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Democracy vs. Aristocracy

In the late 18th Century, the American and French revolutions radically changed their respective societies. No longer were the nobles and kings in charge. Instead, the people were now in control. And they chose for themselves a new form of government called democracy.

The two rebellions were fought for essentially the same reasons:

  1. People wanted representative and responsible government.
  2. They wanted to end privileges enjoyed by the aristocracy.
  3. They wanted to replace the "rule of caprice" with the "rule of law."

Times had changed: being the first born son of the king was no longer the main qualification a person had to have in order to lead the country. In the new democratic age, people believed monarchs, nobles, etc. belonged to a more superstitious time, a time when people still believed the earth was flat, the burning of witches was justified, and doctors used bloodletting to cure disease.

Now Canada was not immune to the "democratic fever" of the time. If you recall, tens of thousands of Loyalist Americans immigrated to British North America in the late 18th Century. And they brought with them both a faith in the greatness of the British Crown and an appreciation for democratic institutions.

Joseph Howe, the son of a Loyalist immigrant to Nova Scotia, was typical of most British North Americans in the 1820s. He wanted to maintain close ties with Great Britain, but he also wanted to enjoy the privileges that came with being a British subject. However, the colonial government in Nova Scotia only looked democratic; it was in fact an oligarchy.

Thus, in the 1820s and 30s men like Joseph Howe, William Lyon Mackenzie (Upper Canada), and Louis-Joseph Papineau (Lower Canada), challenged the aristocracy by pushing uncompromisingly for democratic reform.23

The chart below compares the colonial government (1820) with the British system in London, England, at the same time.


The Colonial Government: Governor

Every colony in British North America had a governor; however, only Upper Canada had a governor general. The other colonies all had lieutenant-governors. These men were appointed directly by the English Parliament. Comparatively speaking, the governor had more power in the colonies than the English monarch had in England itself. He had virtually absolute control over the colony: he could call elections, dissolve government, pass laws without consulting the people, etc.

In England, power was shared between multiple levels of government. The monarch's power, in particular, was limited by Parliament and by the English Constitution (Bill of Rights (1689)). This gave rise to the saying in England that, "The King reigns but does not rule." The same could not be said of the colonial governor. He was accountable to no one (other than the English Parliament).

The Executive & Legilative Councils

Assisting the governor in administrating the colony were two councils—the Executive and Legislative. To be a councilor one had to belong to the aristocracy. Councilors were appointed to their positions by the governor (or lieutenant-governor). Members of the Legislative Council were appointed for life; whereas, members of the Executive only kept their position so long as the governor was pleased with their performance.

The Legislative Council's purpose was to propose and enact new laws (much like the Lower House in Great Britain). The Executive carried out and enforced laws.

If the colonial system was established as responsible, the two councils would have worked independently of one another. However, this was not the case: often a man might actually belong to both councils at the same time. This of course created an obvious conflict of interest. If you think about it, a person should not be able to both pass a law and enforce it. What would stop such a man from passing a law that met only his own selfish needs when he is also the enforcer of that law? Nothing. And that's precisely why Howe, Mackenzie, and Papineau, wanted to reform the colonial system—it was rotten to the core.

The Assembly

The Assembly was where the people's elected representatives debated public policy and laws. Despite representing the majority of people in the colony, the Assembly had the least decision-making power in government. The elected representatives were useful to the governor only insofar as they could raise money from the people through taxes. Although the people's representatives did at times pass laws, they could only do so with the consent of the governor. And to be sure the governor (and his poker buddies in the councils) would not approve of a law that limited their own influence and power.24

Constitution Act (1791)

The Constitution Act (1791) was passed by Parliament for two reasons: to provide subjects in British North America with a limited form of democracy; and thereby prevent a revolution (like what had happened in the Thirteen Colonies) from breaking out in Canada.

Although the act established a democratic style of government in the colonies, it did not establish responsible government. The British distrusted the individualism inherent in the North American style of democracy. Thus, the Constitution Act was designed more to promote stability as opposed to the growth of democracy. And that was the act's most obvious flaw: it placed greater importance on creating a stable as opposed to relevant government. Thus, the English invested all power in the hands of one man (accountable only to them), the governor. Arguably, the colonial system that this act put in place made rebellion more not less likely.

