Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
April 2005

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


Rebellions of 1837-1838


[This article was published in 1948; for the full citation, see the end of the document.]

Rebellion of 1837-8. Toward the end of the year 1837 there broke out in both Upper and Lower Canada an armed rebellion. The causes of this rebellion were in both provinces fundamentally the same. The Constitutional Act of 1791 had given to both of the Canadas a constitution which threw power into the hands of an official oligarchy [the Family Compact in Upper Canada and the Chateau Clique in Lower Canada]. There was in each province an elected Legislative Assembly; but the influence of the Assembly even over legislation was negative. A bill passed by the Assembly had to pass also the nominated Legislative Council; it had to receive the assent of the Crown, in the person of the governor or lieutenant­governor; and it might even be reserved for the signification of the pleasure of the Home government. Over the executive government, the Assembly had virtually no control. The Executive Council, like the Legislative Council, was appointed by the Crown; and the Assembly could not exert over it the power of the purse, as the House of Commons was able, even at that time, to exert the power of the purse over the executive government in Great Britain, for the simple reason that most of the revenues of the provinces came from the British exchequer or were derived from sources under the control of the British government. All the Assembly did was to vote money for local objects, such as the building of roads and bridges; and for it to try to "withhold supply" would merely have been to cut off its nose to spite its face. In these circumstances, the official class in both Upper and Lower Canada had almost untrammelled control of the executive government, and possessed a veto even on legislation.


The constitutional issue, however, it should be added, was obscured and confused by other considerations; and these differed in each province. In Upper Canada the constitutional issue was complicated by the fact that the official oligarchy - known as the "Family Compact" - identified itself with the claims of the Church of England, though the adherents of this church were in a decided minority in the province; and thus the political struggle took on the colour of a religious issue, into which economic grievances entered as well. In Lower Canada, the constitutional issue was overshadowed by the racial issue; for the Assembly in Lower Canada came to be predominantly French-speaking, while the executive government was in the hands of English-speaking officials, or of French-speaking officials who had thrown in their lot with the English. Thus, in Lower Canada , there came to be, as Lord Durham said, "two nations warring within the bosom of a single state". The religious issue was less prominent in Lower Canada, because of the privileged position which the Roman Catholic Church had obtained under the Quebec Act; and economic grievances, though not absent, merely contributed to the bitterness of the racial struggle.


Between the rebellions in the two provinces there was some slight connection; for there is no doubt that the rebels in Upper Canada were, before the rebellion, in communication with those in Lower Canada, and joint action had been agreed upon. But here the connection ceased; and it is therefore desirable to treat the two rebellions separately.


The Rebellion in Upper Canada.


Until the summer of 1837, the leader of the advanced wing of the Reform party in Upper Canada, William Lyon Mackenzie, conducted his agitation for reform along constitutional lines; but by that time he had come to' despair of achieving anything by constitutional methods, and had begun to boast of his "rebel blood". In the autumn of 1837, he busied himself with visiting various parts of rural Upper Canada, and obtaining the names of volunteers who would rise in rebellion; and he actually formed a secret committee or council of war in Toronto. At last, it was arranged, after consultation with the leaders of the patriote party in Lower Canada, that the rebels in Upper Canada should assemble at Montgomery 's tavern, north of Toronto, on December 7, and proceed to occupy Toronto, which had been divested of troops in view of the threatening state of affairs in Lower Canada. The government, however, seems to have got wind of the fact that mischief was afoot; and the rebel council of war in Toronto sent out word that the date of assembly should be advanced to December 3. The result was that on December 3 only a fraction of the force expected gathered at Montgomery's tavern; and the advantage of surprise was lost. Mackenzie made one half-hearted attempt to advance on Toronto ; but his force fled in disorder when they encountered a small picket, and September 7 found him still at Montgomery's tavern, awaiting reinforcements. Meanwhile, the loyalist militia were pouring into Toronto ; and on December 7 they took the offensive. Three columns of militia advanced on Montgomery's tavern; and after a brief exchange of shots, in the course of which only one man was killed, the rebels broke and fled.


In the western part of the province, there was also a brief insurrection, under Dr. Charles Duncombe; but it was quelled even more ignominiously than that near Toronto.


