Sunday, 2 January 2011

Constitutional Associations

Although several localities received municipal charters before Confederation, only Montreal and Quebec were large urban communities. In 1830, Montreal had 27,000 people and Quebec 22,000 increasing respectively to 140,000 and 62,000 in 1880.

Quebec was established initially as a military centre. Its Upper Town where the administrative, military and religious functions of the province were located was fortified. Commerce and trade and the poorer houses were in the Lower Town. Between 1791 and 1840, Quebec was the capital of Lower Canada and contained the governor’s resident at the Château Saint-Louis and was the seat of the Legislative Assembly and both Councils. Between 1840 and 1867, the capital of the United Canada moved between Montreal, Kingston, Toronto, Ottawa and Quebec. Since 1867, Quebec has been the province’s capital. The military importance of the city was enhanced after 1831 with the construction of the Citadel, a military complex with a garrison of 1,000 men guarding the river. This role declined after Confederation and the British garrison finally left the city in 1871. Quebec was also a religious centre and until 1840 was the seat of the only Catholic diocese in British America. Both the community of Ursulines and the Jesuits provided higher education until the opening of the Université Laval in 1852. In the first half of the nineteenth century, Quebec was the leading port in Lower Canada, a reflection of its position at the hub of the timber industry and as the centre of immigration from Great Britain. However, its economic position suffered from the limited nature of its agricultural hinterland and poor land communications and by 1850 Montreal assumed economic dominance in the province.

Montreal was situated, by contrast, in a better commercial position with rich agrarian resources and good road, water and later railway links. It dominated the food trade with Upper Canada and the United States and was an important manufacturing and communication centre. Unlike Quebec that remained militarily import, the fortification at Montreal were demolished after 1804. Despite this until 1850, urban growth and most economic activity was still largely confined to the area known as the Old Town between McGill Street in the west, Berri Street in the east and St-Antoine in the north. The Church was a strong presence in the city: the Petit Séminaire and the Collège de Montréal were situated on the flanks of the mountain as were the Hôtel-Dieu des Soeurs-Grises and the imposing Basilique Notre-Dame that dominated the city after 1829. The business quarter with its banks, private clubs and up-market housing was on the north-west of the rue Saint-Laurent. In the nineteenth century, Montreal became the most important city in British North America especially as the centre of communications between Canada and the Atlantic.


The Constitutional Association of Montreal (MCA) was founded on 23 January 1835 at a popular assembly of 254 people held in the Jones Long Room.[1] The idea of founding a central association bringing together the loyalist forces in Montreal had originally been raised at a previous assembly held on 20 November 1834 at Tattersall rue Saint-Jacques. [2] The MCA was an umbrella organisation that included the Saint Patrick’s Society, Saint George’s Society, Saint Andrew’s Society and the German Society.

Feeling itself directly threatened by the intrigues of the French Canadian majority in the Legislative Assembly since the elections of 1834, the British population established associations to counterbalance the better organised, reformist forces. Through them, the British also sought to register their protest about the Ninety-Two Resolutions and oppose the irregularities of the recent general election. The assembly held in Montreal on 23 January 1835, issued the same declaration as the Constitutional Association of Quebec (QCA), founded on 22 November 1834, stating what it saw as the causes of the political and constitutional problems in Lower Canada. More precisely, the assembly denounced the way in which the colonial policy in Great Britain was managed. According to MCA, colonial policy produced by the Colonial Office lacked coherence because of the frequent changes of ministers since 1827. There was a denunciation of seigneurial tenure and persistence of French laws that the MCA claimed harmed investment. The loyalist assembly also criticised the absence of Registry offices encouraging fraud and discouraging foreign investments. The Legislative Assembly was sharply criticised especially its attitude to voting the civil list and opposition to immigration, according to British an important source of economic development. The loyalists were also damning about the ways militia officers of militia and magistrates were appointed. Finally, it expressed savage opposition to the election of the Legislative Council proposed in the Ninety-Two Resolutions. [3]

A central committee of 147 elected members was charged with producing the statutes and rules of the new association and establishing an executive committee that was achieved by 28 January 1835. The executive committee included John Molson Jr.[4] (Vice-president of the Saint-George’s Society), Peter McGill[5] (President of the Saint Andrew’s Society), William Walker[6] and George Moffat[7] (President of the Saint George’s Society), who was also elected as president of the MCA. Most members of the central committee were substantial merchants and were linked to the Banque de Montreal. A number were members of the Legislative Council or had been defeated in the Assembly elections at the end of 1834. The various national societies in Montreal affiliated to the MCA on 28 January 1835. [8]

