L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia
Sir Louis Hyppolite Lafontaine
[This biography was written by John Dent in 1881. For the full citation, see the end of the text]
The name of Sir Louis Lafontaine is intimately associated in the public mind with that of his friend and associate Robert Baldwin. What the latter was in Upper Canada, such was Sir Louis in the Lower Province—the leader of a numerous, an exacting, and a not always manageable political party. These two statesmen were the leading spirits on behalf of their respective Provinces in two Governments which are known in history by their joint names. Their personal intimacy and active co-operation extended over only about ten years, but the bond of union between them during that period was closely knit, and their mutual confidence was complete. They fought side by side with perfect fealty to each other and to the State, and their retirement from public life was almost simultaneous. Their mutual relations, both public and private, were marked by an almost chivalrous courtesy and respect, and even after they had ceased to take part in the struggles with which both their names are identified, they continued to think and speak of each other with an enthusiasm which was not generally supposed to belong to the nature of either.
Sir Louis was in some respects the most remarkable man that Lower Canada has produced. Though he identified himself with many important measures of Reform, the temper of his mind, more especially during his latter years, was eminently aristocratic and Conservative. His disposition was not one that could properly be described as genial. He was not a perfect tactician, and had not the faculty of making himself "all things to all men." Coriolanus himself had not a more supreme contempt for "the insinuating nod" whereby the elector is wheedled out of his vote. His demeanour was generally somewhat cold and repellent, and though he was thoroughly honourable, and respected by all who knew him, he was not a man of many warm personal friends. In the sketch of Robert Baldwin's life we have given Sir John Kaye's estimate of that gentleman's character and aspirations, as reflected in the letters and papers of Lord Metcalfe. The estimate is so wide of the mark that our readers will probably be disposed to place little reliance upon Sir John's capability for gauging the public men of Canada. In the case of the subject of the present sketch, however, Lord Metcalfe's biographer has contrived to stumble upon a much more accurate judgment. Speaking of Mr. Lafontaine, during his tenure of office as Attorney-General for Canada East, in 1843, he tells us that "all his better qualities were natural to him; his worse were the growth of circumstances. Cradled, as he and his people had been, in wrong, smarting for long years under the oppressive exclusiveness once dominant race, he had become mistrustful and suspicious; and the doubts which were continually floating in his mind had naturally engendered indecision and infirmity of purpose. But he had many fine characteristics which no evil circumstances could impair. He was a just and an honourable man. His motives were above all suspicion. Warmly attached to his country, earnestly seeking the happiness of his people, he occupied a high position by the force rather of his moral than of his intellectual qualities. He was trusted and respected rather than admired." If we omit the reference to indecision and infirmity of purpose, we may accept the foregoing as being, so far as it goes, a not inaccurate estimate of the character of Mr. Lafontaine. The excepted reference, however, shows how little the writer could really have known of the subject of his remarks. So far from being undecided or infirm of purpose, Mr. Lafontaine was almost domineering and tyrannical in his firmness. He was very reluctant to receive discipline, and was generally disposed to prefer his own judgment to that of any one else. It will be news, indeed, to such of his colleagues as still survive, to learn that Sir Louis Lafontaine was infirm of purpose. Sir Francis Hincks, who is able to speak with high authority on the subject, declares in one of his political pamphlets that he never met a man less open to such an imputation. Other equally trustworthy authorities have borne similar testimony, and indeed the whole course of his political life furnishes a standing refutation to the charge. Sir Louis was intellectually far above most of those with whom he acted, and he was endowed by nature with an imperious will. He brooked contradiction, or even moderate remonstrance, with an ill grace. Had he been of a more conciliating temper he would doubtless have been vastly more popular. His sincerity and uprightness have never, so far as we are aware, been called in question.
