Historical events don’t happen in isolation. Events on one side of the globe can have far-reaching and long-lasting impacts on the other and the French Revolution (1789-1799) is a perfect example of this. Widely considered one of the most influential events in human history, the effects of the decade-long political and social upheaval were definitely felt in British North America. How did Pre-Confederation Canadians react to the revolution? Was there any difference in opinion between the English and French populations? Finally, how exactly did the French Revolution change British North America?
When it comes to the French Revolution, the dividing line between positive and negative opinion can be marked by the one that the axe made along Louis XVI’s neck. Before the execution both English and French British North Americans, (as well as their southern neighbours) were generally enthusiastic about the revolution. Overthrowing a corrupt monarchy in favor of democracy; the rallying cries of “liberté, égalité, fraternité,” what’s not to like?
The main difference between English and French Canadian supporters was that French civilians still felt ties to the old France. They liked the king; it was those who were around him who were the problem. They wanted him to be seated at the heart of a new constitutional monarchy. Meanwhile English support stemmed from the fact that a large number of them were British loyalists. When they immigrated here during the American Revolution they brought along their disdain for absolute monarchies. Early British North American newspapers, such as La Gazette de Québec, followed the events of the revolution closely and mirrored the feelings of its readers:
“…today there can be no doubt: this is not a revolt, but a true revolution. […] France will never again be what she was two years ago: an absolute monarchy.” (Article published after the “Declaration of the Rights of Man”came out).
The Sisters of Compiegne being led to the guillotine in 1794.
British North Americans never particularly favored the violent nature of the revolution, especially when stories about priests and nuns being brutally murdered started to emerge in 1792. The deaths of two French Canadian Carmelite nuns definitely did not sit well with Canadians. “…this bloodbath has lost all decency. God knows where and when it will stop.” (La Gazette du Quebec). However, it wasn’t really until the news broke in 1793 that Louis XVI had been tried and executed that public opinion turned completely sour.
American reaction to the shit-hit-the-fan phase of the French Revolution.
In response to Louis XVI’s execution Great Britain kicked out the French ambassador and France responded with a declaration of war. Not wanting to get involved in that mess, the US government issued a Proclamation of Neutrality (1793). British North America wasn’t able to be neutral though by virtue of still being a British colony.
British North America vs France
By Britain going to war with France, we were technically “at war” with them too. It wasn’t a real war though in the sense of launching a military campaign, rather Britain decided to continue their preemptive moves to make certain that France’s revolution didn’t spread across the Atlantic and undermine their North American interests. British officials did three major things:
1. Upper and Lower Canada were created.
2. French immigration was strategically controlled.
3. Exploited the revolution to solidify control over its colony.
Upper and Lower Canada – The Constitutional Act of 1791 wasn’t brought on by the French Revolution, but the events in France accelerated the need for the reorganization of British North America. The division happened to enable the new, rising English population to live peacefully alongside the older French population. Upper and Lower Canada were each given their own elected assemblies, legislative councils, and lieutenant governors. By allowing each province to govern themselves of their own accordance, Britain believed this would reduce tension and therefore not only make maintaining their North American empire easier, but prevent the seeds of rebellion from taking hold in Lower Canada.
French Immigration – If you were a French immigrant unless you were a priest or noble fleeing the revolution, you weren’t getting in. The Canadian and American borders were heavily monitored by the British to make certain of this. Between 1792 to 1815, 51 French carefully selected priests settled in Lower Canada. Prior, there had only been 141 priests. They helped to perpetuate counter-revolutionary rhetoric as well the myth that Britain’s conquest of the colony had been an act of God. Without the British, Canada would have been pulled into the unholy French Revolution.
Exploitation – With the example above, you can see one way in which the British exploited the revolution for their own gains. Another way was to elevate public fear. English Canadians were terrified that the Revolution would take hold here because of the large French population. The British encouraged spying, circulated false stories, and made a big show out of executing David McLane, an accused spy. French Canadians weren’t stupid, they were well-aware of what the British were doing. They felt no need to start a revolution of their own, but anytime they felt the British were overstepping their rule protests broke out.
The solidification of British rule over Canada and the creation of Upper and Lower Canada are generally considered to be the most significant impacts of the French Revolution in Canada. However, there were a few additional ones:
1. The spirit of the revolution went on to influence the rebels behind the (failed) rebellion of Upper and Lower Canada in 1837.
2. The sudden increase of priests in Lower Canada allowed the church to strengthen its hold on the future of Quebec. The Catholic Church’s influence over the province lasted well into the 1960s.
3. The fashion landscape in Canada changed post-revolution. (But that’s a whole other blog post though…or two!)
Ducharme, Michel, The Idea of Liberty in Canada During the Age of Atlantic Revolutions, 1776-1838, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press, 2014.
Greenwood, F. Murray, The Legacies of Fear: Law and Politics in Quebec in the Era of the French Revolution, Toronto: The Osgoode Society, 1993.
Tétu, Michel. “Quebec and the French Revolution,” Canadian Parliamentary Review, Vol 12, No 3, (1989). Accessed from: http://revparl.ca/12/3/12n3_89e_T%C3%A9tu.pdf