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Alexis de Tocqueville, portrait by Théodore Chassériau (1850), at the Palace of Versailles

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Britannica describes Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) as a political scientist, historian, and politician. Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont, a magistrate and prison reformer, travelled to the United States ostensibly to observe the prison system. Tocqueville, however, wanted to study nationhood against the background of American democracy. During the Enlightenment, philosophes had observed Britain’s Constitutional Monarchy. Tocqueville had reservations concerning democracy in America. For instance, individualism stood in the way of democracy. Moreover, in 1831, slavery had not been abolished. Yet, Tocqueville endorsed a morally sound democracy.

Alexis de Tocqueville was an aristocrat. His great grandfather, Chrétien Guillaume de Lamoignon de Malesherbes | French lawyer | Britannica, his daughter and his grandchildren had been guillotined during the Terror (1793-1794).

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France had lost New France, so Tocqueville wondered what had happened to the citizens of France’s former colony. Before returning to France, he and Beaumont visited Lower Canada. French Canadians who met Tocqueville and Beaumont were delighted to see “old France.” However, in Tocqueville’s eyes, Canadien “habitants” were old France. The French Revolution had changed France and it included a regicide. Louis XVI was guillotined, and so were Tocqueville’s great grandfather and other members of his family. Tocqueville opposed the July Monarchy (1830) which restored the Orléans kings.

After the Conquest, King George III protected Amerindians, but between the Treaty of Paris (1763) and the Quebec Act of 1774, the French in Canada did not know what would happen to them. Those who lived in Quebec City, recently renamed la Capitale nationale, were not disturbed by Quebec City’s Anglophones, but Lower Canada was governed by the Château Clique, rich merchants, mostly. However, by virtue of the Quebec Act of 1774, Guy Carleton, 1st Baron Dorchester granted French Canadians “rights,” in the very large Province of Quebec. Guy Carleton knew about the turbulence that led to the birth of the United States and needed the loyalty of the French and, by the same token, the loyalty of Amerindians. But Guy Carleton set a precedent. The relationship between the British and the French augured well.

However, the Constitutional Act of 1791 divided the large Province of Quebec into Upper Canada and Lower Canada. United Empire Loyaltists had been given land in the Eastern Townships and there had been a landrush. Consequently, Le Parti Canadien (1805) was formed and, a year later, Pierre-Stanislas Bédard founded Canada’s first newspaper: Le Canadien (1806-1893). Le Canadien was under the direction of Étienne Parent the year Tocqueville and Beaumont visited. John Neilson was also a publisher.

COMMENTS

Mr Neilson praises French-speaking Canadians. They were sociables and solidaires and there may have been several instances of Canadiens rebuilding a neighbour’s barn at no cost. I doubt however that they purchased the wood. I suspect they helped themselves to the trees of a neighbouring forest.

French-Canadian priests are also idealized. I do not think Canadiens were this good, but they may have been in 1831. Lower Canada was then governed to a large extent, by the Château Clique – Wikipedia. They were Lower Canada’s equivalent of Upper Canada’s Family Compact. It is unlikely that priests born in Canada spoke French flawlessly (avec pureté). But some did. After the French Revolution, the Archbishop of Quebec welcomed émigré priests who had fled to England. Among émigré priests, many accepted to leave Britain for French-speaking Canada. These priests spoke French avec pureté and they served generously in the current Quebec, Acadie and, later, in the prairie provinces. They also opened teaching institutions. L’abbé Sigogne, Jean-Mandé Sigogne (1763-1844), was a gift to Acadians who were reëstablishing themselves in Nova Scotia and in other Maritime Provinces.

What we need to remember about this conversation, an excerpt, is that John Neilson (1763-1848), a Scot, belonged to a special group of Canadians, people such as Louis-Joseph Papineau, Robert Baldwin, Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine, Lester B. Pearson, and other figures who wanted to build a bicultural and bilingual Canada. There have been very good Canadians, English-speaking Canadians and French-speaking Canadians. It is best to follow in their footsteps and to be tolerant, to a reasonable extent. It will not be perfect, but almost …

John Neilson was born in Scotland and died in Cap-Rouge, near Quebec City, he had married Marie-Ursule Hubert, a French-speaking Canadian.

When Neilson announced this decision [to marry Ursule] to his mother in August, he explained that he appreciated his wife’s great merits, but, further, he had wished to symbolize his permanent establishment in Canada and to help lessen the baneful prejudices with which Canadians and British immigrants regarded each other.

John Neilson

The link below leads to the conversation itself., my translation. It is or will be a separate post. One may also read the conversation a few lines down.

Alexis de Tocqueville & John Neilson | Micheline’s Blog (michelinewalker.com)

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Alexis de Tocqueville, Tocqueville au Bas-Canada. Écrits datant de 1831 à 1859.
Datant du voyage en Amérique et après son retour en Europe, Montréal, Les Éditions du Jour, 1973, 185 pages. Collection : “Bibliothèque québécoise”. Présentation de Jacques Vallée. Extrait des pages 65-66.
27 août 1831.

T. – Pensez-vous que la race française parvienne jamais à se débarrasser de la race anglaise ? (Cette question fut faite avec précaution, attendu la naissance de l’interlocuteur).

[Do you think the French race will ever succeed in ridding itself of the English race? (This question was asked cautiously, given Mr Neilson’s origin).]

N. – Non. Je crois que les deux races vivront et se mêleront sur le même sol et que l’anglais restera la langue officielle des affaires. L’Amérique du Nord sera anglaise, la fortune a prononcé. Mais la race française du Canada ne disparaîtra pas. L’amalgame n’est pas aussi difficile à faire que vous le pensez. Ce qui maintient surtout votre langue ici, c’est le clergé. Le clergé forme la seule classe éclairée et intellectuelle qui ait besoin de parler français et qui le parle avec pureté.

