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Frontenac's Public Policy

As was said long ago, every one has the defects of his qualities. Yet, in justice to a man of strong character and patriotic aim, the chronicler should take care that constructive work is given its due place, for only those who do nothing make no mistakes.

During his first term of office Frontenac had many enemies in the higher circles of society. His quarrel with Laval was a cause of scandal to the devout. His deadlock with Duchesneau dislocated the routine of government. There was no one who did not feel the force of his will. Yet to friends and foes alike his recall at sixty-two must have seemed the definite, humiliating close of a career. It was not the moment to view in due perspective what he had accomplished. His shortcomings were on the lips of every one. His strength had been revealed, but was for the time forgotten. When he left Quebec in 1682 he must have thought that he would never see it again. Yet when need came he was remembered. This fact is a useful comment on his first term, extenuating much that had seemed ground for censure in less troubled days.

Let us now regard Frontenac's policy from his own point of view, and attempt to estimate what he had accomplished down to the date of his recall.

However closely Laval and Duchesneau might seek to narrow Frontenac's sphere of action, there was one power they could not deny him. As commander of the king's troops in Canada he controlled all matters relating to colonial defense. If his domestic administration was full of trouble, it must also be remembered that during his first term of office there was no war. This happy result was due less to accident than to his own gifts and character. It is true that the friendship of Louis XIV and Charles II assured peace between New France and New England. But Canada could thank Frontenac for keeping the Iroquois at arm's length.

We have seen how he built the stronghold at Cataraqui, which was named Fort Frontenac. The vigor and the tact that he displayed on this occasion give the keynote to all his relations with the Indians. Towards them he displayed the three qualities which a governor of Canada most needed--firmness, sympathy, and fair dealing. His arrogance, so conspicuous in his intercourse with equals or with refractory subordinates, disappears wholly when he comes into contact with the savages. Theatrical he may be, but in the forest he is never intolerant or narrow-minded. And behind his pageants there is always power.

Thus Frontenac should receive personal credit for the great success of his Indian policy. He kept the peace by moral ascendancy, and to see that this was no light task one need only compare the events of his regime with those which marked the period of his successors, La Barre and Denonville. This we shall do in the next chapter. For the present it is enough to say that throughout the full ten years 1672-82 Canada was free from fear of the Iroquois. Just at the close of Frontenac's first term (1680-82) the Seneca were showing signs of restlessness by attacking tribes allied to the French, but there is abundant reason to suppose that had Frontenac remained in office he could have kept these inter-tribal wars under control.

Bound up with the success of Frontenac's Indian policy is the exploration of the West--an achievement which adds to this period its chief luster. Here La Salle is the outstanding figure and the laurels are chiefly his. None the less, Frontenac deserves the credit of having encouraged all endeavors to solve the problem of the Mississippi. Like La Salle he had large ideas and was not afraid. They co-operated in perfect harmony, sharing profits, perhaps, but sincerely bent on gaining for France a new, vast realm. The whole history of colonial enterprise shows how fortunate the French have been in the co-operation of their explorers with their provincial governors. The relations of La Salle with La Barre form a striking exception, but the statement holds true in the main, and with reference to Algiers as well as to Canada.

La Salle was a frank partisan of Frontenac throughout the quarrel with Perrot and Fenelon. On one occasion he made a scene in church at Montreal. It was during the Easter service of 1674. When Fenelon decried magistrates who show no respect to the clergy and who use their deputed power for their own advantage, La Salle stood up and called the attention of the leading citizens to these words. Frontenac, who was always a loyal ally, showed that he appreciated La Salle's efforts on his behalf by giving him a letter of recommendation to the court in which La Salle is styled 'a man of intelligence and ability, more capable than any one else I know here to accomplish every kind of enterprise and discovery which may be entrusted to him.'

The result of La Salle's visit to Versailles (1674) was that he gained privileges which made him one of the most important men in Canada, and a degree of power which brought down on him many enemies. He received the seigneury of Fort Frontenac, he was made local governor at that post, and, in recognition of services already performed, he gained a grant of nobility. It is clear that La Salle's forceful personality made a strong impression at court, and the favors which he received enabled him, in turn, to secure financial aid from his wealthy relatives at Rouen.

What followed was the most brilliant, the most exciting, and the most tragic chapter in the French exploration of America. La Salle fulfilled all the conditions upon which he had received the seigneury at Fort Frontenac, and found financial profit in maintaining the post. The original wooden structure was replaced by stone, good barracks were built for the troops, there were bastions upon which nine cannon announced a warning to the Iroquois, a settlement with well-tilled land sprang up around the fort, schooners were built with a draught of forty tons. But for La Salle this was not enough. He was a pathfinder, not a trader. Returning to France after two years of labor and success at Fort Frontenac, he secured a royal patent authorizing him to explore the whole continent from the Great Lakes to Mexico, with the right to build forts therein and to enjoy a monopoly of the trade in buffalo skins. The expenses of the undertaking were, of course, to be borne by La Salle and his associates, for the king never invested money in these enterprises. However, the persuasiveness which enabled La Salle to secure his patent enabled him to borrow the necessary funds. At the close of 1678 he was once more at Fort Frontenac and ready for the great adventure.

