Race, Privilege, and the Problem of the Subaltern Franco-American

by Patrick Lacroix

 

When the Payette family moved to northern New York some time around 1850, the mass migration of French Canadians to the United States was in its infancy.[1] This movement of people from the St. Lawrence River valley continued for the better part of a century, with brief interruptions in the 1870s and in the early part of the twentieth century. Whereas a high proportion of early migrants settled in the Midwest, the U.S. Northeast became the primary destination for those seeking to steady themselves financially. Faced with limited opportunities in agriculture and other sectors at home, they initially saw tiring work in the mills of New York and New England to be a short-term expedient. Families followed the economic cycle, relatives, and their own pocketbooks from one factory city to another and, very often, back to Quebec. Although the migrants were hardly rootless, early American observers nevertheless considered them as such. The proximity of the emigrants’ homeland raised questions about their commitment to American civic life that did not necessarily arise with other immigrant groups. The Payette family crossed the border at a time when such concerns still prevailed, but Canadians’ circumstances quickly changed. At the end of the nineteenth century, immigration from Quebec slowed, the naturalization movement gained traction, and the “Little Canadas” held firm. Though continuously pressed to anglicize by nativists, Franco-Americans were, after 1900, in a position to assert political influence and assume positions of public trust.

Champagne family. French-Canadian immigrants to Waterford, NY. About 1900. http://waterfordimmigrants.org/immigrants/franco-american-immigrants

Remarkably, Franco-Americans’ growing political power, seen in electoral victories in mayoral and state elections in the early twentieth century, is a little-known story. These victories complicate conventional narratives centering on the marginalization of this ethnic group. French-Canadian immigrants and their descendants faced discrimination, but signs of growing political power—and success—indicate that they never formed an underclass from which they would only escape (as is often claimed) with the white ethnic revival of the 1970s. By connecting their story with recent studies of race in America, this essay suggests that they reaped the “wages of whiteness” while many other minority groups did not. Franco-Americans could become fully American. Indeed, few observers were willing to state that French Canadians had a racial essence that prevented them from acceding to the promise of American republican institutions.

 

Few people better exemplified the opportunities awaiting Franco-Americans at the dawn of the twentieth century than the Canadian-born Joseph Payette, who became mayor of Plattsburgh, New York, in the spring of 1907. By then, French-Canadian immigrants were slowly emerging from the precarious first years following their arrival. The fate that awaited Payette reveals how native-born Americans (many of whom believed true Americans to be white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants) could still see these predominantly Catholic francophones as outsiders. After six months in office, Payette quietly relinquished the mayoralty when it came to light that he was not a naturalized citizen. The circumstances in which Payette recognized that he was still an alien are murky; limited newspaper coverage suggests that much of this episode unfolded behind closed doors. If involved in the decision, party leaders surely had an interest in acting swiftly and discreetly. The announcement came less than a month before the next election. It no doubt seemed wise that Payette step aside to spare the Republican ticket controversy in the closing days of the campaign.[2]

 

In fact, beginning in the 1860s, native-born Americans worried that French-Canadian immigrants like Payette had one foot firmly planted on each side of the international border and evinced no desire to relinquish their dual allegiance. French Canadians, like many other immigrant groups, faced intense nativism due to their attachment to their ancestral tongue, customs, and faith. Their concentration in “Little Canadas” delayed their assimilation, and native-born Americans feared that they would follow their Roman Catholic priests in all things, including politics.

 

For decades, these immigrants’ cultural survival and the hostility they faced from other groups structured scholarship on Franco-Americans. More recently, scholars have endeavored to connect the experience of Franco-Americans with whiteness studies. In this regard, Payette’s case proves enlightening, as it was foreign birth, not racial essence, that disqualified him from public office. Matthew Frye Jacobson, David R. Roediger, and other scholars of whiteness studies have shown that it does not suffice to study late nineteenth-century immigrants through the lens of ethnicity.[3] Even if they could escape the racial essence attributed to them, various ethnic groups were placed in a hierarchy of races in which few could, in the short term, claim the lofty privilege of whiteness.

