Featuring 1776

Another Log on the Fire: The Quebec Act

Why the revolution? Part 7 of 8

1776 May Episode

In June 1774 Parliament stumbled again, further showing how badly it misread the Americans. The passage of the Quebec Act was a well-meaning attempt to deal with the French people of Canada, their own customs and religion. The act established the Catholic church and allowed all French-speaking Canadians to retain their own legal code. It also extended the borders of Quebec to the Ohio River. Since the Americans would not support a frontier military patrol and the Quebecois had, the plan seemed to serve everyone’s interests. In the meantime, 60,000 Americans had moved into the Ohio Valley, and they were incensed. Americans, particularly descendants of Puritans, saw it as the reincarnation of a Popish enemy on their borders, an enemy they thought had been left behind when they migrated over the ocean. They were quick to note, too, that Canadians had been granted the right to live under laws of their choosing while Massachusetts had been denied the same right. The act became yet another log on the fire.

On September 5, 1774 delegates from every colony except Georgia convened in Philadelphia at Carpenter’s Hall which had “an excellent library” and “a long entry where gentlemen may walk.” George Washington attended in his buff and blue uniform of the Virginia militia and palsied Sam Adams from seething Boston. Crisis had brought them together, but they didn’t even know how to vote, individually, by colony, or region. The delegates decided to vote by colony. There were no ringing declarations of independence at this First Continental Congress. They were still Englishmen, though clearly disgruntled. Joseph Galloway, a Pennsylvania moderate, introduced a plan for a Grand Council which would have the right to veto all Parliamentary legislation affecting the colonies while retaining Parliament’s right to initiate legislation. A President General appointed by the Crown would be the executive authority. After much debate and lobbying, the plan was voted down, six colonies to five.

The First Continental Congress finally agreed on The Declaration of Rights and Resolves which argued from the viewpoint of wronged Englishmen demanding the right of assembly, trial by their own countrymen, freedom from a standing army-all English constitutional cornerstones. Parliament could regulate American commerce but could not levy taxes on the colonies. Then the delegates resorted to their old weapon, nonimportation and nonexportation. Here the regional disputes jumped in, front and center: South Carolinians howled that rice and indigo, her staples, be exempted. Virginia wanted a two year exemption for tobacco. In a compromise, tobacco was given one year and rice was excluded from the embargo. Northerners were angry at what they viewed as southern stubbornness.

In 1775 Parliament passed the New England Restraining Act denying those colonies the right to fish off the Grand Banks, the breadbasket of the maritime area. In April the law was applied farther south with the exception of New York where there were numerous Loyalists. At the same time, Britain held out the other hand offering freedom of taxation to any colony that voluntarily made a “fair” contribution to imperial expenses. Parliament, again deluged by hard-pressed English merchants, passed the bill.

Americans showed they could waffle, too, and Charles Thomson, “the Sam Adams of Philadelphia” who remained secretary of Congress until the end of the war, said: “Even yet the wound may be healed and peace and love restored. But we are on the brink of a precipice.”

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