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inhabitants

Letters to the inhabitants of Canada

The Letters to the inhabitants of Canada were three letters written by the first and second Continental Congresses to communicate directly with the population of the Province of Quebec, formerly Canada, which had no representative system at the time.

Background

The acquisition of the Province of Quebec as a result of the French and Indian War (1754–1763) gave Great Britain control over the entire Eastern seaboard of North America, and brought the former French colony of Canada into a closer relationship with the American colonies. However, differences were significant, as the vast majority of people in Quebec spoke only French and were Roman Catholic.

In 1774, the British Parliament enacted the Quebec Act, along with other legislation that was labeled by American colonists as the Intolerable Acts. This measure was used to fortify the position of the British in Canada by guaranteeing (among other things) the right of French Canadians to practice Roman Catholicism. It is largely perceived by many historians to be damage control in the province of Quebec, in order to prevent them from joining the independence movement in the American colonies. The American colonists interpreted the religious provisions concerning Catholicism as a wedge by which Catholicism might be introduced into all of the colonies.

First letter

Congress drafts the letter

On October 21, 1774, the Continental Congress resolved to address letters to the populations of Quebec, St. John's Island, Nova Scotia, Georgia, East Florida and West Florida, all being colonies that were not represented by delegates in the Congress. A committee composed of Thomas Cushing, Richard Henry Lee and John Dickinson was set up for the drafting of those letters. A first draft was presented on October 24, debated and returned to the committee. On October 26, a new draft was presented, debated, amended and adopted. A resolution was passed for the president to sign the letter and ordering the translation and printing of a Letter to the Inhabitants of the Province of Quebec to be done under the supervision of the delegates of Pennsylvania. The letter was translated to French and printed as an 18-page brochure entitled Lettre adressée aux habitans de la Province de Quebec, ci-devant le Canada, de la part du Congrès général de l'Amérique Septentrionale, tenu à Philadelphie. The translation is attributed to Pierre Eugène du Simitière. The final content of the letter is attributed to John Dickinson, as a draft in his own hand very close resembles the final letter.

Contents

The letter informed the people of Quebec of five important rights of British constitutional law which were not in force in their colony over a decade after the peace treaty of 1763, which ended the French and Indian War, and resulted in every French subject in Canada becoming a new British subject, theoretically equal in rights to all other British subjects. These five rights were representative government, trial by jury, Habeas Corpus, land ownership, and freedom of the press. The text quotes a passage of Beccaria's On Crimes and Punishment and multiple excerpts of Montesquieu's The Spirit of Laws. Quebec historian Marcel Trudel believes this first letter to have been "a crash course on democratic government", while Gustave Lanctôt claims that the Congress' letter "introduced [among the inhabitants] the notion of personal liberty and political equality.", calling it their first "political alphabet" and "first lesson in constitutional law".

The people of Quebec were invited to give themselves the provincial representation the Quebec Act did not provide for, and have this representative body send delegates to the upcoming continental Congress, to be held in Philadelphia on May 10, 1775.

Distribution and Reaction

The French-born Philadelphia printer Fleury Mesplet printed 2,000 copies of the French translation. Other manuscript French translations of the original English letter (first published in Dunlap's Pennsylvania Packet) were in circulation as well, possibly even arriving in Canada before the "official" translation paid by the Congress. Wide circulation of the letter was prevented by General Guy Carleton, then Governor of the province, so there was no significant response.

In early 1775, Boston's Committee of Correspondence sent John Brown into Quebec to gather intelligence, gauge sentiment, and agitate for rebellion in that province. He found mixed sentiment among English-speaking inhabitants, some of whom were concerned that the Congress' adoption of an export boycott would essentially give the lucrative fur trade to French-speakers. The bulk of the French-speaking population was at best neutral with respect to British rule; some were happy with it, but more might be convinced to assist the Americans in their aims. Brown also noted the relatively weak military presence in the province. General Carleton, while aware of Brown's activities, did nothing to interfere, beyond preventing publication of the letter in the local newspaper.

