King George III as a Late Stuart (Part III)

Part III: From Redress to Revolution

See Part II here.

The seeds of the King’s later image as a friend of popery, were thus sown in 1774, and some immediate responses foreshadowed subsequent attacks. In eastern Massachusetts, subjects evoked the memory of “our fugitive parents” who had been “persecuted, scourged, and exiled.” The Quebec Act recalled persecution under the Stuarts, the implication being clear. Traditional associations between Catholicism and despotism as well as the King’s twin authorities (political and religious) meant that once branded with tyranny in either sphere of his power, George III would soon see the other unravel, as it had been with the last Stuart. And as the contradiction collapsed, all accusations until then reserved for Lord North and Parliament would be refocused. In the Thirteen Colonies, the press was far ahead of Congress in developing that case.[1]

American publications from the early months of 1775 were sufficiently ambiguous as to leave open the possibility of reconciliation with the King. Colonists’ grievances still lay with North’s Tories, who were labelled the “corrupt, Frenchified party in the nation.” One radical tract blamed “a vindictive, arbitrary, and rapacious Minister and his Adherents” as well as “the most venal and corrupt Parliament that ever yet disgraced the British Annals.” In April, New Englander Isaac Backus, a Baptist minister, preached from the pulpit “that George the third violated his coronation-oath which he had solemnly taken before God and his people in establishing popery in Canada.” This strong indictment did not preclude a restoration of Protestant ascendency through the King, for the source of corruption was not the Crown itself, but the group of men who advised it and who dominated Parliament. Indeed, it was the House of Commons, not the monarch, that had refused to receive an American petition during the winter.[2]

In the spring of 1775, Congress departed from its appeals to prepare for more urgent concerns. Whatever North and Carleton’s objectives might be, it was of foremost importance to protect the colonies against aggression, likely to come from Quebec. The American radical press, however, continued to mobilize the Protestant-constitutional myth in the interest of both financial gain and revolution. One “Simon,” pushing the lines of debate, spared his readers Congress’s dance around the King’s position. “Pray,” he wrote, “what was it that justified the [Glorious] Revolution and the expulsion of the Stuart family? Was it not an attempt to introduce Popery and arbitrary power into the Kings [sic] dominions? If so, I hope, as the homely proverb says, what was sauce for the goose will be sauce for the gander, upon a like occasion.”[3]

British Colonies in North America by William Faden, 1777
The British Colonies in North America, Engraved by William Faden, 1777 (Wikimedia Commons, original from the New York Public Library)

Historians have debated the decline of “royal America” between 1770, when the rise of the North Ministry signalled the declining influence of the American lobby, and 1775, when self-styled Patriots began terrorizing Crown sympathizers. Persuasively, Brendan McConville sees in the imperial crisis, in the decade leading up to the Quebec Act, “a flight to the king’s love and justice.” By 1773, only “faith in the king” subsisted; with the Act his position in America quickly diminished. Through the transitory years of 1774-1776, colonial leaders laid blame elsewhere for the imagined ascent of Catholicism. Surely the Protestant monarch, through “that compact, which elevated the illustrious house of Brunswick to the imperial dignity it now possesses,” would intervene on behalf of the British Americans. The delegates reaffirmed their allegiance.[4]

When Americans did step into the realm of treason, it was, paradoxically, by abiding by the Protestant Constitution that the King had violated. Beginning in 1775, pushed by the press, Congress’s language underwent a transformation that would later serve its anti-monarchical rhetoric. In an address to British subjects in Quebec, it warned that “a wicked or a careless king” might “concur with a wicked ministry in extracting the treasure and strength of your country.” Within a year Congress would turn that language explicitly against the sovereign. The Quebec Act, drawing on British traditions, would be used to whip reluctant Patriots into revolutionary (and Protestant) service. Certainly, the most radical of Protestants in the Province of Quebec, who were more immediately threatened by the Act, matched the great men in Philadelphia in challenging the King’s intents. Many merchants had come to Canada directly from the American colonies and accordingly shared well-entrenched prejudices. These members of the “British Party,” Thomas Ainslie wrote, “have on all occasions taken infinite pains to inflame the minds of the Canadians against Government . . . Some of these Grumbletonians are friends to the Constitution but are highly incensed against the Quebec bill.” Their attempts at redress, like those of Congress, failed, and the Act came into effect, as planned, on 1 May 1775. On the morning of that fateful day, the people of Montreal awoke to find the King’s bust, in the city centre, blackened with paint. The vandals had placed around its neck “a rosary made of potatoes” and given the figure a cross that identified the King as “Canada’s Pope and England’s fool.”[5]