How La Salle explored the country of the Illinois in company with his valiant friend, Henri de Tonty 'of the iron hand,' and how these two heroic leaders traversed the continent to the very mouth of the Mississippi, is not to be told here. But with its risks, its hardships, its tragedies, and its triumphs, this episode, which belongs to the period of Frontenac's administration, will always remain a classic in the records of discovery. The Jesuits, who did not love La Salle, were no less brave than he, and the luster of his achievements must not be made to dim theirs. Yet they had all the force of a mighty organization at their back, while La Salle, standing alone, braved ruin, obloquy, and death in order to win an empire for France. Sometimes he may have thought of fame, but he possessed that driving power which goes straight for the object, even if it means sacrifice of self. His haughtiness, his daring, his self-centered determination, well fitted him to be the friend and trusted agent of Frontenac.

Another leading figure of the period in western discovery was Daniel Greysolon du Lhut. Duchesneau calls him the leader of the coureurs de bois. There can be no doubt that he had reached this eminence among the French of the forest. He was a gentleman by birth and a soldier by early training. In many ways he resembled La Salle, for both stood high above the common coureurs de bois in station, as in talent. Du Lhut has to his credit no single exploit which equals La Salle's descent of the Mississippi, but in native sagacity he was the superior. With a temperament less intense and experiences less tragic, he will never hold the place which La Salle securely occupies in the annals of adventure. But few Frenchmen equaled him in knowledge of the wilderness, and none displayed greater force of character in dealing with the Indians.

What the mouth of the Mississippi was to La Salle the country of the Sioux became to Du Lhut--a goal to be reached at all hazards. Not only did he reach it, but the story of how he rescued Father Hennepin from the Sioux (1680) is among the liveliest tales to be found in the literature of the wilderness. The only regrettable circumstance is that the story should have been told by Hennepin instead of by Du Lhut--or rather, that we should not have also Du Lhut's detailed version instead of the brief account which he has left. Above all, Du Lhut made himself the guardian of French interests at Michilimackinac, the chief French post of the Far West--the rendezvous of more tribes than came together at any other point. The finest tale of his courage and good judgment belongs to the period of La Barre's government--when, in 1684, at the head of forty-two French, he executed sentence of death on an Indian convicted of murder. Four hundred savages, who had assembled in mutinous mood, witnessed this act of summary justice. But they respected Du Lhut for the manner in which he had conducted the trial, and admired the firmness with which he executed a fair sentence.

Du Lhut's exploits and character make him the outstanding figure of the war which Duchesneau waged against the coureurs de bois. The intendant certainly had the letter of the law on his side in seeking to clear the woods of those rovers who at the risk of their own lives and without expense to the government were gaining for France an unequalled knowledge of the interior. Not only had the king decreed that no one should be permitted to enter the forest without express permission, but an edict of 1676 denied even the governor the right to issue a trading pass at his unrestrained discretion. Frontenac, who believed that the colony would draw great profit from exploration, softened the effect of this measure by issuing licenses to hunt. It was also within his power to dispatch messengers to the tribes of the Great Lakes. Duchesneau reported that Frontenac evaded the edict in order to favor his own partners or agents among the coureurs de bois, and that when he went to Montreal on the pretext of negotiating with the Iroquois, his real purpose was to take up merchandise and bring back furs. These charges Frontenac denied with his usual vigour, but without silencing Duchesneau. In 1679 the altercation on this point was brought to an issue by the arrest, at the intendant's instance, of La Toupine, a retainer of Du Lhut. An accusation of disobeying the edict was no trifle, for the penalty might mean a sentence to the galleys. After a bitter contest over La Toupine the matter was settled on a basis not unfavorable to Frontenac. In 1681 a fresh edict declared that all coureurs de bois who came back to the colony should receive the benefit of an amnesty. At the same time the governor was empowered to grant twenty-five trading licenses in each year, the period to be limited to one year.

The splendid services of Du Lhut, covering a period of thirty years, are the best vindication of Frontenac's policy towards him and his associates. Had Duchesneau succeeded in his efforts, Du Lhut would have been severely punished, and probably excluded from the West for the remainder of his life. Thanks to Frontenac's support, he became the mainstay of French interests from Lake Ontario to the Mississippi. Setting out as an adventurer with a strong taste f or exploration, he ended as commandant of the most important posts--Lachine, Cataraqui, and Michilimackinac. He served the colony nobly in the war against the Iroquois. He has left reports of his discoveries which disclose marked literary talent. From the early years of Frontenac's regime he made himself useful, not only to Frontenac but to each succeeding governor, until, crippled by gout and age, he died, still in harness. The letter in which the governor Vaudreuil announces Du Lhut's death (1710) to the Colonial Office at Paris is a useful comment upon the accusations of Duchesneau. 'He was,' says Vaudreuil, 'a very honest man.' In these words will be found an indirect commendation of Frontenac, who discovered Du Lhut, supported him through bitter opposition, and placed him where his talents and energy could be used for the good of his country.

