Quebec Act of 1774

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By the Peace of Paris of Feb. 10, 1763, which ended the French and Indian War, France ceded Canada and Cape Breton Island to England. Moreover, the Mississippi River was recognized as the boundary between Louisiana and British territory. Thus the area bounded by the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and the Great Lakes, over which the war originated, was added to Britain's continental domain.

Background. Since the Proclamation of 1763 closed this area to expansion from the seaboard colonies, few Englishmen were found there. Various Native American tribes inhabited the district, and there were several French settlements in southern Illinois, at Vincennes, Detroit, and lesser ones elsewhere. With the withdrawal of French officials, civil government ceased abruptly, and only a limited jurisdiction was exercised by British commanders at the various military posts. Before long, serious problems developed.

Relying on their charters, several colonies, notably Virginia, claimed portions of this territory. But they did not exercise effective control over trade with the natives, check the trespassing of squatters, restrain the aggression of land companies, or prevent the inroads of land-hungry colonists, who, in general, defrauded the Native Americans in trade and land purchases. Actually, there was no civil government, no legal acts, no order. This situation could not be tolerated. Civil government and the control and legalizing of trade and land transfers were imperative. Aware of the growing hostility of the Native Americans over the conduct of white transgressors and intent on introducing law and order, the British government resolved to place the area under imperial government in default of colonial neglect or ineptitude. A decade of study and discussion brought forth the Quebec Act.

Provisions and reaction. Alexander Wedderburn, the solicitor general, drafted the bill, which became law on June 22, 1774. It stipulated that the Province of Quebec was to include the area circumscribed by the Allegheny, Ohio, and Mississippi Rivers and the Great Lakes. As a concession to the French settlers and to win their loyalty to the British king, French civil law and customs were to continue, but the British criminal code replaced that of France. Government was vested in a governor and a council nominated by the Crown with complete legislative power. Finally, the act allowed the inhabitants liberty to profess the "religion of the Church of Rome subject to the King's Supremacy," but for the oath of royal supremacy in religion, a simple oath of allegiance was substituted. Furthermore, the clergy "may hold, receive and enjoy their accustomed dues and rights with respect to such persons only as shall profess the said religion."

Apart from the disregard of colonial claims to portions of this country on the basis of their charters, the fact that the Quebec Act was contemporaneous with the Coercive Acts precipitated additional widespread opposition in the old seaboard colonies. The sacredness of colonial charters and their unilateral abrogation by Great Britain was stressed; the sacred right of the new British subjects to the enjoyment of British civil law with trial by jury as well as British criminal law was given emphasis; the absence of representative government was condemned.

But the granting and safeguarding of religious freedom and the right to practice the Catholic religion without interference in this territory evoked the loudest and most bitter denunciation. On this aspect of the act, rather than on disregard of colonial charters or virtual exclusion of British traders and prospective colonists, opposition was concentrated. The act was held to equate "establishment" of the Catholic religion and to be a violation of the royal coronation oath.

While opposition to this section of the act was general, New England, and in particular Boston and Newport, led the forefront of the crusade against popery. Writers and speakers professed to see in the act a threat to the Protestant religion and a subtle device eventually to impose popery on themselves. Some zealots joined in the campaign out of conviction, while others had less worthy motives; they simply seized the opportunity to participate in the traditional propaganda against popery and the Catholic religion. This flood of sustained criticism from clergy and men prominent in civil life became at least a contributory cause, and, for some individuals, a primary cause, for the break with England.

Effects. Unquestionably, the Quebec Act was influential in reconciling the French in Canada to their new rulers and new regime and in fostering the loyalty of priests and seigneurs during the American Revolution. When the two groups came to know of the volume of abuse of their religion in the press of the older British colonies and the pulpits of Protestant churches, and of the double-dealing of the Continental Congress in its several addresses, association or cooperation with the American patriots was precluded. It has been maintained that even today the French in Canada regard the Quebec Act as their Magna Carta of liberty. And a distinguished historian has recently lauded this remarkable act of parliament as "one of the greatest pieces of statesmanship in the history of the empire" [A. L. Burt, The British Commonwealth (Boston 1956) 39.]

Bibliography: r. coupland, The Quebec Act: A Study in Statesmanship (Oxford 1925). c. h. metzger, The Quebec Act (U.S. Catholic Historical Society 16; New York 1936). a. l. burt, The Old Province of Quebec (Minneapolis, Minn. 1933). j. sosin, Whitehall and the Wilderness (Lincoln, Neb. 1961) ch. 10.

[c. h. metzger]