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“An Extensive Collection of Useful and Entertaining Books”: The Quebec Library and the Transatlantic Enlightenment in Canada

  • Michael Eamon
Couverture de                Volume 23, numéro 1, 2012, p. 1-354, Journal of the Canadian Historical Association

Corps de l’article

William Moore (fl. 1779–1790) [1] rarely failed to notice the passing of an important literary event in his newspaper the Quebec Herald (1788–1792). Literature, for the flamboyant thespian-turned-printer, was one of his many causes célèbres that also included the promotion of a free press, charitable associations, and, unsurprisingly, colonial theatre. True to form, after the annual meeting of subscribers to the Quebec Library in 1788, Moore happily remarked upon the success of the institution, run by a “society of gentlemen desirous to promote science, and afford amusement and instruction, by the general use and benefit of an extensive collection of useful and entertaining books in the English and French Language.” The generosity of these individuals, he observed, could be seen by the fact that “by voluntary subscription” the supporters had “raised the Quebec Library to 2000 Vols.” Subscribing to the library, Moore concluded, cost just a bit more than a newspaper, but the benefits of membership “will not admit of comparison.” [2] While Moore clearly had a vested economic interest in the promotion of the printed word, his enthusiasm transcended a mere commercial preoccupation. [3] He, like many of his readers, believed that print was a powerful force for change in the colony. A decade earlier the founder of the Quebec Library also believed in the importance and an inherent power that the printed word possessed. Quebec’s governor, Sir Frederick Haldimand (1718–1791), [4] observed that print in the wrong hands could foment rebellion and required close monitoring. Conversely, print under the proper direction — his direction — could educate, improve the mind, and promote social unity. Haldimand, a British general of French-Swiss origin, has not been remembered fondly by historians. For anglophone scholars, the governor has been seen as “old soldier” who was “rigid,” “obstinate,” and “authoritarian.” Francophone scholars have framed the governor in a similar manner and have additionally argued that he possessed a particular disdain for anyone who dared diffuse Enlightenment-inspired ideas.

Why then would such a controlling and anti-intellectual individual found a library at the height of the American Revolution? Indeed, the establishment of the Quebec Library is a paradox in an era known for its contradictions. The library was created at the height of a civil war by an old general known more for his military achievement than his cultural sensitivities. It was a literary institution founded with a public endowment during a time when most libraries depended solely on private subscription fees. Its board of trustees was comprised of a stolid mix of established merchants, civic administrators, and priests. Yet the books that this group approved for members were anything but staid and traditional in nature. In short, the Quebec Library has become an historical curiosity, a complicated anomaly the existence of which historians today neither question, nor care much about. The paradoxical appearance of this institution, however, begins to fade away when its origins are seen from a transatlantic perspective, as part of the dynamic movement of ideas, commodities, and traditions that were a hallmark of the late eighteenth century. [5] It is also a perspective that can bring context and a greater understanding to events once deemed unimportantly parochial or bewilderingly paradoxical. This approach has, increasingly and successfully, been used in the reinterpretation of the history of eighteenth-century Quebec. [6] Indeed, if the library can be viewed as an expression of a greater Atlantic Enlightenment spirit, the actions of its founder and early supporters take on a new and potentially deeper significance in the social and intellectual history of British North America.

Studying the era of the Enlightenment is a complex and controversial exercise in which scholars continue to debate the existence, time frame, and nature of the epoch. The Enlightenment is an historical phenomenon that can be considered akin to a tornado. That is to say, most observers can agree that it existed and exerted an influence (or damage) that stretched far beyond the place and time of its initial touchdown. However, as with the cyclonic occurrence, the study of the Enlightenment also leads to several unanswered questions regarding its origins, size, and number of lives actually affected. Contemporary eighteenth-century writers — such as Montesquieu (1641–1755), Mendelssohn (1729–1786), and Kant (1724–1804) — defined their era in many ways. The Enlightenment was seen as a continuing process of education extending across many generations; as an education in the use of reason; as a philosophical spirit of improvement; as well as the use of reason, in public, for freeing man from prejudice and superstition. Many of these eighteenth-century writers believed that what they were experiencing would be an ongoing process. [7] Twentieth-century revivalists of the Enlightenment applied the term as an explanation for the better understanding of the intellectual legacy of the eighteenth century seen as a more finite era of like values and ideas. [8] Originally believed to have flourished solely in the writings of French, then German and British authors, the Enlightenment era has now been seen as a larger Western movement affecting diverse regions and peoples. [9]

For the breadth of analysis that is now reflected in Enlightenment Studies, the study of its influence in the northern regions of British America has been relatively overlooked. The French-language scholarship on eighteenth-century Quebec has made the greatest inroads linking the Enlightenment with early intellectual culture and sociability. These accounts argue that within pockets of literate French Canadian society select lawyers, gentry, and merchants were directly influenced by the French intellectual tradition, notably meeting in salons and discussing the works of the philosophes[10] This interpretation of an intellectual culture in Quebec inspired by the Age of Enlightenment and transmitted through French-language conversations is without an English-language equivalent. To the contrary, historical interpretations have tended to downplay the existence of a spirit of Enlightenment amongst English-speaking colonists. “Canada never had an eighteenth century of our own,” historian Frank Underhill wrote with regard to the existence of liberal ideas. Unlike the Thirteen Colonies that became the United States of America, he continued, Canada suffered from not having its own Enlightenment, its own tradition of revolution that he saw as an “invigorating fountain” of ideas. “In Catholic French Canada,” he continued, “the doctrines of the rights of man and of Liberty Equality Fraternity were rejected from the start …. The mental climate of English Canada in its early formative years was determined by men who were fleeing from the practical application of the doctrines that all men are born equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights amongst which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” [11] Underhill believed that effective, nineteenth-century Western liberal movements had had their roots in the ideology of the eighteenth century. Early Canadians, on the other hand, had made what he called “the great refusal,” turning their backs on the revolutionary and enlightened traditions enjoyed by France, Britain, and the United States. [12] More recently, historian Brian McKillop has criticized this traditional view of the Enlightenment and its influence on British North America as being somewhat narrow in scope. Instead, he argues that “from the outset of its existence, British North America’s intellectual life engaged the Enlightenment and its legacy.” [13] Yet, for the potential that the study of the Enlightenment offers, there is a continued reluctance amongst historians to use it as a means to reinterpret eighteenth-century English-language communities in Canada.

