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Patriot Chronicles: Mackenzie’s Letter to Bill Johnston

William Lyon Mackenzie was the leader of the 1837 Upper Canadian Rebellion. He escaped, after the defeat of rebel forces at Montgomery's Tavern in Toronto and went into exile in United States. He began Mackenzie's Gazette in New York City.

In the 1830s, communication was most often carried-out through letters and local newspapers.  Mackenzie, as the owner and editor of Mackenzie’s Gazette, was able to promote the Patriot cause and make comment about issues of the times, both in letters and in editorials printed in his newspaper.

Below is an example of what Mackenzie wrote and published in the summer of 1838.  The letter is long, and references many individuals, but it demonstrates how, by the summer of 1838, Mackenzie agreed with the positions taken by the American Equal Rights Party (Loco-Focos). These radical Jacksonians were anti-monopoly, anti-bank, hard-money men, who advocated for an Independent Treasury in the United States.

Mackenzie agreed with the political and economic programmes espoused by the Loco-Focos.  He also supported Democratic president Martin Van Buren. By taking this stance, Mackenzie would now have to accept Van Buren’s policy of peace with Great Britain. This required a complete about face on Mackenzie’s part from the previous position that he held.

This change was first postulated in his July 20, 1838 letter to Bill Johnston. Mackenzie explained that Canada could be freed by peaceful means, if the Americans participated in an economic boycott of England. If this happened, Mackenzie believed that a war with Britain would not be necessary.

Two weeks later Mackenzie came out in full support of Van Buren and the Democratic Party. He also opposed the platform of the Whig Party. This began Mackenzie’s departure from neutrality in American politics, and furthered his hope that in the backing of Van Buren, that the American president would impose economic sanctions against Great Britain.

Mackenzie thought that such a move might lead to a weaker hold on Canad,a by England, and ultimately result in final freedom for Upper and Lower Canada. Unfortunately for Mackenzie and his Patriot colleagues, this desired end would not to be realized! The Patriot War continued for almost six more months, until the Battle of the Windmill and the Battle of Windsor signaled the end of any further attempts of armed incursion, from United States into Canada, to overthrow its governments.

The Letter:



NEW YORK, July 20, 1838.

My Dear Sir – Look at the North! One would think that when M’Nab and Drew massacred the Americans on the Caroline, and Colborne and Wetherall roasted the Canadians at St. Eustache, they had Dr. Johnson in their eye. They followed his prescription to the very letter; and England’s Queen, true to the principle of rewards and punishments, exalts Wetherall’s father to the peerage, dubs M’Nab a Knight, raises Drew to a Captain’s rank in the royal navy, and thanks Sir J.C. Colborne in a letter written by the hand of virgin Majesty! Meantime the generous Theller rots in a jail, and the citizens of New York, Michigan and Ohio, are paraded through the Canadas, chained leg to leg in pairs, amidst the hootings and pelting of the sable legions of monarchy in North America.

Is there something narcotic in the climate of America? While the Irish and English press is reprobating the outrage offered to Dr. E. Theller, and Galignani at Paris echoing their many censures, New York slumbers. Not a whisper is heard, not a solitary proposition by those whose interests are deeply affected, and whose sympathies ought to be enlisted on behalf of the soldier of liberty. Are the adopted citizens asleep? They ought not to stand about details when their liberties are threatened. Reid tells us that Gen. Jackson’s mother taught her sons to oppose British tyranny and oppression on their minds that it was a first duty to give their lives if necessary to support liberty, the natural right of man. ‘Clean my boots,’ said a predecessor of Wetherall to Andrew Jackson, when a prisoner of war. His refusal procured him a blow which he will carry to his grave. Theller is the prisoner of similar men – and the armies of America are leagued with our oppressors, and – hunting Johnson!!!

I hasten to congratulate you on your fortunate escape from the attack made at your headquarters on Grindstone Island, by the combined forces of England and the United States. No doubt you have good service to do yet. You are honest and true to the cause of Canadian Independence, temperate in your habits, bold and fearless, yet mild in your disposition. Perseverance is your motto – and I trust you will live to rejoice in the emancipation of our common country from the European yoke.

Some of our friends here are discouraged, because of late events at the Short Hills and with you. So am not I. If the system of harassing our enemy be steadily adhered to, the time will come for more powerful operations, and we must be successful to the extent of our warmest aspirations.

Nineteen-twentieths of the people of Canada heartily pray for the downfall of the British yoke – the millions in these northern States are our sincere friends – and in Europe an excitement in our favor is beginning to be felt to the degree that may soon produce the happiest effects. Therefore steadily persevere, so far as you can act against Durham without interfering with American neutrality.

I do not content myself with bare assertions, but will shew you some of the certain consequences of continued agitation. They delight me – and will delight you – and thousands more of our friends on both sides of your lovely St. Lawrence.

