Rebellions Rock British Canada

Nearly simultaneous rebellions against colonial government in both Upper and Lower Canada paved the way for unification of British Canada and the introduction of responsible government.

Summary of Event

The roots of the rebellions of 1837 in Lower and Upper Canada may be traced to the Constitutional Act of 1791 Constitutional Act of 1791 , which provided the framework for the governance of both Canadas. After the American Revolution (1775-1783), the British government wanted to quell any impulses toward democracy in Canada. Both Canadas had elected assemblies, but both also had appointed legislative councils and appointed lieutenant governors. The lieutenant governors also appointed advisory groups, executive councils, that influenced their policy making while impeding the work of the elected assemblies. Many members of the legislative councils were also members of the executive councils, thus forming the basis for government control by oligarchies in both Lower Canada and Upper Canada. Canada;rebellions
Mackenzie Rebellion (1837)
Mackenzie, William Lyon
British Empire;and Canada[Canada]
[kw]Rebellions Rock British Canada (Oct. 23-Dec. 16, 1837)
[kw]Rock British Canada, Rebellions (Oct. 23-Dec. 16, 1837)
[kw]British Canada, Rebellions Rock (Oct. 23-Dec. 16, 1837)
[kw]Canada, Rebellions Rock British (Oct. 23-Dec. 16, 1837)
Mackenzie Rebellion (1837)
Mackenzie, William Lyon
British Empire;and Canada[Canada]
[g]British Empire;Oct. 23-Dec. 16, 1837: Rebellions Rock British Canada[2010]
[g]Canada;Oct. 23-Dec. 16, 1837: Rebellions Rock British Canada[2010]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct. 23-Dec. 16, 1837: Rebellions Rock British Canada[2010]
[c]Colonization;Oct. 23-Dec. 16, 1837: Rebellions Rock British Canada[2010]
Baldwin, William Warren
Baldwin, Robert
Rolph, John
Colborne, John
Head, Francis Bond
Duncombe, Charles
Durham, first earl of
Mackenzie, William Lyon
Papineau, Louis-Joseph
Russell, John
Russell, John
[p]Russell, John;and Canada[Canada]

The oligarchy in Lower Canada, the Chateau Clique, was an alliance of clergy, old seigneur families, and English-speaking merchants in Montreal. Montreal The elites of Upper Canada made up the oligarchy called the Family Compact. Family Compact

With government by oligarchy, political tensions increased during the 1820’s and early 1830’s. Political unrest coincided with economic difficulties. For several years, agricultural crop yields were deficient. Increased debt for farmers and price increases for consumers resulted. Adding to the economic instability were the tightening of credit, increasing numbers of bankruptcies, and higher levels of unemployment. This political and economic environment spawned reform movements in both Canadas, which in turn led to revolts against the government.

In February, 1834, the Lower Canada assembly, which was dominated by the reformist Parti Patriote, under the leadership of Louis-Joseph Papineau, Papineau, Louis-Joseph passed the Ninety-two Resolutions detailing Lower Canada’s grievances, including the responsibility of the governor to the electorate and election of the legislative council, and submitted them to London. On March 2, 1837, the British parliament passed resolutions rejecting the demands made in the Ninety-two Resolutions. Parliament’s Ten Resolutions also known as Russell’s Russell, John
Russell, John
[p]Russell, John;and Canada[Canada] Resolutions after Home Secretary Lord John Russell, who presented them to Parliament they radicalized the Patriotes.

During the summer of 1837, Lower Canada’s Patriotes held meetings of armed farmers throughout the countryside. When government officers heard about these meetings, they issued warrants for the arrest of the leaders. One center of revolutionary activity was the Richelieu Valley area, to which the leaders had fled after the warrants were issued. A large rally was held at Saint-Charles on October 23. The government responded to the gathering by sending troops. Eight hundred men met the troops at Saint-Denis on November 23 and forced them to retreat. Two days later, at Saint-Charles, the government won a victory and resistance in the Richelieu Valley abated.

Another area of insurrection in Lower Canada was Two Mountains. There, two thousand troops attacked at Saint Eustache on December 14 and killed fifty-eight Patriotes. The troops burned and looted Saint-Benoit two days later. Afterward, the Patriote movement collapsed. The Patriote leader Papineau Papineau, Louis-Joseph disguised himself as a woman and fled to the United States.

The reform movement in Upper Canada during the early 1830’s was made up of several factions. Moderate reformers, such as William Warren Baldwin Baldwin, Robert
Baldwin, William Warren , his son Robert Baldwin, and John Rolph Rolph, John , advocated making government responsible to the electorate. Radical reformers such as William Lyon Mackenzie favored the establishment of an elective system of government similar to that of the United States. To this end, Mackenzie investigated the Family Compact Family Compact and compiled a list of grievances and government abuses of power. The tone of the report of the investigation, the Seventh Report on Grievances, alienated Mackenzie from the moderate reform factions. Because the lieutenant governor, Sir John Colborne, Colborne, John did not send the Seventh Report to the Colonial Office in London, he was dismissed.

Lieutenant Governor Sir Francis Bond Head Head, Francis Bond was sent to Upper Canada as Colborne’s replacement. Head’s actions soon prompted the members of the executive council to resign. Head then dissolved the assembly and called for an election in the colony. Head’s participation in the 1836 election campaign aided the Tories and helped defeat the reformers. Longtime members of the assembly, such as the Baldwins Baldwin, Robert
Baldwin, William Warren and Rolph Rolph, John , lost their seats.

