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Louis-Joseph Papineau
Chapter IV - His First Steps in Politics

WHEN the mind of young Papineau first awoke to political ideas, Lower Canada was passing through that violent crisis which our historians, with no slight degree of exaggeration, have designated the reign of terror. Sir James Craig was then governor, and, soldier that he was, administered affairs many military. Under the previous administration of Sir Robert S. Milnes, the intercourse between the French and English population of Quebec and Montreal had been embittered,—a state of things resulting from a discussion which should not have caused, it now seems, such bad blood. The merchants of those cities had suggested altering the mode of taxation by reducing customs duties and levying a tax on property. The proposed change met with a strenuous opposition in the House of Assembly at the hands of Pierre B&lard, who was a prominent figure in the politics of the day, leading, in fact, the French Canadians. He pointed out that a tax on property would not strike the merchants of the cities, by far the wealthiest class, whilst customs duties reached all consumers. His views prevailed, and hence the irritation of the commercial community which their organ, the Quebec Mercury, expressed in a bitter and provoking manner:—"This province is already too French for a British colony. Whether we are at war or in peace, it is essential that we should strive by all means to oppose the increase of the French and of their influence. It is only fair that after a possession of forty-seven years the province should be English." Of course, this expression of opinion was not shared by all those for whom the Mercury pretended to speak. It was, however, under such provocation that Bddard, Panet, Blanchet and others, deemed it advisable to establish a paper with the symbolic name Le Canadien (1806), and bearing the motto, Fiat justitia, ruat ccelum. It was ably edited, and while expressing moderate views, vigorously defended French Canadians against the aspersions of the Mercury.

It was in these troubled times that Sir James Craig set foot in Canada, and suspicious as he was, he very naturally conceived the worst opinion of the king's new subjects. Ryland, his secretary and confidential adviser, the bitter enemy of the Canadians, poisoned his mind in regard to Bddard and his friends, and the governor was only too prone to look upon them as dangerous revolutionists. When, therefore, Le Canadien dared to criticize his policy mildly, he at once ordered the names of Panet, Taschereau and Blanchet to be struck off the militia list, on account of their supposed relations with that paper. When the assembly, following in the footsteps of the House of Commons, decided to disqualify the judges and public officers from sitting in parliament, he took a stand against the popular assembly; and when Le Canadien condemned his attitude in this connection, that paper was suppressed, and Bddard, Taschereau and Blanchet, its supposed contributors, were sent to jail. Not satisfied with these high-handed proceedings, he likened the conduct of Bddard and his friends to treason because they had asked that the province be allowed to defray the expenses of government Still, when both these questions, the exclusion of judges from parliament, and defraying the expenses of civil government, were referred to the colonial office, they were decided in accordance with the views of the assembly. Taschereau and Blanchet were released, but Bédard would not leave the prison until the charge against him had been made public and tried before the court A few months later he was set at liberty, with the understanding that no accusation stood against him.

This was government as it was understood by a governor, in 1810. It was found subsequently that he had not gone the full length of his intentions, for in one of his reports, he advises the English government to deprive the Bishop of Quebec of the appointing of parish priests and to confer that power on the governor; to suspend the constitution of 1791; to make but one province of Upper and Lower Canada, and to confiscate the estates of the Sulpicians.

It was also under the administration of this governor, who was naturally morose, and who was, moreover, suffering the ever increasing pangs of a loathsome disease, that the question of supplies is first heard of. Up to 1818, the British government, as we have just said, provided the funds for the expenses of the administration. In 1810, the assembly petitioned the king asking to be allowed to provide for that expenditure, representing that the prosperity of the province was such as to warrant their undertaking the charge. It is seldom that men, or bodies of men, of their own motion, invite the imposition of such a burden. And hence, Craig finds the petition of the Canadians anomalous and contrary to usage, and makes no secret of the vexation it has caused him, for he had a clear intuition of their intentions. It was impossible, however, to ignore or suppress the petition, and he had to forward it to the king, who intimated to the assembly that its request would be granted.

It was not until eight years later that the House was given the privilege of dealing with the budget, and even then, only in an imperfect and incomplete form. From this half measure grudgingly conceded by the government, sprang the long struggle which was not to end until 1837. The motive which impelled the assembly to claim the right to control the supplies—a right inherent in the English system, was in the first place the desire to possess that right, which naturally belonged to them, and then the determination so to use it as to curb the pride of the officials and to punish them for their insolence towards its members. Being under the pay of the executive, these functionaries availed themselves of their independence to cast aside all courtesy towards the representatives of the people.

This glance at the events of Craig's administration lets us into the secret of the policy of the period and of the years that followed, and gives the key to the political situation in the years intervening between 1800 and 1837. At the head of the state was a governor, responsible for his acts to his English superiors only, supported by an executive council devoted to him, and a legislative council made up of his own friends. Next to these powers stood a House of Assembly elected by the people. In any and every country, the essential condition of the normal working of the governmental machine is the existence of a good understanding between all its several parts. Now this condition was nearly always lacking in Lower Canada. The arbitrary character of the governor and the churlishness of the legislative council, with its eagerness to thwart the action of the assembly, produced in the latter body a degree of irritation and exasperation which betrayed its members into lapses such as calm reflection would have made them avoid.

