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Quebec Act

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Quebec Act

Isn't defeating a sworn enemy and driving them off their own land a great cause for celebration? Probably, but Quebec gave the British a problem. They had seized it from France as a result of the Seven Years' War but now had a vast province and more than 90,000 new subjects to administer. The Quebec Act of 1774 was their solution. However, it was deeply unpopular with the American colonists further south and was an important factor in the eventual outbreak of the American War of Independence. Why was the Quebec Act so controversial in the Thirteen Colonies?

Quebec Act 1774 Summary

Britain had gained control of Quebec (located in modern-day Eastern Canada) after they defeated France in the Seven Years' War (1756-63). The Quebec Act was the fifth of the so-called Intolerable Acts. It's generally distinguished from the other four, as it didn't directly impact the Thirteen Colonies, but it did anger them greatly.

The Five Intolerable Acts were five Acts of the British Parliament which imposed punitive measures on the American colonies, particularly Massachusetts, as punishment for the Boston Tea Party, which had occurred in December 1773. Colonists were angry at the amount of tax imposed on them, so had seized British tea imports and had thrown them into Boston's harbour, and the Acts were passed to punish and recover the costs of the lost tea.

Quebec Act Map showing the Thirteen Colonies and Quebec StudySmarter

Map showing the Thirteen Colonies and Quebec (highlighted in pink). The pink outline in the centre is the landmass added to Quebec's territory by the Quebec Act, Wikimedia Commons

Quebec Act Map

The Quebec Act set out how the Province of Quebec was to be governed, and expanded its territory to include much of what is now the northern part of the United States. This included parts of what would become Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

The Act also catered to the will of many Canadiens, with measures such as protecting the Catholic faith and restoring many of the powers which the Catholic Church had previously had. The French legal system was preserved with certain exceptions, and perhaps most importantly, the reference to Protestantism in the Oath of Allegiance to the British monarch was removed.

Before around 1900, Canadians were referred to as Canadiens, coming from the French word to describe people from Canada. Today, the French word for Canadians is still Canadiens, and many Canadians from Quebec still refer to themselves as Canadiens.

Reasons for the Quebec Act

For Canadiens to be able to serve in public office, they needed to swear an oath to King George III, which also required aligning themselves with the Protestant Church of England. At the time, the vast majority of Canadiens were Catholic and often refused to take the oath, and so were not permitted to take up public office. This left them angered at their exclusion from representation, and so the reference to Protestantism was removed.

Simultaneously, Britain's conflict with the American colonists was heightening because they had imposed increased taxes on the colonies to finance the debt incurred by the Seven Years' War. The Quebec Act granted religious freedoms to the Canadiens in an effort to keep them onside and loyal to the Crown and not side with the increasingly angry colonists.

Effects of the Quebec Act

The effects of the Quebec Act were largely beneficial for Quebec, and many Canadiens were reasonably happy with them.

  • The Act allowed Catholic Canadiens to integrate into society without the fear of persecution. Jesuit Priests who had been banned from the province were allowed to preach for the first time. This, however, created paranoia among the largely Protestant American colonists who thought Britain could soon impose similar religious policies in their territories.

  • Article I of the Act nearly tripled the size of Quebec, expanding its territories into what is today part of the midwestern United States. This meant increased land for the Canadians but decreased territories for the American settlers. The Americans saw this as an unfair distribution of land and feared that Britain would soon start meddling with their own borders.

  • The Act essentially created an autocratic government in Quebec as the head of the province was not elected by the people but appointed by the king. Royal governors in the Thirteen Colonies were likewise usually appointed by the Crown but the Colonies also had their own elected assemblies, whereas Quebec did not. At a time when the American colonists felt their wishes were being ignored by the British Crown, the existence of a province where the ruler was chosen by the king without any popular representation was worrying.

Quebec Act Reaction

The reaction to the Quebec Act on the part of the American colonists was one of fear and anger, and the Act was listed as the twentieth of the 27 grievances in the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Specifically, the rebels argued that the Quebec Act was an Act:

for abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies.

The Act also angered the American colonists because of its religious significance. They viewed the freedom to practise Catholicism as "promoting Papism" and detrimental to the colonies as a whole. They also feared that the Act would set a precedent for limiting their freedoms and unilaterally changing their rights, especially given that they had no representation in the British Parliament.

