In Upper Canada, one of the most controversial issues in the early 19th century was the allocation of land. Much land had been set aside as "Crown reserves." These reserves of unworked land lowered the value of neighbouring farm, because isolated farms were less efficient than farms close together. The British government's system of allocating land was seen by many as excessively bureaucratic when compared with the American system.
After the War of 1812 the government of Upper Canada was run by the wealthy owners of most of this reserve land, known as the Family Compact. Land had also been set aside for the "Protestant Clergy," but the Family Compact interpreted this to mean only the Anglican Church, rather than other Protestant groups.
Another controversy in Upper Canada was the spread of American Republicanism. As far back as 1804, a Scottish pollster named Robert Goulay became a political martyr when the British government expelled him from the colony, for fear that he was stirring up Republican sentiment over the issue of Crown reserves. The British had set up the colonial government hoping to inspire the former American colonies to abandon their democratic form of government, but instead American democracy spread to Canada with the arrival of large groups of American settlers, which led to calls for reform. William Lyon Mackenzie was one of the more radical reformers in Upper Canada; most reformers, however, such as Robert Baldwin, did not agree with Mackenzie's calls for republican government.
Mackenzie, a Scottish immigrant, had founded a reformist newspaper called The Colonial Advocate in 1824 in the Upper Canada capital of York (later Toronto). He became active in politics, winning a seat in the Upper Canadian assembly and eventually becoming the first mayor of the newly-renamed Toronto in 1834. Neither his radical reform movement nor Baldwin's moderate reform movement were very successful, and Baldwin was dismissed from government by the Lieutenant-Governor, Sir Francis Bond Head. Conservative opposition to Mackenzie also led to attacks on his newspaper press.
In 1836 and 1837, Mackenzie gathered support among farmers around Toronto, who were sympathetic to his cause after an especially bad harvest in 1835. This had led to a recession, and in the following years, the banks had begun to tighten credit and recall loans. When the Patriotes Rebellion broke out in the fall of 1837, Bond Head sent the British troops stationed in Toronto to help suppress it. With the regular troops gone Mackenzie and his followers seized a Toronto armoury, and organized an armed march down Yonge Street, beginning at Montgomery's Tavern on December 4, 1837. But when the revolt began, Mackenzie hesitated in attacking the city. On December 7, Mackenzie's military leader, Anthony van Egmond, arrived. Egmond, a veteran on both sides of the Napoleonic Wars, advised immediate retreat, but Mackenzie remained hesitant. That same day, Colonel Moodie attempted to ride through a roadblock to warn Bond Head, but the rebels panicked and killed him. Mackenzie waited for Bond Head's force of about 1000 men, led by Colonel James Fitzgibbon, which outnumbered Mackenzie's approximately 400 rebels and inflicted heavy casualties upon them. In less than half an hour the confrontation was over.
Meanwhile, a group of rebels from London, led by Charles Duncombe, marched toward Toronto to support Mackenzie. Colonel Allan MacNab met them near Hamilton, Ontario on December 13, and the rebels fled.
Mackenzie, Duncombe, and John Rolph fled to the United States, where they continued to attack across the Niagara River (see Caroline Affair). The other major leaders, van Egmond, Samuel Lount, and Peter Matthews were arrested; van Egmond died in prison, and Lount and Matthews were executed in 1838.
Compared to the Patriotes Rebellion, the Upper Canada Rebellion was short, disorganized, and almost inconsequential. However, Britain could not ignore the rebellion in light of the more serious crisis in Lower Canada. Bond Head was recalled and replaced with Lord Durham, who was assigned to report on the grievances among the colonists and find a way to appease them. His report eventually led to greater autonomy in the Canadian colonies, and the union of Upper and Lower Canada into the Province of Canada in 1840.
See also: Patriot War
A film of the Upper Canada Rebellion was made and is entitled "Samuel Lount". Web sites of interest are: Samuel Lount Film and Samuel Lount's History. The feature film is about the injustice of the system under the Family Compact's rule.