LE VASSEUR BORGIA, JOSEPH (he signed LeVasseur Borgia), lawyer, newspaper proprietor, militia officer, and politician; b. 6 Jan. 1773 at Quebec, son of Louis Le Vasseur Borgia, a blacksmith, and Marie-Anne Trudel; d. there 28 June 1839.
François-Maximilien Bibaud* asserts in Le panthéon canadien that the Borgia family of Quebec was Italian in origin, and Benjamin Sulte* and other historians also make this claim. In fact, Joseph Le Vasseur Borgia’s ancestors were all of French descent, and his grandfather was the first Le Vasseur to have Borgia added to his surname.
Joseph Le Vasseur Borgia spent his early childhood in the faubourg Saint-Jean at Quebec. He was seven when his family moved into Upper Town to Rue Sainte-Famille near the Petit Séminaire. From 1786 till 1792 he did his classical studies in this institution. Accused of attending a theatrical performance, he was expelled at the end of April 1790, but was re-admitted the following year, this time as a boarder. On 30 April 1792, in a public session at the Petit Séminaire, he was one of five students who defended propositions in mathematics, ballistics, astronomy, and physics before an audience of dignitaries including Prince Edward* Augustus.
Le Vasseur Borgia subsequently articled as a lawyer and on 18 July 1800 was licensed to practise. He opened an office at Quebec and over the years he became famous for plain but solid speeches. When someone mentioned his lack of eloquence to Sir James Henry Craig*, who had heard him argue in court, the governor retorted: “That is true, but I think there are few lawyers in this colony who have as profound a knowledge of Roman law.” Le Vasseur Borgia defended a great many people, and he also found himself up on charges in court on a number of occasions. He had many disputes with protonotary Joseph-François Perrault. Relations between the two became more acrimonious in 1805 when Perrault sued him for outstanding fees. They confronted each other in cases several times more between then and 1825
From the outset of his legal career Le Vasseur Borgia was attracted to politics. On 10 Oct. 1805 he announced his candidature in the by-election that had been called following the death of William Grant*, who had represented Upper Town Quebec in the House of Assembly. Le Vasseur Borgia and Perrault ran against each other and by splitting the French-speaking vote helped ensure the election of John Blackwood*, the English-speaking candidate. Although somewhat chagrined, Le Vasseur Borgia was nevertheless determined to try his luck again at the first opportunity. He put an announcement in the Quebec Gazette of 19 December: “The support I have received . . . notwithstanding the combined efforts of certain public caballers, is . . . a testimony of the public esteem.” On 18 June 1808 he was elected member for Cornwallis, whose interests he upheld in the house from then until 1820, and again from 1824 to 1830, when his political career came to an end.
In 1806 Le Vasseur Borgia had joined Pierre-Stanislas Bédard*, Jean-Thomas Taschereau*, François Blanchet*, and others in founding Le Canadien, a newspaper championing the interests of the French-speaking professional class. Angered by their support for this publication, which he considered “libellous and seditious,” Craig dismissed Le Vasseur Borgia and other proprietors of Le Canadien from their posts as militia officers on 14 June 1808. In March 1810 he had the paper’s presses seized and threw Bédard, Taschereau, Blanchet, and printer Charles Lefrançois* into jail. Despite assertions to the contrary by some writers, Le Vasseur Borgia managed to escape the governor’s wrath and was not imprisoned. His reputation as an eminent lawyer and his moderate political stance are thought to have been instrumental in saving him from the fate of the newspaper’s other principals.