The Quebec Library and, more specifically, Haldimand and the early network of library supporters should be considered part of this Enlightenment legacy. Scholars of eighteenth-century imperial history have recognized the importance of the interconnected transatlantic world, not only in negotiation and commercial exchange, but in the creation of reciprocities of communication and Enlightenment-inspired knowledge. Historian Ian K. Steele argues that by the mid-eighteenth century the “English Atlantic” became consolidated through the creation of expansive communication networks. This consolidation marked the emergence of an overarching Atlantic perspective. In the eighteenth century, as Steele writes, “communications changed, and their bias was away from local concerns, favoring perspectives and preoccupations that connected the broader English Atlantic community.” [14] It was along these lines of communication that a spirit of Enlightenment became widely diffused. “The Enlightenment encouraged official Britain,” historian Richard Drayton argues, “to support the study of plants, minerals, and stars around the world. It also contributed a fundamental element to the ideology which sustained the Second British Empire: the faith that Empire might be an instrument of cosmopolitan progress, and could benefit the imperialized as well as the imperializers.” [15] Historians Susan Manning and Francis D. Cogliano have also observed that the Atlantic was integral to the Enlightenment. “The Atlantic,” they write, “was embodied and traversed in the trade and colonization, the discoveries and debates, the discourses and concepts that together became known as the Enlightenment.” [16] As we shall see the supporters of the library were not immune to these transatlantic forces. Indeed, the library’s creation was contingent on the movement of people, commodities, and ideas that are a hallmark of this era.

Eighteenth-Century Quebec City

Founded in 1608, Quebec City was already an established administrative, military, and cultural centre when Haldimand became governor in 1778. Situated both above and below an imposing cliff, the city boasted a commanding presence overlooking the St. Lawrence River. As the principal city of New France, it was the centre of the French colonial administration and army, as well as hosting various Roman Catholic religious orders, tradesmen, and merchants. French military engineers attempted to impose symmetry and order on the growing city; [17] but, the pre-Cambrian ledges and outcroppings often confounded these attempts giving the city both the feeling of planned capital and meandering European market town. [18] The upper town was home to the city’s main fortifications, the Governor’s palace, military barracks, and the residences, hospitals, schools, and chapels of the Augustines Hospitalières de Hôtel-Dieu, Récollects, Ursulines, Sulpiciens, Jésuites, and other religious communities. [19] Through a gate in the southern wall, the steep Côte-de-la-Montagne led traffic to the cramped lower town, home to the merchant quarter, lower fortifications, and harbour. [20] At the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, there were over 7,000 French Canadian residents in the town and approximately 5,500 British soldiers, sailors, colonial administrators, merchants, and their families who lived in the city. Closer to the end of the century, and the establishment of the Quebec Library, Quebec City was home to over 14,000 people, a third of whom spoke English. [21]

The frenetic business of the harbour was abruptly curtailed each year with the arrival of winter and the freezing over of the river. [22] In spite of this annual restriction, Quebec City had become the hub of French colonial trade and communications. Indeed, before the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War, and the installation of a British administration, the inhabitants of Quebec enjoyed a great variety of print materials imported directly from France. [23] “Contrary to what is generally believed,” literary historian Benjamin Sulte wrote in 1897, “books were not unknown to the French population …. It is stated that there were at least 60,000 volumes in the private libraries in 1765 … so that we may fairly state that there was one volume for every soul of the population in the province.” [24] Historians have more recently argued that the first books arrived in New France with the earliest explorers, missionaries, and merchants. [25] It is thought that the lawyer and playwright Marc Lescarbot brought a private library to Port-Royal in 1604 and that Samuel de Champlain established another library in the Habitation at Quebec in 1608. Literary historians have compiled lists of select civil servants, physicians, engineers, and military officers who possessed substantial private libraries. [26] Publishing historian George Parker, in particular, estimated that on the eve of the Conquest there were 45 private libraries. In addition to these personal collections there was another 50 libraries kept by the various religious orders. [27]

