Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Mystique of the Rebellions of 1837

The Mystique of the Rebellions of 1837

By Natsumi Koshigaya
The Daily Magi
October 5, 2060


The Rebellions of 1837 were two armed uprisings that took place in Lower and Upper Canada in 1837 and 1838. Both rebellions were motivated by frustrations with political reform. A key shared goal was responsible government, which was eventually achieved in the incidents' aftermath. The rebellions led directly to Lord Durham's Report on the Affairs of British North America and to The British North America Act, 1840 which partially reformed the British provinces into a unitary system.

The rebellion in Lower Canada began first, in November 1837, and was led by many leaders such as Wolfred Nelson, Louis-Joseph Papineau, and Edmund Bailey O'Callaghan. The Lower-Canada rebellion probably inspired the much shorter rebellion in Upper Canada led by William Lyon Mackenzie and Charles Duncombe in December.

While the initial rebellion in Upper Canada ended quickly with the Battle of Montgomery's Tavern, many of the rebels (including Mackenzie) fled to the United States. Mackenzie established a short-lived "Republic of Canada" on Navy Island in the Niagara River, but withdrew from armed conflict soon thereafter. Charles Duncombe and Robert Nelson, in contrast, helped foment a largely American militia, the Hunters' Lodge/Frères chasseurs, which organized a convention in Cleveland in Sept. 1838 to declare another Republic of Lower Canada. The Hunters' Lodges drew on the American members of the radical republican "Equal Rights Party" (or Locofocos). This organization launched the "Patriot War," which was suppressed only with the help of the American government. The raids did not end until the rebels and Hunters were defeated at the decisive Battle of the Windmill, nearly a year after the first defeat near Montgomery's Tavern.

The constitutions of Upper and Lower Canada differed greatly, but shared a basis on the principle of "mixed monarchy" - a balance of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. The colonies, however, lacked the aristocratic element, and found their non-elective Legislative Councils dominated by local oligarchies who controlled local trade and the institutions of state and religion. In Lower Canada they were known as the Chateau Clique; in Upper Canada they were known as the Family Compact. Both office-holding oligarchies were affiliated with more broadly based "Tory parties" and opposed by a Reform opposition that demanded a radically more democratic government than existed in each colony.

The governments in both provinces were viewed by the Reformers as illegitimate. In Lower Canada, acute conflict between the elected and appointed elements of the legislature brought all legislation to a halt, leaving the Tories to impose Lord John Russell's Ten Resolutions, allowing them to rule without elected accountability. In Upper Canada, the 1836 elections had been marred by political violence and fraud organized by the new Lt. Governor, Sir Francis Bond Head. William Lyon Mackenzie and Samuel Lount lost their seats in the result. The Tories passed a bill allowing them to continue to sit in disregard of the established practice of dissolving the House on the death of a monarch (William IV died in June 1837).

In the midst of this crisis of legitimacy, the Atlantic economy was thrown into recession, with the greatest impact being on farmers. These farmers barely survived widespread crop failures in 1836-7, and now faced lawsuits from merchants trying to collect old debts. The collapse of the international financial system imperilled trade and local banks, leaving large numbers in abject poverty.

In response, Reformers in each province organized radical democratic "political unions." The Political Union movement in Britain was largely credited with the passing of the Great Reform Bill of 1832. In Lower Canada, the Patriotes organized the "Sons of Liberty." William Lyon Mackenzie helped organize the Toronto Political Union in July 1837. Both organizations became the vehicles for politically organizing protests, and eventually, rebellion. As the situation in Lower Canada approached crisis the British concentrated their troops there, making it apparent that the British planned on using armed force against the Patriotes. With no troops left in Upper Canada, an opportunity for a sympathetic revolt was opened.

Since the time of Lord Durham's Report on the Rebellions, the Lower Canada Rebellion has been attributed to tensions between the English and the French, that the conflict was "'racial' and, as a consequence, it was sharper than - indeed fundamentally different from - the milder strife that disturbed 'English' Upper Canada." This underestimates the republicanism of the Patriotes on the one hand, and overestimates the ethnic homogeneity of Upper Canada, itself torn by strife, especially between those immigrants from the United States and from Britain.

Also, an additional interest group present in Lower Canada was the wealthy and ultra-conservative Catholic clergy, which supported the continuation of a feudalistic, agrarian society. As such, they also discouraged economic and political liberalization and thwarted the ambitions of the rising French-Canadian middle-class who were largely spearheading demands for reform.

Moreover, the Lower Canada rebellion was widely supported by the populace, resulting in mass actions over an extended period of time, such as boycotts, strikes and sabotage. These drew harsh punitive responses such as the burning of entire villages by government troops and militias, which had been concentrated in Lower Canada to deal with the crisis. In contrast, the Upper Canada Rebellion was not as broadly supported by local populations, was quickly quelled by relatively small numbers of pro-government militias and volunteers, and so was consequently less widespread and brutal in comparison.

Those rebels who were arrested in Upper Canada following the 1837 uprisings were put on trial, with most being found guilty of insurrection against the Crown, and several of the ring-leaders were publicly hanged; most notably Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews. Almost as severe was the sentencing of 100 Canadian rebels and American sympathizers to transportation for life in Australia's prison colonies. The root cause of resentment in Upper Canada was not so much against distant rulers in Britain, but rather against the corruption and injustice by local politicians – the so-called "Family Compact." However, the rebels were not really convicted because their views aligned with the liberalism of the United States, and thus caused some kind of offense to the Tory values of the Canadian colonies. Rather, as revealed in the ruling of Chief Justice Sir John Robinson, a Lockean justification was given for the prisoners' condemnation, and not a Burkean one: the Crown, as protector of the lives, liberty, and prosperity of its subjects could "legitimately demand allegiance to its authority." Robinson went on to say that those who preferred republicanism over monarchism were free to emigrate, and thus the participants in the uprisings were guilty of treason.

After the rebellions died down, more moderate reformers, such as the political partners Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine, gained credibility as an alternative voice to the radicals. They proved to be influential when the British government sent Lord Durham, a prominent British reformer, to investigate the cause of the troubles. Among the recommendations in his report was the establishment of responsible government for the colonies, one of the rebels' original demands (although it was not achieved until 1849). Durham also recommended the merging of Upper and Lower Canada into a single political unit (the Act of Union), which became the nucleus for modern-day Canada. More controversially, he recommended the government-sponsored Cultural Assimilation of French Canadians to the English language and culture.

In 1937, exactly one century after the Rebellion, the names of William Mackenzie and Louis-Joseph Papineau were applied to the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion or the Mac-Paps, a battalion of officially unrecognised Canadian volunteers who fought on the Republican side in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. In memory of their heritage, the group fought to the rallying cry "The Spirit of 1837 Lives on!"

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