Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Illegal Immigration in the 1920s: French North Americans and the Myth of the Master Race

Plus ça change plus c'est la même chose.

This familiar saying leaps to mind while reading a page one story from The Gazette of Montréal, April 2, 1929. The article reports that, pursuant to the Immigration Act of 1924, significant numbers of the French-Canadian element in the USA could face deportation.

The Canadian-born resident who came to the States prior to July 1924 had no worries. Those who arrived after that date sans proper documentation must leave the country and go through proper immigration channels or face deportation with no possibility of readmission to the USA.

The article reports that among those who were sent back to Canada to obtain proper documentation was an 18-month-old baby girl born in Montréal and adopted by a family in New Hampshire. 

Canadians Face Deportation as Illegal Aliens:
The Gazette of Montréal, April 2, 1929
Since no dangerous 18-month-old must slip through the net, the article reports that, “Federal officers throughout New England are now receiving their preliminary instructions, and within another two months the machinery for the investigation of every Canadian in the country will be perfected.”

The article also states that, “The Washington authorities make it plain that French-Canadians are not alone involved. Canadians from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Ontario will be subjected to as rigid an examination as those from Quebec.” 

Evidently there were suspicions that French Canadians were being singled-out for possible deportation. The considerations that led to the 1924 Immigration Act justify these suspicions.

The purpose and effect of this legislation was to exclude “undesirable” aliens from immigrating to the USA. Alarmed by the growth of Jewish immigrants as well as those from Southern and Eastern Europe, Congress moved to forbid certain groups from entering the country legally and to impose quotas on others. Canadians were not subject to the quota system, as the 1929 article in The Gazette mentions, but were required to file papers.

The debates surrounding the 1924 act strike the modern reader as both shockingly frank and uneasily familiar. In a time when reticence or self-deception regarding one’s racism was less prevalent than today, Senator Ellison DuRant Smith of South Carolina, for example, permitted himself this utterance:
Who is an American? Is he an immigrant from Italy? Is he an immigrant from Germany? If you were to go abroad and some one were to meet you and say, ‘I met a typical American,’ what would flash into your mind as a typical American… Would it be the son of an Italian immigrant, the son of a German immigrant, the son of any of the breeds from the Orient, the son of the denizens of Africa?… I would like for the Members of the Senate to read that book just recently published by Madison Grant, The Passing of a Great Race. Thank God we have in America perhaps the largest percentage of any country in the world of the pure, unadulterated Anglo-Saxon stock; certainly the greatest of any nation in the Nordic breed. It is for the preservation of that splendid stock that has characterized us that I would make this not an asylum for the oppressed of all countries, but a country to assimilate and perfect that splendid type of manhood that has made America the foremost Nation in her progress and in her power…1
The Senator recommends Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race or The Racial Basis of European History, published in 1916. The alarm regarding the immigration of supposedly inferior “stock” into the USA was the wellspring of Grant’s book. The author provided statistics to Congress which contributed to setting the 1924 law's immigration quotas.

Jonathan Spiro, a professor of history at Castleton State College in Vermont, finds that Grant “popularized the infamous notions that the blond-haired, blue-eyed Nordics were the ‘master race’ and that the state should eliminate members of inferior races who were of no value to the community.” Translated into German in 1925, Grant’s book was welcomed by the Nazis. According to Spiro, Adolph Hitler referred to it as his “bible.” 

In light of his pseudo-scientific theory of blond, “Nordic” dominance, the following excerpt from Grant’s meisterwerke comes as no surprise.
The Dominion [of Canada] is as a whole handicapped by the presence of an indigestible mass of French Canadians largely from Brittany and of Alpine origin although the habitant patois is an archaic Norman of the time of Louis XIV. These Frenchmen were granted freedom of language and religion by their conquerors and are now using those privileges to form separatist groups in antagonism to the English population. The Quebec Frenchmen will succeed in seriously impeding the progress of Canada and will succeed even better in keeping themselves a poor and ignorant community of little more importance to the world at large than are the Negroes in the South. 2
Thus spake Hitler's Bible. However, the “mass of French Canadians” were not “largely from Brittany,” although some of their ancestors were Breton. Even by Grant’s specious definitions the Canadiens were not generally of “Alpine” origin. He was neither the first nor the last to draw a comparison between the Canadiens and African-Americans, a move that, in his racist scheme, was a means of killing two birds with one stone.

