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.

In 1813 in Upper Canada, while Great Britain is deep into the war with the fledgling United States, the British military commanders, fighting on the soil of British North America and the United States, feel Canadian settlers are not doing enough to secure British territory.

In fact, the British believe, there are some very unreliable local people in Upper Canada, who have suspicious connections to the enemy. Family connections. The Brits decide to get tough with the pioneering settlers, most of whom have been in province for less than twenty years.

In 1814, nineteen “locals” face the charge of high treason (collusion with the armed forces of the United States). In May 1814, a loyalist court convenes in Ancaster, where the trials are held throughout June. The Union Hotel in Ancaster plays host and provides the courtroom. When all is said and done, Burlington Heights provides the site of 8 executions.

The following loyalist jurists preside over the sessions:

The prosecutor is the attorney general for the province (son of a loyalist) John Beverley Robinson. The trials were sloppy and gory and a stain on justice and they show how eagerly the early-arriving loyalists, the United Empire Loyalists, are willing to condemn to death their American brethren, the so-called “late loyalists.” 

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

The United Empire Loyalists mark their arrival in the Canadas in 1784. In Toronto and Montréal, the UEL turn rabidly pro-English. The 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 stand with Britain during the time of the American Revolution.

The Late loyalists do not stand with Britain during the revolution. Upon British officials’ invitations, the late loyalists arrive in BNA after 1791. They are not necessarily “pro” anything. They are seekers of land.

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

The second Civil War, 1812-1814, fought between the United States and Great Britain, gives the UEL of Toronto an opportunity to teach a harsh lesson to disinterested land-seekers, the so-called “late loyalists,” at the Bloody Assize trials in Ancaster. A mini-civil war, the one fought in Upper Canada between first-come loyalists 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 now in Canada/Toronto.

The newest immigrants’ conversion from indifference to fierce Englishness occurs, in part, because of the Bloody Assize.

As stated, the British colonial court orders eight locals, 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 men face banishment. The whole business is a horror show.

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. English Canada has a fat republican belly with a thin royal skin.

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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, you know it Yankee, “republic” is a swear word. “Loyalty” is the catchphrase. Frantic loyalty is so right, so in vogue, so stupidly copy-cat. 

American-born late loyalists are not ventriloquists or minstrels or conjurers. No matter how much a new 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 there live no princes and princesses. 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.

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