In reality, when the British passed the Constitution Act they were simply trying to "get with the times." The democratic spirit was in the air. And in the early 19th Century, it was "cool" to appear democratic because that's what people wanted. However, Britain was just trying to look cool without actually being it. (I.e. If you think about it, Britain was sort of acting like how your dad might when you bring your friends home. He pretends to be cool by talking to your friends and using terms like "werd" and "homie," etc. but in reality he's not so "phat" after all)).

If you recall, the main problem with the Constitution Act was that it placed an elected assembly under the control of an appointed council.25


Six Colonies One Problem

In 1820, British North America had a population of nearly one million. The colonial system of government, with its all-powerful governor and aristocracy, was ill-suited for governing people who demanded to be included in the decision-making process. In reality, the colonies had outgrown their colonial government and by 1830 the cramap_1820cks were showing.

In the colonies, ideas like equality, justice and liberty, encouraged people to take a closer look at their political institutions. People wanted to see their government become more democratic. However, the aristocracy used their considerable power to prevent democratization.

Before the American Revolution (1776), not too many people questioned the legitimacy of having a small group of wealthy men (oligarchy) wield power over so many. After the revolution, people saw that change was possible (even necessary). And by 1830, the population of British North America was clamoring for change.26

Discontent in Lower Canada

Lower Canada
In my opinion, Lower Canada had it the worst of any of the British North American colonies. They not only had to deal with a corrupt colonial government, they also:

1. Struggled to prevent being absorbed by the English. In Quebec, the French birth rate was lower than the rate of new immigrants coming to the colony. New immigrants came from Scotland, Ireland, and England. Insofar as anyone coming from France, it just wasn't happening. The French feared if the trend continued, they would eventually become a minority within their very own colony.

2. English merchants dominated both the colony's economy and the colonial government. The French felt like second-class citizens within their own colony.27

Life in Quebec: 1820-1837

Lower Canadian society was divided along linguistic and economic lines. For instance, in Montreal, French and English lived in completely separate districts within the city. Adding to the sense of separation was the fact that the English (and not the French) had benefited from the city's economic growth. There was division within the countryside, as well. The French (rural) were mainly farmers while the English (urban) were merchants. Consequently, the two groups had little interaction. They tolerated but distrusted one another.

Parti Patriotes & the Cholera Epidemic

The powerful, and aptly named, English Party dominated politics in Quebec. For instance, members of the Executive and Legislative councils were drawn solely from the English Party. The English aristocracy was dubbed the "Chateau Clique." The nick name was apparently a reference to how much time the members of the English Party spent at the lieutenant-governor's residence, Chateau St. Louis.28

Opposing the aristocracy was the Parti Patriote. Members of this political party were drawn primarily from the French and Irish. Relations between the Patriotes and the English Party were never good. They each stood for the opposite of what the other stood for. Frequent fights in both the Assembly and on the streets of Montreal took place between them. During one altercation in 1832, three French men were shot and killed by the British 15th Regiment that had been called in to restore order. The political climate quickly deteriorated.

Cholera Epidemic
In June of 1832, Irish immigrants sick with cholera arrived in Montreal. Three days later the disease claimed its first French victim. The illness spread rapidly throughout Montreal and the countryside. The urban poor (French and Irish) suffered the most because of their terrible living conditions. The abysmal conditions were the result of the inaction of the governor; it was his responsibility to see that the city had adequate sewage disposal systems, etc. But as he was not accountable to the people for his performance, he did nothing.

