Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Revolution! ish!

John Rolph
This is the fifth 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.

It was only Saturday, but John Rolph was already worried. On Thursday, he was supposed become our very first President. William Lyon Mackenzie had personally asked him to do it. After the rebel army marched down Yonge Street and triumphantly seized power, they were going to "spontaneously" ask Rolph to lead them until they could hold elections. Rolph was a famous doctor, one of the leading figures of the Reform movement. He'd almost been picked over Mackenzie as our first mayor. And he — along with another Reformer, Robert Baldwin — had famously been picked by the dumbass conservative Lieutenant Governor, Bond Head, to sit on his Executive Council when he first got to Toronto. They only made it three weeks before they resigned in protest because he wasn't listening to them. It had been one of the most important moments in the build-up to the revolution. But now, with only five days left until the Reformers were supposed to seize power, Rolph felt like it might all be slipping away. As the rebel army gathered north of Toronto, he was still downtown. And he didn't like the look of things down there. It kind of looked like the government was finally starting to get organized.

Rolph knew about the emergency Executive Council meeting where Colonel FitzGibbon had burst in with news of the rebel preparations. He figured they were bound to have already seen Mackenzie's handbills calling for revolution; people had been coming in from the countryside to warn them. There were rumours that they were finally preparing the militia. And that the militia was going to be armed with the weapons stored at City Hall— the very same weapons the rebels were planning on stealing to use themselves. Worst of all, bad news from Quebec: the revolution in Lower Canada was falling apart. Two days after their first victory, the rebels had been overrun, massacred by British troops. Louis-Joseph Papineau and Wolfred Nelson had fled to the United States. Many of the other Patriotes were in prison. Rumour had it that a warrant for Mackenzie's arrest had been issued, too. The way things were going, it could all be over before Thursday.

So Rolph sent word to the rebels north of the city. They were gathering at Montgomery's Tavern on Yonge, a couple of blocks up from Eglinton. If they were going to do this thing, he told them, they needed to do it soon. Like on Monday. Otherwise, it might be too late.

But changing the date of the revolution was not such an easy thing to do. Things were already getting pretty confused up at the tavern. No one, for instance, had thought to tell John Montgomery, a big Reform guy, that they were going to use his place. And he'd leased it out to another guy who didn't give a crap about the revolution. He gave a crap about getting paid for all the food they wanted to eat. The rebels didn't have much money; so they didn't get much food. There weren't enough weapons either. And hell, until Sunday night, Mackenzie wasn't even there yet. He was still traveling around, telling people to show up on Thursday. When he finally did get there, he was furious. He wanted to stick with the original plan. He wanted to wait for more men. And he especially wanted to wait for Anthony Von Egmond, the Dutch dude who was going to lead the army, who had real experience, who had fought in the Napoleonic wars, and who was going to meet them there on Thursday.

Finally, on Monday night, John Rolph rode up from the city to convince Mackenzie in person. Eventually, all of the rebel leaders were on the same page. New plan: they would let the men rest overnight and then march in the morning. The Canadian Revolution was being moved up to Tuesday.

Robert Moodie gets shot
But they couldn't even wait that long to start killing each other.

The first to go was Robert Moodie. He was a retired army officer. And a conservative. He lived in Richmond Hill, where he'd heard all about Mackenzie's plans. And he was ballsy, too, so as far as he was concerned, he was going to go right ahead and warn Bond Head. That night, he and a couple of other guys rode straight down Yonge Street at the rebel barricades. They had blocked the road and were making prisoners out of anyone who might warn the city. But Robert Moodie wasn't going to be taken prisoner. He charged right at them screaming, "Who are you, who dare to stop me upon the Queen's highway?" He fired his pistol above their heads to drive them off.  They fired back.

People say that while he lay there bleeding on Yonge Street, he moaned, "I am shot—I am a dead man." He was right. The rebels lifted him up out of the road and into the tavern. It took him two hours to die.

Now, William Lyon Mackenzie wasn't there for that. He'd been all antsy and nervous; he couldn't just wait around all night without doing anything, so at about ten o'clock he'd left with a scouting party. He rode south with four other men: Captain Anthony Anderson (who was going to lead the troops in Von Egmond's absence),  Joseph Shepard (who I'm really only mentioning because his family owned a farm near  Yonge and Sheppard — the street is named after them with an accidental second "p") and two other dudes who we don't really care about.

Meanwhile, down in Toronto, FitzGibbon was also antsy and nervous. He didn't sleep at home that night, worried that the rebels would come kill him in his sleep. Instead, he set up shop at the Parliament Buildings on King Street and before calling it a night, he too led some men out on a scouting mission. A couple of them were sent on ahead. One of them was John Powell. He was a pretty famous judge and politician, a hardcore Tory. He was the one who let Samuel Jarvis off scot-free after Jarvis killed Jean Ridout in their famous duel. That was about a year before Jarvis married Powell's daughter. It was exactly the kind of conflict of interest bullshit that drove the Reformers crazy.

