Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Bloody Aftermath Of The Bloody Rebellion

Mackenzie's ship, Caroline, burns at Niagara Falls
This is the sixth in a series of posts about William Lyon Mackenzie and the birth of Canadian democracy. Part one here. Part two here. Part three here. Part four here. Part five here.

Okay so, as I was saying at the end of my last post, Mackenzie's rebellion was a complete disaster. And so was the one in Quebec. The rebels in both provinces were completely routed by the Tories. The entire left-wing in Canada was in disarray. Rebel leaders across the country had been arrested, a few hanged, others exiled to Australia. Many of the rest had fled to the United States.

That's where Mackenzie was. After the rebellion was crushed, he escaped to Buffalo with a price on his head. There, he gave a rousing speech to the biggest public meeting that city had ever seen, convincing hundreds of volunteers to follow him to Navy Island in the Niagara River. He declared it the Republic of Canada, with a new flag and everything. An American ship, the SS Caroline, started ferrying them weapons and ammunition. They were going to invade Upper Canada and take another shot at the revolution.

The U.S. President, Martin Van Buren, threatened them with arrest but didn't really take any action. So the Tories in Canada took things into their own hands. Thousands of them — including Samuel Jarvis and a big famous loyalist guy from Hamilton, Allan McNab — headed south with British troops. They crossed the border into the States, bombarded Navy Island, set the Caroline on fire and left the pieces to drift over Niagara Falls. An American on board was shot and killed. The U.S. government was outraged.

The British claimed the attack was made in self-defense but the Americans were hardly convinced. Van Buren's Secretary of State wrote a famous letter to the Brits: a preemptive strike, he argued, was only okay when the threat was immediate and overwhelming, when there was no other choice and no time left to decide. In the end, the British agreed. They apologized for the attack. And the set of guidelines that would laid out in that letter, the "Caroline test", became the internationally-recognized standard for the use of preemptive force. It still is — at least, for people who aren't George W. Bush or Tony Blair. When the Nazis went on trial at Nuremberg, the court used the exact same words.

After the burning of the Caroline, Mackenzie's Navy Island scheme fell apart. He ended up being arrested by the Americans and spent months in prison. After his release, with his health failing, he resigned himself to life in the United States. He even got his American citizenship. During the next decade, as the battle over Canadian democracy raged towards a climax, he'd be on the sidelines, living in New York State, publishing newspapers that attacked President Van Buren for being too close to the British.

Mackenzie's failed invasion wasn't the only one. In the months after the botched revolution, there were clashes along both sides of the border all the way into Quebec. And they weren't going well for the surviving rebels. In the wake of the rebellions, it kind of looked like Canadian democracy was screwed.

But here's the thing: the British were getting sick of dealing with this shit. It had been nearly 400 years since Queen Elizabeth sent the first English colonists to the New World. They had spent centuries invading the First Nations, nearly bankrupted themselves fighting the Spanish, and waged another massive war to conquer the French in Quebec. Tiny British outposts had grown into thriving metropolises, major economies funneling money back to England. But times had changed. Democracy was getting more and more popular. First, their own American colonists had gotten all pissy about taxation and risen up against them, driven them and their supporters out of the country. Then, it struck closer to home: right across the channel, French liberals who had been inspired by the Americans went batshit bloodthristy and beheaded their king.

Now, there was even unrest in Canada. Canada! Canada was supposed to be run by staunch loyalists, guys who had personally fought wars against the Americans in the name of the British Crown. Oh sure, Reformers like William Lyon Mackenzie had been demanding democracy for decades, delivering fiery speeches, writing scathing articles and even winning elections. But now it seemed they were willing to fight in the streets for it if they had to. 

And in England, the liberals were in power. As far as the Whig Party was concerned, the rebellions were the last straw. They already believed in democracy a hell of a lot more than the conservatives did — and trouble in the colonies wasn't going to win them any votes in the next election. It was time for things to change.

