Chronicles of America 

The Sway of Count Frontenac

The ten years following 1663 form a decade of extraordinary progress in the history of New France. The population of the colony had trebled, and now numbered approximately seven thousand; the red peril, thanks to Tracy's energetic work, had been lessened; while the fur trade had grown to large and lucrative proportions. With this increase in population and prosperity, there came a renaissance of enthusiasm for voyages of exploration and for the widening of the colony's frontiers. Glowing reports went home to the King concerning the latent possibilities of the New World. What the colony now needed was a strong and vigorous governor who would not only keep a firm hold upon what had been already achieved, but one who would also push on to greater and more glorious things.

It was in keeping with, this spirit of faith and hope that the King sent to Quebec, in 1672, Louis de Buade, Count Frontenac, naming him governor of all the French domains in North America. Fifty-two years of age when he came to Canada, Frontenac had been a soldier from his youth; he had fought through hard campaigns in Italy, in the Low Countries, and with the Venetians in their defense of Candia against the Turks. In fact, he had but shortly returned from this last service when he was chosen to succeed Courcelle as the royal representative in New France.

To Frontenac's friends the appointment seemed more like a banishment than a promotion. But there were several reasons why the governor should have accepted gladly. He had inherited only a modest fortune, and most of this had been spent, for thrift was not one of Frontenac's virtues. His domestic life had not been happy, and there were no strong personal ties binding him to life in France. (Saint-Simon, in his "Memoires", prints the current Parisian gossip that Frontenac was sent to New France to shield him from the imperious temper of his wife and to afford him a means of livelihood.) Moreover, the post of governor in the colony was not to be judged by what it had been in the days of D'Avaugour or De Mezy. The reports sent home by Talon had stirred the national ambitions. "I am no courtier," this intendant had written, "and it is not to please the King or without reason that I say this portion of the French monarchy is going to become something great. What I now see enables me to make such a prediction." And indeed the figures of growth in population, of acreage cleared, and of industries rising into existence seemed to justify the intendant's optimism. Both the King and his ministers were building high hopes on Canada, as their choice of Frontenac proves, and in their selection of a man to carry out their plans they showed, on the whole, good judgment. Frontenac proved to be the ablest and most commanding of all the officials who served the Bourbon monarchy in the New World. In the long line of governors he approached most nearly to what a Viceroy ought to be.

It is true that in New France there were conditions which no amount of experience in the Old World could train a man to handle. Nor was Frontenac particularly fitted by training or temperament for all of the duties which his new post involved. In some things he was well-endowed; he had great physical endurance, a strong will, with no end of courage, and industry to spare. These were qualities of the highest value in a land encircled by enemies and forced to depend for existence upon the strength of its own people. But more serviceable still was his ability in adapting himself to a new environment. Men past fifty do not often show this quality in marked degree, but Frontenac fitted himself to the novelty of colonial life exceedingly well. In his relations with, the Indians he showed amazing skill. No other colonial governor, English, French, or Dutch, ever commanded so readily the respect and admiration of the red man. But in his dealings with the intendant and the bishop, with the clergy, and with all those among the French of New France who showed any disposition to disagree with him, Frontenac displayed an uncontrollable temper, an arrogance of spirit, and a degree of personal vanity which would not have made for cordial relations in any field of human effort. He had formed his own opinions and was quite ready to ride rough-shod over those of other men. It was this impetuosity that served to make the official circles of the colony, during many months of his term, a "little hell of discord."

But when the new viceroy arrived at Quebec he was in high fettle; he was pleased with the situation of the town and flattered by the enthusiastic greeting which he received from its people. His first step was to familiarize himself with the existing machinery of colonial government, which he found to be far from his liking. He proceeded, accordingly, in his own imperious way, to make some startling changes. For one thing, he decided to summon a representative assembly made up of the clergy, the seigneurs, and the common folk of New France. This body he brought together for his inauguration in October, 1672. No such assembly had ever been convened before, and nothing like it was ever allowed to assemble again. Before another year had passed, the minister sent Frontenac a polite reprimand with the intimation that the King could not permit in the colony an institution he was doing his best, and with entire success, to crush out at home. The same fate awaited the governor's other project, the establishment of a municipal government in the town of Quebec. Within a few months of his arrival, Frontenac had allowed the people of the town to elect a syndic and two aldermen, but the minister vetoed this action with the admonition that "you should very rarely, or, to speak more correctly, never, give a corporate voice to the inhabitants, for ... it is well that each should speak for himself, and no one for all." In the reorganization of colonial administration, therefore, the governor found himself promptly called to a halt. He therefore turned to another field where he was much more successful in having his own way.

From the day of his arrival at Quebec the governor saw the pressing need of extending French, influence and control into the regions bordering upon the Great Lakes. To dissipate the colony's efforts in westward expansion, however, was exactly what he had been instructed not to do. The King and his ministers were sure that it would be far wiser to devote all available energies and funds to developing the settled portions of the land. They desired the governor to carry on the policy of encouraging agriculture which Talon had begun, thus solidifying the colony and making its borders less difficult to defend. Frontenac's instructions on this point could hardly have been more explicit. "His Majesty considers it more consistent with the good of his service," wrote Colbert, "that you apply yourself to clearing and settling the most fertile places that are nearest the seacoast and the communication with France than to think afar of explorations in the interior of the country, so distant that they can never be inhabited by Frenchmen." This was discouraging counsel, showing neither breadth of vision nor familiarity with the urgent needs of the colony. Frontenac courageously set these instructions aside, and in doing so he was wise. Had he held to the letter of his instructions, New France would never have been more than a strip of territory fringing the Lower St. Lawrence. More than any other Frenchman he helped to plan the great empire of the West.

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