Nor did the large-scale immigration of this “indigestible” French Canadian community into New England escape Grant’s notice. On the contrary, in his first chapter, where he sets out the alleged danger facing his imaginary master race from the immigration of their “inferiors,”  Grant writes:
During the last century the New England manufacturer imported the Irish and French Canadians and the resultant fall in the New England birthrate at once became ominous. The refusal of the native American (sic) to work with his hands when he can hire or import serfs to do manual labor for him is the prelude to his extinction and the immigrant laborers are now breeding out their masters and killing by filth and by crowding as effectively as by the sword. Thus the American sold his birthright in a continent to solve a labor problem. Instead of retaining political control and making citizenship an honorable and valued privilege he intrusted (sic) the government of his country and the maintenance of his ideals to races who have never yet succeeded in governing themselves much less any one else. 3
Grant’s master race theory assumes, of course, that the measure of mastery is not only governing oneself but also lording over others. This revealing remark is but one draught from his witch’s brew of half-baked science, Social Darwinism, and old-fashioned Anglo-American jingoism.

Through such rancid reasoning is legislation passed that would require federal agents to hunt out every undocumented 18-month-old Canadien baby.

After WWII when the consequences of Grant’s theories are well known, some Americans have learned to be embarrassed about their sensitivities regarding Anglo-Saxon racial and cultural “purity.” Modified, modernized versions of Grant’s naked racism are clothed with fig leaves about national unity as well as by economic arguments.

I’m not sure that I prefer these latter-day versions to the overt stance of Anglo-Saxon supremacy held by Grant and his acolytes. At least they were honest.

Notes
1.  Speech by Ellison DuRant Smith, April 9, 1924, Congressional Record, 68th Congress, 1st Session (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1924), vol. 65, 5961–5962.

2.  Grant, Madison. The Passing of the Great Race or The Racial Basis of European History. 4th Ed. New York: Scribner’s, 1921, 81.

3.  Grant, 11-12

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Explorer of the Pacific Northwest: The Amazing Voyage of François-Benjamin Pillet

My third great-grandmother was a woman of mystery called Cécile Pillet. She was somehow attached to the family of the prosperous fur trader François-Benjamin Pillet. This man was a pioneer and an adventurer who participated in what must be among the greatest journeys in the annals of North America.

François-Benjamin Pillet, also known as Benjamin Pillet (Pilet, Pilette) the son of Ignace Pillet and Marie-Josepthe Lamy dit Desfond, was born on August 12, 1791 at a mission near Montréal. The place was called Lac des Deux Montagnes in French but is better known as Oka.

Oka was the First Nations settlement that in Pillet’s day included separate villages for the Algonquins and Haudenosaunee (“Iroquois”), with a small group of Canadiens many of whom were active in the fur trade.

Pillet was from a line of fur traders familiar with both the interior of the continent and the languages and ways of the native peoples. His father and his uncle, Jean-Baptiste Paschal Pillet, left a paper trail relating to their activities in the fur trade in the 18th c. They hired voyageurs and traded in the Great Lakes region as early as the 1770s.

In 1810, the wealthy American businessman John Jacob Astor hired the not quite 19-year-old François-Benjamin as a clerk for his Pacific Fur Company. Astor was well aware of the recent voyage of Lewis and Clark and smelled a business opportunity. He inquired at Montréal and enlisted a number of Canadians mainly of Scottish and French descent to establish a trading post on the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest.

Astor sent two parties westward, one over land and one by sea. The former was to start from the Great Lakes, descend to St. Louis, and then retrace the route of Lewis and Clark to the Western sea. 

The Panama Canal still a century hence, the sea route was to sail the Atlantic to the southern tip of South America, around Cape Horn, and then northward in the Pacific to the mouth of the Columbia. Pillet was with the group that traveled by sea. His companion Gabriel Franchère preserved their adventures for posterity in a detailed journal.

The Canadians set sail from New York City in September 1810 on the Tonquin under the American flag. A skilled seaman with the dickensian name of Jonathan Thorn captained the vessel. Thorn, a veteran of the storied engagement on the shores of Tripoli, had more than a trace of Bligh in him. He took an instant dislike to the land-lubbing traders.

His animus became dangerous when the Tonquin reached the Falkland Islands in search of fresh water. Pillet, Franchère and some others took to exploring the strange island of penguins and missed the signal to return to the ship. Thorn weighed anchor and shipped off marooning the party on the islands.

