Rebellions of 1837
Topics of Discusion
- Causes and Outcomes
- Failure of the Rebellions
- Government Stucture and Social Conditions
Causes and Outcomes
The Rebellions of 1837 were armed uprisings that took place in Upper Canada and Lower Canada [Ontario and Quebec] in 1837 and 1838. The two rebellions had similar causes. The British believed that the lesson of the American Revolution was to restrain the power of the common people. The result was that a small group of well-to-do men in each colony had a great deal of power.During the 1820s, tension increased in both colonies. Reformers demanded change. The government resisted it.
Causes of Unrest in Lower Canada
In Lower Canada, the heart of the troubles was the conflict between French and English. From the first election in 1792, the French Canadians had held the majority in the elected Legislative Assembly. After the War of 1812 they began to try to gain increased political power in the government. They prevented the Assembly from granting money for projects, such as canals, which the English-speaking merchants wanted. However, the British governor still held the real power. He gave most of the government jobs to the English.The Patriotes were a more extreme group of French-Canadian politicians. They emerged in the late 1820s. When the governor refused to grant them the reforms that they demanded, in 1834, they brought the business of the Assembly to a halt to force the British authorities to change.Under their leader, Louis-Joseph Papineau, the Patriotes gained support among the people. Papineau found particular support among many habitant farmers who had recently lost their crops to disease. People in the countryside were starving.The Patriotes sent the British government a list of demands in a document called the Ninety-Two Resolutions. In March 1837, the British government rejected these demands. Furthermore, it gave the governor, Lord Gosford, the power to use money from the Treasury without the permission of the Assembly. Mass protests followed. Papineau roamed the countryside, rousing the people with speeches. Early in November there was rioting in Montreal, and on November 16, 1837, British soldiers began to arrest Patriote leaders. Papineau escaped their net and went to the village of St-Denis, northeast of Montreal.
Lower Canada - The Lower Canadian Rebellion
The government called out the soldiers and an army headed for St-Denis. One of the English supporters of the Patriotes, Dr Wolfred Nelson, organized the defence of St-Denis. On November 23, a battle raged around the village, and the Patriotes forced the soldiers to retreat.Two days later, on November 25, the soldiers attacked the Patriotes again, at the village of St-Charles. This time the defenders were crushed. The Patriote leaders escaped into the woods. Papineau fled to Vermont, in the United States, but Nelson was captured and jailed.A third battle took place at the village of St-Eustache, west of Montreal. Jean-Olivier Chénier led the fierce resistance. The Patriotes took refuge in the village church, but they were no match for the British soldiers. The soldiers burned the church to the ground and killed many Patriotes. After each battle, the soldiers and volunteers set fire to the houses of the people in the area. They destroyed their possessions, carried off their livestock, and left the people to starve. Twenty-seven soldiers and 298 Patriotes died in the fighting.
Causes of Unrest in Upper Canada
In Upper Canada, popular discontent centred around the government's land policies, its attempts to encourage commercial and industrial development, and its favouritism toward the Church of England and its supporters. American-born immigrants also bitterly resented the fact that the government denied them their political rights. As the population and opposition to the government grew, a reform movement emerged under the leadership of Marshall Spring Bidwell and William Warren Baldwin and his son, Robert.The Reformers briefly gained a majority in the Assembly in 1828 and 1834, but in 1836 they were defeated in an election. The most extreme Reformers then turned to the radical William Lyon Mackenzie for leadership.Mackenzie was a crusading journalist with great enthusiasm but little judgement. During the 1820s, he had launched a fierce attack on the network of government officials whom he called the Family Compact. Several attempts to silence him, either by wrecking his printing press or by ejecting him from the Assembly, only made him more popular with the people.Mackenzie did not at first intend to lead an armed rebellion. He established links with the Patriotes in Lower Canada, and hoped to pressure the government into granting reforms. As the political crisis deepened during 1837, however, he began plotting to seize control of the government. When word of the outbreak of the Lower Canadian rebellion reached him, he decided to take action. He gathered together his supporters at Montgomery's Tavern, just north of Toronto.On December 5, 1837, Mackenzie led about 500 to 700 men down Yonge Street toward Toronto. They were a rag-tag army, armed with only a few guns, clubs, and pitchforks. On the way, they encountered a force of about 20 local militiamen, who fired on Mackenzie's forces before running away. A few of Mackenzie's supporters returned the fire, but they too ran away.
Two days later, a large force of about 1000 to 1500 government supporters marched from Toronto to meet the rebels. The skirmish lasted only a few moments before the rebels were put to flight.Charles Duncombe, a country doctor, led a similar rising west of Toronto but it also failed.
The two rebellions were led by similar men, Papineau and Mackenzie. They could arouse emotions with words, but they had no idea how to organize their supporters into an effective force. Papineau fled to the United States after the Patriote defeat at St-Charles; he later retreated to France. Mackenzie also escaped to the United States. There he raised some support for his cause. He based himself on Navy Island, near Niagara Falls, but his supply ship, the Caroline, was sunk by Canadians. The Americans finally arrested Mackenzie and put him in jail for a year.In 1838, Upper Canadian rebels with a few hundred American sympathizers made several more unsuccessful invasions from the United States. In Lower Canada, fresh outbreaks of Patriote resistance occurred in the region southwest of Montreal. Canadian forces easily extinguished both eruptions.Other rebels were not as lucky as Papineau and Mackenzie. The prisons of Lower Canada were filled with Patriotes, and 99 were condemned to death for treason. Of these, 12 were hanged and 58 were sent as convicts to Australia. In Upper Canada, 24 rebels were exiled to Australia, and two were hanged (Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews).The British government sent Lord Durham to Canada to investigate the causes of the rebellions. Durham concluded that the main cause of the trouble in Lower Canada was the conflict between English and French. He considered the French to be a backward people. He proposed that Upper and Lower Canada should be united so that as, as the English grew to outnumber the French, the English would dominate the Assembly.
Durham also recommended that the elected Assembly, not the British governor, should control the government. This system, later called "responsible government," was too radical for the British and was delayed for several years. However, Durham's plan to unite the two Canadas was carried out in 1841.
Papineau and Mackenzie both returned to Canada eventually. They remain controversial characters in Canadian history, considered heroes by some and by others as troublemakers who in fact delayed the cause of reform.
By Dustin Jeffery