Revolution Rejected: Canada and the American Revolution  
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By D. Peter MacLeod, historian

When British armies captured Quebec in 1759 and Montreal in 1760, the French colony of Canada became an occupied territory, ruled by a foreign governor. Until 1763, Canadiens (French-speaking residents of Canada) could hope that this was only temporary, and that Canada would eventually be handed back to France. But on 10 February of that year, France acknowledged defeat in the Seven Years’ War and signed the Treaty of Paris, which ceded Canada to Britain. Canadiens in 1763 thus had every reason to expect they would spend the rest of their lives in the new British province of Quebec, one small corner of Britain's global empire.

Yet in its hour of triumph, the first British Empire began to come apart. Short of funds to repay the loans that had financed the Seven Years' War, the British government attempted to raise money in North America through direct taxes on items such as tea and newspapers. These measures aroused deep resentment, both in Britain’s original American colonies and among British merchants in Canada, who shared many of the values and aspirations of their American counterparts. As tensions mounted and the English-speaking world drifted towards civil war, British strategists came to see the Canadiens as potential allies.

Canada’s first British governor, James Murray, had already taken steps to conciliate the Canadiens. Murray ignored orders from London to impose English civil law, subsidized religious communities, and supported the appointment of Jean-Olivier Briand as Bishop of Quebec at a time when the British government questioned the loyalties of the Roman Catholic church.

Murray’s successor, Guy Carleton, persuaded the British government to pass the Quebec Act in 1774. With it, the British attempted to strengthen their position in Canada by accommodating the seigneurs (landlords) and clergy, who they believed to be the natural leaders of the Canadiens. The act guaranteed tolerance for Canadian Roman Catholics, permitting them to hold government offices and sit on the legislative council. It also compelled Canadiens to pay church tithes and recognized the French language and civil law and seigneurial tenure. Canada's boundaries expanded westward to include the Great Lakes region and the “Indian Territory” between the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

Popular with Canada’s French-speaking elite, the Quebec Act ignored habitant (tenant farmer) concerns regarding attempts by seigneurs to raise rents and dominate rural communities and enraged Canada’s British merchants, who resented the lack of an elected assembly and recognition of French civil law. Americans, upset by the toleration of Catholicism and the expansion of Canada into land they had hoped to take for themselves, considered the Quebec Act to be one of the “Intolerable Acts,” yet another example of unbearable British tyranny.

As Americans contemplated armed rebellion, they too made a bid for Canadien support. In the fall of 1774, the first Continental Congress invited “the oppressed inhabitants of the province of Quebec” to send delegates to the Congress. The Americans translated this invitation into French and sent two thousand copies to Thomas Walker, a Montreal merchant and vocal opponent of the Quebec Act. In the spring of 1775, when the pamphlets arrived, Walker distributed them to Canadiens in the Montreal area. Widely read and discussed, the pamphlets may have produced some sympathy for the American cause, even as that cause became a war against Great Britain.

On 15 April 1775, British troops and American rebels clashed at Lexington Green in Massachusetts and the American Revolution began. Three weeks later, Americans led by Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allan seized Forts Ticonderoga and Crown Point on Lake Champlain, just south of Montreal. Their capture gave the Americans a foothold on the Lake Champlain-Richelieu River-St. Lawrence River network of waterways and cleared the way for an invasion of Canada.

George Washington, the American commander-in-chief, hoped that conquering Canada and capturing Quebec City would secure the rebels’ northern flank against British intervention. Encouraged by optimistic reports from Thomas Walker, he fully expected that the Canadien>s would join the rebels and turn the invasion into a war of liberation.

Governor Carleton was equally certain that Canadiens, reconciled to British rule by the Quebec Act, would rally behind him to defend the province. He revived the Canadien militia, imported uniforms and weapons, and waited for recruits.

