Sunday, 19 December 2010

Defending the Crown

In the years before the Rebellions of 1837-1838, the British sought to prevent political power in Lower Canada being taken into the hands of French Canadian. The focus of research on the Rebellions has been on the Patriotes, their organisation and actions while the attitudes and behaviour of the British in respect of the aspirations of French Canada have until recently tended to be given a lower priority. However, Loyalists played a major part in the Rebellions of 1837-1838, in the rise in political tension and in the repression of the rebellion. This paper seeks to redress that balance.

In the Canadas before the rebellions, there were approximately 20,000 English colonists, split equally between the two provinces. The 10,000 in Lower Canada were dwarfed by 140,000 French Canadians. They were largely concentrated in the areas of Montreal and Quebec, in the Cantons de l’Est (Eastern Townships) and south of the Richelieu. They were supporters of the British Crown and its Protestant traditions and felt threatened by the growing political power of the Catholic French Canadians. In addition, Loyalists feared republican ideas that came from the United States. They wanted to assimilate the French Canadians or at the very least to put them into a minority through further immigration largely because they believed this was essential if they were to build a country based on British traditions and with a powerful commercial economy. In addition to English colonists in Lower Canada, there were Scots and Irish. The Scots tended to side with the English and were broadly loyalist in their attitudes. The Irish, generally Catholics, were divided. Some supported the Patriotes because of similarities in the fight for self-determination by the two people and their shared religion. Others were loyalist in their attitudes identifying with the British Empire and sharing a common language.[1]

The historian Maurice Séguin showed that the British played a major part in the Rebellions

La révolte de 1837 est, en réalité, un double soulèvement: le soulèvement des Britanniques du Bas-Canada contre la menace d’une République canadienne-française, soulèvement de la section la plus avancée des nationalistes canadiens-français contre la domination anglaise. [2]

In his interpretation, the Rebellions were a civil war between two national groups with opposing view of what form the state should take. Séguin also emphasised the importance of the loyalist organisations and the role of loyalist volunteers in the army.[3] Profiting from the popular support, the Canadian French elite was elected to the Assembly and engaged in political and constitutional conflict with the British oligarchy that dominated both Executive and Legislative Councils and was supported by the British government in London. At issue was the future direction of the colonial State that was, for both Loyalists and Patriotes, still of a transient nature.

Anglophones in Lower Canada had felt considerable frustration since the Constitutional Act of 1791 that had created a French-dominated Lower Canada with an Assembly of elected deputies who were largely from the Catholic majority. Maurice Séguin argued that the division of 1791 led to the movement for Canadian French emancipation.

Par la division de 1791 et l’octroi aux Canadiens d’une chambre d’assemblée, elle (la politique anglaise) organise et relance puissamment un mouvement de libération. Et ce, malgré les protestations des Britanniques, maîtres de la vie économique, définitivement ancrés au coeur même du Bas-Canada, dans les villes de Québec et de Montréal, et premières victimes de la politique impériale. [4]

Moreover, Canadian French nationalism made it more difficult for the British who wanted to establish a state of British North America that would include all the British colonies of America in order to preserve the British traditions and avoid the perceived republican threat from the United States. Lower Canada was at the heart of the economy of the British colonies. British North America without Lower Canada, especially if it was ruled independently by French Canadians, would be significantly weakened and more likely to be absorbed by America then at its most expansive.

British fear of being controlled by French Canadians was amplified by the Ninety-Two Resolutions that called for election to the Legislative Council by the people. If implemented, the British would have lost the considerable political power that came through their control of the executive. According to Loyalists, elective councils would remove the barriers that defended them against French tyranny and reinforced their desire to assume political dominance over the government of the province. The British were as a result at odds with the democratic principles at the heart of Patriote demands as they called in question British control of Lower Canada.

The British loyalists were also critical of the political conciliation adopted by the colonial authorities since it gave many French Canadians the impression that London was prepared to accede to their demands. In a letter to Gosford in 1835, Adam Thom[5], editor of the Montreal Herald, argued that since the Conquest the authorities had spoken too much about French Canadians and had neglected their English subjects. He added that Gosford’s policy of conciliation would allow French Canadians to dictate colonial policy. According to Thom, the revolt to be feared was not that of the Patriotes but of Loyalist because the reprisals that would follow if only one drop of British blood was spilled and did not hesitate in his newspaper to encourage the Loyalists to arm themselves. In 1835, it was clear that the British minority categorically refused to be ruled by French Canadians and that they were prepared to resist this eventuality. The Gosford Commission, which sought to conciliate the two parties and resolve their problems, arrived at the following conclusion

Si l’Angleterre retirait sa protection, il s’ensuivrait une lutte immédiate entre les deux races, et même je doute si, sans la présence d’une force imposante, les mêmes conséquences ne se produiraient pas, lors même que l’on souscrirait aux présentes demandes de l’Assemblée et comme dans le cas, le parti anglais serait probablement l’agresseur, les forces du gouvernement aurait d’abord à être dirigées contre des hommes qui, non seulement sont nos co-sujets, mais qui pour la plupart sont natifs des îles.

To ensure British control over the territory, the Loyalists rejected Gosford’s policy of conciliation. However, the Patriotes did not seem inclined to use force largely because they had few weapons or little military organisation. Gerard Filteau suggested that there was a plot between Colborne, Adam Thom and Ogden[6], the Attorney-General to provoke the Patriotes and that the running battle between the Fils de la Liberté and loyalists and the Doric Club in Montreal on 6 November 1837 was used to justify the issue of arrest warrants for the Patriote leaders. He asked who benefited from the disorders and concluded that only the British party had any interest in the breakdown of order.


[1] On the complexities of the Irish position and its changing nature, see later blog.

[2] Séguin, Maurice, L’idée d’indépendance au Québec, Génèse et historique, (Boréal Express), 1968, p. 33.

[3] Séguin, Maurice, ‘Problème politique et national trente ans après la conquête’, in Bernard, Jean-Paul, Les Rébellions de 1837-38: Les patriotes du Bas Canada dans la mémoire collective et chez les historiens, (Boréal Express), Montréal, 1983, pp. 173-189 and Synthèse de l’évolution politique et économique des deux Canadas, notes polycopiées pour cours d'histoire du Canada, 1965-1961 and L’idée d’indépendance au Québec, Génèse et historique, (Boréal Express), 1968.

[4] Cit, ibid, Bernard, Jean-Paul, Les Rébellions de 1837-38: Les patriotes du Bas Canada dans la mémoire collective et chez les historiens, p. 175.

[5] ‘Adam Thom’, DCB, Vol. 9, pp. 874-877.

[6] ‘Charles Richard Ogden’, DCB, Vol. 8, pp. 610-611.

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