Perceiving their predicament, Pillet and company rowed hard for three and a half hours so as not to lose sight of the ship. At last Thorn relented and they were taken back on board. Thorn’s mood may have been altered by one of the Scotsmen, a relative of one of the men he had attempted to maroon, who drew his pistol and threatened to blow the captain’s brains out.

Rounding the Horn, the Tonquin's next port of call was the Hawaiian Islands. Pillet and Franchère spent a night on land exploring and observing Hawaiian customs. At Hawaii, a couple of the crew members remained, while the Tonquin engaged a number of islanders, famously skilled boatmen.

This mixed party of Scots, French-Canadians, Americans, and Hawaiians finally reached the Columbia in March of 1811. They quickly established a trading post they called Astoria. The party traveling over land having been divided and with some loss of life reached Astoria in January and February of 1812.

From Franchère’s account, Pillet emerges as singularly curious and intrepid. When one of the Hawaiians is killed in an accident it is Pillet and Franchère who accompany his countrymen to the burial of their comrade and observe their rites. Pillet makes several side trips to the interior, to the region near Spokane and another in the Willamette River area.

He is a skilled hunter and fisherman and appears to know French and English as well as more than one Native language. In one encounter with the natives, when several attempts at communication in other tongues fail, Pillet comes forward to try the Cree language which his interlocutors understand in part.

One of the Astorians named Ross Cox who also wrote an account of these travels relates that during his Spokane adventure Pillet fought a duel with Nicolas Montour of the rival Northwest Company, “with pocket pistols, at six paces; both hits; one in the collar of the coat, and the other in the leg of the trousers. Two of their men acted as seconds and the tailor speedily healed their wounds.”

In January 1813 news reached Astoria that Great Britain and the United States were at war. This placed the Canadians, British subjects trading under the American flag, in an awkward position.

In September the Astorians learned that a British warship had been sent to seize the American post at Astoria. Representatives of the Northwest Company, Canadians under the British flag, made an offer to buy out the Pacific Fur Company. The offer was accepted in October 1813. The British Union Jack was hoisted and Astoria was renamed Fort George.

A number of the former Astorians signed on with the Northwesters. Pillet and Franchère were two among a party of ninety that chose to return to Montréal. The Tonquin having been destroyed, and its captain and crew massacred in a battle with the natives provoked by Thorn’s arrogance, the party had little choice but to set out by land. A flotilla of 10 canoes, with men, goods, and provisions headed eastward on April 4, 1814.

They traveled mostly along the waterways beginning with an ascent of the Columbia. With great difficulty they survived the mountains and, by the first of June, found their way to the mouth of the Pembina River, west of present-day Edmonton, Alberta.

By the tenth they had reached Fort Vermillion near the modern day border of Alberta and Saskatchewan. They arrived at Lake Winnipeg by the end of the month, achieving Fort William at Lake Superior (now part of Thunder Bay, Ontario) on July 14th.

Here the party appears to have divided, with Franchère traveling sans Pillet with an advance guard. The route from the Great Lakes, to the Ottawa River, to the St. Lawrence was well known to the Canadiens. Franchère’s journey ended at Montréal on September 1, 1814. 

We know that Pillet was home no later than April 1815 since he is a witness at a marriage in Les Cedres, not far from Oka, in that month. When he returned home he must have learned of the death of his father in 1811. 

Pillet married his first cousin Julie Pillet, the daughter of Paschal Pillet and Marguerite LaCroix, on January 16, 1817 at Oka. His eldest son François d'Assise-Benjamin, also known as Antoine, was born there on September 21st of that same year. Around 1820, Pillet and family relocated to the parish of Sainte-Geneviève-de-Pierrefonds on the island of Montréal. 

Pillet appears to have been a prosperous merchant. The notary records reveal his many business dealings and transactions. The will of his mother, who died in 1826, was litigated leaving a detailed account of the impressive Pillet holdings. His son Antoine received an education at Montréal. He studied medicine and practiced this profession among the people of Oka.
1879 Map of Ste-Geneviève
The Pillet ("Pilette") property is
along the river northeast of the church
Source: BAnQ

François-Benjamin supported the Patriotes in the Québec Rebellion of 1837. Not long after, he was deposed by a court of law regarding an incident in this war. Pillet’s nephew, Rodolphe Des Rivières, was among the leaders of the rebellion and fought at the Battle of St-Charles-sur-Richelieu.

