Quebec in the World History of Democracy

Canada and the World invites prominent scholars from across the country to discuss Canada’s relationship to the wider world, and the ways in which history has shaped its international relationships. Series editor: Kyle Pritchard.

In this article, Allan Greer invites a re-evaluation of Quebec as a pioneer of democracy, challenging conventional narratives of societal progress and contributing to the global struggle for representation and equality. The globalization of Quebec’s history is increasingly recognized by historians who explore its connections to national, imperial, Atlantic, North American and international contexts. Drawing on recent publications, Greer examines the influence of French-Canadians, as well as Indigenous nations, on the history of democracy. The long history of Quebec before Confederation underscores its important role in shaping democratic ideals within Canada and influencing global political movements.

FOR SOME TIME NOW, we have been witnessing the globalization of the history of Quebec (the word is an intentional anachronism in the context of the period before 1867, used to designate Canada at the time of New France, the “province of Quebec” and Lower Canada). In examining the history of Quebec, historians are increasingly sensitive to the imperial, Atlantic, North American and the Americas contexts, and concerned to identify the links that connect Quebec phenomena to the major currents of history.[1] At the same time, some researchers in other parts of the world are starting to turn to Quebec cases to better understand a past that goes beyond the limits of a single country. A series of recent publications highlight the role of Quebec in the history of democracy, a term that I use in its broad sense to designate ideas and actions favouring popular political power.  Of these works, I would like to review some which, in my opinion, deserve more attention from historians of Quebec.

The Ethnography of Freedom

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, by British archaeologist David Wengrow and the late American anthropologist David Graeber, is a very ambitious study that seeks to rethink the cultural and political evolution of humanity over millennia.[2] The authors reject any notion of progress in stages. Since the 18th century, it has been imagined that the human species, originally composed of hunter-gatherers, advanced first to agrarian and urban civilization, and then to industrial civilization and modernity. Jean-Jacques Rousseau deplored the inequality and loss of freedom that accompanied the adoption of agriculture since it led to the emergence of property, social classes and the exploitation of the peasantry by urban elites. Others have celebrated this same progress toward what they consider a better future. On the other hand, though, like Rousseau, they subscribe to ​​a metanarrative of abrupt breaks, known as the “agricultural revolution” and the “industrial revolution.” Graeber and Wengrow challenge this model in all its aspects, invoking highly hierarchical hunter-gatherer societies and early urban and agricultural societies that would have been rather egalitarian. More fundamentally, they reject the idea that certain lifestyles are superior to others and “more evolved.”

Joseph-François Lafitau, Moeurs des Sauvages Ameriquains Comparées aux Mœurs des Premiers Temps, vol. 2. Paris: Chef Saugrain l’aîné, Charles Estienne Hochereau, 1724: 314.  [Library of Congress]

A case on which the authors of The Dawn of Everything dwell in order to subvert the notion of a hierarchy of civilizations and universal progress is that of the influence of the Indigenous people of New France on European thinkers of the Enlightenment. They are not the first to draw a link between the freedom of North Americans, as described in the writings of travellers and French missionaries, and that of the philosophes: far from it.[3] However, our authors go further than others in attributing not only the general idea of ​​freedom, but also an entire democratic culture, to the example of the First Nations. According to Graeber and Wengrow, Europe developed not only the ideal of individual freedom, but also political procedures that valued diversity of opinion and public debate under the influence of the Indigenous people of New France. Attributing the political modernity of Europe directly to the Iroquoian peoples is, of course, a bold claim.

The Jesuits of New France acquired, through their immersion in Indigenous cultures, knowledge that we would call linguistic and ethnographic. They translated this knowledge into an avalanche of manuscripts and printed works. Their voluminous texts fuelled a current of exoticism in French intellectual circles, and a tendency to think about human nature through reflections on the Other. In the 18th century, this Other was often Persian or Chinese, but also “Huron” or “Montagnais.” And what did the French learn from the Natives, through Jesuits reports? In addition to knowledge of languages ​​and kinship systems, they learned some political lessons that flowed from the practices the Jesuits observed among the Wendat and Haudenosaunee.

