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University of Toronto historian Allan Greer has argued that it is difficult today to get Canadians interested in the history of democracy; we are taught to interpret our national political legacy “as a story dominated by transcontinental railways and Fathers of Confederation… The history of democracy, we tend to believe, happened somewhere else.”[1] Loyalist accounts of the events of 1837 as traitorous rebellion have thus overshadowed all else in our narratives on the struggle for democracy and responsible government in Canada. Following Greer’s cue, I would like to ask how would we interpret the events of 1837 if we didn’t prioritize the acts of violence that transformed democrats into rebels? How would we relate the story of the organization of the “constitutional convention” of 1837 if we were not held spellbound by the rebellion which lies, chronologically at least, at its end?

The day that Lieutenant Governor Sir Francis Bond Head prematurely prorogued the reform dominated Assembly, the 16 April, 1836, Mackenzie announced that he would launch a new newspaper, The Constitution.[2] The Constitution began publication on the 4th of July, a sign of its republican aspirations. Even the Tories saw the political spectrum in that light. James Cull argued in the first issue of the The Royal Standard, a short-lived conservative daily, that:

The contest to be waged in this province is between Monarchy and a Republic. There are of course men professing all shades of opinion, but the time draws nearer every day, when they must either declare their attachment to the British Constitution, or venture on the bold and dangerous step of signing a Declaration of Independence. A party already exists, in a state of organization, ready to hazard this extreme length, at the first favourable opportunity; Toronto, their local habitation, and the Political Union their name. – At the head of this faction stands the name of Dr. Baldwin; and tho’ he, and a very few others of his associates, may possible deem that they are to Canada what the whigs are to England – the bulk of the members composing this Union are undisguised are ripe for rebellion. Proofs are superfluous, when facts are admitted.[3]

The increasing radicalism of the reformers can be tied to both the worsening economic situation, as well as a series of new, punitive legislative measures passed by the new Tory dominated legislature. Of the greatest importance was the “Bill to prevent dissolution of parliament on the demise of the Crown”; this bill allowed the House to continue to sit without calling an election on the death of the King, thus abridging the right to an elected assembly.[4] This bill was important because of the ill health of King William IV, who was eventually to die on 20 June, 1837. According to precedent, the Assembly should have been prorogued and an election called within six months of the death of the monarch; such had occurred after the death of King George IV on 26 June 1830. Fearing yet another electoral fracas so soon after the highly contentious elections the year before, the Tory dominated house passed this bill so that they could continue to sit for the normal length of a four year term.

The clearest indication of Tory tactics, however, was the “Act better to secure the independence of the Commons House of Assembly.” This short act promoted what could be ironically called “irresponsible government.” Its aim was to legislate against the principle of an Executive Council accountable to the legislature. Robert Baldwin had made the principle of responsible government the basis of his accepting a position on the Executive Council in early 1836; when that council resigned in March, 1836 on the issue, it sparked a constitutional crisis between the Reform Assembly and Lt. Governor Bond Head. Allan McNab’s bill “to secure the independence of the Commons” required anyone appointed to the Executive Council to resign their seat in the Assembly. The bill was presented as a means of preventing executive influence on the Assembly, though its real purpose was the reverse, to preclude the accountability of Executive Councilors to the elected Assembly. Executive Councilors could not serve two masters and Lt. Governor Head, through his proxy Allan McNab, sought to legislate their explicit responsibility to the Crown alone by preventing sitting Assemblymen from accepting such a position.[5] When William Draper, the newly elected Tory member for Toronto was appointed to the Executive Council in late 1836, he promptly vacated his seat according to the terms of this law.

