Rebellion in Upper Canada, 1837

by J. Edgar Rea

MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 22, 1965-66 season

This article was published originally in MHS Transactions by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Since there has been widespread acceptance of the fundamental role of the Upper Canadian rebellion of 1837 in our national history, it is rather disconcerting to realize how very little we actually know about it. If one approaches this central event to determine who rebelled, and for what reasons, our historical literature yields only contradiction and confusion. The paucity of detailed knowledge renders any general interpretation of the rebellion dubious at best. But worse, generalizations derived from inadequate evidence have tended to obscure some meaningful insights which may be gained by examining short run effects of the abortive rising. A survey of the representative literature will suggest the depth of our confusion over the meaning of the rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada.

Appropriately, two of the main characters were among the first to record their impressions. Lieutenant-Governor Francis Bond Head considered that the radical Reformers who followed William Lyon Mackenzie were motivated by self-interest. They were "the idle, the profligate and the unprincipled." [1] The bulk of the rebels, in his opinion, were good, but simple, people deluded by Mackenzie and the other rebel leaders who hoped "... to burn the city of Toronto, in order to plunder the Banks." [2] Since this view was that of a participant rather than a witness, it is more self-revelation than evidence.

Mackenzie, as one would expect, was at the other extreme. He argued that the "government was too unpopular to have any real adherents." [3] He went on to assert that "about 3,500 persons joined us during the three days we were behind Toronto," and furthermore, "... thousands were on their way to join us on Thursday evening." [4] Mackenzie offers no evidence for his claims to wide-spread support. He is still the polemicist. These two, early accounts, however, have set the limits of the debate about the rebellion. On the one hand, the Tory governor considered it a miserable affair, led by a knot of self-seekers who hoped to throw the province into the arms of the United States. On the other, Mackenzie held that disaffection was rampant, and the mass of the people eager to throw off the hold of the ruling elite group.

Moderate opinion seemed to find in the apparent Americanization of Upper Canada the underlying cause of the revolt. Robert Baldwin Sullivan advised the newly-appointed Lieutenant-Governor Arthur that:

In this country unfortunately the settlement of American citizens has been too much permitted and encouraged, and thus in the bosom of this community there exists a treacherous foe ... in many parts of the Province the teachers are Americans, for the sake of obtaining employment they have swallowed the oath of allegiance which agrees so ill with them that the rest of their lives is spent in attempts to disgorge it. These men are utterly ignorant of everything English and could not if they tried instruct their pupils in any of the duties which the connection of the Province with England casts upon them. [5]

Even so, Sullivan was sure the rebel forces consisted of only "... two or three hundred ignorant young men." [6]

His view as to the scope and origin of the rebellion was supported by Lord Durham. However, the latter made a careful distinction between rebels and reformers, and condemned the tendency of the Tories to lump them together indiscriminately. In his Report he concluded that:

... the insurrectionary movements which did take place as indicative of no deep-rooted disaffection, that almost the entire body of reformers of this province sought only by constitutional means to obtain those objects for which they had so long peaceably struggled before the unhappy troubles occasioned by the violence of a few unprincipled adventures and heated enthusiasts. [7]

But Sir Francis Head and the Family Compact had their defenders. Sir Richard Bonnycastle, writing in the early 1850s explained that the party of:

Radicals, Revolutionists or Destructives was composed of all the American settlers and speculators in land, some of the more simple and ignorant of the older class of farmers, and the rabble of adventurers who poured in every year from the United States or from Britain, to evade the laws of their respective countries ... [8]

This ultra-Tory saw only a contemptible scheme by place-seekers who hoped to achieve their object by making Upper Canada an integral part of the American republic.

The first Canadian to study the problem in depth was Charles Lindsey, who had Mackenzie's papers at his disposal. Both by inclination and the obvious bias of his source he attempted to place Mackenzie in the best possible light. But Lindsey soon finds himself in a dilemma.

His Whig interpretation of history emphasizes the evolutionary progress of Canada toward freedom through responsible government. The ruling oligarchy is challenged on the issues which had long disturbed the province, religion, land policy, education and others. As leader, and moulder of opinion against the Compact Mackenzie fits nicely into this interpretation. But Mackenzie was also the leader of the rebellion which had as an ultimate aim, the severing of the British connection.

