Patrick Lacroix, "Tous Nous Serait Possible" (Non-fiction) 

Review by David Vermette

PATRICK LACROIX, “Tout Nous Serait Possible”: Une histoire politique des Franco-Américains. Québec: Les Presses de l’Université Laval, 2021. ISBN: 9782763754871

reviewed by David Vermette (Cliquez ici pour lire ce compte rendu en français)

When Pierre Morin died in Brunswick, Maine in 1925, the local newspaper ran a lengthy obituary of the retired merchant and town official. “In due course of time,” the obituary stated, “the French speaking citizens of the town [of Brunswick] desired to have a member of the board of Selectmen and in 1912 Mr. Morin was honored by being the first French speaking citizen to be elected to that office” (Brunswick Record, 3 December 1925). 

Thus did the “French speaking citizens of the town,” numbering about 4000 in 1912, begin to express a political will for their community. It is precisely such expressions of Franco-American political resolve that Dr. Patrick Lacroix explores in his ground-breaking monograph Tout Nous Serait Possible

Lacroix defines with care the scope of his history.  His concern is Franco-American electoral politics, including the history of political preferences, candidates, and office holders. He covers the evolution of Franco-American participation in U.S. political life; the dynamic between this participation and the efforts toward French-Canadian cultural survival in the U.S. (la survivance); and the relationship between the Franco-American electorate and the two major U.S. political parties, Republicans and Democrats. Lacroix’s book explores these themes in chapters that cover his timeframe (1874-1945) chronologically, while also moving from one subregion of the Northeast to another. Unlike many treatments of Franco-Americans in the Northeast, Lacroix’s work includes both New England and the state of New York. His narrative highlights the contrasting and diverse regional political histories of Franco-Americans in seven Northeastern states. 

Per Lacroix, before about 1905, Franco-American participation in U.S. politics was feeble. The number of naturalized Franco-American voters (exclusively male at that point) was small. Franco-American journalists tended to have a powerful influence on questions of citizenship and political preference. Despite the growing support for naturalization in the French-language press and among elites, the Franco-American community had to wait for the coming of age of a generation born in the U.S. to begin to flex its political muscles. 

Initially, Franco-Americans had no strong inclination toward either of the two major U.S. political parties. Their political notions were formed by the party politics of Canada. But the parties north of the border did not map precisely onto U.S. political alignments. Franco-American willingness to support either party, however, enabled them to function as a swing vote.   

At this stage, when Franco-American partisan preferences were still open to influence, the two parties vied for their votes by making offerings in the form of political patronage. Essentially, each party was willing to trade promises to appoint Franco-Americans to offices such as judgeships, consulates, or minor trade positions, in exchange for votes. Lacroix invokes Ronald Petrin’s notion of “ethnic recognition” to describe how each party tried to associate itself with the cause of Franco-American cultural survival. Lacroix, however, sees a “continual tension” between the cause of cultural survival and that of political partisanship (27).

Franco-American political participation began to increase notably after the 1908 election of Republican Aram Pothier of Woonsocket, the first Franco-American governor of Rhode Island. (Note that the desire of Brunswick, Maine’s Franco-Americans to have one of their own in their town’s highest office followed Pothier’s elevation by just one election cycle.) By the 1920s and into the 1930s, many Franco-Americans held elected political office, especially at the municipal and state level, with a few serving at the federal level. 

As a group, Franco-Americans exercised regional political power in the early twentieth century. But their political fortunes in the northeastern states differed. In Massachusetts and Rhode Island, many Franco-Americans attained high office, elected or appointed; more than one Franco-American held the highest office in the nation’s smallest state during the period Lacroix studied. But in Vermont and Maine, and perhaps to a lesser degree in New Hampshire, increasing Franco-American support for Democrats put them in opposition for the long-term, so thorough was the hold of the Republicans on these states in this era. In New York and Connecticut, the relatively small size of the Franco-American population vis-à-vis other ethnic groups minimized its influence. However, on the local level wherever the Northeast Franco-Americans had substantial populations – from Plattsburgh, New York to Central Falls, Rhode Island – they had elected officials.

In the first decades of the 20th century, Franco-Americans began to develop stronger regional party affiliations. For instance, Rhode Island’s Franco-Americans tended to lean GOP, while Maine’s industrial towns, like Lewiston, favored the Democrats. However, rather than  develop the iron-clad political affiliations of other groups, Franco-American voters tended to care more about the integrity of the candidate and the implications for their community than about party politics or ideology. Lacroix’s book confirms the adage he quotes, sometimes associated with Massachusetts politician Tip O’Neill, that “all politics is local.” Lacroix shows that Franco-American political preferences often depended on parochial issues like the distribution of liquor licenses, or the personality and local influence of an individual. These down-home concerns trumped ideological or partisan tendencies. 

Ultimately, as they became more integrated into the Labor movement of the U.S. with the unionization of the textile industry, Franco-Americans began to exhibit a clear preference for the Democrats. Especially in the three Northern New England states, the era of the Depression and the New Deal saw increasingly solid Franco-American support for Democrats, bolstered by the personal popularity of Franklin Roosevelt. The association of Northeastern Republicans with Nativists, including the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s, did them no favors with Franco-American voters.

