In Of Montreal, Robert Everett-Green writes weekly about the people, places and events that make Montreal a distinctive cultural capital.
After all the fuss over the War of 1812 bicentenary, and with a big party planned for Montreal's 375th birthday in 2017, you might think someone would be getting festive about the time a foreign power invaded Montreal and occupied it for six months. I'm talking about the American military occupation of 1775, which began 240 years ago this week, on a day that will probably pass without a whisper.
There are reasons why many Canadians have barely heard of this event, whose buildup and immediate aftermath roiled Quebec for 18 months. Not many in the province took the American colonists' invitation to overthrow their British oppressors, who routed the invaders as soon as reinforcements could cross the Atlantic. But while the invasion failed to spark a Canadian revolution, it did introduce a powerful force never before seen in the British colony. It was the first propaganda war in Canadian history.
The only significant building connected with the occupation that still stands is the Château Ramezay, the former French governor's house in Old Montreal where the Continental Army set up its military government. The Château is now a museum, and has one tiny room devoted to the invasion. There you can see a few military relics and several portraits, including one of Benedict Arnold, who led a botched siege of Quebec City, and another of Benjamin Franklin, who visited Montreal for 10 days near the end of the occupation. The exhibit outlines the narrative only in dribs and drabs, via tags for individual items. There's nothing even to say that American generals ruled the city from the lavish ballroom next door.
The Yankee assault on Quebec started with words of seduction, in a series of open letters from the Continental Congress that began a year before troops arrived. The letters told Canadians they had a right to "their own government by their representatives chosen by themselves" and to be "ruled by laws which they themselves approve, not by edicts of men over whom they have no control." The Americans proposed a new joint democracy, in which "your province is the only link wanting, to compleat the bright and strong chain of union."
These appeals, to a population whose only political experience had been the divine right of kings, were stoutly opposed by the Catholic Church. "Do not listen to those seditious men who seek to make you unhappy, to smother in your hearts the sentiments of submission to your legitimate superiors," one bishop wrote in a pastoral letter that was read throughout the province during the spring before the invasion.
The church always urged submission to authority, on the principle that all power, including earthly powers, expressed God's will. What was new in the situation was that someone else was addressing the flock with a positive alternative. Another view of law and society was being proposed. Most novel of all, the peasantry were being treated as if something important depended on their opinions.
They hadn't heard that from the British, whose Quebec Act of 1774 promised only that the Canadiens could keep their civil law and remain Catholic. The Americans kept sounding their dissonant note of liberty throughout the occupation, with the help of a French printer – Fleury Mesplet, founder of what later became the Montreal Gazette – who travelled with Franklin to Montreal in April, 1776, to step up the war of words. By then, it was too late; the American military governor had antagonized the locals, and a siege of Quebec City had failed.
The propaganda was largely self-interested. The Americans worried about British territorial expansion as outlined in the Quebec Act, and feared that the Brits might use their northern colony as a base for suppressing American independence. The Yankees' real feelings about the Canadiens may have been revealed in a letter to the people of Britain in 1774, in which the Continental Congress complained about the threat of "papism" in the north.
But about 500 Canadiens fought with the Americans, and others gave less overt forms of help, even though the bishops threatened excommunication for all rebels. Guy Carleton, the returning British governor, complained that American propaganda and its local sympathizers had made it difficult for the people "to be suddenly restored to a proper and desirable Subordination." The whole episode broke open the debate about forms of government that occupied the Canadian colonies for the next century.
Propaganda about the invasion continued even after the troops had left. John Trumbull's painting, The Death of General Montgomery in the Attack on Quebec, shows the gallant Continental Army officer swooning in the arms of his aides, while other troops, and a sympathetic native warrior, look on in shock and dismay. Trumbull painted it 11 years after the event and clearly modelled it on Benjamin West's more famous canvas The Death of General Wolfe. But the romantic end that Trumbull never actually saw also never happened. Richard Montgomery was killed during a desperate night attack, in a snowstorm. His frozen body was found the next day.
In Montreal, the invasion itself has fallen into the deep freeze. Outside that one room in the Château Ramezay, you'd never know it had happened. The funny thing is that Americans are still invading Montreal, and most of them head straight for the Old City that Montgomery captured in 1775. You would think that they, at least, might like to know more about their ancestors' military adventures in the north, and their long aftermath. Montgomery and his men came expecting to be greeted as liberators, as U.S. troops have done elsewhere many times since. In a way, in Quebec, that's what they turned out to be.