Chronicles of America 

The Intendants of New France

Though, in the edict establishing the Sovereign Council, no mention was made of an intendant, the decision to send such an official to New France came very shortly thereafter. In 1665 Jean Talon arrived at Quebec bearing a royal commission which gave him wide powers, infringing to some extent on the authority vested in the Sovereign Council two years previously. The phraseology was similar to that used in the commissions of the provincial intendants in France, and so broad was the wording, indeed, that one might well ask what other powers could be left for exercise by any one else. No wonder that the eighteenth-century apostle of frenzied finance, John Law, should have laconically described France as a land "ruled by a king and his thirty intendants, upon whose will alone its welfare and its wants depend." Along with his commission Talon brought to the colony a letter of instructions from the minister which, gave more detailed directions as to what things he was to have in view and what he was to avoid.

In France the office of intendant had long been in existence. Its creation in the first instance has commonly been attributed to Richelieu, but it really antedated the coming of the great cardinal. The intendancy was not a spontaneous creation, but a very old and, in its origin, a humble post which grew in importance with the centralization of power in the King's hands, and which kept step in its development with the gradual extinction of local self-government in the royal domains. The provincial intendant in pre-revolutionary France was master of administration, finance, and justice within his own jurisdiction; he was bound by no rigid statutes; he owed obedience to no local authorities; he was appointed by the King and was responsible to his sovereign alone.

From first to last there were a dozen intendants of New France. Talon, whose ambition and energy did much to set the colony in the saddle, was the first. Francois Bigot, the arch-plunderer of his monarch's funds, who did so much to bring the land to its downfall, was the last. Between them came a line of sensible, earnest, hard-working officials who served their King far better than they served themselves, who gave the best years of their lives to the task of making New France a bright jewel in the Bourbon crown. The colonial intendant was the royal man-of-all-work. The King spoke and the intendant forthwith transformed his words into action. As the King's great interest in New France, coupled with his scant knowledge of its conditions, moved him to speak often, and usually in broad generalities, the intendant's activity was prodigious and his discretion wide. Ordinances and decrees flew from his pen like sparks from a blacksmith's forge. The duty devolved upon him as the overseas apostle of Gallic paternalism to "order everything as seemed just and proper," even when this brought his hand into the very homes of the people, into their daily work or worship or amusements. Nothing that needed setting aright was too inconsequential to have an ordinance devoted to it. As general regulator of work and play, of manners and morals, of things present and things to come, the intendant was the busiest man in the colony.

In addition to the governor, the council, and the intendant, there were many other officials on the civil list. Both the governor and the intendant had their deputies at Montreal and at Three Rivers. There were judges and bailiffs and seneschals and local officers by the score, not to speak of those who held sinecures or received royal pensions. There were garrisons to be maintained at all the frontier posts and church officials to be supported by large sums. No marvel it was that New France could never pay its own way. Every year there was a deficit which, the King had to liquidate by payments from the royal exchequer.

The administration of the colony, moreover, fell far short of even reasonable efficiency. There were far too many officials for the relatively small amount of work to be done, and their respective fields of authority were inadequately defined. Too often the work of these officials lacked even the semblance of harmony, nor did the royal authorities always view this deficiency with regret. A fair amount of working at cross-purposes, provided it did not bring affairs to a complete standstill, was regarded as a necessary system of checks and balances in a colony which lay three thousand miles away. It prevented any chance of a general conspiracy against the home authorities or any wholesale wrong-doing through collusion. It served to make every official a ready tale-bearer in all matters concerning the motives and acts of his colleagues, so that the King might with, reasonable certainty count upon hearing all the sides to every story. That, in fact, was wholly in consonance with Latin traditions of government, and it was characteristically the French way of doing things in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Louis XIV took a great personal interest in New France even to the neglect at times of things which his courtiers deemed to be far more important. The governor and the intendant plied him with their requests, with their grievances, and too often with their prosy tales of petty squabbling. With every ship they sent to Versailles their "memoires", often of intolerable length; and the patient monarch read them all. Marginal notes, made with his own hand, are still upon many of them, and the student who plods his way through the musty bundles of official correspondence in the "Archives Nationales" will find in these marginal comments enough to convince him that, whatever the failings of Louis XIV may have been, indolence was not of them. Then with the next ships the King sent back his budget of orders, counsel, reprimand, and praise. If the colony failed to thrive, it was not because the royal interest in it proved insincere or deficient.

Back to: French Exploration of America