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The Twilight of Feudalism

When the fleurs-de-lis of the Bourbons fluttered down from the ramparts of Quebec on September 18, 1759, a new era in the history of Canadian feudalism began. The new British government promptly allayed the fears of the conquered people by promising that all vested rights should be respected and that 'the lords of manors' should continue in possession of all their ancient privileges. This meant that they intended to recognize and retain the entire fabric of seigneurial tenure.

Now this step has been commonly regarded as a cardinal error on the part of the new suzerains, and on the whole the critics of British policy have had the testimony of succeeding events on their side. By 1760 the seigneurial system had fully performed for the colony all the good service it was ever likely to perform. It could easily have been abolished then and there. Had that action been taken, a great many subsequent troubles would have been avoided. But in their desire to be generous the English authorities failed to do what was prudent, and the seigneurial system remained.

Many of the seigneurs, when Canada passed under British control, sold their seigneuries and went home to France. How great this hegira was can scarcely be estimated with exactness, but it is certain that the emigres included all the military and most of the civil officials, together with a great many merchants, traders, and landowners. The colony lost those who could best afford to go; in other words, those whom it could least afford to let go. The priests, true to their traditions, stood by the colony in its hours of trial. But whatever the extent and character of the out-going, it is true that many seigneuries changed hands during the years 1763-64. Englishmen bought these lands at very low figures. Between them and the habitants there were no bonds of race, religion, language, or social sympathy. The new English seigneur looked upon his estate as an investment, and proceeded to deal with the habitants as though they were his tenantry. All this gave the seigneurial system a rude shock.

There was still another feature which caused the system to work much less smoothly after 1760 than before. The English did not retain the office of intendant. Their frame of government had no place for such an official. Yet the intendant had been the balance-wheel of the whole feudal machine in the days before the conquest. He it was who kept the seigneurial system from developing abuses; it was his praetorian power 'to order all things as may seem just and proper' that kept the seigneur's exactions within rigid bounds. The administration of New France was a government of men; that of the new regime was a government of laws. Hence it was that the British officials, although altogether well-intentioned, allowed grave wrongs to arise.

The new English judges, not unnaturally, misunderstood the seigneurial system. They stumbled readily into the error that tenure en censive was simply the old English tenure in copyhold under another name. Now the English copyholder held his land subject to the customs of the manor; his dues and services were fixed by local custom both as regards their nature and amount. What more easy, then, than to seek the local custom in Canada, and apply its rules to the decision of all controversies respecting seigneurial claims?

Unfortunately for this simple solution, there was a great and fundamental difference between these two tenures. The Canadian censitaire had a written title-deed which stated explicitly the dues and services he was bound to give his seigneur; the copyholder had nothing of the kind. The habitant, moreover, had various rights guaranteed to him by royal decrees. No custom of the manor or seigneury could prevail against written contracts and statute-law. But the judges do not seem to have grasped this distinction; when cases involving disputed obligations came before them they called in notaries to establish what the local customs were, and rendered judgment accordingly. This gave the seigneur a great advantage, for the notaries usually took their side. Moreover, the new judicial system was more expensive than the old, so that when a seigneur chose to take his claims into court the habitants often let him have judgment by default rather than incur heavy costs.

During the twenty years following the conquest the externals of the seigneurial system remained unaltered; but its spirit underwent a great change. This was amply shown during the American War of Independence, when the province was invaded by the Arnold-Montgomery expeditions. In all the years that the colony had been under French dominion a single word from any seigneur was enough to summon every one of his able-bodied habitants to arms. But now, only a dozen years after the English had assumed control, the answer made by the habitant to such appeals was of a very different nature. The authorities at Quebec, having only a small body of regular troops available for the defense of Canada against the invaders, called on the seigneurs to rally the old feudal array. The proclamation was issued on June 9, 1775. Most seigneurs responded promptly and called their habitants to armed service. But the latter, for the most part, refused to come. The seigneurs threatened that their lands would be confiscated; but even this did not move the habitants to comply. A writer of the time narrates what happened in one of the seigneuries, and it is doubtless typical of what took place in others. 'M. Deschambaud went over to his seigneury on the Richelieu,' he tells us, 'and summoned his tenants to arms; they listened patiently to what he had to say, and then peremptorily refused to accede to his demands. At this the seigneur was foolish enough to draw his sword; whereupon the habitants gave both him and a few friends who accompanied him a severe thrashing, and sent them off vowing vengeance. Fearing retaliation, the habitants armed themselves, and to the number of several hundred prepared to attack any regular forces which might be sent against them. Through the discretion of Governor Carleton, however, who hastened to send one of his officers to disavow the action of the seigneur, and to promise the habitants that if they returned quietly to their homes they would not be molested, they were persuaded to disperse.'1

As the eighteenth century drew to a close it became evident that the people were getting restive under the restraints which the seigneurial system imposed. Lands had risen in value so that the lods et ventes now amounted to a considerable payment when lands changed owners. With the growth of population the banal right became very valuable to the seigneurs and an equally great inconvenience to the habitants. Many seigneurs made no attempt to provide adequate milling facilities. They gave the habitants a choice between bringing their grain to the half-broken-down windmill of the seigneury or paying the seigneur a money fine for his permission to take their grist elsewhere. New seigneurial demands, unheard of in earlier days, were often put forth and enforced.

