The Quebec Act


quebec act
A map showing the division of North America as defined by the Quebec Act

The American revolutionaries considered the Quebec Act to be one of the ‘Intolerable Acts’, even though it was not part of the four-act program passed specifically to punish the colonies. The Quebec Act was instead focused on Britain’s newest American colony, Canada, which had been ceded by the French in 1763. Control of this vast territory, its 70,000 French-speaking residents and its own local issues passed to the Westminster parliament. Looking for a way to avoid trouble in Canada and to prevent the French-speaking Canadians from joining with the rebellious Americans, the British came up with a series of compromises. French civil law, abandoned in 1763, was reinstated while British procedures were retained for criminal law. Those aspiring to public office no longer had to swear an oath to the Protestant church; and the Canadians were granted control of a large area of land covering modern-day Ohio and western Pennsylvania (the area shown in red, see picture at right). But most tellingly, it became legal and permissible for the Canadians to practice Roman Catholicism in this area. Not only were Catholics free to establish churches and worship within Canada, they could also ‘export’ their religion into the new territories, right to the western borders of the rebellious British colonies.


People in those British colonies responded to the Quebec Act with fear and paranoia. Driven by fundamentalist religious views and a rabid fear of Catholicism and the French, they believed that London was ushering forth this spectre on the colonies out of spite. The Americans feared the return of the French to their western borders. The open land granted to Quebec was still being eyed by settlers and land speculators in Boston, New York and Philadelphia; now it would be taken by French-Canadians, who were also given leave to occupy significant waterways like the Great Lakes and the upper Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. There was a strong religious opposition to the Quebec Act too, particularly in New England, where Puritanism still held firm. They feared and despised Catholicism, its ornate ceremonies, Latin masses and ‘Popery’; the act seemed not only to legalise Catholicism in Canada but to encourage its spread right up to the western borders of New England. Propagandists in the colonies painted the Quebec Act as a war measure, a British attempt to unleash the French on the rebellious colonies either as a threat or a distraction. New England clergymen preached hateful sermons about Papists and French spies. Those in Boston found it unthinkable that the parliament could legislate to protect the political, legal and religious rights of Frenchmen while denying Massachusetts those same rights. The Quebec Act, intended as a fair-minded solution to a difficult problem in a new colony, became to the sensitive Americans another manifestation of British disregard and tyranny.

“Negative reaction to the Quebec Act was caused by a misunderstanding by several of the groups involved. The act on paper was to appease the French and preserve the fur trade in Canada. [But] the act was not well received and the lieutenant-governors never established control of their districts. The colonists saw the act as a penalty imposed on them for their resistance to British taxes… In fact, the main provisions of the act had been worked out before the Boston Tea Party even took place. The colonists believed that a Catholic strong-hold with autocratic rule had been created to threaten them. The act also overruled claims to western lands contained in the original charters of Pennsylvania and Virginia. Another concern was the military threat of British troops based at the rear of the Thirteen Colonies.”
Walter Scott Dunn, historian


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