As a Whig, Lindsey could not condone a violent overthrow of the government. Yet, he pictures Mackenzie as the leader of a popular movement, and assumes the rebellion was necessary in the attainment of responsible government. His problem is best expressed in his own words:

He (Mackenzie) lived to see and admit the error of the movement, and to express deep regret for the part he had taken. But an enterprise which cannot be justified, and the engagement in which involved him in ruin, was in the end advantageous to the country. Much of the liberty Canada has enjoyed since 1840, and more of the wonderful progress she has made are due to the changes which the insurrection was the chief agent in producing. [9]

Several Canadian Whig historians were bedevilled by this contradiction. It did not disappear until they gave up the idea of the necessity of the rebellion in the march to responsible government. Lindsey had tried to have it both ways. The rebellion was popular in that it represented majority opinion in the province, yet it was a minority action because it was violent and hostile to the British connection.

The next prominent account to appear was by J. C. Dent, another Whig. He saw the origin of the revolt in the stubborn resistance of a grasping oligarchy to legitimate, popular demands.

All the old abuses were maintained in full vigour. The incubus of the Clergy Reserves was not removed. Appointments to office were still made from one political body only. The Legislative Council still had the power to paralyse the efforts of the Assembly. The Assembly itself was at present as retrograde as the Upper House, and it had been formed by a corrupt venal race of officials against whom there was not a remedy. The Act to prevent the dissolution of Parliament would probably have the effect of maintaining the existing assembly for years. To all these evils was now superadded great commercial depression, and there seemed to be no prospect of brighter times. The future seemed overcast and hopeless. Is it any wonder those who were compelled to contemplate the picture from this dark point of view were forced to the conclusion that a change of any kind must surely be for the better. [10]

But for all this, Dent claims that only a minority of Reformers would follow Mackenzie's increasing radicalism.

The men of moderate views, like the Rolphs, the Baldwins, and the Bidwells, composed fully two-thirds of the entire number. The ultra Radicals, composed for the most part of unlettered farmers and recentlyarrived immigrants, began to show evidence of a desire to rally themselves under the banner of Mackenzie ... [11]

It was only these anonymous few who revolted, according to Dent.

Another Whig was soon in the field. William Kingsford's multivolume history of Canada included an intensive study of the rebellion. He followed Dent, essentially, emphasizing the same catalogue of grievances, but with rather more attention to the importance of the election of 1836. He wrote:

I do not know the slightest evidence to establish that there was any extended general feeling of disloyalty. The discontent was political, directed against the lieutenant-governor and has been sustained by the hope of obtaining more liberal institutions. To the last many of the few hundreds who were compromised in the outbreak believed that they were engaged in a pacific and bloodless political demonstration, and were not prepared to fight for the principles that Mackenzie advocated. [12]

In short, Kingsford argues in the whig tradition that it was a revolt of an insignificant minority without any social or economic motive.

He denies explicitly that there was any threat to the British connection.

The first challenge to the whig view came from D. B. Read in 1896. He flatly denied that the rebellion had any beneficial effect. Those who had engaged in revolt were a misguided few who had been deluded by self-seeking leaders. "Messrs. Papineau, Mackenzie and Rolph," he wrote pointedly, "after their exile of many years, returned to Canada to take part in the government of the country they had affected to believe was hopelessly sunk in the slough of despond, and was the victim of British tyranny." [13] It is interesting to note that Read as a young student at Upper Canada College in 1837, had turned out eagerly in defense of the British connection. It is not surprising then, that to this author:

It was not the discontent of the people of Upper Canada as a whole, but of a faction led by Mr. Mackenzie; but whatever it may have been, the Governor was now quite instructed by the Colonial Office to apply remedies quite sufficient to cure, without the attempt to kill the patient, an attempt afterwards made by Mr. Mackenzie and his followers in the Province. [14]

Read's attempt to overturn the Whig interpretation was an isolated event. He was followed by two determined Whigs, W. S. Wallace, and Stephen Leacock, Wallace's study of the Family Compact concentrated on the constitutional problems of Upper Canada.

