- Purchase/rental options available:
French Colonial History 4 (2003) 19-29
[Access article in PDF]
Peter Moogk's Nouvelle France:
A Return to the Quest for Origins?
My analysis of Peter Moogk's book covers three points, the first two quite specific and the last more general. Some aspects of the nine chapters that Moogk devotes to New France itself are dealt with first. There follows a critique of the work's last chapter, entitled "The Apples Do Not Fall Far from the Tree," in which Moogk attempts to show that not a few characteristics of French Canadian (and more precisely québécois) society in the year 2000 can be explained by values inherited from New France. The last section of the article addresses the question posed in its title, concerning the direction of Moogk's reconstructive enterprise. In the end, is the author casting light on the present, thanks to his study of the past? Or is he doing the opposite, reading the past through the filter of his particular view of the present? It is hoped that these comments will encourage historians to be more careful when they generalize about the settlers of New France.
1. The Past
La Nouvelle France presents an especially lively picture of the social and cultural history of New France (or rather of Canada: although Moogk's New France includes the Illinois country, Acadia, and Ile Royale, most of his examples concern the St. Lawrence Valley). One of the book's strong points is its liberal use of neglected sources, such as the letters in the PRO Prize Papers. These documents offer fascinating testimony on what "ordinary people" in France and New France were writing to one another.
Chapter 3 brings us to the heart of the author's argument, to the notion that la Nouvelle-France (as he calls it) was very different from the British [End Page 19] continental colonies. One of the major aspects, if not the most important, of this difference is the form of government. Moogk puts a salutary emphasis on the absolutist character of the administration established in Canada. The French state was indeed able to make the most of the colonial tabula rasa and create a unidirectional, top-down form of government. Certain points should, however, be qualified—this government's supposedly benevolent character first among them. The author goes so far as to endorse William Eccles's contention that New France was a welfare state. 1 This is a generous way indeed of describing a state that left to the Church the task of administrating a handful of urban charitable institutions, reaching a very small fraction of the population. The other problematic component of Moogk's argument is his portrait of an extremely interventionist state, in both the social and economic realms. One wonders in this regard if Moogk has avoided the trap he once criticized others for falling into: that is, of exaggerating the role and the weight of the state on the basis of an uncritical reading of the official correspondence. 2
After devoting chapters 4 and 5 to immigration, Moogk considers the formation of colonial society. According to Moogk, the immigrants who arrived in the seventeenth century formed a homogeneous cultural entity by 1700. He goes on to argue that, despite the desire of their fundamentally conservative parents to reproduce French ways in North America, Canadians and Acadians quickly developed distinct societies. This process is presented in chapter 6, entitled "Proud as a Canadian, Stubborn as an Acadian: The Emergence of New Peoples." The result is, in my view, unconvincing. As well as adding vanity and insubordination to the already long list of French colonists' faults, the author does not go beyond the usual clichés of contemporary observers, those same superficial judgments that he warns us against elsewhere.
It could be added that the rest of the chapter presents more points in common than differences between colony and metropole. In Canada, as in France, society was hierarchical, and status counted for more than wealth. To be sure, the colonial social spectrum was narrower...