There were important links between the associations in Quebec and Montreal and this was formalised in the delegated assistants from each association liaising with each other. However, it was increasing evident that there were differences between the two cities in particular the call for union with Upper Canada by the Loyalists in Quebec while Montreal’s position favoured only the annexation of Montreal and Vaudreuil to the upper province. There were also differences in approach between a moderate Quebec and a more radical Montreal that created ‘branch associations in a surprisingly short time at the beginning of 1835 in the aftermath of the loyalists’ electoral rout. Constitutional associations, which generally affiliated to either the Quebec or Montreal Constitutional Associations, were established in Leeds, Inverness, Ireland, Upper Ireland and Halifax (Mégantic), on 26 December 1834); in Durham and Kingsey (Drummond), on 31 January 1835; in Richmond and in Lennoxville (Sherbrooke) also on 31 January 1835; in Trois-Rivières; Chambly (Chambly); Laprairie (Laprairie); William-Henry; Kildare (Berthier); St.Andrews (Deux-Montagnes) and in Ormstown and Hemmingford (Beauharnois); Frelighburg (Missisquoi); Granby (Shefford); Potton (Stanstead) and elsewhere. Locality but especially ideological attitudes determined whether these associations linked to Quebec or Montreal. The associations at Missisquoi, Kildare, St.Andrews and Potton affiliated to the QCA because of local fears that if Montreal was annexed to Upper Canada they would be assimilated by the French Canadian majority. It was, however, the opposite logic that led the frontier comté de Beauharnois to change its affiliation from the QCA to the MCA.

The second general assembly was held in the Theatre Royal on 26 March 1835. To counter the influence of the reformers in London, the meeting decided that an agent of the MCA would be sent there to promote and defend the interests of the constitutionalists. William Walker, who had been defeated in the 1834 election, was nominated as the MCA agent in London. [9] He was accompanied by Alexander Gillespie of the North American Colonial Association and by John Neilson of the QCA. They left for London in April 1835 and met Lord Glenelg, the Colonial Secretary and Lord Melbourne, the Whig Prime Minister.[10] Learning on 11 August that the Royal Commission on events in Lower Canada would consider their representation, the executive committee asked Walker to return to Montreal.[11]

In the months that followed, the MCA organised ward committees and intervened in the loyalist assemblies in the town, for example in the meetings held in the Western quarter on 15 September 1835 and in the faubourgs of Saint-Laurent and Saint-Louis on 12 October. Each time, its representatives floated the idea of establishment of Registry offices and called for an end to the seigneurial system, for extending the voting rights of joint owners and for improving navigation on the St. Lawrence. On 24 November 1835, at the start of the work of the Royal Commission, the MCA submitted a copy of the resolutions Walker had already presented to the king and Parliament and an impressive petition.  On 7 December, the General Assembly elected a new central committee reflecting the need to coordinate all the constitutional forces of the colony and this led directly to the creation of a Select General Committee in May and November 1836. [12] In January 1836, the MCA circulated a document that blamed economic under-development in Lower Canada on the French presence and proposed the union of all the provinces of British North America as a solution. But by 27 February, it had reconsidered its position and simply proposed the annexation of the Île de Montreal and the comté of Vaudreuil by Upper Canada. On 23 March, the MCA launched a new manifesto that called for a change to the size of the districts in order to increase British representation. It proposed that the quorum with the Legislative Assembly should be lowered in order to reduce the ability of deputies to disrupt the institution and that the personal wealth of potential deputies should be raised. Finally, it attacked the ways in which French Canadians sought to promote their own interests at the expense of the British.[13]

The political cohesion of the loyalist movement in Lower Canada reached its height in early 1836 when it was announced that a large congress of constitutional associations would be held in Montreal on 23 June. In Quebec (21 January 1836), Montreal (16 January 1836), Sherbrooke (12 December 1835), Leeds (25 March 1836) and Kildare (23 December 1835) delegates were designated and converged in Montreal as the Select General Committee of the Petitionners on 23 June 1836. The work and conclusions of this congress are not well known but it appears that a decision was made to hold a second congress later from 10 to 17 November largely because of disagreements between the delegations from Quebec (T.A. Young) and Montreal (William Griffin). The movement was affected these tensions. There was a marked deceleration of loyalist activities until the spring of 1837 when heightened levels of activity by the Patriote movement forced loyalists to put side their ideological and regional quarrels and demonstrate more forcefully their attachment with the Crown.