The first forty years of the nineteenth century saw in Upper Canada a political struggle which culminated in armed rebellion. This struggle was, in the main, constitutional its roots lay in the constitution which William Pitt gave Upper Canada in 1791. [15]

This was the now standard whig view. The oligarchy had entrenched itself in power and employed the 1791 constitution as its defense. Reformers of all shades were engaged in the fight against the Compact. Mackenzie and his rebels were a well-meaning but misguided minority of the Reform group. The view of Stephen Leacock is almost identical:

Opposed to (the Compact) was a body of Reformers who may be conveniently divided into liberals and radicals. The former were men of honour and standing who desired some method of working the political machinery which would give the vast body of the people an effective say in their government. This end they sought by constitutional means. The latter wished to hurry the process and were not over anxious about themeans. Under Mackenzie's guidance they lost political perspective. [16]

Both Wallace and Leacock tended to view the machinations of Francis Bond Head as the immediate cause of the revolt.

Up to this point the whig interpretation has been dominant. The inherent problem was how to account for a violent revolt within an evolutionary British context. The authors have tended to treat Mackenzie's radicalism as an aberration. To do otherwise would mean accepting Mackenzie's objective of ending the British connection. This, as whigs, they could not do. A more obvious implication, however, would be that the rebellion was not a necessary step in the achievement of responsible government. While thus handicapped by the contradiction implicit in their reading of Upper Canadian history, they have offered little solid evidence as to who actually did revolt, other than suggesting it was the action of a despairing and misguided minority. Their opponents, as represented by Bonnycastle, Sullivan and Read, denied any widespread disaffection in the province and attributed the rebellion largely to American influences. Their evidence was chiefly negative, as they pointed out that Upper Canadians turned out in great numbers to oppose the outbreak. In any case, the whig view seemed to go into eclipse, and the historiography began to explore new directions, with much more insistence on credible evidence, and more sophisticated interpretations.

Writing in 1931, Fred Landon explored the revolt in Western Upper Canada, an aspect completely ignored up till then. He claimed that this phase of the rebellion, although it "consisted of only a few poorly armed forces", was "abundant evidence of the widespread unrest in the western part of the province." [17] But Landon's evidence dates largely from 1838, and the unrest of that year can be more readily explained by the fact that many Reformers suffered from the hysterical Tory reaction which followed the Toronto rising. Landon's view is sharply contested by F. C. Hamil who closely studied conditions in the southwestern area of the province. He asserts that "There were Reformers as well as tories in the Western District, but district radicals were few in number." [18]

The next interpretation to appear was one of the most bizarre. S. B. Ryerson, the grandson of the great Methodist leader, applied a Marxist interpretation to the Upper Canadian experience. He judged that the rebellion, which was supported by the majority in the province, could be equated to that stage in the Marxist view of history, when the feudal power is overthrown and capitalism established. As proof he quotes Mackenzie's resolution "that the right of obtaining articles of luxury, or necessity in the cheapest market, is inherent in the people." This, Ryerson claims, is a manifestation of the doctrine of "... freedom of the market, keystone of the bourgeoisie anti-feudal revolution." [19] In evidence, he submits the names of those who signed the Declaration of the Toronto Reformers as characterizing the middle class nature of the group which supported the rebellion. This completely ignores the fact that Mackenzie had virtually no adherents in Toronto. In addition, it is a serious misreading of Mackenzie's thinking. The intellectual influences which shaped the rebel leader were those of agrarian radicalism. He was hardly a bourgeois capitalist.

In that same year, 1937, Donald Creighton published the first edition of his Empire of the St. Lawrence, a much more reasonable economic analysis of the rebellion. He heavily stressed the impact of the depression of 1837. Further, he asserts that:

In one important respect, the rebellions were the final expression of that hatred of the rural communities for the commercialism of the St. Lawrence; and the defense of the constituted political authority was an exciting incident in the ceaseless effort to protect the interests of the Canadian commercial state. The rebellion came and had to come from the countryside; but the existing order found its most violent supporters among the magistrates, the civil servants and the merchants. Even in the tiny villages of the countryside, as Mackenzie found to his cost, the local shopkeepers were energetic in opposing the radicals. [20]

Creighton thus sees the origin of the rebellion as being economic and specifically agrarian. The most serious limitation to this rural-urban interpretation is the fact that the rural communities overwhelmingly outnumbered the town dwellers, and Creighton admits that the rebellion was a minority movement. He offers no evidence that it represented widespread agrarian disaffection, and acknowledges that few in the province would countenance an end to the imperial connection.