The Arrival of the British in Quebec

The newly-minted British administration thought little of the existence of any literary legacy from New France. In 1762, General James Murray, who would later become Governor, found the canadiens to be, “a Strong, Healthy Race, Plain in their Dress. Virtuous in their Morals, and temperate in their living.” [28] Murray, however, lamented what he perceived as their poor level of education, writing, “they are in General extremely Ignorant, for the Former Government would never suffer a Printing Press in the Country, few can Read or Write, and all received implicitly for truth, the many arrant Falsehoods and atrocious Lies industriously handed among them by those who were in power.” [29] Murray would eventually be recalled to Great Britain at the urging of a grumbling, English merchant community that accused him of being too sympathetic to the French Canadians. [30] In spite of the shared enmity, Murray’s attitude toward the ignorance of French Canadians at the hands of the French administration was one thing that he did share with the colony’s other British inhabitants. [31] Indeed, in the decades after Murray’s tenure, other commentators lamented the poor state of education perceived to have existed amongst French Canadians, a condition, it was argued, that was fostered by the continuing control of the Roman Catholic clergy. “The extreme ignorance is to be attributed to many causes,” an open letter to Prince William Henry published in the Quebec Herald observed in 1788. “It has always been the policy of the clergy,” the writer continued, “to confine knowledge and information within the walls of the church and hence they preserve their dominion over the peasantry.” [32] Postmaster General Hugh Finlay wrote to Lord Evan Nepean in similar, yet slightly more subtle terms: “Perhaps it has been the policy of the clergy to keep them in the dark, as it is a favourite tenet with the Roman Catholic priests, [that] ignorance is the mother of devotion.” [33] It is important to note that the use of the word ignorance by these eighteenth-century commentators was not synonymous with unintelligent. As Finlay also observed, “the Canadian peasants are far from being a stupid race, they are at present an ignorant people, from want of instruction.” [34] It was a want that was seen as being totally unnecessary and a black mark against the previous French administration.

These contemporary British impressions of the poorly educated habitant have been supported by the exhaustive work of historian Michel Verrette on colonial literacy. The determination of eighteenth-century literacy requires a painstaking analysis of legal records, contracts, licenses, and marriage certificates looking for evidence of signatures. As historian Lawrence Stone has observed, this style of analysis is not perfect; however, for the era prior to the nineteenth century it is, “all we know or are ever likely to know.” [35] In reviewing marriage certificates in Quebec, Verrette discerns that the Protestant population between 1750 and 1849 had an average literacy rate of 64.7 percent, while the Roman Catholic community a rate of 34.3 percent. When broken down between actual French-language and English-language speakers, he observes that 37.7 percent of francophones could write their signatures compared to 62 percent of anglophones between the years 1770 to 1800. [36]

While 62 percent literacy is below the level of their contemporary New England neighbours, [37] the British inhabitants of the province nonetheless saw themselves as infinitely more educated and civilized than the French Canadian population. A strong English printing tradition was believed, in no small measure, to be a mark of that civilizing influence. Soliciting subscribers, the prospectus for the Quebec Gazette observed, “a well regulated Printing Office has always been considered as a publick Benefit, insomuch that not Place of Note in the English Dominions is at this Day destitute of the Advantages arising therefrom.” [38] In a similar vein, after the Quebec Gazette shut down during the political turmoil of the Stamp Act in 1765–1766, [39] printers William Brown and Thomas Gilmore used their paper to address directly rumours that their publication was the subject of political interference. “We think it necessary to declare,” an editorial, penned in May 1766, read, “that ever since the establishment of Civil Government, our Paper has been, and ever shall be, as free from the Inspection or Restrictions of any Person whatsoever, as it is of the late Stamp [Act].” In both a defiant and patriotic tone, the printers underscored the importance of newspapers and free expression to being British. “It is a Happiness peculiar to the Subjects of the British Empire only,” they concluded, “to have the Liberty of thinking for themselves on all Subjects, to Speak what they think, and to publish, such thoughts as may seem innoxious [sic] to Individuals, and undisturbing to the Publick.” [40] This idea of a free press with an inherent ability to liberate Britons from ignorance is one that can be traced from the beginnings of the English-language press in Quebec to the end of the eighteenth century. Indeed, subsequent printers of the Quebec Gazette also reiterated this message, as did printer William Moore, who frequently underscored the value of his Quebec Herald in terms of its importance in the advancement of knowledge and British liberties. It was a rhetoric that privileged the colonial community of English-language readers in stark contrast to what was believed to be the state of ignorance that existed amongst the majority of the French Canadian population.

Founding the Library

Governor Frederick Haldimand, like his contemporaries, feared the consequences that a large and uneducated population could have upon the unity of the colony. In particular, he believed the canadiens were particularly susceptible to falsehoods emanating from the American rhetoric surrounding the War of Independence. Indeed, Haldimand states that one of the key motives in creating a library was to better educate the French Canadian population. “The Ignorance of the Natives of this Colony,” he wrote to the colonial agent, diplomat, and playwright Richard Cumberland, “having been, in my apprehension, the principal cause of their misbehaviour; and attachment to Interests, evidently injurious to themselves.” [41] Haldimand believed that the establishment of a library, with books in both French and English, could be a key step in helping to alleviate the perceived ignorance of the French Canadian population. Indeed, his fears of encroaching revolutionary ideas were not unfounded. Before his arrival in November 1775, the Continental Army captured Montreal and a month later mounted an unsuccessful attempt to take Quebec City. [42] At the same time, the Continental Congress sponsored Fleury Mesplet, a Philadelphia printer of French origin with a “known attachment to the interests of the United-States,” [43] to move to Montreal, set up a press, [44] and publish material favourable to the revolutionary cause. [45] After the American retreat from the city, Mesplet remained, continuing his commercial printing business and setting up its first newspaper the Gazette du Commerce et littéraire Pour la Ville et District de Montréal.