While the MCA was controlled by radical merchants who were hostile to the reform movement, the QCA founded officially on 22 November 1834, was dominated by individuals largely from the liberal professions who were moderate reformers and previously supporters of Papineau: John Neilson[14], Andrew Stuart[15] and Robert H. Gairdner. The business community was not absent and the most important merchants in the capital were among the QCA’s supporters: William Price, Thomas Aylwin, J. Charlton, James Bell Forsyth, Allan Gilmour, James Hastings Kerr, Henry Lemesurier, William King McCord and T. A. Young.

The origins of the QCA can be found in a meeting held on 16 April 1833 to take ‘into consideration the expediency of preparing an address to His Majesty upon the state of the Province’. [16] It was, however, the passage of the Ninety-Two Resolutions at the beginning of the following year and particularly the election campaign in October 1834 that rallied the support of loyalist forces in the capital and led to important campaign meetings in favour of loyalist candidates: Andrew Stuart (Haute-Ville), Pemberton (Basse-ville) and John Neilson (Dorchester). In the event the loyalists were left with no representatives after the Patriote landslide and this led to an increased focus on why the loyalists had done so badly in the election. It was directly out of the problem of loyalist representation in the Assembly and the need to put pressure on the governor and the colonial administration that the QCA was formed.

The meeting on 22 November was preceded by a series of banquets that provided a post mortem of the elections and reinforced the lessons that needed to be learned from them.

Let us then take a lesson from the enemy...the silence of the Constitutionalists has been mistaken for acquiescence in the measures pursued by the Resolutionists...We rejoice, under these circumstances in being able to announce that a Loyal and Constitutional Association is now on foot...The plan of the Association, as far as we are informed, is to form, principal or parent, Associations in two cities and the most populous towns of the Province, which Branch Committees in the several counties, and to maintain a general correspondence and cooperation for their mutual support and defence.[17]

Chaired by Andrew Stuart, the foundation meeting of the QCA was held at the Albion Hotel on 22 November 1834. An executive committee of 14 people was established and £400 raised in less than three hours to support the new association. John Molson and Sydney Bellingham, who had come from organising a similar meeting in Montreal on 20 November, helped in the formation of the QCA.[18] The executive committee was formed by 26 November and the QCA held its first assembly on 29 November. However, it was the mass meetings of 400 people on the 11 and 12 December that agreed the statutes of the association and a sub-committee was established to found branch associations across Lower Canada.[19]

During the winter of 1835, the QCA circulated a vast petition putting forward its claims and John Neilson and William Walker (MCA) carried it to London when they left on 13 May to express their opposition to the Ninety-Two Resolutions. [20] This occurred at the same time as the creation of the Gosford Commission and when Neilson returned from London he was involved in establishing an active lobby to the Commission. It was not until 9 January 1836, after intense discussion at several meetings of the executive committee that the QCA finally adopted the Report on the Present State of Public Affairs, a clear statement of the ideological position of the association.[21] It opposed the deliberations of the Parti Patriote in the Assembly especially their demands for control over the Civil List and reaffirmed their commitment to the imperial state.

The QCA was then involved in the choosing of delegates for the congress of all Constitutionalists in the province that was finally held in Montreal between 10 and 17 November 1836. Important differences emerged between the QCA and MCA during these discussions: the MCA proposed the annexing of Montreal and Vaudreuil to Upper Canada while the QCA favoured union of the two provinces. At the end of 1836, perhaps because of these disagreements, Andrew Stuart was replaced as president by John Neilson with William Price and Henry Lemesurier as vice-presidents and T.A. Young as secretary.

In the deteriorating climate of 1837, the QCA organised a series of meetings culminating with one held on 31 July attended by between 4,500 and 5,000 people.[22] The seven resolutions it passed denounced the political manoeuvring of the Patriotes and reaffirmed support for the Crown. But with the approach of open conflict, it was the creation of a volunteer corps that concerned the QCA and on 1 September the Victoria Club, a parallel organisation to Montreal’s Doric Club, was established. On 29 November, the Victoria Club was reorganised into a regiment of the Royal Quebec Volunteers, though it was not actively involved in the suppression of the rebellion.[23]

1837 and after

After the publication of Russell’s Ten Resolutions, the Patriotes held a series of public assemblies intended to show the widespread support for the movement and the extent to which Papineau could count on the masses to oppose the policies of the colonial government. Loyalists responded by also holding a number of assemblies answering Patriote demands by loyal addresses and showing their determination to match the Patriote mobilisation. The assemblies organised by the constitutional associations attracted large anglophone audiences but in French-dominated areas they tended to be more spontaneous. Usually organised by the local seigneur, a member of the elite or loyalist Justice of the Peace, these ‘demonstrations of loyalty’ intensified during the autumn into areas that traditionally supported the Parti Patriote but which now favoured submission and collaboration. Preceded by numerous meetings in faubourgs and villages, the large assembly held on the Esplanade in Quebec on 31 July 1837 was attended by over 5,000 delegates who heard various speeches and signed a loyalist petition. On 23 October 1837, at the same time as the Patriote assembly at St-Charles, a meeting of between 4,000 and 7,000 constitutionalists was held chaired by Peter McGill, president of the MCA since Moffat’s departure at the end of 1836. Effective channels of communication had already been established with Gosford and these increased during the conflict during November and December. Gosford even agreed that the MCA should be given the right to form groups of volunteers.