François-Benjamin Pillet, astorian, died on January 31, 1858. He was buried the following day at Ste-Geneviève. 

In the 1911 Canadian Census I find his descendants still living at this parish a century after Pillet’s Pacific adventures. They may be there still.

[See this post for more about French-Canadians in the Pacific Northwest.] 

Friday, October 12, 2012

Fears of Franco-American Conspiracy: Immigration and Paranoia

The fear of a French ‘papist’ horde descending from Canada to enslave New England was a common trope of the Revolutionary War period. In the late 19th c. the French ‘papist’ horde meme rose again like Lazarus from the dead.

The cause of this revival was the prodigious growth of French-speaking immigrants to the New England mill towns. This new round of hysteria represented these immigrant workers as the vanguard of a slow but steady movement to overwhelm New England and annex it to a revived New France.

This ‘popish’ plot was supposedly hatched in the chambers of the Québec Catholic hierarchy for whom the benighted workers were robotic foot soldiers in a sinister, international conspiracy. Ominous “secret societies” were mooted as contributing to these dark designs. The famed fecundity of the Canadien family was viewed as a tactic in a clandestine war.

A Boston paper epitomized the chief features of this theme as follows:

Romanism is already a terrible power in our country…To this...must be added the French ultramontane power…The French Jesuits have conceived the project of forming a Catholic nation out of the province of Quebec and New England, and this project of making New England French Catholic has already taken proportions capable of alarming the most optimistic. The French number more than a million in the United States...The number of their children is unimaginable for Americans…They are kept a distinct alien race, subject to the Pope in matters of religion and of politics. Soon…they will govern you, Americans.* [British-American Citizen, December 28, 1889]
The New York Times had put its weight behind the same view:

There is no evidence that the habitant or his [ecclesiastical] leader has thrown overboard a tradition that in the last few years has evoked something more serious than a smile from the average Anglo-Saxon. The tradition is that within a period not included within the present century there will be a country in North America called New France. It is to be constituted of Quebec, Ontario as far west as Hamilton, such portions of the maritime provinces as may be deemed worth taking, the New-England States and a slice of New-York. No effort is to be made to realize this tradition until the French race in America reach a certain number…so prolific is the French Canadian almost without exception. [January 13, 1889]
Three years later the Times repeated its warning in more strident tones:
Quebec is transferred bodily to Manchester and Fall River and Lowell. Not only does the French curé follow the French peasantry…he also perpetuates the French ideas and aspirations…and places all the obstacles possible in the way of the assimilation of these people to our American life and thought… These people are in New-England as an organized body, whose motto is Notre religion, notre langue, et nos moeurs. This body is ruled by a principle directly opposite to that which has made New-England what it is. It depresses to the lowest point possible the idea of personal responsibility and limits the freedom which it permits. It is next to impossible to penetrate this mass of protected and secluded humanity with modern ideas or to induce them to interest themselves in democratic institutions and methods of government…[the] migration of these people is part of a priestly scheme now fervently fostered in Canada for the purpose of bringing New-England under the control of the Roman Catholic faith… This is the avowed purpose of the secret society to which every adult French Canadian belongs, and…the earnest efforts of these people are to turn the tables in New-England by the aid of the silent forces which they control. [June 6, 1892]
The “secret societies” in question were similar to the Holy Name or St. Vincent de Paul Societies, chapters of which may still be found in some Catholic parishes. Those familiar with them will attest that they tend to engage in such dangerously subversive pursuits as charity bake sales or whist drives.

Their contradictions suggest that the theories surrounding the French 'papist' threat were ill-considered. The Franco-Americans are accused of taking no interest in American civic institutions and yet are said to hold a balance of political power in their communities.

They were pilloried as a transient population who would take their savings and go home without contributing to the United States. When they did settle and buy real estate they were accused of participating in a demographic manoeuvre to conquer New England.

A Contents Page from
Your Heritage or New England Threatened

(1891)
It was not only the newspapers that sounded the alarm. An entire book was published in 1891 entitled Your Heritage; or New England Threatened by Rev. Calvin E. Amaron. It is an extended improvisation on the French ‘papist’ horde theme.

This text speaks of the French-Canadian workers as an "invading force” to be “conquered.” It extends its martial metaphor throughout, while it fulminates against the evils of the “Romish religion” of French Canada. The Reverend insists on the “God-imposed” duty “to save this people” by converting them to Protestantism. “The safety of the nation demands it,” he declares.