With the loss of the reformers both from Upper Canada’s assembly and from participation in politics, a leadership void develop within the reform movement that Mackenzie sought to fill. Mackenzie believed that Russell’s Russell, John
Russell, John
[p]Russell, John;and Canada[Canada] resolutions rejecting the Patriote demands and permitting government to be conducted by executive decree in Lower Canada could be applied to Upper Canada as well. In his newspaper, the Constitution, Mackenzie began to discuss similarities in the grievances of Upper Canada and the American colonies before the Revolutionary War (1775-1783) and hinted at the possibility of a rebellion in Upper Canada.

At a meeting in Toronto Toronto in August, 1837, a committee of vigilance was established, and meetings were scheduled throughout the Home District, as well as in the London District, promoting governmental change. During the fall of 1837, Lieutenant Governor Head Head, Francis Bond , confident that the situation in Upper Canada was stable, sent troops to Lower Canada to aid Sir John Colborne Colborne, John quell the civil disturbances there, leaving few troops in Upper Canada. The Home Office had sent Colborne to Lower Canada after replacing him with Head in Upper Canada.

Mackenzie realized that the reduction of troops in Upper Canada was to the advantage of the reform movement. He traveled throughout the Home District speaking at gatherings of disaffected citizens and gained their support for an uprising. December 7, 1837, was set as the date it would occur. The men would gather at Montgomery’s Tavern north of Toronto on Yonge Street, march on the capital, and seize control of the government.

The men gathered at Montgomery’s Tavern in early December, before plans for provisioning them and staging the insurrection were made. Because they had arrived earlier than the announced date, there was confusion among their leaders. Without a clear plan, the rebels marched south. Just south of Gallows Hill, they met a loyalist force hastily put together to guard Toronto. The rebels panicked and many fled. Two days later, Head Head, Francis Bond , assisted by Allan McNabb and some loyalists, drove the remaining rebels from Montgomery’s Tavern. Mackenzie crossed the border into the United States on December 11. Two of his men, Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews, were arrested and were made examples of by being hanged in April, 1838, for their participation in the rebellion.

Rebels in the London District, under the leadership of Charles Duncombe Duncombe, Charles , did not realize that the Home District rebellion had failed, and they mustered to mount a rebellion on December 13. When it was discovered that loyalists were closing in on them, the London District rebels dispersed. Unmindful of the December 7 proclamation promising amnesty, Duncombe fled to Michigan. The armed rebellions of 1837 ended.


The failed rebellions of 1837 demonstrated that a majority of Canada’s population lacked enthusiasm for following radicals into armed rebellion. The citizenry instead demanded constitutional reforms through British institutions. In May, 1838, the Colonial Office sent John George Lambton, Lord Durham, Durham, first earl of to the Canadas to investigate the 1837 unrest. His subsequent report called for Upper and Lower Canada to be united and governed by a form of responsible government Responsible government, Canadian that is, government whose ministers were entirely responsible to the parliamentary majority, elected by the people. Durham’s recommendations were finally implemented in 1848.

Further Reading

  • Baldwin, Robert Macqueen, and Joyce Baldwin. The Baldwins and the Great Experiment. Don Mills, Ont.: Longmans, Green, 1969. Helpful work detailing the work of Robert and his father William toward responsible government for Upper Canada.
  • Francis, R. Douglas, and Donald B. Smith, eds. Readings in Canadian History: Pre-Confederation. 2d ed. Toronto: Holt, Rinehart and Winston of Canada, 1986. Two articles in this collection discuss the causes of the Canadian rebellions; a third focuses on William Lyon Mackenzie.
  • McInnes, Edgar. Canada: A Political and Social History. 4th ed. Toronto: Holt, Rinehart and Winston of Canada, 1982. Chapter 10 presents the social, political, and economic context of the rebellion.
  • McNairn, Jeffrey L. The Capacity to Judge: Public Opinion and Deliberative Democracy in Upper Canada, 1791-1854. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000. Study of the debate over responsible government that framed the settlement issue in Upper Canada during the early nineteenth century.
  • Ouellet, Fernand. “The 1837/8 Rebellions in Lower Canada as a Social Phenomenon.” In Pre-Confederation. Vol. 1 in Interpreting Canada’s Past. 2d ed. Edited by J. M. Bumsted. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1993. Describes the political and social situation in Lower Canada leading up to the rebellion.
  • Read, Colin, and Ronald J. Stagg, eds. The Rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada: A Collection of Documents. Toronto: Champlain Society in Cooperation with the Ontario Heritage Foundation, 1985. Introduction provides details of the causes, events, and aftermath of the rebellion.
  • Sewell, John. Mackenzie: A Political Biography of William Lyon Mackenzie. Toronto: J. Lorimer, 2002. Generally sympathetic biography of the Upper Canada rebellion leader written by a former mayor of Toronto. Sewell argues that Mackenzie may be Canada’s best model of a responsible politician.
  • Young, Brian, and John Dickinson. A Short History of Quebec: A Socio-Economic Perspective. Toronto: Copp Clark Pitman, 1988. Discusses the causes and events of the rebellion in Lower Canada.

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Mackenzie Rebellion (1837)
Mackenzie, William Lyon
British Empire;and Canada[Canada]