Francis Parkman, “The Old Regime in Canada” (1874)

With The Old Regime in Canada, Parkman finally makes his diagnosis about why French absolutism and aristocracy led to the ruin of the French empire in the New World.  He starts, interestingly enough, with Alexis de Tocqueville.  “The physiognomy of a government can best be judged in its colonies, for there its characteristic traits usually appear larger and more distinct.”  (1067)  So Parkman means to make his criticism of the French Empire a criticism of European absolutism.  Well, as I have already written, it seems to me that Parkman overstates the commitment of the English government to liberty either at home or in the colonies.  Nevertheless, at a time when most historians were content with the chronologically of the doings of kings and elite merchants and religious leaders, Parkman becomes the Thomas Paine of history by boldly rejecting monarchy and hierarchy.

This social history of later 17th century New France is broken up into three parts.  It is also the first to actually study the workings of the French Empire in its core.  The earlier texts either looked to missions, explorers, or the empire’s fragile beginnings.  The first part reveals the problem of bringing feudalism in the New World through the conflicts between various contenders for dominance of Acadia.  This internal struggle between feudal families left them ill-prepared for the challenge of England.  The victorious D’Aunay family expended the last of its wealth and blood on Acadia but left nothing for posterity.

The second part is an extended look at the religious policy of Canada from the decline of the Huron mission.  The Jesuits attempted a mission to the Iroquois at Onondaga and played a role in long conflicts between the Iroquois and the French-Canadian colonies.  Rather than causing unity among the religious leaders of Canada, they were plagued with conflict.  In a sense, the Inquisition had come to Canada to deal with a variety of heresies.  If this was not bad enough, the royalists fought with the Jesuits who hoped for Papal leadership in the New World.  On the leader of the Jesuits in New France, Francois Xavier Laval, the first bishop of Quebec, Parkman writes: “He thought himself above human law.  In vindicating the assumed rights of the church, he invaded the rights of others, and used means from which a healthy conscience would have shrunk.  All his thoughts and sympathies had run from childhood in ecclesiastical channels, and he cared for nothing outside the church.  Prayer, meditation, and asceticism had leavened and moulded him.  . . . He had passed from a life of visions to a life of actions.  Earnest to fanaticism, he saw but one great object, the glory of God on earth.  He was penetrated by the poisonous casuistry of the Jesuits, based on the assumption that all means are permitted when the end is the service of God; and as Laval, in his own opinion, was always doing the service of God, while his opponents were always doing that of the devil, he enjoyed, in the use of means, a latitude of which we have seen him avail himself.” (1222)  In short, Laval introduced religious absolutism to the colony at the same time the King Louis XIV asserted monarchical absolutism on the secular forces of Canada.  Liberty would have little space to thrive between these two forces.

The third part of this book explores the monarchical absolutism of Louis XIV.  He came to rule with a desire to centralize authority, including that of the colonies.  To this end, he ordered expeditions against the Mohawks, established strong mercantilist policies over the Canadian economy, promoted emigration to Cananda, and enforced policies to encourage marriage.  The attempt to impose a French economy on Canada led to scarcity and low population growth.  Absolutism failed to direct the fortunes of a colony so far from home and ruled locally by feudal arrangements.  Any public meetings were smashed or threatened.  torture was used to enforce French laws, trade remained fettered, and the bishop was given a free hand to crush heresies.  The result was social atomization, idleness, the lack of a skilled workforce, slavery, and underdeveloped agriculture.  As Parkman concludes the Canadians were “an ignorant population, sprung from a brave and active race, but trained to subjection and dependence through centuries of feudal and monarchical despotism, was planted in the wilderness by the hand of authority, and told to grow and flourish.  Artificial stimulants were applied, but freedom was withheld.  Perpetual intervention of government, regulations, restrictions, encouragements sometimes more mischievous than restrictions, a constant uncertainty what the authorities would do next, the fate of each man resting less with himself than with another, volition enfeebled, self-reliance paralyzed, — the condition, in short, of a child held always under the rule of a father, in the main well-meaning and kind, sometimes generous, sometimes neglectful, often capricious, and rarely very wise.” (1377)

Parkman ends the book with an interesting dilemma.  This absolutism crippled Canada’s development, he claims, but it was not the only influence.  Existing alongside it was the Indians, the “wilderness,” and the unsettled working people.


These guys look like they know how something about hard work and discipline.

These guys look like they know how something about hard work and discipline.

Parkman provides a richly documented warning against any of those who think that authority, hierarchy, and working 9-5 will create prosperity.  Hierarchy breeds resistance sometimes, but it always creates laziness, a lack of creativity, and subservience.  Whatever we imagine can replace capitalism and its hierarchies of wealth and power should take as one of its values the maximization of individual freedom.  I reckon a historian years from now will look at the drudgery and tyranny of the early 21st century American workplace, the terrorist threat of unemployment, the welfare dole, and the exhaustion of long work days (which leaves too many of us intellectually capable of only watching television at the end of the day) and understand the social causes of the system’s decline.


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