The missionaries came, of course, from a Europe where it was assumed that authority played an essential role in maintaining good order – whether it was the authority of God in heaven or that of his representatives on earth, that is to say, the king and his magistrates. They were initially scandalized by the freedom that reigned among the Innu, the Algonquins and the Wendat. Father Jérôme Lalemant found that it was more difficult in New France than in any other country in the world to impose the “laws of Jesus Christ.”  His explanation: “I do not believe that there is any people on earth freer than they, and less able to allow the subjection of their wills to any power whatever.”[4]  Other Jesuits would add to the list of deplorable Indigenous liberties the lack of submission of women and the fact that in matters of sexuality, they were mistresses of their own bodies.

On the whole, freedom had a bad press in the 17th century. In the political sphere, Thomas Hobbes was not alone in believing that the fierce and selfish tendencies of men would inevitably lead to violence and chaos in the absence of restraints imposed by a powerful authority. Imagine the astonishment of the Jesuits when they saw the peace and goodwill that reigned within these free societies. Over the years, they worked to explain the mystery of the coexistence of freedom and social cohesion. They found that the explanation lay partly in the psychological upbringing of the Wendat from early childhood, which trained them in tolerance and respect for others. However, they found another aspect of the question particularly fascinating. The Iroquoian peoples knew how to manage their collective affairs through open councils, where public matters were discussed until a consensus was reached.

Joseph-François Lafitau, Moeurs des sauvages ameriquains comparées aux mœurs des premiers temps, vol. 2, (Paris: Chef Saugrain l’aîné, Charles Estienne Hochereau, 1724): 314. [Library of Congress]

For Graeber and Wengrow, this emphasis amongst Indigenous peoples on rhetoric and reasoned discussion constitutes the counterpart of freedom, both among the Wendat of the 17th century and among the philosophers of the 18th century. These authors recall that with regard to the values ​​of freedom, tolerance, equality between the sexes, and free and reasoned debate, the Indigenous people of the 17th century seem closer to us, in our modernity, than to their European contemporaries.[5] This fact alone had major historical repercussions. Because it appears to have been exactly this form of debate – rational, sceptical, empirical, conversational in tone – which before long came to be identified with the European Enlightenment as well. And, just like the Jesuits, Enlightenment thinkers and democratic revolutionaries saw it as intrinsically connected with the rejection of arbitrary authority, particularly that which had long been assumed by the clergy.

A Lower Canada at the Forefront of Democracy

The turbulent political history of Lower Canadian is well known to historians. Although the parliamentary system inaugurated in 1792 had established an exceptionally democratic House of Assembly, in the sense that a strong majority of men (and a certain number of women) had the right to vote, Lower Canada remained subject to a British empire, which, following the bad experience of the American Revolution, was determined to limit the influence of assemblies elected by the people. A long struggle ensued, peppered with debates on finances, on the role of magistrates and on relations between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary, to preserve and extend the authority of the assembly. This fight was led by a handful of politicians and journalists recruited mainly from the liberal professions, but ordinary people were increasingly brought into the struggle.

It was at this time that the mass petition became an important instrument for asserting popular demands. In Lower Canada, it had a considerable impact on politics during the 1820s. Faced with the project of a union of Lower and Upper Canada aimed at diluting the political force of French Canadians, the people rose in opposition, expressing their feelings in a mass petition with an unprecedented number of signatures. Louis-Joseph Papineau brought the text to London with 60,000 names attached, and the union project was quickly abandoned. In 1827, a new petition attracted 87,000 signatures, this time to protest against the authoritarianism and francophobic prejudices of the governor, Lord Dalhousie. The petitioning strategy bore fruit: a committee of the British House of Commons agreed with the Lower Canadian demands and the governor was dismissed. Other campaigns focused on collecting signatures followed during the troubled period of the 1830s, but the major petitions of 1822 and 1827 stand out both for their scale and for their precocity in the international context.

Political scientist Daniel Carpenter of Harvard University has conducted in-depth research on the phenomenon of the petition as an essential instrument of democracy in the 19th century in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.[6] He considers petitions to have greatly contributed to the political education of people in the West during this period. First, petitions are based on an implicitly democratic logic: listen to our demands, the signatories seem to say, because there are many of us. Second, according to Carpenter, the process of collecting signatures constitutes an exercise in mass politicization, regardless of the content of the request and without regard to the response from those in power. After all, democracy is not simply a matter of holding elections every four or five years: it is also a political culture where citizens follow debates on public affairs and are capable of taking action between elections.

