Papineau: A Divided Soul

While Papineau was the most articulate and powerful spokesman for his party and his people, his message was a tangled skein of conflicting ideas.

On October 23rd, 1837 some 5000 people gathered at Saint Charles, Lower Canada. They came to hear their inspiring leader Louis-Joseph Papineau. It was a new phenomenon in the young democracy, an angry crowd demanding political change. Papineau’s eloquence and passion made him a symbol of patriotism, especially among the country folk who considered him a “Messiah.”

Papineau was alarmed by the storm he had aroused. He hated the English merchants and politicians in the colony and used the French majority in the Assembly to block their ambitions. It was a policy that generated increasing bitterness. Now the tribune tried to caution against violence. It was no longer what the crowd wanted to hear. The more radical Wolfred Nelson grabbed the stage and cried out that it was time “to melt our spoons into bullets!” The meeting adopted a set of resolutions that were, for all practical purposes, a declaration of independence.

Papineau was neither the first nor the last leader to lose control of what he had set in motion. He was a brilliant, complex man whose own divided nature played a part in the confusion of the times.

The eldest of 8 children, Louis-Joseph Papineau was born in Montreal in 1786. His father Joseph represented Montreal in the Assembly of Lower Canada, where took part in its first debate, demanding recognition of the official use of the French language. An impressionable and sensitive child, Louis-Joseph was the favourite of his puritanical mother. She hoped that he would become a priest but he rebelled and took refuge in books.

Louis-Joseph was called to the bar in 1809 but he got little satisfaction from practicing law. In 1809 he was elected to the Assembly, where he became the natural leader of a group of professionals who called themselves the parti canadien.

Papineau’s strategy was one of systematic and implacable obstruction of Anglo ambitions. It resulted in an atmosphere of contempt and intolerance in the Assembly but it also contributed to a new national feeling among the people, who for the first time began to call themselves “French Canadians.” Papineau was determined to speak for this new national destiny. He reorganized the parti canadien as the parti patriote and openly called for a republic.

Papineau: A Divided Soul

Louis-Joseph Papineau

While Papineau was the most articulate and powerful spokesman for his party and his people, his message was a tangled skein of conflicting ideas. He proclaimed progressive ideas such as responsible government, but his ideal society remained rooted in the feudal seigneurial system. Although an unbeliever, he defended the influence of the Catholic Church.

When the British parliament rebuked the demands of the patriotes, there seemed no turning back, but Papineau himself was torn. He could no longer extricate himself from the movement that he had created, but he was quickly losing control to extremists.

After the meeting at Saint Charles, the government arrested several patriote leaders. Once the fighting started, Papineau briefly joined the rebels and then fled to the United States.

How is such inglorious conduct to be explained? In exile Papineau convinced himself that he was a martyr but many of his own followers called him a coward. He was granted an amnesty and returned to Canada in 1845 and to politics in 1847. With the more conciliatory leadership of Louis Lafontaine he was increasingly isolated. He spent his last years devoted to his books and to his seigneury.

Papineau exerted a unique influence on the French Canadians and awakened them to new ideas of nationalism and liberty. But his inner contradictions brought fear and hesitation when his followers needed him most.

James H. Marsh is editor in chief of The Canadian Encyclopedia. 

First published in the National Post and CanWest newspaper chain, now featured on The Canadian Encyclopedia.

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