Friday, July 11, 2014

The First Canadian President

UK TOUR DAY EIGHT (THORNBURY): This is Thornbury. Today, I left some dreams there. It's a town way over in the south-west of England — right near the Severn River, which marks the border with Wales. It's lovely little town, filled with shoppers today, and particularly proud of their floral displays. It's got plenty of history, too. This is where they found one of the biggest hoards of Roman coins ever discovered in Britain, buried here in the 300s. The oldest building in town is a church from the 1100s. And right next door to that is Thornbury Castle, which was built in the 1500s. King Henry VIII even stayed there with Anne Boleyn, right after Henry had the original owner — the Duke of Buckingham — beheaded for treason near the Tower of London.

But that's not why I came here. I made the trip to Thornbury because it almost played a big role in the history of Canada. This is the town where John Rolph was born. And for a few brief days during the winter of 1837, it looked like John Rolph might end up being the very first Canadian President.

The Rolphs were one of the most important families in Thornbury — a line of lawyers and doctors and landlords who owned a bunch of the buildings in town. John Rolph was the son of a surgeon; he was christened in that ancient church and grew up in the late 1700s with 17 brothers and sisters. But in the early 1800s, his family moved to Canada. And as soon as he was done school, the young Rolph joined them. Eventually, he'd follow in the footsteps of his father and his grandfather, becoming one of the most respected doctors and lawyers in Upper Canada. He even co-founded our very first medical school.

But it's his politics that we remember him for. By the time he was in his early 30s, Rolph was one of the leading Reformers in the province. He fought in favour of stuff like democracy, equal rights for American-born citizens and the separation of church and state.

It was a bitter fight. These were the days when the Lieutenant Governor could pretty much ignore the elected assembly whenever he wanted to. And he was backed by the most powerful Upper Canadians: the Tories of the Family Compact, who loved Britain, hated democracy, and could usually count on the Governors to give them what they wanted. People who spoke out in favour of reform tended to get arrested, exiled, or attacked by angry Tory mobs.

Still, in the 1830s, it looked like things might finally change. The Tories back home in England had lost power for the first time in decades; now the left-leaning Whigs were in charge. They sent a brand new Lieutenant Governor to Toronto: Sir Francis Bond Head. He was supposed to be a big supporter of reform. And at first, that seemed to be true. His very first act was to appoint some big-name Reformers to his Executive Council — including John Rolph.

John Rolph
But Bond Head wasn't a Reformer at all. The Whigs had screwed up. To this day, there are people who think they must have confused him with his cousin and appointed the wrong guy. The new Lieutenant Governor wasn't planning on listening to his Executive Council. In fact, he praised the Family Compact for their "industry and intelligence" while dismissing the famous Reform leader — and former mayor of Toronto — William Lyon Mackenzie as "an unprincipled, vagrant grievance-monger".

It took only three weeks for the Executive Council to get sick of being ignored. They all resigned in protest — even the Tories. And the Legislative Assembly backed them up, refusing to pass any bills that had anything to do with money until Bond Head gave them an explanation.

He refused. Instead, he dissolved the legislature and called an election. Then, he openly campaigned for the Tories in what proved to be one of the most corrupt elections in Canadian history. There were bribes and threats and riots. Polling stations were placed in Tory neighbourhoods; returning officers were handpicked for their conservative sympathies. Bond Head — who was supposed to be neutral — called the election a battle between "the forces of loyalty, order, and prosperity" and the "selfish and disloyal". The Tories won in a landslide.

For some, like Mackenzie, it was the last straw. And Rolph agreed.

The two men hadn't always worked well together. Mackenzie was a radical; Rolph was a moderate. In fact, a few years earlier, when Toronto officially became a city, the choice for the first Mayor came down to Mackenzie and Rolph. When the council picked Mackenzie, Rolph resigned his seat in protest and retired from municipal politics. For a couple of years, he stayed out of politics entirely — focusing on his medical practice instead — until Bond Head offered him the seat on the Executive Council.

But now Bond Head's decisions were beginning to make Rolph more radical. He'd won a seat in the corrupt election — and with Mackenzie defeated, he was essentially the leader of the party — but he was outraged at the way it was run. In a letter to his fellow Reformer, Robert Baldwin, Rolph denounced the "violence, bribery and corruption" of the election, the "malicious official misrepresentation, and ultra tory returning officers..."

"[T]here is not," he wrote, "a baser or more unprincipled government in the world than the one we are now enduring here..."

