Historicist: Fixing the Broken Column
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Historicist: Fixing the Broken Column

William Lyon Mackenzie King encountered his grandfather's grave and decided that something just wasn't right.

William Lyon Mackenzie King and his parents c. 1910. Photo from the City of Toronto Archives Fonds 1244, Item 643.

Here is a story about the fallout from what could have been a civil war, but thanks to our national genius for compromise, was not, and about the way that we remember that conflict and those who participated in it. It involves a 30-minute walk from one monument to another, from Cabbagetown to Queen’s Park, and it focuses on the inner life of one figure, Canada’s longest-serving prime minister: William Lyon Mackenzie King.

You can read up on the history of the 1837 rebellion in Upper Canada and the grievances between the haves and the have nots, the stupidities and the greed and the desperation that provoked the armed rebellion, but what is perhaps most surprising is how small a rupture it finally caused. The ineffective rebel forces were scattered by local militia units rather than serried ranks of professionals, and no mass proscriptions, lootings and land grabs followed. In time, the wounds healed and former rebels gained access to the seats of power. It all happened here, in what we like to think of as the peaceable kingdom.

But that isn’t to say that memories disappeared or that the events and personalities of that uprising didn’t continue to influence public affairs. William Lyon Mackenzie King’s reverence for his grandfather, the leader of the rebellion in Upper Canada, kept 1837 alive for a century longer, at least in his own mind. Two monuments that you may have noticed walking around Toronto sites reveal that story, which stretches from 1891 to 1940.

In the autumn of 1891, when Mackenzie King arrived in Toronto as a student at the University of Toronto, he visited the Necropolis, which is still one of the city’s prettiest cemeteries. He was not in search of a melancholic rumination in the manner of some 18th-century graveyard poet, however. He wanted to look at his grandfather’s grave. What he found there shocked him. The fiery journalist and prominent Upper Canadian rebel William Lyon Mackenzie, after whom Mackenzie King was named, had died poor. His only memorial lay in a small plaque laid at the foot of his in-laws’ (the Lindsays) monument.

William Lyon Mackenzie later in life. Frontispiece to Charles Lindsey’s The Life and Times of Wm. Lyon Mackenzie, vol. 1. (Toronto: P.R. Randall, 1862).

Mackenzie King wrote to his mother in a kind of shock: “There is no great monument to mark the spot.” It took him a while to remedy that omission, but fix it he would. Viewing two Toronto monuments—the first in the Necropolis, the second at Queen’s Park—tells us how that correction came about.

A bit southwest of the Lindsay monument in the small cemetery stands a more impressive and eye-catching monument. It takes the form of a broken column (a common 19th-century symbol of a life cut short) and commemorates the public executions of two of William Lyon Mackenzie’s leading associates, Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews. Visiting their monument reveals some of the forces driving Mackenzie King to rememorialize his grandfather.

The Necropolis cemetery in Toronto in May 2017. Photo by bruce lee fair in the Torontoist Flickr pool.

The nature, origins, events, and effects of the 1837 Rebellion have been the subjects of considerable historical contention and scholarship, and here will be nothing more than an outline of the events that had eventually resulted in the names Lount and Matthews being engraved below the broken column in the Necropolis, rather than in a less-visible family plot like that of their leader.

Lount had been a blacksmith and, in the fashion of his time, a self-taught mechanic. With a reputation as a helpful neighbour and fed up with the colony’s oligarchic administration that its enemies called the “Family Compact,” Lount had gotten himself elected as a representative for Simcoe County to the legislative assembly in 1834. As the leading journalistic critic of the ruling elite, Mackenzie had made Lount an ally to the progressive cause, and Lount had taken up arms against the crown on December 7, 1837, along with many others who wanted better political representation. He was one of the marchers down Yonge Street who fled after a loyalist militia easily dispersed the attackers. Lount tried to escape, but he was captured near where the Grand River runs into Lake Erie.