Loyalist assemblies became less numerous in the autumn of 1837 apart from the assembly at Tattershall but there was a rapid increase with many assemblies held between November 1837 and January 1838. Organised by JPs or magistrates, they testified to the renewal of loyalism and support for the actions taken by the Crown to deal with the rebellion in the Montreal district in November 1837. The repression and military occupation of part of the colony stimulated loyalist enthusiasm, perhaps more apparent than real and reflected the desire of a population to avoid the reprisals suffered by those living in the comtés de Richelieu and Deux-Montagnes. The constitutional associations played a less obstructive role in this period largely because many of their members were serving in the volunteer regiments established during the rebellion.

On 30 December 1837, the MCA presented its annual report to its General Assembly. The report proposed establishing contact with sympathetic MPs in the British Parliament with the aim of promoting the idea of the union of the Canadas. It also stated that since the conflict is racial, the only way of resolving this was an end to the policy of conciliation that had been adopted by the Colonial Office and by the Gosford Commission. It concluded by registering its thanks to Colborne and his regular troops for dealing with the rebellion. George Moffat met Durham in London before he left for the colony and also influential members of the MCA presented their ideas to Durham during his inquiry into the rebellion. The constitutional associations played a role in the development of the Durham Report and in its resultant project of union and most of the voluntary regiments were mobilised during the second rebellion of November 1838. The constitutional associations held an annual assembly in December 1838 but after 1839, the union against Patriote radicalism that had given the loyalist movement its cohesion and vitality dissolved. The Château clique fought a rearguard action to maintain their privileges and some supporters of the constitutional cause, especially their leader John Neilson, repudiated the project of Union and joined ex-Patriotes such as Denis-Benjamin Viger and Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine.

[1] Ibid, Muzzo, Johanne, Les mouvements réformiste et constitutionnel à Montréal, 1834-1837, p. 79.

[2] Ibid, p. 69.

[3] Ibid, Christie, Robert, History of the late province of Lower Canada, 1791-1841, Vol. 4, pp. 32-41 contains the MCA declaration.

[4] ‘John Molson’, DCB, Vol. 8, pp. 630-634.

[5] ‘Peter McGill’, DCB, Vol. 8, pp. 540-544.

[6] ‘William Walker’, DCB, Vol. 7, pp. 893-894.

[7] ‘George Moffat’, DCB, Vol. 8, pp. 553-556.

[8] Ibid, Muzzo, Johanne, Les mouvements réformiste et constitutionnel à Montréal, 1834-1837, p. 82.

[9] Ibid, Christie, Robert, History of the late province of Lower Canada, 1791-1841, Vol. 4, pp. 244.

[10] Ibid, Muzzo, Johanne, Les mouvements réformiste et constitutionnel à Montréal, 1834-1837, p. 84.

[11] Ibid, Christie, Robert, History of the late province of Lower Canada, 1791-1841, Vol. 4, p. 245.

[12] Ibid, Christie, Robert, History of the late province of Lower Canada, 1791-1841, Vol. 4, pp. 245-246.

[13] Ibid, Christie, Robert, History of the late province of Lower Canada, 1791-1841, Vol. 4, pp. 284-289.

[14] ‘John Neilson’, DCB, Vol. 7, pp. 644-649.

[15] ‘Andrew Stuart’, DCB, Vol. 7, pp. 835-837.

[16] Quebec Gazette, 17 April 1833.

[17] Quebec Mercury, 20 November 1834.

[18] Quebec Gazette, 26 November 1834; ibid, Christie, Robert, History of the late province of Lower Canada, 1791-1841, Vol. 4, p. 23.

[19] Ibid, Christie, Robert, History of the late province of Lower Canada, 1791-1841, Vol. 4, pp. 24-25.

[20] Quebec Gazette, 13 March 1835.

[21] Quebec Gazette, 11 January 1836.

[22] Ibid, Bernard, Jean-Paul, Assemblées publiques, résolutions et déclarations de 1837-1838, pp. 167-170.

[23] Quebec Gazette, 5 September, 22 November, 16 December 1837.

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