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Other than the occasional ironic commentary on Quaker participation in the Rebellion of 1837, little has been written about Canadian Quakers’ contributions to the development of democratic governance in Upper Canada.[i] Our collective fascination with revolutionary moments (and in this case, their failure), has obscured the important work of Friends in building a strong culture of deliberative democracy, both within and outside their meeting houses. One of the most important of those early friends, of whom almost nothing has been written, is the Yonge Street Friend Samuel Hughes. Hughes and most of his family joined the Children of Peace after the War of 1812. During the 1830s, he was to become the president of Canada’s first farmers’ cooperative (and mutual credit association), a prominent reform politician, and a temperance advocate. After the Rebellion, he rejoined the Hicksite Quakers, where he was soon recognized as a minister. I recount Samuel Hughes’s storied history to highlight the contribution of Quakers to democratic reform and economic justice.

The silence on early Quaker political activity is best highlighted by a comparison of Hughes with his relation, Samuel Lount, a reform member of the House of Assembly, and a martyr of the Rebellion of 1837. The two men were surprisingly similar in many ways. Both were born in Catawissa (formerly Hughesville), Pennsylvania. Both men emigrated to the Yonge Street area before the War of 1812 with the extended Hughes family, although Lount was trapped south of the border during the War of 1812. Hughes became a member of the Children of Peace along with most of the extended Hughes family in 1812; Lount did not. By 1837, they lived in neighbouring communities, with Lount’s farm on the hill south of Holland Landing overlooking Hughes’ home across the Holland River valley in Hope (Sharon). Both men were prominent reform politicians: Lount in Simcoe County (whose seat was Holland Landing), and Hughes in York County. Both men were renowned for their charity; Hughes as an elder of the Children of Peace, and Lount among the immigrants to Simcoe County.[ii] Both men sought to promote the Farmers’ Storehouse, Canada’s first farmers cooperative: Hughes as its president, and Lount, with William Lyon Mackenzie and David Gibson (whose house is now a museum in North York), on the legislative committee to incorporate it in 1835. Both men were delegates to the planned Constitutional Convention of 1837, which formed the organizational framework for the Rebellion.

The common set of economic values, politics and history these men shared would lead us to expect a similar response to Mackenzie’s call to arms. Yet, while Lount became a leader of the rebellion, Hughes is noticeable by his absence. Lount has become an historical footnote, an icon of the Rebellion’s failure. Despite his equal contribution to the politics of the era, Hughes, like their common set of values, has been forgotten.

[i] For an example, see Laura Peers, “The Not So Peacable Kingdom: Quakers Took Up Arms in the Rebellion of 1837” Canadian Quaker History Journal 69-70(2004/5): 17-24.  For an exception, see Daniel Nelson, “The Dorlands: A Loyalist Quaker Family” Canadian Quaker History Journal 64(1999): 36-50.

[ii] See for example, the case of Moses Haylor, an English immigrant who faced starvation in 1832 when his first crop failed; he appealed to Lount for aid and received two barrels of flour. He was to return the favour after Lount was arrested, and an angry mob descended on his unprotected wife and children, threatening to burn their house around them; Haylor dispersed the mob, reminding them “he once saved my life and that of my family from starvation when that fate stared me and them in the face: and hundreds can testify that he has reached out a helping hand to those in great need. He saved my dear ones, and I shall save his!” Terry Carter,  “Samuel Lount: Rebel or Victim?” The York Pioneer 82(1987): 44.