The second death of the night came when the two scouting parties ran into each other. Mackenzie's men caught Powell by surprise and took him prisoner. But the way that Mackenzie made sure that Powell wasn't carrying any weapons was by asking him politely if he was carrying any weapons and then taking his word as a gentleman. Powell lied. And then, once Mackenzie had turned him over to Captain Anderson to be taken back to the tavern, he pulled the pistols he was carrying, shot Anderson in the back and escaped. The bullet severed Anderson's spine. He died instantly. The rebels had lost their back-up commander.

Toronto was in chaos for the rest of the night. Powell rushed downtown to warn Bond Head; Bond Head rushed to get his family on a steamer out of town and then ran around like a lunatic for a while. While he was doing that, the students of Upper Canada College went to ring the school's bells in warning. But their headmaster told them to go back to bed. When FitzGibbon went to ring the bells of St. James Cathedral, no one could find the keys to the bell tower. He was about to break down the door with an axe when they finally found them. In the end, a couple hundred men answered the call, taking up arms and rushing to King Street to defend City Hall and the Parliament Buildings.

The March of the Rebels Upon Toronto
By morning, on what was supposed to be the dawn of their glorious revolution, the rebels were feeling more than a little discouraged. They could hear the bells ringing in the city below. They'd lost the element of surprise. Plus, they'd heard about what was happening in Quebec. That very day, martial law was declared in Montreal. Von Egmond wasn't showing up until Thursday, Anderson was dead, and Mackenzie's next pick for commander, Samuel Lount, was a blacksmith who didn't really feel up to the challenge of leading an entire army. So when the men — 500 strong now — finally did start marching down Yonge Street just before noon, it was Mackenzie who was at their head, riding a white horse and wearing as many jackets as he could possibly squeeze into, apparently trying to make himself bulletproof. A lot of the people who marched with him that day agreed: he was acting even crazier and more erratic than usual. Which was saying something. It seems Mackenzie might have been coming a bit unhinged.

It was a long, slow march. They'd only made it to St. Clair before Mackenzie had them stop for lunch. He went to the postmaster's house and forced the postmaster's terrified wife to make a meal for his troops. Some never bothered marching any further south than that — they just hung out on the lawn eating boiled beef and drinking whiskey. Then came the emissaries from Bond Head. The government was trying to stall the rebels by getting them to talk about a truce. But since they had to send men who the rebels wouldn't shoot, they chose Robert Baldwin and John Rolph. Not exactly the crown's most loyal subjects. Rolph warned the rebels to hurry the fuck up; the government was still disorganized. But Mackenzie didn't really listen: he paused again near Bloor to burn down the house of a Tory who had pissed him off once. And then he tried to burn down the house of the sheriff, who was yet another member of the Jarvis family: William Botsford Jarvis. His wife had named their flowery hillside estate Rosedale. Lount was barely able to talk Mackenzie out of it.

So with all of these delays, it was dusk by the time the army had gotten all the way down to College. And  it was there, for the very first time, that the rebels would face off against government troops. FitzGibbon had sent the sheriff and 26 other men there — against Bond Head's orders — to hide behind some shrubs and ambush the rebels. It worked. They fired a volley into the rebel ranks. They even hit a couple of them. And then, as the front line of rebels returned fire, the loyalists all ran away as fast as they could. Sheriff Jarvis called after them to stand and fight, but it was no use.

Sheriff Jarvis and his family
Luckily for the loyalists, the rebels were just as inexperienced. When the front line of their ranks dropped to one knee to reload their guns, the guys behind them figured they'd all been shot. So they ran away, too. Most people seem to think that if the rebels had kept marching south into the city, they'd have captured it that night. But they also seem to think that if they had, things might have gotten really bloody. Once the monarchy-loving army in Quebec was finished with the rebels there, they could have easily marched west to attack Mackenzie in Toronto. That could have been a horrifying mess. Not to mention that Mackenzie had already started vengefully burning things to the ground. But instead of marching south, most of the rebels headed back to the tavern to regroup. Some kept going all the way home.

And that brings us to Wednesday.

On Wednesday, the rebels didn't do very much. They decided to wait for Von Egmond after all. Mackenzie did lead some men out to rob a stagecoach and a tavern to help pay their bills. And John Rolph decided it was time to save his own skin. One of the other big-name Reformers in the city was arrested for treason that day. Rolph escaped. He made it to the States by pretending he was going to visit a patient. It be would another six years before he could come home to the city that had almost made him President.

But Wednesday went much, much, much, much better for the government. Their reinforcements arrived. They came from Hamilton and from Pickering and from Niagara and from Peel and from a host of other towns. By morning there were more than a thousand of them. Enough to go crush the rebels. So that's what they decided to do.