He was born near the village of Boucherville, in the county of Chambly, Lower Canada, in October, 1807. He was the third son of Antoine Menard Lafontaine, of Boucherville, whose father sat in the Lower Canadian Legislature from 1796 to 1804. His mother's maiden name was Marie J. Bienvenu. There is nothing to be said about his early life. He studied law, and in due time was called to the Bar of Lower Canada, and settled in Montreal. He succeeded in his profession, and while still a very young man achieved a prominent position and an extensive practice. He accumulated considerable wealth, which was augmented by an advantageous marriage, in 1831, to Adèle, daughter of A. Berthelot, a wealthy and eminent advocate of Quebec. He entered political life in 1830, when he was only twenty-three years of age, as a Member of the Legislative Assembly for the populous county of Terrebonne. He at this time held and advocated very advanced political views, and was a follower of Louis J. Papineau. He was not always subordinate to his leader, however, and as time passed by he ceased to work cordially with Mr. Papineau. Their differences were of temperament rather than of principle, and erelong a complete estrangement took place between them. Mr. Lafontaine, however, still continued to advocate advanced radicalism, not only from his place in Parliament, but through the medium of the newspaper press. He continued to sit in the Assembly as representative for Terrebonne until the rebellion burst forth, in which he was so far implicated that a warrant was issued against him for treason, and he deemed it wise to withdraw from Canada. He fled to England, whence he made good his escape across the channel to France. His residence there, unlike that of Papineau, was only of brief duration. He returned to his native land in 1840, having gained wisdom by experience. He was opposed to the project of uniting the Provinces, and spoke against it from the platform at Montreal and elsewhere with great vehemence; but after the passing of the Act of Union he acquiesced in what could no longer be avoided, and in 1841 he offered himself once more to his old constituents of Terrebonne, as a candidate for a seat in the Parliament of the United Provinces. His candidature was not successful, but, chiefly through the instrumentality of Robert Baldwin, who had just been honoured with a double return, he was on the 21st of September elected for the Fourth Riding of the county of York, in Upper Canada. It will be understood from this alliance that Mr. Lafontaine's views had undergone considerable modification. He now perceived that the rebellion of 1837-8 had been not merely a crime, but a political blunder, as there had never been any chance of its becoming permanently successful. With regard to the Union of the Provinces, he looked upon it as a scheme which had been forced upon the Lower Canadian French population, but which, having been accomplished, might as well be worked in common between his compatriots and Canadians of British origin. By taking a part in the work of Government he would not only win an honourable position, but would be able to obtain many favours and concessions for Lower Canadians which he could not hope to obtain as a private individual. Actuated by some such motives as these, he in 1842 joined with Mr. Baldwin in forming the first Ministry which bears their joint names, he himself holding the portfolio of Attorney-General for the Lower Province. Having vacated his seat on accepting office on the 16th of September, he was on the 8th of October following reelected for the Fourth Riding of York. He represented that constituency until November, 1844, when he was returned to the Second Parliament of United Canada by the electors of Terrebonne. He sat for Terrebonne until after his acceptance of office as Attorney-General for Lower Canada in the second Baldwin-Lafontaine Administration, formed in March, 1848, after which he was returned for the city of Montreal, which he thenceforward continued to represent in Parliament so long as he remained in public life.
Soon after Mr. Lafontaine's acceptance of office, in the autumn of 1842, he proposed to Sir Charles Bagot, who was then Governor-General, that an amnesty should be granted to all persons who had taken part in the rebellion in 1837-8. To this proposal His Excellency was not disposed to assent without careful consideration, and probably until he could communicate with the Imperial Government. Mr. Lafontaine then urged that, if an amnesty was for the present considered unadvisable, the various prosecutions for high treason pending at Montreal might be abandoned. To this Sir Charles, after careful consideration, expressed his willingness to assent, except in the single case of the arch-conspirator, Louis Joseph Papineau. Mr. Lafontaine had long ceased to sympathize with Mr. Papineau's political views, but he was not disposed to acquiesce in the proposed exception, and for a time the negotiations fell through. It was subsequently renewed, but before any definite steps could b. taken in the matter the Governor-General's health gave way, and he rapidly sank into his grave. After the accession of Sir Charles Metcalfe, Mr. Lafontaine urged his proposal upon the new Governor, and finally succeeded in carrying his point. Mr. Lafontaine, as Attorney-General, was instructed to file a nolle prosequi to the indictments against Mr. Papineau, as well as to those against other political offenders. He obeyed his instructions with promptitude, and Mr. Papineau soon afterwards returned to this country. Erelong the " old man eloquent " found his way into Parliament, where h. for several years made himself a thorn in the flesh to some of his old colleagues of the anti-Union days.