Lacroix’s discussion of 20th century political history also explores the impact of the 19th amendment that enabled white women to vote throughout the Union. Lacroix shows that, after women’s suffrage became a fait accompli, Franco-American elites, including the clergy, generally encouraged Franco-American women to vote. They saw this as necessary for the group to retain its political strength. If Franco-American women didn’t vote, but those of other regional ethnic groups did, then Franco-Americans would lose their hard-won clout. But Lacroix also shows that male Franco-American politicians tended to oppose reforms in health care and education that many women supported on the grounds that these measures constituted government interference in what they regarded as family matters.

The author also recounts brief Franco-American flirtations with political fringes of the left and the right, be they social-democrat stirrings in some areas during the Depression of the 1930s, or the enthusiastic greeting that met the representative of the Vichy French government when he visited some Franco-American centers in the war years of the 1940s. These forays into radicalism were exceptional. Most Franco-American political expression in Lacroix’s period stayed within the dominant parties and the mainstream political modes of the Northeast U.S. 

Lacroix offers three conclusions from his research. First, he emphasizes the regional importance of Franco-American political participation, starting in the early 20th century. His research tends to contradict the view that Franco-Americans were generally invisible to the U.S. mainstream, living isolated lives in their Petits Canadas. Throughout Lacroix’s period, and especially during the height of immigration circa 1880 to 1900, the U.S. press covered the move from Québec and the former Acadia to the Northeastern industrial centers thoroughly, while the Québec press touted Franco-American political successes. It is not the case that Franco-Americans were invisible in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but that they were largely omitted from the histories of U.S. immigration after the fact.

Second, Lacroix concludes that there is no evidence for the speculation that Franco-Americans were more conservative than other voters, and hence sided with the Republicans. He suggests that the conservatism of the clerical, traditionalist elite in Québec did not concur with that of the 20th century Republican party.

Finally, Lacroix emphasizes the multiplicity and diversity of Franco-American political expression and political preferences. For him, this diversity did not divide Franco-Americans so as to limit their political power, but rather was a characteristic that “deserves to be recognized and celebrated” (226).

This last conclusion means that Lacroix offers no general theses on Franco-American political thought and scant peeks into the souls of Franco-American political animals. In service of his assertion of Franco-American political diversity, Lacroix largely eschews grand ideological generalizations or theoretical discussions. This choice renders his text relatively jargon-free. It is refreshing and makes his French readable for a U.S. audience with an intermediate grasp of the language.

Now that Lacroix has done his work, future researchers might expand on it to give us a deeper sense of the philosophies and influence of Franco-American politicians and officials. Take Hugo Dubuque (1854-1928), a Massachusetts state legislator and a justice on the Commonwealth’s Superior Court for 17 years. Dubuque was a constitutional lawyer who left a body of work in his writings and opinions from the bench that merits analysis and evaluation. I could envision a book that profiles several figures such as Dubuque, Pothier, legislator Félix Gatineau, suffragist Camille Lessard Bissonnette, social worker Urbain Ledoux, or others, exploring their thought, and what might pertain to l'esprit franco-américain in each of them. One of the places future researchers might also look for original Franco-American political thought is in the minutes of the conventions of the French-Canadians of the US 1865 to 1901, compiled by Gatineau. These conventions were roughly biennial events, held all over the northern states, where delegates from the Franco-American communities assembled to discuss matters of importance to their constituents. The discourse at these conventions shows that Franco-Americans had some innovative ideas, for their epoch, about the nature of U.S. citizenship, based on their Canadian political conceptions. 

Two quibbles. First, a scholarly book such as Lacroix’s should include a bibliography. Although Lacroix provides full bibliographical citations for his sources in his footnotes, a bibliography in the back of the book (or posted online), would serve his readers. He offers them no less than nine short appendices in the book’s back matter, several of them containing tables of numbers. The author might have saved some of these details for his academic papers, cut three (or more) of these appendices, and given readers a bibliography instead.   

Next quibble: Lacroix overstates his case that Franco-American political history is a historiographical lacuna. As Lacroix notes, François Weil’s work covered the political class to a degree, and his predecessor Robert Rumilly included a fair amount about politics in his general history of Franco-Americans published in the 1950s. Lacroix’s citations of the work of Ronald Petrin, Madeleine Giguère, Martin Pâquet, David Walker, and Rhea Côté Robbins’s work on Bissonnette show that his topic has not been as neglected by previous scholars as he insists.

There is no doubt, however, that Tout Nous Serait Possible is the most sustained, focused discussion of Franco-American political history to date. It makes an important contribution. Like no other work, this book establishes the timeline, the who, what, and where of Franco-American politics within its stated temporal and geographical limits. Lacroix’s book does well what a monograph should do: the author defined a limited scope and then executed his mission with depth and precision. With this book, and with his Query The Past blog, Lacroix has emerged as one of the most important – and certainly one of the most prolific – historians of Franco-Americans at work today.