Trouble in Upper Canada

21 Jun

Thomas Scott, like most inhabitants of Ontario, possessed divided loyalties as the year 1837 began.

Upper Canada had only been a part of the United States of America since its invasion and conquest by American armed forces in the War of 1812. Much of the older generation, especially the members of the old Episcopalian and Presbyterian elite, still had ties to England and Lower Canada in their inner hearts. The U.S. had never succeeded in fully assimilating and accepting them. Thomas, a Methodist from the farmland of Western Ontario, grew up nursing a revulsion against the established oligarchy of bankers, businessmen, financiers, and politicians who continued to rule the state of Upper Canada, despite the change in flag and sovereignty. This dominant elite went by the name of the “Family Compact” among the lower orders from which the family of Thomas Scott originated.

Thomas Scott and those like him had not gained much from the replacement of British power by American.

It was the eloquent John Strachan, the Anglican bishop of Toronto, who worked out the conservative philosophy of the once Royalist ruling class which now had to operate and make use of the American constitutional and legal systems. The new Whig Party of Upper Canada became the agent of this anti-democratic, privileged cabal of gentlemen. But a wave of immigration from England in the 1820’s and 1830’s provided a new population that became the soil for a new movement called the Reformers. The young Tom Scott seemed to fall instinctively in step with this new current with democratic goals and values. But his involvement in it brought him unforeseen difficulties and hardships in his ambitions to become a newspaperman in Toronto. He had to pay a high cost for his radical idealism about the future course of Upper Canada as one of the United States.

The guiding light that Thomas decided to follow came from the mighty personality of William Lyon Mackenzie. The young man applied to work for the latter’s newspaper in Toronto, “The Advocate”. He went to his interview with the owner-editor in his dark wool suit and frock coat, eager to win employment with the Reformist leader of Upper Canada. The veteran politician invited him to sit down beside him at his giant roll-top desk.

“Have you read and studied much about our history and how we became a part of the United States of America?” asked Mackenzie right off the bat.

Thomas gulped at what was being demanded of him. “Yes, I have gone through many accounts of the War of 1812, and how it changed our destiny here in the North. We now have a national division between Ontario and Upper Canada, and Quebec and Lower Canada. British forces suffered terrible defeats at Frenchtown, Fort Meigs, Fort Stephenson, and finally at the Battle of the Thames. And the American navy under Admiral Perry destroyed the British lake fleet at the Battle of Lake Erie. Our Indian allies were powerless to help us once Chief Tecumseh was killed.

“General William Henry Harrison was able to conquer western Ontario, from where I originate, and compel Britain to surrender Upper Canada, to be annexed. Only the Far West provinces are left still under the Crown.

“We have had to comply with the American constitutional system and adjust to all that implies.”

For a couple of moments, the two looked at each other in silence.

“We attained little once we were annexed,” moaned Mackenzie. “Our old rulers, the Family Compact, made their peace with Washington and New York, preserving most of their old privileges and power. Although the Anglican Church cab no longer have the monopoly of an Establishment, it kept its traditional patronage and preferences on the old Crown lands. All our laws still favor the wealthy interest over those of common people. Am I right?”

“Yes, that is also my opinion, sir,” said the applicant for work.

Mackenzie gave one of his rare smiles to Thomas. “I think we can use you here in the editorial office, my son.”

The young journalist quickly became the political right hand of his mentor. From March of 1834 to March of 1834, Makenzie was active leader of the Democratic opposition in the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada. That body expelled him three times for his incendiary radicalism, but the voters returned him to office each time.

In 1834, when a new city of Toronto was incorporated out of the older York, Thomas managed the campaign that made William Makenzie the first mayor of the new entity.

Fierce political battles engulfed the Jacksonian reformers fighting against the Family Compact’s oligarchy of wealth and power. Conflicts in the North resembled those in the rest of the United States, yet contained bitter emotions peculiar to the class and religious divisions of Ontario.

“The new immigration from the British Isles is giving Upper Canada a majority consisting of Methodists and Presbyterians,” Makenzie often told Thomas in their private conversations. “Our mission is to break the monopoly of the Anglicans that they continue to enjoy over the old Crown Lands and the settlement program of the Canada Company. We have to destroy this cozy arrangement of exclusive privilege that favors the Governor’s administration and the Episcopal institutions that enjoy this kind of financing beyond legislative control.”

