Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
July 2005

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


The Gavazzi Riots, John A. Macdonald and the

Liberal-Conservative Party


[This text was written by Donald Creighton in 1952. For the precise citation, see the end of the document.]

Early in May, when Macdonald left Quebec and returned to Kingston, the long, meandering session had still a month to run. It was probably the practice that drew him back; but a weary discouragement with the results of the session may have made it easier for him to leave. Back in Kingston, as he talked over the probable future of the party with a friendly observer like Alexander Campbell, he sometimes showed a cheerfully cynical despair. (1) The fact was that the session, with its heavy concentration on cultural and religious matters, had not advanced the fortunes of Conservatism nearly as much as he had perhaps expected. In one way, the battles over schools, and Clergy Reserves, and religious corporations had been useful to the Conservatives, for they gave the party a chance of demonstrating its basic sympathy with French-Canadian needs. But, in another and equally important way, the cultural struggle was dangerous to the Conservatives, and to any other political group which was, in fact or by intention, a truly provincial party. Disputes over schools and churches brought out into the open the fundamental antagonism between, the two divisions of the province. Cultural disputes emphasized the sectional rather than the provincial interest. They led to mutual recriminations, to charges and counter-charges that one section of the province was imposing a cultural domination on the other. They supplied a cogent justification for George Brown's plan of representation by population, and a plausible excuse for George Brown's scheme of a great sectional crusade against conservative French Canada. In such dangerous circumstances it was difficult for Canadians to combine, as Canadians; and it was altogether too easy for the Conservatives themselves to hark back to their old anti-French prejudices of the past. The party might not only fail to win the alliance of the French of Canada East; it might also lose its following among the Protestant English of Canada West. The danger was real, and it would almost certainly grow greater, if the cultural conflict became more acrimonious. And the trouble was that in the spring and early summer of 1853 religious and sectional antagonism reached a new and almost unexampled pitch of violence.


Partly it was the actions and inactions of the provincial legislature - the new public school law and the failure to do anything about the Clergy Reserves - which aggravated the voluntarist and anti-Catholic grievances of Canada West. But, to a very large extent, the emotional explosion of June and July was the result of the sudden appearance of a strange and exotic figure from abroad who, as not infrequently happens in provincial societies, touched off the charge of anger with an ease which no native could have approached. Towards the end of May, Father Alessandro Gavazzi, a veteran of the Italian Revolutions of 1848 and an ex friar of the Roman Catholic Church, arrived in Toronto to begin a Canadian lecture tour. Gavazzi was a Liberal in politics who had become an evangelical Protestant in religion; (2) and after the collapse of the Roman Republic had driven him into exile in 1849, he had travelled about the English-speaking world, lecturing to large, responsive audiences on such currently exciting topics as the authority of the Bible, the doctrine of transubstantiation, and the evils of the Inquisition; ancient and modem. (3) His mission, he announced with grandiloquent comprehensiveness, was nothing less than the total destruction of the Pope and Popery. He was a tall, stout man, with a powerful voice, at once insinuating and commanding, arid a strongly marked, extremely expressive countenance, radiating magnetic force and vehement convic­tion. (4) When he appeared before an audience, he wore a long, full, black robe, ornamented with a purple cross on the breast and left shoulder. His appearance was sufficiently startling; his platform manner was more than a little theatrical; and it seemed at first as if his Canadian tour was certain to be a triumphant success. On the last day of May and the first of June, 1853, he delivered two highly successful lectures to huge audiences in Toronto. From Toronto he travelled quickly east­ ward to Quebec , where the legislature was still sitting; and at Quebec, a riot occurred when he attempted to lecture in the Free Wesleyan Chapel in St. Ursula Street. (5)   Almost im­mediately he left the capital; but instead of abandoning the province, as prudence might have suggested, he simply sailed up the river to Montreal. There, on the evening of June 8, at Zion Church in Haymarket Square, the tragedy occurred. A large crowd hostile to Gavazzi collected; a riot threatened, and the military were called out. The soldiers, acting in response to a fatal order, whose origin was hotly disputed afterwards, fired upon a section of the crowd, composed, as it happened, chiefly of the members of Gavazzi's audience, killing several people and fatally wounding others. (6)


