This Day in History – November 22nd, 1837

WilliamLyonMackenzieWilliam Lyon Mackenzie (March 12, 1795 – August 28, 1861) was a Scottish-born Canadian and American journalist and politician. He emigrated to then British North America in search of work which he found at Lachine Canal, but Mackenzie’s interests lay in politics and journalism; he began to write for the Montreal Herald.

Later Mackenzie moved to York, Upper Canada (now Toronto) to work his friend John Lesslie who emigrated the same year Mackenzie left Scotland. There, Mackenzie began to write for the York Observer, but in 1824, Mackenzie established his most famous newspaper, the Colonial Advocate. While supporting many British institutions the paper also celebrated the successes of the then young United States of America. Gradually the political views of the Colonial Advocate began to shift and advocated in favour of the Reform cause and became an outspoken critic of the Family Compact, an upper-class clique which dominated the government of Upper Canada. 

Following Mackenzie’s 1829 trip to the U.S., his political attitudes became increasingly pro-American and anti-British. He made enemies in Tory and Loyalist circles resulting in an incident where 15 young Tories, perhaps led by Samuel Jarvis, disguised themselves as “Indians.” broke into the Colonial Advocate’s office in broad daylight, smashed the printing press, and threw the type into Lake Ontario. The Tory magistrates did nothing to stop them and did not prosecute them afterwards, but later Mackenzie succeeded in suing the perpetrators, in what became known as the “Type Riots” for three times what the equipment was worth while also gaining himself political fame as a sort of martyr.

William Lyon MackenzieIn 1834 Mackenzie became Mayor of Toronto but was largely ineffectual, replacing Tories with his own supporters and not managing to deal with the city’s excessive debt or institute much needed public works. Two years later he was defeated in an election and Mackenzie lost his seat to Edward William Thomson.

In the wake of his electoral defeat, Mackenzie founded a new newspaper, the Constitution, which symbolically had its first issue printed on July 4 1836. It was on November 22nd, 1837, that Mackenzie published a call for a rebellion against the United Kingdom in his essay “To the People of Upper Canada“, published in his newspaper The Constitution.

On November 24th, Mackenzie travelled north of Toronto to rally supporters. At a meeting on December 2 in Stoufferville, Mackenzie set forth his plan for rebellion in greatest detail. On December 1st, Mackenzie wrote a declaration of independence which was to be distributed to rebels immediately before the march on Toronto. On Sunday, December 3rd, Mackenzie returned to Toronto.

20120804-Montgomery-MoodieOn the evening of Monday, December 4th, British troops began arriving at Montgomery’s Tavern. Mackenzie determined that he should lead a scouting expedition to determine Toronto’s preparedness. On the way, he was met by Toronto Alderman John Powell, who had been sent to investigate rumours of unrest north of the city. Powell managed to kill one of Mackenzie’s men and then escape back to Toronto, where he warned the government of the impending rebellion. On Thursday, December 7th, the day initially set for the rebellion, 1000 troops quickly recruited from loyal areas of the province and led by Col. Allan MacNab, marched on Montgomery’s Tavern. Col. Van Egmond (who had just arrived) told Mackenzie that their position was impossible to defend, but Mackenzie put a pistol to Van Egmond’s head. In the ensuing Battle of Montgomery’s Tavern, Mackenzie’s troops quickly surrendered after MacNabb opened artillery fire.

The rebel leaders were allowed to escape to the United States, with Mackenzie arriving in Buffalo, New York on December 11th, 1837. On December 12, he delivered an address to the largest public meeting in the history of Buffalo, describing Upper Canada’s desire for liberty and their oppression at the hands of the British, and asking for their help. The meeting ended with wild “cheers for Mackenzie, Papineau, and Rolph!” and Mackenzie thus began a recruiting campaign. On December 13th, he declared himself the head of a provisional government, entitled the “Republic of Canada“. Several hundred volunteers joined Mackenzie and travelled to Navy Island in the next several weeks, as did shipments of food, arms, and cannon shot. Recruitment was hurt, however, when the American government, headed by President Martin Van Buren, instructed the volunteers that they would be prosecuted as criminals if they participated in the planned invasion, and many volunteers returned home.


On December 29th, British troops led by Capt. Andrew Drew of the Royal Navy and Canadian volunteers led by Col. Allan MacNab bombarded Navy Island, in the process destroying the SS Caroline, an American ship that was supplying Mackenzie’s and Rensselaer’s forces. The action was undertaken based on information supplied by Alexander McLeod.

While this was going on, Mackenzie had travelled to Buffalo, seeking medical attention for his sick wife. While there, he was arrested for violating American neutrality laws, but was released on bail and returned to Navy Island in January. Van Rensselaer had grown disillusioned, however, and on January 14th, 1838, he and his volunteers withdrew from Navy Island.

With the collapse of his Navy Island scheme, Mackenzie settled in New York City in January 1838, with his family joining him in April. In May, he launched a new newspaper, Mackenzie’s Gazette, which was initially successful because the Rebellions of 1837 had created American interest in Canadian affairs. In January 1839, he moved to Rochester, New York, and spent several months trying to encourage Canadian exiles to launch a second invasion of Upper Canada, but had no success and eventually returned to New York City.

Mackenzie did return to Canada in 1849 after other Reformers achieved advancement towards Canada’s self governance, and made a return to Canadian politics.

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