“That Damned Absurd Word Liberty:” Les Habitants, the Quebec Act, and American Revolutionary Ideology, 1774–1776

Critical Thinking

August 5, 2019
by Sebastian van Bastelaer Also by this Author


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The American invasion of Quebec of 1775-1776 failed to achieve its primary objective: to bring into the fold what the Continental Congress referred to as “the only link wanting, to compleat the bright and strong chains of union.”[1] While Canada would not join its southern brethren in outright rebellion, the Americans’ campaign furnishes important insight into the early stages of the Revolution and the appeal it held both in the thirteen colonies and abroad.

Pro-American sentiment was widespread and polymorphous. In the early stages of the invasion, French-Canadian habitants (peasants) provided assistance in various ways to the Continental troops, even if it meant turning on neighbors and flouting traditional societal hierarchies. But why? Were the habitants, as some claim, merely opportunistic? Did they simply choose whichever side appeared to be winning in order to personally prosper and avoid punishment from the victorious army? Did the transatlantic political debates that provided the impetus for the Revolution have any bearing on the habitants’ decisions? And if so, were they merely fooled by the war of words between the two sides? One study claims that the peasants’ acted as they did because they were “frightened, misled and completely demoralized by American propaganda.”[2] This view, however, reduces the large group of peasants to one ignorant bloc. It also echoes some of the elitist rhetoric of the time period: one letter written by an administrator in June 1775 read, “one need not be a great orator to persuade these poor fellows.”[3] It also runs counter to historical evidence, which shows that a thoughtful rejection of the 1774 Quebec Act and a partial embrace of the revolutionary ideology of liberty did in fact take place in the province in response to American appeals. The habitants, it appears,were not blindly committing acts of wanton violence or simply transacting out of economic and military expediency. Instead, they were often making considered choices about the belligerents’ ideologies and taking risks to fight for the American cause.

The Quebec Act, which reestablished various French civil and governmental norms in addition to reinstituting Catholicism, is a vital factor in understanding the habitants’ loyalties. It created a Governor’s Council to help administer the province; extended the boundaries of Quebec south into the Ohio Valley—a region for which Anglo-Americans had fought and died less than two decades prior; reestablished the Catholic Church; and granted French law to the populace. Though one can easily see why Protestant, land-hungry Americans to the south were leery of the act,[4] what did the habitants make of it? Scholars often credit the Act for preventing a full-scale provincial uprising, often portraying the peasants as rigidly religious. Griffin Martin argued that “the main cause, the great reason why Canada did not join in the Revolution was . . . [that] Bishop Briand [the head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Quebec] was loyal to England.”[5] Historian Victor Coffin called the view that the Quebec Act secured the habitants’ loyalty to Britain “generally accepted,” and other studies bear this claim out.[6] In the introduction to a report from British administrators on habitant collaboration, Louis Balthazar opined that the Quebec Act “had much to please Canadians who had become attached to their old laws, to their seigniorial regime, and, above all, to their Catholic religion.”[7] Finally, in his Thrust for Canada, Robert McConnell Hatch asserted that the Act “enabled non-English people to become part of the empire without losing their identity, their religion, or their voice in government—a historic achievement, greatly to [Governor General of Canada Guy] Carleton’s credit.”[8]

Yet the eighteenth-century evidence fails to support this established narrative. Historian Mark Anderson has written “that the habitants’ first practical experience with the Quebec Act was the distinctly distasteful imposition of martial law.”[9] Moreover, the religious reforms were not what they seemed. Though the Canadians remained uniformly Catholic, the church leadership had lost some of its grip on the peasants, many of whom began to reject the supreme authority of the clergymen. The disdain for ecclesiastical authority, however, predated the Revolution. There were signs prior to the American invasion that Catholicism held only a diminished sway over parishioners. Many residents hated the compulsory taxes (called tithes) paid to the church. A practice that had declined since the end of the Seven Years’ War, the tithes were unpopular. Many peasants wanted to see them abolished forever. In the 1760s, Gov. Gen. James Murray (Carleton’s predecessor) lamented, “they [the habitants] do not submit as tamely to the yoke, and under sanction of the capitulation they every day take an opportunity to dispute the tithes.”[10] Michel Brunet summarized, “Living for more than a century on American soil, the Canadian had imbibed much of the spirit of freedom of his frontier environment. He had come to resent the oppressive controls of an absolutist state and a puritanical church.”[11]

