Before Thomas Paine’s Common Sense could inflame the spirit of American colonists, the Quebec Act marked a decisive turn in the coming of the Revolution. The restoration of the Roman Catholic Church in the Province of Quebec to its prior standing aroused fears that had dissipated following the surrender of New France. The willingness of Tory interests in London to accommodate “popish superstition” threatened, in the view of many eighteenth-century Americans, to lock the heavy arm of political “tyranny” with that of religious “despotism” in the Thirteen Colonies as much as in Quebec. What happened to this rhetoric of anti-Catholicism, however, when American soldiers actually encountered Canadians in their homes and at worship?
The British mercantile community in Quebec matched the American press in decrying the Act of 1774. Members of the “British Party,” Thomas Ainslie wrote, “have on all occasions taken infinite pains to inflame the minds of the Canadians against Government . . . Some of these Grumbletonians are friends to the Constitution but are highly incensed against the Quebec bill.” On the morning of 1 May 1775, as the Act went into effect, the people of Montreal awoke to find the King’s bust blackened with paint. The vandals had placed around its neck “a rosary made of potatoes” and identified the King as “Canada’s Pope and England’s fool.” Boston’s Committee of Correspondence sent an agent to Montreal to capitalize on such dissatisfaction, but it would not suffice to appeal to settlers of British descent. The invasion of Quebec, later that year, forced a change in approach and in rhetoric.
The invasion was in keeping with the skirmishes in Lexington and Concord, the capture of Fort Ticonderoga, which cleared the Lake Champlain axis, and the Battle of Bunker Hill in the spring of 1775. The rebels would liberate Quebec and, more significantly, prevent reinforcements from reaching New England and New York. In the process, anti-Catholicism would be revealed as a political concern rather than a social one.
Surprisingly, there is little in the diaries and memoirs of American soldiers who served in Quebec that reflects this profound sectarianism. In late 1775, numerous soldiers commented on the kindness of Canadians, some of whom took up arms for the Patriot cause. Benedict Arnold and others depicted French Canadians as “gentle savages”: “ignorant” by virtue of religion and “slaves” to British power, but not enemies to the cause of liberty. Arnold lamented British efforts “to make innocent Canadians instruments of their cruelty, by instigating them against the Colonies,” but in most parishes there were some who provided aid or expressed support for the Patriots.
American soldiers found a very different faith from the dark, diabolical designs presented to them during the French and Indian War. At Pointe-aux-Trembles, John Joseph Henry found “a spacious chapel, where the ceremonies of the Roman Catholic religion were performed with a pomp not seen in our churches, but by a fervency and zeal apparently very pious, which became a severe and additional stroke at early prejudices.” With evident curiosity, one James Melvin stopped to describe the last rites given to several individuals. Equally intrigued, Caleb Haskell, a sincerely devout Protestant, attended Catholic Mass in Beauport on St. Patrick’s Day, 1776.
When ill, Arnold’s surveyor, John Pierce, was taken into a Canadian home. “I Slept between two Frenchmen,” he wrote, “it was very odd to hear them at their Devotion.” In Sainte-Marie, Pierce, who delighted in exploring this new culture, was “very well entertained” by a French priest; farther down the Chaudière River, he met another clergyman and witnessed a Catholic baptism. His remarks describe Canadians as gentle and childlike in their celebrations. Pierce found that “[t]he French . . . appear to be very ignorant Worshiping their images,” he explained. “In the [aisles] of their mass houses Chapples and Temples they have their Saints Placed as big as the Life which they Bow down to and worship.” Following the failed assault at Quebec, on 31 December 1775, Pierce emphasized the mischief caused by priests who supported the colonial regime and worked as spies.
Bishop Jean-Olivier Briand remained staunchly committed to Carleton and his regime. Parish priests were playing a more cautious game. Until the attack on Quebec’s ramparts, Canadians proved receptive to the invaders; in early 1776, they pressed the Americans to attack again. Local curés could not ignore the sentiments of parishioners and the possibility that the invading force might triumph. However, as British reinforcements arrived and the decimated Americans retreated, these priests readily cooperated with a British commission of enquiry seeking to identify and punish traitors. In most areas, it was the priest who was consulted and who named names.
Americans were cognizant of the need to rally the local population to their cause. Motivated by military necessity, Arnold swore to protect Catholic clergy and leave houses of worship undisturbed. Congress’s last attempt to stimulate resistance in Canada came with Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Chase, and Charles Carroll, who echoed Arnold’s promises. Carroll, his Jesuit cousin, and printer Fleury Mesplet were all French-speakers who might appeal to clergymen and seigneurs. The mission was kept secret, lest it cause political backlash at home. In the end, the point was moot: the commissioners’ efforts failed, in the spring of 1776, as the military situation deteriorated.
American surveyor John Pierce was representative of his peers in expressing no enmity towards the Catholic population, as opposed to Catholic institutions. Perhaps because they saw in Canadians a yearning for liberty or because they did not find anti-Protestant zealots, New England’s soldiers did not echo the militant anti-Catholic rhetoric of the age. Since there were relatively few Catholics in the Thirteen Colonies, for many of the American soldiers, the Quebec errand was their first experience of religious pluralism. Though their language certainly retained troubling elements of condescension (“enslaved,” “ignorant”), New Englanders traded the rhetoric of conspiracy for more sympathetic descriptions.
Angry American rhetoric about the Quebec Act conflated political and religious anti-Catholicism. But for at least some of the Patriots who participated in the Canadian invasion, personal encounters trumped polemics. Their journals described humane, sympathetic encounters with Canadiens in their domestic and religious settings. Manipulative British power, and not these Catholic neighbours, was perceived as the real enemy.
Patrick Lacroix is a Ph.D. candidate and a former Fulbright grantee at the University of New Hampshire, where he has taught since 2012. He is the author of “Immigration, Minority Rights, and Catholic Policy-Making in Post-War Canada,” which recently appeared in Histoire sociale/Social History. Forthcoming publications include a transnational study of the Rebellions of 1837 and a piece on French-Canadian immigration to New England.
. Sheldon S. Cohen, ed., Canada Preserved: The Journal of Captain Thomas Ainslie (Toronto: Copp Clark, 1968), 19; George F. G. Stanley, Canada Invaded 1775-1776 (Toronto: A. M. Hakkert, 1973), 12, 19-20.
. Numerous diaries and memoirs, as well as Arnold’s letters, may be found in Kenneth Roberts, ed., March to Quebec: Journals of the Members of Arnold’s Expedition (New York City: Doubleday, Doran, 1940). See also Gayle K. Brown, “The Impact of the Colonial AntiCatholic Tradition on the Canadian Campaign, 1776-1776,” Journal of Church and State 35, no. 3 (1993): 559-75.
. See John Pierce, in March to Quebec, 670-75, 677- 79, 709-10.
. See notably Gustave Lanctot, Canada and the American Revolution, 1774-1783 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967), 120-23; Michael P. Gabriel, ed., Quebec During the American Invasion, 1775-1776: The Journal of François Baby, Gabriel Taschereau, and Jenkin Williams (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2005).
. Exceptionally, the Puritan general David Wooster interfered with Catholic worship in Montreal.
. Brantz Mayer, ed., Journal of Charles Carroll, 1776 (New York City: New York Times – Arno Press, 1969), 27; Lanctot, Canada and the American Revolution, 127-36; John Adams to Abigail Adams, 18 February 1776, Adams Family Correspondence, Vol. 1, Founding Families, ed. by C. James Taylor (Online version).
Image: Reaction to the Quebec Act Paul Revere, The Mitred Minuet, 1774, Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.