In the fall of 1775, when American rebels invaded Canada, both Carleton and Washington were disappointed. Some em>Canadiens supported the rebels, others, the British. The majority remained neutral. Canada’s English-speaking merchants proved equally unwilling to commit to either side, and split into pro-British and pro-American factions.

While Canadiens and merchants considered their options, an American army, led by Richard Montgomery, sailed up Lake Champlain and attacked Chambly and St. Jean on the Richelieu River. When the garrisons of British regulars and Canadien militia finally surrendered, Montgomery occupied Montreal on 12 November and pushed on down the St. Lawrence River to Quebec City. There, on 3 December, he joined a second American army, commanded by Benedict Arnold. After an appallingly difficult trek up the Kennebec and down the Chaudière rivers, suffering from exposure, exhaustion, hunger, and disease, the survivors of Arnold’s column had reached Quebec on 15 November.

Between them, the rebel armies had reduced the territory controlled by the British to a tiny patch of land inside the walls of Quebec. Yet the American siege was in trouble before it began.

Although rudimentary by European standards, Quebec’s fortifications were more than strong enough to hold off an enemy that lacked a single cannon large enough to damage the city walls. Moreover, American triumphs on land had no effect whatever on Britain’s control of the sea. Without large warships to challenge the Royal Navy and blockade the St. Lawrence River, the rebels could not prevent British vessels from carrying supplies and reinforcements to Quebec.

So while the Americans endured hunger and cold on the Plains of Abraham, the 357 regular soldiers, 450 sailors, and 543 Canadien and 300 English-speaking militia of the garrison, well-provided with food, clothing, housing, arms, and munitions, settled in for the winter. Carleton’s strategy was entirely passive. Instead of risking defeat by marching out to confront the invaders, he would keep his army inside Quebec and wait for the Royal Navy to lift the siege in the spring.

Unable to harm, or even seriously inconvenience, the garrison from outside the walls, the Americans attempted to seize the city's Lower Town in a desperate attack on the night of 30-31 December 1775.

At about 4:00 a.m. on the 31st, as fierce winds and blowing snow lashed Quebec, an officer of the garrison looked across the Plains of Abraham and saw flashing lights that might have been lanterns. He sounded the alarm and the garrison stood to arms, just as two rockets sailed skyward, signalling the start of the American attack. Seconds later, firing began as parties of Canadiens, serving with the rebels, made diversionary attacks.

Down by the river, Richard Montgomery led 300 New Yorkers, towards Près de Ville, on the west side of Lower Town. Following a narrow path between the cliff and the St. Lawrence River, painfully advancing across and around deep snow and giant blocks of ice, Montgomery’s column passed beneath the Cape Diamond Bastion and forced its way through two wooden stockades. Catching sight of the first house in Lower Town, Montgomery shouted “Quebec is ours!” and charged ahead.

Inside the house, about thirty Canadien militia, led by Captain Chabot and Lieutenant Alexandre Picard, and a few British sailors under Captain Barnsfare, were on the alert. As the Americans approached, they opened fire, killing Montgomery and several of his officers. The American column fled in panic and did not return.

North of the city, Arnold and 600 troops mustered in the suburb of St. Roch and marched on Quebec. Massive snowdrifts slowed them down; tiny snowflakes seeped into their muskets and soaked the powder charges. Pressing forward, still in darkness, flailed by the storm, Arnold’s column blundered into a bewildering maze of homes, sheds, warehouses, and docks, linked by narrow streets and alleys.

Led by Arnold, the head of the column stormed a barricade across the Rue Sault-au-Matelot. Arnold fell, wounded in the leg, but his followers continued up the street toward a second barricade. There, they hesitated, waiting for reinforcements, while behind them the rest of Arnold’s force wandered from street to street, lost and confused.

