ROAD TO REBELLION
History has a message.
"Truth is not always to be withheld because its expression may wound the feelings of public men whose official acts have subjected them to public censure. If it were history and biography would cease to be guiding stars and above all would offer no wholesome restraint to end the cruel or corrupt or incompetent exercise of authority."
The death and destruction resulting from the war of 1812 served to solidify the traditional imperial attitudes in Upper Canada about the United States. It stiffened the determination of the privileged few in the province to create a conservative fortress in British North America that would be resistant to the extreme democratic influences filtering up from the United States. Words such as disloyal, seditious, democratic and American were all synonymous with words of contempt and reproach hurled by Tories at anyone who dared oppose them. To further their conservative ends members of the Tory elite often sought appointments to both the legislative and the executive councils and many including the Reverend John Strachan received them. Overlapping appointments such as these confirmed the exclusive and closed nature of this group which Reformers in the 1820s disdainfully designated the Family Compact. Such double-barrelled appointments demonstrated the closeness of the links between the colony's political/administrative structure and its judicial system.
Connections between political and judicial structures always tend to be close: politicians make laws and judges enforce them. In Upper Canada, however, they were so cozy that the same executive council which advised the lieutenant governor on the colony's administration also served as the colony's final court of appeal. As a result it was very difficult to distinguish between those who made the law and those who enforced it. In keeping with British tradition Upper Canada's elite viewed the law as an ally in the effort to preserve the social hierarchy within which they enjoyed privileged positions. They fully realized, however, given the colony's exposed and vulnerable position bordering on the United States and the discontent event within the colony both before and during the war that a too extreme application of the existing law could be tend to hinder achievement of the desired result.
Like Britain's ruling class the local lights opted for more subtle displays of power. An example of this was the show trial orchestrated by Attorney General John Beverley Robinson in May, 1814 at Ancaster just west of Hamilton. Dressed in their imposing regal robes the judges indicted 71 traitors and sentenced 17 to be hanged, drawn and quartered. They finally pardoned nine, hanged eight and quartered none. By tempering harsh justice with mercy in such an impressive and awesome setting, the elite hoped to conciliate the people and promote loyalty or at least compliance on the part of the public. A similar approach was followed in the lower courts where although the death penalty existed for a wide range of crimes executions were rarely imposed.
One individual who personified the close connections between law and politics within the Family Compact was Sir John Beverley Robinson', a student of Bishop Strachans. He was appointed acting attorney general at the age of 21 before he had even been called to the bar. In 1818 he became attorney general and in 1820 he joined the Legislative Council where he became the primary spokesman for the province's elite. In 1829 Robinson was appointed chief justice, a position he held until 1863.
In addition to the courts the church was used to manipulate and control the population. The Constitutional Act had established the Church of England as the state church with all the majesty that entailed. The government looked to this church to monitor and manage the behaviour of the people. To assist it to do so the Church of England was assigned control of educational policy and funded by monies from the sale of the Clergy Reserves.
The majesty of the law and mercy of the church eventually proved inadequate to disguise the fundamentally self-centered nature of the governing elite's agenda. In the 1820s as political, administrative and judicial decisions became increasingly more domineering and oppressive some Assembly members had by the end of the decade joined together to form "His Majesty's faithful opposition," a term then being used in the British Parliament.
Several issues promoted the development of a Reform movement. Americans were flooding into Upper Canada and bringing with them their republican principles of equality and democracy. They represented a real threat to the close knit clique that ran the province almost arbitrarily and the elite decided to act. In 1817 it was decided that Upper Canadians who were born in the United States after 1783 were stripped of their rights to vote and to own land. At the instigation of John Beverley Robinson one American-born resident elected to the Assembly was denied the right to take his seat. This legislation known as the Alien Question was blatantly so discriminatory the public resentment it caused developed into anger. When those protesting this intolerance received no satisfaction from their appeals to the lieutenant governor, they petitioned directly to the British government a tactic bitterly opposed by the elites because it undercut their authority. Their annoyance turned to outrage when the Colonial Secretary ordered that American-born Upper Canadians be granted equal civil rights.