It will be remembered that Frontenac received orders from Colbert (April 7, 1672) to prevent the Jesuits from becoming too powerful. In carrying out these instructions he soon found himself embroiled at Quebec, and the same discord made itself felt throughout the wilderness.

Frontenac favored the establishment of trading-posts and government forts along the great waterways, from Cataraqui to Crevecoeur.1 He sincerely believed that these were the best guarantees of the king's power on the Great Lakes and in the valley of the Mississippi. The Jesuits saw in each post a centre of debauchery and feared that their religious work would be undone by the scandalous example of the coureurs de bois. What for Frontenac was a question of political expediency loomed large to the Jesuits as a vital issue of morals. It was a delicate question at best, though probably a peaceable solution could have been arranged, but for the mutual agreement of Frontenac and the Jesuits that they must be antagonists. War having once been declared, Frontenac proved a poor controversialist. He could have defended his forest policy without alleging that the Jesuits maintained their missions as a source of profit, which was a slander upon heroes and upon martyrs. Moreover, he exposed himself to a flank attack, for it could be pointed out with much force that he had private motives in advocating the erection of forts. Frontenac was intelligent and would have recommended the establishment of posts whether he expected profit from them or not, but he weakened his case by attacking the Jesuits on wrong grounds.

During Frontenac's first term the settled part of Canada was limited to the shores of the St Lawrence from Lachine downward, with a cluster of seigneuries along the lower Richelieu. In this region the governor was hampered by the rights of the intendant and the influence of the bishop. Westward of Lachine stretched the wilderness, against whose dusky denizens the governor must guard the colony. The problems of the forest embraced both trade and war; and where trade was concerned the intendant held sway. But the safety of the flock came first, and as Frontenac had the power of the sword he could execute his plans most freely in the region which lay beyond the fringe of settlement. It was here that he achieved his greatest success and by his acts won a strong place in the confidence of the settlers. This was much, and to this extent his first term of office was not a failure.

As Canada was then so sparsely settled, the growth of population filled a large place in the shaping of public policy. With this matter, however, Duchesneau had more to do than Frontenac, for it was the intendant's duty to create prosperity. During the decade 1673-83 the population of Canada increased from 6705 to 10,251. In percentage the advance shows to better advantage than in totals, but the king had hardened his heart to the demand for colonists. Thenceforth the population of Canada was to be recruited almost altogether from births.

On the whole, the growth of the population during this period compares favorably with the growth of trade. In 1664 a general monopoly of Canadian trade had been conceded to the West India Company, on terms which gave every promise of success. But the trading companies of France proved a series of melancholy failures, and at this point Colbert fared no better than Richelieu. When Frontenac reached Canada the West India Company was hopelessly bankrupt, and in 1674 the king acquired its rights. This change produced little or no improvement. Like France, Canada suffered greatly through the war with Holland, and not till after the Peace of Nimwegen (1678) did the commercial horizon begin to clear. Even then it was impossible to note any real progress in Canadian trade, except in a slight enlargement of relations with the West Indies. During his last year at Quebec Duchesneau gives a very gloomy report on commercial conditions.

For this want of prosperity Frontenac was in no way responsible, unless his troubles with Laval and Duchesneau may be thought to have damped the colonizing ardor of Louis XIV. It is much more probable that the king withheld his bounty from Canada because his attention was concentrated on the costly war against Holland. Campaigns at home meant economy in Canada, and the colony was far from having reached the stage where it could flourish without constant financial support from the motherland.

In general, Frontenac's policy was as vigorous as he could make it. Over commerce, taxes, and religion he had no control. By training and temper he was a war governor, who during his first administration fell upon a time of peace. So long as peace prevailed he lacked the powers and the opportunity to enable him to reveal his true strength; and his energy, without sufficient vent, broke forth in quarrels at the council board.

With wider authority, Frontenac might have proved a successful governor even in time of peace, for he was very intelligent and had at heart the welfare of the colony. As it was, his restrictions chafed and goaded him until wrathfulness took the place of reason. But we shall err if we conclude that when he left Canada in discomfiture he had not earned her thanks. Through pride and faults of temper he had impaired his usefulness and marred his record. Even so there was that which rescued his work from the stigma of failure. He had guarded his people from the tomahawk and the scalping-knife. With prescient eye he had foreseen the imperial greatness of the West. Whatever his shortcomings, they had not been those of meanness or timidity.


1 Fort Crevecoeur was La Salle's post in the heart of the Illinois country.


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

 

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