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.

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