And while Rolph was hard at work opposing the government in the legislature, Mackenzie was hard at work on his plan to overthrow the government completely. He travelled across the province, giving speeches, building support, arguing in favour of armed revolution. He wrote a declaration of independence, published a new constitution and called on citizens to rise up against their colonial overlords. "Canadians," he wrote, "Do you love freedom? ... Do you hate oppression? ... Then buckle on your armour, and put down the villains who oppress and enslave your country... Up then brave Canadians. Ready your rifles and make short work of it."

William Lyon Mackenzie
Many Canadians answered Mackenzie's call to arms. And not just in Upper Canada. Similar things had been happening in Lower Canada (Québec). In early November, the Patriote rebels launched their own rebellion. And for a while, it looked like they might just win. Scared, the government there asked Bond Head for help — and he responded by sending every single soldier in Upper Canada. Toronto was left almost completely undefended.

Mackenzie seized his opportunity. In early December, his army of volunteers assembled at Montgomery's Tavern on Yonge Street just north of Eglinton. By then, he had already started to plan for what would happen if his revolution was successful. There would need to be a temporary government until elections could be held. And since he was looking to establish a republic  — something like the one in the United States — that government would have a temporary President. Someone, preferably, respected by both sides. Someone like John Rolph.

Rolph, it seems, agreed to the plan. If the rebels seized power, the doctor from Thornbury would become the very first Canadian President.

But they kept Rolph's involvement a secret. While Mackenzie prepared to march his army down Yonge Street, Rolph stayed in the city and fed the rebels information about the government's plans. Bond Head was refusing to take the threat seriously, but Colonel James FitzGibbon — hero of the War of 1812; the guy Laura Secord ran to warn — ignored his orders and prepared the city's defenses anyway. In response, Rolph convinced the rebels to move the date of the revolution ahead by a few days.

That just confused things. Mackenzie wasn't there when the decision was made; he was away getting more recruits. And when he got back, he was furious. In the end, it seems that Rolph and Mackenzie met in secret and hashed things out: the revolution would begin two days earlier than originally planned. But that meant there wasn't enough time for everyone to get there. So when Mackenzie's army marched down Yonge Street, it wasn't as big as they'd originally hoped.

By then, the bloodshed had already started. The night before the march, the rebels shot and killed a Tory who tried to ride through their checkpoint and a Tory judge shot and killed a rebel after the judge had been arrested by the rebels. He escaped and warned the Lieutenant Governor. While a panicky Bond Head rushed to get his family on a steamship out of town, Colonel FitzGibbon continued to take charge. By morning, the bells of Toronto were ringing. Hundreds of volunteers raced to defend City Hall and the Parliament Buildings.

That's when Bond Head turned to John Rolph for help.

The rebels of 1837
While the army advanced down Yonge Street, Bond Head tried to stall. He decided to send emissaries north to meet with Mackenzie and suggest a truce. But it wasn't easy finding someone to send. He needed men that he trusted, but who weren't Tories — otherwise, the rebels might just shoot them. So he asked the same moderate Reformers he'd once appointed to his Executive Council: Baldwin and Rolph. He had no clue that Rolph was secretly working for the rebels.

The messengers found Mackenzie at Yonge and St. Clair, where his army had stopped to rest. And while Baldwin delivered Bond Head's message, it seems that Rolph pulled Mackenzie aside. According to some reports, he told the rebel leader to hurry the hell up.

In the end, of course, it didn't matter. It was dusk by the time Mackenzie's men got down to Yonge & College, where they finally faced off against the government's defenders. There was a confusing skirmish. As shots were fired, both sides broke ranks and fled. They say if the rebels had pushed on into the city, they might have been able to take Toronto that night. But now, they'd lost their chance. The next day, government reinforcements flooded in from Hamilton, Pickering, Niagara, Peel... Rolph could see the cause was lost. Mackenzie's army was going to be defeated later that same day. So Rolph casually walked to the edge of town, mounted a horse and then rode like hell for the American border.

He would spend the next few years in exile. Bond Head offered a £500 reward for his capture. The Lieutenant Governor denounced him as the "most crafty, the most bloodythirsty, the most treacherous, the most cowardly, and . . . the most infamous of the traitors..."

But before long, the Whigs had replaced Bond Head and the Reformers had swept back to power in the legislature. Rolph was pardoned and allowed to return home to Toronto. He even got back into politics, getting re-elected to the assembly and becoming a leader of the radical faction of Reformers: the Clear Grits. Over the next couple of decades, his power and influence would graduually fade. But he did live long enough to witness the coming of true Canadian democracy when Responsible Government arrived in 1849 and Canadian nationhood on the first of July, 1867.


Read more posts about The Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour and the connections between the history of Toronto and the United Kingdom here. I'll be posting lots more during the trip! And you can follow me on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook too.

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