Letter from Louis-Joseph Papineau to George Bancroft - December 18, 1837

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To George Bancroft, Esquire

Very private and Confidential

Albany, December 18, 1837

My Dear Sir,

George Bancroft, American historian and statesman

The sincere attachment that you and me have for these principles of pure democracy which, for the happiness of humanity, triumphed and are in full and effective operation in the United States, embolden me to ask you to deploy all the means which are within your reach to have them also prevail in the two Canadas. When I had the honour to see you, only a few months ago in Montreal, I was far from foreseeing that in such a near future my fellow-citizens in great number and myself would be the objects, almost the victims of as violent and unjust a persecution, from the immoral English government, as that which we now experience. Appearances are against us. They expose us to public censure. We seem to be a troop of gloomy and imprudent conspirators, of fugitives already dispersed and punished, who have plotted against a government too powerful to ever have anything to fear from our efforts. Appearances are false and misleading.

Trickery and violence combined, the policy of 1798 against Ireland of prematurely pushing the people to a resistance in which it were to succumb, have surprised and temporarily caught political antagonists, who are destined to an unquestionable destruction or a long exile, if they do not overthrow their oppressors' unjust domination over their unhappy country.

I will expose you the simple truth. Since the first of May, there have been in all the extent of Canada frequent and numerous popular meetings to denounce the oppressive measures adopted by the British ministry.1 At the first of these meetings, a plan of legal resistance and constitutional disorganization of the current administration of Canada had been adopted. It was to pay colonial officers that the Imperial Parliament invaded our revenue. Our plans to repel this violation of the most established our rights, if we had any that principles could protect from an usurpation brutally based on strength, were to cut the source of this revenue, without violating the law directly. For that purpose, we gave the example and formed associations which promised to cease the consumption of wines, spirits, teas, sugars and tobaccos, which are the imported products most strongly taxed; to favour the conservation and augmentation of wool animals by renouncing the use of lamb meat and by dressing ourselves with fabrics made in Canada, or imported from the United States, without having stopped at our customs; and finally to constitute an elective legal organization distinct and separate from that which was given by vicious institutions viciously administered, and for this purpose to recommend the people to choose in each parish, in the course of the current month of December, conciliators, before whom, by way of arbitration, patriots would bring their complaints, vowing on their honour to no longer bring them at great cost before ordinary courts. These recommendations were universally welcomed by the people. Influential men were rejecting in crowds the commissions which they had previously received from the governors and were ready to exert the new voluntary jurisdiction that the election and the confidence of their fellow-citizens were going to confer to them. The revenue was vanishing; the government was deeply irritated, but it did not have the means of prevailing against those who advised these measures, which do not have any character of illegality, but ravished a badly constituted government of any moral influence, and without any jolt prepared its fall. No longer being able to defend their malversations by restraining themselves to the legal exercise of their attributions, the men in power did not hesitate to cross these limits.

The last county meeting took place at Saint-Charles on October 23. It was neither more nor less reprehensible than so many others ones openly convened by all parties during six months in all parts of the province. A trivial circumstance, a fortuitous accident and in itself of no importance, provided the government a pretext to abandon itself to its unrestrained thirst for arbitrary domination, to its desires of revenge. The citizens who had convened this meeting had invited me to assist, I had agreed. Some of them, I do not know who, the government know it even less, decided to raise a column with the too complimentary inscription of "To Papineau, his grateful fellow-citizens". This column was surmounted by a mast wearing a cap. Some papers said it was a tree of liberty. The legal advisers of the crown, three weeks later, after a serious and matured deliberation, decided that finally the patriots had compromised and lost themselves; that speeches and resolutions, though blameable, would not have been enough to have them condemned, but that this tree of liberty was a overt act of treason, a fact indicative of their determination to emancipate. This conclusion was so inept and illogical that in any other country it would be proper to scorn it and undergo an unjust trial. In Canada, it is not so. There the judicial power is so mercenary, servile, corrupted or partisan, in all cases of political trial, that the adoption of such an insane opinion places those who had avowed it in the need to have it confirmed by the verdict of juries and the sentence of judges, and they are in the capacity to always have such verdict by juries and such sentences that seem good to them. They do not have any law to regulate the qualifications and summation of juries. No constituted authority giving the lists to the sheriff. In the secrecy of his office, he makes his list; he includes who he wants, excludes who he wants. He is without any monitoring and has no contradictor. He is appointed by the governor, by a revocable commission ad nutum which usually puts him for life in possession of an office which would be reasonably paid by wages from one thousand to twelve hundred piastres, but which grants him fourteen to fifteen thousand per annum. Would you like under such circumstances to undergo a trial in Canada if the officers of the crown had declared that some of your remarks had the smell of high treason?

