François-Xavier Garneau (1809-1866) was a French-Canadian historian whose "Histoire du Canada" was the first serious interpretation of Canada's past.
The parents of François-Xavier Garneau were illiterate, and his primary education was rudimentary. But he had the good fortune to go, at the age of 11, to a new school founded by Joseph-François Perrault, whose outstanding efforts to raise Quebec's educational level must have marked this pupil profoundly.
Thus at the age of 16 Garneau was apprenticed to the well-to-do lawyer Archibald Campbell, gaining professional status and considerable cultural enrichment. During this time he made his first journey to New York and published his first poem.
In 1831 Garneau embarked on a visit to England which lasted almost 2 years and included two trips to France. He thus had a firsthand view of the British constitution during the Great Reform period. He was actively involved in the constitutional progress of Canada and in the protection of French-Canadian rights. Garneau also made literary and intellectual contacts and kept a diary. This later furnished the substance of his Voyage en Angleterre et en France (1854 and 1855).
Returning to Quebec in 1833, Garneau spent the next 10 years at various occupations. He also founded two short-lived journals, L'Abeille canadienne (1833-1834) and L'Institut (1841), as well as contributing poems and political articles to Étienne Parent's Le Canadien. Garneau took no part in the rebellion of 1837 but reacted against the repressive measures which followed, taking up in particular the cause of preserving the French language in Canada.
The year 1845 saw the publication of the first volume of Garneau's Histoire du Canada depuis sa découverte jusqu'à nos jours (The History of Canada from Its Discovery until Our Time), the two following volumes appearing in 1846 and 1848. Initial reception was mixed, but it included anonymous denunciations of the work as anti-Catholic and anti-Canadian (the latter term referring, at that time, exclusively to French Canadians). The cause of these attacks was Garneau's assessment of the ancien régime. According to Garneau's interpretation, the evils of absolutism, aggravated by distance from the metropolis, deprived the French settlers of the healthy independent growth enjoyed by their English neighbors. The Jesuits, though admired for their courage and discoveries, were blamed for the lack of enlightened education. Undeterred at first by criticism, Garneau completed his first edition and was voted £250 by the legislature in 1849.
A second edition in 1852 added a fourth volume on the period from 1792 to 1840, giving the author more ample opportunity to display his patriotism, still coupled with his thought on constitutional liberalism. This Garneau was further able to develop in a third edition with a Préface and a Discours préliminaire (1859). By this time, however, he felt less sure of himself. Increased documentation had begun to cloud some of his bold assertions; the worldwide tide of liberal nationalism was ebbing; family and financial misfortunes had taken their toll of the man. Garneau retracted some of the anticlerical remarks from his text and inserted some more resonant declarations about language, religion, and national destiny. But the latent contradiction between conservative nationalism and enlightenment liberalism was not removed by such gestures. Garneau's wholehearted dedication to both of these provides the work with a tension which is not the least element in its success. In addition, his attempts to go back to prime sources constituted a pioneering step toward modern historiography, for his efforts were more limited by availability of documents than by his nationalist bias.
It is as a literary composition that the Histoire remains outstanding. Garneau's personal involvement and flowing rhetoric vie with his attempted objectivity to render the past dramatically present to the reader. Among the major themes are the military courage of the habitants, Canada's abandonment by France, the collective character of the people as a determinant in history, and the common Norman ancestry of the Canadians and the English. Garneau showed convincingly how political skill could replace military prowess to defend the interests and honor of the Canadians. He died in 1866, leaving a growing reputation and a lasting influence on French-Canadian thought.
A rewarding general study with extracts of Garneau's work is Gustave Lanctôt, François-Xavier Garneau (1927). A shorter biography and general historical background is in Mason Wade, The French Canadians, 1760-1967 (1955; rev. ed., 2 vols., 1968).