The problem, therefore, was that the Quebec Act did not materially improve the lives of the habitants in any way. As Lanctot showed, the Quebec Act in effect “did not change the lives of the country people, who had never ceased to practice their religion nor to follow” French legal customs.[12] The one principal change was the reinstitution of the tithe system. This tax was the most tangible impact of the Quebec Act’s passage. It reinforced old customs and forced the peasants to subordinate themselves to the clergy once again. The Act’s other changes were essentially nominal to the everyday French-Canadian, who did not participate in the government and cared little about the boundaries of the province. In the eyes of many, then, the Quebec Act was simply an arbitrary tax—the sort of imposition that had rankled the “Bostonians” for over a decade.

The passage of the Quebec Act, therefore, did not elicit a jubilant response from the habitants. William Hey, the Chief Justice of Quebec, expressed with some surprise, “it may be truly said that Gen. Carleton had taken an ill measure of the influence of the seigneurs & Clergy over the lower order of people.” He continued, explaining that the Act had been “passed for the express purpose of gratifying the Canadians,” and yet instead had “become the first object of their discontent & dislike.”[13]A rare epistle from a Canadian village added that the reaction to the Quebec Act was “so great a consternation, that the most violent storm of thunder and lightning could not have produced a greater effect upon a people.”[14] Another letter, written in Quebec City, noted, “The new arrangement of government under the Quebeck-bill, met with a general disapprobation . . . the Canadians in general were displeased with it, and declared that it was not at their desire or sollicitation that it was passed.”[15]

This resistance sometimes took concrete forms. In spring 1775, a Loyalist in Montreal wrote to a contemporary about vandalism directly linked to the Quebec Act. The legislation was due to go into effect on May 1, and on the night of April 30, “some malicious and mischievous person or persons disfigured the King’s bust on the parade, by blacking its face, hanging a chaplet of potatoes about its neck, with a wooden cross and a label, on which was wrote, ‘Le Pape de Canada ou le sot Anglois[the Pope of Canada or the English fool].”[16] This caused a fight to break out, during which enemies exchanged physical blows. Evidently, the inhabitants of Quebec were not as pleased by the new law as the administration had hoped—or as scholars tend to suggest.

While the Quebec Act made many habitants frustrated with the British, it may not have been enough on its own to convince such a large segment to aid actively the invading, anti-Catholic army. To better comprehend the motives that actuated this conduct, we have to look at the efforts of American leaders to appease and convince the peasants of the revolutionary cause’s benevolence and righteousness. It would not be easy; many scholars have pointed out the bald hypocrisy in attempting to propitiate a group of people against whom Anglo-Americans had long fought. John C. Miller declared the efforts moot: “[The Americans’ appeals] fell upon barren soil. The Canadians were reluctant to fling themselves into the arms of the Pope haters to the south . . . even the most expert phrase turners might well have found themselves at a loss in addressing the Canadians.”[17] Yet once again, archival evidence undermines the assertion that the conservative habitants rejected wholesale the Americans’ appeals.

American political and military leaders quickly grasped the importance of appeasing the peasantry, who constituted a sizable portion of the population. The most well known (and widely distributed) set of appeals to the Canadians came from the Continental Congress. It published three public declarations to the populaceover the course of the Revolution. The first and most important came in October 1774. Titled Letter to the Inhabitants of the Province of Quebec, it tactfully yet convincingly made several arguments against the Quebec Act while threatening the use of force. Further, it deftly skirted underlying religious issues by making anodyne statements about the importance of religious liberty. The document, drafted by John Dickinson, Thomas Cushing and Richard Henry Lee, praised French thinkers and ideas before delving into a summary of British rights, particularly those that the Canadians could stand to lose under the Quebec Act. It warned that the decision-makers in London had eliminated rights of habeas corpus and trial by jury; moreover, they pointed out, the British could easily raise taxes, pointing out the Quebec Act had essentially denied the Canadian people the right to set their own taxes.