The first Baldwin-Lafontaine Ministry resigned office in November, 1843, in consequence of the arbitrary conduct of Sir Charles Metcalfe. All the circumstances connected with this resignation are narrated at sufficient length elsewhere in these pages. Mr. Lafontaine remained in Opposition until March, 1848, when he and his colleagues again came into power. During the interval he had steadily held his ground in the estimation of the Reform element in the French Canadian population, of whom he was the acknowledged leader. The history of the second Baldwin-Lafontaine Administration (1) in which Mr. Lafontaine held the portfolio of Attorney-General East, has been given in previous sketches, and there is no need for repeating the details here. It was Mr. Lafontaine who, in February, 1849, introduced the famous Rebellion Losses Bill, which gave rise to so much heated debate in the House, and to such disgraceful proceedings outside. Mr. Lafontaine, as the actual introducer of the Bill, came in for his full share of the odium attaching to that measure. His house in Montreal was attacked by the mob, and although the flames were extinguished in time to save the building, the furniture and library shared the fate of those in the Houses of Parliament, with the fate of which readers of the sketch of Lord Elgin are already familiar. After much willful [sic] destruction of valuable property the rioters waxed bolder, and proceeded to maltreat loyal subjects in the streets in the most shameful manner. Mr. Lafontaine himself narrowly escaped personal maltreatment. A second attack was made upon his house. The military, or some occupants of the house, finding it necessary to use extreme measures, fired upon the mob, wounding several, and killing one man, whose name was Mason. For a few minutes after this time it seemed not improbable that Mr. Lafontaine would be torn in pieces. Yells rent the air, and it was loudly proclaimed that a Frenchman had shed the blood of an Anglo-Saxon. The hour of danger passed, however, and Mr. Lafontaine escaped without personal injury. The unanimous verdict of a coroner's jury acquitted him of all blame for the death of the misguided man who had fallen a victim to his zeal for riot. The verdict had a quieting effect upon the public mind. Meanwhile the Governor-General had tendered his resignation, but as his conduct was approved of both by the Local Administration and by the Home Authorities, he, at their urgent request, consented to remain in office. In consequence of this disgraceful riot, however, it was not considered desirable to continue the seat of Government at Montreal. The Legislature thenceforth sat alternately at Toronto and Quebec, until 1866, when Ottawa became the permanent capital of the Dominion.
Notwithstanding all the excitement, and the opposition to which he was subjected, Mr. Lafontaine generally contrived to carry through any measure which he had very much at heart. There were certain popular measures, however, which he never had at heart; and to which, although the leader of a professedly Liberal Administration, he could never be induced to lend his countenance. After Responsible Government had become an accomplished fact, there was no measure so imperatively demanded by Upper Canadian Reformers as the secularization of the Clergy Reserves. In the Lower Province the measure most desired by the people was the abolition of the Seignorial Tenure. To neither of these projects would Mr. Lafontaine consent. He had an immense respect for vested rights, and does not seem to have fully recognized the fact that so-called vested rights are sometimes neither more nor less than vested wrongs. Yet, notwithstanding his hostility to these measures, he continued to hold the reins of power, for he was regarded as an embodiment, in his own person, of the unity of the French-Canadian race. He was, however, like his colleague, Robert Baldwin, too moderate in his views for the times in which his later political life was cast. The progress of Reform was too rapid for him, and he finally made way for more advanced and more energetic men. His retirement from office and from political life took place towards the close of 1851. After his retirement he devoted him self to professional pursuits, and continued to do so until the death of Sir James Stuart, Chief Justice of the Lower Province, in the summer of 1853, left that position vacant. On the 13th of August Mr. Lafontaine was appointed to the office, and on the 28th of August, 1854, he was created a Baronet. In 1861, having been a widower for some years, he married a second time, his choice being Jane, daughter of Mr. Charles Morrison, of Berthier, and widow of Mr. Thomas Kinton, of Montreal. He continued to occupy the position of Chief Justice until his death, which took place on the morning of the 26th of February, 1864. During his tenure of that office he also presided at the sittings of the Seignorial Tenure Court. He attained high rank as a jurist, and his decisions, which were always delivered with a weighty impressiveness of manner, are regarded with very great respect by his successors, and by the legal profession generally.
Mr. Robert Christie, the historian of Lower Canada, contrasts the political character of Mr. Lafontaine with that of his early colleague, Mr. Papineau, Mr. Christie knew both the personages well, and was quite capable of discriminating between them. "Mr. Lafontaine," he says, "it is pretty generally admitted, has, by consulting only the practicable and expedient, acted wisely and well, amidst the difficulties that beset his position as Prime Minister, and upon the whole, though there are derogating circumstances in the course of it, his administration has been eminently successful. It was, in fact, from the impetuous and blind pursuit of the impracticable and inexpedient, that Mr. Papineau lost himself, shipwrecking his own and his party's hopes, and, with his example and failure before him, it is to Mr. Lafontaine's credit that he has had the wisdom to profit by them."
Sir Louis had no issue by his first wife. By his second wife he had one son, to whom he was very much attached, and upon whom he looked as the transmitter of his name, and of the title which he had so honourably won. The little fellow, however, died in childhood, and the title became extinct. Lady Lafontaine still resides in Montreal.
(1) Mr. Lafontaine was in reality the head of the Administration, which should strictly be called—and which is sometimes called—the Lafontaine-Baldwin Administration. In common parlance, however, and in most histories, Mr. Baldwin's name comes first, and we have adopted this phraseology throughout the present series.
Source: John DENT, “Sir Louis Hippolyte Lafontaine”, Canadian Portrait Gallery, Vol. III, 1881, pp. 104-108. A minor typographical error was corrected.
© 2006 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College