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Morton: Quebec Act paved way to independence

On this day (May 20) in 1774, the British Parliament passed the Quebec Act, which the American colonists regarded as one of the coercive acts that the Lord North ministry had introduced and Parliament had overwhelmingly passed to punish the rebellious Massachusetts colonists for their Dec. 16, 1773, Boston Tea Party.

During the Boston Tea Party, 342 chests of East India Company tea were dumped into Boston’s harbor by thinly disguised “Mohawk Indians.” Word of this “Tea Party” had reached London in late January 1774.

To King George III and the Lord North ministry, this blatant destruction of tea was the last straw. Tired of repeatedly backing down in the face of concerted, increasingly destructive, and even violent colonial opposition to their parliamentary acts and royal proclamations – especially the April 5, 1764, Sugar Act; March 22, 1765, Stamp Act; March 18, 1766, Declaratory Act; June 29, 1767, Townshend Acts; March 5, 1770, Boston Massacre; and May 10, 1773 Tea Act – Lord North introduced in Parliament a series of measures known collectively as the Coercive Acts.

Dubbed the “Intolerable Acts” by the colonists, these acts were passed to remind the rebellious colonists (especially in Massachusetts) of their proper subservient position within the British Empire and particularly to punish Boston for its intransigence and riotous behavior.

These acts – passed overwhelmingly between March 31 and May 20, 1774 – were: 1. Boston Port Act, which closed the port of Boston until such time as the destroyed East India Company tea had been paid for; 2. Administration of Justice Act, which authorized transfer of trials involving British officials to be held in England; and 3. Massachusetts Government Act, which virtually revoked the Massachusetts Charter by abolishing the Boston town meetings, authorizing the royally-appointed colonial governor to, in essence, appoint all colonial judges, and empowering sheriffs to choose juries rather than having them elected, as was previously done, by the people.

Although not intended, by the British, to be one of the “Intolerable” Coercive Acts, the Quebec Act, perceived, however, by many colonials, to be another coercive act designed to “punish” Boston and Massachusetts, greatly alarmed Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and their Massachusetts “Patriot” colleagues.

The Quebec Act actually was designed and passed to check and foil the expansionist aspirations of many prominent Virginians, such as George Washington, Richard Henry Lee, George Mason and Peyton Randolph – men who were involved in various speculative land companies in the rich Ohio River valley. By extending Canada’s boundaries to include lands southward to the Ohio River (lands acquired from France in the 1763 Treaty of Paris, but claimed by Virginia, Connecticut and Massachusetts), the act greatly galvanized opposition to British politics in Virginia especially, and explains why Virginia would join Massachusetts in leading the Patriot movement toward war and independence.

This act specifically thwarted the aspirations and plans of many future American founding fathers by calling into question or even nullifying west land claims (especially those of prominent Virginians) in the Ohio River valley. The Quebec Act also granted religious freedom and tax support to Canadian Roman Catholics – a provision of the act which revived long-held colonial hostility, in the Protestant English colonies, to Catholicism.

The Quebec Act, more than any other single parliamentary act – with the possible exception of the hated Stamp Act of 1765 – aroused opposition to British policies, especially in Massachusetts and Virginia.

The opposition in these two pivotal colonies led directly to the calling of the revolutionary First Continental Congress in late 1774.

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University. Email him at demjcm@comcast.net.

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