Quebec Act Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

With the passage of the Quebec Act, Great Britain granted limited civil rights to Canadian Catholics and extended the boundaries of Quebec province into the Ohio Valley.

Summary of Event

In 1774, through the efforts of Lord North, Great Britain’s prime minister, the French-British relations[French British relations] British parliament produced “An Act for Making More Effectual Provision for the Government of the Province of Quebec in North America,” the first of several eighteenth and nineteenth century acts to govern the relationship between England and Canada. Among the principal provisions of the act were the assertion of trans-Allegheny power by the Crown, rule of the province through a governor and council, and, most significant, a modicum of religious freedom for the Catholic Church;Canada Religious freedom;French Canada Catholics of Quebec. [kw]Quebec Act (May 20, 1774) [kw]Act, Quebec (May 20, 1774) Quebec Act (1774) British Canada Catholic rights Territory expansion;Quebec, Canada Quebec Act (1774) [g]American colonies;May 20, 1774: Quebec Act[2080] [g]Canada;May 20, 1774: Quebec Act[2080] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;May 20, 1774: Quebec Act[2080] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;May 20, 1774: Quebec Act[2080] [c]Religion and theology;May 20, 1774: Quebec Act[2080] Carleton, Sir Guy North, Lord Dartmouth, second earl of Murray, James

When France had ceded New France to Great Britain by the Paris, Peace of (1763) Peace of Paris in 1763, England suddenly found itself with a province of sixty-five thousand French Canada Canadian Catholics. The Articles of Capitulation (1760) Articles of Capitulation (1760) provided for the continuation of the status quo with regard to religion: Catholics in the province could continue to worship in their traditional way, the French king would still appoint the bishop, and the clergy could continue to receive the tithes of the faithful. However, the treaty also included the proviso, “As far as the laws of Great Britain allow.”

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During the next ten years, British governors James Murray and Guy Carleton ruled the province with little clear direction from the Parliament. The few English colonists in the province were incensed that French-speaking Catholics not only had freedom to practice their religion but also could take part in civic life, even sit on juries. In no other part of the empire did such latitude prevail. Clearly, the government had to regularize this anomalous situation. Murray first and then Carleton, even more vigorously, called for a practical toleration of Catholicism in the province, although they hoped that they could attract English colonists in sufficient number so that the French-speaking colonists would leave Quebec, much as French-speaking settlers had been forced out of Acadia (Nova Scotia) Acadia a generation before.

In 1774, Parliament, under the aegis of Lord North and his secretary of state for the colonies, the second earl of Dartmouth, enacted a series of laws that Americans later called the Coercive Acts (1774) Intolerable Acts. These laws closed the port of Boston, reorganized the administration of Massachusetts, and permitted British troops to commandeer colonists’ homes. Americans judged the Quebec Act as just another of the punitive measures enacted that year.

At least three major drafts of the act circulated before May 20, 1774, when the members of Parliament agreed to the final document, largely the work of Carleton as governor of Quebec. The English-speaking colonists in the province agitated for a representative assembly in which they would hold a majority of the seats, although they constituted less than 1 percent of the population. They would have restricted even the minority seats to wealthy French-speaking rural landlords.

Protestants from British Canada and the American colonies despised the rights extended to Catholics through passage of the Quebec Act of 1774. The act was considered so pro-Catholic that it inspired colonists to call for revolution and American independence. This illustration, from 1776, warns of the parallels between the Quebec Act and the violent and deadly history of the hatred of Protestants worldwide.

(Library of Congress)

There were four principal concerns in the act: geography, Canadian and British law, no representative assembly, and permission for Catholics to practice their religion. First, the Parliament extended the boundaries of the province of Quebec down through the Ohio Valley, Ohio Country thus effectively keeping the American colonies east of the Alleghenies. There would be no room for the colonies to expand westward into the potentially rich fur-trading area, because this territory would now be a part of Quebec. By spelling out the boundaries of Quebec at the very beginning of the act, Parliament wanted to make it clear that none of the provisions of this act might apply to Newfoundland or any other British territory. This was an expedient for Quebec only.

Administrators in Canada, English-speaking colonists, and members of Parliament all contributed to the discussion about the forms of law to be observed in the new colony. The conclusion was a compromise to appease the non-Canadians without offending the French-speaking too much. Civil law would be governed by traditional French customs, especially regarding properties and family matters. Criminal law, however, would follow the British system of laws. British officers and courts would see to the administration of justice in these matters.

