Today in 1774, British Parliament passed the Quebec Act, setting new rules for the governance of Quebec colony. The move came shortly after the Boston Tea Party, where Bostonian patriots dressed in the garb of natives and dumped chests of tea into the harbor to protest the Tea Act of 1773 and the tea monopoly it imposed.

Deemed by the patriots in North America as one of the Intolerable Acts, the act had sweeping ramifications in the North American colonies. Under the new law, Quebec territory was expanded into what were then the western territories (parts of contemporary Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Minnesota), a highly incendiary gesture. The area’s enlargement raised indignation among thousands of North American colonists who held land claims in those regions. Many of the lands in question, in fact, were secured by Americans after the victorious culmination over the French in the French an Indian War.

The government of Quebec was reformed such that the governor would be appointed directly by the crown, with his own legislative council but no legislative assembly populated by free elections. Under the law a new semi-feudal land scheme – the seigneurial system – was adopted, wherein the government maintained sweeping control of land distribution.

Oaths of allegiance within the colony no longer required a reference to Protestantism, and Catholic practices were fully tolerated. In matters of private law, the English common law system was supplanted entirely by a system of French civil law. Perceived by the American patriots as a new model for British governance of the colonies, the reformation of the legal and religious system was widely seen as a tyrannical affront to government that remained relatively autonomous.

As one of the laws that spurred a rift between the political sensibilities of the American colonies and their mother country, the Quebec Act did much to change the political course of North America and western civilization itself. Even though the borders of the Quebec Act were never enforced outside of the pre-law, traditional borders, the move inspired widespread resentment and hostility in the other colonies.

In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson alluded to it directly, scolding the king for “abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies.”

Dave Benner

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