Blame Canada: The Quebec Act & the American Revolution

Prewar Politics (<1775)

January 12, 2017
by Geoff Smock Also by this Author


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Ask a group of my 8th grade U.S. History students what the causes of the American Revolution were and they are likely recite a catalogue of British actions: the Navigation Acts, the Stamp Act, “No Taxation without Representation,” the Proclamation of 1763, and the Boston Massacre, among others (or at least their teacher would hope so).  One British action that they, or the average American, are unlikely to be aware of, let alone mention, is the Quebec Act of 1774. Yet not only was the Act among the list of causes of America’s war for independence, it was perhaps the major demarcation point for the thirteen colonies’ ultimate divorce from Great Britain.

To many colonists, the Quebec Act was the culminating offense in “a long train of abuses and usurpations,” as Jefferson memorably described it in the Declaration of Independence; which, taken together, constituted a deliberate attempt on the part of British parliament, ministry, and crown to overwhelm Americans under a curtain of “absolute Despotism.”  The Act’s establishment of the Catholic church in a neighboring colony, its territorial extension of that colony into western lands, and its institution of a civil government appointed by – and serving at the pleasure of – the Crown corroborated their darkest suspicions of British intentions.  At the very least, it seemingly confirmed the dire warnings of Patriot firebrands and undercut the assurances of American Loyalists pleading for forbearance.  As one of the latter would lament, the Act was as successful as any other previous to it in “enraging the Americans against the measures of government.”[1]

To wit, news of the Quebec Act and the other “Intolerable Acts” punishing Massachusetts in the summer and autumn of 1774 helped to ignite a train of events that would lead to colonists and British redcoats killing each other at Lexington and Concord, the bloody afternoon at Bunker Hill, the creation of a “Continental Army,” and a proclamation from King George III that his American subjects were in “open and avowed rebellion” within a span of less than twelve months.[2]

In the American mind, the Act was the dispositive final piece of evidence revealing Whitehall’s nefarious endgame.  “This act develops the dark designs of the ministry more fully than any thing they have done,” concluded Alexander Hamilton, “and shews … that they have formed a systematic project of absolute power.”[3]

As a result, the Act calcified the idea among Americans that their own final endgame could not be more futile “Olive Branch” petitions or attempts at reconciliation, but must be a complete and irrevocable separation from Great Britain.  It was no accident that from that point forward the political impetus belonged to those pushing Independence.

By the next year, that endgame would be achieved.

With the public purpose of providing for a government of all Canadian territories acquired from the French after the Seven Years’ War, The Quebec Act guaranteed the province’s Catholic population “the free Exercise of the Religion of the Church of Rome subject to the King’s Supremacy.”[4]  This alone was enough to aggravate America’s predominantly Protestant population, who viewed with suspicion the absolute authority of Rome.

Yet what truly irritated them was not that the Act tolerated practice of the Roman Catholic faith, but their belief that it established the church and the authority of Rome right next door to them.  In a catalogue of grievances drafted for the Continental Congress, John Adams declared that the Act was “not only unjust to the People in that Province, but dangerous to the Interests of the Protestant Religion and of these Colonies.”[5]

Alexander Hamilton went into greater detail.  Commenting on the Act’s assurances that Canada’s Catholic clergy would continue to enjoy their previous legal claims to tithes from the people, he warned that “when precise dues … are legally annexed to the clerical office,” no reasonable or impartial observer can doubt “that the religion of the church of Rome is established in Canada.”  This, he argued, would give succor to the Catholic Church in North America and leave the Protestant Church in “a dependent disadvantageous situation” that would lead to the immigration of “droves” of Catholics from all over Europe.  America as they knew it would be buried in a Catholic avalanche.[6]

In his “Vindication of Measures of Congress,” Hamilton went on to ask his fellow countrymen, “Does not your blood run cold, to think an English parliament should pass an act for the establishment of arbitrary power and popery in such an extensive country?”  His pen dripping with disgust, he opined that the British ministry “may as well establish popery in New-York and the other colonies as they did in Canada.”[7]

John Jay echoed this sentiment.  Canada’s Catholics, and the onslaught of Catholic immigrants from Europe, would serve as “fit instruments” for Whitehall’s attempt to subjugate America’s Protestants and reduce them to “the same state of slavery with themselves.”[8]  In his and many other’s estimation, the Quebec Act was a thinly-veiled attempt on the part of Great Britain to slip the yoke on them from behind.

