One of the acts which helped precipitate the American Revolutionary War was the Quebec Act. This act was passed in the aftermath of the Seven Years' War (aka the French & Indian War), after the bulk of France's possessions in North America passed into British hands. It had three major effects:

  1. It assigned large swaths of territory in what is now the US Midwest to the province of Quebec.
  2. It allowed the French code civil to govern civil law in Quebec, rather than the English common law.
  3. It guaranteed freedom of religion to Catholics, and dropped Protestant language from the oath of allegiance.

I know that the Americans viewed the Quebec Act as a Bad Thing™, but to what extent did they view item #3 (the religious protections of Catholics) as objectionable?

I ask because I've been listening to a recent In Our Time episode about the Gordon Riots, a series of anti-Catholic riots in London only a few years later (1780). It certainly seems like anti-Catholic sentiment was running high in England at the time. Since the American colonists did largely see themselves as English, it wouldn't be surprising if there was substantial anti-Catholic sentiment in America as well, and granting rights to Catholics under English rule might not have been well-received.

On the other hand, the only references to the Quebec Act in the grievances in the Declaration of Independence are to items #1 and #2 above, and there weren't any anti-Papist acts passed in the United States after it gained its independence (I don't think.)

So did the American colonists object to the Catholic protections? And if so, was it a major undercurrent, or was it a minor quibble in their eyes?


2 Answers 2


Yes, there were concerns over, what appeared to the colonials as the arbitrary establishment of the Catholic faith as a state religion in the Quebec Act, and it was included by many of the founding fathers as an argument (or a scare tactic) when discussing the intolerable acts. Some of the founders had expressed anti-catholic sentiment even before the Quebec act, but you have to look for the relevant term from their time: Popery.

Both Samuel and John Adams spoke out, even before the Quebec Act against popery: From The American Historical Review:

Samuel Adams in 1768 "verily believed" that "much more is to be dreaded from the growth of Popery in America than from Stamp Acts or any other Acts "destructive of mens civil rights" He thought one should be very cautious in talking about popery before youth lest unwittingly one should speak "the language of the Beast" John Adams too was alarmed (1771) that "the barriers against popery erected by our ancestors are suffered to be destroyed to the hazard even of the Protestant religion."

This concern among the Protestant faithful, and its use to stir up the populace, was also noted in the Historical review article:

It was worthy of St Ignatius as Brooks Adams says the way Samuel Adams used the toleration granted the Canadian Catholics by the Quebec Bill as a goad wherewith to inflame the dying Puritan fanaticism Holy water and papal bulls were special objects of Puritan hatred and Adams made his fellow citizens fear that they were in danger of both.

More discussion of the anti-popery sentiment among patriots can be found in a more recent publication, Papist Patriots: The Making of an American Catholic Identity By Maura Jane Farrelly

In the able hands of the Patriot leadership, the Quebec Act became the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back, the final sign that the king had become irredeemably corrupt.

Another recent publication Anti-Catholicism in America, 1620–1860 also by Maura Jane Farrelly, has an excellent discussion of what the term 'popery' meant to the colonists:

When he used the word, Adams meant both a cause and an effect of tyranny. Popery was the result of injustices like the Stamp Act, but it was also the fertile soil in which such injustices could be planted.

Alexander Hamilton also expressed his concern over this aspect of the Quebec Act. The Works of Alexander Hamilton, pg 39:

Does not your blood run cold to think that an English Parliament should pass an act for the establishment of arbitrary power and Popery in such an extensive country. If they had any regard to the freedom and happiness of mankind they would never have done it. If they had been friends to the Protestant cause they would never have provided such a nursery for its great enemy they would not have given such encouragement to Popery. The thought of their conduct in this particular shocks me. It must shock you too my friends. Beware of trusting yourselves to men who are capable of such an action. They may as well establish Popery in New York and the other colonies as they did in Canada. They had no more right to do it there than here.

The concern was not just that of some of the leadership at the times, but was also expressed or felt by many of the common individuals as well. (From The American Historical Again):

When we find bigotry like this in the minds of American leaders we are not surprised that a favorite device on the banners carried by Puritan mobs after the Quebec Act was the demand "no Popery" and that one of the motives animating the captors of Ticonderoga was to secure the colonies from the incursions of the Roman Catholics "those children of darkness".

Even in areas which were strongly Loyalist, the popery clause became an issue. For example, in New York in 1775 there was a flag created in protest and raised on a Liberty pole in the center of New York. This flag, known as the George Rex Flag, contained the words:"GEORGE III REX AND THE LIBERTIES OF AMERICA. NO POPERY".

So, no matter what the intent of the act was, the Protestant majority definitely expressed concern over what was perceived as the King establishing an official state religion in Canada, and as Hamilton put it:

Beware of trusting yourselves to men who are capable of such an action. They may as well establish Popery in New York and the other colonies as they did in Canada.


Did American colonists object to the protections of Catholicism in the Quebec Act?