First – The difference in Canada tell well for Ireland. The Whigs and the Tories hate O’Connell – they abhor the very name. But while your northern frontier people seem disposed to favor Canada, while 16 0r 18 regiments, 30 or 40 ships, and all the vagabonds and Orangemen they can bribe to enter the service and accept British pay as militia men, are necessary to prevent our worthy countrymen from rising in open revolt and throwing off the accursed yoke, they must give a great share of substantial power to O’Connell, or go overboard and let the tories take their places. So it was in the time of the old American war. As England grew more and more embarrassed by the ambition and avarice of her short sighted statesmen, Ireland became more independent, more happy and prosperous. The struggle of the Canadians is the struggle of Christian principle, equal rights, to do as you would be done by, and will benefit Europe in the long run.

Second – Your proceedings on the St. Lawrence are ruining the tories of Lower Canada; and if continued will utterly destroy them. A friend writes me from Montreal, dated 12th inst. ‘I have not seen such rueful countenances among the tories since last winter as they exhibit to-day. The work in Upper Canada if it continues long, will ruin them altogether. The difficulties in Upper Canada stops commerce, prevents goods from being sent up, prevents remittances from being sent down, stops emigration from Europe, almost annihilates our revenue, and will operate most injuriously on the manufacturing and trading interests of England.’ Be careful to respect the rights of private property, lest our enemies find occasion to speak evil of a good cause, by reason of the short-sightedness of its sincere supporters.

Third – I am keeping up a safe and regular correspondence with friends in Europe, who assure me, upon data to be depended on, that the expenses of the British government are fearfully on the increase, while the revenue is falling off in a tenfold degree to what it was last year. There is plenty of money to be had on ‘Change in London, but it cannot be safely invested by individuals, and therefore is not wanted. When I was a young man, David Lovell’s Statesman and Cobbett’s Register were almost the only journals which dared to address the millions in England, to state the abuses of aristocracy. All the rest of the press was tame or tory. Cobbett and Lovell severally suffered two years in a dungeon for their temerity, and the work of oppression went bravely on. Now, how different! Three fourths of the whole number of newspapers issued yearly in the United Kingdom is decidedly liberal. One half at least is republican, radical, aye, democratic as America’s first, greatest and best boon to mortals – the Declaration of Independence, July 4th, 1776. The millions in England are wide awake. Let the diminished revenue and increased expenditure – the falling off of orders from the Colonies, and the total failure of remittances from thence, have time to produce their effects, and the people of England will hurl from power the Russells, the Melbournes, the Lansdownes, Grants and Spring Rices, and oblige their successors to declare Canada free. Thank God, the masses are getting more and more enlightened: indeed I do verily believe that there are more true philanthropists, liberal and well informed, in England and France at this moment, than in these United States, blest as America is with free institutions, the envy of the world.

The English Chancellor of the Exchequer is discussing the Budget in the House of Commons, stated that $400,000 would be placed in the military chest in Canada from the Canadian Treasury. First, Britain violates the constitution, next abolishes it, then murders the people of Canada by wholesale, and lastly robs their public treasury to pay their murderers!!! But the $400,000 is only a drop in the bucket. Government, with twenty-four millions of Exchequer bills out, had to take a vote of credit to keep up the war over and above the vast charges for placing ships in commission, purchasing stores for Canada in Europe, &c. Harrass their trade all you can, till the time come for more extensive operations.

The Minister, in announcing an increasing expenditure and decreasing revenue, used these remarkable expressions: - ‘If the House had any ground for believing that this deficiency would be permanent in its nature, there was but one way in which it could be met; and that way was by coming boldly to the House of Commons, stating fairly the facts of the case, and asking through the medium of increased taxation, additional means to meet and discharge the obligations of the country.’ And when they come to that, the villains will have to let go their hold. Mr. Hume, in the above debate, reminded the Minister, that the revenue had exceeded the expenditure in 1835 and 1836, yet there was a very large deficiency now on these three years. But the most important fact of all is, that Britain has been obliged to add to the fixed and funded borough monger debt, recently 18,599,000 pounds, or NINETY-TWO MILLIONS of dollars, on which the additional annual charge is more than three and a half millions of dollars. While the only temporary reduction made to balance that new burthen, is a diminution of British due bills – (Exchequer Bills) – afloat, equal to 4,000,000 pounds. In 1836, the Bank of England had but 4 millions of sovereigns in gold and silver, while 31 millions in the sterling value of its paper was afloat, a debt liable to be called in an hour, besides upwards of eighty millions of dollars in the savings banks, which government must pay up the very moment it is asked for! Let Americans cease to clothe themselves in European manufactures, and they will oblige England to quit her bull-dog grasp on Canada. No other war will be necessary. England exported less by forty-five millions of dollars value in cottons in 1837 – her silk export trade has decreased one half, her linen trade is on the decline. Let the American people but discourage the productions of the slaves of this murderous government, and they will break it down, and save this continent a bloody war. Otherwise was must come. Meantime, see that you do nothing that may compromise the character of the U.S. Government – confine your operations entirely to Canada. I am thus particular in details because some of our friends are downcast. Let them be of good courage. Our prospects are excellent, and our cause the cause of truth and justice. By bearing up under adversity, brought on by the misconduct of ours, we became the more fit to endure the severe trials of more prosperous days. The government of England dare not diminish their army. They dread the coming winter.

