France of the Bourbons
The main reason why France was last in the field is to be found
in the failure of her kings and ministers to realize until late in
the day how vast the possibilities of the new continent really were.
In a highly centralized and not over-populated state the authorities
must lead the way in colonial enterprises; the people will not of
their own initiative seek out and follow opportunities to colonize
distant lands. And in France the authorities were not ready to lead.
Sully, who stood supreme among the royal advisers in the closing
years of the sixteenth century, was opposed to colonial ventures
under all circumstances. "Far-off possessions," he declared, "are
not suited to the temperament or to the genius of Frenchmen, who to
my great regret have neither the perseverance nor the foresight
needed for such enterprises, but who ordinarily apply their vigor,
minds, and courage to things which are immediately at hand and
constantly before their eyes." Colonies beyond the seas, he
believed, "would never be anything but a great expense." That,
indeed, was the orthodox notion in circles surrounding the seat of
royal power, and it was a difficult notion to dislodge.
Never until the time of Richelieu was any intimation of the great colonial opportunity, now quickly slipping by, allowed to reach the throne, and then it was only an inkling, making but a slight impression and soon virtually forgotten. Richelieu's great Company of 1627 made a brave start, but it did not hold the Cardinal's interest very long. Mazarin, who succeeded Richelieu, took no interest in the New World; the tortuous problems of European diplomacy appealed far more strongly to his Italian imagination than did the vision of a New France beyond the seas. It was not until Colbert took the reins that official France really displayed an interest in the work of colonization at all proportionate to the nation's power and resources.
Colbert was admirably fitted to become the herald of a greater France. Coming from the ranks of the "bourgeoisie", he was a man of affairs, not a cleric or a courtier as his predecessors in office had been. He had a clear conception of what he wanted and unwearied industry in moving towards the desired end. His devotion to the King was beyond question; he had native ability, patience, sound ideas, and a firm will. Given a fair opportunity, he would have accomplished far more for the glory of the fleur-de-lis in the region of the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes of America. But a thousand problems of home administration were crowded upon him, problems of finance, of industry, of ecclesiastical adjustment, and of social reconstruction. In the first few years of his term as minister he could still find a little time and thought for Canada, and during this short period he personally conducted the correspondence with the colonial officials; but after 1669 all this was turned over to the Minister of Marine, and Colbert himself figured directly in the affairs of the colony no more. The great minister of Louis XIV is remembered far more for his work at home than for his services to New France.
As for the French monarchs of the seventeenth century, Louis XIV was the first and only one to take an active and enduring interest in the great crusade to the northern wilderness. He began his personal reign about 1660 with a genuine display of zeal for the establishment of a colony which would by its rapid growth and prosperity soon crowd the English off the new continent. In the selection of officials to carry out his policy, his judgment, when not subjected to sinister pressure, was excellent, as shown in his choice of Frontenac. Nor did the King's interest in the colony slacken in the face of discouragement. It kept on to the end of his reign, although diminishing somewhat towards the close. It could not well do otherwise than weaken during the European disasters which marked his later years. By the death of Louis XIV in 1715 the colony lost its most unwavering friend. The shrewdest of French historians, De Tocqueville, has somewhere remarked that "the physiognomy of a government may be best judged in the colonies.... When I wish to study the spirit and faults of the administration of Louis XIV," he writes, "I must go to Canada, for its deformity is there seen as through a microscope." That is entirely true. The history of New France in its picturesque alternation of sunshine and shadow, of victory and defeat, of pageant and tragedy, is a chronicle that is Gallic to the core. In the early annals of the northland one can find silhouetted in sharp relief examples of all that was best and all that was worst in the life of Old France. The political framework of the colony, with its strict centralization, the paternal regulation of industry and commerce, the flood of missionary zeal which poured in upon it, the heroism and courage of its priests and voyageurs, the venality of its administrative officials, the anachronism of a feudal land-tenure, the bizarre externals of its social life, the versatility of its people--all these reflected the paternity of New France.