The Act’s extension of the Canadian provinces into western lands as far south as the Ohio River also infuriated those who had an interest there (and there were many). Tension between Great Britain and her American colonies had escalated over a decade earlier with the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which forbade colonies and colonists “on Pain of our Displeasure” from claiming and/or settling territories west of the Appalachian Mountains – lands coveted before and especially after the French presence was removed from the continent.[9]  Extending Canada’s boundaries into much of these lands, as the Quebec Act did, repeated this affront and, as Gordon Wood pithily summarizes it, “managed to anger all American interests – speculators, settlers, and traders alike.”[10]

It also gave American colonists further cause to wonder whether they would ever be able to seek their future prosperity in the abundant western frontier so long as they remained subject to the pleasure and direction of George III.  The Act’s primary parliamentary sponsor, Alexander Wedderburn, openly admitted that it was designed to deny them access to western lands and “keep them … along the line of the sea and rivers.”[11]  It was for this reason, in the estimation of Richard Henry Lee, that the Act was “the worst grievance” colonists had against the ministry.[12]

If their destiny was beyond the Appalachians, so too might it be outside the British Empire.  Benjamin Franklin, representing various colonies in London at the time, hinted at this.  Though the bill might be designed for the “Discouraging of Emigrations” west, it could never work.  The nature of the American colonist was to “settle new Lands, removing from those they have begun to cultivate as fast as they have an Opportunity of selling them to New Comers, who are not so fit for the Woods as themselves.” British designs to prevent this would prove destructive not of Americans’ interest in the west, but of their interest in remaining within the empire.  “Government can never be so unjust as to turn” settlers away from the bounty of western lands, he concluded, “and indeed it will never be done.”[13]

Of greatest alarm to the colonists was the civil government provided for in the Quebec Act.  In order to provide for the “Welfare and good Government of the province,” the King was permitted to “constitute and appoint a Council for the Affairs of the Province of Quebec,” members of which would serve at – and only at – the pleasure of the King.[14]  South Carolina planter William Henry Drayton couldn’t help but hide his indignation: “And what greater power has the Sovereign at Constantinople, over a province in the East, than the Sovereign at London now has over a province in the West!”[15]

Fearful that the litany of taxes, laws, and actions of the last decade were a concerted attempt to subjugate them beneath Whitehall’s closed fist, the Quebec Act was proof positive for many Americans. Whenever they gazed north or west, they would now see a government answerable not to its subjects, but to a monarch an ocean away.  As Edmund Morgan summed it up, Quebec would thereafter be “a close and constant reminder of what all the colonists now felt sure was in store for them should they fail to surrender their property whenever Parliament demanded it.”[16]

For decades, colonists had prided themselves on being coequal members of the British Empire, an empire whose role they as saw as being, in the words of Daniel Robinson, “the arbiter of Europe,” responsible for securing a balance of power that preserved theirs and continental liberties from “French universal monarchy.”[17]  Now, not only was Great Britain no longer protecting their liberties from a “French universal monarchy,” they were actively instituting it in a province that surrounded them on two sides.  “By the Quebec Act we find the parliament claim a power to establish in America, the same arbitrary government that takes place in France,” lamented Connecticut minister Ebenezer Baldwin. “By the same right they could establish this form of government over the English in Canada; they may do it in the other provinces.”[18]

Phillip Livingston of New York echoed this Quebec Writ-Large fear.  Reflecting on the new government next door, he wondered “whether a country has not great reason to fear the loss of its liberties, when surrounded by a multitude of slaves … Does not experience give additional force to every solicitous apprehension?”[19]

John Adams tried to get at the crux of the matter for Americans. Taken together, the bill suspending Massachusetts’ legislature and the Quebec Act revealed Whitehall’s oligarchical designs for America.  “The definition of oligarchy,” he wrote, “is a government by a number of grandees, over whom the people have no controul.”  Quebec’s new government, comprised entirely of men appointed by and serving at the pleasure of George III, was just such a government.  Quebec and Massachusetts were, in effect, “samples” of the oligarchical government parliament had in mind for America.[20]

In the mind of Adams and many others in America, the British ministry had laid its cards on the table.  The only play available to them to preserve their liberties was to prepare for a final, official separation.  As Fred Anderson points out in his masterful Crucible of War, the two items most important to Americans of that time were their English liberties and “the hope of improving their material circumstances” through access to lands west of the Appalachians.[21]  By extending the province of Quebec into those lands and instituting an oligarchical government therein, the Quebec Act attacked both ideals.

From that moment, Adams and those pushing for American independence took the initiative.  Though months of political and military legwork were still required, the Quebec Act, fused with all of Whitehall’s previous offenses, played an important role in convincing Americans that they had one choice and once choice only: independence.  As Jefferson wrote in the declaration thereof, the Act was “foreign to our Constitution” by “abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighboring 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 in these Colonies.”

A critical mass of Americans agreed with Adams and the “Independence Party” that should they stay within the empire of Great Britain, Canada’s present would be America’s future.

The American colonies decided that they would not become Canada.  They would separate from Great Britain and become the United States of America instead.


[1] Thomas Bradbury Chandler, “A Friendly Address,” 1774, in Wood, ed., The American Revolution: Writings from the Pamphlet Debate II, 1773-1776 (New York: Library of America, 2015), 285.