With a man like Papineau, intelligent, proud, and conscious of his own strength, placed under such circumstances as these and forced to give battle unceasingly against overwhelming odds, there could be but one result. Despite all possible efforts to maintain his self-control, under incessant pressure of unremedied abuses, his sense of irritation must grow daily stronger until at length, losing all idea of moderation, he will reject as insufficient, the offer of concessions which at the outset he would have deemed acceptable. Such was the case of Papineau.

He made his appearance in the assembly in 1812, amid the dclat of his father's renown, and himself already surrounded with the prestige of his precocious success at college. De Gasp£, a fellow student, tells us in his interesting Memoirs that "never within the memory of teacher or student had a voice so eloquent filled the halls of the seminary of Quebec." De Gasp£ adds that it was chiefly in the assembly that he had heard Papineau, and that, strange to say, the eloquence of the tribune of the people had never stirred his feelings in the same degree as that of the youthful student. Papineau did not climb to fame by slow degrees. His ddbut in the assembly was a masterly effort, and at one stroke won him the highest place.

Upon the advent of Sir George Prevost (1811) quiet was for a time restored to the province, for on the eve of the call to arms for the war of 1812, Papineau and his friends felt that intestinal struggles must be set aside. Following in the footsteps of his father, who in 1775 had rendered valuable service to the cause of England in America, Papineau entered the ranks of the militia and served throughout the campaign as captain. We are told that he was an accomplished soldier, as fearless under fire as he proved himself humane and generous after the fight. On one occasion, when escorting at the head of his company a number of American prisoners, he sternly reprimanded his men for taunting their victims by shouting in their ears the strains of "Yankee Doodle." Does not the mere fact that the two Papineaus served under the British flag prove clearly that their opposition was not directed primarily against the principle of loyalty, but against the arbitrary exercise of power and against the tyranny of the governor and his following, leagued together in hostility to the Canadians to prevent them from attaining power and to restrict them in the enjoyment of their rights?

In 1815, Papineau, notwithstanding his youth, was called to the speakership of the House of Assembly in succession to M. Panet. From that date up to 1820—the advent of Lord Dalhousie— we do not find him taking an active part in parliament Confining himself to the discharge of his duties as speaker, he gave up his spare time to the study of history, mastered the spirit of constitutional law, and assimilated a vast store of knowledge from which he was enabled subsequently to draw at will without exhausting the supply when he became the leader of his party and could no longer have recourse to his books. A perusal of what remains to us of his speeches, which abound with reminiscences, traits and allusions to things of the past, will convince the reader of his extended intellectual culture.

While leaving a free field to his friends in the assembly, he gave full vent to his energies outside. No sooner had his advocacy of the cause of the Canadians placed him in conflict with Lord Dalhousie than it became evident to all that his eloquence had already won for him the mastery of the people of his native province, from the highest in rank and birth to the humblest of her citizens. Men of note, such as de St. Ours, Debartzch, Cuthbert, Bishop Plessis and his clergy, eagerly followed in the wake of Papineau and accepted his leadership.

From 1815 to 1820, when in the full maturity of his powers, he still hoped for the removal of the abuses complained of. Nothing could be easier, he thought, if the government would but take the trouble to avail itself to the full of the advantages afforded by the constitution of 1791. For, strange to say, Papineau then looked upon that constitution as a nearly perfect instrument of government. The opinion he then formulated is worth recording. He pronounced it in Montreal, in 1820, in the course of an eloquent address, which we quote from the Quebcc Gazette:—

"Gentlemen:—Not many days have elapsed since we assembled on this spot for the same purpose as that which now calls us together, the choice of representatives. The necessity of that choice being caused by the great national calamity, the decease of that beloved sovereign who had reigned over the inhabitants of this country since the day that they became British subjects, it is impossible not to express the feelings of gratitude for the many benefits received from him, and of sorrow for his loss, so deeply felt in this as in every other portion of his extensive dominions. And how could it be otherwise, when each year of his long reign has been marked by new favours bestowed upon this country? To enumerate these, and detail the history of this colony for so many years, would occupy more time than can be spared by those whom I have the honour to address. Suffice it then at a glance to compare our present happy situation with that of our fathers on the eve of the day when George the Third became their legitimate monarch. Suffice it to point out the fact that under the French government (both internally and externally, arbitrary and oppressive) the interests of this colony had been more frequently neglected and mal-administered than those of any other part of its dependencies.