At the same time Haldimand was discussing the possible creation of the Quebec Library, he was faced with what was viewed as increasingly republican sentiment being published in the paper of the Congress-sponsored printer Mesplet. For over eight months, Mesplet and his journalist partner Valentin Jautard raised the ire of the establishment, particularly with the Bishop and members of the Roman Catholic clergy that placed pressure on the governor to have the publication shut down. The printing of Jautard’s critical column “Tant mieux, tant pis” proved to be the final straw for Haldimand who took the step of having the duo imprisoned for sedition. French Canadian historians, in particular, have been critical of Haldimand’s actions, which they argue constituted a purposeful censoring of a disciple of Enlightenment, [46] whose only crime was to criticize the failures of the British administration. [47] Indeed, history has not been kind to Haldimand who has been seen, by English- and French-language scholars alike, as a divisive force in the colony, whose approach led to an acrimonious split amongst colonists, which was exacerbated by the influx of loyalist refugees. As historian Hilda Neatby wrote, the old general was “rigid and obstinate … incapable of seeing beyond the code of behaviour instilled during long years of military service.” [48] Unsure of the depth of loyalty and support and fearful of the sway of a printer with known republican sentiments, the imprisonment of Mesplet and Jautard offers another example of the Swiss-general-turned-governor’s penchant to act forcefully in ensuring the stability of the colony during conflict.

It is clear that Haldimand was perceived as difficult and authoritarian by some of his contemporaries. Historians picking up on this contemporary impression have naturally extended his proclivities for order to his dealings with the press. However, several mitigating circumstances have traditionally been downplayed in the retelling of the Mesplet story. For example, the printer’s initial and continuing connection to the American Congress would not have endeared Mesplet to British authorities fighting a civil war. It should also be remembered that his arrest for sedition occurred at the height of the American Revolution and was made not immediately after the paper’s début, but rather after eight months of publication. Allowing a suspected enemy agent to publish demonstrates, if not a modicum of tolerance, at least a measured approach with regard to the printer. Since it is during this same period that Haldimand created the Quebec Library, his sponsoring of the institution, and belief in the instructive power of literature, could be considered unconventional and even enlightened. Haldimand clearly possessed a mind that craved order (which in itself was a trait that is not dissonant with the spirit of Enlightenment). For him, the creation of a library was a way not only to stem a perceived tide of ignorance, but also to bring unity and order to a province critically divided.

Admittedly, researching the origins of the Quebec Library and its early supporters and subscribers presents a difficult challenge. Sources that specifically address the library and its operations are extremely rare. In the expansive Haldimand Papers, for example, there are only a handful of letters that address the institution’s creation. [49] Frustratingly, there also exists the occasional reference to attached lists of books and additional correspondence, which long ago were removed from the core documents. Searches for this additional information have been unsuccessful. Similarly, there are only two known library catalogues from the era (1785 and 1796). [50] While offering a detailed picture of the growing collections, they can shed no light on what books were actually used. No lists of lenders and the books they checked out are known to have survived. Unlike the contemporary records of the Quebec Gazette, which include detailed subscription lists, clear evidence of the early Quebec Library members remains unknown.

On the other hand, Haldimand, his key advisors, and the early trustees of the library are documented. From these individuals, circles of known readers who were colleagues, neighbours, and friends can be projected. In spite of low literacy rates amongst French Canadians and, to a lesser extent, in the English-speaking community, there clearly was a core, literate community that benefited from the library. This colonial print community included merchants, clerks, members of the British army, lawyers, colonial bureaucrats, and their families. [51] For them, print shaped their daily lives, their fora of sociability, and offered a vehicle for their career advancement. Many of the individuals who were in this community are identified in lists of other sociable organizations such as Freemasonry, [52] the Quebec Agriculture Society, [53] the Quebec Benevolent Society, [54] or found amongst the business records of the Quebec Gazette[55] In order to piece together the early story of the library and its potential readership, a wide net has been cast to draw together disparate, yet valuable sources, newspaper announcements and advertisements, personal correspondence, commercial papers, and other contemporary accounts.

Indeed, the founding of the Quebec Library was no small task and the institution would not have come to fruition if it were not for the efforts of the literate residents of Quebec City, as well as transatlantic supporters. While primary sources are scarce, there is evidence that the printed word was of great importance to a growing English-language print community in the colony. Book auctions and printed catalogues of works for sale, for example, shed some light on the consumption and distribution of bound materials. The deaths of prominent colonial citizens, such as Attorney General Alexander Gray (d. 1791), [56] Chief Justice William Smith (1728–1793) [57], and medical practitioners Dr. Adam Mabane (1734–1792) [58] and Dr. James Bowman (d. 1787) [59], led to the publishing of such detailed catalogues. [60] When Quebec City merchant and inaugural library trustee Peter Fargues died in 1780, for example, 300 auction catalogues of his “books and furniture” were published emphasizing, “a choice collection of Books, French and English, by the most reputed authors.” [61]

Deaths, however, were not the only occasions for large book auctions. The peripatetic colonial lifestyle resulted in frequent moves throughout the Atlantic world. A 1787 auction in Lower Town, Quebec City, boasted, “a choice and large collection of books being the libraries of several gentlemen who have gone to Europe.” [62] Colonists with greater financial means, such Quebec Chief Justice William Smith, went to great lengths to move their personal libraries and avoid the spectre of auction and the unwelcome parting with some of their most prized assets. Writing to his wife Janet, Smith underscored the importance of moving his library in its entirety and without damage, concluding, “I Must have them as speedily as possible cost what they may.” [63] The concern and effort taken over the transport of libraries, by those who could do so, also gives a clear indication of the value that was placed upon printed materials in eighteenth-century Quebec.

