Rebellion in Upper Canada

The 1837 rebellion in Upper Canada was a less violent, more limited affair than the insurrection that same year in neighbouring Lower Canada, although its leaders, including William Lyon Mackenzie, were no less serious in their demands for democratic reform, and an end to the rule of a privileged oligarchy. The rebellion itself failed, yet its very failure helped pave the way for more moderate and careful political change in British North America, including the union of Upper and Lower Canada, and the eventual arrival of responsible government.

Upper Canada, Map

Land, British Loyalties and the Family Compact

After the War of 1812 there was growing discontent in Upper Canada with the elite clique of politicians and officials, known as the Family Compact, that dominated the running of the government, controlled the distribution of patronage throughout the colony, and used political office and influence to further their own business interests.

There was also popular opposition to land-granting practices, particularly the general favouritism shown by the government to the Church of England and its supporters (as opposed to other Protestant groups) and to recent emigrants from Britain (see Clergy Reserves).

This discontent was strongest among the large tide of American-born settlers who had migrated prior to the War of 1812 — the so-called late Loyalists — and their descendants. Many were non-conformist in their religious views and somewhat republican in their political sympathies. In the 1820s, settlers of American origin were also denied political rights — including the choice to swear allegiance to the Crown — thus making them ineligible for land grants.

Amid these tensions there was also economic depression in the 1830s, felt hardest in Upper Canada by the colony's farmers, who suffered a series of crop failures and were subject to harsh debt-collection laws.

These grievances breathed life into the nascent Reform movement, whose members won control of the elected Legislative Assembly in 1828 and again in 1834.

Mackenzie Organizes Rebels

A new lieutenant-governor, Sir Francis Bond Head was sent to the colony to appease the reformers in the Assembly, but he succeeded only in precipitating a rebellion. He openly assisted the conservatives in winning the election of 1836, in which reformist leaders such as Marshall Spring Bidwell, who had been Speaker of the Assembly, and moderate reformers such as Robert Baldwin, were defeated. The more extreme elements in the Reform movement then began to mobilize under the leadership of William Lyon Mackenzie.

Sir Francis Bond Head
On the outbreak of the Rebellion in 1837 he advanced to meet the rebels and succeeded in quelling the uprising.
William Lyon Mackenzie
The fiery and principled Scot was the catalyst for the turbulent politics of the 1830s in Upper Canada.
Robert Baldwin
Baldwin was the first popularizer of responsible government and one of the first proponents of a bicultural nation (courtesy Metropolitan Toronto Library).

Mackenzie was a Scottish-born politician and newspaper publisher, the first mayor of Toronto, and a fierce critic of the Family Compact and the government's refusal to give political rights to American settlers.

A member of the Legislative Assembly, at first he sought only to exert pressure on the government by organizing a network of political unions and a boycott of imported goods, and by entering into a working relationship with the reformers of Lower Canada.

In 1837, however, emboldened by the growing insurgency in Lower Canada and by the transfer of all the British troops in Upper Canada to the colony next door, Mackenzie persuaded his more radical followers to draft a republican constitution for Upper Canada, modelled on that of the United States, and to seize control of the government.

Approximately 1,000 men gathered at Montgomery's Tavern in Toronto between 5 and 8 December. They came largely from the countryside north of Toronto and represented a cross section of the farming community from which Mackenzie had always drawn the bulk of his support, with a large number of settlers of American origin.

Battle of Montgomery's Tavern

On 5 December, a motley assortment of 500–700 rebels bearing only hunting rifles, staves and pitchforks, marched south on Yonge Street to meet a smaller force of armed government loyalists and militia. On their way, the rebels ran into a picket of about 20 loyalists who opened fire. The front rank of the rebel force returned the fire and then dropped to the ground, to assume a safer firing position. Watching those first ranks drop, the remaining rebels thought their comrades at the front had been killed. In their fear and confusion they turned and ran.

In total, only three men, two rebels and one loyalist, lost their lives during these initial stages of the rebellion.

On 8 December, a force of about 1,000 volunteers loyal to the government — including 120 Black soldiers under the command of Colonel Samuel Jarvis — marched to Montgomery's Tavern and dispersed the remaining rebels. Hundreds of Black Canadians volunteered for service during the rebellions, helping to create several fighting units — known as “Coloured Corps” — in Chatham, Toronto, Hamilton, Sandwich (Windsor) and along the border in the Niagara region.

