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Canada in 1672

The Canada to which Frontenac came in 1672 was no longer the infant colony it had been when Richelieu founded the Company of One Hundred Associates. Through the efforts of Louis XIV and Colbert it had assumed the form of an organized province.1 Though its inhabitants numbered less than seven thousand, the institutions under which they lived could not have been more elaborate or precise. In short, the divine right of the king to rule over his people was proclaimed as loudly in the colony as in the motherland.

It was inevitable that this should be so, for the whole course of French history since the thirteenth century had led up to the absolutism of Louis XIV. During the early ages of feudalism France had been distracted by the wars of her kings against rebellious nobles. The virtues and firmness of Louis IX (1226-70) had turned the scale in favor of the crown. There were still to be many rebellions--the strife of Burgundians and Armagnacs in the fifteenth century, the Wars of the League in the sixteenth century, the cabal of the Fronde in the seventeenth century--but the great issue had been settled in the days of the good St Louis. When Raymond VII of Toulouse accepted the Peace of Lorris (1243) the government of Canada by Louis XIV already existed in the germ. That is to say, behind the policy of France in the New World may be seen an ancient process which had ended in untrammelled autocracy at Paris.

This process as it affected Canada was not confined to the spirit of government. It is equally visible in the forms of colonial administration. During the Middle Ages the dukes and counts of France had been great territorial lords--levying their own armies, coining their own money, holding power of life and death over their vassals. In that period Normandy, Brittany, Maine, Anjou, Toulouse, and many other districts, were subject to the king in name only. But, with the growth of royal power, the dukes and counts steadily lost their territorial independence and fell at last to the condition of courtiers. Simultaneously the duchies or counties were changed into provinces, each with a noble for its governor--but a noble who was a courtier, holding his commission from the king and dependent upon the favor of the king. Side by side with the governor stood the intendant, even more a king's man than the governor himself. So jealously did the Bourbons guard their despotism that the crown would not place wide authority in the hands of any one representative. The governor, as a noble and a soldier, knew little or nothing of civil business. To watch over the finances and the prosperity of the province, an intendant was appointed. This official was always chosen from the middle class and owed his position, his advancement, his whole future, to the king. The governor might possess wealth, or family connections. The intendant had little save what came to him from his sovereign's favor. Gratitude and interest alike tended to make him a faithful servant.

But, though the crown had destroyed the political power of the nobles, it left intact their social pre-eminence. The king was as supreme as a Christian ruler could be. Yet by its very nature the monarchy could not exist without the nobles, from whose ranks the sovereign drew his attendants, friends, and lieutenants. Versailles without its courtiers would have been a desert. Even the Church was a stronghold of the aristocracy, for few became bishops or abbots who were not of gentle birth.

The great aim of government, whether at home or in the colonies, was to maintain the supremacy of the crown. Hence all public action flowed from a royal command. The Bourbon theory required that kings should speak and that subjects should obey. One direct consequence of a system so uncompromisingly despotic was the loss of all local initiative. Nothing in the faintest degree resembling the New England town-meeting ever existed in New France. Louis XIV objected to public gatherings of his people, even for the most innocent purposes. The sole limitation to the power of the king was the line of cleavage between Church and State. Religion required that the king should refrain from invading the sphere of the clergy, though controversy often waxed fierce as to where the secular ended and the spiritual began.

When it became necessary to provide institutions for Canada, the organization of the province in France at once suggested itself as a fit pattern. Canada, like Normandy, had the governor and the intendant for her chief officials, the seigneury for the groundwork of her society, and mediaeval costumes for her laws.

The governor represented the king's dignity and the force of his arms. He was a noble, titled or untitled. It was the business of the governor to wage war and of the intendant to levy taxes. But as an expedition could not be equipped without money, the governor looked to the intendant for funds, and the intendant might object that the plans of the governor were unduly extravagant. Worse still, the commissions under which both held office were often contradictory. More than three thousand miles separated Quebec from Versailles, and for many months governor and intendant quarreled over issues which could only be settled by an appeal to the king. Meanwhile each was a spy as well as a check upon the other. In Canada this arrangement worked even more harmfully than in France, where the king could make himself felt without great loss of time.

Yet an able intendant could do much good. There are few finer episodes in the history of local government than the work of Turgot as intendant of the Limousin.2  Canada also had her Talon, whose efforts had transformed the colony during the seven years which preceded Frontenac's arrival. The fatal weakness was scanty population. This Talon saw with perfect clearness, and he clamored for immigrants till Colbert declared that he would not depopulate France to people Canada. Talon and Frontenac came into personal contact only during a few weeks, but the colony over which Frontenac ruled as governor had been created largely by the intelligence and toil of Talon as intendant.3

While the provincial system of France gave Canada two chief personages, a third came from the Church. In the annals of New France there is no more prominent figure than the bishop. Francois de Laval de Montmorency had been in the colony since 1659. His place in history is due in large part to his strong, intense personality, but this must not be permitted to obscure the importance of his office. His duties were to create educational institutions, to shape ecclesiastical policy, and to represent the Church in all its dealings with the government.

