Champlain's America


In 1775 the Americans invaded Canada in a two-pronged attack against Montreal and Quebec that has been described as having "the improvised character of a raid."  In defense the British called out the primarily French Canadian militia but most of the men refused to serve, despite being threatened with excommunication, because they regarded the war as a British family quarrel of no interest to them.  While the Canadians initially resisted the efforts of the British to involve them in the conflict, they were even more resistant to helping the other side, support that the Americans had considered a sure thing; surely the French population would join the fight for freedom in light of their own presumed suffering under British rule since 1763.  But the Americans had gravely misjudged the situation, for most French Canadians perceived taking up arms against the British government as equivalent to fighting for the former colonies, and the “Bastonnais” were older, more hated enemies than the British, who had treated them with respect since their defeat.  When the green, ill-disciplined American troops entered Canada, abusing the citizenry and mocking their religion, it could no longer be pretended that the old hostilities were dead.  Discord between Catholic and Protestant that had been encouraged by both sides for over a century was too deeply ingrained.


The Catholic Threat, Again 

44.  This Sr. is the meaning of the Quebec Act, London, 1774.


45.  Paul Revere, "The mitred minuet." In: The Royal American Magazine, Vol. I, no. 10, [Boston,] October, 1774.

The Quebec Act of 1774 recognized two basic rights of the predominantly French Canadian population, freedom of religion and the right to live under traditional French civil law. It also gave the governor and council at Quebec jurisdiction over the Ohio country.  In one stroke, the new law offended at least two colonial constituencies—traditional Catholic-hating New Englanders were outraged because they saw Britain caving in to Papists; land-speculators—George Washington and Benjamin Franklin among them—were angry because they had their eye on lands in the Ohio territory.  Emotions ran high and American colonists condemned the Quebec Act as one of the "Intolerable Acts."  A flurry of publications followed that argued against the Act and referred to Canadians in hostile terms.  When the Americans later looked to those same Canadians for support against the British, their hypocrisy was blatantly apparent. 

Benedict Arnold
Benedict Arnold, Flawed Hero      

46.  Thomas Hart, Colonel Arnold.  Who commanded the Provincial troops sent against Quebec. Through the wilderness of Canada, and was wounded in storming that city, under General Montgomery, London, 1776.

Before Benedict Arnold turned traitor in 1780, he was widely considered one of the most up-and-coming young military leaders of the American Revolution.  The two-pronged American offensive in Canada had been authorized by Washington, with one army traveling overland to attack Montreal while a secondary force of 1,000 navigated up the Maine river system to Quebec.  Benedict Arnold was appointed to command the Maine contingent.  Troops were sent from Boston to Newburyport, where river bateaux had been constructed to transport the soldiers the 320 miles to Quebec.  The expedition left on September 19th, but since only green wood had been available for construction of the boats,few of the craft made it beyond the first third of the journey.  The inexperienced troops, ill-prepared for the hardships, slogged on—a third turned back, a hundred died of exposure, and survivors were reduced to eating soap, shoe leather, and cartridge boxes.  About 600 finally reached the St. Lawrence River on November 9th where they were joined by General Montgomery with 300 more men.  The combined forces began the siege of Quebec on November 19th. 

Benedict Arnold

Benedict Arnold's March to Quebec, 13 September-9 November 1775  

After the fermentation of party zeal has subsided, and men coolly consider the actions of others, and their principles, they will be obliged to confess, that the march of colonel Arnold and his troops is one of the greatest exploits recorded in the annals of nations, whether the way in which they marched, the season of the year, the severity of the climate, and the many other disadvantages and hardships which attended them are considered.  They were only new soldiers, who had but hardly taken up arms for the defense of their liberties, and had never been accustomed to the hardships of war; they were led through a wilderness unexplored by human eye, where there were no paths, and through thickets almost impenetrable, and swamps next to impassible. They had no possibility of obtaining any more provisions than they carried with them, till they came to Canada, either by force or otherwise, and it was uncertain when they should arrive there.

Murray, An impartial history, Boston, 1781.

Curator's Choice

47.  Kenneth Roberts, Arundel, Camden, ME, 1995, c. 1930, 1933.

Kenneth Roberts's account of Arnold's march to Canada, classed as historical fiction, is based on his careful research into primary historical sources, such as are found here in the JCB collection.  It's a page-turner and highly recommended.

