Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Alexis de Tocqueville and Lower Canada

In 1831-1832, Alexis de Tocqueville spent time in America during which he wrote his De la démocratie en Amérique, a critique of the socio-political nature of American civilisation that is widely regarded as a classic work of political theory. While touring northern New York State with his companion Gustave de Beaumont, Tocqueville learned to his surprise that a French enclave survived on the banks of the St. Lawrence and at the end of August 1831 he and Beaumont visited. They spent twelve days in Lower Canada at the end of the summer of 1831 notably in Quebec and Montreal where Tocqueville had discussions with the Lower Canadian elite including the deputies John Neilson and Dominique Mondelet. [1] Although he did not write up his experiences, Tocqueville left valuable notes about Lower Canadian society scattered in his work and correspondence that show considerable insight and analytical clarity.

Tocqueville, deeply Catholic and French in his loyalties, was impressed by Lower Canada, both on the spot and later in reflection. It seemed to him like a museum. On the one hand, as aristocrat and landowner, he was charmed by the warmth, hospitality, and morality of the peasantry. On the other hand, the colony served him in his published work as the mirror image of American democracy. As he would later write in Democracy in America, ‘the habit of thinking and governing for oneself is indispensable in a new colony,’ but there seemed to be little of this in Lower Canada, where the mass of the French population was subordinated to curé, seigneur, and agricultural routine. The presence of local, electorally managed institutions in New England seemed to him to account for much of the striking difference in economic and commercial development between Lower Canada and the American states. Yet he would continue to reflect on the relations between ‘civilization’ (the growth of commerce and the division of labour) and morality in the rest of his travels.[2]

Believing that nothing remained of the French presence in America, Tocqueville was agreeably surprised to discover in Lower Canada a ‘race forte’, largely French, peaceful, agricultural, prosperous, hospitable, whose customs were well-established, not excessively religious and with a strong sense of their heritage. He recognised that the difference between the French Canadians and the British lay in their different values. If the ‘race canadienne’ appeared somewhat ignorant to him compared to the Americans, for Tocqueville they seemed ‘supérieure quant aux qualités du cœur’.[3] He appreciated that although French Canadians rejected the utilitarianism and mercantile spirit evident in Anglo-American values they were influenced by the egalitarianism of American democracy.

It is with emotion and astonishment that Tocqueville noticed the extent of the similarities between the French and the ‘Français du Canada’: merry, undertaking, sharp, talkative, scoffer, open, avid of glory, sociable, obliging, proud of their origins and more instinctive than reasoned. [4] Attached to their religion and their traditions, the Canadians were xenophobic and unwilling to move away their land to colonise other areas whatever their possibilities. Fearing a possible cultural fusion with the ‘English’, Tocqueville was delighted by the fact that religion represented ‘un obstacle aux mariages entre les deux races’. Those who feared the French Canadians most were the British and Canadian elites who were profoundly ‘English in manners and ideas’.[5] Tocqueville also feared the submission of the Canadian elite to the colonial authorities, the massive influx of immigrant and the general apathy of the Canadians.

Tocqueville considered that the Conquest was a tragic event for the Canadian people but was convinced that it had the ability ‘one day to establish a great French nation in America’.[6] It seemed easy for him to note that ‘les Français sont le peuple vaincu’ because, although they were in the majority, many of Lower Canadian elite were primarily ‘British’ in attitude. Even if French was almost universally spoken, Tocqueville recognised that

...the majority of the newspapers, the posters and signs of the French merchants were in English. Commercial enterprises are almost all in their hands. It is beyond doubt the leading class in Canada and I expect that this has long been the case.[7]

Several other things demonstrate that Tocqueville noticed the latent animosity between the two people and had a premonition of the deep upheavals to come: ‘Tout annonce que le réveil de ce peuple approche’. [8] He also noticed the enthusiasm with which some within the Lower Canadian elite had become ‘enlightened’ and deeply opposed to the ‘Anglais’. However, he noted that the hatred of the Canadians ‘se dirige plus encore contre le gouvernement que contre la race anglaise en général’.[9]

Tocqueville left America shortly after his Lower Canadian visit, but continued his enquiries into its government, culture and politics as he thought through what he had seen in America. He was in England in 1833 and again in 1835; in the latter year he also toured Ireland, still making notes and preparing the second volume of Democracy.[10] His appreciation of the simple morality and material comfort of the French Canadian peasantry contrasted sharply with his reactions to the moral degradation, loose sexual morality and widespread illegitimacy caused by the operation of the English Poor Laws and by the astonishing contrasts of wealth and misery in industrial Manchester. Tocqueville was also struck by the popular enthusiasm for schooling among the Irish Catholic peasant population, despite its miserable poverty, something that contrasted sharply with the indifference of the French-Canadian peasantry. He visited schools and in County Tuam had a long conversation with a priest who supported the English government’s new educational system, even though it excluded sectarian religious instruction from the schoolroom. This system, which liberals in England had promoted, but whose adoption there was blocked by sectarian struggles, was suggested both by the Gosford Commission and by the Durham Mission for Canada and it formed the basis of much of the Canadian school legislation in the 1840s. Wasn’t the priest worried about Protestant conversion, Tocqueville wondered? Education first, the priest argued, Ireland desperately needed education and, anyway, he got the children as soon as they came outside class.