For those of lesser means, books could be borrowed from one of the few early circulating libraries that existed or from neighbours and acquaintances in Quebec City. One example of a circulating library was run by Germain Langlois who both lent and sold publications. Operating out of the Upper Town Marketplace, he offered a diverse selection of books, “consisting of several Hundred volumes, in English and French, upon the most useful and entertaining subjects.” [64] A further testament to the value of print can be seen in the culture of personal book lending that also existed and, particularly, the efforts taken by owners to recover them when they had gone “lost.” Newspaper advertisements requesting the return of borrowed books were common, for example, when a reader of the Quebec Herald asked for the return of the “4th volume of Marmontel’s moral tales — octavo” lent in the summer to “some gentlemen or a lady of this city.” [65] Upon the death of the prominent merchant James Grant in 1789, his widow announced in the Quebec Gazette, “all those who have BOOKS belonging to the late Mr. James Grant, are requested to return them immediately to Mrs. Grant.” [66] Similarly, an advertisement found in the Quebec Gazette in the 1790s concerned a volume of that quintessentially Scottish tome of instruction that had gone astray:

Missing: The second part of the 15th volume of the Edinburgh Encyclopaedia Britannica, supposed to have been lent, or taken by mistake, from the Shop of James Ainslie, Stationer. Any person who has it will do a favour to the Proprietor by returning it to Mr. Neilson. [67]

The perception that there was a growing community of readers in Quebec is underscored by the fact that the trustees of the Quebec Library used the press to promote the institution. The initial plans for the Quebec Library were published (undoubtedly just behind the crest of the usual wave of gossip and town talk) in January of 1779. “A SUBSCRIPTION has been commenced for establishing a PUBLICK LIBRARY for the city and District of Quebec,” read an unassuming advertisement in the Quebec Gazette. “It has met with the Approbation of His Excellency the Governor and of the Bishop, and,” the announcement continued, “it is hoped that an Institution so peculiarly useful in this Country will be generally encouraged.” [68] The main intention of the meeting was to solicit and bring together subscribers and from that body elect officials to run the new institution. Initially, the colonial community of readers, through vehicles such as the Quebec Gazette, were also encouraged to donate or sell their own books to the library. “Those who have any Books, for which they have no immediate use,” secretary Arthur Davidson announced in the Gazette, “are requested to send a Catalogue thereof, with prices, edition and condition of them … so (if approved of) the Trustees may inspect and purchase them for the use of the Library.” [69] The existence of such announcements further offer evidence that an engaged and sophisticated community of readers was believed to exist in the capital.

While there are no extant membership rolls, it appears from ancillary sources that the library was exclusively a male organization. Public announcements to the members in local newspapers addressed them as “Gentlemen subscribers proprietors,” [70] “Subscribers Proprietors,” [71] or just “subscribers.” [72] These announcements informed subscribers of library meetings and frequently chastised them for being late in paying their annual dues. [73] Unlike the Agriculture Society of Quebec (an exclusively male group) that frequently published the names of its members in almanacs and newspapers, only the librarian and trustees of the Quebec Library were publicly named. The fact that women may not have been allowed membership, however, is not surprising in an era when most public organizations were reserved for men. Library members were expected to pay fees, vote, and debate each other over the proper operations of the organization. These were all activities that were normally considered part of the masculine domain of colonial society. That is not to say that women were not readers. Since the era of novelist Frances Brooke, avid female readers could be found in Quebec’s English-language community. [74] Women forwarded passages of literary works in their correspondence, or discussed books in private gatherings. Local newspapers and, later, magazines addressed both “gentlemen and ladies” alike, printers often included articles believed to resonate with the female readers, and, as was shown earlier, one poor lender could not remember if his books had been borrowed by a man or a woman. In Quebec City, literate women attended public lectures, school examinations, theatre, coffee houses, balls, and other public events. Nonetheless, they were most likely unwelcome, or felt unwelcome, at the library organized in the manner of a gentleman’s club and situated in a private reading room of the Bishop’s Palace alongside the offices of the colonial administration.

From the earliest printed proposals, the Quebec Library was described as a “public library.” Using the term public to describe an eighteenth-century library, however, can be seen as problematic by modern observers. First, the particular public that frequented the early library was limited, most likely excluding women and favouring English-speaking patrons who were, or fashioned themselves as, being gentlemanly. Second, the term public library has normally been reserved for those institutions the foundations of which were laid, through British legislation, 70 years later, setting the stage for the current model of publicly-funded libraries. [75] It is a model that was quickly adopted in the mid-nineteenth century in the United States, Canada, and other Western countries. Indeed, the Quebec Library followed more closely the eighteenth-century framework of the subscription library with one major exception. Subscription libraries were institutions that operated solely through user fees and were run by a board of trustees elected from the paying membership. However, the Quebec Library was different as the costs of its founding and early operations were subsidized by public funds. This initial outlay of public funding and the eighteenth-century usage of the term public has led some literary historians to describe the institution as the first public library in Canada. [76] Considering this auspicious achievement, the Quebec Library has today become little more than a literary footnote. In both the English- and French-language historiography, the library — if noted at all — is addressed almost always in a cursory fashion. It has become merely an item to check off on lists of colonial cultural attainments without much explanation of its origins, or early influence on Quebec society. [77]

