John Dickinson and the Letter to Canada

Prewar Politics (<1775)

May 23, 2023
by James M. Smith Also by this Author


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After the French and Indian War the British government made a number of decisions with respect as to how it would govern its North American colonies. One was the Proclamation of 1763 in which it reserved all the lands west of the Appalachian Mountains for Native Americans. English settlers who had already settled there had to leave and go back east and those who wanted to settle there were forbidden. In addition it regulated who could and who could not buy land from Native Americans and it stipulated that all who wished to trade with Native Americans had to obtain a license, post a bond and obey the regulations that were to be established insuring fair trade. The regulations were to be drawn up in London, not in the colonies. Anyone found in violation of the regulations would lose their license and forfeit their bond.

The Quebec Act of 1774 went even further. Officials in London declared that the Ohio Valley north of the Ohio River was to be a part of Canada and the province of Quebec, administered by the Canadian Royal Governor out of the capital city of Quebec.

It is ironic that the French and Indian War was started by English officials sending the Virginia Militia to clear the French out of the Ohio Valley and claim it for the English colonies south of Canada, only to have it declared a part of Canada after the war. Needless to say this did not sit well with the English settlers in the thirteen lower colonies. Many of them, including George Washington, who was the militia commander who started the war, as well as Benjamin Franklin and others, had petitioned London to purchase large land grants in the Ohio so that they could subdivide it and sell it to settlers for a profit. The Quebec Act made those plans moot.

The act blocked any westward English settlement past the Appalachian mountains even though several of the colonies charters granted them land all the way to the Pacific Ocean. At the time most of these charters were issued in the 1600s, no one was sure how far west the Pacific Ocean was from Boston or Philadelphia.

When Canada became a part of the British Empire the British found themselves in control of a territory in which ninety percent of the people were French, and Catholic. This population had fairly good relations with Native Americans in the area, as opposed to the at best uneven relationship the British had with Native Americans.

In addition to making the Ohio Valley a part of Canada, the act did something else: it guaranteed that the French settlers in Canada could keep their Roman Catholic religion and the civil laws that they had always governed themselves by. Criminal law was to be based on English laws. London was not going to force their new citizens to adhere to the Protestant religion and the Church of England.

Both these factors in the Quebec Act were extremely unpopular in the lower thirteen English colonies. They had fought too many wars against the French, often in their own back yard, to be comfortable with a large Catholic population living next door, so to speak, as well as with the ban on westward expansion.

John Adams wrote that, in his opinion, the Quebec Act did several things that were contrary to the interests of America and violated the English constitution. The first of these was that it gave the French, a conquered people, a right to their own government, and that government was contrary to English law. Second, the act protected the “Romish” religion, which itself was an anathema to Protestant Americans. Third, it confirmed the legitimacy of a “feudal” government. In his mind the French method of laws was based on old traditions dating back to the middle-ages with recognition of special rights for the “seignorial” aristocratic section of society. This was contrary to English law, as far as Adams was concerned. Fourth was that the act confirmed a “union of feudal and Romish superstition.” One or the other by itself was bad enough, but putting the two together was extremely dangerous. Fifth, Adams felt that the act confirmed the legitimacy of the Knights of Malta and other orders of military manner, which were the bastion of militant Catholicism. Sixth, the act reversed the course of history in which the Goths and Vandals overthrew the old Roman Empire. Thus, Adams concluded, the Quebec Act was a “danger to us all”; it was like “setting someone’s house on fire.”[1]

Adams was not alone in this way of thinking. John Sullivan, a delegate to the First Continental Congress from New Hampshire, said that he was concerned about the Quebec Act. He felt it conceded to the French Canadians the ability to keep their religion and judicial structure, even though under British law such a religion and judicial system were illegal. He also noted that the Quebec Act extended the territorial borders of Quebec way too far south by giving all the territory between the Ohio River and the Great Lakes to the province of Quebec. In addition, he was worried that in protecting the Catholic religion, it was creating a danger to the American colonists because the Catholic French’s good relations with Native Americans would make their “situation imminently more dangerous.”[2]

John Jay of New York agreed, saying in a speech in congress that the Quebec Act was dangerous from the standpoint of religion and arbitrary government. Additionally, it was extremely gracious to a conquered people in that it established a Roman Catholic religion in what was now British territory. By granting religious freedom to the French Canadians, it legalized “arbitrary government.” He also felt it granted excessive territory to Quebec.[3]

After all the speeches were made, and even though they listed the Quebec Act as a grievance against the British parliament, no matter how they felt about Frenchmen and the “Romanish” religion, they decided they could use all the help they could get. If they could get the French Canadians to overthrow their new British masters and join the Continental Congress it would remove the British back door access to the Hudson Valley. So the congress asked John Dickinson of Pennsylvania to write a letter to the Canadians. Dickinson was famous all throughout the thirteen colonies because of a series of public letters condemning parliament’s taxation policies in America, published under the pen name of a “Pennsylvania Farmer.” He was no farmer, but rather was one of the wealthiest and most successful attorneys in Philadelphia and a long-time member of the Pennsylvania legislature. He was married to a Quaker woman. All his political life he had opposed the attempts by Benjamin Franklin and his political ally, Joseph Galloway, in trying to oust the Penn family from ownership of the Pennsylvania colony and make it a Royal Colony, with a Royal Governor appointed by the king. Galloway was one of the Pennsylvania delegates to the Continental Congress, and as he was the leader of the conservatives in the congress, and a constant foil to the likes of Samuel and John Adams, Richard Henry Lee, Patrick Henry, and the rest of the radicals in congress.

There had been a recent election in Pennsylvania and the radicals in the colony had gained control of the legislature. Dickinson had been defeated in the prior election but in the last election had been re-elected, as was Charles Thomson and other radicals in the colony. Thus, the legislature decided to add John Dickinson to the Pennsylvania delegation to the Continental Congress to try and dilute Galloway’s influence in the delegation.

