Diversity and Sovereignty: How the Quebec Act enhanced, not weakened, the British Empire

Aaron Willis

The relationship between Britain and supranational structures has consistently raised questions of authority and sovereignty. While the E.U. has provided the most recent theatre for debates over these political concepts, in the eighteenth century it was the expanding empire that generated political crises and the attendant debates. The concept of sovereignty, often in the British context parliamentary sovereignty, repeatedly reared its head as a central concern of these political contests.[1] Yet in the decade between the Treaty of Paris (1763) and the passage of the Quebec Act (1774) officials formulating policies for incorporating the French Catholics of Quebec into the empire gave it limited consideration. Sovereignty appears as an abstract concern of those raging against outside influences from the continent; whether the papacy, the Jesuit leadership, or the polluting influence of French law. Sovereignty was an ideal debated as part of political contests within Britain and the empire, but, perhaps because of the central place of theorists like Montesquieu (as opposed to Hobbes, the English champion of ‘undivided sovereignty’), it was not a functional concern for those tasked with instituting governance in Quebec.

Establishing the authority of the state through legitimate governance was far more important to officials than declaring an unenforceable sovereignty. Supporters of the Quebec Act argued that British power and validity were enhanced through an association with European ideals and practices. Too great a focus on instituting undivided sovereignty only restricted and hindered British influence. Isolationist ideals that sought to impose a ‘pure’ English system unpolluted by outside influences not only ignored the realities on the ground, but harmed British interests in Quebec, at home, and abroad. Quebec was neither remote nor a minor pragmatic concern. In debating the final policy for incorporating French Catholics in Quebec, British officials drew heavily on ideas and precedents from Europe. British imperial ideals and the early history of British Quebec are best understood as part of a wider European context.

A view of the City of Quebec, by Hervey Smyth (1768). Library of Congress.

A view of the City of Quebec, by Hervey Smyth (1768). Library of Congress.

British jurists, in building a legal case in support of the new practices of empire in Quebec, worked to create a constitutional interpretation that narrowed the territorial scope of many of the laws and principles that worked against their aims of legal diversity and the incorporation of non-Britons. From their decision to reject the extension of the penal laws in Quebec to Attorney General Alexander Wedderburn’s defense of the constitutional innovations and the continuation of French civil law in the Quebec Act, Britain’s legal minds increasingly relied on European Natural Law theory as a means to work outside of the English Common Law and traditional constitutional precedents. Natural Law theory allowed eighteenth-century British jurists outlets for pragmatic decisions with questionable validity within the Common Law.[2] As a result, the scope of possibility for legal variety within the British Empire expanded exponentially. This flexibility enhanced, rather than diminished, British power and influence abroad and allowed it to successfully unite its ever-growing territorial empire.

Officials like Wedderburn could look to Europe not just for legal or philosophical principles, but also for beneficial practices of governance. In the aftermath of his conquest of Silesia in 1742, Frederick II of Prussia faced a similar task to the one now testing the British in Quebec. Ruler of a Protestant state, Frederick had to incorporate a territory with a population made up almost entirely of Catholics. Frederick, a British ally during the Seven Years War, acted in much the same manner recommended by British officials three decades later. He continued the Catholic Church in newly incorporated Silesia and, as the British did in Quebec, protected the Jesuits as crucial to the stability of the existing hierarchy and order. Catholic institutional structures were sustained as a means of keeping the new territory loyal and stable. British ministers were not unaware of the wider European context and referenced it regularly. The concessions made to Catholicism may seem strikingly innovative within a British milieu; however, they fit within a pattern of more open toleration for minority faiths within European statecraft.

"The Thistle Reel." The London Magazine, (February 1775), p. 56. British Cartoon Prints Collection, Library of Congress.

“The Thistle Reel.” The London Magazine, (February 1775), p. 56. British Cartoon Prints Collection, Library of Congress.

In June 1778 Joseph Yorke, the ambassador to the Dutch republic, wrote to his brother Philip about his birthday celebrations where “people were much diverted at my having the Pope’s nuncio at Brussels amongst my guests, and I am persuaded our Gazetteer Politicians would easily combine it with the Canada Bill and that in favor of the R. Catholicks [the Catholic Relief Act of 1778], and prove that the present ministry have a settled plan to reconcile the Kingdom with the Church of Rome.”[3] Yorke’s joke and the fears generated by the Quebec Act after its passage illuminate the long history of British distrust of continental influence. Despite mocking the inclinations of the radical press, Yorke’s quote underscores both the fears of European sway over British politics and the reality of an interconnected Europe. Officials embraced European laws, principles, and practices for the ways that they could enhance British power, rather than worrying about how they might undermine the ideal of undivided sovereignty.

Members of the opposition tried to use the Quebec Act as a key platform for the election campaign in 1774, but the next session found the North ministry with a greater majority in Parliament.[4]   Despite their failure they mounted a well-planned fight for repeal in the House and in the press as a means to score political points.[5]  This campaign largely centered on: a rhetoric warning of impending arbitrary rule, the pernicious outcomes of secret influence, an increasingly “romish” Anglican Church or the return of Papal authority, the threat posed by a compliant Catholic army under the crown to the American colonies and then Britain itself, and the complete subversion of the principles of 1688 and the Protestant state. Yet, even when avoiding the mistakes that made their initial attempt to block the Act’s passage such a failure, they gained no widespread traction in Parliament or in the public beyond the radical press. Many in Britain wrongly hoped that similar scare tactics would meet an analogous end in the current battle over sovereignty and Britain’s place in Europe.


Aaron Willis teaches in the department of history at Santa Clara University. His current project examines the important place of Quebec within the broader context of the British Empire and eighteenth-century political thought. You can find him on Twitter at @a_lukefahr.

[1] F.H. Hinsley makes a strong case for the importance of defining and deploying the concept of sovereignty at points of acute political crisis or change. See his, Sovereignty (Cambridge, 1986).

[2] On how recourse to Natural Law theory allowed eighteenth-century British jurists outlets for pragmatic decisions with questionable validity within Common Law, see D.J. Ibbetson, ‘Natural Law and Common Law,’ Edinburgh Law Review 5 (2001), 4-20.

[3] BL Add. Mss. 35371, Letter dated 9 June 1778

[4] The Quebec Act was used as a political rallying point in places like Bristol and Newcastle, among others; see, James Bradley, Religion, Revolution, and English Radicalism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 214 and 260-263.

[5] This topic, in addition to the wider opposition position over Quebec within the Atlantic’s ‘constitutional periphery’ and radical politics is well covered in, David Milobar, “Quebec Reform, the British Constitution and the Atlantic Empire:1774-1775,” Parliamentary History 14.1 (1995): 65-88.

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