A second outbreak took place a few days later near Brantford, where 500 men gathered under the leadership of Charles Duncombe, but they too were easily dispersed by government volunteers under the command of Sir Allan Napier MacNab.

Cross-Border Raids

Mackenzie, Duncombe and other rebel leaders fled with about 200 followers to the US where, with the help of American volunteers, various rebel groups launched raids against Upper Canada, keeping the border in a state of turmoil for nearly a year.

On 8 January 1838, the Upper Canadian militia and a 50-man Coloured Corps under the command of Black community leader Josiah Henson captured the sloop Anne, which ferried rebel troops between Detroit and Windsor. The rebels’ loss of the Anne, which was carrying significant amounts of cash and munitions, put an end to their incursions in the southwest.

Nancy and Josiah Henson.
Josiah Henson and his wife Nancy circa 1875. A former slave from the US, Henson helped to establish the British-American Institute, a vocational school and refuge for fugitive slaves (courtesy Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site).

However, a few days later, with the support of those Americans who wished to liberate Canada from British rule, Mackenzie took control of Navy Island in the Niagara River — just upriver from the falls — and proclaimed a republic of Upper Canada. He was forced to withdraw on 14 January 1838, after Canadian volunteers burned the rebel ship, Caroline, that was supplying Mackenzie’s forces and set it adrift over the falls (see Remember the Caroline).

The Caroline descending Niagara Falls after being set on fire by militiamen, 29 December 1837.

During 1838, the rebels continued to organize expeditions across the border. They mounted major raids at Pelee Island in Lake Erie in February, at Short Hills in June, at Prescott (see Battle of Windmill) in November and at Windsor in early December. Though poorly organized and easily crushed, the raids kept the border in a constant state of turmoil and brought Britain and the US to the verge of war (see The Early American Republic and the 1837–38 Canadian Rebellions). The rebellion and the raids also played into the hands of the ultra-Tory faction in Upper Canada, which was placed in temporary political ascendancy.

Site of the Battle of the Windmill, Prescott.
View of the Windmill at Prescott, Upper Canada, and the adjacent houses as it appeared after the action, Artist: Henry Francis Ainslie, April, 1839.
Rebels at Dickinson Landing, Upper Canada
Attack & defeat of rebels at Dickinson Landing, Upper Canada, Artist: John Richard Coke Smyth, London (England), 1840.

Only two of the original rebels, Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews, were executed by the government. However, many reformers, including Bidwell, fled to the US fearing reprisals. The ensuing conflicts along the border led to many more executions, deaths and deportations than the original, somewhat pathetic uprising.

Adelaide Court House, c 1800s
A 19th-century artist's rendering of the public hangings of Lount and Matthews, Toronto, April 12, 1838 (public domain).

Causes and Consequences

There is continuing debate over who was responsible for the rebellion, and the degree of popular support it enjoyed among the people. Among some historians there is considerable sympathy for the rebels and a feeling that they represented the authentic voice of the majority, at least of the colonial working classes. But the mainstream historical view is that the uprising had limited support and was largely an accident precipitated by the inexcusable partisanship of Head, the new lieutenant-governor, and the rash behaviour of that most unlikely of Canadian heroes, Mackenzie.

Few historians see any necessary political connection with the rebellion in Lower Canada, though without it the Upper Canadian revolt would probably not have taken place.

The impact of the Upper Canadian insurgency is equally disputable. It had the effect of undermining the influence of the extremists in Upper Canada, allowing less radical leaders, such as Robert Baldwin, to reconstruct the reform movement on more moderate lines.

The rebellions in both Upper and Lower Canada led directly to the appointment of Lord Durham and the Durham Report, which recommended that the Canadas be united into one colony, and responsible government introduced (see The Politics of Cultural Accommodation).

The Act of Union was passed in 1840, and the United Province of Canada came into being in 1841; the details of responsible government were gradually worked out between 1841 and 1848.

Act of Union
First page (National Archives of Canada/MG40, E1).

In an earlier period, most historians insisted that without the rebellions change would have come more slowly, if at all. The more recent trend is to dismiss the rebellions as unnecessary, since Britain was already moving towards gradual change, through its appointment of more conciliatory, reform-minded governors.

This is particularly true for the rebellion in Upper Canada — although by discrediting extremists on both sides of the political spectrum it did assist in the rise to power of moderates who focused on the campaign for responsible government and were thus prepared to unite the two Canadas.