William Lyon MacKenzie strode into a packed theater in Buffalo, NY on the night of Dec. 12, 1837, his blue eyes blazing beneath his high, broad forehead, his sandy whiskers a chinstrap beard. The short, wiry 42-year-old native of Scotland had arrived in the booming border city a day earlier, a fugitive with a price on his head, after launching an ill-fated rebellion against the oligarchy that ruled colonial Canada.
More than 2,000 Buffalo residents waited anxiously to hear him speak, quite a crowd for a city of not even 18,000 souls.
MacKenzie was a fiery, populist reformer and enemy of the elite. He had railed for more than a decade, in his newspaper and as a legislator, against the few wealthy families that controlled Canada and demanded a representative form of government for the British colony. But the ruling families continued their grip over Upper Canada, as Ontario was then known.
Several hundred followers had gathered Dec. 4, 1837 at a tavern on Yonge Street in Toronto, where MacKenzie called for an armed rebellion.
Three days later, loyalist militia fired on and quickly dispersed this band of rebels, many of them unarmed. MacKenzie fled, hid with the help of friends for a day and a night, and then rowed across the Niagara River – narrowly escaping “mounted dragoons, in their green uniforms.”
He arrived in Buffalo, where he rested a night in a sympathizer’s home and then addressed the audience at the Buffalo theater. Among them were veterans of the War of 1812 and survivors of the burning of Buffalo, many still harboring anger against the English for the deaths of their families and friends and the torching of their homes that occurred only some 25 years earlier.
MacKenzie explained to these “Friends of Canada” the reasons for the rebellion and the similarities to American revolution.
“To prove the justice of the cause, he took the Declaration of Independence – went through it, article by article, and stated that, in every particular, the Canadas had similar grievances, and in some cases that they were even more onerous,” the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser reported the next day.
At first, hundreds of prominent and ordinary Buffalo residents heeded MacKenzie’s cry for help, offering to take up arms in an invasion to overthrow the European rulers. Later, as word of this Canadian rebellion against British oppression spread along the eastern seaboard, thousands more Americans flocked to the border to join the fight.
The resurrected rebellion resulted in the short-lived “Republic of Canada” on a small, British-owned island in the Niagara River about three miles above Niagara Falls and 19 miles north of Buffalo. American volunteers broke into local armories, taking weapons and artillery, and cannonaded the militia and British regulars gathering on the far shore.
The British retaliated by firing back and then launching a commando raid on the U.S. side of the Niagara River, where they killed an American sailor and sent a burning steamship flying the stars and stripes over Niagara Falls.
President Martin Van Buren, fearful that the fighting would escalate into another war between Great Britain and the United States, interceded to stamp down populist support for the Canadian-American insurgency.
But the raids continued and spread along the border, as far west as Detroit and as far east as the St. Lawrence River. British, Canadian and American blood was spilled in more than a dozen battles over the next 12 months.
When the war fizzled out, the British hanged 11 Americans, summarily executed four others and sent scores more to its penal colony in Australia.
The Patriot War of 1837-38 is little remembered today in the United States, but it was not without consequence. It awakened Britain to the corruption and oppression in its North American colony, and contributed to the federation of Canada three decades later.
And that British raid on the American shore that destroyed a steamboat resulted in a rule of law justifying preemptive strikes, still recognized today by international law and the United Nations.
It all started with “the greatest agitator that ever Upper Canada has had within her limits” – William Lyon MacKenzie.
Portrait of William Lyon MacKenzie provided by Shane Prentice.
A version of this article first appeared on the New York History Blog.