Some of its allegations had a withered seed of truth. Bishop Laflèche of Trois-Rivières, QC had spoken undiplomatically in Springfield, Massachusetts of a greater francophone state which was to include at least parts of New England. 

But Bishop Laflèche did not speak for the entire Québec Catholic hierarchy, let alone the masses. He was in frequent conflict with his own Archbishop Taschereau, who held more moderate views, and his faction suffered the rebuke of Rome for its political meddling.

An organized, single-minded, French ‘papist’ conspiracy, complete with “secret societies,” was pure fantasy. Then why did the Yankees wax paranoiac about a mass of poor mill workers whose main concern was feeding their families? Other immigrant groups might be perceived as odious, as a nuisance, or as a "social problem." Franco-Americans were perceived as a threat.

One of the reasons was the contiguity between the USA and the Franco-American homeland. The motherlands of other immigrant groups, such as Greece, Poland or Italy, were not likely to covet a slice of American territory. A change in the northeastern border was at least theoretically possible.

As the press of the day also noted, the Greek, Polish or Italian immigrant had left his or her home definitively. The Franco-American could and frequently did return home where he or she was refreshed at the well-spring of the French Canadian folk. 

The Greek or Syrian immigrant of the period was an exotic figure whose religion and customs were a cipher to the 19th c. Yankee. The Canadien, however, was a familiar if indistinct character. The half-known and the half-understood provide excellent raw material for conspiratorial fantasies.

Another factor was the traditional enmity between New France and New England. The 19th c. Yankee's grandfathers and great-grandfathers had fought bitterly against New France, or at the Battle of Québec in 1775, or at Châteauguay in the War of 1812.

At root the sense of threat surrounding the Franco-Americans was founded upon the 19th c. Anglo-Saxon's assumption of a manifest destiny or white man’s burden to civilize barbaric and imperfect races.

How could the educated Yankees explain a group like the Franco-Americans who preferred to preserve their own language and culture even after 20 or 30 years of exposure to what they regarded as superior Anglo-American ways? How could they account for such impudence?

The answer must be culpable stubbornness, dense ignorance, or some nefarious plot. Or all of the above.

*Quoted in Mason Wade, The French Canadians: 1760-1967, vol. 1 (Toronto: Macmillan, 1968), 434.

Monday, October 8, 2012

"French Papist Horde Enslaves America!" Anti-Catholicism and the Quebec Act

Twenty-first century Americans aren’t accustomed to thinking of Canada as a threat. It is the nation in all the world that is the most similar to the United States, the most inoffensive and pacific of neighbors. The generation that fought the Revolutionary War, however, thought very differently of its neighbor to the North.

More than a century of sporadic warfare between Catholic New France and Protestant New England had habituated Americans to perceive Canada, even under English rule, as a potential danger.

The raid on Deerfield; the battles along the Kennebec; the defeat of Braddock; the bloody incidents of the Deportation of the Acadians; the siege of Québec with the dramatic deaths of Generals Wolfe and Montcalm; these events were on the minds of Anglo-America's leaders in the Revolutionary War period and some of them had witnessed the more recent of these affairs.

These memories were aroused when the British Parliament's Quebec Act, among other Acts the Americans perceived as "intolerable," allowed tithes to be paid to the Roman Catholic clergy of Canada. Many American colonists viewed the British government’s policy of accommodation as the prelude to the invasion of a French ‘papist’ horde with the aim of enslaving Protestant America.

Such charges sound so exaggerated, so outrageous to modern ears that there is a tendency to downplay them. They are viewed either as the extravagance of a few firebrands or as propaganda aimed at arousing popular opinion against the King.

Charles H. Metzger S.J., in his book The Quebec Act,* investigates newspapers, court records, private papers, minutes of assemblies, and other primary sources. He amasses a formidable collection of well-documented evidence that anti-catholic sentiments were a major cause of opposition to the Quebec Act. He shows that it was no small motivator of the Revolutionary movement as a whole.

Even before the Quebec Act was passed no less a figure than Samuel Adams opined, “Much more is to be dreaded from the growth of Popery in America, than from Stamp Acts or any other acts destructive of civil rights; Nay, I could not help fancying that the Stamp Act itself was contrived with a design only to inure the people to the habit of contemplating themselves as the slaves of men; and the transition thence to a subjection to Satan is mighty easy (Metzger 24).”