Peter Matthews, a United Empire Loyalist farmer enlisted by Mackenzie to be a reformer, had, like Lount and Mackenzie, gone down to political defeat in the highly contested election of 1836. Mackenzie had set Matthews in command of an eastern detachment set to divert the governor’s forces from the Yonge Street assault, but they had accomplished nothing beyond setting the Don Valley bridge on fire and then retreating in haste toward Pickering. The loyal forces captured him at a farm in East York.

The pair’s admissions of guilt saved the government the trouble of a trial that could have turned into a ringing indictment of the establishment. Mrs. Lount’s pleas for mercy—could they have been based upon an assumption that the admissions of guilt demanded some reciprocal leniency on government’s part?—went nowhere. Eight thousand persons had signed that petition for mercy, itself a risky step to take. All in vain. Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews were hanged on April 12, 1838, and their bodies consigned to the Potter’s Field at Bloor and Yonge, with only their names as markers. Their leader, on the other hand, had escaped any penalty beyond involuntary exile to the United States, although he returned through an amnesty in 1850. Then came 1859 and the beginning of a process which eventually placed Lount, Matthews, and Mackenzie in the Necropolis.

The two self-confessed rebels would eventually be awarded a heroic and monumental memorialization within the system they had sought to overthrow. The fault line between history and memory would be occluded. The process began in 1859 as the disinterred remains were transferred to the Necropolis in a solemn procession headed by none other than William Lyon Mackenzie. If anybody sensed the irony of the amnestied leader escorting the remains of his sacrificial subordinates, they never recorded it.

June 28, 1893, saw what the newspaper reported as a suitably rainy day, which did not quite curtail the attendant speeches. A number of MLAs attended and spoke, two clergymen delivered remarks, and a Mr. Joseph Tait reluctantly acceded to the demands of the assembly and added some remarks of his own. Lount and Matthews, he asserted, were true, good, loyal self-sacrificing men and a noble example to all who followed them. The ceremonies concluded with the singing of one verse of the national anthem while the audience scattered in the face of the downpour.

The original engraving marks the rebels as honest men worthy of remembrance, but neither are viewed as martyred precursors to a more just, enlightened and, liberal political order. Only J.D. Edgar, an MLA, took this tack in his speech, and that very providential narrative arc—they died so we might live—is missing from the monument’s inscription. Although it says that it was “erected by their friends and sympathizers,” it lists only basic information about Matthews, including his military service. So what is being commemorated: civic virtue or ideological triumph?

Consider, if you will, the dilemma all this monumentalizing posed to a young Mackenzie King in 1893. Here were his grandfather’s one-time allies and subordinates promoted—literally—to new heights that towered above Mackenzie’s own humble marker. Lount and Matthews might have been martyrs to a cause, but a cause that tact or politeness or cowardice or a combination of all three had smothered. Have you ever walked into a Christian church named after a martyr—St. Peter, let us say—and found not even a discreet mention of the cause for which he had been slain by a hostile power?
(Left:The monument to Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews in the Necropolis c. 1910. Image from the Toronto Public Library.)

Mackenzie King, like any good Methodist, knew his bible. He would write to his mother later in life that he had inherited his grandfather’s mantle in the manner of the Prophet Elisha (to whom Elijah had thrown his mantle as a fiery chariot propelled the elder prophet along the track to heaven). Mackenzie King believed that something had gone wrong with his grandfather’s legacy—and as the inheritor, he had to fix it. Even the liberal historian and journalist J.M. Dent’s 1885 account of 1837 had dismissed Mackenzie as hotheaded, lacking in judgement, and unable to function independently in a responsible manner without assistance from advisors. Something needed to be done not only to restore Mackenzie to a position of greatness and to place Mackenzie within a noble and universally acclaimed cause. And indeed, that small miracle would happen, but not until 50 years later, in 1940, at another, grander Toronto location: the seat of government at Queen’s Park.

Part two of the story will be an upcoming Historicist post.

Works consulted can be found in the writer’s previous work on this subject, including: “The Grandfathering of William Lyon Mackenzie King,” The American Review of Canadian Studies (Winter 2002): 581–608; “The Sideways March: Mackenzie King’s Monumental Quest, 1893-1940” Ontario History 100.2 (Fall 2008) 130–49.

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