Quebec Act The "George Rex" flag StudySmarterThe "George Rex" flag, Wikimedia Commons

The granting of land to Quebec was also controversial as it included much of the land in the Ohio Valley, which had been granted already to the colonies of New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Their right to this land had already been enshrined in their respective Royal Charters. Angry colonists in New York created the George Rex Flag as a symbol of protest against the Act, particularly against Catholicism and the recognition of the Catholic Church as the state religion in Quebec.

Overall, the Quebec Act angered both Patriots and Loyalists in the Thirteen Colonies. They were both worried about the potential limitation of freedoms and unilateral action that could be taken on them by the British Parliament and the religious implications.

In February 1775, Parliament passed the Conciliatory Resolution in an attempt to appease the angry colonists. This was too little, too late, as the war broke out at Lexington and Concord in April (the start of what was to become the American Revolution) before news of its passage could reach the colonies. Although the Continental Congress eventually received this proposal, they ultimately rejected it.

The Conciliatory Resolution declared that any colony that contributed to the common defence and provided support for civil government and the administration of justice (ostensibly against any anti-Crown rebellion) would be relieved of paying taxes or duties except those necessary for the regulation of commerce.

Quebec Act - Key Takeaways

  • The Quebec Act was passed in 1774 in the wake of the British victory over France in the Seven Years' War. It reintroduced Catholicism as the state religion in Quebec and expanded its territory by over three times.
  • The main reasons were to try and appease the Canadiens, the residents of Quebec, who were mainly Catholic, and so would refuse to swear allegiance to the British Crown. This meant that they couldn't sit as any sort of official in the government, which put them at odds with British Protestants.
  • Another key aim of the Act was to keep the Canadiens onside and reduce the likelihood of them siding with the increasingly unhappy American colonists.
  • The Quebec Act, while positively received in Quebec, greatly angered the colonists down south, who were worried that the British would start to impose restrictions unilaterally on them. They were also deeply unhappy that Catholicism had been adopted as the state religion in Quebec, fearing it would be imposed on them, too.
  • The Act was considered one of the Five Intolerable Acts and was listed as one of the colonists' 27 grievances with the British Crown as part of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

Frequently Asked Questions about Quebec Act

The British

They feared that the British would begin to restrict their freedoms and redistribute their land

It tripled the size of the province of Quebec and introduced many provisions for its governance, including the reintroduction of Catholicism as the state religion

They saw it as a threat to their colonial governments.

The Quebec Act (1774) set out how the Province of Quebec was to be governed and expanded its territory to include much of what is now the northern part of the United States. This included parts of what would become Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. 

Final Quebec Act Quiz

Question

What did the Quebec Act do?

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Answer

Tripled the size of Quebec, set out how it was to be governed and gave the Canadiens more freedoms, particularly of religion

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What group of laws did the Quebec Act belong to?

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Answer

The Five Intolerable Acts

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Why did Canadiens not want to swear allegiance to the British Crown?

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Answer

It required swearing allegiance to a Protestant British monarch despite the majority of the population of Quebec being Catholic.

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What religious impact did the Quebec Act have?

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Answer

It recognised Catholicism as the official religion of Quebec and removed references to Protestantism in the Oath of Allegiance to the British Crown.

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Why were the Colonists worried about the religious impact of the Quebec Act?

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They were mainly Protestant and thought the British could start to impose similar measures in the colonies

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Why were some colonies upset about the expansion of Quebec?

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They saw it as an unfair intrusion on their land and feared the British government would start to mess with their borders and territorial claims.

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Why were New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia especially upset about the Quebec expansion?

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It included lots of land in the Ohio Valley that had already been granted to these colonies and had been enshrined in their Royal Charters.

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How did Parliament try to appease the colonists in their anger at the Quebec Act?

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Answer

They passed the Concilliary Resolution

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Which symbol was created in New York as a protest against the recognition of Catholicism by the Quebec Act?

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Answer

The "George Rex" flag.

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Why was not swearing an Oath of Allegiance to the British Crown a problem for Canadiens?

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Answer

Those who did not take the oath were barred from taking up public office.

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