Insofar as it established “popery” the redoubtable Adams believed the Quebec Act to be a greater affront than the Stamp Act, which is cited frequently among the major causes of Revolutionary ferment.

After the passage of the Quebec Act in 1774 American pens let loose a flood of anti-catholic paranoia. The Maryland Journal held that American Protestant liberty was in danger from “French laws and popery…'the one enslaving the body, the other the mind'.” A broadside printed in New York had Lord North “dwell on the feasibility of recruiting an army of ‘papists in Canada’ who would be ‘glad to cut the throats of those heretics the Bostonians’ (40).”

The Mitred Minuet
Anti-Catholic Engraving by Paul Revere
The Royal American Magazine, October 1774
Source: John Carter Brown Library, Brown University
Rumors crossed the Atlantic that the Pope was set “to publish a Crusade against the Rebellious Bostonians, to excite the Canadians…to extirpate those bitter enemies to the Romish Religion and monarchial power (46).” Dark purposes were assigned to the British General Carleton’s orders “to raise an army of thirty thousand Roman Catholic Canadians without delay. Was it not high time for Protestants…to resort to effective measures for the securing of their civil and religious liberties? (45)

A Pennsylvanian scribe feared that the colonies “were surrounded by enemies, with a ‘Popish, French government’ set up for the express purpose of destroying their liberties, [and that] their all was at stake (48).”

The Newport Mercury asserted the futility of any effort to accommodate “free and Protestant Americans to that most detestable [Quebec] act” intended to bring “the whole force of the French Papists…to destroy the British Protestant colonies (51).” A New England newspaper reported “that guns and bayonets were to be sent to America and put into the hands of Roman Catholics and Canadians (77).”

The fears of the French ‘papist’ horde were not confined to print. The people of Portsmouth seized military supplies in anticipation of a Canadian/British invasion. Reports stated that Fort Ticonderoga was garrisoned with a force of 2,800 men (certainly an exaggerated figure) “to secure the people ‘from the incursion of the Roman Catholics’ (78).” Military precautions were also taken in Cumberland and York Counties in the district of Maine.

These counties would one day be the home of many thousands of Franco-American Catholics an irony not lost on Fr. Metzger. Writing in the 1930s, he comments upon the “millions of Catholics” in New England in his day including “the mill towns…overrun by French Canadians (32).”

Father Metzger’s work leaves little doubt that the fears of a French ‘papist’ horde were not merely the fancy of a handful of bigots. The theme was ubiquitous and persistent in the public and private expressions of well-known figures, including John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, as well as rank and file American Patriots. 

However, we must avoid the fallacy of mistaking the part for the whole. Not all Americans were intolerant of Roman Catholicism nor did all of them harbor the French ‘papist’ horde meme.

We recall that a Catholic signed the Declaration of Independence. An embassy including this delegate and his cousin, a Catholic priest, was dispatched by Congress to garner the support of the Canadiens to the American cause. Congress also published an address to the Canadiens in conciliatory tones even if it contradicted a parallel communiqué to their British brethren.

During the American occupation of Montréal, Washington restrained New England hotheads ensuring that the Catholics of that city were treated tolerably. At last, the anti-French Catholic rhetoric withered following the 1778 American alliance with France.

The French ‘papist’ horde image faded into the background but did not die. It went into hibernation to reemerge when French-Canadians, as Fr. Metzger notes, "overran" the New England mill towns a century after the Revolution. The image was placed in a different context, and some of its features changed, but the core of this meme remained remarkably self-similar in its late 18th and late 19th century forms.

This latter-day reemergence of the French ‘papist’ horde meme will be the subject of my next post.

* The Quebec Act: A Primary Cause of the American Revolution, Metzger, Charles H., New York: The United States Catholic Historical Society, 1936. Parenthetical references refer to this book.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Quebec Act: Forgotten Cause of the American Revolution


“For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies.”

This text from the American Declaration of Independence refers to the Quebec Act of 1774. This Act of the British Parliament was one of the major causes of the American Revolution. New Englanders in particular feared that this law threatened the very survival of their political and religious institutions.

Religious ideology was at the heart of this imagined threat to American liberty. The religious controversy surrounding the Quebec Act opens a gateway to a forgotten story line in the narrative of the American Republic.

The former French colony of Canada, renamed the Province of Quebec, came under English rule following the Treaty of Paris of 1763. The intention of the 1774 law was to create a political and legal basis for a British province that was, at that date, almost entirely French-speaking and Roman Catholic.

