The Quebec Act

America in Flames

The Quebec Act mandated a permanent centralized civil governmental system in Canada imposing a council appointed by the king which was to have power over legislation subject to the king’s veto. Parliament was to have authority over all but local taxation. Civil cases were to be tried without a jury. The Quebec Act also granted Roman Catholics freedom of conscience.

Because of its timing, passing on June 22, 1774 only a few weeks after the Quartering Act, and provisions that seemed designed to inflame colonial sensibilities (both of which were entirely coincidental), the Quebec Act has often mistakenly been considered one of the Coercive Acts. The Quebec Act was, in fact, a highly pragmatic, even thoughtful, approach to the unprecedented administrative problems posed by the acquisition of Catholic, French-speaking Quebec, along with the thinly populated wilderness beyond it.

The Act greatly expanded the boundaries of the Province of Quebec established in 1763 to effectively include all western territory that fell beyond the Proclamation Line of 1763 (although it was also careful to make clear that Quebec's new borders would not affect either the existing limits of any other British American province or those property rights already granted in the area).

Other parts of the Act address the distinct political and legal problems posed by the absorption into the British Empire of more than 65,000 people "professing the Religion of the Church of Rome, and enjoying an established Form of Constitution and System of Laws, by which their Persons and Property had been protected, governed, and ordered, for a long Series of Years." It retained French civil law for property and civil rights, along with the customs that determined inheritance. English law, on the other hand, having "been sensibly felt by the Inhabitants [of Quebec], from an Experience of more than Nine Years, during which it has been uniformly administered," would govern criminal affairs.

The Act also guaranteed to Roman Catholics and their clergy the right to practice their religion, subject to a declaration of the supremacy of the British Crown. Catholic priests were required to pledge to "be faithful, and bear true Allegiance to His Majesty King George" and to do their utmost "to disclose and make known to His Majesty, His Heirs and Successors, all Treasons, and traitorous Conspiracies, and Attempts" against his life and crown.

If sanctioning the practice of Catholicism and a French legal system that did not hold property rights anywhere near as sacrosanct as did the English common law did not raise enough political and protestant hackles on both sides of the Atlantic, the act's clauses regarding legislative authority in the new province seemed to justify radical arguments that British ministers were perfectly happy to deprive colonials of their representative assemblies. Stating it as "inexpedient" to call an assembly, Parliament vested all legislative authority in the hands of a council appointed by the Crown, with the advice of the Privy Council. It also established tighter standards for imperial review of provincial ordinances, stipulating that all laws disallowed by the Crown would be void retroactively from their moment of passage (whereas colonial laws struck down in London were void from the date of denial), while any law regarding religion or providing for a punishment of more than three months' imprisonment required prior Privy Council approval.

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