Fourth – The colonial authorities are wasting the very little revenue they raised in Lower Canada, in paying officials, building castles, upholding pomp, and perfecting a system of espionage. No part of the proceeds of the taxes goes back to the people, hence they can purchase little and pay nothing. No one buys any land, either public or private sales; the catholic priesthood rigorously enforce their unpopular tithes; there is at this moment but one building going on in Montreal. Even the dregs of the American people are quitting Canadian cities, where their servility can bring no profit, while they are exposed to daily insults on account of the institutions of their country. The army is losing daily by desertion, and none dare publish it. The press is kept under by the terror of the dungeon, and the hour fast approaching when few or none will say a word for European connexion. Hitherto a very extensive exportation of domestic goods, and a vast importation of sugar, rum and other West India produce, direct or via Halifax, has annually taken place. Recent occurrences have wonderfully diminished this trade, and the British possessions in the West Indies will suffer accordingly.

In Upper Canada matters are far worse. About 4 millions of dollars of public, provincial, city and district debt stares the executive in the face. They can pay no part of it. Canada Company land, Crown land, cultivated and uncultivated farms, are a drug in the market. No emigrants coming in – thousands of the most intelligent and enterprising settlers going out. The Banks have credited all to those who can pay nothing. Their notes are worthless, their exchequers are bankrupt. So too is the exchequer of the colony; aye, and even worse than bankrupt. Public improvements are at an end – the revolution is in progress - it must not go back even for a moment. The blood shed at St. Eustache, St. Denis, St. Charles, Place D’Armes, Toronto, Point a Pele, Montgomery’s Hill, cries aloud for vengeance. It was innocent blood, and has not been spilt in vain. Durham, with his mock-royalty, cannot, will not, quiet Canada. No! Nor the whole House of Peers were they in his belly. The people know the value of liberty, and they will have it. Some say, ‘Our prospects darken.’ I never saw them look more cheerful and consoling.

A handful of brave fellows last winter took their stand in the most exposed spot in Upper Canada, I mean Navy Island. In the face of the world they hoisted the tri-color with its twin stars for the two new states, planted the tree of liberty, and boldly challenged Head and all who followed him, in his own words; ‘Come if you dare.’ For five weeks nearly was this gallant band in possession of the soil – and although, like you, they were harassed by the combined forces of England and America, they maintained their post till the prospect of starvation removed them. You were one of us there; you accepted a commission as a warrior for Canadian liberty, and nobly have you deserved the distinction. Persevere! But take care not to violate the neutrality which the American government are so desirous to observe. You may be called pirate, robber, brigand, and murderer. So, in 1776, did the English statesmen and politicians denominate Lee and Warren, Hancock and Washington. Remember you are in good company.

To what does Canada owe English Government? To the fact that a number of armed men crossed the ocean in ships many years ago, landed in Canada, robbed, murdered and plundered the peaceful settlers, took possession of their country, and a have held it ever since as the thief holds his treasure, by fraud and force. How anxiously John Adams and Benjamin Franklin desired these States to obtain Canada to the confederacy may be seen in their correspondence, 1782-3 – they desired it as a means of avoiding those ruinous wars which the possession of an extended frontier ever generates. I wonder if those renegade Americans who join with the men whose hands are red with Durfee’s blood, for the purpose of fettering you, ever recollect Dr. Franklin’s record of the enormities committed by British troops and loyalists sixty years ago. The Doctor says it will be a ‘record that must render the British name odious in America to the latest generations. In that record will be found the burning of the fine towns of Charleston, near Boston; of Falmouth, just before winter, when the sick, the aged, the women and children, were driven to seek shelter where they could hardly find it; of Norfolk, in the midst of winter; of New London, of Fairfield, of Easopus, &c.; besides near a hundred and fifty miles of well settled country laid waste; every house and barn burnt, and many hundreds of farmers, with their wives and children, butchered and scalped.’ Methinks, instead of hunting you it would have been more manly to aid the countrymen of Lafayette, the children of France, beautiful and gallant France, whose kindness cherished, whose wealth upheld, and whose seamen and soldiers bravely fought to make this republic what it is – while their nation was cheered with the hope that the treasure it expended was raising up a home for the oppressed of every land. Wherein is the difference between the burnings and the murders in New England in the last century and in Canada last winter? Were not both done with the view to the annihilation of American Independence, by English mercenaries and colonial loyalists? Yet, strange to tell, this government can see no enemy but the Canadian Reformers now in exile, no disturbers but you and your comrades!