This dreadful event put Macdonald, and the Conservatives, and indeed all the moderates, into a most embarrassing position. The tragedy was a terrible one, and its perpetrators seemed to have escaped with impunity from all consequences. No successful prosecutions were ever carried out in Montreal. Not even the thought of possible prosecution seemed to intimidate the rioters. For some time after June 8, so the newspapers alleged, crowds of Montrealers, completely contemptuous of the law, roamed the streets at will, breaking the windows of Protestant chapels and molesting and abusing evangelical Protestant clergymen. (7) And all the while, the governments, both municipal and provincial, seemed strangely unconcerned in the whole affair. No other series of events could have so effectively proved, in the excited popular mind, the justice of George Brown's crusade against the Roman Catholic domination of Canada East. Brown was a sectional leader - the defender of Upper Canadian sectional interests; but the tragedy of June 8 - and this, for the Conservatives, was perhaps its most serious consequence - had invested his anti-Catholic crusade with a truly provincial significance and popularity. Down in Montreal, people began to argue hysterically that Protestants must combine to protect themselves with arms against the "thuggism" and "barbarism" which were "patronized by the legal authorities. (8) There was an ominous drift back towards the violence of 1849; there was an equally ominous tendency away from the compromises and accommodations which the dual culture seem to require, and which Macdonald and some of the Conservatives had been trying to prove they were ready to accept. In these new and difficult circumstances, could the party hold to its chosen course, or would it slip back into the old anti-French direction, and so into the waiting arms of George Brown? In the weeks that followed the Gavazzi riots, the future seemed uncertain. Towards the end of June the Orange Order split. A minority of lodges, led by George Benjamin, withdrew in protest against the moderation of Ogle Gowan's pro-Catholic and pro-French policies: and it was significant that, in the political field, the "Benjaminites" preached a union with the Clear Grits to defeat Popery.   In August, there came a dreadful day when even the Montreal Gazette admitted that the Conservative party, as then constituted, was moribund and incapable of resuscitation. A new party, the Gazette predicted, would arise - a new party which would labour to undo the iniquities of the past four years; and "this party," the prophetic editorial continued, "will demand equality for all sects and classes, gradual fusion of U.C. and L.C., free schools for the whole people, and Rep. by Pop." (9) Was this not really the programme of the Globe ? What was there to distinguish this "new party" from the party which George Brown was actually trying to create?


Macdonald's whole conception. of the future of Conservatism was in danger. Some of his followers were ready to bolt; his policies had apparently been made meaningless by the horrors of the Gavazzi riots. He did not reappear in parliament for the last month of the session. He said and did little. He simply waited, hoping, no-doubt, that the furious cultural and sectional antagonisms would wear themselves out through the very excess of their own violence. And, as the summer of 1853 passed slowly along, it began to seem possible that he had not waited entirely in vain. August was not ended before a new and very different political scandal began slowly and tantalizingly to be revealed to the fascinated gaze of the Canadians. It concerned no less a person than Francis Hicks himself, the Inspector-General, and the somewhat mysterious good fortune which had come to him in the last two years. For some weeks, the newspapers merely busied themselves with vague but interested inquiries into the source of Hincks's "sudden and inexplicable acquisition of great wealth"; (10) and it was not until September, when the City of Toronto brought suit in chancery against its Mayor, John G. Bowes, that definite evidence of some of Hincks's financial operations at length became available. Then a tangled and curious story was revealed. (11) It appeared that the City of Toronto, wishing to aid the Toronto , Simcoe, and Huron Railway which was then in financial difficulties, had agreed to grant £50,000 in Toronto municipal debentures to the railway company. Subsequently it was discovered that the authority by which the city had made the grant was defective; and the debentures, which had been paid out by the railway to its contractors, depreciated in value. The City of Toronto , moved by its Mayor, John G. Bowes, now decided to consolidate the entire municipal debt with a refunding operation which would redeem all its old or defective debentures at par; and the government of Canada, with Francis Hincks as its finance minister, accommodatingly sponsored the consolidation act by which this operation was carried out. So far the case - a not unusual case of Canadian municipal generosity and inefficiency - had not been very remarkable. But there was more to come. It was now revealed that Bowes and Hincks, the principals in the refunding operation were also the purchasers of the old and depreciated debentures. They had bought the old bonds for £40,000; they exchanged them for new bonds worth £50,000. They had cleared £10,000 upon the deal.


(1) Macdonald Papers, Vol. 194, Campbell to Macdonald, 8 March, 1855 .


(2) G. M. TREVELYAN, Garibaldi's Defence of the Roman Republic , 1848-9 , ( London , 1928), Chapter V.


(3) Alessandro Gavazzi, Six Lectures delivered in the Roman Round Room of the Rotunda, Dublin , with a Biographical Sketch of the Author ( Toronto ), 1853.


(4) Globe , 2, 4 June, 1853 .


(5) Ibid , 9 June, 1853 .


(6) Ibid , 14 June, 1853 .


(7) Ibid , 18 June, 1853 .


(8) Montreal Gazette , 15 July, 1853.


(9) Ibid , 18 August, 1853 .


(10) Ibid , 19 August, 1853 .


(11) R. S. Longley, Sir Francis Hincks, A Study of Canadian Politics, Railways, ND finances in the Nineteenth Century ( Toronto 1943), pp. 238-239.

Return to the Gavazzi Index Page / Retour à la page d'index sur Gavazzi 


Source : Donald CREIGHTON, John A. Macdonald. The Young Politician , Toronto, Macmillan, 1974 [1952[, 526p, pp, 192-197, notes at   496. The title has been added by Claude Bélanger.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College