Canada and the American Revolution
By Gerald Therrien
February 18, 2021—Editor’s Note: While this article may appear tangential to this blog’s theme of the American System, I find it highly interesting. After all, why didn’t more of Great Britain’s many colonies – India and Canada, for instance – achieve their independence long before the 20th century? This article by a Canadian citizen provides a case study. It also highlights the international appeal of the American Revolution, which drew lovers of liberty from nations all around the world to fight the British Empire.– Nancy Spannaus
The question is often asked, why didn’t Canada join the American Revolution and become part of the United States? This was not something that one simply decided whether to join in or not, like voting to be part of a club. One must remember that the revolution was a war, a war for independence, and if you weren’t willing to risk your life, your fortune, and your sacred honor, then you didn’t get the privilege of being able to join.
So, the first question to be asked is: why didn’t Canada fight in the war for independence? Well … the Continental Army did contain two Canadian Regiments. So, the answer to the first question is yes, Canada did fight. That great myth of Canadians wanting to remain neutral should end. Which now begs the second question: if Canadians did fight, why didn’t Canada become part of the United States?
First let’s look at the British view. The British Empire’s policy for Canada, since 1763, was to continue the previously French-oligarchy-run policy of manipulating the Indigenous tribes using the methods of the French Jesuits, for an incessant series of raids and attacks on the American frontier settlements, in order to limit American colonization to the area east of the Appalachian mountains, and thereby stop the settlement of the Ohio valley. Even though French-Canadian settlements were allowed in the Illinois country, and even possible future settlements down the Mississippi river to Louisiana, no American settlements were to be allowed.
However, the British did not only use the French Jesuit methods. They also used the abominable fur trade, to increasingly supply (and thus to control) the Natives with guns, knives, pots and kettles, clothes, and alcohol. As the skills and interest in producing their own products were lost, the Indigenous economy became totally dependent on the fur trade for their basic necessities. Trading patterns shifted, and power also shifted to those warriors who could access these goods.
After the peace treaty was signed in 1783, the British kept their frontier posts at Mackinac, Detroit, and Niagara, despite the fact that these posts were now inside United States territory, in order to maintain their “Canadian Indian Department” policy of preventing the Americans from settling the Ohio country, even though this territory had been ceded to the United States!!! This was why the British would not cede Canada to America as part of the peace treaty. Although the war may have been ended, the long-term plan of the British Empire had not. British determination to contain, break up, or recolonize the United States would inevitably lead into the next war in 1812.
The American Strategy
Second, let’s look at the American view. The American attack against the British forces in Canada in 1775-1776 was approved by Congress because of their perception of a British preparation to invade the United States from Canada via Lake Champlain and the Hudson river, with the British aim being to split the colonies in two. Congress instructed General Schuyler to take possession of Canada – if it would not be disagreeable to the Canadians. While General Washington made plans for the invasion of Canada, he opposed an invasion of Nova Scotia because. since no attack against the American colonies from Nova Scotia was perceived to be being planned, an attack on Nova Scotia would be for conquest rather than defense. (At the time of this decision, the Americans were only engaged against the British in the occupation of Boston – in other words, before any major fighting or any major demands for defense.)
After the surrender of Burgoyne at Saratoga in October 1777, Congress planned another attack on Detroit, Niagara, and Canada. But General Washington instead ordered the northern army to be sent immediately as reinforcements to his main army at Valley Forge, where he was preoccupied in battling the British army that had occupied Philadelphia. When Congress sent General Lafayette north to lead an “irruption” into Canada, General Washington did send Colonel Hazen and the Canadian Regiment north to assist him. But the reality was that an expedition against Canada could only be successful with the support of French troops and the assistance of the French navy.
General Washington’s November 1778 letter arguing against an invasion of Canada, voiced his concern of the great temptation it would be for France to keep Canada in her possession, and how that could have the potential to break up their present alliance. At that same time, Britain changed strategy and now planned to shift its attack to the southern States as a plan to split the “united” states in two. General Washington’s concern would now be to defend the southern states and especially Virginia, because without Virginia, there could be no defense of the Ohio country – an infinitely more important objective for America than to secure Canada. Washington’s 1782 “Plan of Campaign” laid out the requirements for the annexation of Canada and Nova Scotia, but it was not as important in his mind as the reduction of British forces at New York, and in the southern States.
In 1779, Congress would resolve on the U.S. borders and, in the interest of ending the war, would not make the acquisition of Canada and Nova Scotia a sine qua non. In 1782, during the preliminary peace talks, Dr. Franklin would list the cession of Canada as a “desirable” but not a “necessary” component of America’s peace proposal. When Britain agreed to all of the “necessary” proposals, but none of the “desirable” proposals, the fate of Canada as part of the British Empire was sealed – at least for the foreseeable future.
The Canadian View
But what was the Canadian view?
