By Bill Chaisson
Over the last year of working 60 to 80 hours per week, I have developed an odd habit. Ordinarily I read books cover to cover, sometimes a couple at a time. But increasingly I have not had the time or energy to even finish books, so I have begun randomly taking down books from my shelves and starting to read them. Sometimes I just read a prologue or an introduction. Sometimes I get as far as the first chapter. Sometimes I dip into the middle somewhere to read a particular short story or to look at a topic that interests me. Inevitably though, I abandon the book and it sits in a pile at my bedside table or goes back on the shelf.
But a couple of days ago I picked up “Canada: A Story of Challenge” by J.M.S. Careless. It was originally published in 1953 and then a second edition was brought out in 1963, and the paperback I have was issued in 1970. Which is to say, this is a very old-fashioned history of Canada. The tribal people are referred to as “Indians” and “savages” without apology and all the pioneers and settlers are quite heroic. If you put aside all that white-washing though, Careless is an engaging writer and sweeps you along very quickly through a lot of issues.
A theme that dominates the early chapters is the structure of New France, which he reliably and repeatedly compares to the British possessions to the south. From the 16th century, when North America was first explored and settled, to the late 18th century, when the revolution came, France was a monarchy, often an absolute one.
Consequently, their colonies had extremely top-down governance. All of New France was ruled from Quebec City by what was essentially a triumvirate appointed by the French crown. It consisted of a governor, a bishop, and an “intendant.” The governor was in charge of foreign relations (i.e. military and diplomatic actions against the British and the tribal peoples) and ceremonial stuff that means nothing to the modern person; the bishop was in charge of the religious life of the colonists and only Catholicism was allowed. Furthermore, the bishop reported directly to Rome, not the French cardinals. The intendant took care of the day-to-day administration of New France.
The people were divided into three camps: the trappers, who spent nearly all their time on the frontier and often married into the tribes; the seigneurs, who owned all the land, having been granted their parcels by the Crown; and the tenant farmers, who paid rent in cash and in kind (e.g. crops, service) to the seigneur. There was only a tiny artisan or merchant class, as nearly all the income of New France was derived from the fur trade (controlled by the Crown) and most manufactured goods came from France. Plus, in 1760, when New France fell to the British, there were only 60,000 colonists living there.
But what really struck me about this narrative (and has kept me reading for a lot longer than any other book I’ve picked up in months) is Careless’ comparison to the English colonies. England had a parliament that was elected, and popularly elected bodies of various kinds were set up in each of the colonies. Two crucial differences from New France: no central authority in the New World, and popularly elected officials with actual power. There were colonial governors, usually appointed by the British Parliament, but popularly elected in Connecticut and Rhode Island. And there was an endless power struggle between the colonial legislatures and representatives of the Crown, which were representatives of the Crown mostly in name because England (or Great Britain after 1707 union with Scotland) was a constitutional monarchy.
The economies of the English colonies were much more diverse. Yes, they engaged in the fur trade, particularly in New York and Pennsylvania (John Jacob Astor made his fortune in fur), but the South grew crops for export and New England had a shipbuilding industry, and there were artisan craftsmen throughout. While there were large landowners in the South and New York (a Dutch legacy), most of the colonial farmers owned their own land. The franchise (right to vote) was even more broadly available than in England.
All of this reminded me of a button that I wore when I was a student abroad in Denmark in 1981. It read: “Question authority,” which I thought of as a code that needed to be expressed in the early Reagan era. My European peers reacted with surprising enthusiasm to this button and its sentiment. The entire continent of Europe, not just France, has historically valued obedience to authority over individual rights. The primacy of individualism is an English legacy. I’ve got another whole book about how it evolved; suffice to say that it has to do with the history of property ownership in England. Ownership of small holdings has been widespread in England since the Middle Ages. Not so on the Continent. Hence John Locke’s linkage of property with rights. The Founders loved John Locke.
We have had strong leaders in the United States. Some overreached and tried to act like Continental-style leaders. John Adams pushed through the Alien and Sedition Acts and was not re-elected. Abraham Lincoln invoked wartime powers and was opposed bitterly by his Senate. Franklin Roosevelt tried to pack the Supreme Court and failed. Nixon got caught spying on his political opponents and was forced to resign. Our system, built in the English mold, is designed to question authority and take it down a notch, if need be. Col. John Stark’s words, the very motto of this state, were an admonition to question authority.
We have inherited the political infrastructure to oppose leadership that is overreaching and we should use it. Hysterically shouting “You’re oppressing me. You’re oppressing me” as people on both the left and right are prone to doing these days, shows a distinct lack of faith in the system our Founders created for us. We are not colonists of New France, culturally trained to be obedient to centralized authority. Careless is beginning to make a case (I’m only on page 120) that the docility of Canadians compared to Americans is a legacy of the original New France social order.
But in order to assert our individual rights, we have to know them and know how to assert them. People who, without participating in the process of governance, scream that their government is running roughshod over their rights are not living up to the Anglo-American legacy. Compared to other citizens, we have an enormous amount of clout. By simply refusing to have anything to do with governance, all too often not even bothering to vote, people are giving up political capital that many have died for. Freedom means shouldering civic responsibility, not being free to shrug it off.
Bill Chaisson is the editor of the Eagle Times.