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Why were Americans so incensed by the Quebec Act (1774)?

  • In these blogposts, I discuss questions and issues that students have raised in my classrooms during the previous semester. They are good springboards to classroom discussions/debates about the Revolution, American history, and history itself.

Alongside the Coercive Acts (1774) that Parliament enacted in response to the Boston Tea Party (1773), it also enacted the Quebec Act. It was not itself a response to the Boston Tea Party, but colonists saw it as part and parcel of the Coercive (aka Intolerable) Acts. The Quebec Act was, in essence, the first written constitution for a British colony. Crafted by Parliament, it outlined the structure of the colony’s government, restored French civil law in Quebec, protected the legal privileges of the Catholic Church, afforded Catholics religious freedom, and opened political offices to them. As well, it extended Quebec’s boundaries to include the Ohio Valley, thus frustrating the western territorial aspirations of both Virginia and Pennsylvania, two of the most populous and influential colonies in British America.

Historians often present Americans’ outrage over the Quebec Act as reflecting xenophobic and anti-Catholic resentment over the various gifts the act bestowed on their former enemies in Canada. Moreover, historians present colonists’ belief that the Quebec Act, like the Intolerable Acts, was aimed at them as reflecting a myopic and paranoid misunderstanding of Parliament’s complex imperial considerations. But when one examines what colonial authorities themselves had to say about the Quebec Act, their opposition to it emerges as informed, coherent, and sensible; and in hindsight, also prescient.

Certainly, Americans were generally wary of the French and of Catholicism, but the complaint that circulated in America about the Quebec Act did not focus primarily on the French settlers there, but on Parliament and the imperial constitution. The critical component of the Quebec Act that caught the attention of American critics was that Quebec was to be governed without a legislature, by a governor and an unelected council.

Those already concerned and agitated by the imperial reforms of the previous decade – reforms aimed at curtailing self-government in British colonies – saw Quebec, as constituted by Parliament in the Quebec Act, as Britain’s model colony. American critics understood the Quebec constitution as a blueprint for what Parliament was hoping to accomplish in colonial administration more generally. (This American assessment gains credibility when one examines the governing philosophy and structure of the 2nd British Empire.) The Quebec Act thus gave credence to the Sons of Liberty’s accusations that Parliament had long conspired to emasculate and sideline American assemblies and courts of law, extend Parliament’s jurisdiction over the colonies, and strengthen direct royal governance within them. At a time when the ideological trend on both sides of the British Atlantic was toward greater transparency and accountability in government, Parliament initiated multiple reforms that made colonial governments and courts more opaque and unaccountable to colonial constituents, and more transparent and accountable to Parliament.

The Quebec Act was received with great alarm and a grave sense of urgency because of its timing, in conjunction with the Coercive Acts in Massachusetts. It seemed that after a decade of tinkering with half measures that curtailed local governance and oversight over imperial officials, Parliament was finally acting on its decade-long conspiracy to fundamentally transform America – by legislation in Quebec, and by brutal force in Massachusetts. The events in Massachusetts and Quebec seemed to indicate that Parliament had tired of debating the colonists over jurisdiction, law, and the imperial constitution; it was instead pressing ahead and forcing its will on them. It was that fear, and that urgency, that led sober men of property and standing into a rebellion that was extremely dangerous to their and their families’ wealth, position, and lives.

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