 

Franco-Americans were “inbetweens,” a term Roediger uses to designate marginalized groups of European descent. More than that, were they relegated to a subaltern status defined by a racial essence?[4] Were they prevented on a semi-permanent basis from becoming equal participants in the great American experiment? Emerging scholarship points us in different directions. Mark Richard’s work on the Ku Klux Klan in New England devotes considerable attention to Franco-Americans, though not from a racial standpoint. Richard explains that the Klan adapted to New England realities by attacking “Catholics, Jews, the foreign-born, criminals, and bootleggers.” The racialization of Francos was, it seems, unessential to the nativism purveyed by the KKK. Alternatively, Jason Newton argues that racial stereotypes justified particular reliance on French-Canadian labor in the lumber trade. According to some contemporary observers, including corporation managers, Francos were a “half-wild” people incapable of higher civilization due to their alleged “mixing” with Aboriginals. On the other hand, Newton readily acknowledges that there were other factors dictating French Canadians’ place in U.S. society, including perceptions of their faith and women’s direct participation in the industrial economy (often as textile workers). In a recent monograph, David Vermette goes furthest in arguing that Franco-Americans were racialized as something less than white. He rests his case on Progressive Era discussions of “inferior races” by Madison Grant and eugenics theorists, who relegated French Canadians to a lower order of civilization. Grant in particular was interested in a rigorous classification of races and in preventing groups he deemed inferior from “mixing” with the superior Nordic race.[5]

 

Although political achievement is not a perfect measure of acceptance and acculturation, a series of electoral victories by Franco-Americans suggests that their racially subaltern status in this era may be exaggerated. By the end of the 1880s, Americans of French-Canadian descent could take pride in having representatives in all New England legislatures but one. Aram Pothier, a future governor of Rhode Island, became mayor of Woonsocket in the 1890s. Biddeford and Lewiston, Maine, elected Franco mayors in 1910 and 1914 respectively. From the First World War onward, Franco mayors appeared in quick succession in Manchester, Nashua, Berlin, New Hampshire, Putnam, Connecticut, Fall River, Massachusetts, and many more locations. Franco-American candidates began to appear regularly on statewide tickets in the 1920s and a decade later there were more than a hundred Franco-Americans serving in New England legislatures.

 

This is not a tale of perfectly assimilated citizens conforming to an Anglo-Saxon, Protestant standard, however. Nearly all of these individuals continued to engage in the affairs of Franco cultural organizations and ethnic parishes. They spoke French and the press acknowledged their Canadian origins. Such examples of civic success enabled Franco-Americans to battle stereotypes about their commitment to their new country—and their ability to play by the rules of a “white” country. While such race theorists as Madison Grant continued to assign inherited characteristics to immigrants, Francos slowly gained the esteem of their fellow Americans. It appeared, at the dawn of the 1920s, that they could indeed be loyal Americans and retain their French heritage.[6]

 

Throughout the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, American observers proved less wary of French Canadians’ inherited traits than of their isolation. Beyond old reservations about the Church of Rome, the general call was for immigrants to quickly anglicize and absorb the “dominant spirit” of the United States—in labor, politics, personal values, and perhaps even religion. As the ultimate catalyst of nationhood, anglicization would cement their commitment to the Great Republic. In short, if the “inbetweenness” of Franco-Americans did entail racial inferiority, those traits were not so strong or objectionable that they could not be smoothed into the final fabric of American life. Although unlikely to assimilate on their own terms, the promise of assimilation was extended to them. Thus Vermette recognizes that “[a]fter the Franco-Americans had learned to ‘speak white,’ there was no barrier to their entry into unmitigated whiteness.”[7]

 

This is not to suggest that acculturation was a painless “melting” into a greater whole. Franco-Americans experienced their share of street fights.[8] They suffered from the discriminatory immigration regimes and the disciplinary mechanisms of wartime described by Gary Gerstle. Indeed, some policymakers saw war as an opportunity to conscript hyphenated Americans (as in Franco-Americans) in a national project and to mold them into patriotic citizens.[9] However, by finally recognizing Franco-Americans’ ability to define themselves as white and the privilege they derived from their racial status—political power, not least—we also stand to better identify pervasive and enduring ethnic and racial inequities.