Mackenzie succeeded in escaping to the United States by way of the head of lake Ontario ; and early in 1838 set up a provisional government on Navy island in the Niagara river. A body of Canadian militia, under Capt. Drew, succeeded in "cutting out" his supply-ship, the Caroline; and shortly afterwards he was compelled to retire to the United States, where he was imprisoned for breach of the neutrality laws. He found, however, many sympathizers in the United States, especially among the Irish Americans; and during 1838 there were a number of disturbances along the Canadian border, organized by the so-called "Hunters' Lodges" which had been formed to help the Canadians cast off the yoke of British rule. The most serious of these was near Prescott, where a filibustering force under a Pole named Niles Von Schoultz invaded Canada, and was defeated at what is known as the battle of the Windmill, on November 16, 1838. In the first week of December, another force of filibusters landed at Windsor, but were dispersed and driven back across the Detroit river by Colonel Prince. By the end of 1838, the government of the United States at last, though somewhat tardily, took action to put an end to these disturbances; and no further trouble ensued.


The Rebellion in Lower Canada.


The outbreak of the rebellion in Lower Canada would appear to have been precipitated by a misunderstanding on the part of the authorities. The first half of November, 1837; saw in Montreal a number of disturbances in which the loyalists or "constitutionalists" clashed with a number of patriotes, who called themselves "Fils de la Liberté", after the French revolutionists. The Roman Catholic Church in Lower Canada, which openly disapproved of rebellion, frowned on these disturbances; and a priest advised Louis Joseph Papineau, the leader of the patriotes, to leave Montreal. Papineau, with Thomas Storrow Brown and Dr. Edmund Bailey O'Callaghan, left Montreal for the Richelieu valley; and the authorities jumped to the conclusion that they had left to organize a revolt. On November 16, therefore, warrants were issued for their arrest on a charge of high treason The same day there was an encounter between a small force of loyalist cavalry and a party of armed habitants on the road between Montreal and St. Johns. These events brought the rebellion to a head. A considerable body of rebels gathered at the village of St. Charles, under Thomas Storrow Brown, and another body at St. Denis under Dr. Wolfred Nelson. Papineau was at St. Denis, but he took no part in the rebellion, and in fact hostilities had hardly begun when he escaped over the border to the United States. The rebels under Nelson repulsed at St. Denis, on November 23, a column of troops under Colonel C. S. Gore; but on November 25 another column, under Lieut.-Col. Wetherall, succeeded in dispersing the rebels at St. Charles . The rebels at St. Denis thereupon evacuated their position, and withdrew to the United States. Meanwhile, even more serious trouble had been brewing to the north of Montreal: Here, at the village of St. Eustache, a strong force of rebels had gathered under Amury Girod and Dr. Chénier, and were terrorizing the countryside. On December 14, Sir John Colborne, the commander-in-chief of the forces, himself commanded a force which moved north, and carried the village by storm.


With the defeat of the rebels at St. Eustache, the rebellion was virtually at an end; and it is worthy of note that it was confined to only two localities, the Richelieu valley and the parishes north of Montreal. There was no outbreak in Montreal itself, or in Three Rivers, or in Quebec - largely, no doubt, because of the loyal attitude of the Roman Catholic Church. On February 28, 1838, a body of refugees under Robert Nelson and Dr. Coté recrossed the border at Lacolle; but they were driven back across the border by loyalist militia, and their leaders were arrested by the American authorities.



A valuable bibliography of books and pamphlets and other material relating to the Rebellion of 1837-8 has been published by the Toronto Public Library (Toronto, 1924). For the rebellion in Upper Canada, reference should be had to J. C. Dent, The story of the rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada (2 vols., Toronto, 1885), D. B. Read, The rebellion of 1837 (Toronto, 1897), W. S. Wallace, The Family Compact (Toronto, 1915); and A. Dunham, Political unrest in Upper Canada (London, 1927). For the rebellion in Lower Canada, the chief sources are R. Christie, History of the late province of Lower Canada (6 vols., Quebec and Montreal, 1848-55); L. N. Carrier, Les évènements de 1837-1838 (Quebec, 1880); C. A. M. Globensky, La rebellion de 1837 à St. Eustache (Quebec, 1883) ; L. O. David, Les patriotes de 1837-38 (Montreal, 1884) ; and A. D. DeCelles, The patriotes of '37 (Toronto, 1916).

Source  : W. Stewart Wallace, ed., The Encyclopedia of Canada, Vol. V, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 401p., pp. 225-228.


© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College