William Lyon Mackenzie is one of the few truly legendary characters who stand out in the usually lifeless annals of Canadian history. While he was not the only reformer who railed against the disproportionate privileges of the Family Compact, he was certainly the most colourful. Mackenzie was critical of the structure and operation of government, in which the Family Compact’s control of political offices excluded newer American immigrants, and the Anglican Church enjoyed power and influence. Known for his fiery temper and borderline libelous criticisms of the government, Mackenzie eventually became convinced that armed rebellion was the only route towards the wholesale constitutional change he believed necessary. This week marks the 170th anniversary of the 1837 Rebellion he led. The countless differing versions of that event, each filled with half-truths and deliberate falsehoods, created the gaps that let imagination turn history into myth.
On December 4, Mackenzie and his supporters gathered at Montgomery’s Tavern, located roughly where the Post Office stands today north of Eglinton on Yonge. It’s hard not to imagine that rebels, who spent the next couple days at the Tavern with little food or comfort, downed more than a few libations. With the regular army dispatched to deal with Louis-Joseph Papineau’s rebellion in Lower Canada, Mackenzie fully expected to seize the capital in a single night and without shedding blood. Yet, within the first day, the rebels’ lack of military training or discipline resulted in two deaths. First, a government supporter was shot when he refused to yield to the authority of the rebels; then, a rebel guard was killed by an escaping prisoner. Mackenzie gave chase on horse-back, waving his pistol in the air, but the prisoner eluded him and went directly to Government House. There, Sir Francis Bond Head, the slumbering Lieutenant-Governor, was roused from bed. Having foolishly ignored earlier reports of an uprising, Head raised the alarm and called for volunteer militiamen to defend the city.
With the rebel ranks swelling to 500 on December 5, Mackenzie decided that the time was ripe to advance on the city. Perhaps imagining himself like Henry V at Agincourt, he rallied his supporters with a bombastic and passionate speech, as he recalled in his reminisces:
I told them that I was certain there could be no difficulty in taking Toronto; that both in town and country the people had stood aloof from Sir Francis; that not 150 men and boys could be got to defend him; that he was alarmed, and had got his family on board a steamer, that 600 reformers were ready waiting to join us in the city, and that all we had to do was to be firm, and with the city would at once go down every vestige of foreign government in Upper Canada.
The rebels advanced down Yonge Street—then still a muddy path through the woods—to the scattering of houses at Yorkville. Government troops, concealing themselves in the trees just above Maitland Street, then opened fire. When the rebels dropped to the ground to return fire, the rest panicked:
When they saw the riflemen in front falling down, and heard the firing, they imagined that those who fell were killed and wounded by the enemy’s fire; and took to their heels with a speed and steadiness of purpose that would have baffled pursuit on foot.
Equally panicked, the government troops stampeded just as fast back to the city. Mackenzie later bitterly questioned the dedication of his men: “Had they possessed my feelings in favour of freedom, they would have stood by us even if armed but with pitch forks and broom handles.”
Back at the Tavern the following day, Mackenzie wasted the advantage he had over the ill-prepared city by dithering. While reinforcements poured into Toronto, Mackenzie demonstrated increasingly erratic behaviour, taking revenge on individual Tories and burning their property. Although incapable of deciding the next course of action, Mackenzie was unwilling to delegate power or relinquish command. The rebel supporter with the most military experience, Colonel Anthony Van Egmond, finally arrived to take command of the remaining rebels on December 7. When he called the situation “stark madness,” Mackenzie brandished his pistol and demanded Van Egmond prepare for the imminent attack of government troops. The ensuing fire-fight lasted all of twenty minutes before Mackenzie and his supporters fled.
Undoubtedly, Mackenzie was sincere in his political convictions, and his grievances against the Family Compact were legitimate. But he acted irresponsibly and while he escaped to the United States others paid the price. Two of Mackenzie’s most loyal supporters, Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews were convicted of treason and, despite numerous petitions for clemency, were hanged on April 12, 1838.
Contrary to the popular assumption, Mackenzie’s rebellion did not lead directly to responsible government. More important in that political evolution were social and economic conditions, and the efforts of moderate reformers working within the political system. No amount of reform ever satisfied him and the last years of his life were spent, in the Bond Street house that has become a museum, antagonizing friend and foe alike over minor points of contention. Forever proud of the bounty placed on his head in the wake of the rebellion, Mackenzie always hung a copy of the wanted poster prominently in his home.
Illustrations by C.W. Jefferys from Canada’s Past In Pictures (Ryerson Press, 1934)