Guy Carleton

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Guy Carleton

The British statesman and general Guy Carleton, 1st Baron Dorchester (1724-1808), was one of the ablest British military leaders during the American Revolution. As governor of Quebec, he encouraged Canada's growth into a unified, self-governing nation.

Guy Carleton was born on Sept. 3, 1724, into a distinguished Irish family at Strabane in Tyrone County, Ireland. Entering the army as an ensign at 18, he was a lieutenant colonel 15 years later. In Canada he served under Gen. Jeffrey Amherst at the siege of Louisbourg, Nova Scotia, in 1758. A year later, in command of the regiment of grenadiers, he was with Gen. James Wolfe at the Battle of Quebec, where he was promoted to colonel and wounded. In 1761 he was wounded in the siege of Belle Isle, France; the following year he participated in the capture of Havana, Cuba, and was again wounded.

From 1766 to 1770 Carleton was lieutenant governor and acting governor of Quebec. He proved to be an able administrator who was successful in improving the relations between British and French Canadians. He was largely responsible for the passage of the Quebec Act of 1774, which established French and British law on equal footing in Canada. This infuriated the American colonists and helped provoke the American Revolution, but it also ensured the loyalty of French Canadians to Britain during the conflict.

Carleton became governor of Quebec in 1775. When Thomas Gage resigned as commander in chief of the British forces in North America, Carleton assumed command of the forces in Canada. American troops under Gen. Richard Montgomery advanced to threaten Montreal, and Carleton withdrew to Quebec with his small army. There he was besieged by an American force under Benedict Arnold, who was joined by Montgomery's troops. Carleton's leadership maintained the defenses of the city.

In spring 1776, reinforced by Gen. John Burgoyne's troops, Carleton counterattacked and drove the Americans out of Canada into New York. He defeated Arnold in October and then withdrew to Quebec. Disagreements with his superiors led to Carleton's removal from military command in 1777. The following year he resigned as governor and left Canada.

In February 1782, after the Revolution had effectively been ended, Carleton became commander in chief of the British forces in America. Using tact, firmness, and diplomacy, he successfully carried out the delicate tasks of suspending hostilities, withdrawing British forces from New York and Vermont, and protecting loyalists.

In 1786, as Baron Dorchester, he was appointed governor in chief of British North America, a post he held for 10 years. His major achievement was to redress the grievances of the American loyalists without antagonizing the French; he was also successful in promoting tolerance and cooperation between the English Protestant and French Catholic populations. Under his leadership the Constitutional Act of 1791 was passed. This law instituted legislative councils, thereby giving Canada its first experience in self-government. Made a general in the British army in 1793, Carleton retired to England 3 years later. He died there on Nov. 10, 1808.

Further Reading

The standard biography of Carleton is A. G. Bradley, Lord Dorchester (1907; new ed. 1926). See also the appropriate volumes of Sir John William Fortescue, History of the British Army (13 vols., 1899-1930); relevant histories of the British in North America, such as James A. Williamson, A Short History of British Expansion (1922; 2 vols., 1945; vol. 1, 3d ed., and vol. 2, 5th ed., 1964); E. W. Sheppard, Short History of the British Army (1926; 4th ed. 1950); and V. T. Harlow, The Founding of the Second British Empire, 1763-93 (2 vols., 1952-1964). □