CARDINAL, JOSEPH-NARCISSE, notary, school trustee, militia officer, politician, and Patriote; b. 8 Feb. 1808 in Saint-Constant, Lower Canada, second of the eight children of Joseph Cardinal and Marguerite Cardinal; d. 21 Dec. 1838 in Montreal.
Joseph-Narcisse Cardinal came from a farm family living in comfortable circumstances in Saint-Constant, near La Prairie, at the outset of the 19th century. It seems that by 1817 his father was engaged in commerce in Montreal. Eager to have his son receive an education, he enrolled him that year in the Petit Séminaire de Montréal. Joseph-Narcisse left the seminary in 1822, and, it is thought, returned to live at home with his father, who apparently had moved to Châteauguay three years earlier, establishing himself as a farmer. In 1823 Joseph-Narcisse began articling with notary François-Georges Lepailleur in this village.
Having been licensed as a notary on 19 June 1829, Cardinal joined Lepailleur’s firm as a partner. Thus, at the age of 21, he settled in Châteauguay and began practising. Through talent and honesty he acquired a great many clients. As a prominent figure in the Saint-Joachim parish Cardinal was soon called upon to deal with its affairs. In March 1829 the House of Assembly had passed a law to create schools run by trustees, a measure which intensified the struggle between the clergy and the Canadian petite bourgeoisie for control of education in several of the province’s parishes. Trustees were chosen for the school in Saint-Joachim, and in the period 1829–32 they included parish priest Pierre Grenier, Lepailleur, and Cardinal. The lay trustees prepared reports for the assembly on the administration and organization of the school, in the process keeping a close watch on the teaching provided for the children. It would seem, then, that these leading citizens must have vied in influence with their priest.
There was also conflict in Saint-Joachim over where the church should be located. People in the lower end of the parish wanted simply to repair the existing church but those in the upper end urged that a new one be built in a central place. In November 1831 Cardinal acted as secretary at a meeting of community leaders which drew up a petition to the archbishop of Quebec, Bernard-Claude Panet*, asking for permission to make repairs. The petition was followed by a counter-petition in February 1834. During the discussions Cardinal tangled with Father Grenier and subsequently he came into conflict with the priest’s successor, Jean-Baptiste Labelle. In a letter sent in June 1834 to the curé of Saint-François-Xavier mission at Caughnawaga (Kahnawake), Joseph Marcoux*, who had been asked by the new archbishop, Joseph Signay, to investigate the matter, Cardinal criticized Labelle sharply for being biased in favour of the people living in the upper end of the parish. This petty local quarrel dragged on until the rebellions of 1837 and 1838.
According to the biography printed on 10 April 1839 in the North American (Swanton, Vt), Cardinal had been active in politics from the time he reached the age of majority. It is quite likely, then, that in 1830 he was involved in Jean-Moïse Raymond’s election campaign for a seat in the assembly. Raymond, a supporter of Louis-Joseph Papineau*, was elected for the Patriote party, along with fellow candidate Austin Cuvillier, in the new riding of Laprairie. On 31 May 1831, in Montreal, Cardinal married Eugénie Saint-Germain, a daughter of Bernard Saint-Germain, who was an interpreter with the Indian Department. They were to have four daughters and a son. Through his marriage he strengthened his position within the Canadian petite bourgeoisie in the Laprairie region. A year later he lost his father, mother, and one of his young brothers to the cholera epidemic. In 1833 he was appointed lieutenant and adjutant of the 2nd Battalion of Laprairie militia, and he was promoted captain in 1834. That year he also held the post of secretary of the county agricultural society.
At the Laprairie County meeting held at Saint-Constant in April 1834, Cardinal joined in approving the 92 Resolutions passed by the House of Assembly [see Elzéar Bédard]. He was approached then about standing in the elections the following autumn against Cuvillier, who had been attracting criticism for his moderation, and after some consideration he agreed to run for the Patriote party. Cuvillier decided not to seek re-election, supposedly out of fear that Cardinal’s enormous popularity would ensure his own defeat. Early in November, during another outbreak of cholera and just a few days after the polls opened, Papineau, Denis-Benjamin Viger*, Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine*, Augustin-Norbert Morin*, Cardinal, and several other Patriotes met in Édouard-Raymond Fabre*’s bookshop in Montreal. Probably motivated in large part by his resentment against the authorities for the death of his parents, Cardinal supported the creation of a constitutional committee “to enquire into the ravages caused last summer by that cruel disease the Asiatic cholera; into the causes of its introduction, and the participation therein, whether by act or omission, culpable and voluntary, of the present Governor-General [Whitworth-Aylmer] and the Provincial Executive.”