[No. I think the two races will live and blend on the same soil and that English will remain the official language of business. North America will be English, destiny has spoken. But the French race will not disappear. Blending the two is not as difficult as you may think. The Clergy keeps your language alive. The Clergy constitutes the only enlightened and intellectual class that needs to speak French and speaks it flawlessly.]

T. – Quel est le caractère du paysan canadien?

[What is the temperament of the Canadian peasant?]

N. C’est à mon avis une race admirable. Le paysan canadien est simple dans ses goûts, très tendre dans ses affections de famille, très pur dans ses mœurs, remarquablement sociable, poli dans ses manières; avec cela très propre à résister à l’oppression, indépendant et guerrier, nourri dans l’esprit d’égalité. L’opinion publique a ici une force incroyable. Il n’y a pas d’autorité dans les villages, cependant l’ordre public s’y maintient mieux que dans aucun autre pays du monde. Un homme commet-il une faute, on s’éloigne de lui, il faut qu’il quitte le village. Un vol est-il commis, on ne dénonce pas le coupable, mais il est déshonoré et obligé de fuir.

[They are, in my opinion, an admirable race. The Canadien peasant has simple tastes, he is very gentle in caring for his family, morally very pure, remarkably sociable, polite in his behaviour, but also quite capable of resisting oppression, independent and feisty, and raised to believe in equality. Here, public opinion is unbelievably strong. There are no leaders in villages, yet public order is maintained better than in any other country in the world. If a man makes a mistake, he is kept at a distance and he must leave the village. If a theft is committed, the guilty party is not given in, but he has dishonoured himself and is forced to flee.]

N. […] p. 77 : Le Canadien est tendrement attaché au sol qui l’a vu naître, à son clocher, à sa famille. C’est ce qui fait qu’il est si difficile de l’engager à aller chercher fortune ailleurs. De plus, comme je le disais, il est éminemment social; les réunions amicales, l’office divin en commun, l’assemblée à la porte de l’église, voilà ses seuls plaisirs. Le Canadien est profondément religieux, il paie la dîme sans répugnance. Chacun pourrait s’en dispenser en se déclarant protestant, on n’a point encore d’exemple d’un pareil fait. Le clergé ne forme ici qu’un corps compact avec le peuple. Il partage ses idées, il entre dans ses intérêts politiques, il lutte avec lui contre le pouvoir. Sorti de lui, il n’existe que pour lui. On l’accuse ici d’être démagogue. Je n’ai pas entendu dire qu’on fît le même reproche aux prêtres catholiques en Europe. Le fait est qu’il est libéral, éclairé et cependant profondément croyant, ses mœurs sont exemplaires. Je suis une preuve de sa tolérance: protestant, j’ai été nommé dix fois par des catholiques à notre Chambre des Communes et jamais je n’ai entendu dire que le moindre préjugé de religion ait été mis en avant contre moi par qui que ce soit. Les prêtres français qui nous arrivent d’Europe, semblables aux nôtres pour leurs mœurs, leur sont absolument différents pour la tendance politique.

N. [Canadiens are very fond of their native land, their church, and their family. So, it is difficult to persuade a Canadien to seek fortune elsewhere. Moreover, as I was saying, he [le Canadien] is very sociable. His only pleasures are friendly gatherings, attending Mass, and chatting on the porch of his church. Canadiens are profoundly religious and pay their thite without reluctance. All could escape by stating that they are Protestants, but until now there has been no instance of this. Here the Clergy and the people are as one. The Clergy shares the people’s ideas and political interests and it joins them in fighting against power. The Clergy is born to them and lives for them. Here, priests are accused of being demagogues. I have not heard of Europeans thus criticizing Catholic priests. The fact is that he [the priest] is liberal, enlightened, and that he is nevertheless a convinced believer. I am a living proof of their tolerance. As a protestant, I have been nominated to the House of Commons ten times, by Catholics, and I have never heard that the slightest religion-based prejudice was brought forward against me by anyone whomsoever. The mores of our priests and French priests who arrive here from Europe are the same. But they are totally different in their political orientation.]

N. Je vous ai dit que parmi les paysans canadiens il existait un grand esprit de sociabilité. Cet esprit les porte à s’entraider les uns les autres dans toutes les circonstances critiques. Un malheur arrive-t-il au champ de l’un d’eux, la commune tout entière se met ordinairement en mouvement pour le réparer. Dernièrement la grange de XX vint à être frappée du tonnerre: cinq jours après elle était rebâtie par les voisins sans frais.

[I have told you that among Canadien peasants, there existed a spirit of solidarity, which leads them to help one another in all critical circumstances. Should a misfortune befall one of them, the entire community usually rises to repair the damage. Not long ago, someone’s barn was hit by thunder: five days later it had been rebuilt by neighbours at no cost.]

RELATED ARTICLES

Alexis de Tocqueville & John Neilson (13 May 2021)
Alexis de Tocqueville on Lower Canada (17 Janvier 2018)
Canadiana.1 (page)

Sources and Resources

Document2 (ameriquefrancaise.org)
Upper Canada – Library and Archives Canada (bac-lac.gc.ca)
Lower Canada
Translation: Micheline Walker

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Love to everyone 💕

Ô Canada! mon pays, mes amours
John A Macdonald, a Conservative election poster, not a caricature, from 1891

© Micheline Walker
13 May 2021
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