The Origins of the American Revolution: Empire

Guest poster Jacqueline Reynoso is a PhD candidate at Cornell University. This is the sixth post in a weeklong roundtable about “The Origins of the American Revolution.” On Monday, Tom Cutterham kicked things off by exhorting historians to stop “separat[ing] economic from constitutional, imperial, political, or even intellectual causes of the revolution.” On Tuesday Jessica Parr raised questions about the convergence of religious and political rhetoric during the Revolution. Mark Boonshoft considered the importance of civil society and associationism. On Thursday, Michael Hattem called for sharper attention to the periodization when discussing the origins and/or causes of the Revolution. In yesterday’s post, Ken Owen argued for using politics as the lens with which to sharpen our focus on the disjunctures of the 1760s and 1770s. Today, the roundtable concludes with Reynoso commenting on alternative vantage points of empire during the American Revolution.

7080030In October of 1780, the governor of Quebec, Frederick Haldimand, warned against changing the laws and regulations of the British colony. It required “but Little Penetration,” he claimed, to reach the sobering conclusion that “had the System of Government Sollicited by the Old Subjects been adopted in Canada, this Colony would in 1775 have become one of the United States of America.” He continued, “Whoever Considers the Number of Old Subjects who in that Year corresponded with and Joined the Rebels, of those who abandoned the defense of Quebec… & of the many others who are now the avowed well wishers of the Revolted Colonies, must feel this Truth.”[1]

Having only arrived in Quebec in June of 1778, Haldimand based much of his warning on events that transpired before his tenure as governor had even begun. Specifically, he referred to the Continental Army’s Canadian Campaign of 1775-76 (more commonly known as the invasion of Quebec). The military offensive was an attempt on the part of the Continental forces to oust the British administration from the colony as well as incorporate Quebec within the nascent union of the United Colonies. It ultimately ended in failure, and has contributed little to the study of the Revolution and its origins, seeming more like an anomaly within the Revolutionary War than anything else.

As Tom Cutterham, Jessica Parr, Mark Boonshoft, Michael Hattem, and Ken Owen’s posts have shown, the task of rethinking the Revolution’s origins is far from straightforward. More than just exploring the Revolution’s various causes, it also raises questions about periodization and framing. While I don’t think any of these things are separate, my own post focuses primarily on issues of framing, albeit with a geographic bent. In part, this is because the question of where to situate one’s study can easily seem secondary to other matters. The Revolution remains so closely associated with thirteen of Britain’s American colonies (the thirteen colonies) that their boundaries often shape our choices. Yet, as the work of historians such as Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy and Alan Taylor have shown, focusing solely on these thirteen colonies can obscure parts of the Revolution’s story that cut across the boundaries we tend to draw.[2] Looking to Quebec, for instance, illustrates some of the ways the Revolution both shaped and was shaped by events elsewhere in British America.

As Haldimand’s 1780 letter demonstrated, the geographic dimensions of the Revolution could and did extend to Quebec. Far from an anomaly, the Canadian Campaign—as well as the risk it posed—evidently continued to cast a shadow over British administrative policy in the colony four years after its conclusion. Like his predecessor, Governor Guy Carleton, Haldimand feared the onslaught of a second incursion, and his fears were warranted.[3] In the wake of the Continental Army’s defeat in Canada, proponents of a second Canadian campaign, such as Moses Hazen and Timothy Bedel, worked tirelessly to bring about such an offensive.[4] Moreover, in January of 1778, Congress approved a second “irruption” into Canada, which the young Marquis de Lafayette was to command.[5] Although quickly abandoned due to shortages in men and provisions, this unfulfilled offensive— together with the anxieties that permeated the British administration in Quebec—speaks to some of the ways the colony is well suited to the study and reinterpretation of the revolution and its origins.

If we take seriously the notion that Quebec’s incorporation within the United States was a possibility that transcended the Canadian Campaign, the military offensive begins to appear less like an aberration to be explained away, and more like a productive intersection to grapple with. Its timing, too, becomes conspicuous. Taking place during the crucial years of the mid-1770s, when an increasingly unified colonial insurrection crystalized into outright revolt, the campaign reveals much about how countless individuals came to understand the Revolution at that time. For many, Quebec’s entry within the United Colonies (and later “States”) was compatible with the revolutionary cause.

Indeed, by the time the Continental Army launched its campaign into Quebec, the colony’s inhabitants had already been at the receiving end of congressional overtures. For various reasons (strategic and otherwise), delegates from the First and Second Continental Congresses had invited the colony’s inhabitants to elect and send their own delegates to future meetings.[6] These invitations ceased in the years following the campaign, but only technically. Congress continued to single out the colony in ways that allowed for its potential incorporation. For example, in their Articles of Confederation, Congress specified that if Quebec agreed to the measures outlined in the document, it would be admitted into the confederation of states.[7] And later, after formalizing its alliance with France, Congress continued to plan attacks on Quebec with the idea that if taken, the colony would be incorporated within the union.[8]

Of course, hindsight tells us that Quebec never did become one of the United States; that the possibility Haldimand still feared in 1780 came to naught. Because of this, attempts to grapple with Quebec’s place in the coming of the Revolution quickly—but inaccurately—take on the appearance of fruitless ventures into counterfactual history. The difference is, the possibility that Quebec would join the union was not just something that could have occurred, and is therefore merely an interesting outcome to contemplate. It was also a possibility that many either hoped or feared would happen to such an extent that it shaped their actions in concrete ways. Approaching the study of the Revolution’s origins from imperial vantage points like Quebec helps illuminate some of these more fluid geographic dimensions of the Revolution’s origins. To look at it from Haldimand’s perspective, the American Revolution was not a struggle so far removed from the colony he governed.