In the event, in 1834 Cardinal was elected by acclamation for Laprairie, along with Raymond. According to his biographer Joseph-Alfred Mousseau*, it was a sacrifice for him to agree to serve at Quebec. A man respected by his fellow citizens and attached to his wife and children, he was not rich, and because of his stays in the capital he had to abandon his law office for several months a year and to neglect his clients and family. He none the less consented, believing he had a duty to represent his compatriots and to defend in the assembly his party’s program, which included long-standing demands for reforms to improve the lot of the Canadians. In the assembly Cardinal did not stand out, but he was consistently a supporter of Papineau. He was still interested in problems related to schools and, as a member of the standing committee on education and schools in 1835, he helped prepare reports that led to the development of a bill on normal schools the following year. The national aspirations of Canadians, however, held his attention even more, and during the final sessions in the autumn of 1836 and the summer of 1837 he joined other members in refusing to vote the supplies requested by Governor Lord Gosford [Acheson].
The adoption of Lord John Russell’s resolutions by the British parliament in March 1837 made Cardinal indignant. Lord Gosford’s proclamation in June prohibiting certain “seditious” public meetings further exasperated him. These measures finally convinced him that the salvation of the Canadian people as a nation would lie only in independence. Disregarding Gosford’s ban, on 6 August Cardinal attended the big Laprairie County meeting held at Saint-Constant to protest against the coercive measures, and he even made a speech. Returning to Châteauguay after the assembly was dissolved on 26 August, he resumed his notarial practice. He is believed to have turned in his commission as a militia captain before summer was out to protest the dismissal of numerous Patriotes from their posts as magistrates or militia officers. By heading its delegation at the Assemblée des Six Comtés in Saint-Charles-sur-Richelieu on 23 October, Cardinal established himself as one of the Patriote leaders in Laprairie County.
According to Laurent-Olivier David*, Cardinal was “calm, thoughtful, prudent, but determined, even stubborn, once his mind was made up.” He refrained from taking part in the 1837 rebellion, which he saw as a skirmish doomed to failure because it was an isolated venture unsupported by outside help. But since Cardinal did not hide his sympathies, the English party in the county threatened to denounce him to the authorities. At the urging of his wife and friends he went to the United States around mid December and stayed for a time at Fort Covington, N.Y. During his exile he travelled to Plattsburgh, where he met with Robert Nelson*. He explained to him that he wanted a real rebellion, carried out with money, muskets, and cannon, and with American assistance. Nelson convinced him that there would be substantial aid from the Americans which would ensure the success of the next uprising. On the strength of the information and the “serious” guarantees that Nelson provided, Cardinal plunged wholeheartedly into organizing a new insurrection.
Cardinal returned to Lower Canada in February or March 1838 and resumed practising clandestinely at Châteauguay in partnership with Abraham Desmarais in the house of Elisabeth Saint-Denis, the widow of J.-B. Boudria. By springtime he had joined the Association des Frères-Chasseurs, a secret society formed to foment an internal uprising that would be backed by Patriote forces invading from the United States with the support of the Americans, the goal being the establishment of an independent Lower Canada. He converted the house in which his office was located into a lodge of Frères-Chasseurs and many of his compatriots came to be sworn in. The amnesty proclaimed by Lord Durham [Lambton] in June enabled Cardinal to practise openly again, but did not dissuade him from his revolutionary activities. His ardour and determination led Nelson to make him one of his principal deputies around mid July and to put him in charge of organizing the uprising in Laprairie County.
When the second rebellion broke out on the night of 3 Nov. 1838, Cardinal, as brigadier-general of the Patriote army at Châteauguay, was in command of a force that disarmed and arrested the leading members of the English party in the parish. Once this part of the plans had been carried out, Cardinal, his former clerk and friend Joseph Duquet, and his brother-in-law François-Maurice Lepailleur proceeded to Caughnawaga that night with a detachment of Patriotes to try to take badly needed weapons and ammunition from the Indians. Upon reaching the outskirts of the reserve on the morning of 4 November, the group hid in a wood, and Cardinal, Duquet, and Lepailleur went into the village, where they began discussions with the chiefs. When in the course of conversation the Indians learned of the detachment’s presence, they invited the entire body of Patriotes to participate in the negotiations. The Patriotes accepted the offer but had cause to regret it, for no sooner had they entered the village than they were surrounded by the warriors from the reserve. The Patriote expedition failed because it had been ill organized, and with no means of escape Cardinal, Duquet, Lepailleur, and most of their supporters were taken captive by the Indians, who immediately escorted them to jail in Montreal. Shortly after, Cardinal’s house was set on fire by supporters of the government.
