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Louis-Joseph Papineau
Chapter I - The Early Years of Papineau


THE reader will perhaps find it somewhat odd to see united under the same cover, the biographies of Papineau and Cartier, men whose careers were so different and whose temperaments had so few points in common; men, who for a moment, it is true, fought under the same flag, but were afterwards divided forever.

The name of Papineau recalls the tribune who, from 1820 to 1837, is the personification of a whole people; who defends their most sacred rights; the melodious speaker who fascinates and overpowers the multitudes with his sonorous sentences, his ample gestures and his commanding appearance—the true sovereign, indeed, of his province of Quebec. Whilst the influence of Lord Dalhousie and of Lord Aylmer does not extend beyond the walls of Quebec and Montreal, Papineau's voice reaches the most remote hamlet of the province. He is the star around which, for twenty years, all the notabilities of French Canadian blood gather, until he disappears in a political storm.

As a living contrast, Cartier represents the man of action, all absorbed in his work, though wanting in those bewitching gifts which captivate the crowd, and attract men as with an irresistible magnetism. His words point directly to the object he has in view, and he never tries to win his audience with rhetorical devices. The first is a speculative personality wedded to theories of his own; the other believes only in what he can handle and put in tangible form. Wisdom and caution take hold more and more of the practical man, when called upon to assume the responsibilities of power, and cause him to weigh beforehand the consequences of his policy. Theories, on the contrary, do not bind firmly to any particular line of conduct, but they too often tend to overexcite the mind of their originators. The work accomplished by Cartier who hated everything that was not positive, is considerable; it is to be found in our statutes and it has left its imprint on our institutions, while Papineau is looked upon by many as a mere agitator, a verbose tribune, a violent critic of his opponents, having left after him nothing but the hollow renown of a great popular orator.

Nevertheless, his name still shines resplendent, a star of the very highest rank in the constellation of our Canadian celebrities ; he is still a legendary god, shrouded in a somewhat mysterious halo of glory; the people admire him without having understood him, as if they were hypnotized by the renown of his eloquence which has encircled his memory for over fifty years. For the educated as well as for the masses of our people he is still the prototype of eloquence and the recognized standard employed in the appreciation of the oratorical powers of the modern speaker. The term "He is a Papineau," constitutes the highest praise which can be conferred in our days on a master of the art of speaking.

If his name is not connected with any radical reform, circumstances rather than his own deficiencies must account for it. Is it not a rather summary proceeding to stamp him as an unpractical statesman of merely negative talent, when it is manifest that opportunity never was furnished him to display his usefulness? As a minister of the Crown, Papineau might have been a very different man from the tribune. Having missed that opportunity, he was left without a chance of displaying the positive qualities of his intelligence. If we admit that the troubles of 1837 hastened the dawn of liberty, then Papineau must be given a large share of credit for its appearance.

Papineau, like most Canadians who have achieved a glorious career, came from the ranks of the people, his ancestors being ordinary craftsmen. As the poet says:—

"Arbre ou peuple, toujours la force vient d'en bas.

"La seve monte et ne descend pas."

"As for the tree, so for the nation, strength ever comes from below. The sap ascends never to return."

Both our hero and his father were self-made men, with no high-sounding pedigree. But what does it matter? As Dumas, the younger, said: "When a man is the son of his own industry, he can claim to be of a very good family."

His father, Joseph Papineau, broke the tradition of the family and became a notary by profession. He was one of the recognized celebrities of his day, and when England granted us the constitution of 1791, the electors of Montreal honoured him with the important charge of representing them in the legislative assembly, where we find him at the very first session of parliament, in 1792, fighting energetically for the maintenance of the French language, the use of which in the House of Assembly was seriously attacked by the English minority. Bedard and Joseph Papineau stand foremost in the ranks of the members at that time. Garneau, the historian, has left us a portrait of the latter:

"The two athletes about, to catch the eye, as foremost in the parliamentary arena, will be Pierre Bedard and Joseph Papineau, whom tradition represents to us as patriots endowed with uncommon oratorical powers. Both were the firmest defenders of our country's rights, yet the most faithful and disinterested advocates of English supremacy; for the royal cause the latter showed himself most zealous during the period of the American revolution. Both sprang from the people; they had received a classical education in the college of Quebec. Mr. Papineau soon became the most notable orator of the two Houses. Majestic of stature, imposing in mien, having a strong and sonorous voice, gifted with vehement eloquence and great argumentive powers, he could not but exercise a commanding influence in public meetings. To the latest day of his life, his patriotism was of the purest, and he enjoyed the confidence of his fellow-citizens, who were proud to show a special respect for the grand old man whose erect figure and venerable head, adorned with long silvery hair, still retained the impress of the energy of his youth."

It will not be out of place to mention here the fact that during the American invasion of 1775-6, Papineau, the elder, contributed his share to the defence of the country. He performed the remarkable feat, in company with Mr. Lamothe, of carrying despatches to Governor Carleton from Montreal to Quebec, when the country on both sides of the St. Lawrence was swarming with bands of Americans. The two young militiamen with their despatches concealed in hollow walking-sticks, travelled by night, secreting themselves during daylight in barns or farm-houses, their trip occupying ten days. Papineau, the younger, also rendered good service in 1812 to the British Crown; and the conduct of these two noted Canadians goes a long way to show that their opposition, later on, was directed, not against the Crown but only against colonial misrule.

In 1804 Joseph Papineau became the owner of the seigniory of La Petite Nation, on the north shore of the Ottawa river; there he laid the foundation of a settlement and built a home for himself, on File a Roussin, opposite to what is now the village of Montebello. It was then an unknown spot lost in the forest, which could be reached only by using the mode of travelling employed by the North West voyageurs.

Louis-Joseph Papineau having inherited the seigniory, built on the mainland the splendid manor of Montebello, until his recent death occupied by his son, M. Amedde Papineau.

Louis-Joseph was born in 1786; he followed a course of studies in the Quebec seminary, became an advocate, and was elected in 1812, a member of the House of Assembly, where he made his ddbut in the presence of his father, then at the height of his prestige and enjoying the esteem of his countrymen. The latter had prepared for his son a heritage heavy to carry, but with his brilliant gifts and his eloquence, the son was worthy of his sire and added still greater lustre to the already celebrated name. Papineau, the elder, lived until 1841; long enough to witness his son's short but dazzling public career during which he truly reigned over his native province—long enough also to mourn his defeat, in the midst of a crisis which seemed, at the time, the final downfall of the cause for which both had so sternly fought.


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