History Wednesday: Revolution, Eh?

Ever wonder how the American Revolution created Canada?


No, seriously.

Well, as it turns out the Continental Army was at least as interested in Canada as it was in its own jurisdictions, at least at first. That had some far-reaching consequences. So let’s take a look, eh? Beauty!

In the 18th Century English-speaking Canada as we know it didn’t exist. Up until 1759 it was known as New France. Even after Great Britain took undisputed control in 1763 Anglophones were a tiny minority. Much more so than in the Thirteen Colonies to the south, there was a large cultural and linguistic divide between the British and the general population.

So when the American Revolution broke out in the spring of 1775 there was a great deal of interest in convincing Canada to join the cause on the Patriot side. This was nothing new, as the First Continental Congress expressed interest in reaching out to the French-Canadians as early as October 1774. That came to nothing.

However, when Patriot forces captured Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain in May 1775, a military operation against Canada became feasible and instantly attractive. The idea was pretty simple: capture the capital at Quebec City and Canada will join the Patriot cause.

The Continental Congress appointed General Philip Schuyler to lead the offensive, but because of poor health he was unable to personally conduct the campaign. As a result American forces in charge of capturing Quebec City were de facto led overall by Richard Montgomery, who until recently had been a career officer in the British Army. A second force was commanded by a certain Benedict Arnold, who had been passed over for overall command despite his critical role in capturing Fort Ticonderoga, which made all this possible in the first place.


Getting shafted like this would become a recurring theme with him, with disastrous consequences.

At first the campaign went well. Montgomery sailed his troops from Fort Ticonderoga up Lake Champlain, where in early November 1775 he captured the British-held Fort St. Jean. Montreal fell to the Patriots without a fight shortly thereafter. Meanwhile Arnold marched his forces from Massachusetts through present-day Maine, arriving on the outskirts of Quebec City a few days later. This set up the possibility of a two-pronged attack on the Canadian capital.

But for the Americans, that’s where the good news ended. Arnold’s march through the wilderness of 18th Century Maine proved to be much tougher than expected, the expedition having lost a significant amount of gunpowder and other vital supplies to damp, leaky boats. The fact this was early winter in Canada didn’t help matters.

But no matter. It’s only a matter of time before Canada rises to fight alongside the Patriots against the British, right?

The Patriots assumed there was still a lot of anti-British sentiment in Quebec, especially considering they forced France to choose between Canada and its tropical colonies of Guadeloupe and Martinique as punishment for losing the Seven Years’ War. France chose the islands.


Mainly because it’s damn difficult to grow sugar cane in Canada.
Image credit: Smiley

Unfortunately for the Patriots, the British were a step ahead of them on this. The previous year Great Britain passed the Quebec Act, which greatly expanded Canada’s borders to include present-day southern Ontario and most of the Great Lakes region. More importantly to the point at hand it also granted several then-remarkable civil liberties to the French-speaking populace, including an unprecedented tolerance of the Roman Catholic Church. While anti-British sentiment remained in 1775 Canada, the legislation was successful in neutralizing it to the point where it no longer threatened British control. In other words, the groundswell of support the Patriots expected from the French-Canadians simply never materialized.


Oddly, colonial outrage over this very law was a major reason for the American Revolution to begin with.

Meanwhile – low on supplies and weakened by a combination of disease, exhaustion and expired enlistments (read: immediately after their contractual obligations were fulfilled, the vast majority of colonial soldiers simply picked up and went home) – the combined Patriot forces were easily repelled when they finally joined forces and attacked on New Year’s Eve. What remained of Arnold’s group attempted to lay siege to Quebec City, remaining until well into the spring of 1776 until he was finally forced to withdraw.

The British, now reinforced with over 9,000 fresh troops under the command of John Burgoyne, then proceeded to drive the Americans south well into New York, where they were finally stopped at Saratoga in fall 1777.

Of course, the Patriots eventually won the American Revolution despite up to 20 percent the population in the Thirteen Colonies supporting the British cause throughout. This result prompted a mass northward migration of Loyalists to Canada. The British soon found themselves tasked with defusing tensions between these recent English-speaking immigrants and the established French-speaking Canadiens. In 1791, they came up with a solution.


“Put ’em in that orange area.”
Image credit: Roke

That orange area became known as Upper Canada, the direct ancestor of the modern province of Ontario. Meanwhile the older settlements to the east became Lower Canada, or later the province of Quebec. A few Loyalists also settled in areas east of Lower Canada, which became the “maritime provinces” of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.

So that’s how the American Revolution helped create modern Canada. As for the new United States, they never tried to invade Canada again after the disaster in Quebec City.


Well, except for that one time.

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