830s toward a more radical reform agenda. He had met President Andrew Jackson in 1829 and returned to Upper Canada committed to the same ideals (Ibid, p. 227). Mackenzie had also traveled to Britain to deliver a firey list of complaints from the Upper Canada reformers, as he saw them, to the British government. Their mistake was that they believed that Mackenzie's views were representative of the majority of Upper Canada.

In fact, Mackenzie represented the radical wing of the Reform party that had split from the moderate wing headed by Robert Baldwin and Edgerton Ryerson (ibid, p. 227). Mackenzie advocated American style elected government and the moderates did not want such a radical departure from the British system and government responsible to an assembly of elected members. By 1834, the Reformers were back in power and Mackenzie was in charge of the Assembly's grievance committee that produced the Seventh Report on Grievances in 1835 (ibid). Contained in the Seventh Report was a demand for responsible government. That is, a legislative council that is elected and responsible to the Assembly. At the same time, it demanded curtailment of the powers of the lieutenant governor particularly over matters of patronage. The British government assigned the responsibility for the situation Upper Canada to Lieutenant Governor John Colborne who was summarily removed from office.

Sir Francis Bond Head was eager to avoid the disastrous political atmosphere of his predecessor. In the beginning, he started off well. He appointed Reformers to the Executive Council. Then candidly refused their advice. Upon hearing of the Lieutenant Governors refusal of advice, Reformers Robert Baldwin and John Rolph resigned their seats on the council and persuaded their fellow members to do the same (Francis, Jones, Smith, 228). A political firestorm ensued as the Assembly censured the governor and then blocked the granting of supplies. The governor then dissolved the Assembly called for new elections and campaigned for the conservatives, who summarily won the election. Bond Head, the conservatives and the Family Compact all felt that the Reformers were too republicans. In addition, a large British immigrant community and questionable tactics appear to have influenced the outcome (Ibid).

William Lyon Mackenzie understood that conditions of Upper Canada made it ripe for rebellion. The poor crops of 1835-37 had squeezed credit and caused an economic downturn. Mackenzie also had served as the first mayor of a newly incorporated city of Toronto. The election defeat of 1836 for Mackenzie was an act of tyranny enforced by Sir Francis and a corrupt oligarchy (Morton 44). He was also angered by the increased expansion of the franchise of immigrants from Britain who identified themselves as British rather than Canadians. For Mackenzie and his supporters the only solution was a republican form of government which required a rebellion along the lines of the American Revolution. The economic times combined with the political atmosphere made Upper Canada ripe for revolution. The angry American-born farmers in the townships north and west of Toronto were followers of Mackenzie and the populism of Andrew Jackson. When the banks in Upper Canada began to collapse, Bond Head insisted that the banks remain open and pay off panic stricken creditors even if it meant ruin (Mortion 44). It was at this point that Mackenzie shared his plans for a Canadian Republic with his fellow Reformers, many who were aghast about the suggestion. Robert Baldwin and many others distanced themselves from this idea. John Rolph, who was designated as the first president of the Canadian Republic, discovered that the authorities in Toronto knew of the plans for rebellion on December 7. Plans were quickly changed to December 4.

On December 4, five ill clad and poorly equipped rebels – with only muskets, pikes, pitchforks, and cudgels – gathered at Montgomery Tavern on Yonge Street (just north of present-day Eglinton Ave) for the attack. (Francis, Jones, Smith, 229). Mackenzie was in command and at that point outnumbered the small number of forces Bond Head had. Had Mackenzie attacked that day history might be different. However, he delayed. Later that day he led the now 500-700 troops farther down Yonge Street towards the city and med a party of 20 led by Sheriff William Botsford Jarvis. (Ibid). The rest is a tragic comedy as Mackenzie's first row of men dropped after firing, the second tier of men thought they had been shot and fled the scene. Reinforcements arrived later that night and by December 7, the loyalists outnumbered the rebels 3 to 1. The forces marched up Yonge Street attacked the rebels at Montgomery Tavern routing the rebels in less than an hour and then marched back to Toronto (Ibid).

Mackenzie's rebellion in Upper Canada was over. He would escape to the United States. Within a week of the incident on Yonge Street several rebel leaders were captured and hanged while many others fled across the boarder to the United States.  British forces had restored order.  In the United States, Mackenzie an his supporters had gathered to plan an attack on Upper Canada. Many of the rebels saw the rebellion as either a Canadian version of the American Revolution – an attempt to end British Tyranny – or an opportunity to annex Upper Canada to the United States (Ibid, 231). Mackenzie and his men made Navy Island on the Canadian side of the Niagara River their headquarters. There they established a provisional government. Throughout 1838, the rebels would make bolder crossings into Canada to instigate trouble. The largest battle was the Battle of the Windmill near Prescott, Ontario were in November 1838 where over 200 rebels barricaded themselves in a old windmill and forced to surrender. Thirty men were killed in the battle and the rest were taken prisoner (Ibid 229). By the end of 1839, over 1000 people had been jailed for taking part in the rebellion or under suspicion of treason. The rebellion was over.