CANADA AND THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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,
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,
Further reading: English
René Chartrand, Canadian Military
Heritage, volume II, 1755-1871. Montréal: Art Global,
Sheldon Cohen, ed., Canada Preserved: The
Journal of Captain Thomas Ainslie. Toronto: Copp Clark,
George F.G. Stanley, Canada Invaded,
1775-1776. Ottawa: Canadian War Museum, 1973.
Walter Stewart, True Blue: The Loyalist
Legend. Toronto: Collins,