The provisions of the Quebec Act and its subsequent mandates...
  • Restored the pre-1763 borders of the province, which included the Great Lakes region and the Ohio Valley
  • Reinstated French civil law, while it established English criminal law in the Province
  • Reestablished both the tithe for the Roman Catholic clergy and the traditional privileges of the land-holding seigneurs as a consequence of the restoration of the French civil code
With the exception of the imposition of English criminal law, these provisions reinstated Canada’s status quo ante. The Declaration of Independence, however, frames the Act’s provisions not as a revival of Quebec’s former customs but as an assortment of innovations both outrageous and dangerous:

“For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province…”
This refers to the restoration of French civil law. The “free system of English laws”  had been in effect in the "neighbouring Province," and only partially at that, for a mere ten years or so prior to the Quebec Act. This "free system" was insufficiently established to speak reasonably of its abolition.

“establishing therein an Arbitrary government…”
The Quebec Act provided for an appointed council, rather than an elective assembly, to aid the governor’s oversight of the Province. A not dissimilar council had existed under the French Regime. This is the arbitrary government referenced in this clause. Rather than establishing arbitrary rule, the intent of the Act was to normalize the political and legal structure of the Province along lines familiar to its elite.

In fact, the period of British rule prior to the Quebec Act, which involved the refusal of its governors to implement the constitution in full, and the exclusion of most of the inhabitants from any role in civil affairs, might be liable to a charge of “arbitrary government.”

Province of Quebec 1774
Source: l'Annuaire du Québec, 1972
“and enlarging its Boundaries…”
Control of the Ohio Valley had been a casus belli in the so-called French and Indian War. Reestablishing the Province’s former borders allowed the Montréal merchants, via the Great Lakes, Ottawa, and St. Lawrence waterways, to compete with the Albany/Hudson/New York trade. The American colonists saw the territory that had been restored to Quebec as a natural field for their own western ambitions and resented its return to the Canadiens.

“…so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies.”
Following a politicized construal of the Act's provisions, this language reveals the Americans' gravest concern. They feared that King George was sharpening his sword on Canada in preparation for the reduction of the American colonies to “absolute rule.” The colonists viewed what was in reality a pragmatic policy with regard to Quebec as a mere prelude to a tyrant’s gambit.

The phrase about Quebec becoming a “fit instrument” for the King’s supposed despotic designs touches on the Americans' darkest fears. What most exercised New England in the Quebec Act is that their Protestant king had not only tolerated but also established the Roman Catholic faith in “a neighbouring province.”  The next step, they feared, was that King George would unleash a French “papist” horde as his “instrument” for imposing a romanizing religion and government upon them.

In his book The Quebec Act: A Primary Cause of the American Revolution, Charles H. Metzger, S.J. argues that anti-Catholic bigotry with its fears of the French “papist” horde was by no means a minor subplot to the tea tax, the Stamp Act, and other American grievances. 

Writes Metzger, “[the] writings [of the American colonists] prove that to many of them the ‘Church of Rome’ was little less than the incarnation of evil; its adherents were thought capable of any crime; its creed was believed to be perversive and destructive of the very foundations of the social order.”*

In my next post I will explore in greater depth this picture of a French “papist” horde sweeping down from the North to extinguish Anglo-Saxon Protestant liberty. This meme was not only a major cause of the American Revolution. It also illumines the unique, virulent opposition faced by the French-Canadian workers who descended upon New England  in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

These latter-day Canadiens came not with weapons of war but with tools of labor. What I term the French “papist” horde meme, however, exerted so powerful an influence on the New England mind that these immigrant workers evoked anew the fears of 1774. I will show that the French "papist" horde image persisted for more than a century after the Quebec Act.

* The Quebec Act: A Primary Cause of the American Revolution, Metzger, Charles H., New York: The United States Catholic Historical Society, 1936, p 11.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The French Canadian Presence in Michigan: Two Waves of Immigration

French North Americans have dwelled in the Great Lakes region since the 17th century. For the 18th century French, this area was the Western part of Canada as this map indicates. The USA’s upper Midwest remains the home of a significant community of French descent on the continent. I have turned to Michigan native and guest blogger James LaForest owner/writer of the fine blog Red Cedar to provide an historical perspective on the French Canadian presence in his home state.


