The War of 1812: ‘The Bloody Assize’ and the creation of a Canadian folkway

“The contortions of the poor men so shook the loosely constructed gallows that a heavy brace became loosened and fell, striking one of the victims on the head and killing him instantly, thus relieving him from the tortures of the rope. After the men had been duly strangled, their heads were chopped off and exhibited [piked] as the heads of traitors.”

–John Rickman 4 October 1880 Hamilton Spectator. Rickman recounts what he sees as a teenaged boy.

What is the Bloody Assize?

The Bloody Assize refers to a series of trials for treason held in Upper Canada during the War of 1812-14.

In 1813 in Upper Canada

A stressed-out Great Britain is deep into the war with the fledgling United States and, of course, Napoleon. British military commanders, fighting on the soil of British North America and in the United States, feel Canada’s newest settlers are not doing enough to secure British territory.

In fact, or so the British military believes, there are some unreliables among the local people in Upper Canada.

Local people (farmers, not urbanites in Toronto) are “late loyalists.” Late loyalists have suspicious connections to the enemy. Friend connections. Family connections. The Brits decide to get tough with Canada’s American-born pioneers, most of whom have been pioneering in the province for less than fifteen years.

In 1814, nineteen “locals” face the charge of high treason against the Crown (conspiracy/collusion with the armed forces of the United States).

In May 1814, a loyalist court convenes in Ancaster. The trials are held throughout June. The Union Hotel in Ancaster plays host and provides the courtroom. When all is said and done, and the war is over (1815), Burlington Heights provides the site of 8 executions.

The following United-Empire-Loyalist jurists preside over the sessions:

The young prosecutor is the attorney general for the province (son of a loyalist), John Beverley Robinson. The trials are sloppy. The results are a gory stain on colonial justice. The convictions and the severity of the punishments show how eagerly the early-arriving loyalists, the United Empire Loyalists (UEL), are willing to condemn to death their republican-minded American brethren – the “late loyalists.” 

Wilson Street, Ancaster, site of trials – street soon to host the Bloody Assize

Who are the United Empire Loyalists (UEL) and how do they differ from the “late loyalists”?

The United Empire Loyalists (UEL) mark their arrival in the Canadas in 1784, one year after peace is declared in the American Revolution.

In Toronto and Montréal, the UEL turn rabidly pro-English. (In Schitt’s Creek, Catherine O’Hara amusingly captures the elite dialect of 1960s loyal Torontonians.)

UEL is the term coined by the governor of British North America, Guy Carleton, Lord Dorchester, in 1789.

UEL designates men and women of the thirteen colonies who declare they stand firm with Britain against the “patriots” during the time of the American Revolution. Norman Knowles writes about loyalism as an invented and re-invented concept. Loyalism is a “Canadian” manner, which, emotionally, gins up the English-sympathizing base whenever necessary. In the 19th century, English loyalism, growing ever stronger, marks the culture of BNA as something distinct from the patriotic culture of USA.

Nonetheless, in the 18th century and early 19th century, American late loyalists most clearly do not stand with all things English.

Society of Friends (Quaker), Laura Smith Haviland, born in Canada into a family of late loyalists, does not hold with status quo Anglican and Presbyterian UEL views about slavery. She is an abolitionist.

Rural Upper Canada Settlement, late loyalists

Some late loyalists actually may have been patriots. Some did not fight at all. What are known patriots and pacifists doing in Canada?

Land, my friends. Everyone wants land. Post 1791, the Home Office allows Lieutenant Governors Clarke and Simcoe to offer free land to any Americans who will swear allegiance to the Crown. As mentioned, UEL celebrate their arrival in 1784. Late loyalists begin to wander over the border seven years later. Eventually, post 1800, they flood into BNA and duly swear their loyalty to the Crown. But late loyalists are not necessarily “pro” either state – not USA nor UK. Late loyalists are mostly seekers of land. In North America the gold rush pales beside the land rush in Upper and Lower Canada during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

A harsh lesson and  folkways with lasting effects of the War of 1812

A mini-civil war, the one fought in Upper Canada between first-come loyalists (UEL) and late-arrival loyalists, oversees the immediate defeat of the latter’s ethnic neutrality and their conversion into the hypnotic state of hyper-loyalty – so famous in Toronto and parts of Southern Ontario.

Late loyalists’ conversion from a sublime royal indifference to fierce Englishness occurs, in part, because of the Bloody Assize.

As stated, the British colonial court orders eight American-born, newly sworn British subjects, hanged. And so they are. Executioners chop off their heads and display the severed polls on poles to frighten the astonished locals who are friends and neighbours of the treasonous dead. Their headless bodies lie buried in unmarked graves close, apparently, to the gallows.

In the wake of the trials, seven other American-born British subjects face banishment. The whole business is a horror show. The Bloody Assize is military politics at its deadliest. 

Late loyalists have the last ghostly chuckle, though. Not only their relic American idiom survives but also their latent republicanism, which leaves a heavy fingerprint on Canada. Thanks to American late loyalists, and the Quakers and Mennonites and other egalitarian-mannered pacifist groups among them, part of our country remains somewhat of a cultural bedevilment. Outside of imperialist Toronto, English Canada has a fat republican belly with a thin royal skin.

Everyone sees it. Everyone knows it. Sympathy for the United States incurs the severest consequences in Upper Canada. God Save the King. 

Thanks to the Bloody Assize of 1814 the American-born majority of British North America get the message. American-born settlers in British-held territory may sound like modest white-collared and war-hating Quaker Pennsylvanians, and may dress like fancy-dan, knickerbockers from New York, and may even dream of the sea-blue Jersey shore but they must remember one thing. American-born settlers who reside in Canada are not republicans. They are monarchists. British subjects.

British North America is the colony of the Crown and – in 1815 – you know it, “Yankee” and  “republic” are cuss words. “Loyalty” is the catchphrase.

Frantic loyalty is so right, so in vogue, so Jay-Gatsby copy-cat, so safe. 

American-born late loyalists are not ventriloquists or minstrels or conjurers. No matter how much a new American-born citizen of Canada fears the Imperial army, he or she does not have an interest in changing idiom or intonation. Or custom. Our Americans neighbours have founders who did not believe in the divine right of kings, and neither, back then, did the late loyalists.

Although Canada remains a monarchy, modern Canadians including the Québécois and Acadien for obvious reasons, have trouble believing in the value of English aristocrats or an aristocratic pecking order.

In Canada, no princes and princesses demand obeisance. No dukes or duchesses. Hardly any Sirs. Fewer Ladyships.  Governors Clarke and Simcoe’s late loyalists have left their mark on our language and habits. And in our collective, frowning attitude toward the privilege of entrenched birthright.

The Canadian mainstream folkway owes birth-pangs to the United States and the United Kingdom but, through efforts at seeking truth and reconciliation, we hope to be distinctly ourselves in our 21st-century cultural manifestations – with, in time, hopefully an agreeable partnership with First Nations. 




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