As Upper Canada and the entire United States fell into a severe economic depression in late 1826, the Radical Reformers grew more organized and active. Thomas Scott became the eyes and ears of the prime leader at the central hub in Toronto. Mackenzie turned his earlier Upper Canada Central Political Union into a mass Canadian Alliance Society with branches throughout the state, sending Thomas on constant tours about as the movement burgeoned. His main assignment was to inform and coordinate the “vigilance committees” set up by the supporters whose immediate goal was the summoning of a constitutional convention for the State of Upper Canada. The model for Mackenzie and Scott was the Chartist movement recently created in Great Britain, with its demand for completely democratic elections, with the vote available to all ranks of men.

Mackenzie formulated the Reformers’ demands together with Thomas, the latter writing down the provisions of a new draft constitution. “We will have an elected state senate, the secret ballot, and complete separation of church and government,” said the older man. “The constitution will bar the Anglican clergy from all public office, which means that Bishop John Strachan will not be eligible to hold the office of Governor of Upper Canada any longer. There must be strict, ironclad restrictions on the state’s chartering of corporations, and limits on what such bodies can legally do. It must become impossible to incorporate giant banks and trading companies such as those that dominate our state, and the existing monsters must be broken up and destroyed.

“The new constitution must guarantee the rights of average citizens to personal property and their freedom of speech and assembly. Total manhood suffrage must come to exist, and our jury system made fair and democratic.

“Our small farmers deserve legal protection from untimely and unjust foreclosures by the greedy banks that exploit periods of bad harvests such as are now being experienced in the countryside.” The leader looked directly into the eyes of Thomas, his main assistant in the insurgent movement that was rising. “We have to crush the evil cabal of the Family Compact, Thomas. A small, tightly knit clique controls our state government, high finance, religion, and the judiciary. These conspirators are the men in charge of the Board of Trade, the railroads and canals, and the main insurance companies. The octopus called the Bank of Upper Canada is completely in their hands, as are the powerful Canada Corporation and Clergy Corporation that sell off our gigantic land reserves to immigrants. The legislature of Upper Canada must obtain the details of how these wealthy institutions operate, and it must have the right to name the members of the governing boards of both the Bank and the land companies.

“What do you think, Thomas? Will we be able to win such a constitution for our people?”

“It will not be easy,” declared the younger man. “We will need to have allies and aid from elsewhere.”

Mackenzie nodded his head. “I am certain that President Martin Van Buren will support our drive for full democracy in the most northern of all the states,” confidently said Mackenzie. “He and other followers of Andrew Jackson cannot deny to us what all citizens have a right to enjoy.”

In November of 1837, a genuine rebellion broke out in Quebec and spread through Lower Canada. This stirring event inspired William Mackenzie to take bold action with the movement that he headed in American Upper Canada. He gave an important, crucial assignment to Thomas Scott, a partner he trusted and believed in totally.

“I want you to go by rail to the seat of the national government in Washington,” he commanded the surprised young man. “You must ask to see President Martin Van Buren, and I am certain he will agree to meet with you. It will be your task to present to him the fill extent of the demands that will be embodied in our draft of the new Upper Canada Constitution that we are fighting for. You are to give him a complete description of all the sections and provisions that it will contain. And you must make all the arguments that we support in favor of the reforms that will result from it.

“But there is one matter that you have to hint at without too many details. You must give him the subtle impression that unless he promises to allow us to proceed to the new constitutional system that we envision, our movement is prepared to join our efforts with the rebellion currently in progress in Lower Canada, which remains under the British Crown.

“Your mission will be to make President Van Buren believe that if he interferes with our endeavor and uses military force to suppress us, we shall join together with Lower Canada in a joint, common rebellion against both British and American sovereignty and domination.

“In other words, there will be a united rebellion on both sides of the border, in both East and West Canada. And each half will break away into a newly independent nation, a single Canada that is neither British nor American.

“Do you now understand what is required of you? It will not be easy, not at all. But the future freedom of all the people of Upper Canada depends upon your ability to convince the President of the United States not to interfere with our constitutional reforms here.”

“I will try with all my mind and soul,” solemnly promised Thomas. “We are in the right and God will grant us victory.”