The most striking weakness of French colonial policy in the seventeenth century was its failure to realize how vastly different was the environment of North America from that of Central Europe. Institutions were transplanted bodily, and then amazement was expressed at Versailles because they did not seem to thrive in the new soil. Detailed instructions to officials in New France were framed by men who had not the slightest grasp of the colony's needs or problems. One busybody wrote to the colonial Intendant that a bake-oven should be established in every seigneury and that the "habitants" should be ordered to bring their dough there to be made into bread. The Intendant had to remind him that, in the long cold winters of the St. Lawrence valley, the dough would be frozen stiff if the habitants, with their dwellings so widely scattered, were required to do anything of the kind. Another martinet gravely informed the colonial authorities that, as a protection against Indian attacks "all the seigneuries should be palisaded." And some of the seigneurial estates were eight or ten miles square! The dogmatic way in which the colonial officials were told to do this and that, to encourage one thing and to discourage another, all by superiors who displayed an astounding ignorance of New World conditions, must have been a severe trial to the patience of those hard-working officials who were never without great practical difficulties immediately before their eyes.
A remnant of the feudal system, in France,
land was arranged in long strips, called seigneuries. Each
piece of land belonged to the king of France and was
maintained by the landlord, or seigneur. The seigneur divided
the land further among his tenants, known as censitaires or
habitants, who cleared the land, built houses and other
buildings, and farmed the land. The habitants paid taxes to
the seigneur (the cens et rentes, or "cents and rents"), and
were usually required to work for their seigneur for three
days per year, often building roads (the hated corvée). The
seigneurial system was introduced to New France in 1627 by
Not enough heed was paid, moreover, to the advice of men who were
on the spot. It is true that the recommendations sent home to France
by the Governor and by the Intendant were often contradictory, but
even where the two officials were agreed there was no certainty that
their counsel would be taken. With greater freedom and discretion
the colonial government could have accomplished much more in the way
of developing trade and industry; but for every step the
acquiescence of the home authorities had first to be secured. To
obtain this consent always entailed a great loss of time, and when
the approval arrived the opportunity too often had passed. From
November until May there was absolutely no communication between
Quebec and Paris save that in a great emergency, if France and
England happened to be at peace, a dispatch might be sent by dint of
great hardship to Boston with a precarious chance that it would get
across to the French ambassador in London. Ordinarily the officials
sent their requests for instructions by the home-going vessels from
Quebec in the autumn and received their answers by the ships which
came in the following spring. If any plans were formulated after the
last ship sailed in October, it ordinarily took eighteen months
before the royal approval could be had for putting them into effect.
The routine machinery of paternalism thus ran with exasperating
There was, however, one mitigating feature in the situation. The hand of home authority was rigid and its beckonings were precise; but as a practical matter it could be, and sometimes was, disregarded altogether. Not that the colonial officials ever defied the King or his ministers, or ever failed to profess their intent to follow the royal instructions loyally and to the letter. They had a much safer plan. When the provisions of a royal decree seemed impractical or unwise, it was easy enough to let them stand unenforced. Such decrees were duly registered in the records of the Sovereign Council at Quebec and were then promptly pigeonholed so that no one outside the little circle of officials at the Chateau de St. Louis ever heard of them. In one case a new intendant on coming to the colony unearthed a royal mandate of great importance which had been kept from public knowledge for twenty years.
As early as the 15th century, the French
kings sent commissioners to the provinces to inspect on royal
and administrative affairs and to take necessary action. These
agents of the king were recruited from among the maître des
requêtes, the Conseillers d'État and members of the parlements
or the Cours des comptes. Their mission was always for
specific resaons and lasted for a limited period. Along with
these, there were also ommissioners sent to the army, in
charge of provisioning the army, policing and finances; they
would supervise accountants, providers, merchants, and
generals, and attend war counsels and trials for military
Absolutism, paternalism, and religious solidarity were characteristic of both France and her colonies in the great century of overseas expansion. There was no self-government, no freedom of individual initiative, and very little heresy either at home or abroad. The factors which made France strong in Europe, her unity, her subordination of all other things to the military needs of the nation, her fostering of the sense of nationalism--these appeared prominently in Canada and helped to make the colony strong as well. Historians of New France have been at pains to explain why the colony ultimately succumbed to the combined attacks of New England by land and of Old England by sea. For a full century New France had as its next-door neighbor a group of English colonies whose combined populations outnumbered her own at a ratio of about fifteen to one. The relative numbers and resources of the two areas were about the same, proportionately, as those of the United States and Canada at the present day. The marvel is not that French dominion in America finally came to an end but that it managed to endure so long.
Back to: French Exploration of America