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Friday, April 30, 2010

Aftermath of the Rebellion

President Martin Van Buren had not been successful in obtaining pardons for the American citizens imprisoned by the British.  He had made only one informal request for clemency through his Ambassador in London, Andrew Stevenson. That request resulted in a pardon for William Reynolds, who was supposedly the youngest of the prisoners, but not for any of the others. Van Buren stood by his proclamation of 1838 that “any American citizen who invaded a friendly neighbour, in violation of the country’s Neutrality Act, would forfeit his claim to protection and could expect no legal interference from the United States government on his behalf.”(1)  Also, fear of war with the British over an ongoing boundary dispute in Maine kept Van Buren from pressing the clemency issue any further.

In his New York Plebeian article Mackenzie made an appeal to Van Buren’s successor, President John Tyler:

The victim of oppression found deliverers, and entertained no fears whatever, that John Tyler, President of the United States, will send him back again, but would rather hope the friendly aid of this great nation, through its Executive, will soon effectually relieve those who yet groan in bondage and restore them to their free and happy homes.(2)

In August 1842, two months after James returned and published his story, United States Secretary of State Daniel Webster, as part of his negotiations in the dispute over the border between Maine and New Brunswick, wrote a formal letter to England’s Lord Ashburton requesting a free pardon for the American prisoners in Van Diemen’s Land. Then in 1843, United States Representative Caleb Cushing made a formal appeal to President John Tyler, asking him to petition the British government for the release of the American prisoners.  The British conceded, but the bureaucratic process moved slowly, and it was 1850 before all of the remaining Americans had received their free pardons. Joseph Hume in London had continued to petition for a free pardon for the Short Hills men.(3)

Linus Miller finally received a pardon in July 1845, more than a year after it had been sent from London. Elijah Woodman was finally pardoned, but died on the voyage home. Aaron Dresser, Jr., and Stephen Wright were pardoned, and upon their return in February 1844, they wrote in an emotional letter to the New York Tribune, “To be obliged to drag out an existence in such a convict colony and among such a population, is, itself a punishment severe beyond our powers to describe.” The letter succeeded in pressuring the United States government to intervene, and they finally directed the ambassador to request pardons for the American patriots still in VDL. The process was not completed for several more years.(4)  After living in exile in the United States for eleven years, William Lyon Mackenzie was the last of the rebels to be pardoned. He returned to Toronto in 1849.
  1. Pybus, American Citizens, British Slaves, pp. 38, 43-44, 47-48.
  2. NY Plebeian, transcription, p. 11.
  3. Pybus, American Citizens, pp.171-2. 204; Pybus, Introduction to Snow’s narrative.
  4. Miller, p. 354; Pybus, American Citizens, pp. 197-8. (See Pybus’ note #36 in Snow, part III, for the last pardons.)

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