Both the colonial government and the medical community seemed incapable of dealing with the epidemic. Doctors, in particular, wrongly believed cholera was transmitted by fumes carried through the atmosphere. Thus, instead of insuring people had access to clean drinking water, that garbage was collected and properly disposed of, and sick people were quarantined, they ordered that cannons be fired into the sky to purify the air. Despite the declaration of war on the air the epidemic continued and eventually claimed 9,000 lives.29

The Ninety-Two Resolutions

papineauIn the early 1820s Louis-Joseph Papineau, a seigneur and leader of the Parti Patriotes, was an admirer of the English Constitution. He believed the Bill of Rights (1689) could be used to help obtain justice for his countrymen. However, by the early 1830s he had given up this hope. The governor and the Chateau Clique had used their prerogative power to prevent much needed reforms from being passed in Lower Canada, i.e. Adequate sewage systems in Montreal.

Thus, in 1834 (like the American Continental Congress had done in 1775) the Parti Patriotes tried to take their grievances directly to the English Parliament. Papineau led a delegation to England and presented Parliament a list of Ninety-Two Resolutions. I think it highly unlikely that Papineau actually believed this measure would succeed. After all, it was London that had created the colonial system in the first place. And if the British had refused to listen to their fellow Englishmen in 1775, why would they listen to a bunch disgruntled Frenchmen in 1834? Nevertheless, the Patriotes respected the rule of law and wanted to give diplomacy a chance.

The two most important suggested resolutions were:

  1. The Legislative Council membership be taken directly from the elected representatives in the House of Assembly.
  2. The Executive Council be directly responsible to the House of Assembly for its performance (and not to the lieutenant-governor).

In short, Papineau was asking for what Joseph Howe wanted in Nova Scotia: an end to political corruption by introducing responsible government. Three years later the English Parliament gave the Patriotes their answer: no. All of the resolutions were rejected. The Parti Patriote immediately began preparing Quebec for rebellion.30

Causes of the Rebellions in Lower Canada in Brief
Political reforms, i.e. responsible government, accountability, democratization, etc. were blocked by the Chateau Clique.
There were crop failures in 1837 which encouraged people to look for radical solutions to the problems confronting the colony.
There was an increase of immigration to Lower Canada from the British Isles which threatened the French character of Quebec.
An outbreak of cholera contributed to a climate of mistrust and fear between English and French.
There was an international economic recession.

Discontent in Upper Canada

Upper Canada
In 1791, Governor General Simcoe had tried to recreate the greatness of Great Britain in the wilderness. In order to do this, he encouraged the immigration of wealthy American and British settlers to the colony. These settlers formed the basis of a new aristocracy (gentry). Following the War of 1812 the aristocracy became more powerful. They shared the governor's power through the Executive and Legislative councils.

Just like in Lower Canada, the majority of people in Upper Canada did not belong to the aristocracy. Farmers, lawyers, doctors, teachers, and other professionals, formed the basis of an influential middle-class in the colony. The contribution to society by the middle-class was considerable (yet they lacked political power). Therefore, they pressured the governor and the aristocracy to share more of the decision-making power with them. Predictably the aristocracy refused.

William Lyon Mackenzie

Mackenzie owned a newspaper called the Colonial Advocate in York (Toronto). In his paper, he fiercely criticized the aristocracy. He called them the "Family Compact." Mackenzie traced all of Upper Canada's problems to the interference of the Family Compact in the affairs of the colony.31

Mackenzie's criticisms of the aristocracy did neither go un-noticed nor unanswered. In 1826, young men from many of York's so-called finest families destroyed the printing presses of the Colonial Advocate.

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If the vandals (like Nigel and Edward III) hoped to silence Mackenzie they were mistaken. Instead, they made the fiery newspaperman into a martyr. Mackenzie took the vandals to court, won the case, and the people loved him for it. The journalist then made the fateful decision to enter politics. In 1828, Mackenzie was elected to the House of Assembly for Upper Canada. He wasted no time in using his new position to directly criticize Governor General John Colborne and the aristocracy.

Colborne detested Mackenzie and forced him out of office four times in six years; however, Mackenzie kept getting re-elected. By 1834 Mackenzie left the Assembly and won election as the first mayor of Toronto.

Crisis in Upper Canada

bond headIn Upper Canada, the Reform Party opposed the Family Compact. The Reformers wanted responsible government and at first believed it could be achieved through democratic means.

