Chapter 7. British North America at Peace and at War (1763–1818)

7.9 Summary

In the half century or so between the Conquest and the end of the War of 1812, colonial North America was essentially reinvented. New France disappeared from the maps, although the people of New France were still a prominent part of the landscape. British authority spread out across the continent and then snapped back to, ironically, the boundaries of pre-1713 New France (less the Ohio, the Pays en Haut, and Louisiana). Nova Scotia, similarly, expanded, divided, contracted. New colonies were carved out of what had been Canada and Acadia. Newfoundland became less “a great ship moored off the Grand Banks” and more a settlement colony with permanent residents and a formalized system of colonial administration.[1]

The greatest change, of course, came in the form of the new republic comprising the Thirteen Colonies. Their War of Independence was simultaneously a civil war, one that resulted in the exodus of 80,000 to 100,000 Loyalists, roughly half of whom made their way to the remaining colonies. The Loyalist legacy is a complex issue. As an infusion of population and especially families, the Loyalists very abruptly accelerated the settlement process of the northern colonies. Looked at another way, they accelerated the process of displacing Indigenous peoples, removing them from their traditional lands, overwhelming their numbers, and thus outweighing whatever threat they might still pose to newcomer communities, whether in the Maritimes or around the Great Lakes.

Administratively, the Loyalists brought particular demands. They were loyal to the Crown but they were accustomed to a degree of self-government in the old Thirteen Colonies. This necessitated the creation of New Brunswick and Upper Canada, two colonies in which Loyalist agendas would dominate political life for the better part of a century. The Loyalists brought with them a suite of values, as well, that informed British North American life. Among the elite there was a strong tendency toward conservative principles and a deep-seated mistrust of democratic and republican ideals. Many of the frontier farmers, Kanien’kehá:ka, German settlers, and freed slaves who were part of the migration north, however, came with different political positions in their cultural baggage. It is commonly claimed that the Loyalist legacy in modern Canada is detectable as a strain of patriarchal and aristocratic conservatism distinct from what is found south of the border. However true that may be, historians and political scientists agree, too, that there were contrary tendencies within the exile community.

At the very least, the Loyalist migration defined the revised British North America in opposition to the United States. Enmity, suspicion, lingering attachment, and admiration were all part of the range of emotions felt toward the United States by this cadre of refugees and those who joined them in later generations. By 1815 British North America had demonstrated a convincing unwillingness to disappear. The War of 1812 brought to the surface tensions that existed between Loyalists and Late Loyalists, between the official notion of a British colony and a transplanted community of Americans, especially in Upper Canada. It also drew to an end the military role of Indigenous peoples in the Great Lakes colony and farther east. Some alliances, like the Council of Three Fires, continued but the military value of Indigenous allies was no longer a currency in Indigenous-European diplomacy in British North America.

Key Terms

abolition: Refers to putting an end to the institution of slavery. In Britain, a single piece of legislation resulted in the abolition of slavery in 1834. Abolition in Upper Canada was initiated by John Graves Simcoe in 1793.

aboriginal title: Indigenous ownership of land, territory, or other material resources.

absentee landlords: Also called proprietors, the main landowners on Prince Edward Island, whose land was allocated to them in a lottery held in London in 1767. Few of them visited the island and few attended to the responsibilities they were given as landlords. Most, however, attempted to charge significant rents to their tenant farmers in the colony. See also escheat.

African American slaves: Chattel slaves, principally from Africa, who worked primarily on plantations. Slavery occurred throughout North America in both European and Indigenous communities. Some African American (as opposed to African Caribbean) slaves were later freed (see freedmen) depending on their role in the American Revolution.

anglicization: British policy of replacing French culture — language, customs, laws, and Catholic religion — with those of Anglican/Protestant Britain.

brewing: The production of beer, like the distilling of whisky, was a means of adding value to surplus grain being grown in Upper and Lower Canada beginning in the 1780s. John Molson of Montreal was an early participant in brewing and — like many Canadians who followed in his footsteps in the liquor production trade — amassed a great fortune.

British North America: Term used intermittently after 1783 to describe the colonies left to Britain after the Revolution. Initially, these included Newfoundland, the Province of Quebec, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia. Subsequently, the list would increase to include new colonies (Cape Breton Island and New Brunswick), a partitioned colony (Upper and Lower Canada), and — in very general terms — Rupert’s Land (which was not administered by a Crown delegate). Vancouver Island and British Columbia would also be regarded as part of British North America before Confederation.

Chateau Clique: A highly influential cadre of economic and social leaders who fashioned themselves politically as the British (or Tory) Party in Lower Canada. Their numbers included prominent merchants like James McGill and John Molson. Their agenda included assimilation of the French Catholic population and perpetuating a hierarchical social and political order.

Chesapeake Affair: A British attempt during the Napoleonic Wars to reduce American shipping to France by capturing U.S. shipping vessels and impressing (forcing) sailors into the British Navy. In 1807, the USS Chesapeake, a warship, was bombarded and captured by the HMS Leopard; four sailors were seized and tried for desertion from the British Navy, one of whom was subsequently hanged. The Americans regarded this as an act of aggression, and the incident fomented war fever in some quarters. For more information, see War Hawks.