The grievances of the habitants were not mitigated, moreover, by the way in which the authorities of the province gave lands to the United Empire Loyalists. These exiles from the revolted seaboard colonies came by thousands during the years following the war, and they were given generous grants of land. And these lands were not made subject to any seigneurial dues. They were given in freehold, in free and common socage. The new owners of these lands paid no annual dues and rendered no regular services to any superior authority. Their tenure seemed to the habitants to be very attractive. Hence the influx of the Loyalists gave strength to a movement for the abolition of seigneurial tenure--a movement which may be said to have had its first real beginning about 1790.

It was in that year that the solicitor-general of the province, in response to a request of the legislative council, presented a long report on the land-tenure situation. The council, after due consideration of this report and other data submitted to it, passed a series of resolutions declaring that the seigneurial system was retarding the agricultural progress of the province and that, while its immediate abolition was not practicable, steps should be taken to get rid of it gradually. But nothing came of these resolutions. The Constitutional Act of 1791 greatly complicated the situation by its provisions relating to the so-termed 'clergy reserves,' or reservations of lands for Church endowment, and it was not until 1825 that the Canada Trade and Tenures Act opened the way for a commutation of tenures whenever the seigneur and his habitants could agree. This act was permissive only. It did not apply any compulsion to the seigneurs. Very few, accordingly, took advantage of its provisions.

This was the situation when the uprising of 1837-38 took place. The seigneurial system was not a leading cause of the rebellion, but it was one of the grievances included by the habitants in their general bill of complaint. Hence, when Lord Durham came to Quebec to investigate the causes of colonial discontent, the system came in for its share of study. In his masterly Report on the Affairs of British North America he recognized that the old system had outlived its day of usefulness, and that its continuance was unwise. But Durham outlined no plan for its abolition. He believed that if the province were given a government responsible to the masses of its own people, the problem of abolition would soon be solved. One of Durham's secretaries, Charles Buller drafted a scheme for commuting the tenures into freehold, but his plan did not find acceptance.

For nearly twenty years after Durham's investigation the question of abolishing the seigneurial tenures remained a football of Canadian politics. Legislative commissions were appointed; they made investigations; they presented reports; but none succeeded in getting any comprehensive plan of abolition on the statute-books. In 1854, however, the question was made a leading issue at the general election. A definite mandate from the people was the result, and 'An Act for the Abolition of Feudal Rights and Duties in Lower Canada' received its enactment during the same year.

The provisions of this act for changing all seigneurial tenures into freehold are long and somewhat technical. They would not interest the reader. In brief, it was arranged that the valid rights of each seigneur should be translated by special commissioners into an annual money rental, and that the habitants should pay this annual sum. The seigneur was required to pay no quit-rent to the public treasury. What he would have paid, by reason of getting his own lands into freehold, was applied pro rata to the reduction of the annual rentals payable by the habitants. It was arranged, furthermore, that any habitant might commute this yearly rental by paying his seigneur a lump sum such as would represent his rent capitalized at the rate of six per cent.

The whole undertaking was difficult and complicated. A great many perplexing questions arose, and a special court had to be created to deal with them. [Footnote: This court was constituted of four judges of the Court of the Queen's Bench and nine judges of the Superior Court of Lower Canada, as follows: Sir Louis H. La Fontaine, Chief Justice; Justices Duval, Aylwin, and Caron of the Court of the Queen's Bench; the Hon. Edward Bowen, Chief Justice; Justices Morin, Mondelet, Vanfelson, Day, Smith, Meredith, Short, and Badgley of the Superior Court.] On the whole however, the commissioners performed their tasks carefully and without causing undue friction. Class prejudice was strong, and by most of the seigneurs the whole scheme was regarded as a high-handed piece of legislative confiscation. They opposed it bitterly from first to last. Among the habitants, however, the abolition of the old tenure was popular, for it meant, in their opinion, that every one would henceforth be a real landowner. But in the long run it signified nothing of the sort. Very few of the habitants took advantage of the provision which enabled them to pay a lump sum in lieu of an annual rental. Down to the present day the great majority of them continue to pay their rente constituee as did their fathers before them. With due adherence to ancient custom they pay it each St Martin's Day, and to the man whom they still call 'the seigneur.' Seigneur he is no longer; for the act of 1854 abolished not only the emoluments, but the honors attaching to this rank. But traditions live long in isolated communities, and the habitants of the St Lawrence valley still give, along with their annual rent, a great deal of old-time deference to the man who holds the lands upon which they live.

The twilight of European feudalism was more prolonged in French Canada than in any other land. Its prolongation was unfortunate. For several decades preceding 1854 it had failed to adjust itself to the new environment, and its continuance was an obstacle to the economic progress of Canada. Its abolition was wise--a generation or two earlier it would have been even wiser. All this is not to say, however, that the seigneurial system did not serve a highly useful purpose in its day. So long as it fitted into the needs of the colony, so long as the intendancy remained to guard the people against seigneurial avarice, the system had a great deal to be said in its behalf. It helped to make New France stronger in arms than she could have become under any other plan of land tenure; and with states as with men self-preservation is the first law of nature.


1 Maseres, Additional Papers concerning the Province of Quebec (1776), pp. 71 et seq.


This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

Chronicles of Canada, The Seigneurs of Old Canada, A Chronicle of New World Feudalism, 1915

 

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