A series of other 'outrages' increased the fury of the Family Compact. A fiery Scots reformer named Robert Gourlay had come to Upper Canada in 1817 with the intention of settling. Almost immediately he antagonized those in control of the colony by making inquiries into the administration of the province. He did this by collecting statistics and sending out questionnaires quizzing the citizens about their grievances. His encouragement to all who were dissatisfied to speak out for change was virtually an invitation to everyone he met to criticize the government. When a leading member of the Family Compact, the Reverend John Strachan, attempted to silence him, Gourlay called him "a monstrous little fool of a parson" and organized a public convention to discuss the colony's problems.In a letter Strachan commented on Gourlay. "A character like Mr. Gourlay in a quiet Colony like this where there is little or no spirit of inquiry and very little knowledge may do much harm by exciting uneasiness and unreasonalble hopes."
This bronze sculpture of Robert Gourlay is located in a Toronto park. The plaque on it contains this information. Robert Gourlay championed reform ahead of his time: In Scotland - a vote for every man who could read and write; In In England - a living wage for workers: In Canada - fair land distribution" The following quotation is taken from his ground-breaking 1822 Statistical Account of Canada. "The first question in political economy should be, can the mass of the people live comfortably under this or that arrangement? But this most necessary question was forgotten, and many people have perished."
Gourlay's impertinence represented a real threat to the "ruling classes" which included the governors, high church officials, the local magistracy, other officialdom including army officers, most professional men and others who thought of themselves as 'gentry'.This group cut a wide swath in the province and they intended to keep it that way. The oligarchy decided it was time to remove the velvet glove and expose the mailed fist and they did so sternly and harshly. The previously practised pretence of leniency and mercy was abandoned and an outright ban was placed on all public meetings. Anyone who supported Gourlay was dismissed from their places of employment. Gourlay was ordered to leave the province. When he refused he was charged with sedition and sentenced to eighteen months in prison. Gourlay served his sentence in the Niagara jail where he was confined to a small room whose tiny window was nailed shut. Paper and pencil were forbidden to him. During his incarceration Gourlay's mental health deteriorated greatly and few recognized the wizened man who finally appeared before them 8 months later in the hot, uncomfortably crowded courtroom. His clothes, which were made to fit a portly person, hung on a stooping skeleton. His once red face was grey, his hands shook visibly and his eyes wondered vacantly about the courtroom. He was a shadow of his former vigorous self. After a grossly unfair trial and despite his sad and wretched condition, Gourlay was found guilty and ordered to leave the province within twenty-four hours or face death. He left for England.
The Gourlay episode was a stark display of the Family Compact's power to stifle free expression and its action created widespread indignation among all right-thinking people. Gourlay's name was not forgotten and in 1842 his case was brought before the Legislature of Upper Canada where it was decided his arrest had been "illegal, unconstitutional and without possibility of excuse and palliation. The sentence was declared null and void." Gourlay returned to Canada in 1856 and was granted a pension of fifty pounds which he refused because he considered that his vindication had not been complete. He returned to Scotland where he died in 1862.
Authoritarian repression came to a head in the case of Judge John Walpole Willis who arrived from England as a junior judge in 1827. Far from supporting the political shenanigans of the Family Compact, Judge Willis questioned what was going on. He argued that loyalty was not God-given but had to be earned. "Statues have not given the People their Liberties; their Liberties have produced them." The Tories were infuriated by his impartiality and frankness and sought his immediate dismissal.
Although the Reformers swept to victory in the 1828 election they failed to work together. Since politcal parties in the modern sense had yet to be formed opposition to the Tories lacked unity. Frustrated opposition turned to anger which simmered in the 1820s and came to a boil in the 1830s. Of the 51 riots recorded in Upper Canada before 1840, 44 of them took place during the 1830s.
The Tories endeavoured to bolster their political position but increasingly their behaviour and integrity were being questioned. This resulted in them becoming more belligerent in their efforts to put a stop to the rising Reform movement. In what is known as the Types Riot, young sons of the elite broke into Mackenzie's printery, destroyed his press then threw it into the lake. Sheet-covered men in blackface stripped, tarred and feathered a long-time Reformer. Those responsible for this illegal act included two magistrates one of whom was also the local sheriff! Bully-boy tactics were used which included disrupting political meetings, burning effigies and making personal assaults on various reformers.