Many of the problems which confronted Laval had their origin in special and rather singular circumstances. Few, if any, priests had as yet been established in fixed parishes--each with its church and presbytere. Under ordinary conditions parishes would have been established at once, but in Canada the conditions were far from ordinary. The Canadian Church sprang from a mission. Its first ministers were members of religious orders who had taken the conversion of the heathen for their chosen task. They had headquarters at Quebec or Montreal, but their true field of action was the wilderness. Having the red man rather than the settler as their charge, they became immersed, and perhaps preoccupied, in their heroic work. Thus the erection of parishes was delayed. More than one historian has upbraided Laval for thinking so much of the mission that he neglected the spiritual needs of the colonists. However this may be, the colony owed much to the missionaries--particularly to the Jesuits. It is no exaggeration to say that the Society of Jesus had been among the strongest forces which stood between New France and destruction. Other supports failed. The fur trade had been the corner-stone upon which Champlain built up Quebec, but the profits proved disappointing. At the best it was a very uncertain business. Sometimes the prices in Paris dwindled to nothing because the market was glutted. At other times the Indians brought no furs at all to the trading-posts. With its export trade dependent upon the caprice of the savages, the colony often seemed not worth the keeping. In these years of worst discouragement the existence of the mission was a great prop.

On his arrival in 1672 Frontenac found the Jesuits, the Sulpicians, and the Recollets all actively engaged in converting the heathen. He desired that more attention should be paid to the creation of parishes for the benefit of the colonists. Over this issue there arose, as we shall see by and by, acute differences between the bishop and the governor.

Owing to the large part which religion had in the life of New France the bishop took his place beside the governor and the intendant. This was the triumvirate of dignitaries. Primarily each represented a different interest--war, business, religion. But they were brought into official contact through membership in the Conseil Souverain, which controlled all details of governmental action.

The Sovereign Council underwent changes of name and composition, but its functions were at all times plainly defined. In 1672 the members numbered seven. Of these the governor, the bishop, and the intendant formed the nucleus, the other four being appointed by them. In 1675 the king raised the number of councilors to ten, thus diluting the authority which each possessed, and thenceforth made the appointments himself. Thus during the greater part of Frontenac's regime the governor, the bishop, and the intendant had seven associates at the council-board. Still, as time went on, the king felt that his control over this body was not quite perfect. So in 1703 he changed the name from Sovereign Council to Superior Council, and increased its members to a total of fifteen.

The Council met at the Chateau St Louis on Monday morning of each week, at a round table where the governor had the bishop on his right hand and the intendant on his left. Nevertheless the intendant presided, for the matters under discussion fell chiefly in his domain. Of the other councilors the attorney-general was the most conspicuous. To him fell the task of sifting the petitions and determining which should be presented. Although there were local judges at Quebec, Three Rivers, and Montreal, the Council had jurisdiction over all important cases, whether criminal or civil. In the sphere of commerce its powers were equally complete and minute. It told merchants what profits they could take on their goods, and how their goods should be classified with respect to the percentage of profit allowed. Nothing was too petty for its attention. Its records depict with photographic accuracy the nature of French government in Canada. From this source we can see how the principle of paternalism was carried out to the last detail.

But Canada was a long way from France and the St Lawrence was larger than the Seine. It is hard to fight against nature, and in Canada there were natural obstacles which withstood to some extent the forces of despotism. It is easy to see how distance from the court gave both governor and intendant a range of action which would have been impossible in France. With the coming of winter Quebec was isolated for more than six months. During this long interval the two officials could do a great many things of which the king might not have approved, but which he was powerless to prevent. His theoretical supremacy was thus limited by the unyielding facts of geography. And a better illustration is found in the operation of the seigneurial system upon which Canadian society was based. In France a belated feudalism still held the common man in its grip, and in Canada the forms of feudalism were at least partially established. Yet the Canadian habitant lived in a very different atmosphere from that breathed by the Norman peasant. The Canadian seigneur had an abundance of acreage and little cash. His grant was in the form of uncleared land, which he could only make valuable through the labors of his tenants or censitaires. The difficulty of finding good colonists made it important to give them favorable terms. The habitant had a hard life, but his obligations towards his seigneur were not onerous. The man who lived in a log-hut among the stumps and could hunt at will through the forest was not a serf. Though the conditions of life kept him close to his home, Canada meant for him a new freedom.

