Secure in Conscious Worth:  Susanna Moodie and the Rebellion of 1837

by Carl Ballstadt

During the period of the Rebellion in Upper Canada in late 1837 and early 1838, Susanna Moodie, writing from her backwoods home in Douro township, entered the conflict on the government side with her poetic calls to loyal men to quell the rebel forces.1 Several of these poems, "Canadians Will You Join the Band.  A Loyal Song," "The Oath of the Canadian Volunteers.  A Loyal Song for Canada," "The Banner of England," and "The Burning of the Caroline," appeared first in the Palladium of British America, and Upper Canada Mercantile Advertiser (Toronto), edited by Charles Forbes Fothergill (1782-1840),2 and subsequently were given wide circulation through reprinting in various newspapers in Upper and Lower Canada and eventually in the Literary Garland.3 At least three other poems, "A National Song.  The Wind That Sweeps Our Native Sea," "Song.  The Trumpets Sound!," and "There Is Not a Spot in this Wide Peopled Earth," while not directly referring to the rebellion, were expressions of loyalty written in the same period and appear to have been inspired by the recent events.  Of these only "A National Song" has been confirmed as first appearing in the Palladium.4

     It seems likely that these poems drew her to the attention of John Lovell, owner of the Transcript (Montreal) which reprinted at least the first four and acknowledged that they first appeared in the Palladium. Lovell was at the time planning the publication of the Literary Garland and, of course, the story of his invitation to Moodie to contribute to his journal is made well-known in "The Outbreak," a late chapter in Roughing It in the Bush. That chapter, in the first edition of the book, also includes some of the loyal songs: "Canadians Will You Join the Band" becomes "An Address to the Freemen of Canada" which appears with "The Oath of the Canadian Volunteers" in the middle of the chapter and "The Burning of the Caroline" is the concluding poem.  In addition, as in the case of each chapter of Roughing It in the Bush, there is a poetic epigraph, this one beginning "Can a corrupted stream pour through the land," which recent investigation has revealed is part of an eighty-line verse essay, "On Reading the Proclamation Delivered by William Lyon Mackenzie, on Navy Island," completed by Moodie 2 January 1838 and, like the others, published in the Palladium (17 January 1838).  Doubtless it did not get reprinted in other newspapers because of its length and, for the same reason, found only partial representation in Roughing It in the Bush.  It is, however, worth printing in its entirety for several reasons.  First, it is a facet of Canadian literary history of which we had long lost sight, but which now enlarges our knowledge of Moodie's responses to the rebellion.  Those responses, partially conveyed in the loyal poems, are also to be found in the personal context she gives to them in Roughing It in the Bush and in her further reflections on Upper Canadian politics in Life in the Clearings (1853).  Second, "On Reading the Proclamation. . . has an important place in the development of Moodie's career as a poet in that it confirms and enriches the evidence that she was especially fond of writing patriotic verse and had a well-established sense of herself as a patriotic poet.  Third, the poem is interesting in itself for its energetic, rhetorical denunciation of Mackenzie, for its expression of personal feeling, and for the possible psychological ramifications of its resolution.

     In Moodie's account of the rebellion and its effects on her and her family in Roughing It in the Bush, she conveyed an impression of complete surprise and shock at the news of armed conflict, which came first in the confused babbling of the servant, Jenny, and then in a copy of the Queen's Proclamation accompanied by a letter from Moodie's sister, Catharine Parr Traill, explaining the "Outbreak."  We are told that it was all "strange news" and that "Buried in the obscurity of those woods, we knew nothing, heard nothing of the political state of the country, and were little aware of the revolution which was about to work a great change for us and for Canada."5  This impression of surprise, the ensuing account of her husband's immediate departure to join the government forces and of her own determination to "serve the good cause with [her] pen" may be seen, however, as partially deriving from Moodie's awareness of how to stimulate reader interest.   First publication of the loyal poems in the Palladium reveals another perspective on events which undermines her claim to surprise and ignorance and shows, in a minor way, Moodie's fashioning of materials for dramatic purposes.  The poem, "Canadians Will You Join the Band," one of the items included as a product of her aroused "British spirit" in response to the rebellion, was dated 20 November 1837, two weeks before the outbreak, although it was not published until 20 December.  It was written too early to have been provoked by Mackenzie's Declaration of Independence, but may have been occasioned by the movements of Louis Joseph Papineau and the radicals of Lower Canada leading to the clash at St. Denis on 23 November.6  In any case, it makes quite clear that Moodie knew about the stir of discontent and the rebellious mood that preceded the December uprisings in the Canadas:

