Alexis de Tocqueville on Bas-Canada (Lower* Canada)
We are still in Lower Canada or Bas-Canada. * “Lower” means down the St. Lawrence river, closer to the Atlantic Ocean. Our images are by Cornelius Krieghoff (19 June 1815 – 8 April 1872) who arrived in New York in 1836, immediately after completing his studies. Although Krieghoff had a brother in Toronto, Canada, he settled in the province of Quebec.
However, we are also reading excerpts from French political thinker and historian Alexis de Tocqueville (29 July 1805 – 16 April 1859), whose two-volume Democracy in America, published in 1835 and 1840, depicts America as it was and, to a large extent, as it has remained: materialistic and much too individualistic.
In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont (6 February 1802 – 30 March 1866), a magistrate and prison reformer, had travelled to North America in order to write a report on prisons in America, which they did.
However, Tocqueville’s curiosity led him to the former New France and induced him to discuss slavery in America. In fact, it is now somewhat difficult to remember that Tocqueville and Beaumont’s mission was to examine the prison system in the New World. Tocqueville and Beaumont were in Bas-Canada from August 23rd until September 2nd. It was a short visit, but Tocqueville’s portrayal of Bas-Canada and the dangers confronting it are exceptionally insightful.[i]
Lower Canada or Bas-Canada
French to English
« Le Canada pique vivement notre curiosité. La nation française s’y est conservée intacte : on y a les mœurs et on y parle la langue du siècle de Louis XIV. » (Tocqueville)
“The French nation has been preserved there. As a result, one can observe the customs and the language spoken during Louis XIV’s reign.” (Note 2)[ii] (Corbo’s translation)
« [I]l n’y a pas six mois, je croyais, comme tout le monde, que le Canada était devenu complètement anglais. » (Tocqueville)
In a letter to his mother, dated 7 September 1831, Tocqueville writes that: “not even six months ago, [he] believed, like everyone else, that Canada had become thoroughly English.” (Corbo’s translation)
« Nous nous sentions comme chez nous, et partout on nous recevait comme des compatriotes, enfants de la vieille France, comme ils l’appellent. À mon avis, l’épithète est mal choisie : la vieille France est au Canada ; la nouvelle est chez nous. » (Note 3)[iii] (Tocqueville)
“We felt like we were at home and everywhere people greeted us as one of their own, as descendants of ‘Old France’ as they called it. But to me, it seems more like Old France lives on in Canada and that it is our country [France] which is the new one.” Thus, Tocqueville was surprised by realities he discovered in Canada. Compared to his visits to other foreign countries, the visit to Lower Canada was a brief one. (Note 4) (Tocqueville & Corbo)
The seigneurial system and Religion
English to French
He notes that the seigneurial system is, for the most part, a “formality,” and that Religion is central to the community.
“The seigneurial system, which would last until 1854, is more of a formality than anything else, even though it is a source of irritation for some. But this does not keep the lands from being properly farmed or from prospering. Religion is central to the community; the clergy holds an important place and proves to be unquestionably loyal to the British authority.” (Corbo)
The Wealth is under English control
Even though the peasants are prosperous, the real wealth is in the hands of the country’s Englishmen. The Mondelet brothers, who [sic] Tocqueville met in Montreal on August 24th, as well as the anonymous English merchant he met on August 26th, reveal to Tocqueville that, “almost all the wealth and commerce is under English control.” On September 1st, Tocqueville confirms in his notes that “the English have control of all foreign trade and run domestic trade without any opposition.” (Note 7)[iv] (Corbo & Corbo’s translations)
Si les paysans sont prospères, la grande richesse, elle, appartient aux Anglais du pays. Tant les frères Mondelet, rencontrés à Montréal le 24 août, que le marchand anglais anonyme de Québec, le 26 août, indiquent à Tocqueville que « presque toute la richesse et le commerce est dans les mains des Anglais. » (Corbo & others)
Predominance of the English Language & Anglicisms
In both cities, “all the signs [enseignes] are in English and there are only two English theatres.” During his visit to the courthouse in Quebec City, Tocqueville observes the predominance of the English language and the mediocrity of the language of French-speaking lawyers, which is riddled with Anglicisms. (Note 8)[v] (Corbo)
Tant à Montréal qu’à Québec, la langue anglaise domine dans la vie et sur la place publique : « La plupart des journaux, les affiches et jusqu’aux enseignes des marchands français sont en anglais. » (Corbo & Tocqueville)
So, on August 26th, having visited the courthouse, Tocqueville comes to the conclusion that the French who live in the former New France are a conquered people and that it is an “irreversible tragedy.”
Je n’ai jamais été plus convaincu qu’en sortant [de ce tribunal] que le plus grand et le plus irrémédiable malheur pour un peuple c’est d’être conquis.
“I have never been more convinced than after I left the courthouse that the greatest and most irreversible tragedy for a people is to be conquered.” (Note 10)[vi] (Corbo’s translation)
Having expressed pleasure in finding that New France had become Old France, Tocqueville then fears for the future of the French nation he has visited. He was right. The French-Canadian habitant was still prosperous, but there did come a point when the thirty acres could no longer be divided. In fiction as in history, regionalism died. In his 1938 Trente Arpents, or Thirty Acres, Ringuet, the pseudonym used by Philippe Panneton, chronicled its passing away in a poignant manner. The habitant had nowhere to go. Nearly a million French-Canadians and Acadians left for the United States.
Tocqueville, Alexis de, Œuvres complètes : œuvres, papiers et correspondances, édition définitive publiée sous la direction de J. P. Mayer, Paris, Gallimard, 1951-2002, 18 tomes en 30 volumes.
Alexis de Tocqueville, Correspondance familiale, Œuvres complètes, t. XIV, Paris, Gallimard, 1998) in Œuvres complètes.
Our habitant says “For the love of God,” knocking at his lawyer’s door, and “Go to the Devil,” as he leaves. He is wearing a hat called une tuque and his ceinture fléchée.
[i] Claude Corbo, in the Encyclopedia of French Cultural Heritage in North America. As indicated, Corbo is at times the narrator and, at times, a translator.
[ii] Alexis de Tocqueville, Correspondance familiale, Œuvres complètes, t. XIV, Paris, Gallimard, 1998, p. 105. (Note 2)
[iii] Alexis de Tocqueville, Correspondance familiale, Œuvres complètes, t. XIV, Paris, Gallimard, 1998, p.129. (Note 3)
[iv] Alexis de Tocqueville, Œuvres 1, p. 210. (Note 7)
[v] Œuvres 1, p. 210. (Note 8)
[vi] Alexis de Tocqueville, Œuvres I, p. 205. (Note 10)
The video has been removed.
© Micheline Walker
December 31, 2013