The next significant account of the rebellion was by E. C. Guillet who seemed to turn the whole affair on its head. He claims, "The real cause of the revolt, in which Mackenzie and his supporters had given their best, was a rebellion against the constitution by the ruling clique, a course of action in its essence worse than the consequent revolt against the Crown." [21] Thus, Guillet feels that the great majority were loyal in 1837. Curiously, however, he describes the revolt as "essentially a workingman's movement." As evidence he presents an occupational breakdown of 885 men who were arrested or fled the province in 1837. Yet, on close examination, it reveals little more than a representative cross-section of any developed part of Upper Canada, rather than a basis of claim for a working man's revolt.

The idea of American influence was revived by John Barnett, president of the Ontario Historical Society, in an article which appeared in Ontario History in 1949. He seizes on the American extraction of many of the major figures in the rebellion, and argues that Silas Fletcher, Jesse Lloyd, and a few others were the real instigators and that Mackenzie was under their influence rather than vice-versa. Barnett concludes by asserting these men:

... Held the same opinion-namely, that the government should be overthrown and a completely new system set up. In support of these views they seem to have marshalled in the rural areas a great variety of men. The majority of whom were 'American still'. In the end the `Instigators' prevailed on a comparatively small number of reform leaders, who were or had been members of the legislature, to adopt their views on the overthrow of the Government by force of arms. [22]

Barnett's interesting assertion remains just that, however. His rather tangled and inconsistent evidence will not support the thesis.

A. R. M. Lower, in his Colony to Nation, describes the course of the Reform movement as a background to the revolt. He judges the cause, at least in part, to be the withdrawal of the moderate element after the election of 1836, thus giving the radical leaders their head. His analysis of the strength of the movement is ambiguous:

it was the impossibility of securing reform that drove a number of them to think in terms of independence or of annexation. Even so, only a minority was prepared to go to extremes and, in the eastern part of the province, disaffection was slight. In the west it was much more widespread: from Toronto to Like Huron, whether a man shouldered a musket or not, the chances were about two to one that his sympathies would be with the reformers, and, in most cases, with the rebels. [23]

William Kilbourn, in The Firebrand, a popular biography of Mackenzie, found the fundamental cause of the revolt to be agrarian discontent. He described the rebels as "... some last lagging contingent of agrarian democracy, too late to change the world's history, as Tyler's peasants had been too early." [24] In a less romantic view, Kilbourn dwells on what he feels is the desperate economic condition of the Upper Canadian farmer, who saw in Mackenzie "... a projection of their own rage and hope. Upper Canada was ripe for an agrarian revolt." [25]

The two most recent works on the rebellion indicate the continuing divergencies of interpretation. S. D. Clark offers an application of the Turner thesis as an explanation. He writes:

It would appear that forms of political organization in Canada which have been thought of as growing out of the political experience of her population have actually represented an effort to hold in check the kind of political developments which that experience engendered. Responsible government developed in reaction rather than in response to the true democratic spirit of the Canadian people. [26]

The validity of this novel interpretation would depend directly on convincing proof that the rebellion had widespread support. Thus, Clark argues that the revolt was popular, but mismanaged:

... it was clear to perhaps all but the smugly righteous lieutenant governor that the province had only narrowly escaped a much more serious uprising. The battle north of Toronto was already under way before the vast majority of Upper Canadians had any hint that a rebellion was contemplated. With no immediate objects to attack local uprisings could not readily develop. Time was too short to muster in support of the larger rebel force. The result, in effect, was a running for cover on the part of many of those throughout the province who had most closely identified themselves with the reform cause." [27]

After this careful construction of his argument, Clark destroys it a few pages later when he says "that only a small minority of people in Upper Canada has come to accept the position taken up by Mackenzie when he drafted his constitution for a republic of Upper Canada." [28] Even more inexplicable in Clark's interpretation was the fact that those areas of the province which could most rightly be described as "frontier" were among those most conspicuously loyal.