Aye, let the trampled Despot's fate,
Forewarn the rash misguided band;
To bend for mercy 'ere too late,
Nor scatter ruin o'er the land.
The baffled Traitor doomed to bear,
A nation's hate, his colleague's scorn,
Writhing beneath his own despair,
Will curse the hour that he was born.

     Further evidence of Moodie's manipulation of events may be indicated by her use of the date, 4 December, "that great day of the outbreak," on which Mackenzie's rebels assembled at Montgomery's Tavern, as the one on which she and Dunbar heard the news of hostilities.  Catharine Parr Traill, in her account of the same events,7 reports that her first intelligence of the conflict came on 7 December, that she sent "word to [her] sister Susan" on the 8th, and that Dunbar Moodie left for Peterborough on the 9th.   Such a sequence is far more plausible than the one given by Moodie, although the evidence of the dating of "Canadians Will You Join the Band" remains to suggest that the Moodies were not as far removed from political information as her narrative asserts.8

     The loyal poems undoubtedly did much to establish Moodie's reputation as a writer in the British North American colonies, making her a favourite with Tory elements in the society.9  Indeed, these poems probably played as great a part as her letter to Sir George Arthur, the one she wrote during her husband's absence in the summer of 1838, in prompting the Governor to offer Dunbar the position of Sheriff of Hastings County. Sir George strongly suggests such an effect in a letter to Dunbar:

. . . as to your loyalty and attachments to
British institutions, it was unnecessary for
you to say one word — I took it for granted
that you must possess both, or you would not
have been the husband of Mrs. Moodie. . . . 10

It is surely ironic that, having become identified in the public mind with Tory interests, when the Moodies moved to Belleville they discovered that, in contrast to the assumptions on which the poems were based, the rebels had acted "not without severe provocation; and their disaffection was more towards the colonial government, and the abuses it fostered, than any particular dislike to British supremacy or institutions."11  In the light of their discovery Susanna and Dunbar developed sympathy with reform, became close friends of Robert Baldwin, and were constantly identified as supporters of the reform group in the community.  Not only was Sheriff Moodie accused by the Tories of biased management in his capacity as Returning Officer for the election of 1841, a contest between Robert Baldwin and Edmund Murney, but he was subject to Tory antagonism throughout his tenure as Sheriff (1840-1863). One detects in Life in the Clearings that Susanna also experienced social discomfort resulting from political partisanship:

Even women entered deeply into this party
hostility, and those who, from their education
and mental advantages, might have been friends
and agreeable companions kept aloof, rarely
taking notice of each other, when accidently
thrown together.12

The Moodies remained faithful to Baldwin and reform throughout the 1840's and beyond, even expressing that faith, perhaps rather defiantly in view of Dunbar's public office, by naming their fifth son (b. 8 July 1843) Robert Baldwin.