In 1812 the new governor, Sir George Prevost*, courted the leaders of the Canadian party in order to secure their support and loyalty in the war against the United States. Thus, Le Vasseur Borgia got his militia officer’s commission back and was promoted captain in Quebec’s 1st Militia Battalion. There was soon dissension in the battalion when Le Vasseur Borgia again clashed with Perrault. He was placed under arrest and brought before a court martial on 9 November and 9 December 1812, accused of conduct “subversive of good order and military discipline in having refused obedience to the orders of Lieut.-Colonel Perrault, his Commanding Officer.” In the end he was acquitted. The prospect of having to fight against the American invaders held little appeal for Le Vasseur Borgia. Moreover, according to historian François-Xavier Garneau*, he had attended a secret meeting held at Quebec to discuss taking a neutral stand in this conflict, which some Canadians saw as concerning only England and the United States.
Late in 1812 Le Vasseur Borgia was back in his familiar place in the House of Assembly. Although he was never a great orator, he participated diligently in the work of the house and served on numerous committees. Often taken aback by the violence of the debates in the assembly, he had presented a motion on 9 Feb. 1811 to the effect that “to interrupt a member whether by striking with his fist, or in swearing, is a breach of the privileges of this House.” Only once in the course of his long parliamentary career did he lose his temper. On 10 March 1819 he turned on Samuel Sherwood, insulted him, “made threatening grimaces at him,” and pursued him across the house, according to a witness, Philippe Panet*. His conduct gave rise to vehement debate that lasted nearly eight hours. Denis-Benjamin Viger* went so far as to demand that Le Vasseur Borgia be imprisoned. But in the end the assembly agreed to put him in the custody of the sergeant-at-arms.
At the time of the incident, the house was studying the administration of justice, a matter of deep concern to Le Vasseur Borgia. In the house on 6 March 1815 he had argued with conviction in favour of the adoption in Lower Canada of British civil law and the repeal of the Coutume de Paris, customary law, and the edicts, decrees, ordinances, and declarations in use since the time of New France. His long practice as a lawyer had often shown him the difficulty of “finding one’s way in this inextricable maze.” Philippe-Joseph Aubert* de Gaspé used to relate that one day Le Vasseur Borgia, realizing he had lost 20 years of his life studying legal tomes, concluded he had better trust his judgement and in times of difficulty fall back on chance with dice and a dice-box.
As a member initially of the Canadian party, Le Vasseur Borgia abided by the opinions and decisions of his colleagues. In the 1820s, however, he gradually moved away from Louis-Joseph Papineau* and his supporters. On 8 Jan. 1825, in the voting for speaker, he backed Joseph-Rémi Vallières de Saint-Réal rather than Papineau. Le Vasseur Borgia retired from the parliamentary scene in 1830, the year that Cornwallis was split into the ridings of Kamouraska and Rimouski, and he was not involved in the discussions and meetings preceding the rebellions of 1837–38. At the end of June 1838 he went to present his respects to Governor Lord Durham [Lambton], who had recently arrived in the colony.
A highly cultured man, over the years La Vasseur Borgia had built up an impressive library, with textbooks on law and jurisprudence alongside many other volumes, including works on history, mythology, philosophy, astronomy, and chemistry. His diary reveals his passion for history. Notes from research on the Le Vasseur Borgia family and the French monarchy are mingled with detailed enumerations of the bishops of Quebec and the governors of the colony under the French and British régimes. At his retirement Le Vasseur Borgia calculated that between 1831 and 1836 he had devoted four months and ten days to putting his personal papers and his “case papers” in order.
Le Vasseur Borgia’s final years were saddened by poverty and by the death of his son Narcisse-Charles, who had begun articling under his direction in 1825 and had been licensed to practise law on 27 Feb. 1830. Narcisse-Charles was said to have inherited his father’s talents as a lawyer. But he was in frail health, and on 5 Nov. 1834, at the age of 30, he died. Le Vasseur Borgia, without means, had to rely on the generosity of some Quebec lawyers, who organized a subscription to defray the costs of his son’s funeral. In neglecting his law practice to devote himself to his political career, he had soon run into financial difficulties, and in 1817 he had had to part with his library.