Second letter

The Second Continental Congress met on May 10, 1775, following the Battles of Lexington and Concord in which colonial forces resisted a large British force on April 19th and drove it back to Boston. This victory resulted in Congress opening session with great excitement and hope.

On May 26, the Congress resolved to draft a letter to the inhabitants of Canada. The draft committee was this time composed of John Jay, Silas Deane and Samuel Adams, this last having previously written a letter to the people of Canada on behalf of the Boston Committee of correspondence. On May 29, 1775, the Second Continental Congress adopted the final letter to the Province of Quebec.

The letter, entitled Letter to the oppressed inhabitants of Canada, was translated as Lettre adressée aux habitants opprimés de la province de Québec, de la part du Congrès général de l’Amérique septentrionale, tenu à Philadelphie. The letter was signed by president John Hancock, and again translated by Pierre Eugène du Simitière and 1,000 copies of it were printed by Fleury Mesplet. The content of the letter is attributed to John Jay.

In the letter, the Congress again deplores the form of the civil government introduced by the Quebec Act, which it likens with "tyranny". It further asserts that under this form of government "you and your wives and your children are made slaves." As for the enjoyment their religion, the Congress believes it uncertain for it depends on "a legislature in which you have no share, and over which you have no controul".

At the time of the letter's writing, the Congress was already aware that the British government has called the people to arm themselves to defend their new King from the invasion. The letter warns the population of the danger of being sent to fight against France were it to join the war on the side of the Americans (which it did). If the Congress insists again on treating the Canadians as friends sharing common interests with the other colonists, it however warns the people not to "reduce us the disagreeable necessity of treating you as enemies."

Third letter

On January 23, 1776, the Congress passed a resolution for the setting up of a committee to which was entrusted the drafting of another letter to the Canadian population. The members of the committee this time were William Livingston, Thomas Lynch Jr. and James Wilson. The letter was approved the day after.

In the third letter, signed by John Hancock, the Congress thanked the population for the services it rendered to its cause and ensured them that troops to protect them were on the way. It again invited the people to elect representatives from which delegates would be taken to represent the province in the Congress. The French translation was again printed by Fleury Mesplet, however it is not certain who in the committee is the author and also if du Simitière was the translator.

Conclusion

The failure by the Americans to take Quebec City, and the subsequent withdrawal from the occupied territory resulted in the province ultimately staying in British hands. While the Congress succeeded in raising two regiments of Canadians, the seigneurs and the Catholic clergy rallied around the British governor.

Despite a brief invasion by forces under Richard Montgomery, Canada was a relatively strong colony for Britain for a large part due to the strict leadership of Guy Carleton, despite attempts to bring the revolutionary spirit of the American colonies into Quebec.

Letter sources

  • Letter to the Inhabitants of the Province of Quebec, October 26, 1774 (en, fr)
  • Letter to the oppressed inhabitants of Canada, May 29, 1775 (en, fr)
  • Letter to the Inhabitants of the Province of Canada, January 24, 1776 (fr)

Notes

References

  • Alden, John R (1969). A history of the American Revolution. Knopf.
  • Lanctôt, Gustave (1965). Le Canada et la révolution américaine, 1774-1784, Montréal: Beauchemin, 330 p.
  • Monette, Pierre (2007). Rendez-vous manqué avec la révolution américaine. Les adresses aux habitants de la province de Québec diffusées à l'occasion de l'invasion américaine de 1775-1776, Montréal: Québec Amérique, 550 p. ISBN 978-2-7644-0547-5
  • Nelson, Paul David (2000). General Sir Guy Carleton, Lord Dorchester: Soldier-Statesman of Early British Canada. Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press.
  • Trudel, Marcel (2006). La tentation américaine, 1774-1783. La Révolution américaine et le Canada : textes commentés., Sillery: Septentrion, 179 p.

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