Across the North American continent, Daniel Carpenter finds a whole range of petitions and petitionary mobilizations, the largest associated with the campaign for the abolition of slavery in the United States. That movement took shape in the 1830s and reached its climax around 1847. Also in the decade of the 1840s, there was host of assemblies and petitions in favour of temperance, women’s suffrage, Indigenous rights and the demands of industrial workers. It was this tide of petitions that propelled the United States (and Canada) towards a profound democratization of society.  Lower Canada has a special place, according to Carpenter, in the international history of this “political technology” by virtue of its early and highly effective use of petitions.

The International Influence of the Patriot Rebellion

When the Patriots of Lower Canada rose up against the colonial government and the British Empire, the rest of the world was not indifferent. The crisis of 1837 began with Lord John Russell’s Ten Resolutions categorically rejecting the demands of the Patriot-controlled Lower Canadian assembly; at the same time, the British ordered troops to converge on the province. The first voices raised in protest against this aggressive intransigence—well before the news reached Canada—were those of English workers.  British historian Malcolm Chase has drawn attention to this metropolitan campaign against the Ten Resolutions and insists that their mobilization in support of the Lower Canadian Patriots had a major impact on the subsequent evolution of the democratic movement in England.[7]

The great issue in 1830s Britain was the franchise and the demand to extend the parliamentary suffrage beyond a small minority of wealthy property owners. In spring 1837, a new group of radical workers, the Working Men’s Association of London, convened a public meeting to demand the democratization of the country; they demanded universal male suffrage, annual parliaments, voting by secret ballot and salaries for deputies. It was just at that moment, Russell’s Ten Resolutions, together with the movement of troops, were announced. These resolutions proposed to withdraw the financial powers of the House of Assembly of Lower Canada and to impose an executive dictatorship in the colony. It was a package that scandalized the democrats of the Working Men’s Association and, at their meeting in London, they devoted much more attention to colonial affairs than to national politics. Like Papineau and the Patriots, these British workers were convinced that the Whig government was targeting the popular element in the colonies, attempting to impose aristocratic rule on the Canadas.

The Working Men of London encouraged the Lower Canadians, but the influence was not unidirectional. In his recent study, Malcolm Chase reveals the importance of this meeting where a close connection was drawn between the campaign for democracy in Great Britain and the Canadas’ struggle for freedom. Chase considers this 1837 meeting to be the starting point for the greatest working-class movement of the 19th century, which came to be known as Chartism. Adopting the technique of mass petitioning, the Chartists took up the resolutions of the Working Men’s Association of London on suffrage, the holding of elections, etc. in a giant petition they called “The People’s Charter” (hence the term “Chartists”). The first people’s charter circulated in 1838 and in one year, collected 1.3 million signatures; a second petition would be presented to parliament in 1842 with approximately 3.5 million signatures; in 1848 another gigantic petition saw the light of day, but it provoked massive repression involving 100,000 police officers. The movement subsequently lost momentum, but it still had a profound effect on British democracy and on the political education of the working class.

The early Chartists, Malcolm Chase maintains, were preoccupied with the Canadian Rebellion and its suppression. Allusions to “brave Canadians” and the atrocities committed by the British army at Saint-Charles and Saint-Eustache peppered speeches and correspondence about the People’s Charter at the beginning of the movement. Without claiming that the Canadian Rebellion caused Chartism, he remains convinced that this colonial conflict profoundly shaped it. British workers were shocked by the ferocity of the repression in Lower Canada and feared that their own plans for democracy would provoke a similar reaction. In the absence of this North American confrontation, they could have allied themselves with the Whigs, the more liberal party in parliament, but because it was the Whigs and not the more aristocratic Tories, who repressed the Patriots, there was no longer any question of aligning with them; the Chartists remained independent of the political groups in place.[8]  The Rebellion also strengthened the “physical force” wing of Chartism against the pacifist “moral force” wing.

In the United States, the Rebellion of the Canadas had a considerable impact, as evidenced by two recent works by Julien Mauduit and Maxime Dagenais.[9] I will focus less on them because these books are quite well known in Quebec (or should be). We learn from Dagenais that, for more than a year, Canadian events dominated American newspapers more than any other foreign news. A wave of assemblies and demonstrations of support swept across the country, especially in the northern states, where there was a strong current of sympathy and revolutionary nostalgia. However, President Van Buren’s administration, aware of the United States’ dependence on British finances, sent troops to the border to suppress any attempt to aid the Canadian revolutionaries.