It was to such measures that the Toronto Political Union formed by Mackenzie referred in their petition to the now dying king at the end of March, 1837;[6] in that petition they complained of the “undue influences and infractions to which our liberties have been lately most deplorably subjected[;] we will not enlarge on our firm and unalterable resolution, never while we live, to recognize the present Assembly as our free and independent Representatives, or to consider their acts as justly binding upon us or our children.” The illegitimacy of the Assembly led them to warn the king “that the Province has arrived at that crisis when it behooves the people in defense of their indefeasible rights to meet together in general conviction [sic] of Delegates, to consider of such changes in their Provincial Constitution as may be likely to obviate the various evils of which they have so long complained in vain.”[7]

Mackenzie expanded on the petition’s call for a “convention of the people of the two provinces” in an appeal “to the people of the County of York” in May.[8] Here, he explicitly linked the need for the convention with the economic disaster facing farmers, focusing in particular on the “paper dollar lords” and “colonial despotism.” The appeal was a lengthy dissertation on the thesis “Labour is the true source of wealth.” The only solution to these economic woes, he asserted, was a convention of the people “to devise means to rescue the country from its present distressed state.” The reformers were clear about the economic roots of their political organization.  These working class fears were accentuated by the general economic crisis that engulfed the Atlantic world in 1836. We can similarly point to the same economic malaise in Upper Canada.

It was not, however, until after the death of King William IV on the 20th of June that the Toronto Political Union proceeded to organize this convention, now clearly a “constitutional convention.” In July, Mackenzie published a plan for a “Political Union, for the establishment of the Constitution on the broad basis of civil and religious liberty and equal right.”[9] The Union was, he said, “of a purely civil nature, and confined to the embodying and expression of public opinion, in the 1st instances.”[10] He noted he would be attending a series of public meetings throughout the Home District that summer.  The first of these meetings to select delegates to the constitutional convention were held at Doel’s Brewery in Toronto on the 28th and 31st of July; the reformers struck a committee to prepare a “Declaration of the Reformers of the City of Toronto to their Fellow Reformers in Upper Canada” which called for the implementation of Mackenzie’s plan.[11]

The declaration contained provocative references to the American Revolution, including a direct attack on the monarch who was held personally responsible for the unrepresentative government and partial administration of the colony. Such references were hard to miss, since Mackenzie began serializing Thomas Paine’s revolutionary tract, Common Sense, in the Constitution, and handed out copies in these public meetings.[12] The reformers expressed their frustration that “in every stage of these proceedings we have petitioned for redress in most humble terms; our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injuries.”

The second meeting of the new Political Union was called to order by Samuel Hughes three days later in Newmarket; Hughes was an elder of the Children of Peace and the new president of the Farmers Storehouse. The meeting was chaired by John Bogart Sr, with William Reid, another elder of the Children of Peace, as secretary. Mackenzie regaled the crowd for more than an hour, reviewing the complaints listed in the Declaration of the Toronto Reformers. Samuel Hughes proposed a motion which castigated “the conduct of Sir Francis Bond Head… for he has tampered with our rights at elections – disposed of many thousands of pounds of our revenue without our consent – and governed us by the strong hand of arbitrary and unconstitutional power – depreciating our currency, and pretending to maintain cash payments, while the Bank, immediately connected with his government, was flooding the colony with the notes of a Bankrupt Bank in another province.” The meeting appointed Hughes, Samuel Lount, Nelson Gorham, Silas Fletcher, Jeremiah Graham and John McIntosh, M.P.P. as delegates to the convention (and all, with the exception of Hughes and MacIntosh, leaders in the Rebellion); they also appointed 23 men to a “Committee of vigilance” to organize local political unions. David Willson, leader of the Children of Peace, then addressed the crowd, similarly attacking the “gross obstructions in the way of political improvement, or the administration of good government, equality, justice and peace.” The first of these obstructions was no less than the “principal magistrate, the King” who was “not possessed of that freedom and liberality of sentiment and expression, with which every impartial MONARCH or magistrate ought to be endued.”[13] A further eight public meetings across the Home District were scheduled over the next three weeks; each of these public meetings named a local committee of vigilance to organize reform support, prepare a registry of valid electors, and name their delegates to the proposed convention.