Failed Assault

48.  Environs de Quebec, bloque par les Americains du 8. Decembre 1775 au 13. Mai 1776, Paris, 1777.

Invested in a siege that could last for months and faced with their troops' expiring enlistments on January 1, the American commanders arranged an attack on Quebec's formidable defenses for the early morning of December 31, 1775.  The attack was quickly detected (Murray in his Impartial history, claimed they were given away by a traitor) and Montgomery and fifty others were killed.  Arnold and thirty-six others were wounded and 387 Americans were taken prisoner.  British losses were seven killed and eleven wounded.  Direct attack had failed, but a siege dragged on throughout the winter.  By spring it was obvious that the Americans could not take Quebec, and in May, when the British fleet sailed up the St. Lawrence toward the capital, the Americans fled after the battle of Three Rivers on June 8.  This is a French copy of a British map published the previous year in London.

David Wooster

David Wooster, Flawed Leader      

49.  Thomas Hart, David Wooster, Esqr. Commander in Chief of the Provincial Army against Quebec, London, 1776.

David Wooster was a seasoned soldier, having served Connecticut in several colonial wars.  After the failed American assault on Quebec, during which Montgomery was killed, Wooster succeeded to the command, but his informality with the enlisted men undercut discipline, and his arbitrary, restrictive, and religiously biased actions towards the civilian population outraged Canadian Catholics.  Petty jealousies led to quarrels with younger generals, including Benedict Arnold, and Wooster was replaced and shortly thereafter dismissed from the service as "totally unfit to command."  Eventually, he was exonerated by a congressional investigation and he reentered the Continental army.  He was killed in battle at New Haven, Connecticut, in April, 1777.

Richard Montgomery

Epitaph for the Quebec Venture 

50.   John Norman, "Major Genl. Richd. Montgomery slain in storming Quebec, Decr. 31st 1775."  In: Murray, An impartial history of the war in America between Great Britain and the United States … illustrated with beautiful copper plates, Boston, 1781.

In Murray’s view the American failure should be blamed, first, on lack of support by the French Canadians, who cozied up to the British establishment because they enjoyed the preferments given them by the Quebec Act and, second, on the British merchant class residing in Quebec since 1763 who ought to have flocked (but didn’t) to the American cause because of the Quebec Act, which supported French Catholics and “French ways” over traditional English rights and values.
Montgomery's death

Dying at Quebec 

The Death of Montgomery, December 31, 1775

John Trumbull, The death of General Montgomery at Quebec, New York, 1808.

Images of Quebec 

40.  Thomas Johnston, Quebec, The capital of New-France, a bishoprick, and Seat of the sovereign court, [Boston, 1759].

There are few views that portray Quebec between its founding by Champlain in 1608 and General Wolfe's siege of 1759.  Thomas Johnston, a native-born Boston engraver, contributed to the public understanding of the news of the day with visual imagery.  His view of Quebec was advertised for sale in the Boston News-Letter for August 16, 1759, as the British and New England forces were beginning their assault on Quebec, which would fall that September. Although the advertisement for the print states that it was done "from the latest and most authentic French original," it is actually based on an inset on a map by Nicolas de Fer published in 1718.

Fantasy Views of Quebec and Boston

These optical views are part of a series called the Collection des Prospects engraved by Francis Xavier Habermann in Augsburg, Germany.  None are dated but from their subject matter it is likely that they were published in response to European curiosity about the events of the American Revolution.  The title is engraved backwards because they were intended to be shown on a wall or screen using a "magic lantern," which was a precursor to the slide projector that used candles and mirrors to project the image.  These town views bear no resemblance to the actual towns they are supposed to portray, and most seem to have been copied from European town and city views already in circulation, or are composites of those views.  These optical views were intended to entertain and were often shown at European town fairs and other gatherings.  The views of "Quebec" and "Boston" shown here reinforce the idea that these New World cities were not wilderness outposts, but were worthy of being considered on European terms.





Exhibition seen in Reading Room from september 2008 through
december 2008.

Exhibition prepared by Susan Danforth, Curator of Maps and Prints.