While the American colonies had enjoyed elected assemblies since the first sitting of the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1619 and of the Massachusetts General Court in 1634 (followed by Maryland in 1635, Connecticut in 1639, Rhode Island in 1647, New Jersey in 1668, New Hampshire in 1680, Pennsylvania with Delaware in 1682, New York in 1683, the Carolinas in 1692, and finally Georgia in 1755 – and even Nova Scotia in 1758), the Canadians had never had an elected anything. The Estates General in France had not sat since 1614. The Canadians had lived under French feudalism, and now were under a British military dictatorship; that made feudalism seem good.
With the British occupation of Canada in 1763 and the implementation of the Quebec Act of 1774, the British Governor-General Carleton appointed a 17-member council (representing 100,000 French Canadiens and 200 English Canadians). It consisted of 9 British Canadians, along with 7 French Canadian seigneurs (feudal lords) and 1 Protestant French Canadian merchant. His appointed 27 Justices of the Peace consisted of 22 British Canadians and 5 Protestant French Canadiens.
In 1775, when the Americans seized the cannons at Ticonderoga and an invasion of Canada was feared, Governor Carleton ordered out the militia, but the French-Canadian inhabitants balked, refusing to follow the church or the hated seigneurs. Governor Carleton had to declare martial law. When General Montgomery and Colonel Arnold entered Canada, they were welcomed by the French-Canadian farmers, who sold the Americans supplies and services; some also took up arms with them. Most everyone in the province hoped the Americans would win. Volunteers joined the Canadian Regiment of the Continental army.
After the Canadians’ brief taste of freedom and the retreat of the American northern army with the Canadian Regiment, the British military dictatorship returned with a vengeance. Carleton enforced the billeting of over 4000 British regulars and over 2000 Hessians, with the threat of arrest if one was suspected of aiding the Americans, and charges and fines for refusing the forced corvees and the mandatory militia. An inquisition against the supporters of the Americans took place by Governor Carleton’s appointed commissioners and also by the (British-approved) Catholic Bishop whose directive stated:
… The list of sins against God of which you have been guilty is a long one! First, the sin of disobedience to the lawful Sovereign; the sinner guilty of such resistance is damned … they are all liable to excommunication.
But the British were only able to recruit 300 volunteers for the militia, and thus could only send 50 Canadian militia men on Burgoyne’s invasion campaign in 1778 – because that is all that could be trusted not to desert or to join the other side!!! Only 50 Canadians fought on the British side during the war!!!
Canadians, however, did volunteer to join the two Canadian Regiments in the Continental Army – leaving behind their families, their possessions, and property, facing excommunication from the church, and with a price being put on their head; they were not “summer soldiers” or “sunshine patriots.” The Canadian Regiments fought under General Gates at Saratoga where Burgoyne surrendered; the Canadian Regiment under Livingston played a decisive part in sabotaging Benedict Arnold’s treasonous plan for the British to capture General Washington at West Point; and the Canadian Regiment fought under General Lafayette at Yorktown and the surrender of Cornwallis.
If a joint American-French attempt would have later been made to liberate Canada, the French Canadian inhabitants would have done all they could to aid and to join the allies. That great British-concocted myth that Canadians wished to remain neutral, should be buried in a dung heap with all the other unadulterated garbage that is found in most history propaganda books. But, with that brief taste of freedom, the genie could never be put back into the bottle.
The Cultural Dimension
Lastly, in my view, the big problem in Canada was education, or rather the lack thereof, which is not written about much (ironically). While the literacy rate among whites in the United States at that time was estimated to range between 50 to 90%, in Canada it was less than 5%; except for the nobility/seigneurs and the religious communities, very few habitants could read or write French, let alone English. And even if they could, there was nothing to read. The only newspaper, the Quebec Gazette, was under British military sponsorship and censorship.
French printer Fleury Mesplet had been sent to Montreal by Congress in 1775, along with Dr. Benjamin Franklin and two other commissioners, to establish a newspaper there. With the retreat of the American army in 1776, Mesplet was imprisoned by the British military for three weeks, but he steadfastly remained in Montreal and soon re-started his printing business. In June 1778, he published the first issue of Canada’s first fully French language newspaper, La Gazette du Commerce et Litteraire, which lasted for one year. Then, in June 1779, he and Valentin Jautard, the editor, were again arrested. Mesplet remained in custody for the duration of the American Revolution until he was released in Sept 1782, after the ending of offensive actions by the British. (For more on Mesplet, click here.)
And so, the battle of “forlorn hope” for the independence of Canada from the British Empire continues.
 Gerald Therrien is a researcher and historian based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and is a member of the Advisory Board of the Rising Tide Foundation. Therrien’s writings have been published in the Canadian Patriot Review, including his four volumes of The Unveiling of Canadian History. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 The Quebec Act was part of the Intolerable Acts imposed after the Boston Tea Party. It extended the boundaries of British-controlled Quebec to include all the land north of the Ohio river. It also returned to the British military controlled French Canada, all the lands west of the Appalachian mountains, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. Thus the British sought to use Quebec as enforcers of their diktat against American settlement of the Ohio country.