     While Moodie's loyal "Canadian" poems extended her literary reputation and marked a turning point in her career, both in terms of the movement to Belleville and her subsequent changes in attitude, they were in another sense the culmination of literary interests which she began to manifest a decade earlier, when, as Susanna Strickland, she endeavoured to forge a literary career for herself in England; the loyal or patriotic poem was one of her favourite modes.  Such poems, in Susanna's case, were characterized by apostrophes to abstract ideals which she associated with British history and tradition, such as liberty, freedom, courage, or to emblems of those ideals such as the wreath, the flag, the crown.  Before her marriage to Dunbar Moodie and her subsequent emigration to Canada, Susanna Strickland had published several poems of this type and in her Canadian work she sustains the mode.  Together with her sister, Agnes Strickland, she produced a small volume called Patriotic Songs (J. Green, 33 Soho Square, [1831]), with music by John Green.  There appears to be no extant copy of the volume, but it was dedicated, with permission, to William IV and contained, according to one reviewer, "seven or eight poems."13  At least two of these poems, "Britannia's Wreath" and "The Banner of England," were by Susanna.14  "Britannia's Wreath" also appeared in the Lady's Magazine and was mistakenly attributed to Agnes, although the correct author was identified in an editorial note in the succeeding month's issue.15  It forms a good example of the type in that its subject is a symbol of cultural ideals and patriotism rather than political realities and its language is banal as the first stanza clearly shows:

Freedom's hand the chaplet chose
   Round Britannia's brows to twine;
Shamrock green and crimson rose
  In the sacred garland shine,
Whilst her head the thistle rears,
   Surrounded by protecting spears.

Similar poems, while they did not appear in the little volume of music and verse, were published about the same time.  "England's Glory:  A Loyal Song" (Lady's Magazine, n.s. 3, January 1831) may have been intended for Patriotic Songs, and "God Preserve the King," with an arrangement for four voices and pianoforte accompaniment by Edward Cruse, was published separately in late 1830, after the lyrics alone had appeared in the Athenaeum (4 September 1830).  "London:  A National Song" was carried in Fraser's Town and Country (February-March 1832) about the time the Moodies were planning their emigration.

     Such poetic exercises were obviously a significant part of Susanna Strickland's pursuit of a literary career and she must have been proud of the attention they received.  When the Athenaeum announced the publication of "God Preserve the King" on 11 December 1830, it included a very favourable notice:

A serious national anthem, imitative of our ever favourite "God Save the King," and exhibiting the same simple orthodox sort of harmonies. The air is preceded by a recitative, and the whole in good taste. . . . The poetry and music are both good, and worthy of each other.  (p. 780)

According to Susanna the Sunday Times and the Dramatic Gazette also spoke highly of it, and, with such popular notice, she doubtless began to feel that she was carving a niche for herself in the London literary world as a patriotic writer. No wonder, then, that she was indignant when she saw the announcement for Thomas Haynes Bayley's poem of the same title in the Athenaeum (13 August 1831):

Is it allowable for some person to publish a song with exactly the same title as another [?] Mr. Bayley must have seen the advertisement and reviews of my "God Preserve the King" because it has been reviewed or noticed in most of the public Journals and I think it very mean and dishonourable in him to rob a Lady of her title verbatim. Can I not bring him to book for this?  I should much like to see the words of his song to see if he has been equally honourable with them. . . .16

A well-developed sense of herself as a patriotic poet was clearly antecedent to "On Reading the Proclamation Delivered by William Lyon Mackenzie, on Navy Island" and the other loyal Canadian verses.

     In Susanna's background, however, there is yet another interest which is related to "On Reading the Proclamation  . . . ."  Her celebration of the nation's ideals and emblems was on other occasions tempered by a consciousness of its wrongs.  "An Appeal to the Free" (Athenaeum, 20 November 1830) is an expression of such consciousness for, although it acknowledges that Britons themselves are brave and free, it castigates those "men of Britain" who are apathetic about the bondage and suffering of others:

Ah no! ye are slaves; for the freeborn in mind
Are the children of mercy the friends of mankind!
By no base selfish motives their actions are weigh'd,
They barter no souls in an infamous trade . . . .

