In 1775, twelve American colonies got together and decided to send the British Parliament a strongly worded letter. They weren’t committing treason yet, just simply trying to assert what they felt were the rights as ‘Englishmen.’ But, with all those incredible wordsmiths assembled in one room, why write just one letter? Petitions to join these soon to be rebellious colonies were sent to almost every British province in the Western Hemisphere. One of the most interesting letters sought to secure the involvement of Quebec in the American Revolution.
For about two centuries, the province of Quebec had been a French colony. Called New France, cities such as Quebec, Montreal, and Trois-Riviere played host to Jesuit missionaries, aristocrats, and French bureaucrats while the countryside, though sparsely populated by Europeans, was home to French farmers and fur hunters, known as the habitants.
When the British gained control of the massive blot on the map called Quebec following the Seven Years’ War, they all of a sudden had a sizable French, and Catholic, population on their hands, some sixty to seventy thousand strong.1 As a Protestant empire ruled by a constitutional monarchy, the British had much different opinions on what it meant to govern than their newly acquired French Canadian subjects, who had lived under the absolute monarchy of the Louis, no. 14-16. In attempt to assert control over the province, on October 7, 1763, the British issued a royal edict that contracted Quebec’s borders, created a governor and an elected assembly, and instituted English civil law and their court system.2 But, according to English law, Catholics could not hold office – this effectively banned the tens of thousands of French Canadians now under British rule from participating in their new system of governance.
Luckily for mother Bretagne, the first governors of Quebec, James Murray and Sir Guy Carleton, realized they had effed that one up, and potentiated the British government to issue a redress. As a result, Parliament passed the Quebec Act in June 1774. The Quebec Act returned Quebec to its original borders, re-established French civil law (thought they kept British criminal law in place), and allowed for Catholics to participate in government.3
Around the time of the Quebec Act, a little further to the south, in cities like Boston, some of Britain’s oldest colonial subjects were getting their knickers all in a wad about taxes on tea, stamps, and some other things. Intent on clearing the air with Parliament, they convened in Philadelphia to hold a congress. In the same session where the Continental Congress drafted its first list of complaints for their government across the Atlantic, they also wrote a letter to Quebec.
In this letter, the first of three, the Congress sought to win over their “Friends and fellow-subjects” to their side.4 To that end, they turned to flattery, and a lot of it:
“When the fortune of war, after a gallant and glorious resistance, had incorporated you with the body of English subjects, we rejoiced in the truly valuable addition, both on our own and your account; expecting, as courage and generosity are naturally united, our brave enemies would become our hearty friends, and that the Divine Being would bless to you the dispensations of his overruling providence, by securing to you and your latest posterity the inestimable advantages of a free English constitution of government, which it is the privilege of all English subjects to enjoy.” 5
The letter then explains to the French reader that their rights had been violated by the Proclamation of 1763 – conveniently leaving out that fact the Quebec Act had overturned the most hotly contested parts of that edict. But the letter does not stop there. Congress went so far as to say that “since we have lived to see the unexpected time when Ministers… have dared to violate the most sacred compacts and obligations, and as you, educated under another form of government, have artfully been kept from discovering the unspeakable worth of that form you are now undoubtedly entitled to, we esteem it our duty, for the weighty reasons herein after mentioned, to explain to you some of its most important branches.”6 It’s not the French’s fault they weren’t as indignant as their ‘fellow subjects’ to the south – they didn’t know to be indignant!
Thus taking it upon themselves to inform their French Canadian readers, the Congress went on the enumerate the rights they felt made up the structure of ‘the rights of Englishmen’: the right to representative government, trial by jury, the right to habeas corpus, the “holding lands by the tenure of easy rents, and not by rigorous and oppressive services,” and the freedom of the press.7
As the letter began its circulation in Quebec, the governor, Sir Guy Carleton, did his best to suppress it. His efforts, though, met with mixed results. As Carleton reported to his superiors, “a report was spread that at Montreal that letters of importance had been received from the General Congress,” resulting in meetings that were “breathing that same spirit, so plentifully gone forth through the neighbouring Provinces.” These meetings, however, much like in Nova Scotia, were largely dominated by English speaking colonists with familial and business ties to the rebelling colonies. 8
Among the French speakers there existed a serious class divide, and each class had their own reasons for aligning with the American rebels or their new found British overlords. After the Quebec Act, the aristocratic and priestly classes seemed more or less happy enough to profit from the trade that existed for anyone living in Britain’s global empire. The habitants were not as easily pleased, as the Quebec Act reinstated the church’s right to collect tithes and the aristocrats’ feudal privileges over the tenants of their land.9 Additionally, the British maintained the right to conscript the French Canadians into the military.