The Texans cried for relief from the Mexican yoke. Who said nay? All the arms and provisions in the Union might have gone south. Who would have hindered them? Now, however, that Canada invokes republican sympathy, she is too late. It has all been expended on the slave owners of Texas, and her answer is General Scott’s and Wool’s bayonets on this side the lines bristling in union with Colborne’s and Wetherall’s on t’other side to crush freedom and hunt its votaries off this continent. Durham would hang you and me if he had us. Some of our comrades might be allowed to vegetate, Bonaparte fashion, on Bermuda....The English aristocracy were ever cruel to the colonists. What are St. Eustache and St. Benoit, but continuations of the wholesale murders and burnings of the Acadian French settlers long previous to the war of revolution? Franklin tells us that the young nobility of France were not to be restrained in their desire to come here to fight for – what? To establish a power which would raise armies to be employed in the hunting their Canadian countrymen, yourself and the other friends of American freedom off the earth? Be assured that the young nobility of France, whatever their failings, would have disdained a comparison with the sons of commerce here who urge the government to harass the exiles, and who would sell Americans as the German prices sold their people to be used as man-butchers here, for our masters in England. The biographers of Franklin tell us that it was to French aid that the colonies were indebted for their independence. If so the return has been an ungrateful one. When General Lafayette was on the frontier in 1824, I was in his company, with Colonel King of Lewiston, and others. He shook hands with me very cordially and bade me support the cause of liberty on the other shores (Canada), for, said he, it will yet triumph. How would the old veteran have felt had he lived to see the generals of his adopted and favorite land transformed into runners to the English, to enable their imported troops to oppress and murder his countrymen in greater security, and to seize every gun and pistol which any American might desire to carry to their aid, while English officers in scores imported their uniforms and weapons via New York, and had their trunks sent unopened to their lodgings from the Custom House!!! Aye, and while English armies were passing from Europe through a part of the State of Maine, with the consent of the American Executive, to butcher, rob, burn and destroy republicans in Canada, and to form a standing army on our northern frontier, there to awe and humble democracy in these States – and remind the sons of the soil of the length of arm of their ancient masters. But Lafayette was spared this humiliation – the grave had closed upon the gallant friend of America. Andrew Jackson yet lives. He, like you, would echo the sentiment of Franklin to Lord Dartmouth – ‘Canada – We cannot endure despotism over any of our fellow subjects. We must all be free or none.’ The old Congress, considered that the ‘establishing an arbitrary despotism on the backs of our settlements might be dangerous to us all; and that no foundation for slavery ought to be laid in America.’ The present age is wiser.

Mr. Lount and our other friends had the draft of a Constitution ready to submit to a convention previous to our outbreak. I published 5000 copies in handbill form. I drew it up, and it contains my long cherished opinions, especially the fifth section. Those who say I am no democrat, will find a copy in the last and present number of this Gazette. It was to obtain such freedom as is there contemplated that the liberals of Canada pledged life and property. And they will succeed too – but the true course to be taken is to agitate. Give the blood-suckers no rest. Agitate, agitate, agitate! – We are in a revolution, and there is no turning back. Help will come if we help ourselves.

Your faithful servant,


[Note:  Spelling and grammar remain as originally published]


*For other examples of other letters Mackenzie wrote and published during this period, see “A Letter to John Stewart Jun.,” Mackenzie’s Gazette (August 18, 1838) and “A Letter to the People of St. Lawrence County, N.Y.,” Mackenzie’s Gazette (August 25, 1838).

Suggested Reading:

  • Andrew Bonthius, “The Patriot War of 1837-1838: Locofocism With a Gun?,” Labour/Le Travail (Fall, 2003), v. 52.
  • Lillian F. Gates. After the Rebellion (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1988).
  • Lillian F. Gates, “The Decided Policy of William Lyon Mackenzie,” Canadian Historical Review (1959), v. 40, # 3.
  • Charles Lindsey. The Life and Times of William Lyon Mackenzie (Toronto: P.R. Randall, 1862), 2 v.
  • William Lyon Mackenzie. Life and Times of Martin Van Buren (Boston: Cooke & Co., 1846).

By Dr. John C. Carter

Dr. John C. Carter is an Ontario historian, museologist  and a Research Associate at the History and Classics Programme, School of Humanities, University of Tasmania. This is his tenth article written for TI Life (Click here view his other articles).   In particular his Series of Patriot Chronicles provide the most comprehensive summary of this important historic Patriot War topic.  In addition Dr. Carter has provided a bibliography which can be found in THE PLACE, History page.

Posted in: History, People
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