In their opinion, all that had been said and done at Saint-Charles had this bad smell. The secrecy of this infamous opinion perspired a few hours before all those who had played an outstanding role during the meeting were arrested. The officers of meeting, presidents, vice-presidents, secretaries, movers of proposals and their seconders, resided for the majority in the villages neighbouring Saint-Denis, Saint-Charles and Saint-Marc. Six thousand voters and more had taken part to it, without suspecting that they had been so guilty. When they learned that their leaders were to be captured for this alleged offence, they went in crowd to their residences to tell them: "We are all together equally at fault or excusable, we do not want that you be captured." An initial reflection lead us to believe that these arrests would initially be attempted by the civil power. And it was only one day or two before the event that one started to conjecture that the military would be employed for the expeditions. There was not enough time at our disposal for the preparation of a resistance proportionate to the means of aggression. Navigation remained opened twenty days longer than last years. This disastrous accident made it possible for the government to throw numerous bodies of troops on the banks of the Richelieu all at once using steamboats. Eight hundred well-armed men were employed for this service, for the apprehension, will it say, of a dozen individuals. No, the government wanted to begin the civil war to strike of terror, in the long run, a people that impatiently support the degradation which is inseparably attached to the colonial regime, such as England understands it and exploits it, a people which aspires to share the happy fate that was given to you by English insolence, the courageous virtues, the patriotic sacrifices of the wise men and the heroes of 1776 and a little help from abroad.2 We are in the situation, in the dangers which then besieged your ancestors. Soon we will leave this situation and, if you help us, share your prosperous fate, and of it we are worthy, by the extent of the evils we suffered and left to suffer if we succumb; by the sincerity with which we love your doctrines and your institutions; by the advantage which you will find in a political union and trade relations with this part of the continent, which is so close to you and so far from England; by the need where you are, for your and our future peace, to disencumber yourself of the vicinity of a European power enemy of your institutions, jealous of the increasing prosperity that they guarantee you and which in your days of tests and embarrassment will poke your dissensions and will firmly believe to base her prosperity on your misfortunes. The American society is moulded differently than that of Europe. By all the natural laws, we are detached from Europe and attached to the United States, and our unanimous wishes call this union. We are a great number of Canadians that sudden violences from the government moved away from their native land, and have taken refuge in your hospital homes. Our dispersion, far from discouraging us, makes us understand that we are stronger and how much the English domination is weak and more precarious than we thought. We received from such a great number of Americans, in all classes, all parties, so much of such sharp and generous evidence of their sympathies toward the Canadian patriots that we are persuaded that a comparatively light assistance, to provide our compatriots with the weapons of which they would make a good use, would put them in short time in a position to give themselves a civil and military organization that would allow the establishment and defence of a constitution as free and purely democratic as those which govern your twenty-six Sovereign States, those which make the glory and the happiness of your fifteen million inhabitants, the freest there are in the world; and which scare the monarchies, aristocracies and military despotisms of the old world. We must carry out the purchase of ten thousand muskets, twenty pieces of artillery, ammunition and enough to pay the food of the volunteers who will make use of these during four months, so that our chances of success be almost infallible. If we do not obtain this help, you will have Poland and its horrors at your doors. One hundred thousand piastres are to be found within the Union; but they are more difficult to find today than millions when we will have started to organize a provisional government; opened loan offices, as well as offices for the sale of vacant land, rich guarantees of allowance for the lenders.

Louis-Joseph Papineau, Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada (1815-1837)

I am here in a place where I am in relation with patriots of Upper and Lower Canada and from which place I cannot leave for this reason. Without this obstacle, I would immediately come to see you instead of writing you and better explain you in one hour of conversation the true situation of our dear country than I ever could with the longest letters; I pray you to take interest in us and help us find, in Boston or anywhere else you have friends, the largest loan which you will be able to secure in instalment of these one hundred thousand piastres. Brave men and also experienced men are with us and us to them if we have this help. I am not a visionary. Many of your compatriots amongst the most enlightened, the best thinkers, the highest in rank and in influence, see like I do. It is in common with them that I request of you, with joined hands, that you support this enterprise. It is of a priceless value to my country, and yet I do not want its success at the expense of its happiness. I am so attached to republicanism such as it was understood and taught by Thomas Jefferson and his school, of which I believe Martin Van Buren is one of worthiest followers, that I think that one cannot use too much art and care in the conduct of this business so that the powerful party which is unfortunately opposed to you remain unaware that in these first moments, some of the close friends of your excellent president share and support these feelings and these actions. Party spirit would like to make him responsible for measures all taken without his knowledge of them. The cause of freedom and justice would suffer from it in this country as well as in ours. A friend must leave, I am assured, from this city, at the same time as this letter to meet you and give you information that letters can never fully embrace, and to say to you what will be the efforts which are being done simultaneously here and in New York to negotiate donations and loans. How ardently I wish I be able to travel to meet you and consult you, instead of sending this letter! Should I lose any hope to have this interview with you? Will you go to Boston? If in a few days you are at home and I not in Canada, perhaps I will land on your premise like a bomb. If we do not obtain the help we wish for, if new unexpected disasters took away our hope to help the cause of Canada from this side of the ocean, it would perhaps be useful for me or some other refugee, to pass to Europe to be in frequent contact with Hume, O'Connell, Roebuck, etc., and other friends who would seek to slow down the flood of evils that aristocratic pride and ministerial revenges prepare us. You know the two worlds; the precautions which would have to be taken to arrive on the continent and once there remain sheltered from official persecutions. You would be a sure guide whose opinions would be essential to me if this party had to be taken. Counting on your benevolent sympathy, awaiting an encouraging answer from you, and wishing you all possible health and happiness, I remain with a sincere consideration and esteem your obedient and affectionate servant.

L.J. Papineau

Editor's Notes

1. See John Russell's Ten Resolutions.

2. Papineau here wishes to make a parallel between the events that lead to the 1776 declaration of independence by the United States and the support of France with the independence of Lower Canada and the support of the USA.

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