On 28 Nov. 1838 Cardinal, with 11 companions, was brought before a court martial set up by Sir John Colborne*. A number of Canadian lawyers wanted to defend the accused, but some members of the court martial objected, exclaiming “Rebels cannot defend rebels!” The accused were finally able to retain Pierre Moreau and Lewis Thomas Drummond* as legal counsel. The lawyers were not allowed to argue but only to submit statements of the case. After being thoroughly advised by his attorneys, Cardinal lodged a protest challenging the competence of the court martial and asked for a jury trial. He claimed that the offence of which he was accused had been committed before the proclamation on 8 November of emergency regulations suspending habeas corpus, and that his case had to be brought before a civil court. This objection was overruled.
The trial began without further delay. Nine witnesses for the prosecution were heard, three of them Indians from Caughnawaga. Cardinal cross-examined some of them himself. By 1 December the prosecutors wound up their case. Cardinal then asked for a 72-hour delay to enable the accused to prepare their defence with their attorneys. The court complied, adjourning until 4 December. When the trial resumed, lawyer Aaron Philip Hart was admitted as a third attorney for the accused. The defendants questioned some ten witnesses, who testified in their favour. At the end of the hearings on 6 December, Drummond and Hart obtained permission to make comments on the trial as the whole. For the defence, Drummond, with Hart’s help, delivered a ringing “plea” that made a strong impression on the court. Deputy judge-advocate Charles Dewey Day* replied with a long and violent summation for the prosecution, demanding that the accused be sentenced to death.
In the course of the ensuing deliberations, Major-General John Clitherow*, who was presiding at the court martial, asked the crown’s legal advisers if a sentence other than the death penalty could be pronounced for the crime of high treason. Attorney General Charles Richard Ogden* was of the opinion that high treason had to be punished with death, as was Solicitor General Andrew Stuart. On 8 December the court martial found all the accused guilty of high treason, except for two who were acquitted. However, the court admitted in its judgement that the sentence attached to high treason was out of all proportion to the offence. For this reason it pronounced the death sentence on only four of the accused, including Cardinal, Duquet, and Lepailleur, who were considered the leaders of the Châteauguay rebels, and it added a recommendation for executive clemency; the remaining six were sentenced to transportation. This sentence did not conform to martial law. When Colborne asked Ogden and Stuart for their opinion they of course rejected it. On 14 December Colborne therefore asked the court martial to reconsider. That very day the court sentenced all the accused to death, but again recommended executive clemency.
From then on the fate of the accused was in the hands of the authorities. On 15 December Colborne called a meeting of the Executive Council, which examined the case of Cardinal and his companions. The council reached the conclusion on 18 December that an example had to be made of the accused. It therefore decided that all of them would be executed on 21 December. But for eight of them the death sentence was at the last minute commuted to transportation.
As soon as the decision was known, Drummond and Hart stepped up their efforts with Colborne and the members of the Special Council to obtain a reprieve for Cardinal, but in vain. On 20 December, on the eve of the execution of Cardinal and Duquet, Drummond made one last attempt. In a petition sent to Colborne he voiced his doubts about the legality of the court martial and recommended that the executions be suspended until the courts had ruled on the question. He further appealed to the code of ethics adhered to by civilized nations, which prohibits judging a man under a law promulgated after the commission of the offence of which he is accused. In conclusion he maintained that if the sentence were carried out, Cardinal and Duquet would be “raised from the status of persons presumed guilty to that of martyrs to an odious persecution.” On the same day the Caughnawaga Indians, who had captured Cardinal and his companions, also sent a petition to Colborne begging for mercy. Mme Cardinal herself wrote a letter that day begging Lady Colborne to intercede for her on behalf of her husband. Colborne could not be moved.
Thus, on the morning of 21 Dec. 1838 Joseph-Narcisse Cardinal walked to the scaffold with Duquet. The first to mount it, he said not a word and died bravely. To respect the wish he had apparently expressed before his execution, his body, it is said, was put in a coffin draped with a pall used for the victims of a riot on 21 May 1832 [see Daniel Tracey*]. He was buried in the old Catholic cemetery of Montreal, now the site of Dominion Square. In 1858 François-Maurice Lepailleur arranged for his remains to be transferred to Notre-Dame-des-Neiges cemetery, where they rest under the monument raised to the Patriotes of 1837–38. According to Ægidius Fauteux*, quoting from the North American, Cardinal was a man of medium height, rather slender, with black eyes and a dark complexion. History remembers him as the first martyr to the cause of independence for Lower Canada.