The Whigs and Radicals whom Tocqueville visited and corresponded with in England were not limited to J.S. Mill and J.A. Roebuck, although Lower Canadian Patriote politicians might have profited from Tocqueville’s comments on the latter. As Lower Canadian politics dissolved into attrition over the Civil List and the question of an elective Legislative Council, the Patriote Parti’s analysis of the stance of the British government was said to be that of the Assembly’s agent, Roebuck.[11] While Tocqueville commented on Roebuck’s commitment to reform, and his respect for property and religion, he also noted his marginal social status and the fact that his political position depended on ‘continually keeping the people’s passions in motion.’ Those passions failed in the 1837 elections when he lost his seat in Bath and well before that he had only limited success in arousing much interest in Lower Canadian grievances in the Commons.

Tocqueville corresponded at length with the political economist Nassau Senior and Mill served as an intermediary between Tocqueville and Edward ‘Bear’ Ellice (although it seems they did not manage to meet when Ellice was in Paris).[12] Ellice was the seigneur of Beauharnois, south-west of Montreal, and for much of the 1820s and 1830s a leading voice in governing circles on Canadian questions. He was an intimate of Lord Durham and it was likely that Ellice’s urging convinced Durham to undertake his mission to Canada in the wake of the 1837 Rebellion. In Canada in 1836, Ellice was in frequent contact with Pierre-Dominique Debartzch, seigneur for St. Charles and through him with others disaffected with the radical politics of the Papineau faction. Ellice reported his meetings with Debartzch to Melbourne’s cabinet, discussing how best to manage Lower Canadian politics and urging the creation of a form of ministerial government with ‘a discreet division of the loaves and fishes’ to include the appointment of Louis-Joseph Papineau to the office of President of the Executive Council or as Attorney-General.

In a letter dated 3 January 1838, Tocqueville commented on the rebellions that occurred in Lower Canada the previous year. [13] With limited information about events, he limited his comments to general conclusions but seems to have understood the reasons behind the rebellions

À l’époque de mon passage, les Canadiens étaient pleins de préjugés contre les Anglais qui habitaient au milieu d’eux, mais ils semblaient singulièrement attachés au gouvernement anglais qu’ils regardaient comme un arbitre désintéressé placé entre eux et cette population anglaise qu`ils redoutaient.

However, Tocqueville appeared unaware of how the situation could have degenerated but that it was ‘peine à croire que l’administration coloniale n’a pas quelques reproches à se faire’.


[1] Vallée, Jacques, Tocqueville au Bas-Canada, (Editions du Jour), 1973, pp. 86-88, 93-99.

[2] De Tocqueville, Alexis, Democracy in America, (Knopf), 1994, p. 430n.

[3] Ibid, Vallée, Jacques, Tocqueville au Bas-Canada, p. 100.

[4] Ibid, Vallée, Jacques, Tocqueville au Bas-Canada, p. 109.

[5] Ibid, Vallée, Jacques, Tocqueville au Bas-Canada, pp. 101-102.

[6] Ibid, Vallée, Jacques, Tocqueville au Bas-Canada, p. 114.

[7] Ibid, Vallée, Jacques, Tocqueville au Bas-Canada, p. 88.

[8] Ibid, Vallée, Jacques, Tocqueville au Bas-Canada, p. 101.

[9] Ibid, Vallée, Jacques, Tocqueville au Bas-Canada, p. 104.

[10] De Tocqueville, Alexis, Memoir on Pauperism, Paris, 1835, (Institute of Economic Affairs), 1998 and Mayer, J.P., (ed.), Journeys to England and Ireland, (Arno), 1987 provide Tocqueville’s reflections. Zemach, Ada, ‘Alexis de Tocqueville on England’, Review of Politics, Vol. 13, (3), (1951), pp. 329-343 and Welch, Cheryl B., (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Tocqueville, (Cambridge University Press), 2006 provide analysis.

[11] Knowles, E. C., The English Philosophical Radicals and Lower Canada, 1820-1830, London, 1929, provides the context. Thomas, William, The Philosophic Radicals: Nine Studies in Theory and Practice, 1817-1841, (Oxford University Press), 1979, is the best examination of this amorphous and highly ambiguous political ‘party’. See also Turner, Michael J., Independent Radicalism in Early Victorian Britain, (Praeger), 2004, pp. 207-215, and in his ‘Radical agitation and the Canada question in British politics, 1837-41’, Historical Research, Vol. 79, (2006), pp. 90-114.

[12] Colthart, James, ‘Edward Ellice’, DCB, Vol. 10, 1861-1800, 1976, pp. 233-239 is a useful study.

[13] Ibid, Vallée, Jacques, Tocqueville au Bas-Canada, p. 168-170.

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