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The ‘Freedom Convoys’ and the Old Dreams of an American Revolution in Canada

Canadians inspired by America, and Americans misunderstanding Canada.
February 23, 2022
The ‘Freedom Convoys’ and the Old Dreams of an American Revolution in Canada
The capture by a Royal Navy force of the steamship ‘Caroline’ from Canadian rebels in 1837, an incident in which an American was killed. (Cassell’s History of England, published c. 1900 / Universal History Archive / Universal Images Group / Getty)

For the past few weeks, American conservative commentators have eagerly watched the trucker protests in Canada—the anti-vaccine-mandate “Freedom Convoys”—transform from bothersome blockages into international spectacles. From the Daily Wire to the Federalist, on Fox News and talk radio, the truckers’ movement has become an all-consuming subject of fascination and praise. Tucker Carlson hyperbolically described it as “the single most successful human rights protest in a generation.” Senator Ted Cruz said the protesting Canadian truckers were “heroes”—asserting that “they’re defending Canada, but they’re defending America as well.” Franklin Graham, the son of the late evangelist Billy Graham, compared the Canadian truckers to a “modern-day version of Paul Revere, riding against oppression,” claiming that “the issue isn’t primarily masks or vaccines—the issue is FREEDOM, the freedom to make our own choices.”

This praise for the Freedom Convoys can largely be chalked up to right-wingers’ admiration for anyone who “owns the libs,” and the belief that the truckers are natural allies in the rise of populism. Unsurprisingly, U.S. conservatives see Canadian politics through the lens of American politics.

And that’s not hardly new: It’s worth remembering that there is a long history of Americans supporting radical Canadian movements that seem to have some ideological or rhetorical overlap with movements or factions in American politics. Despite failed attempts to invade Canada during the American Revolution and the War of 1812, dreams of a union between the two countries, or at least twin republics free of British rule, have always held allure for an imaginative few in the United States, and Canadian revolutionaries have always held a special place in the hearts of some.

One such revolutionary was William Lyon Mackenzie.

Making his way to Upper Canada in 1820, the Scottish-born Mackenzie’s early life was marked by a series of business failures and short-lived partnerships. Trading commerce for political journalism, Mackenzie found success after he started a newspaper, the Colonial Advocate, in 1824. Compared to its Tory-friendly contemporaries, the Colonial Advocate was a radical publication, often criticizing the reigning political order in Canada. Captivated by the political changes transpiring in the United States—such as the emergent democratic fervor embodied in Andrew Jackson’s rise to power—Mackenzie also frequently redistributed American newspapers as well.

Given his persistent criticism of Canadian government and obsession with all things American, it wasn’t long before Mackenzie’s allegiance was called into question. Though he admired the United States, Mackenzie defended himself as a Canadian patriot, making it clear that he “like[d] American liberty well, but greatly prefer[red] British liberty.” Even so, that did not stop him from mocking one of his rival newspapers, the Upper Canada Gazette, as “the King’s printer.” Things reached a boiling point in 1826, when the Colonial Advocate’s offices were raided by an angry group of Canadians dressed as Native Americans.

The vandalism only further radicalized Mackenzie, prompting him to get directly involved in electoral politics. He won a seat in Upper Canada’s legislative assembly, from which he was repeatedly expelled for his criticisms of the government, and in 1834 briefly served as Toronto’s first mayor. The royal governor, Sir Francis Bond Head, fretted that Mackenzie and the other reformers “were for soiling the empire by the introduction of democracy.” Following a Tory victory in 1836, Gov. Head dismissed the reform candidates from office, sparking multiple and overlapping revolts across the Canadian province.

In the months that followed, Mackenzie organized, published, and agitated. Then, on December 7, 1837, Mackenzie assembled with a group of fellow rebels at a tavern three miles outside Toronto. They decided to gather what forces they could and march on the city—starting by seizing the weaponry located in city hall, and then using those weapons to oust Gov. Head and other leading Tory figures. Victory, believed Mackenzie, would result in a free and independent Upper Canada. Yet the rebels drastically overestimated the appetite for revolution, amassing a mere 500 ill-prepared men to march on Toronto, most wielding pikes, pitchforks, or clubs. Aware of Mackenzie’s intentions, militiamen intercepted and easily thwarted the protesters in what became known as the Battle of Montgomery’s Tavern. Mackenzie and the other rebels bolted for the Niagara River to western New York, while those captured were arrested and faced either imprisonment, penal transportation to Tasmania, or death.