On the far side of the barricade, British regulars led by Colonel Henry Caldwell formed up in the street while Canadien militia commanded by Colonel Noel Voyer took station in the surrounding buildings. The Americans advanced carrying ladders, and occupied a house that overlooked the defenders. Then Charles Charland, of the Canadien militia, dragged one ladder over the barricade and placed it against the side of the house. John Nairne and Francois Dambourgès, of the Royal Highland Emigrants, led a party of Highlanders and Canadien militia up the ladder and into the house. They expelled the rebels, and opened fire on the Americans in the street below. Under attack from all sides and trapped by a British column coming up from the rear, the Americans surrendered, ending the battle.

In all, the rebels lost between sixty and one hundred killed and wounded, along with 426 prisoners. Five of the defenders were killed and one wounded.

The American survivors withdrew to the Plains of Abraham where they stayed, suffering from hunger, cold, and smallpox, until the arrival of HMS Surprise 6 May 1776. The rebel army evacuated Canada and did not return for the remainder of the war.

Map of Qubec City, showing the siege and attack by the Americans during the winter of 1775-1776ANC/NMC 55019

The American invasion of 1775-76 was one of the most important campaigns in Canadian history. Had the invaders succeeded, Canada would now in all likelihood be part of the United States. Instead, Canada remained British and eventually evolved into a self-governing Dominion and independent nation.

Even as Arnold and Montgomery invaded Canada, other Americans rallied to the British. Known as Loyalists, they suffered, insult, robbery, violence, and arrest at the hands of rebel neighbours. Spurred by persecution and drawn by their allegiance to the Crown, Loyalists frequently fled for the safety of the British lines where many joined locally-raised units like Butler’s Rangers and the King’s Royal Regiment of New York. Other Loyalists, led by Konwatsi'tsiaiénni and Thayendanegea (Molly and Joseph Brant), were Six Nations Iroquois who hoped that fighting for the British would protect their lands against American settlers.

When a second Treaty of Paris ended the revolutionary war in 1783, there was no place in the new United States for either British or Iroquois Loyalists. The Iroquois settled along the Grand River, in what is now south-western Ontario, and at Deseronto, on Lake Ontario. More than 40,000 British Loyalists joined them in exile, making their way to Quebec and Nova Scotia.

The Loyalists changed Canada. In 1784, the British government separated the colony of New Brunswick from Nova Scotia to provide a haven for Loyalists. In Quebec, their presence added a significant English-speaking element to the population and led to the passage of the Constitutional Act in 1791. This act divided Quebec into two new provinces, Upper and Lower Canada (now Ontario and Quebec), each with an elected assembly and appointed Legislative Council. The American Revolution, by provoking the Loyalist migration, thus fundamentally influenced Canada’s people, its provinces, and its institutions, and helped to create the Canada we know today.

Loyalist refugee camp at 
Johnston (now Cornwall, Ontario), on the St. Lawrence River, 
1784 (NAC C-2001)ANC C-2001

Further reading: French

Robert S. Allen, Les Loyalistes: Le rôle militaire des corps provinciaux loyalistes et leur établissement en Amérique du nord britannique. Ottawa : Musée national de l’Homme/Musées nationaux du Canada, 1983.

René Chartrand, Patrimonie Militaire Canadien, tome II, 1755-1871. Montréal: Art Global, 1995.

Richard Ouellet et Jean-Pierre Therrien, eds., L’invasion du Canada par les Bastonnois: Journal de M. Sanguinet. Québec: Ministère des Affaires culturelles du Québec, 1975.

George F.G. Stanley, L’invasion du Canada, 1775-1776: “Canada Invaded.” Québec: La société historique de Québec, 1975.

Further reading: English

René Chartrand, Canadian Military Heritage, volume II, 1755-1871. Montréal: Art Global, 1995.

Sheldon Cohen, ed., Canada Preserved: The Journal of Captain Thomas Ainslie. Toronto: Copp Clark, 1968.

George F.G. Stanley, Canada Invaded, 1775-1776. Ottawa: Canadian War Museum, 1973.

Walter Stewart, True Blue: The Loyalist Legend. Toronto: Collins, 1985.