One has to wonder why the Quebec Library does not figure more prominently in contemporary histories of Canada. This situation may be partly due to few extant sources that detail the operations of the institution. It may also be partly explained by the fact that its creator Frederick Haldimand has not been remembered for his literary legacy, but rather for censorship, stubbornness, and authoritarian control. The Quebec Library has also been overshadowed by the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec, an institution formed in 1824, which remains Canada’s oldest continuing literary society. [78] The Quebec Library’s collections were rolled into the newer institution [79] and, as bad luck would have it, were almost entirely destroyed by subsequent fires (which also made short work of the Literary Society’s collections of historical manuscripts). Finally, the Quebec Library’s lack of prominence in the current collective memory may also be a result of what some see as its relatively late arrival on the library scene of North America. The libraries that have been commemorated as being ground-breaking or unique include institutions such as Franklin’s Book Company, or the public libraries of Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, or New York. [80] Indeed, these are the institutions that spring to mind when the public are pressed to remember the eighteenth-century library in North America. When viewed next to the contemporary British North American centres such as New York, Boston, or Philadelphia, the Quebec Library does indeed appear retrograde. Yet a much different picture emerges when the Quebec Library is seen in comparison to the provincial libraries of Great Britain and Ireland. Historians argue that the second half of the eighteenth century was the golden age of the subscription library in Britain. Notable subscription libraries emerged at Liverpool (1758), Manchester (1765), Leeds (1768), Sheffield (1771), and Hull (1775), admittedly all in the years before the creation of the Quebec Library. [81] The vast majority of subscription libraries in Great Britain and Ireland, however, were not founded until after 1780. [82] Taking this wider perspective into account, it can be argued that Quebec — particularly in literary terms — developed more in the mould of provincial Britain. The establishment of the Quebec Library was part of, if not a bit ahead of, a simultaneous eighteenth-century movement that saw the founding of subscription libraries in the smaller cities across Great Britain and Ireland.

As shown above, Haldimand believed that the Quebec Library could be an intellectual bulwark against republicanism and a means to ameliorate the perceived ignorance of many French Canadians. Haldimand also believed that a library could also bring together the French and British peoples of the colony, again not by force, but through the expression of ideas. Writing to Richard Cumberland on the plan behind the library, Haldimand confided: “I hope, it will greatly tend to promote a more perfect coalition of sentiments, and union of Interests, between the old and new subjects of the Crown, than has hitherto subsisted.” [83] This desire to bring together the different peoples of Quebec through literature appears to have been sincere and is further corroborated by his refusal to open the library in 1780 when it was discovered that the much-anticipated shipment of books only contained English-language titles. In order “to prevent jealousy,” Haldimand requested that no announcement of the shipment be made until the French books arrived. [84] From our postcolonial perspective, many of his motivations, especially the education of “ignorant” French Canadians and the desire to impose unity, seem distasteful. They were, nonetheless, true to the prevailing strains of Enlightenment ideology which sought to remove ignorance and superstition, promote useful knowledge and experience, and create order from chaos.

By contemporary newspaper accounts, Haldimand’s proposal for a library was well received. At the end of the first public meeting, a secretary, treasurer, and five trustees had been elected. The idea of a library was so well liked that it was also agreed that the institution, initially proposed for the region of Quebec City, be expanded to subscribers in Montreal. [85] Fifteen days later, treasurer Peter Lister ordered 200 receipts from the Quebec Gazette printing office, half in English and half in French to facilitate the loan of materials, even though an exact date of opening for the new library was still unknown. [86] In spite of an initial £5 fee and a commitment to a subsequent yearly charge of £2, subscriptions to the yet-to-be-built library, it was reported, proved popular. By March 1779, Governor Haldimand observed, “plusieurs prêtres, presque tous les marchants Anglois & plusieurs Canadiens” had already subscribed and he had to move quickly to acquire books, so as not to “laisser refroider le zele de ces messieurs.” [87] Trying to capitalize upon this public support, the library trustees — as we have seen — first turned to the public to acquire books for the fledgling institution. Later, Haldimand entrusted Richard Cumberland with £500 to purchase books and also asked Cumberland to assist the trustees in the selection of appropriate publications. [88]

Building the Library Collection

In spite of the perceived willingness exhibited in the community, the American Revolution delayed shipments of new books and otherwise engaged library supporters in military activities. One incident, both notable and mysterious, occurred in 1781 when the American privateer Pilgrim attacked the British vessel Mars in the Irish Sea. [89] On board the Mars was a cache of books destined for Canada from the Irish natural philosopher and chemist Richard Kirwan. [90] The contents of the Mars were taken to Salem, Massachusetts, and put up for sale. The collection consisted of almost 300 scientific works, including l’Histoire de l’Académie Royale des Sciences (1699–1758), Philosophical Transactions at Large of the Royal Society of London (1753–1780), as well as various items authored by Newton, Rohault, Bernouilli, Boyle, Priestly, Buffon, and Franklin. The entire collection was purchased by three Salem ministers and formed the backbone of the newly created Salem Philosophical Library. [91]

One of the three ministers, the Reverend Dr. William Bentley of Salem, reflecting upon this incident in 1790, wrote, “in the War a Library including Philosophical Transactions, &c. was taken going to Canada.” [92] Could these books on natural philosophy have been destined for the Quebec Library? Unfortunately, Bentley does not specify where in Canada the books were destined. However, the Rev. Joseph Willard — who stored the Salem library collection at his house for a time — does shed more light on the subject. He writes that the books, the former property of Richard Kirwan, had been intended for an institution in Quebec. [93] Was this a case of Quebec’s loss being Salem’s gain? Was this “institution” that had its books taken on the high seas the fledgling Quebec Library? If so, it would provide further evidence of the transatlantic network of supporters behind the library and underscores how, from the very beginning, an importance was placed on the collections being scientific in nature. Unfortunately, there is no evidence in the Haldimand Papers to corroborate a connection with Kirwan. Nonetheless, fostering such a prominent relationship was in character for Haldimand, who delegated the acquisition of books to individuals with transatlantic connections, such as the colonial agent and dramatist Richard Cumberland.