The journey by rail to the capital of the U.S. was exhausting and uncomfortable. The chosen envoy arrived with little hope that he would be allowed to talk with the head of state. He followed the instructions of the leader, Mackenzie, going at once to the office of one of the Senators from Upper Canada, the moderate Methodist named Egerton Ryerson. Thomas was admitted at once into his Capitol office to see the notable clergyman from Ontario.

“Please explain to me why you have been sent here by Mr. Makenzie,” asked the political figure once the traveler had shaken hands and taken a chair.

“I have come on a vital mission that may avert unnecessary bloodshed in our beloved Upper Canada,” started Thomas Scott. “Let me explain what the Reform movement demands as its minimum requirements that can assure peace to the state that you represent in Washington.”

He opened the document case he carried in his hand and took out a sheave of papers. Rising to his feet, he took them over to Senator Ryerson and placed them before him on his desk. Then Thomas returned to where he had been sitting.

It took the politician several minutes to peruse the pages with care. He finally looked over at his visitor and asked him a question. “You wish to present this to President Van Buren yourself?”

“That was my purpose in traveling all this distance, sir.”

The Senator considered the situation for a short time. “I will see what I can do,” he finally murmured. “This is a very important matter for both Upper Canada and the United States. I am sure that the President will wish to give you a direct answer in person. Let me send my secretary to the White House with a plea that you receive an appointment for tomorrow.”

The Senator accompanied Thomas to the Executive Mansion early the following day, and led his companion into the President’s private office. Short, thin, but with a gigantic bald head, Martin Van Buren stood to shake hands with his two guests, then asked the pair to sit down across the pine desk from him.

“I read and hear that there is a huge controversy over reforming the state constitution up in Upper Canada,” said the Chief of State. “The Senator has notified me that you have brought the terms that Mr. Mackenzie has proposed along with you, Mr. Scott. Could I see the specific demands that his movement has put forward? I have a great personal interest in the amicable, peaceful settlement of this controversy, because I am aware of the serious disorders and conflicts that have begun over in Eastern, Lower Canada under Britain’s rule.

“We all want to avoid any repetition of that within the United States, I trust.”

The President gave Thomas a stern, piercing look. He waited to hear what the visitor from afar was going to say.

“I assure you, sir, that Mr. Mackenzie does not wish to repeat or imitate any actions going on beyond our borders. But there can be no doubt that many individuals in Upper Canada will be influenced by any victories attained by the Reformers over to the East of us. It is no secret that certain interests over in Quebec have called on us for support and cooperation. And these people have offered us help in our campaign for constitutional reform. None of this is a secret, but is constantly mentioned in the press everywhere.”

The President, visibly made uneasy by what he had just heard, looked down and soughed. Then he looked up at the envoy from Upper Canada again.

“As long as your Reform movement remains within the law, it has nothing to fear from me or my government.” He paused a moment before going on. “I would advise Mr.Mackenzie and his associates to have no business with what is going on over the border in Lower Canada. That is a foreign conflict in which no American should take part, just as those people should not meddle in our American affairs.

“Do you understand what I am telling you, Mr. Scott?”

The latter murmured “Yes.” The President then rose to his feet and the appointment came to a quick end.

Thomas decided that he had to return to Toronto as quickly as possible, even though the answer from President Van Buren was unclear and enigmatic. What he had obtained seemed to him the best that anyone could have done.

The fastest means of going home was the recently established air-balloon system.

He bought a ticket the next morning on the floating vessel headed for Philadelphia. From there he flew the express going to New York City, then hopped on board the one scheduled to take a dozen passengers to Buffalo. By the time the last airship arrived outside Toronto in a rented landing field, Thomas was well acquainted and accustomed to sailing slowly through the atmosphere.

As he saw the capital of Upper Canada grow nearer and larger, the same series of questions came to mind that had haunted his thoughts ever since the meeting in the White House.

What did President Van Buren really mean? Would he allow radical reform of the state constitution without Federal interference or intervention? Would he refuse to send armed forces if they were requested by the Family Compact office-holders? Was peace going to be maintained, or would violence be used to crush the movement for democracy in Upper Canada?

Was an alliance with Lower Canada going to become necessary in coming days? Would the conflict in Upper Canada about to rip that state away from the union it was in with the American states, and throw it back into an identity and alliance with its old partners of the North?

Thomas realized that only the course of future events could provide the answers to these questions in his mind.


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