 

Patrick Lacroix, Ph.D., is an instructor at Phillips Exeter Academy (Exeter, N.H.). His work on Franco-Americans has appeared in numerous publications, including the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. He tweets from @querythepast.

 

[1] French Canadians are descendants of the settlers of New France who remained French-speaking and predominantly Catholic under the subsequent British regime. Here the term refers to those who could still be identified with that cultural heritage as they crossed into the United States. I use the term Franco-American, Franco for short, to designate French Canadians who established permanent homes in the United States and their descendants (as well as the institutions and communities they established on American soil).

 

[2] See, on Payette, “The Vacancy Filled,” Plattsburgh Daily Press, April 23, 1907, 5; “A Strong Ticket,” Plattsburgh Daily Press, September 23, 1907, 5; “Mayor, Yet He Is Not a Citizen,” The Evening Enterprise (Poughkeepsie, N.Y.), October 17, 1907, 5; Untitled, New York Evening Post, October 17, 1907, 11; “Good Hunting,” Plattsburgh Republican, October 19, 1907, 1; “Miscellaneous Items,” The Adirondack News, October 26, 1907, 3.

 

[3] See especially Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998); David R. Roediger, Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White (New York City: Basic Books, 2005).

 

[4] The meaning of subalternity has varied considerably over the last fifty years. Here, it designates a population not only excluded from the economic, social, and political structures of power, but unable to use the language of power to effect collective change or challenge hegemonic politics. Because the term chiefly refers to immovable economic and racial castes, Franco-Americans cannot be considered “true” subalterns—they could embrace the foundational language and values of the Great Republic and begin their ascent as a white population. See David Ludden, “Introduction: A Brief History of Subalternity,” in Reading Subaltern Studies: Critical History, Contested Meaning, and the Globalization of South Asia, ed. by Ludden (London: Anthem Press, 2001), 1-39.

 

[5] Mark Paul Richard, Not a Catholic Nation: The Ku Klux Klan Confronts New England in the 1920s (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2015); Jason L. Newton, “‘These French Canadian of the Woods Are Half-Wild Folk’: Wilderness, Whiteness, and Work in North America, 1840-1955,” Labour/Le Travail 77 (spring 2016), 121-150; David Vermette, A Distinct Alien Race: The Untold Story of Franco-Americans (Montreal: Baraka Books, 2018).

 

[6] This phrase, a rallying cry for generations of Franco-Americans, is also the basis of Richard’s first book, Loyal But French: The Negotiation of Identity by French-Canadian Descendants in the United States (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2008). As I argue in forthcoming work, persistent hostility at a local level usually owed to cultural misunderstandings and to labor conflict, seen notably in corporations’ use of strikebreakers from Quebec in locations as varied as Fall River, Massachusetts, and Barre, Vermont. See, in addition, Lacroix, “A Church of Two Steeples: Catholicism, Labor, and Ethnicity in Industrial New England, 1869-90,” Catholic Historical Review, vol. 102, no. 4 (autumn 2016), 746-770.

 

[7] Vermette, A Distinct Alien Race, 320.

 

[8] Some of these physical altercations owed directly to labor struggles; others occurred among children, who played out their parents’ prejudices in a fight over urban geography. See, for instance, Philip T. Silvia, Jr., “The Spindle City: Labor, Politics, and Religion in Fall River, Massachusetts, 1870-1905” (Ph.D. dissertation, Fordham University, 1973), 372, 393, 421-422; Lemay, Philippe, and Louis Pare, “French Canadian Textile Worker,” Manuscript/Mixed Material, U.S. Work Projects Administration, Federal Writers’ Project.

 

[9] Gary Gerstle, American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

 

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