The drafters then questioned the benefits of the Act. Addressing the establishment of Catholicism, they asked, “what is offered to you by the late Act of Parliament in their place? Liberty of conscience in your religion? No. God gave it to you.”[18] It also warned the inhabitants that the granted rights were only temporary, pointing out a line in the Act itself that read, “those ‘laws shall be the rule, until they shall be varied or altered by any ordinances of the Governor and Council.’”[19] Artfully glossing over centuries of anti-Catholic animus in the thirteen colonies, the writers of the appeal reminded their readers of the “Swiss Cantons,” whose “union is composed of Roman Catholic and Protestant States, living in the utmost concord and peace with one another, and thereby enabled . . . to defy and defeat every tyrant that has invaded them.”[20] They finished by inviting the Canadians to send delegates to the Second Continental Congress, set to convene the following May.

Two more entreaties followed from the Congress, and several others came from different American leaders. These all carried similar messages. The second letter from Philadelphia, sent in May 1775, again pointed out the impermanence of the Quebec Act’s benefits. Highlighting the lack of self-representation as well as the flimsy freedom of religion granted by Parliament, the authors noted, “the enjoyment of your very religion, in the present system, depends on a legislature in which you have no share, and over which you have no control.”[21] It also asserted, “we perceived the fate of the protestant and catholic colonies to be strongly linked together.”[22] The final letter, written in January 1776, thanked the habitants specifically for their zeal in assisting the American effort, and urged them to organize politically and send delegates to the Congress. It concluded, “We flatter ourselves with the prospect of the happy moment when the standard of tyranny shall no longer appear in this land; and we live in full hopes that it will never hereafter find shelter in North America.”[23] Congress were not the only ones to send letters to convince the Canadians. Generals Schuyler and Washington both sent proclamations as well; these, too, were intended to flatter the Canadians and impel them to aid the American cause.

So, did these appeals fail in the inhospitable and “barren” Canadian political landscape, as scholars have suggested? On the contrary, accounts show that many copies of the addresses were distributed throughout Quebec, and that they did not fall on deaf ears. Over 2,000 copies were made of the first address from the Congress.[24] Since many habitants could not read, word-of-mouth was a vital means whereby the message could spread. The account written by colonial administrators François Baby, Gabriel Taschereau, and Jenkin Williams reported numerous incidents of peasants reading American addresses aloud in public and attempting to communicate with the Americans.[25]  An unsigned letter written in Montreal reported, “The Address from the Continental Congress attracted the notice, of some of the principal Canadians; it was soon translated into very tolerable French. The decent manner in which the religious matters were touched; the encomiums on the FrenchNation, flattered a people fond of compliments.”[26]

Some habitants themselves were able to report their satisfaction. In November 1775, a group of habitants near Montreal wrote a letter to Gen. Richard Montgomery, who was on the verge of taking the city.  Providing perhaps the best glimpse at how some inhabitants responded to American appeals, it exulted: “Sir, The darkness in which we were buried is finally dissipated—the day shines, our chains are broken, a happy freedom has been returned to us . . . we accepted union in our hearts from the moment that the address of the 26th October 1774 reached us, to which we could have replied if we had dared.”[27]

The appreciation for liberty and freedom among the habitants evident in this letter appears in numerous pieces of evidence from the time—what’s more, it is clear that the American entreaties did not spawn sentiments where none had existed prior. S. D. Clark argues, “this spirit of independence grew from within and was fostered from without. American propaganda, disseminated by local British residents, at least strengthened ideas of freedom which had long been growing up among the Canadians.”[28] The Badeaux journal reports a similar desire for freedom among some habitants: some people in “the parishes of Chambly who were on the side of the Bastonnais [Bostonians] announced to all the other parishes to not take arms against the Bastonnais, for these men had come to save us from oppression.”[29]

