Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Quebec Act: Forgotten Cause of the American Revolution


“For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies.”

This text from the American Declaration of Independence refers to the Quebec Act of 1774. This Act of the British Parliament was one of the major causes of the American Revolution. New Englanders in particular feared that this law threatened the very survival of their political and religious institutions.

Religious ideology was at the heart of this imagined threat to American liberty. The religious controversy surrounding the Quebec Act opens a gateway to a forgotten story line in the narrative of the American Republic.

The former French colony of Canada, renamed the Province of Quebec, came under English rule following the Treaty of Paris of 1763. The intention of the 1774 law was to create a political and legal basis for a British province that was, at that date, almost entirely French-speaking and Roman Catholic.

The provisions of the Quebec Act and its subsequent mandates...
  • Restored the pre-1763 borders of the province, which included the Great Lakes region and the Ohio Valley
  • Reinstated French civil law, while it established English criminal law in the Province
  • Reestablished both the tithe for the Roman Catholic clergy and the traditional privileges of the land-holding seigneurs as a consequence of the restoration of the French civil code
With the exception of the imposition of English criminal law, these provisions reinstated Canada’s status quo ante. The Declaration of Independence, however, frames the Act’s provisions not as a revival of Quebec’s former customs but as an assortment of innovations both outrageous and dangerous:

“For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province…”
This refers to the restoration of French civil law. The “free system of English laws”  had been in effect in the "neighbouring Province," and only partially at that, for a mere ten years or so prior to the Quebec Act. This "free system" was insufficiently established to speak reasonably of its abolition.

“establishing therein an Arbitrary government…”
The Quebec Act provided for an appointed council, rather than an elective assembly, to aid the governor’s oversight of the Province. A not dissimilar council had existed under the French Regime. This is the arbitrary government referenced in this clause. Rather than establishing arbitrary rule, the intent of the Act was to normalize the political and legal structure of the Province along lines familiar to its elite.

In fact, the period of British rule prior to the Quebec Act, which involved the refusal of its governors to implement the constitution in full, and the exclusion of most of the inhabitants from any role in civil affairs, might be liable to a charge of “arbitrary government.”

Province of Quebec 1774
Source: l'Annuaire du Québec, 1972
“and enlarging its Boundaries…”
Control of the Ohio Valley had been a casus belli in the so-called French and Indian War. Reestablishing the Province’s former borders allowed the Montréal merchants, via the Great Lakes, Ottawa, and St. Lawrence waterways, to compete with the Albany/Hudson/New York trade. The American colonists saw the territory that had been restored to Quebec as a natural field for their own western ambitions and resented its return to the Canadiens.

“…so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies.”
Following a politicized construal of the Act's provisions, this language reveals the Americans' gravest concern. They feared that King George was sharpening his sword on Canada in preparation for the reduction of the American colonies to “absolute rule.” The colonists viewed what was in reality a pragmatic policy with regard to Quebec as a mere prelude to a tyrant’s gambit.

The phrase about Quebec becoming a “fit instrument” for the King’s supposed despotic designs touches on the Americans' darkest fears. What most exercised New England in the Quebec Act is that their Protestant king had not only tolerated but also established the Roman Catholic faith in “a neighbouring province.”  The next step, they feared, was that King George would unleash a French “papist” horde as his “instrument” for imposing a romanizing religion and government upon them.

In his book The Quebec Act: A Primary Cause of the American Revolution, Charles H. Metzger, S.J. argues that anti-Catholic bigotry with its fears of the French “papist” horde was by no means a minor subplot to the tea tax, the Stamp Act, and other American grievances. 

Writes Metzger, “[the] writings [of the American colonists] prove that to many of them the ‘Church of Rome’ was little less than the incarnation of evil; its adherents were thought capable of any crime; its creed was believed to be perversive and destructive of the very foundations of the social order.”*

In my next post I will explore in greater depth this picture of a French “papist” horde sweeping down from the North to extinguish Anglo-Saxon Protestant liberty. This meme was not only a major cause of the American Revolution. It also illumines the unique, virulent opposition faced by the French-Canadian workers who descended upon New England  in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

These latter-day Canadiens came not with weapons of war but with tools of labor. What I term the French “papist” horde meme, however, exerted so powerful an influence on the New England mind that these immigrant workers evoked anew the fears of 1774. I will show that the French "papist" horde image persisted for more than a century after the Quebec Act.

* The Quebec Act: A Primary Cause of the American Revolution, Metzger, Charles H., New York: The United States Catholic Historical Society, 1936, p 11.

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