A conflict between the citizens of the border states, largely on the side of the Patriots, and a frankly hostile federal government brought down the governor of Michigan and, according to Mauduit, contributed to the defeat of Martin Van Buren in the 1840 election.[10] Mauduit traces the link that united Canadian Patriots and left-wing Democrats, so disgusted with Van Buren’s party that they founded new groups, such as the Equal Rights Party (the “Locofocos”). Presenting themselves as spokespersons for true republicanism, the Locofocos and other “true republicans” shared the same principles as the Patriots of Lower Canada with whom they were in dialogue. Between 1837 and 1839, radical artisans in the United States drew inspiration from a Canadian republic in the making, hoping it would be purified by the fires of a new revolution.


The works of Graeber and Wengrow, Malcolm Chase and Daniel Carpenter give us three external points of view on the history of early Quebec, with an invitation to rethink some aspects of that history. Canadian historians are well aware that, from New France to Lower Canada, this territory did not develop in isolation, but we tend to imagine a population that absorbed influences from Europe and the United States. Reading these authors, we see that Quebec was not a passive partner in this international dialogue. On the contrary: the Iroquoian and French-Canadian peoples appear at times as pioneers of democracy who served as models in distant countries. In the long international struggle for democracy and equality, Quebec has played a leading role for centuries. Here then is one more reason to continue on the path towards more global perspectives on our field.



[1] Some examples: Dominique Deslandres, Croire et faire croire: les missions françaises au XVIIe siècle (1600-1650), (Paris: Fayard, 2003); Allan Greer, La Nouvelle-France et le monde. (Montréal: Boréal, 2009); Ollivier Hubert and François Furstenberg, eds., Entangling the Quebec Act: Transnational Contexts, Meanings, and Legacies in North America and the British Empire, (Montréal and Kingston, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020).

[2] David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. (London: Allen Lane, 2021).

[3] Gilbert Chinard, L’Amérique et le rêve exotique dans la littérature française au XVIIe et au XVIIIe siècle, (Paris, Hachette, 1913); Anthony Pagden, European Encounters with the New World, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993, 117-181); Denys Delâge, “L’influence des Amérindiens sur les Canadiens et les Français au temps de la Nouvelle-France,” Lekton 2, no. 2 (1992): 103-191; David Allen Harvey, The French Enlightenment and Its Others: The Mandarin, the Savage, and the Invention of the Human Sciences. (New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

[4] Reuben Thwaites, ed., The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, vol 28, (Cleveland, Burrows Brothers, 1896–1900): 48, quoted in Graeber and Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything, 41-42.

[5] Graeber and Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. (London: Allen Lane, 2021): 46.

[6] Daniel Carpenter, Democracy by Petition: Popular Politics in Transformation, 1790–1870, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2021). See also Allan Greer, “Democracy, Petitions and Legitimation,” in a forum on Democracy by Petition in Social Science History 47, 1 (2023): 150-153.

[7] Malcolm Chase, “’Brothers under Oppression’: Chartists and the Canadian Rebellions of 1837-8,” in The Chartists: Perspectives and Legacies (London: Merlin Press, 2015), 28-46.

[8] Chase, “’Brothers under Oppression’,” 42.

[9] Maxime Dagenais and Julien Mauduit, eds., Revolutions across Borders: Jacksonian America and the Canadian Rebellion, (Montréal and Kingston, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019); Julien Mauduit, La Guerre d’Indépendance des Canadas. Démocratie, Républicanismes et Libéralismes en Amérique du Nord, (Montréal and Kingston, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2022).

[10] Mauduit, La Guerre d’Indépendance des Canadas, 210.

This article is a condensed and translated version of a text that first appeared as “Le Québec dans l’histoire mondiale de la démocatie, 1640-1840,” in the online journal Histoire engagée, 6 September 2023:  Reproduced with the permission of Histoire engagée.

Allan Greer is professor emeritus of History at McGill University. Specializing in the early history of Canada in the context of the Americas and the Atlantic World, Greer has published, among other works, Peasant, Lord and Merchant: Rural Society in Three Quebec Parishes, 1740-1840; The Patriots and the People: The Rebellion of 1837 in Rural Lower Canada; Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits; and Property and Dispossession: Natives, Empires and Land in Early Modern North America. These books have won a number of national and international prizes. Greer is currently writing a 15,000 year “deep history” of Canada. He has been awarded residential fellowships at Cambridge University, l’Institut d’études avancées in Paris, the British Library and the John Carter Brown Library. His work benefited from a Guggenheim and a Killam fellowship, and he recently received the Royal Society of Canada’s J.B. Tyrell Historical Medal.