J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, August 31, 2013

Quebec Act Conference in Montreal, 4-5 October

Eleven years after the Declaration of 1763, the British government enacted another measure to organize the territory it won from the French: the Quebec Act. On 4-5 October, the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec will sponsor an academic conference on that law and its legacy in Montreal.

The conference website says:
Widely remembered in the United States as one of the “Intolerable Acts” that led to the American Revolution [but see here about that term], the Quebec Act riled British mainland colonists and gave dissenters from the Empire another potent rationale for their agendas. Among colonial governing authorities in Canada, by contrast, the Quebec Act offered a pragmatic solution to inherently difficult problems of governance by attracting the support of Francophone residents.

From Great Britain’s vantage point, the Quebec Act’s granting of civil privileges to Canada’s French Catholics—the first time a Protestant empire had ever taken such action—may have been an initial step toward the formulation of a multi-ethnic, universal imperial ideology. Finally, for North America’s indigenous population, the Quebec Act appeared to suggest a potentially hopeful future—British-Native cooperation in the Ohio Valley to bar further European expansion into the interior and strengthened ties of commerce and culture between the peoples of the Ohio and the St. Lawrence.

By examining the Quebec Act of 1774 from the multiple perspectives of the peoples and nations within its ambit, the conference aims to clarify the Act’s context, elucidate its meanings, and interrogate its legacies.
The Declaration of 1763, forbidding British settlers from moving west into areas reserved for the Empire’s Native American allies, is often cited as one of colonial Americans’ reasons for resenting rule from London. (Some authors disagree, noting subsequent treaties that opened land west of Virginia.) But that wasn’t a big deal in Massachusetts. The province was already blocked on the west by New York; for farmers from Massachusetts, the frontier land was up in Maine.

The Quebec Act of 1774, on the other hand, was a big deal. One problem was the law’s tolerance for Roman Catholics; the descendants of Puritans saw that as a threat and betrayal. Another was how the law laid out a colonial government for Quebec with an appointed governor and council but no elected legislature. That reflected the Massachusetts Whigs’ fear that the Crown wanted to rewrite their province’s charter the same way. Both those complaints were a bit paranoid, but that was the local mood in 1774.


Steve MC said...

I was surprised to learn about this in the PBS documentary "First Freedom" - how giving such religious freedom was heralded in Boston as a dangerous act.

But then again, as I learned during my visit here, people in Boston were already burning effigies of the Pope.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, Pope Night was a major event on the calendar of Boston and other New England ports. Massachusetts didn't end its system of established religion (i.e., taxes going to support the majority church) until the 1830s. That's why the First Amendment is written so oddly when it comes to "the establishment of religion."

That said, though Massachusetts went into the Revolutionary War fueled in part by religious bigotry (read the Suffolk Resolves), it came out with much more openness to non-Calvinist faiths than most people had imagined. An actual Catholic church in Boston!

Jimmy Dick said...

Look at the ratification convention in Massachusetts in 1788 for more anti-Catholic references. By that time those that opposed the Constitution on the grounds that it did not include religious tests had become a minority, albeit a fairly good sized one. We probably could trace the evolution of religious tolerance in Massachusetts pretty extensively.