Little has been made about Haldimand’s contact with Cumberland, which is surprising considering that he was one of the most famous English-language playwrights of the era. Haldimand’s shrewdness once again is demonstrated in his decision to contact Cumberland for help purchasing the library’s books. Richard Cumberland was born in Trinity College, Cambridge, where he later studied and become a lay fellow. [94] After graduation, he held a variety of patronage posts in the growing colonial bureaucracy. In the 1760s, he was made the colonial agent for Nova Scotia and wrote his first plays. His experiences with the Board of Trade and Plantations clearly gave him artistic inspiration and his play The West Indian was an immediate hit with London audiences when it opened in 1771. [95] The play recounts the story of a young colonial libertine who charms courtly London through his unrefined ways. [96] The story also had a transatlantic appeal, being one of most watched plays in the theatres of Halifax and Quebec City over the following decades. For example, The West Indian was shown no less that three times in the mid-1780s in both Halifax and Quebec City. [97] Cumberland’s later plays were also popular in the colonies. The Fashionable Lover, for example, débuted at Drury-Lane in 1772 and played Quebec in 1786. Likewise, The Natural Son débuted at Drury-Lane in 1785 and was shown in Quebec in 1786. [98]

It appears, however, that Cumberland’s various literary and political interests adversely affected his work as colonial agent. While his plays may have been popular, colonial officials in Nova Scotia believed that their interests were not well served by Cumberland and asked for his removal after the Revolutionary War. [99] It also appears that Cumberland was not officially the agent for Quebec and even admitted in his memoirs that he never learned French. [100] Thus, Haldimand’s choice of Cumberland seems to have been solely because of his political and literary connections, not because it was part of his official job description, nor for his reputation as an effective civil servant. For Cumberland’s part, there is no mention of Haldimand’s task in his memoirs instead recounting the March 1779 premiere of his opera Calypso [101] and his 1780 departure to Spain to act as a special peace envoy. [102] Nonetheless, Haldimand’s choice and continued correspondence with Cumberland illustrates the governor’s vision of creating a first-rate, modern library inspired by the selections of one of the British Empire’s foremost playwrights.

With the end of the conflict in 1783 came a renewed interest in the institution. To encourage paying members, a new and substantially cheaper subscription rate of 20 shillings per year for a non-voting member and 30 shillings a year for a full-member was instituted. [103] The earliest known catalogue dates to 1785 offering a complete list of French and English titles available to library subscribers. When the library was established, the public was informed, “the Books will be lent out to the Subscribers according to Regulations which are forming by the Trustees,” and were assured that, “particular attention will be given that no Books contrary to Religion, or good Morals, will be permitted.” [104] Under such a mandate, and considering the composition of the initial board of two judges, two established merchants, and the newly appointed superior of the Séminaire de Québec, one might be inclined to think that censorship would be unavoidable.

A deeper look at the lives of the initial trustees, however, reveals a more politically and socially eclectic group than one would expect. The trustees hailed from Great Britain, France, and the colonies and were all well-educated. The secretary, Arthur Davidson, for example, was a noted lawyer and legal clerk who had a Master of Arts from King’s College, Aberdeen. [105] Trustee Adam Mabane, former military surgeon, Seven Years’ War veteran, and justice for the Court of Common Pleas was a Scot who was most likely educated in Edinburgh. Henri-François Gravé de la Rive was a Roman Catholic priest educated at the Académie de Paris and the Sorbonne[106] The origins of Trustee Peter Fargues, a French-Canadian merchant, are something of a mystery, but he was a bibliophile of the highest order and possessed a large library. Politically, men such as Farques and Mabane were personal friends of Haldimand and members of what was called the French Party, a cadre that supported the continued accommodation of French law, language, and culture in the province often in opposition to English merchant and United Empire Loyalist demands. [107] However, others in the group were not of the ruling political stripe including men such as Sir James Monk, known not to be on the best terms with Haldimand. Over the next decades, the composition of the trustees continued to be varied in ethnicity and political allegiances. [108]

The books that eventually made it on the shelves of the Quebec Library reflect the diverse education and origins of this group and the tastes of the era in which they lived. Printer William Moore observed that library held “an extensive collection of useful and entertaining books.” Being useful and, in particular, exhibiting useful knowledge, was a common preoccupation throughout the eighteenth-century British Atlantic. [109] The early supporters of the Quebec Library were not immune to this belief and saw the printed word as a key means of diffusion of both current and practical knowledge deemed requisite to all learned people. While few documents remain concerning the creation and operation of the Quebec Library, the extant library catalogues shed light on the useful and entertaining knowledge that was made available to subscribers. It should be observed that library catalogues, in general, do not necessarily reveal what items were actually read. Instead, they provide an overview of the entire collection and some idea of what books were perceived to be popular or deemed to be necessary. In the first known catalogue of books, the English titles were divided into eight and the French titles into ten separate categories. The trustees did approve some books that were clearly not contrary to religion and good morals. For example, in addition to the Holy Bible and various prayer books, the works that fell under the category of “Religion” also included dictionaries of the Bible, sermons, and essays on faith. In the French-language catalogue, the titles run along similar lines with the addition of some counter-Enlightenment works, such as Les Erreurs de Voltaire, par Abbé Nonnote (1770) and the Anti Dictionnaire Philosophique (1775).