That Thursday was a clear, bright day in an unusually warm December. The army's muskets and cannons glinted in the sun. Bond Head climbed up on his white horse in his white uniform and led his army north. It was commanded by some of the richest, most powerful men in the history of our city. John Strachan, our first Anglican bishop, Toronto's great hero from the War of 1812, the guy who sort of founded U of T and was the figurehead of the Family Compact, rode at Bond Head's side. Samuel Jarvis, one of Strachan's former students, whose family had been here since allllll the way back in 1798, whose incompetence and corruption had been pissing Reformers off pretty much ever since, and who had even broken Mackenzie's newspaper press and thrown the typeface into the lake, well, he headed up a group on one of the flanks. Colonel FitzGibbon, the guy who had received Laura Secord's legendary warning in the War of 1812 and helped us defeat the Americans, who had once saved Mackenzie's life and had, until a couple days ago, been the lone voice calling for the government to take the threat of revolution seriously, led another group. Judge Jones, who had scoffed at FitzGibbon's warnings to the Executive Council, was there, too. Even Bond Head's aide-de-camp was a future mayor. And as the army marched up Yonge Street out of the city, loyalist citizens cheered them on. They leaned out their windows waving flags. A military band joined the troops, with the drone of bagpipes filling the air.

Up at Montgomery's Tavern, the rebels were just plain not ready. Von Egmond had finally arrived that morning, took one look at his men, and declared Mackenzie's plan to immediately attack the city  "stark madness". Mackenzie almost shot him for that. Instead, they sent a farmer, Peter Matthews, off with some men to burn a bridge over the Don as a decoy. It didn't work. Bond Head's army kept coming. Soon, the rebels could see the metallic gleam of their enemies' guns as they crested the hill down at St. Clair. At the spot where Mount Pleasant Cemetery is now, the government's cannons let loose with their first volley. The cannonballs crashed through the woods. They were still too far south. But soon, they were close enough.

The Battle of Montgomery's Tavern
The second volley smashed through the tavern's dinning room window and brought down three of the building's chimneys. Men scattered and poured of the building. The government troops surged forward and opened fire with their rifles and muskets. A few rebels were hit. A few would die. Mostly, they ran away. Fifteen or twenty minutes after it started, the Battle of Montgomery's Tavern was already over. The government had won. The rebels had lost. The Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837 had failed. Democracy would have to wait.

As Bond Head's men began to loot the area, the Lieutenant Governor ordered the tavern burned to the ground. Some rebels were arrested. Others just got a stern lecture and were sent home.  As for Mackenzie, he was one of the leaders lucky enough to escape to the United States. With a price on his head, he slipped across the border and settled on Navy Island in the Niagara River. He declared a new Republic of Canada and led an irrelevant government in exile. It would be more than a decade before he could come home. 

The Battle of Montgomery's Tavern marked the beginning of a dark time for Torontonians who believed in democracy. Bond Head and the Tories cracked down. Even people who had never supported the rebels were denounced as traitors. Some were fired from their jobs. Some were arrested.  Some were deported to Australia. Von Egmond was captured and died of pneumonia in a shitty jail cell. Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews were tried and convicted and sentenced to hang. Lount's wife personally delivered a petition with thousands of signatures and begged for her husband's life. Even Sheriff Jarvis was moved to tears. But she was ignored. "I'm not ashamed of anything I've done," Lount declared on the gallows just before the rope snapped his neck. And he was the fortunate one. Matthews kicked around for a good minute before the last of his life drained out of him.

The Reform movement was left in tatters. The next mayor of Toronto would be super-Tory John Powell — hailed as a hero for having shot Anthony Anderson in the back of the neck. It would be nearly ten years before another liberal ran the city. In just about every single way you could possibly imagine, the revolution had been a complete and total failure.

But here's the thing. The fight for democracy in Canada was far from over. And the Reformers were going to win it. Mackenzie's ridiculous, poorly-planned, poorly-executed disaster of a rebellion actually ended up being one of the major catalysts for change. After more than fifty years under dictatorial British rule, we were finally going to seize power over our own affairs. Canada, you see, was about to get responsible fucking government.

Continue reading with Part Six, The Bloody Aftermath of the Bloody Rebellion, here.


A version of this story will appear in
The Toronto Book of the Dead
Coming September 2017

Pre-order from Amazon, Indigo, or your favourite bookseller
There a million great resources to learn about the events during the Rebellion of 1837. I leaned especially heavily on a few of them. There's a great book about it all, written in the late-1880s, that you can read online here. I also took a lot from The Toronto Story and Toronto: The Place of Meeting. There's also some information here and here and all over the Wikipedia pages of the people involved. You can see the poster offering a reward for Mackenzie's capture here.

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

This post is related to dream
12 John Rolph's Beard
John Rolph, 1867

1 comment:

  1. I'm really enjoying this series and looking forward to the next installment. Thanks so much for bringing our history to life in a straight-up and entertaining manner.