This antagonized even moderate Reform leaders like William Baldwin and his son, Robert, who argued that "every free Government must have two parties, a governing party and a party in check." Such opinions were considered utter nonsense by the Family Compact. As far as they were concerned people there were either loyal Tories or disloyal Reformers. The privileged few were seemingly impervious to prosecution for committing these fragrantly illegal activities since no one was brought before the courts. The law far from being above politics was its handmaiden. Despite all the grief and grievances suffered and endured by the Reformers, those who advocated rebellion were always few in number. Most moderate Reformers were British subjects who distrusted extreme views and feared disloyalty. They saw little to be gained by physically confronting the established authority with its military might.
Tragically, at this critical period in the life of the little colony, the most incapable of governors, Sir Francis Bond Head, was selected by the British cabinet to promote conciliation in Upper Canada. For his inexperience the Cabinet which appointed him was responsible. For his incompetence and ignorance, Head was solely to blame. Sir Francis Bond Head did not know the meaning of compromise and collaboration. He lacked common sense, modesty and discipline and combined insults to his subjects with disobedience to his superiors. His bone-headedness brought the crisis to a climax. In the violent and crooked election of 1836 Head stomped the province and by using bribes, threats, violence and fear-mongering, he led the Tories to an overwhelming victory. All moderates like Robert Baldwin were shut out of office. In disgust and despair these moderate Reformers decided to withdraw from politics. In so doing they left leadership in the hands of the more radically inclined.
The inflammable elements lost all patience with the process and flared forth into insurrection. Mackenzie, the ringleader of these radical Reformers, was essentially an agitator. When he decided that reform in fair and unbiased government was not possible to achieve peacefully he unreservedly urged incitement to rebellion. It was said of Mackenzie that "he felt a longing desire to right the wrongs which he saw everywhere around." This constituted "his mission as a public man in Canada." At heart Mackenzie's fundamental political belief was that government was a trust to be administered on behalf of the governed. Any deviation by a public person from the straight and narrow path of public service, any abuse of public office for private advantage and high salary, any undue private gain from public measures must be denounced and exposed for the public good. His central theme was of government as a trust.
In Upper Canada he believed that trust had been violated again and again and anything less than the complete overthrow of the system would be a waste of time. "To die fighting for freedom is truly glorious," he wrote in November 1837. Mackenzie stormed about the province preaching revolution among the disaffected.In His Own Words
"Canadians, Do you love freedom? I know you do. Do you hate oppression? Who dare deny it? Do you wish perpetual peace and a government bound to enforce the law to do to each other as you would be done by? Then buckle on your armour, and put down the villains who oppress and enslave your country. One short hour will deliver our land from the oppressor. He who commands the winds and the waves will be with us. Up then brave Canadians. Ready your rifles and make short work of it."
The Little Rebel's plan was to seize the city and declare the independence of the province. In December 1837 he donned several overcoats to shield him from the cold and .15 calibre bullets and led roughly one thousand ill-armed men on a pathetically planned, totally unsuccessful assault on Toronto. Shots were fired and the ragtag rebels fled in all directions closely pursued by the Loyal militia and warriors from the Six Nations. Mackenzie with a one thousand pound price on his head took off for the States. Despite the widespread dragnet out for his hide he reached the safety of the United States. He said later he was protected all the while by the people of the province. While they might not have agreed with his methods, they liked and admired the man and no one was prepared to betray the tiny tribune despite the huge reward for his capture.
Mackenzie had completely misinterpreted the sentiment of the citizens of Upper Canada and falsely exaggerated the degree of support they would give to his seditious movement. However, the fact that the rebellion fizzled and its perpetrators fled did not mean that dissatisfaction and dissent were not widespread in the province. Many Upper Canadians sympathized with the misguided malcontents and were quite prepared to see their punishment tempered by mercy. When some 800 alleged rebels were caught and held for what were expected to be fast and fearsome trials, petitions for clemency totalling more than 30,000 signatures flooded into Toronto.
Into this tense and turbulent mixture the British government belatedly acted in a frantic attempt to repair the fractured Canadian political system. Enter the emissary charged with resolving the Canadian crises - John George Lambton, the Earl of Durham.
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