It was probably the habitants, then, that the Congress hoped to address with their second letter to Quebec, the ‘Letter to the Oppressed Inhabitants of Canada.’ Unlike in the first letter, which attempted to lay out a logical argument about the constitutional rights of any British subject, this second letter took on a much more passionate air. In it, Congress exclaimed, “As we were both entitled by the bounty of an indulgent creator to freedom, and being both devoted by the cruel edicts of a despotic administration, to common ruin, we perceived the fate of the protestant and catholic colonies to be strongly linked together, and therefore invited you to join with us in resolving to be free, and in rejecting, with disdain, the fetters of slavery, however artfully polished.”10
I’d like to take a moment and point out the word ‘slavery.’ This word made a few appearances in the ‘Letter to the Oppressed Inhabitants of Canada.’ A few paragraphs down, the letter states that “By the introduction of your present form of government, or rather present form of tyranny, you and your wives and your children are made slaves.”11 Though, as pointed out earlier, the French Canadians had access to the rights British citizens, their own set of civil laws, and, despite the habitants having some feudal obligations put back on their shoulders, the French population was legally free. A stark contradiction to the actual slaves that many of the members of Congress had back home on plantations in their home colonies.
And, ignoring the fact that they were in fact slaveholders, Congress promised, for good measure, that “We, for our parts, are determined to live free, or not at all; and are resolved that posterity shall never reproach us with having brought slaves into the world.” Except for the actual slaves they brought into the world when they engaged in the slave trade; but, who’s counting?12
Even with their impassioned rhetoric, Congress’s second letter proved almost completely ineffective. While two Quebec regiments were added to the Continental army following the arrival of the second letter in the province, most French Canadians continued to walk a path of neutrality.
Despite the Canadian population’s apparent lack of interest in the revolution, Americans continued to believe them allies that simply needed a little push. And how better to give your “friends and fellow subjects” the push they need than by invading their home? In September 1775, the American forces launched an invasion of Quebec from Fort Ticonderoga, an old French and Indian War fort captured from the British earlier that same year.
Following hot on the heels of the American forces were the American letter carriers. Intent on sending one last written appeal to the people of Quebec, Congress drafted the ‘Letter to the Inhabitants of the Province of Canada.’ Dated January 24, 1776, the letter exclaimed, “Your assistance in the support and preservation of American liberty affords us the most sensible satisfaction; and we flatter ourselves that you will seize with zeal and eagerness the favourable moment to co-operate in the success of so glorious an enterprise. And if more considerable forces should become requisite, they shall not fail being sent.”13
The invasion lasted until the following October. During that time, a few French Canadians showed interest in the Americans and their cause, but most seemed to simply go with the flow. In his journal, Charles Carroll, a Marylander in the invading American force, mused how the invasion “was one, in fact, of political propagandism, in which the people, unfortunately for themselves as the sequel proved, took but little interest.”14 These sentiments were echoed by Abner Stocking, a private in the American army from Connecticut. “The French people,” according to Abner, “received us with all the kindness we could wish… They seemed moved with pity for us and to greatly admire our patriotism and resolution, in encountering such hardships for the good of our country. But they were too ignorant to put a just estimate on the value of freedom.”15 Here again, we find the sentiment that the French Canadians were simply too dull to understand the opportunity presented to them by the Americans.
Ultimately, the the French population in Quebec showed little interest in the American rebels and their cause. The United Colonies had yet to declare their independence from Britain, so why bother getting involved at all? This was a war between Anglophones – Anglophones who, only twelve years before, had been at war with the French population they now both sought to recruit.
Due to all these factors, after the invasion ended and America troops returned south, Quebec’s role in the American Revolution came to an end.
Resources on Quebec in the American Revolution:
- Michael P. Gabriel, “Introduction,” Quebec During the American Invasion, 1775-1776, (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2005), xxix.
- Gabriel, Quebec During the American Invasion, 1775-1776, xxxix
- Gabriel, Quebec During the American Invasion, 1775-1776, xxxi
- Continental Congress to the Inhabitants of the Province of Quebec, press-pubs.uchicago.edu
- “Letters to the Inhabitants of Quebec, Wikipedia
- Gabriel, Quebec During the American Invasion, 1775-1776, xxxii
- Letter to the Oppressed Inhabitants of Canada, Wikisource
- Letter to the Inhabitants of the Province of Canada, Wikisource
- Charles Carroll, Eyewitness Accounts of the American Revolution: Journal of Charles Carroll of Carrollton (New York: New York Times and Arno Press), 13.
- An Interesting Journal of Abner Stocking of Chatham, Connecticut, archive.org