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Accession of Queen Victoria page 2


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Sir Francis Head had made a somewhat dangerous experiment in denuding Upper Canada of troops, conceiving it to be his duty to lay before the American people the incontrovertible fact that, by the removal of Her Majesty's forces, and by the surrender of 600 stand of arms to the civil authorities, the people of Upper Canada had virtually been granted an opportunity of revolting; consequently, as the British constitution had been protected solely by the sovereign will of the people, it became, even by the greatest of all republican maxims, the only law of the land. This was not done, however, without an attempt at revolt, made chiefly by Irish Roman Catholics. The leader of this movement was W. L. Mackenzie, the editor of a newspaper, who issued a proclamation, calling upon the people to take up arms, if they loved freedom, and wished for perpetual peace, and "a government, founded upon the eternal heaven-born principles of the Lord Jesus Christ," exhorting them to "put down the villains" who oppressed and enslaved the country, as they would put down thieves and murderers. On the night of the 3rd December, 1837, this leader marched at the head of 500 rebels, from Montgomery's Tavern, his head-quarters, upon Toronto, having initiated the war by the murder of Colonel Moodie. When they approached, the Governor was in bed and asleep. Hurriedly dressing, and spreading the alarm as he went, he hastened to the Town-hall, where the arms were deposited, and which were very near falling into the hands of the rebels. The first man he met was the Chief Justice, with a musket on his shoulder. In a few minutes Ôs many loyalists had arrived as were sufficient to make a formidable show at the windows of the Town- hall and of the adjoining houses, which led the insurgents to believe that the place was occupied by a much larger force. They accordingly hesitated to attack, and retired from the place, committing various outrages on their way, such as robbing mails, and setting fire to houses. In the meantime, dispatches were sent to Colonel Allan M'Nab, who then commanded the militia, while the " fiery cross" was borne swiftly through the townships and parishes, calling forth a levy en masse of the loyal inhabitants, who rushed to the defence of the capital. This occurred on the 4th of December, and on the 7th Colonel M'Nab marched out and attacked the rebels at Montgomery's Tavern, where, all being armed with rifles, they were strongly posted. M'Nab's force, consisting of militiamen and volunteers, attacked them vigorously, and after a brave resistance, drove them out of the building at the point of the bayonet. Mackenzie fled in disguise to Buffalo, in New York; a large number of the rebels were taken prisoners, but almost immediately released, and sent to their homes. The most extraordinary thing connected with this event was that the loyalists did not lose a single man.

It was on this occasion that the loyalty of the British settlers in Upper Canada shone forth with the most chivalrous devotion to the throne of the Queen. The moment the news arrived of Mackenzie's attack upon Toronto, the militia everywhere seized their arms, mustered in companies, and from Niagara, Gore, Lake Shireve, and many other places, set out on their march in the deep snow in the depth of winter. They waited for no call from the Government. It was enough for them to know that rebels were in arms against their Sovereign, and that their services might be necessary. The Scotch Highlanders from Glengarry mustered 900 strong, and had marched 100 miles through the snow, carrying their arms and provisions, when they received intelligence that the insurrection was put down. So great was the excitement, so enthusiastic the loyalty, that in three days 10,000 armed volunteers had assembled at Toronto. There was, however, no further occasion for their services in that place, and even the scattered remnants of the insurrection would have been extinguished but for the interference of filibustering citizens of the United States, who were then called "sympathisers," and who had assembled in considerable numbers along the Niagara river. They issued proclamations in the name of the Provisional Government, offering 100 dollars and 300 acres of the best land in Canada to every one who would join the Republicans. They declared that there were ten millions of acres of fertile land at their disposal, with other vast resources of a country more extensive and rich in natural treasures than the United Kingdom or old France. They had established their head-quarters on Navy Island in the Niagara River, about two miles above the falls, having taken possession of it on the 13th of December, and made it their chief depot of arms and provisions, the latter of which they brought from the American shore by means of a small steamer called the Caroline. They had one gun, which they employed in cannonading Chippawa, about 600 yards distant on the British side. Colonel M'Nab resolved to destroy the Caroline, and to root out the nest of pirates by which she was employed. On the 28th of December a party of militia found her moored opposite Fort Schlosser, on the American side, strongly guarded by bodies of armed men, both on board and on shore. Lieutenant Drew commanded the British party, and after a fierce conflict the vessel was boarded and captured, a number of those who manned her being taken prisoners. These being removed, the British set the vessel on fire, and the flaming mass was swept down the rapids, and precipitated into the unfathomable abyss below. According to the American version of this affair, the British had made an unprovoked and most wanton attack upon an unarmed vessel belonging to a neighbouring state, on American territory, at a time of profound peace; and though the vessel was filled with a helpless crowd of innocent women and children, it was set on fire with its living human cargo, which was hurled with horrifying shrieks over the Falls of Niagara. It is easy to imagine the indignation excited throughout the States by the announcement of this awful catastrophe in the newspapers. The truth came out by degrees, and the American President, Vanburen, issued a proclamation on the 5th of January, 1838, warning all citizens of the United States that if they interfered in any unlawful manner with the affairs of the neighbouring British provinces, they would render themselves liable to arrest and punishment.

