Editorial: William Lyon Mackenzie and the Rebellion in Upper Canada

At 8:00 p.m. on Monday, 4 December 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 Ave.) 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 toward the rebel headquarters at Montgomery’s Tavern.

William Lyon Mackenzie
Mackenzie led the Rebellion of December 1837 in Upper Canada.

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 and headed back. He saw Powell and 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. At its centre was the fiery Scot William Lyon Mackenzie. A critic and self-proclaimed voice of the people, Mackenzie was elected to the Upper Canada Assembly. He raised such hell that he was expelled four times. Each time, he was re-elected by his constituents. His primary targets in his newspaper articles and his diatribes were the lieutenant-governor and the Family Compact.

Moderate reformers such as Robert Baldwin tried to find a middle ground. (See: Reform Movement in Upper Canada.) However, things were made worse with the arrival of the new governor Sir Francis Bond Head, an adventurer with no political experience. The governor had the reform Assembly dissolved and led a campaign based on fear and “loyalty.” Mackenzie responded by issuing a draft constitution, closely modeled on the American Declaration of Independence.

Historians have noted the extenuating circumstances in the colony that laid 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.

Sir Francis Bond Head
On the outbreak of the Rebellion in 1837 he advanced to meet the rebels and succeeded in quelling the uprising.

The failure of the revolt was not necessarily a foregone conclusion. Confusion reigned in Toronto. The British garrison was off quelling the rebellion 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 made the unfortunate decision to lead the rebels himself. He marched them off on Tuesday morning, 5 December 1837. He rode at their head and wore 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 of soldiers 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. Thinking the front rank had all been mowed down, the back ranks 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 1,500 men. On Thursday 7 December, they marched up Yonge Street. The skirmish was an anticlimax. Only about 200 rebels stood their ground near Montgomery’s Tavern and they were quickly defeated.

Battle of Montgomery's Tavern
A pen and ink drawing by Charles William Jefferys, showing the skirmish outside John Montgomery's tavern in Toronto on December 4, 1837, during the Rebellion in Upper Canada.

Many of the rebels fled or went into hiding. Mackenzie fled to the United States. Authorities arrested 262 men and 53 were charged with treason. Twelve stood trial in Toronto. Thirty-one were acquitted and 22 were convicted. Only two, Peter Matthews and Samuel Lount, were hanged.

Historians have debated the consequences of the rebellion in Upper Canada. 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. Few accept that idea today.

As for Mackenzie, he continued to agitate from a base on Navy Island, until the Caroline affair brought the situation to a head. He started a newspaper in New York. But he was indicted under the “neutrality laws” in 1839 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. After the Amnesty Act of 1849 granted him a pardon, he returned to Toronto in 1850. He re-entered politics, got elected and continued his campaign against hypocrisy and corruption. Though historians may denigrate his contribution, there are still many who see him as a unique voice of the people.