That such a reaction would occur in a colony so dependent on the economic support and good will of the metropole reflects an attachment to traditional liberties among all subjects of British descent. Donald Creighton has argued that the men who had come to Canada since 1760 were “merchants before they were Britons, Protestants, or political theorists” and on that account took the path of loyalty. The Montreal merchants would have placed themselves at a disadvantage by committing themselves to the American policy of non-importation. But there was more to their identity, as seen in the bust incident and avowed support for American forces, in 1775-1776, in some quarters. The subjects who migrated from the metropole or other colonies to the Province of Quebec saw the British constitutional system as a whole whose constituent parts were mutually supportive. The return of French civil law and the Catholic faith appeared to weaken the imperial edifice and give further evidence, after the tax controversies, of a decline in traditional liberties. Those British subjects who remained loyal still continued to lobby against the Act until 1791, though public manifestations of discontent receded.[6]

The limitations of the Quebec Act as a weapon in the revolutionary arsenal were not apparent immediately. In the spring of 1775, as congressional delegates prepared for a second session, Samuel Adams and Joseph Warren recommended John Brown, of Boston’s Committee of Correspondence, to the Protestants of Canada, hopeful that their colleague would capitalize on local opposition to the Quebec Act. In Montreal, Brown made contact with rebel sympathizer Thomas Walker. Himself formerly of Boston, Walker was, like many others, incensed by the Act. But it would not suffice to appeal to the two thousand settlers of British descent in Canada. The invasion of Quebec, later that year, forced a change in approach and in rhetoric.[7]

To be continued.

In the next installment: Religious Encounters

[1] “Resolution [17 September 1774],” in Journals – Vol. I. 1774, 32.

[2] Bailyn, Ideological Origins, 123; Philaleuthos, “No Placemen, Pensioners, Ministerial Hirelings, Popery, nor Arbitrary Power” (1775), Archive of Americana, America’s Historical Imprints (Series 1, No. 14399); J. C. D. Clark, The Language of Liberty, 1660-1832: Political Discourse and Social Dynamics in the Anglo-American World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 376-77; William Bollan et al., letter inserted on 11 May 1775, in Ford, ed., Journals – Vol. II. 1775 (1968), 22-23.

[3] “Resolution [18 May 1775],” Journals – Vol. II. 1775, 55-56; Simon, untitled letter, The Pennsylvania Ledger, no. 20 (10 June 1775): 1. See, as an instance of similar radicalism from the British press, “The Crisis, no. 1,” The New England Chronicle: or, the Essex Gazette 7, no. 356 (18 May 1775): 4-7, in Historical Newspapers. See, further, Neil York, “George III, Tyrant: The Crisis as Critic of Empire, 1775-1776,” History 94, no. 316 (2009): 434, 447-49, 457.

[4] Mary Ann Fenton, “Petitions, Protests, and Policy: The Influence of the American Colonies on Quebec, 1760-1776” (Ph.D. diss., University of New Hampshire, 1993), 251; McConville, King’s Three Faces, 9-10, 249-51; “Address to the People of Great Britain [21 October 1774],” “Address to the Inhabitants of the Province of Quebec [26 October 1774],” and “Petition of Congress [26 October 1774],” in Journals – Vol. I. 1774, 83, 122, 118. See also Journals – Vol. I. 1774, 33, 119-21.

[5] See, on expressions of loyalty, “Resolution [12 June 1775]” and “Petition to the King [8 July 1775],” in Journals – Vol. II. 1775, 87, 158-62. See also “Letter to the oppressed Inhabitants of Canada [29 May 1775],” in Journals – Vol. II. 1775, 68-70; James R. Gaines, For Liberty and Glory: Washington, Lafayette, and Their Revolutions (New York City: W. W. Norton and Co., 2007), 43; Sheldon S. Cohen, ed., Canada Preserved: The Journal of Captain Thomas Ainslie (Toronto: Copp Clark, 1968), 19; Stanley, Canada Invaded, 12.

[6] Fenton, “Petitions, Protests, and Policy,” 290, 312, 320-21; Stanley, Canada Invaded, 19-20; Brunet, Canadiens après la Conquête, 274.

[7] Stanley, Canada Invaded, 19-20; Lewis H. Thomas, “Walker, Thomas (d. 1788),” Dictionary of Canadian Biography 4 (On-line: University of Toronto/Université Laval, 1979-2015); Fenton, “Petitions, Protests, and Policy,” 313.


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