Such was the state of things in Canada which the Imperial Parliament was called upon to consider in the spring of 1838. The first feeling which the news of the insurrection produced in England was one of alarm; the next was that all the forces that could be spared should be immediately dispatched for the purpose of crushing the revolt; and a ship of the line was employed for the first time in carrying a battalion of 800 Guards across the Atlantic. The Duke of Wellington censured the Government for not having had a sufficient military force to preserve the peace in Canada, and used the oft- repeated expression, that a great nation cannot make a little war.

On the 22nd of January Lord John Russell moved for leave to bring in a bill suspending the constitution in Lower Canada, and providing for the future government of that province, with a view to effecting a satisfactory settlement of the affairs of the colony. He stated that Her Majesty's Government had resolved to send out an experienced statesman, of high character and position, and of well-known popular sympathies, with ample powers, and that Lord Durham had been selected for the purpose, and had consented to go. That noble lord himself stated that he accepted the onerous charge with inexpressible reluctance; and that he felt that "he could accomplish it only by the cordial and energetic support of his noble friends, the members of Her Majesty's Cabinet, by the co-operation of the Imperial Parliament, and the generous forbearance of the noble lords opposite to whom he had been always politically opposed." He went, he said, in the first place, to restore the supremacy of the law, and next, to be the humble instrument in conferring upon the British North American provinces such a free and liberal constitution as should place them on the same scale of independence as the rest of the possessions of Great Britain. The Government measure was carried in the House of Commons by a majority of 262 to 16, and unanimously in the House of Lords.