Freest of all were the coureurs de bois, those dare-devils of the wilderness who fill such a large place in the history of the fur trade and of exploration. The Frenchman in all ages has proved abundantly his love of danger and adventure. Along the St Lawrence from Tadoussac to the Sault St Louis seigneuries fringed the great river, as they fringed the banks of its tributary, the Richelieu. This was the zone of cultivation, in which log-houses yielded, after a time, to white-washed cottages. But above the Sault St Louis all was wilderness, whether one ascended the St Lawrence or turned at Ile Perrot into the Lake of Two Mountains and the Ottawa. For young and daring souls the forest meant the excitement of discovery, the license of life among the Indians, and the hope of making more than could be gained by the habitant from his farm. Large profits meant large risks, and the coureur de bois took his life in his hand. Even if he escaped the rapid and the tomahawk, there was an even chance that he would become a reprobate.

But if his character were of tough fiber, there was also a chance that he might render service to his king. At times of danger the government was glad to call on him for aid. When Tracy or Denonville or Frontenac led an expedition against the Iroquois, it was fortunate that Canada could muster a cohort of men who knew woodcraft as well as the Indians. In days of peace the coureur de bois was looked on with less favor. The king liked to know where his subjects were at every hour of the day and night. A Frenchman at Michilimackinac, [Footnote: The most important of the French posts in the western portion of the Great Lakes, situated on the strait which unites Lake Huron to Lake Michigan. It was here that Saint-Lusson and Perrot took possession of the West in the name of France (June 1671). See The Great Intendant, pp. 115-16.] unless he were a missionary or a government agent, incurred severe displeasure, and many were the edicts which sought to prevent the colonists from taking to the woods. But, whatever the laws might say, the coureur de bois could not be put down. From time to time he was placed under restraint, but only for a moment. The intendant might threaten and the priest might plead. It recked not to the coureur de bois when once his knees felt the bottom of the canoe.

But of the seven thousand French who peopled Canada in 1672 it is probable that not more than four hundred were scattered through the forest. The greater part of the inhabitants occupied the seigneuries along the St Lawrence and the Richelieu. Tadoussac was hardly more than a trading-post. Quebec, Three Rivers, and Montreal were but villages. In the main the life of the people was the life of the seigneuries--an existence well calculated to bring out in relief the ancestral heroism of the French race. The grant of seigneurial rights did not imply that the recipient had been a noble in France. The earliest seigneur, Louis Hebert, was a Parisian apothecary, and many of the Canadian gentry were sprung from the middle class. There was nothing to induce the dukes, the counts, or even the barons of France to settle on the soil of Canada. The governor was a noble, but he lived at the Chateau St Louis. The seigneur who desired to achieve success must reside on the land he had received and see that his tenants cleared it of the virgin forest. He could afford little luxury, for in almost all cases his private means were small. But a seigneur who fulfilled the conditions of his grant could look forward to occupying a relatively greater position in Canada than he could have occupied in France, and to making better provision for his children.

Both the seigneur and his tenant, the habitant, had a stake in Canada and helped to maintain the colony in the face of grievous hardships. The courage and tenacity of the French Canadian are attested by what he endured throughout the years when he was fighting for his foothold. And if he suffered, his wife suffered still more. The mother who brought up a large family in the midst of stumps, bears, and Iroquois knew what it was to be resourceful.

Obviously the Canada of 1672 lacked many things--among them the stern resolve which animated the Puritans of New England that their sons should have the rudiments of an education.4 At this point the contrast between New France and New England discloses conflicting ideals of faith and duty. In later years the problem of knowledge assumed larger proportions, but during the period of Frontenac the chief need of Canada was heroism. Possessing this virtue abundantly, Canadians lost no time in lamentations over the lack of books or the lack of wealth. The duty of the hour was such as to exclude all remoter vistas. When called on to defend his hearth and to battle for his race, the Canadian was ready.


1 See The Great Intendant in this Series.
2 Anne Robert Jacques Turgot (1727-81), a statesman, thinker, and philanthropist of the first order. It was as intendant of Limoges that Turgot disclosed his great powers. He held his post for thirteen years (1761-74), and effected improvements which led Louis XVI to appoint him comptroller-general of the Kingdom.
3 See The Great Intendant.
4 For example, Harvard College was founded in 1636, and there was a printing-press at Cambridge, Mass., in 1638.


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Chronicles of Canada, The Fighting Governor, A Chronicle of Frontenac, 1915

 

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