Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Assimilation Is No Accident: 19th c. Yankee Attitudes Toward Franco-Americans

Circa 1890, Father E. Hamon, S.J. conducted interviews, visited communities, compiled lists, and crunched numbers regarding his French-Canadian fellow countrymen in the USA. His research eventually became the 1891 book Les Canadiens-français de la Nouvelle-Angleterre. This volume is among the earliest detailed views of these newcomers to the States.

With respect to his chosen subject, Fr. Hamon declares himself to be “ni un panégyriste ni un détracteur.” The author is true to his word, providing the most balanced contemporary account I have yet read of this period’s Franco-Americans. He spares neither their illusions nor the Yankees’.

The equanimity and sobriety of Fr. Hamon’s work lends credence to his account of the American attitude toward the Canadien émigrés. The following words, which apply perhaps more to the North than the South of the United States, ring as true today as they did more than 120 years ago. Writes Fr. Hamon:

A priest from the United States, observer and philosopher, knowing deeply the American character, depicted it to me something like this:

"The American is a man who, by traditions of family as well as by the fact of his education, does not consider hardly anything but the practical. He attaches a much greater importance to the material prosperity of his country than to religious ideas, to the obligations of conscience, or, in general, to a concern about another life in an invisible world.

Comparing America with the old countries of Europe, he finds America far superior, in the freedom of its institutions, and the ingenious inventions which, every day, increase individual well-being and the public fortune. In his eyes, what of these immigrants who, each year, reach the shores of the great Republic? Obviously [they are] men of inferior race, victims of despotism or misfortune, who come to seek in the States what they lacked in their own home, ease of life (l’aisance) and freedom. He welcomes them with philanthropy, he grants them the benefits of his free institutions, he will Americanize generously.

But to imagine that the domestic virtues of these émigrés, that their religious convictions especially, can produce some effect on the minds of Americans, this is pure chimera. What have they to learn from these poor and ignorant men? What new ideas could Irish, German, or Canadien immigrants bring him, a citizen of the most perfect and most prosperous Republic that ever was?

These migrants are, in his eyes, a material force that will enrich the country and make a fortune for those who will know how to use it. These are arms for work; he will be the head. He will employ these men in his factories and even give them preference over his fellow Americans, because immigrants work cheaper, and it is also easier to exploit them. But in this preference, there is neither sympathy nor special esteem, it is all simply a calculation of interest.” (35-37)*
Father Hamon continues by quoting his own translation into French of an article from the New York Times that supports the views of his acquaintance, the philosophical priest. Followers of this blog will remember that the Times both reported on and editorialized about New England’s French-Canadian influx as an ongoing regional concern with a tone that wavered between condescension and alarm.

Our author’s frank conclusion about Yankee attitudes towards his countrymen views Franco-American cultural survival from a tactical perspective:

Here then are the true feelings of Americans towards the French-Canadians [in the States]. They tolerate them, they do not like them, they see in them an element dangerous for the Republic, and if necessary they would not hesitate to take recourse to legal persecution to suppress or reduce a breed that shows itself resistant to Americanization… The goal [the Franco-Americans] propose is excellent: to keep their language and customs, and at the same time to keep their religion, but it will be better for them to act than to talk. In the United States they have no allies, and for support they cannot currently rely [only] on themselves. Their enemies or opponents are numerous, they have the strength in their hand, [and] it would be folly to provoke them by imprudent and unnecessary statements. (40) 

Hamon’s work reinforces two related theses. First, the French-Canadians who came to the New England states in the migrations of 1870-1930 had no intention of assimilating. The resistance to assimilation was not a mere gesture, a sentimental attachment to a beloved motherland, but based on an ideology called la survivance.

Title Page from E. Hamon's book
By the 1890s, the Canadiens-français had already maintained a separate culture under British rule for a century-and-a-half, the Acadiens for even longer. The Franco-Americans saw no difference between preserving their language and cultural heritage surrounded by Anglophones in Canada and preserving it in a similar environment in the USA.

Second, the Anglo-Americans regarded la survivance as dangerous and a campaign was launched in the press, the pulpit, and occasionally in the legislatures and on the streets, to prevent its realization.

Like a kettle on a slow boil, pressure on the immigrants to conform gradually increased. Beginning in the 1880s and into the early 20th c. there was a campaign to ensure that the Franco-Americans did not constitute a second Québec on the shores of New England. 

These two theses delimit the Franco-American experience in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Those Franco-Americans today who have lost their language, history, and consciousness of themselves as a people did not misplace them like a child who absentmindedly leaves her backpack on the school bus. This loss was no random occurrence, nor was it the result of the failure of individuals, nor was it in obedience to natural law. It was the product of an historical conflict.

Absent the perspective provided by these two theses, we fail to comprehend the choices made by our forebears. We misunderstand our origins and, thereby, ourselves.

*E. Hamon, S.J., Les Canadiens-français de la Nouvelle-Angleterre (Quebec: N.S. Hardy, 1891). Parenthetical page numbers refer to this book. The translations from Hamon’s French are my own.

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  1. Ironically, assimilation increased as New England became more tolerant of Franco-Americans. The hate-filled books of Madison Grant and Calvin Amaron, perhaps,had led to an "us" vs. "them" world view that disappeared, say, after 1940.

    1. You make a very good point. I would say that by 1940 the damage had been done. The Franco-Americans were no longer perceived as a threat and so the more blunt prejudices and the anti-Franco propaganda was simply unnecessary. Once enough F-A people were convinced that French had little future, and accepted the calumny that their heritage language was "not real French" and hence of little value, there was little motivation to pass it on to their kids. Better to do the "practical" thing and make sure they spoke English well. However, I prefer on other days to see the glass as half-full. The extent of the survival of the French language and Franco-American culture in the region is a miracle to me.