Joseph Le Vasseur Borgia died on 28 June 1839, after “an illness of several weeks” according to Le Canadien, and was buried in the Cimetière des Picotés. For 17 years he had been the senior member of the bar in the district of Quebec. Aubert de Gaspé remembered him as a man who was “unbiased, generous, and of remarkable delicacy in his sentiments.” A lawyer to be reckoned with and a respected politician, he had compensated for his lack of eloquence by the quality of his arguments. “He was a wise man,” said Bibaud. Although his was a less prominent role than that of the Bédards, Vigers, and Papineaus of his time, he was one of the most frequently consulted and most influential politicians in Lower Canada from the founding of Le Canadien in 1806 until his departure from politics in 1830.
ANQ-Q, CE1-1, 6 janv. 1773, 10 nov. 1834, 2 juill. 1839; CN1-230, 28 mai 1811; 8 avril 1813; 20 avril 1815; 27 juill. 1816; 26 févr., 7 nov. 1825; CN1-253, 23 avril 1829. ASQ, C 36: Fichier des anciens; 102; mss, 193; Polygraphie, XIX, no.41; Séminaire, 73, nos.1g–1h. PAC, MG 11, [CO 42] Q, 107. P.[-J.] Aubert de Gaspé, Mémoires (Ottawa, 1866; réimpr. Montréal, 1971). “Les dénombrements de Québec” (Plessis), ANQ Rapport, 1948–49: 9, 59, 109, 172. L.C., House of Assembly, Journals, 1809–19, 1825–30. Recensement de Québec, 1818 (Provost), 266. Le Canadien, 1er juill. 1839. Quebec Gazette, 31 July 1800; 10 Oct., 19 Dec. 1805; 12 May, 16 June 1808; 20 April, 12 Oct., 9, 30 Nov. 1809; 1, 8 March, 26 April, 3 May 1810; 4 June, 1 Oct., 19 Nov., 24 Dec. 1812; 18, 25 April 1816; 26 March 1818. F.-M. Bibaud, Le panthéon canadien (A. et V. Bibaud; 1891), 32. Hare et Wallot, Les imprimés dans le Bas-Canada, 90, 139, 234, 237, 315–16. Le Jeune, Dictionnaire, 2: 147. Officers of British forces in Canada (Irving), 141. P.-G. Roy, Les avocats de la région de Québec, 52; Fils de Québec, 2: 164–66. Wallace, Macmillan dict. T.-P. Bédard, Histoire de cinquante ans (1791–1841), annales parlementaires et politiques du Bas-Canada, depuis la Constitution jusqu’à l’Union (Québec, 1869), 65, 100, 104, 111, 120, 135, 162. Chapais, Cours d’hist. du Canada, 2: 180, 192, 206; 3: 8, 13, 24, 188. Ouellet, Bas-Canada, 164, 301. Gilles Paquet et J.-P. Wallot, Patronage et pouvoir dans le Bas-Canada (1794–1812); un essai d’économie historique (Montréal, 1973), 120. P.-G. Roy, À travers les mémoires de Philippe Aubert de Gaspé (Montréal, 1943). Rumilly, Papineau et son temps, 1: 37, 42–43, 64, 76, 152, 174. Benjamin Sulte, Histoire des Canadiens-français, 1608–1880 . . . (8v., Montréal, 1882–84), 8: 66, 73, 76–77, 79. Taft Manning, Revolt of French Canada, 56, 98. Wallot, Un Québec qui bougeait, 79, 126, 150, 164. F.-J. Audet, “Joseph LeVasseur-Borgia,” RSC Trans., 3rd ser., 19 (1925), sect.i: 65–78. P.-B. Casgrain, “Le moulin à vent et la maison de Borgia lors de la bataille des plaines d’Abraham,” BRH, 6 (1900): 37–41. J. [E.] Hare, “L’Assemblée législative du Bas-Canada, 1792–1814: députation et polarisation politique,” RHAF, 27 (1973–74): 361–95. “Le jeune avocat LeVasseur Borgia,” BRH, 42 (1936): 96–97.