Joseph-Narcisse Cardinal’s minute-book, containing notarized instruments from the years 1829–38, is at AC, Beauharnois (Valleyfield). Interesting correspondence, including letters to his wife and acquaintances written mainly during the time he spent in the Montreal jail and just before his execution, has survived. Originals and copies are held in the following collections: ANQ-M, P1000-61-1240; ANQ-Q, P-239; Arch. de la chancellerie de l’évêché de Valleyfield (Valleyfield), Saint-Joachim (Châteauguay), corr, Cardinal à Ignace Bourget, 26 nov. 1838; AUM, P 58, U, Cardinal et autres à L. T. Drummond, 24 nov. 1838. During his exile in the United States Cardinal expressed his opinions on the rebellion of 1837 to his father-in-law in a letter which is now at PAC, MG 24, 132: 2550–52.
Some of this correspondence has appeared in print. Joseph-Alfred Mousseau published extracts of letters by Cardinal in his biographical sketch, Lecture publique sur Cardinal et Duquet, victimes de 1837–38 . . . (Montréal, 1860). Laurent-Olivier David printed part of a letter in “Les hommes de 37–38: Cardinal,” La Tribune (Montréal), 23 oct. 1880: 1–2; 27 nov. 1880: 1; this article was also published in L’Opinion publique, 24 févr. 1881: 85, and reproduced in Patriotes, 199–206. Lastly, two of Cardinal’s letters were printed by Élie-Joseph-Arthur Auclair in “Un souvenir de 1838,” Rev. canadienne, 54 (1910): 97–105, and another appears in Francis-Joseph Audet*’s “Pierre-Édouard Leclère (1798–1866),” Cahiers des Dix, 8 (1943): 109–40.
AAQ, 211 A, G: ff.180r–89r. AC, Beauharnois, Minutiers, Louis Demers, 15 mars 1823; F.-G. Le Pallieur, 30 mai 1831. ACAM, RLB, I: 244–45, 253. ANQ-M, CC 1, 9 juill. 1839, 13 mars 1840; CE1-18, 9 févr. 1808; CE1-51, 31 mai 1831. ANQ-Q, E17/6, no.32; E17/30, nos.2231, 2239–49, 2251–52, 2254, 2257–58, 2264, 2266, 2268–70, 2274; E17/35, nos.2791–92, 2795–99; E17/39, no.3112; E17/40, nos.3176–79, 3183–87; E17/51, no.4105. Arch. de la chancellerie de l’évêché de Valleyfield, Saint-Joachim, corr., Cardinal à Joseph Marcoux, 11 juin 1834. BVM-G, Fonds Ægidius Fauteux, notes compilées par Ægidius Fauteux sur les patriotes de 1837–38 dont les noms commencent par la lettre C, carton 3. PAC, MG 24, B2, 17–21; RG 4, B8: 2884–93. Le Boréal express, journal d’histoire du Canada (Montréal, 1962), 529, 542–43. [A.-R. Chewier], Procès de Joseph N. Cardinal, et autres, auquel on a joint la requête argumentative en faveur des prisonniers, et plusieurs autres documents précieux . . . (Montréal, 1839; réimpr. 1974). [L.-]L. Ducharme, Journal d’un exilé politique aux terres australes (Montréal, 1845; réimpr. 1974). L.C., House of Assembly, Journals, 1834–37. F.-M. Lepailleur, Journal d’exil: la vie d’un patriote de 1838 déporté en Australie (Montréal, 1972), 191–94. L.-J.-A. Papineau, Journal d’un Fils de la liberté. Report of state trials, 1: 17–111. La Minerve, 31 mars, 7 avril 1834; 3, 14 août 1837. Montreal Gazette, 18 Dec. 1838. North American, 10 April, 6, 13, 20, 27 Nov. 1839.
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E.-J. [-A.] Auclair, “Le notaire Joseph-N. Cardinal – 1808–1838,” L’Avenir du Nord (Saint-Jérôme, Qué.), 21 déc. 1934: 1. Ivanhoë Caron, “Une société secrète dans le Bas-Canada en 1838: l’Association des Frères Chasseurs,” RSC Trans., 3rd ser., 20 (1926), sect.i: 17–34. J.-J. Lefebvre, “Le notaire Joseph-Narcisse Cardinal (1808–1838), député de Laprairie en 1834; victime de l’échafaud en 1838,” BRH, 62 (1956): 195–207. Victor Morin, “Clubs et sociétés notoires d’autrefois,” Cahiers des Dix, 15 (1950): 185–218; “La ‘République canadienne’ de 1838,” RHAF, 2 (1948–49): 483–512. Marcelle Reeves-Morache, “La canadienne pendant les troubles de 1837–1838,” RHAF, 5 (1951–52): 99–117.
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Cite This Article
Michel de Lorimier, “CARDINAL, JOSEPH-NARCISSE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 31, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cardinal_joseph_narcisse_7E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Michel de Lorimier|
|Title of Article:||CARDINAL, JOSEPH-NARCISSE|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1988|
|Year of revision:||1988|
|Access Date:||March 31, 2023|