Further illustrating the ubiquity of these beliefs is a series of letters written by British administrators and religious officials. Though they could understandably have downplayed the chaos and pro-American agitation, several of these leaders were frank. Assessing the effectiveness of Congress’s appeals, William Hey reported, the Canadians’ minds had been “all poisoned by emissaries from New England . . . [and] corrupted and persuaded by the circular letters” from Congress.[30] Fifteen years after the invasion, Bishop Jean-François Hubert of the Archdiocese of Quebec, concurred in a letter to Carleton. He recalled “the progress among the Canadians of the spirit of liberty and independence, brought about by the circulation of manifestoes by the Anglo-Americans at the beginning of the last war.”[31]

It was Carleton himself, the man in charge of defending Quebec, who most emphatically sounded the alarm over habitant disloyalty to the Crown. In 1777, he reminisced, “these people were too penetrated by the American ideas of emancipation and independence.”[32] At another moment, he discussed “that spirit of licentiousness and independence that has pervaded all the British Colonies upon this continent, and was making, through the endeavors of a turbulent faction here, a most amazing progress in this country.”[33]

There are also examples of collective political action in favor of the Americans. The most famous of these is the formation of the so-called “Seditious Assembly” in Pointe-Levy on the south shore of the Saint Lawrence River. This was a rare early case of popular organization in Canada, in which “perhaps a hundred men,” all peasants it seems, gathered to resist collectively the British forces. As Anderson has recounted, after they heard of this assembly, “four hundred habitants from nine different parishes gathered from as far as thirty miles away” within twenty-four hours. Furthermore, “Many were unarmed; the ‘assembly’ was as much a political demonstration as it was a show of force.”[34] Though a sparsely populated, geographically spread out, and largely illiterate population was unlikely to form a lasting political infrastructure for themselves, they were still able to muster a large gathering of like-minded partisans to advocate opposition to British conscription and coercion. Importantly, the “Seditious Assembly” belies the assertion that the French-Canadians had no desire for self-determination, an imputation occasionally made by historians.[35]

Clearly, the Quebec Act was far less effective initially in propitiating the Canadian people. Furthermore, the American appeals were not rejected out of hand; rather, they encouraged and strengthened an existing zeal for freedom within the province. One therefore can conclude that much of the collaboration that occurred in Quebec was not merely borne of economic concerns or congenital violent tendencies. For many habitants, it was a thoughtful, peaceful, and ideologically-driven decision made in spite of the risks it engendered. As Thomas Gamble, a deputy quartermaster, concluded: “In short, the Quebec Bill is of no use; on the contrary the Canadians talk of that damned absurd word liberty.”[36]


[1]Continental Congress, Letter to the Inhabitants of the Province of Quebec (1774).

[2]Gustave Lanctot, Canada and the American Revolution 1774-1783, translated by Margaret M. Cameron (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin & Co., 1967), 74.

[3]Lettres Ecrites pendant L’Invasion Americaine en 1775 et 1776 (Montreal: Eusebe Senécal, 1872).

[4]Protest against the Quebec Act in the Thirteen Colonies was strident; even the Declaration of Independence decried it as a concession aimed at making the Canadians “fit instruments” to subjugate the Americans.

[5]Martin I.J. Griffin, Catholics and the American Revolution, Vols. 1-3 (Ridley Park, PA: self-published, 1907), 219.

[6]Victor Coffin, “The Province of Quebec and the Early American Revolution: A Study in English-American Colonial History,” Bulletin of the University of Wisconsin, Economics, Political Science and History Series, Vol. 1, no. 3 (1896), 275-562.