"In my opinion Canada seems not to have been considered as a country which, from fertility of soil, salubrity of climate, and extent of territory, might have been the peaceful abode of a numerous and happy population; but as a military post, whose feeble garrison was condemned to live in a state of perpetual warfare and insecurity, frequently suffering from famine, without trade—or with a trade monopolized by privileged companies, public and private property often pillaged, and personal liberty daily violated, when year after year the handful of inhabitants settled in this province were dragged from their homes and families, to shed their blood and carry murder and havoc from the shores of the Great Lakes, the Mississippi and the Ohio, to those of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Hudson Bay. Such was the situation of our fathers; behold the change.

"George the Third, a sovereign revered for his moral character, attention to his kingly duties, and love of his subjects, succeeds to Louis the Fifteenth, a prince then deservedly despised for his debauchery, his inattention to the wants of his people, and his lavish profusion of the public monies upon favourites and mistresses. From that day the reign of the law succeeds to that of violence; from that day the treasures, the navy, and the armies of Great Britain are mustered to afford us an invincible protection against external danger; from that day the better part of her laws becomes ours, while our religion, property, and the laws by which they were governed, remain unaltered; soon after are granted to us the principles of its free constitution —an infallible pledge, when acted upon, of our internal prosperity. Now religious toleration; trial by jury (that -wisest of safeguards ever devised for the protection of innocence); security against arbitrary imprisonment by the privileges attached to the writ of habeas corpus; legal and equal security afforded to all, in their person, honour, and property; the right to obey no other laws than those of our own making and choice, expressed through our representatives; all these advantages have become our birthright, and shall, I hope, be the lasting inheritance of our posterity.

"To secure them, let us only act as becomes British subjects and free men. Let us select as representatives men whose private interest is closely connected with that of the community; who, warm friends to the country, will attentively examine its wants and make themselves thoroughly acquainted with its constitution; for those who understand these privileges must value them, and valuing them must be steady friends to whatever may promote the general weal, and inflexible enemies to whatever may endanger it. They will contrive that good laws shall be framed and duly obeyed; they will see that none shall rise above the laws; that none shall ever consider themselves so great, or others so little, as to command an obedience not required by law, or to commit injustice with impunity. They will contrive that the administration of justice shall be pure, inexpensive, prompt, impartial, and honoured by public confidence. They will grant a public revenue proportioned to the means of the country and the wants of the government, distributed with that wise economy which must refuse to solicitation what should be reserved for the recompense of meritorious service; but such as will, at all times, enable the government to avail itself of the abilities of persons qualified to fulfil its duties. They will hold sacred the freedom of the press, that most powerful engine, the best support of every wise political institution, and best exciter and preserver of public spirit. They will multiply schools, well knowing that men are moral, industrious and free in proportion as their minds are enlightened. They will leave agriculture and the mechanic arts as exempt from burthens and unrestricted by regulations and privileges as may be expedient; aware that freedom and competition will generally ensure cheap, abundant and improved productions. In fine, they will know, love, and promote the general good of society."

How can we account for this eulogy of the constitution on the part of Papineau, a eulogy utterly at variance with his subsequent bitter criticisms of that same constitution ? There is this, in the first place, to be said: had the constitution of 1791 been administered by men determined to be guided by its spirit rather than the mere letter, it would have fulfilled the legitimate aspirations of the country. It did not, as we have already stated, provide for ministerial responsibility, but even without that most valuable feature, it was still sufficiently elastic and resourceful to form an excellent instrument of government. The essence of the parliamentary system is the power, vested in the representatives of the people, of voting on the levying of the taxes and of controlling the public expenditure. This in the main was what Papineau and his friends justly demanded. Did he hope after the administration of Prevost, during which the war with the Americans put a stop to all intestinal quarrels, and after the comparatively quiet rule of Sherbrooke and Richmond, a time of truce, as it were, in which a peaceful solution was sought for—did he hope to see their successor, Lord Dalhousie, adopt a policy of conciliation? Considered in the light of this hypothesis, Papineau's pronouncement does not clash so harshly as might be thought with his subsequent declarations. It moreover reflects the highest credit on himself and on his friends, for it goes to show that he was during several years neither an irreconcilable, nor an obstinate adversary of the government. If his mind one day succumbed to exasperation, it was after eight years of hostility persistently carried on against our people by Lord Dalhousie, with the evident design of crushing us; it succumbed during the administration of Lord Aylmer, who was still more aggressive than his predecessor, more determined to curb the House of Assembly, and to indulge in ceaseless provocation with all the aggravating circumstances suggested by his determination to be unfair and arbitrary.

The Lex talionis for which there is no justification in political matters, seemed a perfectly legitimate weapon to a body of men who felt themselves to be persecuted in their aspirations and in their passionate efforts to secure for themselves all the liberties they were entitled to claim as British subjects. Stung to fury by their wrongs, they assumed the name of Patriotes. Their judgment became clouded under the breath of intolerance; they lost the true sense of the situation, and convinced that there was nothing more to be hoped for from the government, which had been so long deaf to their complaints, they one day went to the length of refusing to accept at its hands an ample remedial measure.

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