In 1836, the British Government started to come to its senses. In an attempt to appease the Reform Party, Governor Colborne was replaced with the more "diplomatic" Sir Francis Bond Head. One of Bond Head's first actions was to appoint Robert Baldwin (a reformer and member of the Assembly) to the Executive Council. The gesture was intended to show England's willingness to listen to needs of its subjects; however, the new governor basically ignored Baldwin's recommendations in the council. Baldwin resigned in protest and the political situation deteriorated.

Thereafter, Bond Head refused to talk to the Reform Party at all. The resultant political deadlock led to the entire Assembly resigning in protest. During the election of 1837, Bond Head used his money and influence to guarantee the Family Compact received a majority of seats in the Assembly. Mackenzie's moment had come. The people were finally ready for what he had always wanted, rebellion.32

Causes of the Rebellions in Upper Canada in Brief

Political reforms, i.e. responsible government, accountability, democratization, etc. were blocked.

There were crop failures in 1837 which encouraged people to look for radical solutions to the problems confronting the colony.

The incompetence of Bond Head.

The Church of England felt threatened by the influx of immigrants who were not Anglican.

There was an international economic recession.

Trouble in Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia
In the 1830s, Nova Scotia was the most politically stable colony in British North America. The international seaport at Halifax gave the colony a more diversified economy. Unlike Lower and Upper Canada, the economy was not focused primarily around agriculture. Nova Scotia's greatest industries were ship-building, international trade, and fishing. Consequently, the stronger economy (combined with a virtually homogenous population) led to a more stable political situation. Yet, not all was well. Nova Scotians were ruled under the same colonial system as in Upper and Lower Canada—the aristocracy blocked even the simplest of democratic reforms.33

joseph howeJoseph Howe
Like Mackenzie Joseph Howe was an editor of a newspaper (The Novascotian) and he was an advocate of responsible government. Unlike the fiery Upper Canadian, Howe was a strong supporter of the monarchy. The son of a Loyalist immigrant, he had a profound distrust of American-style democracy. Yet, he wasn't too keen on the colonial system either. He was a moderate reformer, and his Loyalist origins prevented him from going as far as either Papineau or Mackenzie.34

According to Howe, the ruling elite were obviously corrupt. They were holding Nova Scotia down through their self-serving ways. Members of the aristocracy brought charges of libel against Howe in 1835. Howe successfully defended himself and the charges against him were thrown out. Correspondingly, his popularity and influence in the colony increased. And like Mackenzie, Howe decided to enter politics and put words into action. In the election of 1836, he won election to the Assembly promising to work for responsible government.35

The ruling elite were displeased with Howe's success; it was hard to be corrupt when the colony's most influential newspaper kept on reporting your corruption; it was equally impossible not to look selfish when Howe told everyone you owed your wealth to the hard work of others. Thus the aristocracy tried to silence Howe the only way they could—through a duel.

The challenge came after Howe had published an unflattering comparison between the children of rich families and the apprentices he employed in his print shop. The aristocracy considered this to be an intolerable insult. Howe accepted the challenge to duel a man named John Halliburton.

During the duel, Halliburton fired first but missed. Howe had all the time in the world and a clear shot. Instead of firing at his opponent, he raised his pistol and fired in the air. I'm certain Halliburton was thinking to himself, 'Is he trying to protect himself from cholera?'

Okay, Halliburton probably didn't think that; but the fact remains Howe did discharge his weapon into the air. He said of the event, "I never intended to fire at [my opponent] and would not for 10,000 [dollars]—all that was necessary was for me to let them see that the Reformers could teach them a lesson of coolness and moderation."36

Howe's coolness under fire personified the reform movement in Nova Scotia. They would never advocate violence to achieve their objectives. Howe had perhaps the most in common with Papineau, in that, although he felt progress through the rule of law was slow it had to be given a chance to work. Violence was not the answer; and it is perhaps for this reason that in 1848 Nova Scotia became the first province to enjoy responsible government in the British Empire. Upper and Lower Canada would not receive responsible government until 1849 (and there would be blood shed first).

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