UK TOUR DAY EIGHT (THORNBURY): This is Thornbury. Today, I left some dreams there. It's a town way over in the south-west of England — right near the Severn River, which marks the border with Wales. It's lovely little town, filled with shoppers today, and particularly proud of their floral displays. It's got plenty of history, too. This is where they found one of the biggest hoards of Roman coins ever discovered in Britain, buried here in the 300s. The oldest building in town is a church from the 1100s. And right next door to that is Thornbury Castle, which was built in the 1500s. King Henry VIII even stayed there with Anne Boleyn, right after Henry had the original owner — the Duke of Buckingham — beheaded for treason near the Tower of London.
It was a bitter fight. These were the days when the Lieutenant Governor could pretty much ignore the elected assembly whenever he wanted to. And he was backed by the most powerful Upper Canadians: the Tories of the Family Compact, who loved Britain, hated democracy, and could usually count on the Governors to give them what they wanted. People who spoke out in favour of reform tended to get arrested, exiled, or attacked by angry Tory mobs.
Still, in the 1830s, it looked like things might finally change. The Tories back home in England had lost power for the first time in decades; now the left-leaning Whigs were in charge. They sent a brand new Lieutenant Governor to Toronto: Sir Francis Bond Head. He was supposed to be a big supporter of reform. And at first, that seemed to be true. His very first act was to appoint some big-name Reformers to his Executive Council — including John Rolph.
It took only three weeks for the Executive Council to get sick of being ignored. They all resigned in protest — even the Tories. And the Legislative Assembly backed them up, refusing to pass any bills that had anything to do with money until Bond Head gave them an explanation.
He refused. Instead, he dissolved the legislature and called an election. Then, he openly campaigned for the Tories in what proved to be one of the most corrupt elections in Canadian history. There were bribes and threats and riots. Polling stations were placed in Tory neighbourhoods; returning officers were handpicked for their conservative sympathies. Bond Head — who was supposed to be neutral — called the election a battle between "the forces of loyalty, order, and prosperity" and the "selfish and disloyal". The Tories won in a landslide.
For some, like Mackenzie, it was the last straw. And Rolph agreed.
The two men hadn't always worked well together. Mackenzie was a radical; Rolph was a moderate. In fact, a few years earlier, when Toronto officially became a city, the choice for the first Mayor came down to Mackenzie and Rolph. When the council picked Mackenzie, Rolph resigned his seat in protest and retired from municipal politics. For a couple of years, he stayed out of politics entirely — focusing on his medical practice instead — until Bond Head offered him the seat on the Executive Council.
But now Bond Head's decisions were beginning to make Rolph more radical. He'd won a seat in the corrupt election — and with Mackenzie defeated, he was essentially the leader of the party — but he was outraged at the way it was run. In a letter to his fellow Reformer, Robert Baldwin, Rolph denounced the "violence, bribery and corruption" of the election, the "malicious official misrepresentation, and ultra tory returning officers..."
"[T]here is not," he wrote, "a baser or more unprincipled government in the world than the one we are now enduring here..."
And while Rolph was hard at work opposing the government in the legislature, Mackenzie was hard at work on his plan to overthrow the government completely. He travelled across the province, giving speeches, building support, arguing in favour of armed revolution. He wrote a declaration of independence, published a new constitution and called on citizens to rise up against their colonial overlords. "Canadians," he wrote, "Do you love freedom? ... Do you hate oppression? ... Then buckle on your armour, and put down the villains who oppress and enslave your country... Up then brave Canadians. Ready your rifles and make short work of it."
|William Lyon Mackenzie|
Mackenzie seized his opportunity. In early December, his army of volunteers assembled at Montgomery's Tavern on Yonge Street just north of Eglinton. By then, he had already started to plan for what would happen if his revolution was successful. There would need to be a temporary government until elections could be held. And since he was looking to establish a republic — something like the one in the United States — that government would have a temporary President. Someone, preferably, respected by both sides. Someone like John Rolph.
Rolph, it seems, agreed to the plan. If the rebels seized power, the doctor from Thornbury would become the very first Canadian President.
But they kept Rolph's involvement a secret. While Mackenzie prepared to march his army down Yonge Street, Rolph stayed in the city and fed the rebels information about the government's plans. Bond Head was refusing to take the threat seriously, but Colonel James FitzGibbon — hero of the War of 1812; the guy Laura Secord ran to warn — ignored his orders and prepared the city's defenses anyway. In response, Rolph convinced the rebels to move the date of the revolution ahead by a few days.
That just confused things. Mackenzie wasn't there when the decision was made; he was away getting more recruits. And when he got back, he was furious. In the end, it seems that Rolph and Mackenzie met in secret and hashed things out: the revolution would begin two days earlier than originally planned. But that meant there wasn't enough time for everyone to get there. So when Mackenzie's army marched down Yonge Street, it wasn't as big as they'd originally hoped.
By then, the bloodshed had already started. The night before the march, the rebels shot and killed a Tory who tried to ride through their checkpoint and a Tory judge shot and killed a rebel after the judge had been arrested by the rebels. He escaped and warned the Lieutenant Governor. While a panicky Bond Head rushed to get his family on a steamship out of town, Colonel FitzGibbon continued to take charge. By morning, the bells of Toronto were ringing. Hundreds of volunteers raced to defend City Hall and the Parliament Buildings.
That's when Bond Head turned to John Rolph for help.
|The rebels of 1837|
He would spend the next few years in exile. Bond Head offered a £500 reward for his capture. The Lieutenant Governor denounced him as the "most crafty, the most bloodythirsty, the most treacherous, the most cowardly, and . . . the most infamous of the traitors..."
But before long, the Whigs had replaced Bond Head and the Reformers had swept back to power in the legislature. Rolph was pardoned and allowed to return home to Toronto. He even got back into politics, getting re-elected to the assembly and becoming a leader of the radical faction of Reformers: the Clear Grits. Over the next couple of decades, his power and influence would graduually fade. But he did live long enough to witness the coming of true Canadian democracy when Responsible Government arrived in 1849 and Canadian nationhood on the first of July, 1867.