An even stronger indictment of British indifference and injustice is given in her introduction to Negro Slavery Described By a Negro: Being the Narrative of Ashton Warner, A Native of St. Vincent's (London: Samuel Maunder, 1831), one of two anti-slavery pamphlets which Susanna wrote in late 1830 or early 1831 for Thomas Pringle, Secretary to the Anti-Slavery Society. After indicating that she had been one of the apathetic Britons, willing to accede to the notion that it would be unjust to deprive the plantation owners "of a property secured by legislature," she continues:

I did not pause to ask myself such questions as the following: Who gave this nation that right? Can any enactments of human legislators lawfully make one man the property of another? — especially when the beings thus bartered are the inhabitants of a country over which we possess no claim but such as lawless force can confer?17

It would seem that her meetings with escaped slaves such as Warner led Susanna to question the easy assumptions of her conservative, patriotic verse.

     Although Susanna had been apathetic to the actual suffering of slaves within the British colonial empire, she had nevertheless long been possessed of a romantic enthusiasm for rebel slaves seeking their freedom.  Her first book, Spartacus, A Roman Story (London:  A.K. Newman, 1822), shows her admiration for the high-spirited revolutionary leader whose attitude of command enables him to lead the slaves against tyrannical Rome.  It was to be a recurring theme in her work.  In "The Son of Arminius:  A Tale of Ancient Rome," a prose piece which appeared in Ackermann's Juvenile Forget-me-not for 1830, she tells the story of Thumelicus, who, although born and educated in Rome, discovers that his father is a Germanic tribal leader and leaves Rome to join Arminius in his struggle against Roman colonization.  "Arminius," a long narrative poem (22 stanzas of 10 lines each) was written about the same time as the story and submitted to Frederick Shoberl, editor of Ackermann's annuals, but he did not accept it and the poem did not appear in print until April 1835 in the North American Quarterly Magazine.18  It recounts a meeting between Aminius, who had been a Roman citizen and soldier, and his brother Flavius, in which the former, who hails "upon her mountain throne / The genius — Liberty," engages in verbal combat with his brother who is seen to have sold his birthright, freedom, to the Romans for power and wealth.  Arminius is the rhetorical and moral victor, but the two are prevented from "impious" physical combat by a Roman commander who observes their encounter.

     In spite of their concern with freedom, however, both of these Arminius narratives have as their main theme not freedom, but loyalty.  Regardless of citizenship and of all else, one's first allegiance is to his native land.  Arminius will not accept Thumelicus as a fighter if he is betraying Rome and Flavius admonishes him, "never raise your arm against your country."  In Thumelicus' death Arminius gains "a son who died gloriously for his country!"

     In her early work, then, Susanna Moodie's romantic enthusiasm for rebellious heroes struggling for their freedom alternates with expressions of patriotic feeling in poems celebrating the emblems of the British state.  In "On Reading the Proclamation . . ." these two literary exercises appear to clash with one another and to create some inconsistencies.  Chief amongst these is that sometimes freedom is the "immortal fire" which the hero feels in his bosom, and sometimes it is allegiance to the "lawful prince" and the native land.  Some rebels are to be celebrated and others castigated even though they are rebels against the same state and the same "lawful prince."  George Washington is seen as "Freedom's intrepid champion" wielding "the delegated sword of heaven" against Britain which imposes the "servile chain," but Mackenzie is seen only as a base mocker of "Freedom."  For Moodie, Washington possesses the same legendary and romantic status as Sir William Wallace, who strove against the English in the cause of Scottish independence during the 13th century, and her old favourite, Spartacus, who struggled against Rome.  Both Wallace and Spartacus were executed for treason, a fate which Moodie obviously thought the "slave" Mackenzie deserved, because in her eyes he sought only personal wealth and was not, like Washington, motivated by the high principle of freedom.  Furthermore, he was not loyal to the land of his birth or his sovereign.  Ironically, Mackenzie identified his cause with those of Wallace and the leaders of the American revolution, seeing himself and his followers not as the perpetrators of abuse but as the ones abused.