Despite his flop as a rebel leader, thousands of Americans welcomed Mackenzie into their country as if he were a latter-day George Washington. As Thomas Richards Jr. notes in his book Breakaway Americas, Buffalo, Detroit, and Vermont served as safe havens for the would-be revolutionaries, welcoming them with much fanfare and the formation of mutual aid committees. Upon his arrival in Buffalo, Mackenzie was greeted with a formal procession of the city’s men and women, accompanied by a local honor guard. Numerous Americans offered to join Mackenzie if he were to make a second attempt to “liberate” Canada from monarchical rule. If fighting British tyranny weren’t enough incentive, the leaders of the rebellion promised American volunteers that they would be granted 300 acres in Canada and $100 in silver (following victory, of course).

Several days after Mackenzie’s failed Toronto takeover and his flight across the border, another rallying cry for Americans against Canada came with the “Caroline affair.” Fearing that the steamship Caroline would be used by the rebels to cross back into Canada, in a dramatic display, Royal Navy forces attacked the Caroline and set it ablaze, leaving it to drift, burning, over Niagara Falls.

Because the ship had been fired upon in U.S. territory and an American had been killed in the conflict, outrage against the Canadian government and sympathy for Mackenzie’s cause erupted from the American press. “Remember the Caroline!” became a popular cry of outrage throughout the American-Canadian borderlands. As Richards explains, “The burning of the Caroline was immediately appropriated as a symbol that represented the perfidy of the British—and by extension, the righteousness of the Patriot cause.” Soon, secret societies known as “Hunters Lodges” began to organize from Vermont to Michigan, swearing fidelity to the cause of republican government and formulating plans to invade Upper Canada.

President Martin Van Buren, however, saw little to be sympathetic over, and described Mackenzie and his crew as “a nefarious set of outlaws.” Keenly aware of the growing enthusiasm for “hostile incursions from our territory into Canada,” Van Buren, in his second annual message to Congress, warned his countrymen against joining in the cause of the rebels. Describing those keen on assisting a Canadian insurrection to be “misguided or deluded,” Van Buren condemned these “assaults upon the peace and order of a neighboring country.” Given Van Buren’s tepid response to the Caroline affair and indifference to the cause of the Canadian rebels (despite how supportive so many Jacksonian Democrats were of Mackenzie’s cause), Julien Mauduit theorizes that Van Buren’s 1840 defeat to William Henry Harrison can be linked in part to his mishandling of this transnational moment. John Tyler, Harrison’s vice president and presidential successor, also condemned the Hunters Lodges and the Americans eager to partake in “military and lawless incursions” into Canada.

Despite the love he received from many Americans, Mackenzie was disheartened by the lack of support expressed by figures like Van Buren. As Alan Taylor observes, “Most of the Union’s leaders, including the president, wanted to avoid war with the British Empire. They also distrusted Mackenzie as a hothead who exaggerated his support in Canada.” While it is now dubbed the “Patriot War,” the Hunters who did cross into Canadian territory resembled little more than raiders, keen on looting and burning. These raiding parties were stopped by Canadian militiamen, and Van Buren ordered 2,000 troops to help maintain peace on the border.

Mackenzie’s situation also became more precarious when he was arrested in 1839, after relocating to New York, for violating American neutrality. Pleading not guilty, Mackenzie lost his case and was sent to the Monroe County jail, which he described as the “American Bastille.” With Mackenzie incarcerated and the so-called Patriot War proving a nonstarter, the American dreams of a Canadian sister-republic were dashed.

But Mackenzie’s supporters still respected him as an American-inspired revolutionary, gathering a petition of 300,000 signatures to demand his release. This was hard for even Van Buren to ignore, and he reluctantly granted the embattled Canadian a pardon in 1840. After serving eleven months in prison, Mackenzie, unsurprisingly, soured on the United States, declaring “the American people give their dearest and most valued rights into keeping of the worst enemies of free institutions.” In time, he would return to Canada, not as a freedom fighter, but as a citizen granted amnesty by a monarch.

The Freedom Convoys may be, as some have argued, fundamentally unserious, but that apparently does nothing to lessen their attractiveness to the Tucker Carlson crowd. Actual freedom fighting, though, while it can make for dramatic stories and riveting political theater, is a serious issue—sometimes deadly serious. The American flag being waved in the streets of Hong Kong, where democratic rights are being trampled, should be more of a source of pride and inspiration than these Canadian truckers griping about vaccine rules.

Daniel N. Gullotta

Daniel N. Gullotta is the Archer Fellow in Residence at the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University, and a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University specializing in American religious history. Substack: The Letters of Wyoming. Twitter: @danielgullotta.