The Lord High Commissioner immediately proceeded on his great mission, and after a tedious voyage landed at Quebec on the 29th of May. He took with him, as his private secretary, Mr. Charles Buller, a man of singular ability, an ardent friend of free institutions, gifted with a large mind and generous sympathies, and a spirit that rose superior to all party considerations. Two more suitable men could scarcely have been found for such a work. But they were destined to encounter difficulties at the very threshold, which embittered everything to the mind of Lord Durham, broke down his health and spirits, and hastened his early death. He found on his arrival 116 state prisoners, whose trial had been postponed, awaiting his instructions. How were they to be dealt with? It was quite certain, from cases that had already occurred, that they would not be convicted by any jury in Lower Canada, no matter how strong the evidence against them. The greater their guilt in the eye of the law, the greater would be their merit in the eyes of the jury. Were they to be tried by court -martial? That was a course savouring of despotism, to which Lord Durham was perhaps the more averse from the fact that his powers were so unlimited. The Colonial Government had shown itself very lenient in liberating hundreds of prisoners on the spot, without any punishment. Most of those detained were charged with being the chief promoters of the rebellion, who, if let loose on the country, would in all probability renew their dangerous agitation, with the feeling that the Government was either unable or unwilling to punish treason. Was there any other alternative but a general amnesty, or trial before the ordinary tribunals, in a country where, to adopt the words of Lord Durham, "trial by jury existed only to defeat the ends of justice, and provoke the righteous scorn and indignation of the community? " Yes; they might be tried by a packed jury, or they might be banished without any trial at all, as they were taken in the very act of rebellion. From the former, the honest nature of Lord Durham revolted; the latter was the course adopted. On. the 28th of June the Lord High Commissioner published an ordinance, in which it was stated that Wolfred Nelson, and seven other persons therein named, had acknowledged their guilt, and submitted themselves to Her Majesty's pleasure; that Papineau, with fifteen others, had absconded. The former were sentenced to be transported to Bermuda during pleasure, there to be submitted to such restraints as might be thought fit; the latter, if they should return to Canada, were to be put to death without further trial. In each of these cases an unfortunate error was committed. The Lord High Commissioner had no legal authority out of Canada, and could not order the detention of any one at Bermuda; and to doom men to be put to death without further trial, was denounced in Parliament, by Lord Brougham and others, as unconstitutional. Lord Brougham described it as " an appalling fact." Such a proceeding, he said, was " contrary to every principle of justice, and was opposed to the genius and spirit of English law, which humanely supposed every accused party to be innocent until he was proved to be guilty." His reasons for the course he had adopted were given by Lord Durham, in a dispatch to the Home Secretary, dated June 29th. The British party, he said, did not require sanguinary punishment; but they desired security for the future, and the certainty that the returning tranquility of the province would not be arrested by the machinations of the ringleaders of rebellion, either there or in the United States. He said: "I did not think it right to transport these persons to a convict colony, for two reasons; first, because it was affixing a character of moral infamy on their acts, which public opinion did not sanction; and, secondly, because I hold it to be impolitic to force on the colony itself persons who would be looked on in the light of political martyrs, and thus acquire perhaps a degree of influence, which might be applied to evil uses, in a community composed of such dangerous elements."

The ordinance was disallowed at home. " Lord Melbourne's cabinet depended for its existence on the Irish Roman Catholic members; and they sympathized with their brethren in Lower Canada. '1 The Tories," says Sir Archibald Alison, " exasperated by the loss of office, and the retention of it by their opponents, when they could only command so small a majority, eagerly laid hold of any slip in administration to drive ministers into a minority, and compel them to resign. Lord Brougham, who had never forgiven his former colleagues the constitution of the cabinet without his forming a part of it, signalised himself by the extreme bitterness with which he headed the onslaught. Lord Durham, in the hour of his need, was far from experiencing either the cordial and sincere support of his noble friends in the cabinet,' or 'the generous forbearance of the noble lords opposite,' on which he had relied when he set out on his arduous mission. The result was that, after protracted debates in both Houses of Parliament, which occupied the whole of the summer, and fill up nearly 500 pages of the Parliamentary Proceedings, the ordinance was annulled by Act of Parliament; but an Act was passed indemnifying Lord Durham and the Canadian authorities. The majority in the Commons was so large that the opposition did not venture on a division; and in the Lords the disallowance was carried by a majority of 54 to 36."

This result occurred on the 10th of August, and Lord Durham saw the astounding news first in the American newspapers. Lords Melbourne and Glenelg softened the matter to him as well as they could; the former communicated the intelligence with the greatest regret and the deepest apprehension as to its consequences. Lord Durham betrayed his mortification unwisely in a proclamation which he immediately issued. As the banishment was an exception to the general amnesty he had published, he informed the prisoners at Bermuda that Her Majesty, being advised to refuse her assent to the exceptions, the amnesty existed without qualification, and added - "No impediment, therefore, exists to the return of the persons who have made the most distinctive admission of guilt, or have been excluded by me from the province on account of the danger to which it would be exposed by their presence."

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