Figure 1

Quebec Library, English Titles 1785

Quebec Library, English Titles 1785

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However, considering the stated attention to the propriety of reading materials and the background of the institution’s trustees, it is interesting to note that of the Quebec Library’s initial 196 titles in English only 20 were classified specifically to concern “Religion.” Of the institution’s 206 French-language titles, an even smaller 11 were classified under “Religion.” [110] The same trustees who had approved Biblical dictionaries and counter-Enlightenment works also approved the acquisition of a complete set of the Dictionnaire Encyclopedie in French — that quintessential tome of the French Enlightenment — as well as 40 volumes of Voltaire’s works in French and 39 volumes in English. [111] Thus, the surviving catalogues offer a glimpse of what could be seen as the underlying spirit of Enlightenment amongst library trustees and early library supporters in the colony.

Figure 2

Quebec Library, English Titles 1785

Quebec Library, English Titles 1785

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Over the next ten years, the Quebec Library’s collections grew by 278 English-language and 90 French-language titles resulting in over 1,000 volumes. [112] While the number of titles in the French- and English-language “Religion” section grew, they did not keep pace with the general increase elsewhere and actually declined as a percentage of the entire collection. [113] Instead, books written by modern authors on topics including politics, history, exploration, and science flourished in the catalogue. The names of the authors found in the Quebec Library’s catalogue offer a who’s who of popular eighteenth-century writers, including Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, Lord Kames, Tobias Smollett, Lawrence Sterne, Henry Fielding, and Oliver Goldsmith. [114] Beside the names of more classical “English” moral philosophers, such as John Locke and Francis Bacon, could also found the names of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Montesquieu, Bernard Mandeville, and Voltaire. [115] The choices illustrate how the library’s trustees tried to remain au courant with intellectual trends of the era. Even changes that occurred over the decade in popular reading can be seen in subtle alterations in the organizational rubrics of the catalogue. For example, in an era when the vernacular had become the principle vehicle of Enlightenment discourse, books written in classical languages were separated from the general collection and relegated into their own category of “Greek and Latin Books.” As the core languages of Western instruction were becoming peripheral to the eighteenth-century public, so too did they become isolated in the Quebec Library. In a similar vein, the original category of “Mathematics, Natural and Moral Philosophy” that existed in the 1785 catalogue used Early Modern terms to classify works that dealt with the inquiry of nature and expression of ideas. By the printing of the 1796 catalogue, this category had been altered to include the more common terms for natural and moral philosophy and was renamed “Sciences, Arts and Literature.” Furthermore, the term “novels” — which had become a literary mainstay since the budding of the genre in the mid-eighteenth century — was added to the 1785 category of “Miscellanies, Poetry and Plays” to form the new category of “Poetry, Plays and Novels.” From what can be gleaned, not only were modern publications chosen for the library, the ways in which the collection was organized was also subject to changes in contemporary lexicon and public taste.

Figure 3

Quebec Library, English Titles 1796

Quebec Library, English Titles 1796

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A review of the catalogues of the Quebec Library can only provide a small glimpse of publications that were available to the reading public, yet it is nonetheless an important one. Unlike books available on the free market, calculated by booksellers to appeal to taste and turn profit, the publications in the state-run Quebec Library were vetted by a committee and judged by their standards of propriety. In a situation ripe for censorship, the trustees eschewed potentially divisive works of an overtly religious nature. Instead, publications were selected that were purposely “useful” and “amusing,” often by popular French, British, and British American authors. Tellingly, the initial collection of the Quebec Library was not dissimilar to that found in subscription libraries elsewhere in the British Atlantic world, where, as book historians David Allan and Mark Towsey have argued, an “enlightenment corpus” was sought by patrons and acquired by trustees. [116] Not only did the Quebec Library exhibit an enlightenment corpus, the types of books and the way in which they were organized demonstrated a continuing understanding of the changes in popular intellectual and literary culture. In a twist of irony, Haldimand, having bowed to the pressure of the Roman Catholic bishop and other colonial officials in arresting Mesplet and Jautard, had at the same time created an institution where ideas deemed too controversial for public diffusion in the French language at Montreal could be read in both French and English in Quebec.

Haldimand could be obstinate and was clearly disliked by some of his contemporaries. However, his difficult personality does not mean that he was impervious to the greater intellectual and cultural currents of the late eighteenth-century British Atlantic. To the contrary, his Quebec Library had a well-defined purpose: to educate the public, diffuse useful knowledge, and bring together the French and English peoples of the colony — all in the middle of a civil war. As such, the library can be considered as a rare example of a state-sponsored Enlightenment project in eighteenth-century North America. Quebec’s relative isolation on the imperial periphery did not diminish the ambitions of Haldimand who used his high-profile connections to find and purchase the latest publications enjoyed elsewhere. While Haldimand’s actions could be unpopular with the inhabitants of Quebec, his plan to create a library resonated with like-minded, literate subjects that supported the institution during its precarious early years. The early trustees and supporters of the library were an eclectic group drawn from the colonial print community, a group of merchants, lawyers, clergy, military men, and civic officials not dissimilar to those who supported subscription libraries elsewhere in the British Atlantic. The early collections offered what can be considered an Enlightenment corpus of works in both French and English that was, as the printer William Moore observed, both “useful and entertaining.” Sometimes forgotten, sometimes seen as unremarkable or even behind the times, when viewed from a transatlantic perspective the Quebec Library should be seen as being of the times in both its foibles and it achievements, an institution inspired by the far-reaching social, cultural, political, and intellectual movement that was the Enlightenment.

Parties annexes

Parties annexes