Having just arrived to the congress, Dickinson was almost immediately tasked to write a letter from the congress to the French in Canada. In so doing Dickinson wrote what, arguably, is his best work. His letter to the Canadians is clear, simple and powerful. It was written not to the English settlers in Canada, but directly to the French in Canada. In the letter he outlined for them just what the Americans were trying to accomplish in their resistance to the British parliament. He addressed the French Canadians as adult men, who were quite capable of listening to mature talk and sound reasoning. In the letter there was no talk of any “Romanish religion.” He never even mentioned it. Dickinson wanted to have a talk “with” the French Canadians, and not talk “at” them.

What follows is one of the two best, simple, and clear explanations of what the coming American Revolution was all about.[4] Dickinson started out by paying the French Canadians a compliment:

When the fortunes of war, after a gallant and glorious resistance against superior numbers had incorporated you into the body of English subjects, we rejoiced in the truly valuable addition both, on our own account, expecting as courage and generosity are naturally united, our brave enemies would become our best and hearty friends . . . Little did we imagine that any succeeding ministry would so audaciously and cruelly abuse the Royal authority as to withhold from you the fruition of the irrevocable rights to which you were thus justly entitled to.[5]

Dickinson was trying to turn the tables by explaining that in continuing the French laws in Canada, the British were denying them the usual British liberties of an elected government and the protection of the British constitution. The French Canadians, now subjects of Great Britain, were entitled to these rights. These rights were now refused them, based on the Quebec Act. He went on to outline these rights:

The first grand right is that of a people having a share in their own government, by their representatives chosen by themselves . . .

The next right is that of trial by jury. This provides that neither life, liberty, nor property can be taken from the possessor until twelve of his unexceptional countrymen and peers . . . upon a fair trial and free inquiry, face to face, in open court . . . shall pass their sentence upon oath against him . . .

Another right relates merely to the liberty of the person, if a subject is seized and imprisoned, though by order of the government, he may by virtue of this right, immediately obtain a writ termed a Habeas Corpus from the judge whose sworn duty it is to grant it and thereupon procure any legal restraint to be quickly looked into and redressed . . .

The last right we shall mention regards the freedom of the press. The importance of this consists . . . in the diffusion of liberal sentiments on the administration of government its ready communication of thoughts between subjects and its consequential promotion of unity among them . . .

These are the rights without which a people cannot be free and happy . . .

These are the rights to which you are entitled to . . . And what is affected to you by the late parliament in their place? Liberty of conscience in your religion? No, God gave it to you . . . Are the French laws of civil cases restored? It seems so. But observe . . . the words of the statute are, ‘that those laws shall be the rule until they shall be varied or altered by any ordinances of the governor and council . . .’[6]

Have you an assembly composed of worthy men elected by yourselves, and in whom you can confide, to make laws for you . . . and to direct in what quantity and in what manner can your money be taken from you? No! The power of making laws for you is lodged in the governor and his council . . .

What would your countryman, the immortal Montesquieu have said to such a plan of domination as has been framed for you? Hear his words . . . “In a free state, every man who is supposed to be a free agent ought to be concerned in his own government; therefor the legislative should reside in the whole body of the people or their representatives . . .”

“The power of judging should be exercised by persons taken from the body of the people . . . There s no liberty if the power of judging is not separated from the legislative and executive powers . . .”

Would not this be the purport of his address? “Seize, my beloved countrymen, the opportunity presented to you by providence itself” . . .

We submit it to your consideration whether it may not be expedient for you to meet together in your several towns and districts, and elect deputies . . . to represent your province in the Continental Congress to be held at Philadelphia on the tenth day of May, 1775.[7]

The address made no attempt to demean the religion or cultural background of French Canadians; indeed, it respected it and called it “God given.” The letter explained in simple yet honest terms the essence of the kind of government a free people deserve and should have. It invited them to come join the Americans. One may look far and wide for a clearer, more profound statement of the principles of the coming revolution than this letter to the French Canadians.

After hearing the address read in congress, Silas Deane of Connecticut was inspired to recommend that a copy of the letter and a copy of the resolves of the congress be sent to Holland and France and distributed there.[8] Deane was aware that warfare between America and Britain had not yet broken out but, should that happen, it was important for the world to understand just where Americans stood and why such fighting might take place.


[1]John Adams, “Notes on a Speech to Congress, October 15-17, 1774,” Paul H. Smith, ed., Letters of Delegates to Congress (Washington: Library of Congress, 1976), 1:197 (Letters).

[2]John Sullivan to John Langdon, October 5, 1774, Letters, 1:150.

[3]James Duane’s Notes on Debates, October 15-17, 1774, Letters, 1:198-199.

[4]The other is A Humble Enquiry into the Dependency of the American Colonies Upon the Parliament of Great Britain and the Right of Parliament to Lay Taxes on the Said Colonies by John Zubly, February 1, 1769. It discussed the objections to the British Parliament’s claim of being able to legislate for the Americans “in all cases whatsoever.”

[5]Address to the Inhabitants of the Providence of Quebec, October 26, 1774, Digital History.

[6]This last sentence is as it was finally approved by the entire congress and printed to send to Canada. Dickinson in his original draft worded it differently: “But what parliament can give, parliament can take away.” I would argue that this sentence is far more likely to grab the attention of the reader and more easily remembered. John Dickinson,Draft of Letter to Canada, October 24-26, 1774, Letters, 1:236-244.

[7]Address to the Inhabitants of the Providence of Quebec, October 26, 1774, Digital History.

[8]Silas Deane to Samuel Adams, November 13, 1774, Letters, 1:258-262.


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