At 8 PM Monday, December 3, 1837 William Lyon Mackenzie set out by horse down Yonge Street to scout the route for his attack on Toronto. At the top of Gallows Hill (below St Clair) he met Tory alderman John Powell, himself on patrol from the city. Mackenzie and his men took Powell prisoner. "Do you have a gun?" Mackenzie asked Powell. "No", Powell replied. Mackenzie took his word as a gentleman and sent him back towards the rebel headquarters at Montgomery's Tavern.
Powell lied about having a gun. He drew out two pistols and shot one of his guards in the back of the neck, killing him. Mackenzie heard the shot, headed back, saw Powell, fired a shot at him but missed. Powell closed range and fired at Mackenzie point blank but his gun flashed in the pan. Powell rode on to warn Toronto that the rebels were coming.
Trouble had been brewing in Upper Canada for some time and always at its centre was the fiery Scot William Lyon Mackenzie. Always a critic and self-proclaimed voice of the people, Mackenzie got elected to the Upper Canada Assembly and raised such hell that he was expelled three times, each time to be re-elected by his constituents. His primary targets in his newspaper articles and his diatribes were the lieutenant-governor and the colonial elite, dubbed the "Family Compact."
While moderate reformers such as Robert Baldwin tried to find a middle ground, things were made worse with the arrival of a new governor, Sir Francis Bond Head, an adventurer with no political experience. The governor got the reform Assembly dissolved and led a campaign based on fear and "loyalty." Mackenzie responded by issuing a Toronto Declaration, closely modeled on the American Declaration of Independence.
Historians have made note of the extenuating circumstances in the colony that made fertile ground for Mackenzie's agitation. There was an economic squeeze, crops were bad and the banks were foreclosing on farms. But in the final analysis the uprising in Toronto was uniquely the creation of Mackenzie's outrage. His ability to win over intelligent and cautious men was one of his strengths. But organization was one of his weaknesses. After haranguing some crowds in scattered meetings, he rode off to Toronto secure in the belief that thousands would rise to his cause.
|The fiery and principled Scot was the catalyst for the turbulent politics of the 1830s in Upper Canada (Courtesy Library and Archives Canada).|
The failure of the revolt was not necessarily a foregone conclusion. Confusion reigned in Toronto. The garrison was off quelling the insurrection in Lower Canada. The militia were a laughable lot, armed with some guns along with whips, hoes, canes and umbrellas.
Nevertheless, once surprise was lost, so was the enterprise. Mackenzie took the unfortunate decision of leading the rebels himself. He marched them off on Tuesday morning, December 4, riding at their head and wearing several overcoats to protect against bullets. Though the route seemed clear, the erratic Mackenzie seemed more interested in diversions. By the time the battle occurred, near College Street, a small picket under Sheriff William Jarvis had been organized.
The picket opened fire and being but 20 men, turned and ran. The front rank of rebels fired back and, as they were trained to do, dropped to the ground so that the next rank could fire over them. The back ranks thought the front rank had all been mowed down, panicked and ran away.
Now the initiative was with the loyalist forces, who got reinforcements from Hamilton, Niagara and as far away as Peel County. Militia chief James FitzGibbon organized three impressive columns, totaling 1500 men and on Wednesday marched up Yonge Street. The skirmish was an anticlimax. Only about 200 rebels stood their ground near Gallows Hill and they were quickly routed.
Many of the rebels fled or went into hiding or, like Mackenzie, bolted to the United States. Several prisoners were charged with treason. Twelve stood trial in Toronto. Six were convicted and Peter Matthews and Samuel Lount were hanged.
Historians have had a field day debating the consequences of the Rebellion of 1837. Obviously, as a revolution it was an abject failure. There was a time when Mackenzie's supporters, notably his grandson William Lyon Mackenzie King, argued that the Rebellion hastened the advent of responsible government, but few accept that idea today.
As for Mackenzie, he continued to agitate from a base on Navy Island. He started a newspaper in New York. But he was indicted under the "neutrality laws" and spent a year in prison. The more he saw of his beloved American-style democracy, the less he liked it and the more he repented his attempt at revolution. He returned to Toronto in 1850 after a general amnesty, re-entered politics, got elected and continued his campaign against hypocrisy and corruption. However much historians may denigrate his contribution, there are still many who see him as a unique voice of the people.