Clergy Reserves: Created by the Constitutional Act, land parcels set aside (one-seventh of all public lands) in Upper Canada for the use of the Church of England (a.k.a. Anglican Church). There were smaller Clergy Reserves in Lower Canada as well.

common law: British code of laws dealing with property, contracts, and other civil matters.

Constitutional Act: The 1791 legislation that created two colonies — Upper and Lower Canada — out of what was left of the Province of Quebec after the Treaty of Paris, 1783. In Upper Canada, the British common law was applied, while the Coutume de Paris survived in Lower Canada. Both colonies received their own administrative structures.

Coutume de Paris: A code of civil law developed in and for Paris and extended to New France. Addressed land ownership and use, family relations, and inheritance.

decapitation thesis: Historical theory that explains the apparent loss of Canadien leadership in the colony after the Conquest as the result of an exodus of leading commercial, administrative, and social figures to France.

Embargo Act: Federal legislation that was passed in the United States in 1807 to effectively close off all exports to foreign ports, in an attempt to force the British and French to respect American shipping. The objective was to starve the importing nations of American goods and thus oblige them to cease preying on American shipping. The act was repealed in 1809.

escheat: A movement to force unimproved lands on Prince Edward Island back into the hands of the Crown. The Escheat Party made the land issue the dominant one in the colony in the 19th century.

Family Compact: An association of leading individuals and families in Upper Canada devoted to the suppression of republican tendencies in the colony and perpetuating an oligarchy in government.

Fort Pitt: Site of modern-day Pittsburgh. Replaced the French establishment, Fort Duquesne.

franchise: The ability and right to vote in a democratic society. It is always arbitrarily determined and is defined as much by who it excludes as by who it includes. “Universal adult male suffrage” was never achieved in British North America before Confederation, forget the extension of the franchise to women or Indigenous peoples generally.

freedmen: Slaves who were freed from slavery, either by manumission or by emancipation.

Intolerable Acts: A number of taxes and tariffs introduced by the British government during the Seven Years’ War that targeted the American colonies in an effort to recover financial losses. Following American protests, Parliament passed more laws that gave Britain greater powers in the colonies. It also introduced the Quebec Act, which reattached the Ohio Valley and the Northwest to the Province of Quebec and enhanced the rights of the Catholic Church; both provisions were provocative in the Thirteen Colonies. Together, the Intolerable Acts catalyzed the revolutionary movement in the colonies.

Jay’s Treaty: A 1794 treaty that resolved several issues outstanding from the Treaty of Paris (1783). With this treaty, the Americans were keen to address the continuing British presence and role in the Ohio/Northwest, and the British wished to secure American neutrality in the French Revolutionary Wars and clarify the boundaries with Canada.

Late Loyalists: American immigrants who arrived in British North America in the years after the Revolution, especially in the 1790s and the first decade of the 19th century. Their “loyalism” was never certain, and they were often outspoken critics of Toryism.

Louisiana Purchase: The sale of the Louisiana Territory by Napoleon to the United States in 1803. In 1800, Spain returned to France the territory it had ceded to Spain in 1762, which encompassed the western half of the Mississippi drainage (that is, from New Orleans to southern Alberta and Saskatchewan). Less than three years later, France decided to forgo attempts to rebuild New France and sold the territory to the United States.

marchands: The Canadien merchants of Montreal, as opposed to the post-Conquest British and British-American merchants who arrived to take over the fur trade.

Napoleonic Wars: A series of wars involving France and much of the rest of Europe from 1803 to 1815. The War of 1812 was a chapter in the larger conflict.

Northwest Indian War: Conflict from 1785–1795. Part of an ongoing attempt by the Indigenous Northwestern Confederacy to insulate the Ohio Valley and what the Americans referred to as their Northwest Territory against American invasion. Also known as Little Turtle’s War. Followed Pontiac’s Rebellion and anticipated Tecumseh’s War.

Pennsylvania Dutch: German settlers in Pennsylvania, many of whom moved to Nova Scotia shortly after the Conquest.

pre-Loyalist: Term for non-francophone settlers in British North America who arrived before the Loyalist migration in 1783–1784. Almost exclusively associated with settlers in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

Province of Quebec: Created by the Royal Proclamation (1763), the province included lands from Detroit to the Gaspé Peninsula, but removed the Ohio Valley and the west from Quebec’s (Canada’s) control.

Quebec Act: Also called the British North America Act, 1774 (not to be confused with the British North America Act of 1867), it was the legislation that restored the Ohio Valley and the northwestern Pays d’en Haut to the Province of Quebec, provided official recognition of the rights of Catholics in the colony, and restored the Coutume de Paris and the ability of the Catholic Church to collect tithes. It recognized the rights of seigneurs and irritated the Thirteen Colonies where it was seen as cheating the Appalachian colonies of their prize in the Ohio. It was grouped with the other Intolerable Acts. It is regarded as a partial cause of the American Revolution.