Parliament decided that a government-appointed governor would rule the province, assisted by a council appointed by the governor. In practice, this meant that the taxes would be modest, since no unrepresentative government would be able to command the respect of the populace if it imposed a heavy taxation. To appease the English-speaking colonists, however, there was provision for an eventual representative assembly if Parliament and the governor deemed it expedient in the future. Any future assembly had severely limited powers of taxation.

In order to give French-speaking Canadians freedom to practice their religion, Parliament designed an oath unlike any that could be found elsewhere in the empire. Catholics would be able to swear allegiance to the Crown without having to denounce the Papacy. This, in itself, was a major step. The terms of the Peace of Paris Paris, Peace of (1763) provided that Catholics could practice their faith in conformity with the laws of Great Britain. However, there were no such laws in England that would permit Catholics freedom to practice unimpeded. The proviso of the Quebec Act was the exercise of religion “subject to the King’s supremacy.” Officially, Parliament asserted the right to appoint a superintendent for Catholics, a deliberately ambiguous title. In fact, however, they settled for a bishop. Catholics could maintain their clergy through a system of tithes, as they were accustomed to doing.

To be considered along with the act itself, however, is the instruction given to the governor in administering the religious affairs of the province. Governors were encouraged to limit French culture and to curb the activity of the Catholic church at every turn by giving preeminence to the Anglican church, or Church of England Church of England. It was hoped that this province eventually would become more like Britain’s other colonies and that English-speaking Anglicans or, less preferably, other Protestants would prevail.

Significance

The Continental Congress, First (1774) Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, immediately perceived the Quebec Act as a threat and went on record in opposition on September 17, 1774. They objected to the expansion of the provincial boundaries into the Ohio Valley, but they were especially upset about permitting Catholics to exercise their religion. Some historians consider the Quebec Act to be among the most prominent of the colonial grievances that led to war and, eventually, to independence for the American colonies.

Clearly, the Parliament sought to keep the French-speaking Canadians loyal to the Crown and to blunt the westward ambitions of the colonies to the south. They were successful in this regard. By not unduly burdening their Catholic subjects, they were able to avoid serious civil unrest that surely would have followed anything more restrictive. The Catholics of Canada accepted the provisions of the act; however, they thought that they had received in 1774 what they should have received ten years earlier in the Peace of Paris.

There is every likelihood that Great Britain would have lost Quebec had it imposed harsher terms in the act. As it was, French Canadians were quite aware of the disdain of their southern neighbors for a Catholic enclave in the empire, especially one so close. In April, 1776, an American colonial delegation from the Continental Congress, the first American diplomatic venture to a foreign country, tried to enlist Canadian support for the American Revolution (1775-1783);Canada revolutionary cause. Chase, Samuel Samuel Chase, Franklin, Benjamin [p]Franklin, Benjamin;Canadian diplomacy Benjamin Franklin, Carroll, Charles Charles Carroll, and Carroll, John John Carroll received a polite, but chilly, reception. England’s policy worked well enough. French Canadians knew they had no other home than in the British Empire. They could not expect any help from their former French sovereign, and the American colonies objected to their very existence. Canada is today what it is, for good or ill, in no small measure as a result of the British policy of expedience in 1774.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burt, A. L. The Old Province of Quebec. Toronto: McClelland and Steward, 1968. A careful assessment of the economic implications of the enactment.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coffin, Victor. The Province of Quebec and the Early American Revolution. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1896. The earliest study to consider the act’s implications for the liberation movement in the Thirteen Colonies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coupland, Reginald. The Quebec Act: A Study in Statesmanship. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1925. An almost adulatory study of the diplomatic efforts required to secure parliamentary approval.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lawson, Philip. The Imperial Challenge: Quebec and Britain in the Age of American Revolution. Montreal, Que.: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1989. Examines the effect that the conquest of Quebec had on British policies and imperial ideas, leading to the signing of the Quebec Act.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Neatby, Hilda. The Quebec Act: Protest and Policy. Scarborough, Ont.: Prentice Hall, 1972. Balanced narration of the events surrounding the Quebec Act and its subsequent interpretations by historians and economists.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nelson, Paul David. General Sir Guy Carleton, Lord Dorchester: Soldier-Statesman of Early British Canada. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2000. Comprehensive biography of Carleton, including information about his role in designing the Quebec Act.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thompson, Wayne. Canada, 1995. 12th ed. Harpers Ferry, W.Va.: Stryker-Post, 1995. A mildly anti-French account that is strong on the military dimensions of the event.

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