Short Answer

The Quebec Act granted three privileges to French Canadian Catholics:

  • The ability to pledge allegiance to the crown without renouncing their faith.
  • The right for the Catholic Church to collect money from within it's congregation through tithing.
  • The gaurantee to freely practice Catholicism in Quebec.

These pro Catholic provisions of the Quebec Act were not meant to offend or impact the American colonies but solidify the British relationship with its new French Canadian subjects. Quebec was strongly Catholic (+99%). The British had offended these Catholics after the French and Indian War (1754–1763) with religious suppression and Catholic intolerant oaths. The objerctionable provisions of the Quebec Act from colonial America's point of view were not the Catholic clauses but the territorial clauses. Specifically increasing Quebec's size threefold by denying lands from the more populous and more proximal colonies.

The British were keen to correct their previous offenses to the Canadian Catholics to facilitate loyalty from French Canadiens. The alternative was to risk the insurrections of the lower 13 colonies spreading North as they were trying to punish the Colonies to Quebec's benifit.

American founding fathers did not trust an all powerful church. Nor did they trust any church which meddled in politics; but they had no problem with freedom of religion or the government allowing citizens to worship as they saw fit, which is all the Quebec Act did for French Canadian Catholics. Three of the American founding fathers were Catholics (Charles Carroll, Daniel Carroll, Thomas Fitzsimmons). The rights bestowed upon the French Canadian Catholics were already enjoyed in the lower 13 Colonies. This is after all the American model for freedom of religion; the absence of government interference in religion. The same Americans founding fathers who witnessed and objected to the Quebec Act on the grounds of territory, passed the United States Constitution which ensured the same rights the Quebec Act granted to Canadian Catholics to all colonial religions including Catholics.

While the entire class of laws collectively known as the Coercive acts or in the US as the "Intolerable acts" 1774, which the Quebec Act June of 1774 was but one; were designed to punish the Americans for poor responses to previous laws (Stamp Act (1765), and Tea Act (May of 1773) and including systemically poor behavior of disrespecting the king's property Boston Tea Party (Dec 1773) and physically coercing the king's representatives in the colonies (tarring and feathering, destroying homes, running out of town on rails, etc…). The Coercive Acts were the response by the increasingly exasperated British Parliament designed to punish this bad behavior. The American response to these Coercive acts in 1774, was the Declaration of Independence July 4th 1776.

With regard to the Quebec Act the Americans objected to giving the entire Ohio Valley and large parts of what would become the American mid west (including what is now southern Ontario, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and parts of Minnesota) to the previous French enemy and newly minted British province of Quebec, tripling its size.

The entire class of laws were extremely objectionable to Americans. But as to the pro-Catholic language in the Quebec Act specifically: not really. While America was mostly settled by non-catholic Protestants, Catholics still had significant representatives in the colonies, including in Maryland which was settled originally as a Catholic colony. Granting Catholics the freedom to worship was not controversial in the United States as freedom of religion was practiced in most of the colonies at the time, including for Catholics. Rhode Island which would become the American model of freedom of Religion which barred its colony from passing laws respecting the establishment of religion had been in existence since 1636.

The pro Catholic provisions of the Quebec Act were not targeted to offend America, so much as they were to ensure good graces from the Quebec Canadiens. When the British won the French and Indian war the French Catholics in Quebec which made up more than 99% of the population of Quebec, were asked to take an oath of allegiance to Britain which included objectionable language denouncing Catholicism in favor of Anglican Protestantism in order to participate in government. When most of said Quebec French Catholics refused to take this oath it eliminated them from government participation. The Quebec Act allowed these Canadian citizens to take a watered down, more Catholic-friendly oath and guaranteed them the right to practice their religion in the hopes that the civil unrest which was occurring in the US could be avoided in what was going to become a more important and vastly larger territory of Quebec, dominated by Catholics.

Quebec Act
In order for them to serve in public offices, they were required to swear an oath to the King that contained specific provisions rejecting the Catholic faith. Since many of the predominantly Roman Catholic Canadiens were unwilling to take such an oath, this effectively prevented large numbers of Canadiens from participating in the local governments. With unrest growing in the colonies to the South, which would one day grow into the American Revolution, the British were worried that the Canadiens might also support the growing rebellion. At that time, Canadiens formed the vast majority of the settler population of the province of Quebec (more than 99%) and there was little immigration from Great Britain. To secure the allegiance of the approximately 90,000 Canadiens to the British crown, first Governor James Murray and later Governor Guy Carleton promoted the need for change. There was also a need to compromise between the conflicting demands of the Canadian subjects and those of newly arrived British subjects. These efforts by the colonial governors eventually resulted in the enactment of the Quebec Act of 1774.6


  • 1
    I have italicized the usage of "Canadien", to emphasize it's Frenchness - while retaining the English "Canadian" in two places I feel appropriate. If you want to really emphasize the differene you could squeeze in the phrase "les Habitants Canadiens" somewhere - just like the Montreal ice hockey team (This is the origin for the large "CH" at centre ice of the old Montreal Forum and new Bell Canada Centre.) May 4, 2019 at 16:33

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