Royal Proclamation: The legislation passed on October 7, 1763 that created the Province of Quebec and recognized aboriginal title in the west. The Act angered American settlers because it hampered westward movement into the Ohio Valley.

taxation without representation: A principle espoused by American colonists in the 1770s articulating the view that British law forbade the seizing of a citizen’s property by the state without his consent (which could be given by an elected representative in Parliament). As the colonies had no representatives in Parliament, the colonists maintained that they could not be taxed.

Tories: A term associated with Loyalists in the American Revolution whose philosophical position was opposed to the Whiggish/republican stance of Thomas Paine and the Patriots. Also a term sometimes used for British and Canadian conservatives today.

Treaty of Ghent: Intended to end the War of 1812 between Britain and the United States. The treaty was agreed to in 1814, but not signed into law by the U.S. Senate until February 1815. The treaty restored the status quo ante bellum between British North America and the United States, which meant that Britain was removed from the American Northwest, leaving Indigenous peoples without an ally to help defend their interests.

Treaty of Paris (1783): The 1783 treaty that ended the American Revolution (War of Independence). Not to be confused with the 1763 Treaty of Paris. Britain recognized the independence and sovereignty of the United States of America. Boundaries were established (and later disputed) between the United States and British North America. The United States was to compensate Loyalists for lost property, which never occurred. See also Jay’s Treaty.

United Empire Loyalist: An honorific title taken by Loyalists and their descendants to celebrate their migration to British North America at the end of the Revolution. Typically signals a strong Tory bent.

War Hawks: American politicians mainly from the South and the West who were angered by British predations on American shipping out of their ports and harassment of American settlers and regiments by British-Indigenous armies. In 1812, their enthusiasm for war finally won out over New England’s caution.

Whig: A mutable term associated with the British Whigs (a radical/liberal political party), the American Patriots/Whigs (revolutionaries in 1775–1783), and 19th century Canadian liberals. Common features include a challenge to the prerogatives of the Crown, a suspicion of Catholicism, and belief in individual rights and liberties. In the American colonies, it developed into a form of republicanism.

Short Answer Exercises

  1. What was the significance of continued Indigenous resistance to the British in the West?
  2. Of what significance was the Royal Proclamation of 1763 to Indigenous nations, to the Canadiens, and to the new, English-speaking settlers of Canada?
  3. Why did Governor James Murray choose not to persecute the Catholic Church? In what other ways was he conciliatory to the colony’s French-speaking population and why?
  4. In what ways did the British regime change the economy of Canada and Nova Scotia?
  5. What was the Quebec Act and what was its importance?
  6. Characterize the Nova Scotian population and economy in these years.
  7. What developments precipitated the American Revolution?
  8. Who were the Loyalists? To what were they “loyal”?
  9. Why did Canada and Nova Scotia not join in the Revolution?
  10. What impact did the arrival of the Loyalists have on the Maritime colonies?
  11. Why was the Constitutional Act considered necessary? What problems did it seek to address?
  12. Who were the Late Loyalists and what was their impact on life in Upper Canada?
  13. How and why was the landscape of the Canadas undergoing change?
  14. What was the nature and character of slavery in British North America before 1818?
  15. In what ways did the Napoleonic Wars benefit the Maritimes, Newfoundland, and the Canadas?
  16. What was the character of Indigenous resistance to American westward expansion?
  17. In what ways did British and Indigenous agendas vis-à-vis the United States correspond?
  18. What were the outcomes of the War of 1812?

Suggested Readings

  1. Bannister, Jerry. “Convict Transportation and the Colonial State in Newfoundland, 1789.” Acadiensis XXVII, no. 2 (Spring 1998): 95–123.
  2. Fenn, Elizabeth A.“Biological Warfare in Eighteenth-Century North America: Beyond Jeffery Amherst.” The Journal of American History 86, no. 4 (Mar., 2000): 1552–1580.
  3. Keough, Willeen. “The Riddle of Peggy Mountain: Regulation of Irish Women’s Sexuality on the Southern Avalon, 1750–1860.” Acadiensis XXXI, no. 2 (Spring 2002): 38–70.
  4. Morgan, Cecilia. “‘Of Slender Frame and Delicate Appearance’: the Placing of Laura Secord in the Narratives of Canadian Loyalist History.” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association 5, no. 1 (1994): 195–212.
  5. Pastore, Ralph T. “The Collapse of the Beothuk World.” Acadiensis XX, no. 1 (Autumn 1990): 52–71.
  6. Reid, John G. “Pax Britannica or Pax Indigena? Planter Nova Scotia (1760–1782) and Competing Strategies of Pacification.” Canadian Historical Review 85, no. 4 (December 2004): 669–692.

Text Attributions

  1. Jerry Bannister, “Naval Government 1729–1815,” on Silk Gowns and Sou'westers: History of the Law and the Courts (2000). Accessed 23 December 2014, .


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