________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 4 . . . . October 10, 2008

cover The Firebrand: William Lyon Mackenzie and the Rebellion in Upper Canada. (Voyageur Classic Series).

William Kilbourn.         
Toronto, ON: Dundurn Press, 1956/2008.
326 pp., pbk., $24.99.
ISBN 978-1-55002-800-3.

Subject Headings:
Mackenzie, William Lyon, 1795-1861.
Canada-Politics and government-1791-1841.
Canada-History-rebellion, 1837-1838.
Politicians-Canada-Biography.

Grades 12 and up / Ages 17 and up.

Review by Thomas Chambers.

**** /4

excerpt:

Mackenzie went first straight up Yonge Street to Newmarket on August 3. He then moved across to Lloydtown, where banners on either side of the main thoroughfare posed the drastic choices of LIBERTY or DEATH. An escort of fifty farmers, armed and mounted, took him on to Boltontown still in his own home constituency. "We all separated," wrote a Vaughn man to The Constitution, "with the understanding that to produce good order there must be hickory sticks, pikes and rifles at our future meetings. For Orange ruffians and Tory squires stand in need of special constables, and with them as meek as lambs."


William Kilbourn, who died in 1995, was a professor of history at Toronto's York University. In addition to this book on Mackenzie, he wrote many other fine books, including, with Robert Bothwell, a biography of Nova Scotia's C.D. Howe. He also founded York's Humanities Division and served as an alderman on the Toronto City Council.

     In choosing William Lyon Mackenzie, the firebrand, as his subject, Kilbourn selected one of Canada's most interesting historical characters, a man whose contribution to the country's development as a nation ranks almost as high as that of Sir John A. Macdonald. A Scot, like Macdonald, Mackenzie was perturbed to find on his arrival in Upper Canada in 1820, that the colony was an oligarchy and less developed politically than his native land. Power in Upper Canada was in the hands of the Family Compact, a small group of affluent English men who were not interested in letting others share their power. Lower Canada was run by the Chateau Clique, also an oligarchy. Mackenzie decided to use his newspaper, The Colonial Advocate, to encourage political reform.

     Unable to reform the Family Compact through the press[1], Mackenzie became the leader of one of the most important events in Canadian history, the Rebellion of 1837. (Lower Canada had a similar rebellion led by L. J. Papineau.) Fearful of losing another colony (the 13 colonies had revolted a short time before), the British government sent Lord Durham (John George Lambton) to Canada to find out what was wrong and to propose a solution. Known as Radical Jack for his liberal ideas, Durham presented his report, the Durham Report, to the British government in 1839. Highly critical of the way the colonies were run, Durham recommended, among other things, the establishment of responsible government. Once introduced, this meant an end to oligarchic government and instead, governments responsible to the people, the system in place in Canada today.

     The Family Compact treated the rebellion seriously. While, as rebellions go, it was a pretty tame affair, Mackenzie had to flee to the United States for safety. When he returned, he was sentenced to 18 months in jail. Two of his colleagues, Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews, were not so fortunate. When caught, they were tried as traitors and hanged. Others were exiled to Tasmania, or Van Dieman's Land as it was known as at the time, a punishment considered very severe.

     William Kilbourn was a first rate historian and a gifted storyteller. Using a combination of primary[2] and secondary sources, he takes the reader back to Upper Canada in the 1820's and 30's. In his hands, Mackenzie and the Family Compact members come to life. We sense, as a result, Mackenzie's frustration at the slow pace of political reform and sympathize with him as he, a veritable David, takes on the Family Compact Goliath. That the reader becomes a strong Mackenzie fan is proof of Kilbourn's skill as a writer. (Those who start rebellions are often portrayed in another light.) Kilbourn’s book could be used as a text or for recreational reading. Originally published in 1956, it has a new introduction written by historian Ronald Stagg who helped co-edit a book of documents on the 1837 rebellion.

Highly Recommended.

Thomas F. Chambers, a retired college teacher, lives in North Bay, ON.

[1] He did, however, provoke his opponents to such an extent that they had his printing press thrown into Lake Ontario.

[2] Mackenzie's account of the rebellion is included in an appendix. There is also an excellent bibliography.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.

Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.
 

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