[7]François Baby, Gabriel-Elzéar Taschereau, and Jenkin Williams, Québec During the American Invasion, 1775-1776: The Journal of François Baby, Gabriel Taschereau, and Jenkin Williams, edited by Michael P. Gabriel, translated by S. Pascale Vergereau-Dewey (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2005), xiv-xv.

[8]Robert McConnell Hatch, Thrust for Canada: The American Attempt on Quebec in 1775-1776 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979,) 13.

[9]Mark R. Anderson, The Battle for the Fourteenth Colony: America’s War of Liberation in Canada, 1774-1776 (Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2013), 81.

[10]Quoted in Coffin, “The Province of Quebec and the Early American Revolution,”284.

[11]Clark, Movements of Political Protest in Canada, 89.

[12]Lanctot, Canada and the American Revolution, 74.

[13]Quoted in Anderson, The Battle for the Fourteenth Colony, 86.

[14]Quoted in Coffin, “The Province of Quebec and the Early American Revolution,” 91.

[15]Ibid., 91-92.

[16]“Copy of an Intercepted Letter, Dated Montreal, May 6, 1775,” Peter Force, ed. American Archives: Consisting of a collection of authentick records, state papers, debates, and letters and other notice of publick affairs, the whole forming a documentary history of the origin and progress of the North American colonies; of the causes and accomplishment of the American revolution; and of the Constitution of government for the United States, to the final ratification thereof (Washington: M. St. Clair Clarke and Peter Force, 1853), 2: 518.

[17]John C. Miller, Origins of the American Revolution, 4 (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1959), 456-457.

[18]Continental Congress, Letter to the Inhabitants of the Province of Quebec, (1774).



[21]Continental Congress, Letter to the Inhabitants of Canada (1775).


[23]Continental Congress, Letter to the Inhabitants of the Province of Canada (1776).

[24]Coffin, “The Province of Quebec and the Early American Revolution,” 496.

[25]Baby et al., Quebec During the American Invasion, 11-12.

[26]“Extract of a Letter from Canada, Dated Montreal, March 24, 1775,” American Archives, 2: 281.

[27]Quoted in Marcel Trudel, La Tentation Américaine 1774-1783 (Québec City, QC: Presses de L’Université Laval, 1968), 102.

[28]S.D. Clark, Movements of Political Protest in Canada, 1640-1840 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1959), 89.

[29]J.B. Badeaux, Journal des Operations de l’Armée Américaine lors de L’Invasion du Canada en 1775-1776 (Montreal: Eusebe Senécal, 1871), 3.

[30]Quoted in Anderson, The Battle for the Fourteenth Colony, 86.

[31]Mandements, Lettres Pastorales et Circulaires des Évêques de Québec (Quebec: Imprimerie Générale, 1888), 430.

[32]Quoted in Lionel Groulx, Histoire du Canada Français Depuis le Découverte. Vol. 3 (Quebec City, QC: Ligue d’Action Nationale, 1952), 85.

[33]Quoted in Coffin, “The Province of Quebec and the Early American Revolution,” 509.

[34]Ibid., 139-140.

[35]Louis Balthazar, in his introduction to the Baby report, relayed the notion that the habitants “much preferred the certainty of recognition by the crown to the uncertain future of an American republic” (xv).

[36]Quoted in ibid., 495.


  • Thank you for a well researched and thought provoking article. I am interested in the American campaign into Canada with all its disappointments and complexities. An ancestor, Pierre Archambault, enlisted in Hazen’s 2nd Canadian Regiment in February 1776. I often wonder about his motivations and expectations.

  • Congratulations on a very well-structured article, with particularly strong and very nicely integrated analysis. Thank you – BTW, I’ve always been interested in Benedict Arnold’s complicated relationship(s) with les habitants.

  • Fascinating and thought provoking. I throughly enjoyed the piece. I could not help but start applying the lessons gained from my observations over my professional career. I notice many ideals and movements never gain traction or die on the vine due to the lack of a champion leader(s). People general don’t know how to move or fear to move. I took note of the assemblies but were there any driven Canadians firebrands of influence championing the cause?

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