Notes on 20th Text for Reading Field: Read

Canadian History, Week Three

Colin Frederick Read. The Rising in Western Upper Canada, 1837-8: The Duncombe Revolt and after. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982.

Colin F. Read examines a year of in which crises, culminating in insurrections in the Canadas, are regarded as marking a turning point in Canadian history. Although the uprisings failed, they are thought to have set parameters which influenced the development of the Canadian state. These parameters included perceptions of how the state must relate to its subject populations, and the extent to which those populations could be expected to acquiesce to policy and to demonstrate loyalty. Read frames his examination as a social history. The resident population in Upper Canada at the time of insurrection constitutes his central subject. While he outlines the rebellion led by William Lyon Mackenzie at the provincial capital of Toronto, he concentrates on participants in the subsequent rising led by Dr. Charles Duncombe and Eliakim Malcolm. As this is ‘history from below,’ Duncombe and Malcolm do not take centre stage in Read’s account. Instead, there is an informative, detailed analysis of early nineteenth-century society in a time of disturbance that answers questions along demographic lines: what sorts of people acted; what sorts – and proportion — stayed on the sidelines; and what were their respective stakes in property and prospects?

The social profile that Read constructs from official manuscripts and newspapers, augmented by examination of land records, judicial proceedings, census data, and economic indices, leads him to conclusions that do not stray far from previous accounts, though he differs in nuance on some points. For examples of difference, Read finds that people who were discontented and aggrieved did not uniformly or consistently throw their support behind the Reformers — on the basis of analysis of electoral results from 1828 to 1836. He takes issue with previous historiography that depicted Mackenzie as the acknowledged leader of the Reformers, arguing that that political camp was divided and that individuals such as Marshall Spring Bidwell, Dr. William Wallace Baldwin, and his son Robert deserve greater credit. Read differs from previous accounts on assessing what emphasis to place on the Duncombe uprising, arguing that, to the time of his study, the repercussions of western revolt had not been fully assessed. He does not agree that the Tories engaged in a prolonged, extraordinarily severe, terrorizing campaign in the aftermath, nor does he find that emigration from the province assumed dramatic proportions (to the contrary, he finds that in some districts population actually increased).

Read’s statistical evidence is fascinating for what it reveals about religious denomination, national origin, political activity, and landholding patterns among those who marched as rebels and those who mustered to suppress them. His narrative and the inclusion of maps and tables illustrate the significance of his evidence well, and the extensive appendices supply ample supplementary detail. While Read finds that the contending groups were products of the communities in which they lived, and that the social and ethnic characteristics of the communities help explain why the rebels harboured certain grievances while the loyalists shared certain satisfactions, he does not find deep-rooted economic difficulties played a major role.

There were many causes of the uprisings, including economic difficulties. Several years of short harvests and soaring prices preceded the rebellion. However in Read’s view, political grievances based on perceptions largely explain the rebellion. There was an assumption that the depressed economy was indicative of bad government. As well, the existence of crown lands and clergy reserves, combined with an oligarchic government which inconsistently administered land policy, meant that enough new settlers lost out to well-connected speculators and had difficulty establishing title to their claims to arouse discontent. Although rebels came together to improve their lot, Read shows that most of the population stayed apart. As well, he points out that non-rebel townships held proportionately more reserved land. Read finds that vocalizations of land grievances notwithstanding, the Duncombe rising was not a movement of the dispossessed. In fact the rebels were often propertied and respectable farmers and their sons, generally hailing from “the longest and most extensively settled, and perhaps the most prosperous townships of their area.”[1] Along with agriculturalists the rebels included skilled tradesmen, labourers, small business operators and professionals (in descending proportions).

According to Read’s statistics, the rebels tended to be young (on average between 20 and 30 years of age), and politically active prior to 1837. Roughly a third of the Mackenzie rebels were of American origin, another third of Canadian origin and the final third of British origin – which Read breaks down, in order of predominance, as Scottish, English and Irish, while Read finds that of the Duncombe rebels, a generous two fifths were American, a slightly less solid two fifths were Canadian and the rest were English and Irish.[2] Read does not establish that specific religious leanings translated necessarily into adopting any particular stance, although he finds that loyalists believed that all sects of American origin, or whose teachings deviated from Church of England and Scottish norms, were represented.

Ultimately it appears that ambivalence worked against the rebels: majority sentiment was in favour of supporting the standing order. Rather than hastening the advent of responsible government, in Reads view, it is more reasonable to conclude that the rebellion marked a set back to Reformers’ cause – in spite of their ready return to vocal protest — “it took years to regain their strength.”[3]


[1] Colin Frederick Read. The Rising in Western Upper Canada, 1837-8: The DuncombeRevolt and after (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982), 166.

[2] See also R. Louis Gentilcore, ed., Historical Atlas of Canada: The Land Transformed, 1800-1891, vol. 2 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993), plate 23.

[3] Read, The Rising in Western Upper Canada, 211.

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About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
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