Finally, in his recent book, Upper Canada: The Formative Years, Gerald Craig seems to reflect the ideas of D. B. Read in a more sophisticated manner. The revolt was led by a minority who were definitely misguided, and found support among the older American settlers in the province. [29] As for motivation, Craig places great stress on external influences; commercial distress in the Anglo-American world, the crisis coming to a head in Lower Canada, and the proximity of the neighbouring republican states. "Alternately goaded and inspired by these outside pressures, Mackenzie and a small group of followers determined on their ill-starred plan to overthrow by force a nearly unprotected government." [30]

The historiography of the rebellion of 1837 has followed a circuitous path, coming almost full-circle. William Lyon Mackenzie and S. D. Clark both agree that 1837 marked a fundamental social upheaval. Craig and the early Tories insist it was a fiasco which originated with the post-1790 American settlers in Upper Canada. It is clear that despite all that has been written, we are unable to answer accurately the question of who actually rebelled and why. Aside from Mackenzie, we know little about even the most prominent men who figured in the rebellion. Fortunately, there are avenues yet to be explored which may yield more precise information.

It is curious, as well, that in their search for a broad interpretation Canadian historians have remained relatively blind to an important implication of the rebellion which is significant. 1837 was a major turning point in our history since it seems to have marked the end of ideological clash. The value systems of the Family Compact and the Mackenzie rebels could not be reconciled in the contemporary political context. One rather unnoticed outcome of the rebellion was that not only were the rebels defeated, the Compact did not survive. Canadians, after this episode, gave up extreme opinions, and in the 1840s R. B. Sullivan and W. H. Merritt, former Tories, could find common ground with Robert Baldwin, the Reformer. A broad stream of opinion, seeking the middle way, has dominated our political life ever since. Extreme opinion has found no home except for third party movements which have been relatively ineffectual. Perhaps, after all, the early whigs were right. The rebellion was a necessary step, but just so it was unsuccessful. The shock of revolt changed the course of constitutional development. Its failure allowed that development to take place within the British tradition.


1. Sir F. B. Head, A Narrative, (Toronto, 1839). Head to-Glenelg, 10 September, 1837.

2. Ibid., Head to Glenelg, 19 December, 1837.

3. W. L. Mackenzie, Mackenzie's Own Narrative, (Toronto, 1937) p. 60.

4. Ibid., p. 23.

5. Arthur Papers, C. R. Sanderson, (ed.), (Toronto, 1957) pp. 134, 151.

6. Ibid., p. 170.

7. Report and Despatches of the Earl of Durham (London, 1839), p. 117.

8. Sir Richard Bonycastle, Canada as it was, is and may be (London, 1852), I, p. 134.

9. Charles Lindsey, The Life and Times of Wm. Lyon Mackenzie, (Toronto, 1862), 1, p. 5.

10. J. C. Dent, The Story of the Upper Canadian Rebellion, (Toronto, 1885), 1, p. 64.

11. Ibid., p. 231.

12. W. Kingsford, The History of Canada (Toronto), 1898). Vol. X, p. 414.

13. D. B. Read, The Canadian Rebillion of 1837 (Toronto, 1896), p. 370.

14. Ibid., p. 174.

15. W. S. Wallace, The Family Compact, (Toronto, 1915), p. 1.

16. S. Leacock, Mackenzie, Baldwin, Lafontaine, Hineks, (Toronto, 1926), p. 28.

17. F. Landon, "The Duncombe Uprising of 1837 and Some of Its Consequences", Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, May, 1931, p. 83.

18. F. C. Hamil, The Valley of the Lower Thames, 1649-1850, (Toronto,1951), p. 227.

19. S. B. Ryerson, 1837, The Birth of Canadian Democracy, (Toronto,1937), p. 15.

20. D. Creighton, Empire of the St. Lawrence, (Toronto, 1956), p. 316.

21. E. C. Guillet, The Lives and Times of the Patriots, (Toronto, 1938), p. 241.

22. John Barnett, "Silas Fletcher, Instigator of the Upper Canadian Rebellion", Ontario History, vol. 41, 1949, p.34.

23. A. R. M. Lower, Colony to Nation (London, 1957), p. 242.

24. W. Kilburn, The Firebrand, (Toronto, 1956), p. 189.

25. Ibid., pp. 167, 162.

26. S. D. Clark, Movements of Political Protest in Canada, (Toronto, 1949), p. 4.

27. Ibid., p. 388.

28. Ibid., p. 432.

29. G. Craig, Upper Canada: The Formative Years, (Toronto, 1963), p. 246.

30. Ibid., p. 241.

Page revised: 22 May 2010