     Clearly, arbitrary, subjective designations dominate this poem.  Like the loyal Tory satirists of the American revolutionary period who viewed Washington as "captain of the western Goths and Huns," as supporter of "an atrocious cause," as a perjuror and "criminal,"19 so Moodie brands Mackenzie as leader of a "misguided lawless band," a felon driven by "selfish aims."  She saw in Mackenzie's Proclamation only what she wished to see and that was limited to one sentence in which Mackenzie promised 300 acres to any volunteer who assisted in the struggle, although he followed that promise with an admonition to his followers that the "property, person, or estate" even of those opposed to "the liberties of this continent" be protected.  The main tenets of the Proclamation were in accord with, now, well-recognized democratic principles: equal rights to all, civil and religious liberty, an administration responsible to the people through elections, vote by ballot, freedom of trade, access to education for every citizen.  Its emphasis on universality of rights is not consistent with Moodie's charges of self-interest and personal gain.20

     Several reasons for the inconsistency of Moodie's treatment of rebellion in this poem  are suggested.  First of all, it is obviously a very spontaneous poem, full of personal apprehension and indignation.  Unlike the other rebellions of which she wrote, the 1837 rebellion touched the well-being of her and her family in that Dunbar Moodie, a man who had "stood the awful shock of war," had drawn his "long neglected weapon from the sheath" and gone off to join the militia, leaving Susanna and the children alone at the wilderness farm.  Dunbar had fought in the Napoleonic wars with the 21st North British Fusilliers and, since coming to Canada in 1832, had sold his half-pay commission under the supposition that, were war to break out in Europe, he might be called to active service and forced to leave his wife and children.  When the separation was induced by Canadian conditions instead, it brought both hardship and blessing, as the readers of Roughing It in the Bush will know.

     A more important explanation for the inconsistencies of the poem may be derived from the last section with its psychological under-currents and its intimations that the idea of insurgency against the emblems of British authority was very traumatic for Moodie.   In the resolution to the poem what "inspires rthe] breast" is a conviction of loyalty; freedom is the state of being "Secure in conscious worth."  There is about the passage a defensive tone that may bring to mind those passages in Roughing It in the Bush in which Moodie emphasizes her sense of exile in the new land and compares her feeling "to that which the condemned criminal entertains for his cell."21  The rebellion gives her cause to assert that she possesses no "guilty soul," but is a "child of Britain" still.  Following the publication of "On Reading the Proclamation. . ." she reaffirmed her loyalty in such poems as "A National Song.  The Wind That Sweeps Our Native Sea" and "There Is Not a Spot in this Wide Peopled Earth," both of which emphasize Britain as the land of beauty, freedom and bravery which "No tyrant's power can chain," themes which had interested Moodie early in her career, but of which she was now able to write with a conviction and feeling strengthened by her own separation from the homeland and her experience of colonial rebellion.22


  1. This article is a result of research carried out for two works:  Susanna Moodie:  Letters of a Lifetime (Toronto, 1985), on which I collaborated with Michael Peterman of Trent University and Elizabeth Hopkins of Glendon College, and an edition of Roughing It in the Bush which I am editing for the Centre for Editing Early Canadian Texts at Carleton University.[back]

  2. Fothergill, who represented the Durham region in the Legislative Assembly from 1827 to 1830, was active in efforts to have Port Hope made a port of entry for immigrants and have docking facilities constructed there.  Such activities may have occasioned an acquaintance with the Moodies during their early residence in the area.  Such acquaintance seems indicated in his introduction to "Canadians Will You Join the Band" (Palladium, 20 December 1837) when he refers to Moodie's "nestling place in the dark-brown woods" of the Newcastle District. See Ken Dewar, "Charles Fothergill," Kawartha Heritage, ed. A.O.C. Cole and Jean Murray Cole (Peterborough, Peterborough Historical Atlas Foundation, 1981), 73-80. [back]

