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  • Birth of a Protestant Nation:Catholic Canadians, Religious Pluralism, and National Unity in the Early U.S. Republic
  • Elizabeth Fenton (bio)

Canada acceding to this confederation, and adjoining in the measures of the United States, shall be admitted into, and entitled to all the advantages of this Union; but no other colony shall be admitted into the same, unless such admission be agreed to by nine states.

—(Articles of Confederation, art. XI)

Article XI of the Articles of Confederation—drafted in 1777 and ratified four years later—grants special status to the province of Quebec by providing for its immediate admission into the federation of American states.1 That the Continental Congress would extend this open door offer to Quebec is perhaps not surprising, given that since its inception in 1774 the Congress had made several attempts, both diplomatic and military, to incorporate the northern colony. Traditional accounts of late eighteenth-century American relations attribute these attempts, Article XI among them, to fear that a revolution against Great Britain could not succeed in the absence of hemispheric alliance.2 Within this context, Article XI appears as a final effort at conciliation, a measure taken in the midst of war to secure intracontinental peace. Viewed in another light, however, the article seems to serve a very different purpose. Conceded to the British Empire by France in 1763, Quebec, though governed by Anglo-Protestants, housed a predominantly French Catholic population. And though the Continental Congress gestured toward union with Quebec throughout the 1770s, inhabitants of the lower colonies remained suspicious of their Catholic neighbors and often doubted whether Catholic subjects could in fact participate in egalitarian government. Congress even referred to the 1763 Treaty of Paris as "an inglorious peace, formed under the auspices of a Minister [George III] of principles . . . unfriendly to the protestant cause, and inimical to liberty" (Jay 83–84). Read against the backdrop of ongoing debates about Quebec's place within the American lexicon, Article XI seems [End Page 29] less an invitation to merge than a declaration of difference. Its special provision for annexation reifies the border between Catholic Quebec and the lower colonies even as it promises that border's erasure.

Article XI's simultaneous assertion of unity with and distinction from Catholic Quebec embodies ongoing late-colonial discussions about the relationship between religion and nation. As I argue in the first section of this essay, the concept of national religious pluralism that would come to underpin U.S. liberal democracy developed in opposition to Anglo-American Protestant imaginings of French Catholicism. Through analysis of the Continental Congress's public reactions to the passage of the Quebec Act in 1774, I show how the process of U.S. nation-state development depended on a marshalling of anti-Catholic discourse that positioned "Protestantism" as the guarantor of religious liberty.3 In making this claim, I am suggesting in part that hemispheric American study should include more serious consideration of Canada. Recent discussions about comparative and transnational methodologies have tended to focus on what Ralph Bauer calls "Ibero-/Anglo-American Studies," granting less attention to the legacy of Franco-colonial pursuits (281). Perhaps because of the perceived ubiquity of Catholicism in the southern American states, studies of the Americas often treat the Protestant/Catholic divide as little more than one facet of racial or cultural difference. An examination of early U.S. relations with Quebec demonstrates how religious conflict persists despite ostensible racial homogeneity and brings to light religion's centrality to the development of nationalist discourse. In imagining Canadian Catholics as subjects whose private lives were entirely dictated by papal rule, Anglo-Protestant colonists constructed themselves as freely private subjects capable of shaping a religiously plural—and therefore "liberal"—nation that could accommodate diversity because it was "not Catholic."

As the uniting colonies became the United States, Quebec ceased to occupy a central position in discussions of the relationship between religious freedom and national sovereignty. The "Catholic," however, remained a salient signifier in early national disputes over the rectitude of religious establishment. In this essay's second section I turn to writings by James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine, whose disestablishmentarian arguments often hinged on anti...


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