As late as October 25th Mackenzie had rebuffed the Lloydtown Committee of Vigilance’s request to assemble the convention delegates arguing that it was not yet expedient.[14] However, on the 8th of November, Mackenzie printed a challenge to Bond Head, who, according to the Patriot, felt that “an attempt will be made ‘by the rebelliously disposed,’ to take the city of Toronto.” If Head harbored such fears, wrote Mackenzie,

One course yet he might take, and thereby avert much evil – he might dissolve the Assembly, call a free parliament… and simply tell the freeholders that if it should be their wish through their representatives, he would agree to regulate our local affairs, dismissals and appointments, by and with the advice of an executive council possessed of the public confidence. Moderate men would see in this, the fulfillment of Simcoe’s promise to give us the British constitution, as far as a colony can have it, and he would neither need to act the tyrant nor the coward.[15]

Head could, in other words, prevent a revolution through the recognition of the principle of responsible government. Mackenzie’s offer was disingenuous, however, as he well knew that responsible government of the sort he envisioned had just been made explicitly illegal in the Assembly.

The next week Mackenzie published his draft constitution for the consideration of the convention “in case the British system of government shall be positively denied us”. The comment refers to the constitutional precedent that an election be called within six months of the death of the monarch.[16] And two weeks after that, Mackenzie finally set the date for the convention for the 21st of December: the symbolic date precisely six months after the death of William IV.[17] By the mere fact that Head had not called an election, the Assembly could be deemed unconstitutional. The radical reformers would have been perfectly legitimate in utilizing violence in the face of illegal state repression to hold their constitutional convention after that date.

The decision to transform the convention into a revolution was taken in a secret meeting arranged by Mackenzie in the third week of November in the home of Silas Fletcher in East Gwillimbury, just north of the Temple of the Children of Peace. It was attended by Samuel Lount, Peter Matthews of Pickering, Nelson Gorham from Newmarket, James Bolton of Albion township, and Jesse Lloyd of Lloydtown, in King Township.[18] These were all delegates to the planned convention, and organizers and speakers at the series of public meetings that had been held that summer. Lloyd had personally just returned from Montreal with news of the revolt in Lower Canada. Whereas the Toronto reformers had been equivocal in their support, the plan for the rebellion was settled at this meeting. The date was set for the 7th of December; the farmers of the Home District, in their thousands, would collect at Montgomery’s Inn, where they would then march on the city under the command of Lount and Anthony Anderson of Lloydtown, seize the arms stored in the city hall, arrest Head and his advisors, and declare a provisional government with Dr John Rolph at its head.

[1] Greer, Allan “Historical Roots of Canadian Democracy” Journal of Canadian Studies 1999 34(1): 7-8

[2] Correspondent & Advocate 16 April 1836.

[3] Royal Standard, 9 November, 1836,

[4] Journal of the Assembly, 1837, 560, 25 Feb. 1837.

[5] Correspondent & Advocate 23 Nov. 1836. The “Act better to secure the independence of the Commons House of Assembly of this province and for other purposes” (7th William IV, Chap. CXIV) was passed 23 Jan. 1837 (Journal, 1837, 334) and received Royal Assent 20 April 1838.

[6] Constitution 12 April 1837.

[7] Constitution 17 May 1837.

[8] Constitution 24 May 1837.

[9] Constitution 19 July 1837.

[10] Constitution 19 July 1837.

[11] Constitution 2 Aug 1837.

[12] Constitution 2 Aug 1837; Patriot, 11 Aug. 1837.

[13] Constitution 9 Aug. 1837

[14] Constitution 25 Oct. 1837.

[15] Constitution 8 Nov. 1837.

[16] Constitution 15 Nov. 1837.

[17] Constitution 29 Nov. 1837.

[18] Lindsey, Charles The life and times of Wm. Lyon Mackenzie, with an account of the Canadian rebellion of 1837, and the subsequent frontier disturbances, chiefly from unpublished documents (Toronto: Coles, 1971), vol. 2, 56; Read, Colin and Ronald Stagg, eds. The Rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada: A Collection of Documents (Toronto: Carleton University Press/Champlain Society, 1985), xxxviii; Barnett, J. “Silas Fletcher, Instigator of the Upper Canadian Rebellion” Ontario History 1949 XLI: 7-35.