  3. Some or all of the poems were reprinted by the Kingston Chronical and Gazette, the Montreal Transcript, the Montreal Gazette, the Montreal Herald, and numerous other Canadian papers.  As a result Moodie was very well-known for the rebellion poems, and various reviews of Roughing It in the Bush published many years later acknowledge her good reputation as the writer of these pieces, including the long review which appeared in Blackwoods's Magazine in March 1852.  More recently, in "Four Poems on the Rebellion of 1837," Ontario History, 57(1865) 47-52, John S. Moir has acknowledged Moodie's role as a loyal poet and has reprinted four of the poems:  "The Burning of the Caroline," "The Oath of the Canadian Volunteers," "Canadians Will You Join the Band," and "The Convict's Wife."  The last poem in the list, which he also reprints in Rhymes of the Rebellion (Toronto:  Ryerson, 1965), was not a rebellion poem, however, having first been published in the Canadian Literary Magazine, 1 (April 1833), 44.[back]

  4. Western Herald and Farmer's Magazine (Sandwich, 8 May 1838) indicates that the poem appeared in the Palladium. The others were printed in such papers as the Chronicle and Gazette (Kingston), and the Gazette (Montreal).[back]

  5. Bell and Cockburn edition, 1913, p. 467.[back]

  6. The poem appears to allude to the French tricolour, "Thy treble hues are dyed in gore," and to Napoleon as the "trampled Despot" whose fate the rebels ought to heed.[back]

  7. "The Mackenzie Rebellion," The Backwoods of Canada (Toronto:   McLelland and Stewart, 1929), 320-41.[back]

  8. The submission of her poems to such publications as the Cobourg Star, the North American Quarterly Magazine and the Albion (New York) between September 1832 and December 1837 indicates that Moodie had contacts with the world outside the bush.[back]

  9. One such admirer was David Chisholme, a rigid Tory, who quoted "The Burning of the Caroline" in The Annals of Canada for 1837 and 1838 (Montreal:   Lovell and Gibson, [1849]).[back]

  10. The Arthur Papers, vol. 2, ed. Charles A. Sanderson (Toronto, 1957), 437. [back]

  11. Life in the Clearings, ed.  Robt. McDougall (Toronto:  Macmillan, 1959), 35.[back]

  12. Clearings, 35. [back]

  13. [Thomas Harral], La Belle Assemblée, 14 (August 1831), 82.[back]

  14. A later publication of vocal music, "The Queen of Merry England," with music by J. Green and words by Agnes Strickland, gives a list of six titles which appeared in the original Patriotic Songs. The identification of two of these poems as Susanna's is based upon their appearance in periodicals which acknowledge her authorship.[back]

  15. Improved series, 4 (August 1831), 90, and "To Subscribers and Correspondents," September.[back]

  16. Letters to James Bird, 31 August 1831, Glyde Copybook, Ipswich Public Record Office.[back]

  17. See C. Ballstadt, "Susanna Moodie:  Early Humanitarian Works," C N & Q, no. 8 (November 1971), 9-10.[back]

  18. "The Son of Arminius" was also published in The Victoria Magazine (December 1847), 77-82, and "Arminius" is one the "Historical Sketches" found in The Literary Garland, n.s. 2 (February 1844), 61-2.[back]

  19. See the poems of Jonathan Odell and Joseph Stansbury in Klinck and Watters, Canadian Anthology (Toronto:  Gage, 1974), particularly Odell's "The American Times."[back]

  20. For a reprint of the Proclamation see Appendix H, Edwin C. Guillet, The Lives and Times of the Patriots (Toronto:  University of Toronto Press, 1968), 256-63.[back]

  21. Roughing It in the Bush, 166.  The image of the prison-house is sustained in the last sentence of "Adieu to the Woods."[back]

  22. Since writing the concluding paragraph, I have found, in A.B. McKillop's A Disciplined Intelligence (Montreal:  McGill-Queen's University Press, 1979), a statement which supports my view of Moodie's poem:  "The physical separation of the Anglo-Canadian from Great Britain by the vast expanse of the North Atlantic was largely negated, at least for some, by the greater cultural context of which they knew they were a part."  (p. 4)  McKillop cites Moodie's "Education the True Wealth of the World" as a perfect expression of "this transcendence of geography by the sense and the burden of heritage."[back]

"On Reading the Proclamation Delivered by William Lyon Mackenzie, on Navy Island."