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1837-38: Rebellion Reconsidered ALLAN GREER THERE WAS A TIMEwhen historiansthought they understoodthe eventsof 1837-38.Theydid not much likethe Rebellion,and their accounts of the eventitselfwereoften sketchy in the extreme,but theyknewwhereit belonged in thebroadsweep ofCanadian history: theycouldexplainwhyit happened andwhatit meant.Forthegenerationof academic historians writingbeforethedelugeof the 1960s, the lesssaidaboutthe illegalmachinations of Louis-Joseph Papineau ,William LyonMackenzie,and their followersthe better.• And yet,curiously, theRebellionformeda major- I thinkit wouldbefair to say,themajor- focalpoint in theirwritingsaboutthe pre-Con- •ederafion century.Like the ghostof Hamlet'sfather, it brooded overa stagethathistorians proceeded to furnishwithpoliticalbackgrounds , social andeconomic causes, andimperialresults. Developmentsconverged on 1837,and then movedoff in noveldirections after 1838,but the tumultuous turning-pointitselfdid not seema worthy object of researchonce its essentialcharacter had been identified. DonaldCreightonsawthe Rebellionasthe climactic episodein the long-termstruggle of 'commerce and agriculture. '2Reformers, 1 For the sakeof brevity,I am confiningmyattentionhereto influentialworks belonging towhatmightbecalledtheacademic mainstream. Dissenting interpretationsthatneverreceived theattentiontheydeserved includeS.D.Clark, Movements ofPolitical Protest in Canada, 1640-1840(Toronto:University of TorontoPress 1959),andStanley B.Ryerson, Unequal Union: Confederation and theRoots ofConflict in theCanadas, 1815-1873(Toronto:Progress Books1973). My ownapproach owes muchto these writers,particularly Clark. 2 DonaldCreighton,The Empire oftheSt.Lawrence (Toronto:Macmillan1956), 255-320 Canadian HistoricalRev/ew,LXXVI, 1, 1995 0008-3755/95/0003-0001 $01.25/0¸ University ofTorontoPress Incorporated 2 THE CANADIAN HISTORICAL REVIEW rebels,and patriotes representeda narrow-minded agrarianism opposedto theexpansionist commercialism of theMontrealmerchants and their Tory politicalallies.This second,capitalist/conservative campwastheonethatgrasped Canada's potentialfor greatness, promotedeconomic development, and,moreor less unconsciously, laid the foundations of a transcontinental nation. Their conflict with the carpingradicals cameto a violentheadin 1837,but, fortunately, thingsturnedoutfor thebest:rebellionwascrushed andtheempire of the St Lawrencegained a new leaseon life. The defeat of the rebelsishardlysurprising, for, in Creighton's account,theyhadset theirfacesagainstthe forwardmarchof Historyitself. Creighton's liberal-minded contemporarieshad a somewhat differentviewof thesubject? Sympathetic to moderate reformand criticalof the colonialoligarchy, theybelievedthata fewextremists hadtemporarily hijackeda perfectly legitimate politicalmovement. The ascendancy of Mackenzieand the radicalpatriotes had come about partlybecauseof Tory intransigence, and the resultwasa revoltmisguidedin its principlesand disastrous in its results.The liberal historians, too, had their viewof the overarching thrustof Canadianhistory.It wasa storyof thegradualandpeacefuldevelopment of Britishlibertywithin a frameworkof growingcolonialautonomy .What wassodeplorableaboutthe rebelsof 1837wasnot only their violencebut also their republicanism,their failure to appreciatethe wondersof the Britishconstitution. And yet,in the grandschemeof things,the role of the radicals and their revoltwas ultimately positive, for, bytheirfoolishactions, theyunwittingly summonedup a saviour in theform of Lord Durham.Durhamsetin motion the liberalizingmachinerythat,in the fullnessof time,brought forth Responsible Government,Confederation,and dominion autonomy .'The Rebellions,'wrote A.R.M. Lower, 'were blessings in disguise, thecornerstones of Canadian nationhood.'4 While liberaland business/conservative interpretations heldsway in EnglishCanada,French-Canadian historiography wasdominated by a Catholicnationalistschoolbestrepresentedby Abb• Lionel Groulx. 5 Papineauand the patriotes (like mostQuebechistorians 3 See,for example, A.R.M.Lower,Colony toNation: A History ofCanada (Toronto: Longmans, Green 1946),213-56;J.M.S.Careless, Canada: A Story ofChallenge (Toronto:Macmillan1963),164-87;KennethMcNaught,ThePelican History of Canada(Harmondsworth: Penguin1969),85-9. 4 Lower,Colony toNation,256 5 LionelGrou|x,Histoire duCanadafranqais depuis lad•couverte, 2nded.2 vols (Montreal:Fides1960),2: 162-77.For anexcellentoverview of the historiogo REBELLION RECONSIDERED 3 then and now, Groulx had little to sayabout the Rebellioncrisis outsidethe bordersof LowerCanada)posedvexingproblemsfor Groulx. Quite clearly,theywere defendersof the nation, and that rolegavethema majorclaimon thesympathies of a historianwhose centralpreoccupation wasthe struggleof his peopleto maintain their ever-threatened culturalidentity.ButFrenchCanadawas,at its core, a Catholicand conservative society,asfar asGroulx wasconcerned , and it wasdifficult to ignore the democratic,anti-clerical, and,in theend,revolutionary character of thepatriote movement. To some extent, the historian contrived to reconcile his divided reactionsby downplaying the patriotes' radicalism and by arguingthat, strictlyspeaking, theywereinnocentof the crimeof rebellionsince it wasthe governmentthat attackedthem. Yet, insofarasthe 'mistakes 'of theinsurgents couldnotbeignored,Groulxwasquitepreparedtocondemnthem ;consequently, hisaccountfeatureda moral dissection whereby readers wereadvised toadmirethepatriotes' good points(their nationalism)and rejecttheir bad points(their deism andrepublicanism). There aresomestrikingaffinitiesherewith the liberalanglophone historians. Groulx'spulpit-style languagemaybe more overtly judgmentalthan theirs,but in both the liberal and the Catholic versions of theRebellion, resistance toconstituted authority wasseenasanunderstandable, thoughnonetheless egregious, error. All theseinterpretiveschemes that dominatedCanadianhistorical writingthroughthe middle decades of the twentiethcentury werebuilton theassumption thathistory hada discernible direction and flow.Canadawasmovingtowards a goalin...


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