[2] George III, “Proclamation of Rebellion.” Brittania, August 23, 1775, accessed November 2, 2016,

[3] “Remarks on the Quebec Bill: Part Two, [June 22, 1775],” Founders Online, National Archives, Original source: The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol. 1, 1768–1778, ed. Harold C. Syrett (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961), 169–176.

[4] Great Britain. Parliament. A Bill, Intituled an Act for Making More Effectual Provision for the Government of the Province of Quebec, in North America. London, 1774,

[5] “I. Heads of Grievances and Rights, 9 September 1774,” Founders Online, National Archives, Original source: The Adams Papers, Papers of John Adams, vol. 2, December 1773 – April 1775, ed. Robert J. Taylor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977), 152–156.

[6] Alexander Hamilton, “Vindication of Measures of Congress”, 1774, in Joanne B. Freeman, ed. Hamilton: Writings (New York: Library of America, 2001), 33-4.

[7] Hamilton, Ibid.

[8] John Jay, “Address to the People of Great Britain,” as quoted in Walter Stahr, John Jay: Founding Father (New York: Hambledon and London, 2005), 41.

[9] George III, “The Royal Proclamation”, October 7, 1763, accessed November 5, 2016 from The Avalon Project.

[10] Gordon S. Wood, The American Revolution, (New York, NY: Random House, 2003), 22-3.

[11] As quoted in Nick Bunker, Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2014), 276.

[12] As quoted in Woody Holton, Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia (Chapel Hill: Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia, by the University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 36.

[13] Benjamin Franklin to Jonathan Shipley, March 10, 1774, Founders Online, National Archives, Original source: The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 21, January 1, 1774, through March 22, 1775, ed. William B. Willcox (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1978), 138–140.

[14] Ibid.

[15] William Henry Drayton, “A Letter From Freeman”, in Gordon Wood, ed., The American Revolution: Writings From the Pamphlet Debate II, 1773-1776 (New York: Library of America, 2015), 154.

[16] Edmund S. Morgan, The Birth of the Republic, 1763-89. 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 60.

[17] Daniel Robinson. “Giving Peace to Europe: European Geopolitics, Colonial Political Culture, and the Hanoverian Monarchy in British North America, Ca. 1740–63.” The William and Mary Quarterly 73, no. 2 (April 2016): 294.

[18] Ebenezer Baldwin, “Stating the Heavy Grievances”, 1774, in Wood, ed., Pamphlet Debate, 365.

[19] Phillip Livingston, “The Other Side of the Question”, in Ibid., 337.

[20] John Adams, “Novanglus No. VII”, in Gordon Wood, ed., John Adams: Revolutionary Writings, 1755-1775 (New York, NY: Library of America, 2011), 528.

[21] Fred Anderson, Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766 (New York: Vintage Books, 2000), 741.


  • I have to wonder what the same students will say after, say, two years, no, how about six months after they were taught those facts? Well, even if there is always an immense and inevitable loss of hard-earned knowledge within a very short period of time…hmm, I”ll have to think about that. I wouldn’t want to be seen as being against education, but what is the answer to the part I left out?

    The students were taught those facts in the 8th grade–I wasn’t, not all of them–but when and how often were they repeated? Maybe once more before High School graduation if they were lucky. How much would they remember as adults, except “taxation without representation.” Probably none of them. I remember studying American History in the 5th grade and again in the 11th grade, but nothing else. I’m curious as to the present situation. From what i’ve read, the study of American History has been greatly de-emphasized. By the way I graduated from High School in 1955 in California.

  • Hopefully they’ll have taken the reasons for anger with Britain to heart. You make a valid point about throwing historical facts at students as education — it’s a large reason why I became a teacher. Rote memorization does little to encourage their intellectual or personal growth, so I try and have them think critically about the who’s and what’s of history. For example, in this unit, I’ve had them adopt the role of a colonist who owns a small export business and was recently married. We’ve examined how and why this person was harmed by British policies (taxes, Navigation Acts, etc.) and the competing reasons they might have to go for war and independence or remain loyal and pursue continued peaceful protests. They had the chance to develop an argument and debate their fellow classmates/colonists in a town hall. They then got to vote as a class/colony whether they would declare independence or stay out of war.

    The idea behind this is that an empathetic approach to studying history will allow them to put themselves in the time period more, so to speak, and to begin developing their critical thinking skills by tackling historical questions.

  • Geoff, you speak of putting students into the time period to develop their critical thinking skills. You might be interested in curricula I’ve been developing for the Constitution Sources Project (ConSource): “Choosing to Make a Nation: Interactive Lessons on the Revolution, Constitution, and Bill of Rights.” Each lesson is a student simulation, guided by historical context. Here’s a link to the unit on the Constitutional Convention:
    I’ve completed another unit, “The Constitution in Action,” with simulations from the Early Republic. More on the Revolution will follow.

    1. Wow! That’s some impressive work, Ray. Thank you for the heads-up on this. This is a lot of great curricula tailor-made for my 8th graders and our upcoming unit on the Constitution!

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