The Peace that Changed North America: The 1763 Treaty of Paris

There have been many Treaties of Paris throughout the modern era. Perhaps the best known of these are the treaties of Versailles (1919) and Saint-Germain (1919), that brought an end to World War I, and which are named after the Parisian suburbs where they were signed. However, the 1763 Treaty of Paris is one of the key documents of eighteenth century history. Indeed, it is one of the major documents of international law. The 1763 Treaty of Paris ended the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), arguably the first global war.

For the first time in modern history, a European conflict spilled over into Asia and the Americas. For seven years, the Kingdoms of Austria, France, Russia, Saxony and Sweden fought those of Great-Britain, Prussia and Hanover. It was the Age of Enlightenment’s major military conflict. Self-termed enlightened despots, such as Frederick the Great of Prussia and Maria-Theresa of Austria, fought each other over the control of the province of Silesia. Colonial powers, such as France and Great-Britain, fought each other over colonial hegemony. For seven years, the major monarchs of Europe fought. In 1763, it all came to an end.

For North America, the war dramatically reshaped political boundaries. Britain victoriously fought the war in India and Canada, recognising that its advantage lay in colonial and maritime warfare. Canada’s fate was sealed at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. There, on 13 September 1759, in an exchange of fire that lasted under twenty minutes, James Wolfe, the British commander, defeated the French force of the Marquis de Montcalm. New France, a collection of French colonies in North America, lay open to the British attackers. Great-Britain had inflicted a severe blow on France’s American colonies. It was a severe blow, but the blow was not severe enough to quick France out of Canada. The decisive step that removed France from Canada was the 1763 Treaty of Paris.

It is through negotiation that France decided to regain control over its Caribbean possessions of Martinique and Guadeloupe rather that French Canada. French decision-makers at the court of Louis XV in Versailles believed these sugar producing island to be much more valuable that its North American colonies. This despite the fact that New France was a settler colony populated by tens of thousands of French subjects. Indeed, this disdain for French Canada at Versailles was shared by the Enlightenment philosophe Voltaire. In both Candide and his history of the reign of Louis XV, Voltaire would dismiss Canada as “a few acres of snow”.

France’s views became entrenched in Article IV of the Treaty of Paris. Article IV gave Great-Britain control over French territories in Canada in perpetuity. With a stroke of a pen, North America essentially became British. Yet, what is the most extraordinary about the treaty follows a few lines later.

 “His Britannic Majesty agrees to allow the inhabitants of Canada to freely practice the Catholic faith”. The phrase used in the original French Treaty (“liberté de la Religion Catholique”, in other words “freedom of the catholic religion/faith”) presages the concept of freedom of religion. Before it was enshrined in the American Constitution, and arguably before the same rights were accorded to Catholic in the British Empire, notably Ireland, freedom of religion was guaranteed in British Canada.

The Treaty of Paris made freedom of religion, one of the core freedoms and liberties prescribed by the Enlightenment, a legal reality on the American continent. Before the American Revolution and the American Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Paris made the North American continent a political incubator for the Enlightenment’s ideas.

The 1763 Treaty of Paris is a singular piece of global history. It brought an end to the first global conflict, and it established a definite British presence in North America. Yet, more than that, and perhaps most important, it is a product of its time. As Europe’s elite was grappling with the concepts of Enlightenment in the arts and sciences, as enlightened despots were trying to reform their societies from above, the Treaty of Paris encoded its political ramifications in North America’s DNA. It would lead to the Quebec Act of 1774 which further entrenched freedom of religion. It would lead to the ultimate culmination of Enlightenment thought in the eighteenth century: the American Declaration of Independence.

The 1763 Treaty of Paris may not be as well-known as the namesakes that followed it in the twentieth century, but perhaps more than them, it shaped a continent. Perhaps more than them, it brought the universal rights of the Enlightenment to the political forefront.

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