So they did. The Lieutenant Governor, Sir Francis Bond Head, was fired. The Whigs knew that hiring him had been a giant mistake. They thought he was a liberal reformer, but he turned out to be a super-conservative prick. He left Toronto a hated man. The surviving rebels put a $500 price on his head; he was forced to cancel his plans for a grand departure through Halifax and snuck out through the States instead. He went back to his life writing travel books in England. And when the Whigs named a new Governor General for the Canadas, they were going to be sure they didn't make the same mistake again. This time, they chose the most in-your-face liberal they could find: Lord Durham.

Lord Durham
Durham, they knew they could trust. Not only was he the son-in-law of the last Whig Prime Minister (Earl Grey, the guy the tea is named after), but just five years earlier he had helped lead the fight against the Tories during one of the most important political battles in British history — getting the Reform Act passed. He'd fought for public education. For better working conditions for miners. For the right of every man to vote, no matter his wealth. He was so left-leaning they called him "Radical Jack".  The Whigs were convinced he'd be perfect for the job.

Radical Jack was not so convinced. He didn't want to go to Canada. The new Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne (of having Melbourne named after him fame), couldn't talk him into it. But as luck would have it, there was somebody else who could: the brand new queen. Victoria was young and inexperienced, just 18 years old. She'd only been on the throne for a few months. But she had already made it perfectly clear: even if she was supposed to be neutral when it came to politics, she liked the Whig Party best. She was so close to Melbourne that Tories heckled her as "Mrs. Melbourne". And when Durham refused the post to Canada, she stepped in. Soon, Radical Jack was on a ship sailing for the Great White North. His Prime Minister told him he would have "free reign".

As it turned out, that was kind of bullshit. Melbourne screwed Durham on one of the very first things he tried to do. There were some jailed rebels who he knew would be sentenced to death if they ever went on trial — the judges tended to be the very same guys who had fought against them during the rebellions. So he ordered the prisoners exiled to Bermuda instead. The Canadian Tories were pissed. They denounced Durham as anti-democratic and nicknamed him "The Dictator". In the end, Lord Melbourne sided with them; he reversed Durham's decision from England. Canadian liberals burned Melbourne in effigy. Durham resigned in protest and sailed home, never to return. He'd gotten here in May and by the end of the fall, he was already gone.

But those few months were more than enough time for Radical Jack. His summer in Canada changed the course of our nation's history forever. The most radical Reformers — the ones who had supported the rebellions — might be dead, arrested or gone, but the more moderate liberals were still around. And Durham spent much of his time here talking to them, listening to their ideas about democracy and government and what they should mean for Canada.

There was one conversation in particular that people say was incredibly freaking important. It was with two of the most super insanely gigantically important Torontonians ever: William Warren Baldwin and his son Robert. Canadian historical figures do not get much bigger than this.

The Baldwins were among the very first people to ever to move to Toronto. William Warren Baldwin came here with his father all the way back around 1800, when the town of York was still just a few muddy blocks and a forbidding wilderness. He did well for himself: became a doctor and a lawyer; owned a bunch of land; got married. His son Robert was born in their house on Front Street, at Frederick, a couple of block east of the St. Lawrence Market. (Crazily, that very same house would later become William Lyon Mackenzie's print shop — the scene of the oh-so-important Types Riot.)

As York grew, the Baldwins took their place among the city's rich elite. On the hill above Davenport, right beside where Casa Loma is now, William built a grand house he called Spadina (from a native word for "sudden rise of land"). To be able to see the lake more clearly from his window, he had a road cut through the forest all the way down to the water. He called that road Spadina too. Baldwin Street, he named after himself. Phoebe Street, he named after his wife. He even helped to design the new law school: Osgoode Hall.

William Warren Baldwin
The Baldwin family was friends with some of the most powerful conservatives in the city. They were BFFs with Peter Russell, a corrupt, incompetent, racist, slave-owning asshole who ran Upper Canada for a while in York's earliest days. When he died, the Baldwins  inherited his crazy-rich estate and even moved into his old house, Russell Abbey, to take of his sister, who was losing her mind. And Peter Russell was far from the only conservative they had close ties to. When young Robert went to school, he was taught by John Strachan, the figurehead of the Family Compact. Just like all those Family Compact guys, William Warren Baldwin was a firm Protestant. And he was all about old school gentlemanly honour: when some dude mouthed off about him once, Baldwin challenged the guy to a duel. They met on the sandy strip of peninsula that is now the island. The other guy took it all back before Baldwin could shoot him.

