Monday, April 1, 2013

19th c. Québec Messianism and Franco-Americans

In previous posts I have discussed the backlash in the 1880s and 1890s against the rapidly growing numbers of Francophone, Catholic immigrants in the Northeastern USA. Major newspapers such as the New York Times waxed Francophobic editorializing not once but repeatedly about an alleged “danger facing New England.”

The gist of these articles was that the Franco-Americans were the advance guard of an invasion of New England planned in the war rooms of the Québec Roman Catholic hierarchy. This supposed plot involved flooding the neighboring states with immigrants, gaining political control, and then annexing these states to a new, independent country called New France.

An 1892 New York Times editorial even alleged that some such plot was the aim of the so-called “secret society” to which “every adult French-Canadian” was said to belong.

In an earlier post I dismissed this plot and associated claims as paranoiac fantasy. Let’s check again. Was there any such plot?

In fact, there was a messianic strain in Québec ideology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This was one tenet of a so-called ultramontane faction among the Québec elite.

Québec ultramontane messianism posited that the “French race” in North America had a mission ordained by divine Providence to be a civilizing, Catholic bulwark on the continent. The French North Americans, it was imagined, would continue the missionary work of France prior to the Revolution of 1789. 

In his study Franco-Americans of New England: Dreams and Realities (Sillery, QC: Editions du Septentrion, 2004), Yves Roby cites examples of this messianic rhetoric as it applied to the Franco-American influx. For example New Bedford, Massachusetts curé Fr. George Payer asked:

“Before the Conquest…in what place were devised the most fantastic schemes to annihilate us? Whence came those cruel bands who…relentlessly set to pillaging and profaning our churches and our Catholic crosses?” From New England. Today where do we find the French-Canadians? “In the land of the very people whose forefathers sought to annihilate us, and we now live there with our priests, our friars and our nuns, erecting churches, founding schools, while ever remaining Canadiens and Catholics.” (45)
Other voices were more aggressive. Roby finds that the “vocabulary employed” by the messianic ideologues “expresses…the concepts of conquest and reconquest” of New England. Said one of them, “We are in the process of restoring to the former New France the immense domain seized by our forefathers, then dedicated by them to the church.” (49)

However, Roby concludes that the majority of the Franco-American elite did not share these views. This majority favored the more modest goal of cultural survival in their new milieu. Writes Roby, "[they] envisaged, quite simply, a separate future in the American Republic, with the survival of the distinctive elements of French-Canadian nationality.” (50f)

This aim represents the transplantation onto American soil of the resistance to Anglo-Saxon assimilation that had been the posture of French Canada since 1763.

Understandably, the talk of reconquest on the part of the immoderate few gave rise to legitimate concerns in Yankeedom. A little investigation on the part of American alarmists, however, would have revealed that the ultramontanes offered no coherent program with respect to the Franco-Americans. Their views were confused if not self-contradictory.

At first the ultramontanes staunchly opposed the emigration of Québec’s rural poor and roundly condemned the emigrants. Then some argued for repatriation of the Franco-Americans either in the Québec hinterlands or in Manitoba, while other voices began to speak of their Providential mission across the border. 

Both the vocal opposition to emigration and the repatriation schemes contradict the notion of a premeditated conspiracy to conquer New England. If there had been such a scheme one would expect the ultramontanes to have been united in encouraging emigration and discouraging repatriation. 

Further, the New York Times and other American commentators were mistaken in assuming that ultramontanism was the only thread in the fabric of Québec nationalism. There was also a liberal faction that had developed from the Patriote strain in early 19th c. Québec ideology.

Liberal institutions such as the Institut Canadien based in Montréal created a forum for free thought and free speech. Its library contained works by Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot and Lamartine, giving an indication as to its ideological pedigree. This group flirted with the idea of annexation to the USA rather than annexation of a part of it.

The Institut resisted the ultramontane bishop Bourget's attempts to censor its library. It also challenged his refusal to grant a Christian burial to a member who had died unrepentant. The Institut closed its library in 1880 but its spirit lived on.

Even within the ultramontane party there were discernible factions. Archbishop Taschereau of Québec, the ranking hierarch in the Province, represented a moderate ultramontanism. He was leery about ecclesiastical meddling in political questions and frequently stood in opposition to the extremists such as Bishop Laflèche.

The ground of the ultramontane rhetoric about divine missions and reconquest was the need for an ex post facto rationalization for the phenomenon of emigration to the States.

These emigrants were from the poorest classes of society, many heavily in debt and some, as Roby notes, close to famine. The emigrants were motivated by economics not ideology. Whatever may be the will of le bon Dieu, the will of the families which departed Québec was to meet the most basic of human needs.

Ultramontanism dabbed ideological perfume upon malodorous facts. To wit, the British Empire’s program of assimilation had maneuvered a segment of Québec's elite in the mid 19th c. into a reactionary trench. The insistence on the maintenance of an antiquated socio-agricultural system, combined with the British Empire’s malign neglect of les habitants, had left a large part of the rural population in desperate straits.

Rather than take corrective action to address the root cause of the emigrant’s flight, the ultramontanes annexed them ideologically to their own messianic illusions.

"A family of habitants
on their arrival in New England"
, July 1893
Dangerous radicals?
The Franco-American workers were the ideological playthings of both the Canadien elite and the mainstream American press. What the Yankee press and agitators failed to comprehend is the difference between the concerns of the working class Franco-Americans and the tiny elite consisting of the clergy, journalists, and a handful of professionals.

Those of us who actually knew Franco-American folk born in this period might be amused at the alternately exalted or sinister interpretation given to their very existence. Although loud discussion of political events was on the agenda of amusements, in their scant spare time they enjoyed their music, sports, games, storytelling, or family gatherings. They were hardly the stuff of international conspiracies.

The hyperbolic ideological quantum ascribed to these poor laborers in small industrial cities is incongruent with the facts on the ground. These interpretations reveal more about the interpreters than they do about the Franco-American workers.

The revealing fallacy of the New York Times and its ilk was to assume that the most strident utterances of a portion of a remote elite were the uncontested views of the population as a whole. They then construed the rationalizations of pipe dreamers as a coherent religio-political agenda.

Simply put, the Francophobe element in the American press got it wrong. There was no plot to annex New England. There were no secret societies meeting on alternate Tuesdays to plan their next, nefarious, anti-American gambit. There were merely the dreams of a faction of extremists who couldn’t agree even amongst one another.

Would that it were the last time that influential elements in the US press made such an error.


  1. Just wondering.... were the children forbidden to speak french in school as they were here in south Louisiana? My family from my mother's side are from french speaking families and were forbidden to speak french in school, having their hands hit with rulers if they did.

    1. Gailmarie, yes this same thing happened in Maine. French schools were outlawed and children were punished, sometimes violently, for speaking even a few words of French, even on the playground. I have spoken to members of an older generation who experienced these things. It is disgusting that any child should experience that. It is up to us to make the history known lest future generations repeat the mistakes of the past.

  2. "The revealing fallacy of the New York Times and its ilk was to assume that the most strident utterances of a portion of a remote elite were the uncontested views of the population as a whole. They then construed the rationalizations of pipe dreamers as a coherent religio-political agenda."

    Replace "New York Times" with "Fox News" and you may well have a description of the current state of political discourse with respect to Islam.