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The Quebec Act of 1774 (14 Geo. III c. 83) was a law for the establishment of civilian government and for the recognition of religious rights in the former territories of New France occupied by Great Britain following the Treaty of Paris (1763) ending the French and Indian War. The law was considered by the British North American colonists to have been related to the Coercive Acts passed at around the same time and in response to the Boston Tea Party. It is also the only act of Parliament specifically mentioned in the U.S. Declaration of Independence.
Following the Treaty of Paris (1763) which ended the French and Indian War, Great Britain ruled the former French territories by military law. The British renamed New France Province of Quebec after the capital city. Following the Treaty of Paris, the British government did little to establish civilian government in the former French territories. Except at Forts Detroit and Michillimackinac, the territory was governed by the British army under martial law. At the forts, civilian officials to regulate the fur trade (known as commissaries) also operated.
During the 1760s, French civilians as far away as the Mississippi River began complaining and defying British law for the lack of civilian government. At one point, General Gage considering deporting the habitants as the British had done to the French population of Acadia during the French and Indian War, but this was abandoned as impractical and too expensive. To quell this growing French dissent, the British passed the Quebec Act to provide for civilian government.
The law extended the boundaries of Quebec southward to the Ohio River and westward to the Mississippi River (the western boundary of the British territory at the time). The act recognized two different legal traditions: French law for civil cases and British law for criminal cases. Roman Catholics were granted full religious freedom while they were denied similar freedoms in either Britain or its colonies. Such recognition of what the Anglicans considered religious error flew in the face of establishment religion.
The Act establish four additional political jurisdictions in the Great Lakes region. Lieutenant governors were appointed for Detroit, Michilimackinac, Vincennes, and Illinois. The governor of Quebec was granted the right to appoint a legislative council but Parliament rejected any other form of representative assembly mainly because representative government had not be part of either the French or habitant tradition.
Effects on the Province of Quebec
The Quebec Act restored French law for civil cases, which had been suspended in 1763 in favor of military rule and allowed for the Roman Catholic faith to be practiced. The law also allowed for Roman Catholics to hold government office, a practice not allowed in British homeland or other British colonial administration.
Reaction in the Thirteen Colonies
The Quebec Act was one of the Intolerable Acts denounced by the American colonists, further contributing to the American Revolution. They pointed to the lack of representative government in Quebec as proof that Parliament meant to extend its tyranny over North America.
Frontiersmen from Virginia and other colonies were already entering the area annexed to Quebec and land development companies had already been formed to acquire ownership of large tracts and sell land to settlers. In spite of clauses denying this intent, the seaboard colonies argued that the Quebec Act was attempting also to invalidate their western land claims. The seaboard colonists also denounced the Act for promoting the growth of Papism and cutting back on traditional English rights and freedoms in favor of a French-styled system.
The Quebec Act in Operation
Henry Hamilton was appointed lieutenant governor at Detroit in 1775. Hamilton had power to establish courts in Detroit and Michilimackinac but the start of the American Revolution inhibited any further implementation of the Act until after the war. Later, when Hamilton became the military commandant at Fort Detroit, civilian administration was again merged with military administration.
Paul Langston (2006) examined how colonial newspaper editors skewed the presentation of the law to highlight how the law may have circumscribed traditional English liberties. As part of the propaganda emanating from the highly-charged political debate in Boston, these editorials and letters, some from the other side of the Atlantic, denounce the Act. Even the First Continental Congress attempted to address the problem with a circular letter to the inhabitants of Quebec warning them about the encroachments upon their liberties being attempted by Parliament.