Two Waves of Immigration
by James LaForest, guest blogger

When Michigan became a state in 1837, it began the latest stage in the evolution of an area inhabited for thousands of years by indigenous tribes. It had been over 200 years since Étienne Brûlé explored the area in 1620 and French Canadians had inhabited the region since the late 17th century when missionary Father Jacques Marquette set up the first permanent settlement at Sault Ste-Marie. Detroit was founded in 1701 and the first wave of French Canadian immigration to this particular area of New France then began in earnest.

The second wave of French Canadian immigration was to the state of Michigan spanning the period from1840 to the early 20th century. This wave of immigration was largely in the mold of other great immigrations to the USA when people seeking a better life left their homes for other lands. Jobs in mining and lumber in Michigan were plentiful and the new arrivals went on to have a strong impact on the development of the Saginaw Bay area and the Keweenaw Peninsula. 

Like other immigrant groups, this second wave sought to maintain their ethnic identity. This was initially achieved through publishing French-language newspapers, new Catholic parishes, and building communal organizations. Unlike the first wave of immigrants, the 19th century arrivals were consciously moving to the USA. Many had some English-language skills, facilitating their assimilation. As the immigrant generations passed away, succeeding generations did not maintain the cultural organizations formed by their parents and grandparents.

The first wave of immigrants had moved to the Great Lakes area not so much as immigrants but as habitants, residents of New France. Subjects of the King of France, they were in Detroit as farmers, millers, traders, voyageurs, coureurs de bois, missionaries, outfitters, and soldiers. When the French lost the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759, the French-speaking population of what would become Michigan became subjects of a new king. The Treaty of Paris in 1763 formalized their new status. American control of the territory was largely consolidated by the late 18th century under treaties that ended the American War of Independence.
Hennepin's Map of the Great Lakes Region 1683

Habitants and voyageurs in the land they called the pays d'en haut were very much on the margins of empire, at the far reaches of society. They were in the process of discovering, pressing on the boundaries of civilization. Despite illiteracy, this French-speaking population created a new culture that was influenced highly by the experience of travel to and within the great interior of North America.  

Michigan's earliest French Canadians intermarried with many tribes that lived here already, and the Métis communities that formed in the 17th through 19th centuries were part of the fabric of the culture at that time. Descendants of the early Métis families largely integrated either into French or Indian families and subsequent generations did not see the flowering of Métis culture as occurred in Canada. Nevertheless, many French Canadians in Michigan today who descend from the first wave of French arrivals can also trace their families to the indigenous tribes of the greater Great Lakes area.

I'm generally of the mindset that most of my ancestors were not native to this land. However, there is also a sense of belonging that comes with longevity. It might be called a sense of place, in which after so many generations, the air you and your ancestors breathed, the water you drink, and the land upon which you walk all become intimately familiar. 

When you know the landscape so well, and you are inherently part of it, when a place is unveiled to that extent, the idea of immigration fades away. Where you are is in you and you are in it. This is simply to say that French Canadian identity in the Great Lakes area is a unique heritage, an identity that was shaped in ways that do not conform to the typical image of an American immigrant community. 

Les Cheneaux Islands, Lake Huron
Upper Peninsula of Michigan
The idea that the first wave of French Canadians in Michigan were immigrants at all is dispelled through this reading of history. First, they were explorers, traders, and missionaries. Then they were habitants, living in the Detroit River region and other areas. When Quebec fell, they became part of another nation, with allegiance demanded by another king, and when that king lost his colonies, they became Americans. For most French Canadians in Michigan today, their French ancestors did not immigrate to the territory; rather they were residents in a course of historical events that ultimately made them Americans by circumstance rather than design. 

This set of circumstances creates a picture of a much more complex French Canadian identity in the Great Lakes area than might have existed if the only wave of immigration had been the 19th century arrivals. This perspective should not undermine the sense of place and belonging of later immigrants, nor should it minimize the experience of the aboriginal peoples. Rather, it places first-wave French Canadians among them as family, partners in trade, and ultimately countrymen. And in the end, it ties us to the land in a way that is unique among Americans and which is a heritage that many descendants of those early habitants are keen to ensure is not forgotten.   

Thank you to David for the invitation to be a guest blogger. Also to Michelle and Anne, with whom I share many early Detroit ancestors, for their thoughts on the topic. For further reading, I recommend John P. Dulong's French Canadians in Michigan and Jean Lemarre's The French Canadians of Michigan: Their Contribution to the Development of the Saginaw Valley and the Keweenaw Peninsula, 1840-1914.