But when it came to politics, the Baldwins and their Tory friends had pretty much nothing in common. By the time of the rebellion, both William Warren and Robert Baldwin had been leading figures in the Reform movement for years. They fought for minority rights. And for public education. And while they didn't support Mackenzie's violent revolution, they still firmly believed in the idea of Canadian democracy. When Durham asked them about it that fateful summer, they were very clear: the ultimate power in Canada should rest with the Canadian people, not with the British Governor General. Ministers in our government shouldn't be responsible to the British, but to our very own elected representatives in the legislature. To parliament. This is what they call Responsible Government.

Durham was convinced. When he got back home to England, he wrote one of the most important documents in all of Canadian history. It was officially titled "The Report on the Affairs of British North America", but we know it as the Durham Report. In it, he made his opinions pretty freaking clear. The current system, he said, was "defective... irresponsible government, an evil which no civilized community could bear. It was a question between a petty, corrupt, insolent Tory clique and the mass of the people." He openly called for Canadian democracy — for Responsible Government. The ideas the Baldwins had been fighting for were now being recommended to the British government by a British official specifically hired by the British government to give them recommendations. This was HUGE.

But the fight was far from over. When the Durham Report was released, Lord Melbourne screwed Radical Jack over yet again. He dismissed the idea of Responsible Government as "a logical absurdity". As far as he was concerned, Canada wasn't going to be getting real democracy any time soon.

The very next summer, Lord Durham died of tuberculosis. Fifty thousand people attended his funeral. His last words were saved for the country he hadn't even wanted to come to. "Canada," he said, "will one day do justice to my memory."

He was right. But it was going to take another ten years before we won the battle for control over our own affairs. And with Mackenzie exiled in the States, it was up to Robert Baldwin to lead the charge.

The next post in this series about William Lyon Mackenzie (and Robert Baldwin) and the birth of Canadian democracy is coming soon. I now have no idea how many there will be... they just keep going... and going... but we're getting there. Promise. And you're going to want to keep reading; Robert Baldwin is probably my favourite figure in the history of the city.


Some interesting tidbits related to all of this. William Warren Baldwin, Robert Baldwin and Peter Russell all share the same headstone at the Baldwin family tomb in St. James Cemetery. Lord Durham had one of the first recording cases of synesthesia on his trip, a condition some people have where some sense get mixed up with other ones (like seeing letters and numbers as particular colours, which I have). And when Baldwin laid out Spadina Avenue, he included the roundabout island thingy that is still there, just north of College.

There's a chronology of the aftermath of the rebellions here. You can read the full text of the Durham Report here. You can read a bit about Tories rioting against Durham here.

This post is related to dream
10 The Battle of Montgomery's Tavern
William Lyon Mackenzie, 1837


  1. Adam,

    I really enjoyed reading your blog and your take on how democracy was achieved in Canada. The info about "Radical Jack" was very cool to read about too (esp- about he queen's intervention). It didn't surprise Melbourne turned out to be another "bad apple."

    My uncle and great aunt told me all about William Warren & Robert but I thought they were just BS'ing me (especially since I couldn't find any history books with a description of what they did!) Growing up I knew more about the American Civil war than what happened in Canada. Fortunately, our newer more revised history books have addressed the oversight (whitewashing of what really happened) and things are improving. I suppose if you really probe deep enough- a lot of it is embarrassing (how corrupt the governors were, etc)

    But I, for one, would love to see an even greater awareness of what happened to us in Upper Canada during the struggles you are blogging about. I am not so much interested in the Rebellions- but rather the informal opposition which sprung up during years of arbitrary corrupt Tory/British rule. I am currently writing a teleplay about the family history which starts in 1800 but as you might write- it's a "Freakin" lot of "insane" work.

    Anyway- keep up the great work.

    James Baldwin
    (Great X5 grandson & that ain't no BS!)

    PS: you may want to check out John Ralston Saul's book "Louis Hippolyte LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin" Great read.