- Patrician Families and the Making of Quebec: The Taschereaus and McCords by Brian Young
Traditional history has long been written from elite perspectives, a distortion growing out of the relative importance of the documentary trail left by men and women whose families enjoyed wealth and power, as well as from their close association with the political offices and structures that formed the bedrock of a narrative that was essentially political. Brian Young’s exploration of two of Quebec’s most powerful families, the Taschereaus and the McCords, draws on their rich legacy in personal, legal, and institutional archives in order to construct a very different narrative, one highlighting “generational dimensions.” This readable and well-structured book styles itself as a study of “authority” and demonstrates how the Taschereaus and McCords exercised a determinant influence on the evolution of Quebec’s political, military, religious, and legal institutions, while shaping both its rural and urban landscapes and fashioning in very different ways the historical memory of both French and English Canada.
Young’s book is divided into four sections, each corresponding to one generation of the families under study. In the case of Thomas-Jacques Taschereau, aristocratic birth, seigneurial title, and marriage into one of New France’s wealthiest merchant families constituted the foundation on which his family would build its status and power. Thirty years his junior, his wife, Marie-Claire Fleury de la Gordonière, is considered the true “head” of the first generation, since after her husband’s death in 1755 she successfully guided the family through the Conquest, the Quebec Act, the American invasion, and, more critically for the family fortunes, the early development of its seigneurial lands. In sharp contrast, John McCord began his life in the newly conquered province of Quebec as a tavern keeper and distiller. While the Taschereau family’s status was firmly established through their seigneuries in the first generation, it was not until the second generation that Thomas McCord invested in land by taking a ninety-nine-year lease on the Nazareth fief from the Sisters of the Hotel Dieu, acquiring control over an area just west of Montreal that would eventually become Griffintown, home to Irish workers. As Young comments, the activities of the second generation (Gabriel-Elzéar Taschereau and Thomas McCord) “suggest a certain coherence between the two families in their effective marriage of landed property and the exercise of local authority.”
“Born to patrician status,” Jean-Thomas Taschereau and John Samuel McCord consolidated family holdings in the next generation and sought to extend their influence on a province-wide level through their activities in politics, the military, and the established churches (Anglican and Roman Catholic). Although Jean-Thomas Taschereau’s early political career led [End Page 483] him into conflict with Governor James Craig, he quickly overcame this misstep and was rewarded with appointments to important offices, most notably as a member of Lower Canada’s Legislative Council and judge of the King’s Bench. Taschereau also modernized his seigneury, investing in mills and roads. Similarly, John Samuel McCord consolidated his family’s material position within the rapidly evolving city of Montreal. Still, McCord found himself out of touch with the increased secularism of the industrializing city and the evolution of new patterns of state control. Although the family did well materially, Young suggests that John Samuel McCord was unable to make the transition to the new realities associated with the emerging liberal order and with new ways of promoting and disseminating knowledge.
The fourth generation of both families witnessed the decline of patrician influence, but, ironically, it was in this generation that the Taschereaus arguably reached the pinnacle of their achievements, with the appointment of two family members to the Supreme Court but, more importantly, according to Young, that of Elzéar-Alexandre Taschereau as archbishop of Quebec and eventually as the first Canadian cardinal in 1886. The fourth generation of McCords fared less well: led by David Ross McCord, the family declined in both wealth and status. The last...