[1] Adam Shortt and Arthur Doughty, eds. Canadian Archives: Documents Relating to the Constitutional History of Canada, 1759-1791 (Ottawa: S. E. Dawson, 1907), 482-90. The term “Old Subjects” was readily used to refer to individuals in Quebec who were British subjects prior to the empire’s incorporation of Quebec in 1763, at the close of the Seven Years’ War. It differentiated them from French-speaking colonists who remained in the region, and who became known as “New Subjects.”

[2] See especially Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy, An Empire Divided: The American Revolution and the British Caribbean (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000); Alan Taylor, The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers and the Norther Borderland of the American Revolution (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006).

[3] Historian of Canada, Hilda Neatby argued that Haldimand was plagued by rumors and “official notifications” of planned invasions into the province from his arrival in 1778 until the summer of 1782. See Hilda Neatby, Quebec: The Revolutionary Age, 1760-1791 (Toronto: McClelland and Steward Limited, 1966), 172-189.

[4] See especially: Allan S. Everest, Moses Hazen and the Canadian Refugees in the American Revolution (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1976).

[5] Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, 34 vols., ed. Worthington C. Ford (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1904-1937), 10: 84, 87.

[6] Transcripts of these letters can be found in the journals and papers of the Continental Congress, but see also Marcel Trudel, La Tentation Américaine 1774-1783: La Révolution Américaine el le Canada: Textes Commentés (Sillery: Septentrion, 2006).

[7] Journals of the Continental Congress, 9: 924.

[8] Ibid.

5 responses

  1. Pingback: Considering origins, causes, and ways to approach the American revolutionary period « The Historic Interpreter

  2. I wonder had these overtures or campaigns been successful what would have become of the French-speaking residents of Quebec. Would they have been assimilated or been allowed to keep their distinct culture?

  3. Hi Keith, thanks for your question! I’ll start by saying the answer I feel most comfortable with is to simply admit that it’s impossible to know for certain. That said, it’s certainly a question worth contemplating because there are plenty of sources available from which to form educated conjectures, and because—as Governor Haldimand’s 1780 letter reminds us—Quebec’s entry into the nascent United Colonies/ United States was a possibility at the time. What follows are just some thoughts on how to address your question.

    First of all, I think you hit on a demographic reality that’s impossible to ignore in any study of Canada and the American Revolution. Although French-speaking “new subjects” aligned themselves with the Continental troops during the Canadian Campaign of 1775-76 for various reasons, the majority of the United Colonies’ most ardent supporters in Quebec hailed from the demographically-outnumbered English-speaking colonial population. There are also cultural matters that it would be a mistake to ignore (particularly concerning religion and linguistic differences). Many of Congress’s grievances concerning the British governance of Quebec were shaped by pervasive anti-Catholic sentiments. The Quebec Act of 1774 (which formally recognized the observance of Roman Catholicism, among other things), for example, was heavily critiqued by many revolutionaries in British North America. These issues betray a perceived cultural difference that would likely have been the target of political policy if Quebec had become a part of the nascent union. It’s, therefore, very possible to contemplate an American Quebec whose population, with time, would bear little cultural resemblance to the demographically-superior French-speaking colonists of 1775.

    But I also want to warn against viewing the French-speaking “new subjects” as culturally distinct above all else. The danger in that this sort of thinking is that it can easily limit the French-speaking population to an incorrect form of cultural stagnation. In other words, it can lead to the notion that any kind of perceived cultural change could be taken as proof of the loss of some kind of cultural purity that, in reality, did not exist. What’s more, although perhaps to a much lesser degree that would have been the case if Quebec joined the union, the French-speaking colonists did not remain cultural unaffected by the many overtures revolutionary institutions, like the Continental Congress, directed their way. In Rendez-vous Manqué avec la Révolution Américaine, Pierre Monette provides an exhaustive investigation of the political repercussions that certain overtures, like letters from congressional delegates, had on Quebec’s colonial subjects. He ultimately strays from venturing too deeply into counterfactual history, but does go as far as to argue that if Congress’ attempts had found success, the Canadian Campaign, which is so often referred to as the invasion of 1775-76 would instead have become known as the moment of Quebec’s independence (Monette, 11).
    Lastly, throughout the course of the American Revolutionary War, but especially during its last years and its immediate aftermath, the demographic profile of British Canada changed. During these years, around 35,000 loyalists relocated to what became post-1783 British North America, about 6,000 of whom found their way to Quebec. Although still a minority, they constituted what Maya Jasanoff termed “an influential interest group” in her study of the Loyalist diaspora (Liberty’s Exiles). Such loyalists were not only influential agents of imperial political change, they also found that the British colonial government’s priorities had shifted to better accommodate the growing English-speaking population. Although a decidedly different geopolitical reality than a potential United States Quebec, the altered political landscape that loyalists help forged provides some ways of grappling with the questions you posed.


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