Patriot War of 1837

The Canadian Rebellion


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Background

Extracted in part from the L. N. Fuller articles dated 1923
Copyright 1923, Watertown Daily Times

In order properly to understand the underlying causes of the rebellion in Upper and Lower Canada, perhaps better known to us as the Patriot War, it is necessary to go back nearly three-quarters of a century. Canada, as everyone knows, was originally a French colony. It was then but sparsely settled west of Montreal and that city and Quebec were the centers of the French population.

The British government, by dividing the colony, hoped to keep the French people in Lower Canada by themselves, where they could enjoy their own institutions. Theoretically the London government was right, but the English people, many of them loyalists who left the colonies during the war of the Revolution, were drawn to Quebec and Montreal by the opportunities for trade that were presented.

Thus the English newcomers came directly into conflict with the French people who had lived there since the days of Champlain. The English dominated the executive council and the legislative council and the legislative assembly was for the most part made up of Frenchmen. An irreprehensible conflict was inevitable. The French, though greater in numbers, were weaker in political strength, as the legislative assembly possessed but little governmental power.

They demanded places on the executive council and in the legislative council. In Upper Canada the same conflict was spreading. The people demanded that the legislative council be responsible to the people rather than to the crown. Under the plan as it existed then, the legislative council, being responsible only to the home government, was enabled to determine the governmental policy in the provinces, irrespective of the legislative assembly.

From 1791 until 1812 the movement was slow and the demands for reform were moderate, but underneath the placid surface there was a turmoil that was soon to blaze forth. The legislative assembly demanded the right to determine what revenues should be raised, the right to elect members to the legislative council and wished to make the judges irremovable in order to diminish the power of the crown.

The war of 1812 caused the home government to draw heavily on the provincial revenues and by the end of the war the home government was indebted 120,000 pounds to the province of Lower Canada. This was the direct cause of the legislative battle for the financial control of the province. By 1836 the controversy had become so bitter that the majority of the assembly in Lower Canada asserted its right to set aside the constitution of 1791. The home government made some concession but did not deem it expedient to make the legislative council elective. The crisis was at hand.

In Upper Canada was what today might be called the "Old Guard." Then it was known as the "Family Compact" and it represented a close political and social corporation. It was so powerful that it controlled not only the legislative council but also the legislative assembly. This exclusive circle was composed for the most part of descendants of loyalists who were faithful to the king during the Revolution and as a reward claimed special privileges.

Members of the aristocracy of England who had recently come to Canada naturally gravitated to this class and it soon came to dominate the banks, the Church of England, the judiciary and the public domain. It was all-powerful. The natural result was the rising of a party opposed to this exclusive class, a party that might be likened to the progressives of today. They demanded an elective legislative council and a responsible government. So desperate was the struggle that the government used all its influence to bear to defeat liberal leaders at the polls. The liberals could see nothing but a resort to arms to accomplish their ends.

There were other factors, which contributed to this unrest, the distribution of public lands to the Church of England being one of the main causes in Upper Canada. In Lower Canada was the war of the races.

The old regime with the French language and the Catholic religion was arrayed against the Anglo-Saxon race, with its English language and Protestant religion. The home government did not attempt to learn the exact condition of affairs. It merely sought to divide the colonies as much as possible so that they would not combine to throw off the British yoke. The British government of the Canadian colonies could not be called tyrannical or harsh. It was not even vigorous. On the contrary it was weak and ineffective, hesitating and vacillating. Lord Durham in 1838 made this caustic remark regarding the British colonial policy: "The experiment of keeping colonies and governing them well ought at least, to have a trial."