FOUCAULT, FRANÇOIS, seigneur, merchant, member of the Conseil Supérieur; b. 1690 in the diocese of Bayonne, France, son of Eusèbe Foucault and Catherine Catalon; d. 19 July 1766 at Quebec.
Although he has been described as a distant relation of the Gascon counts of Foucault, François Foucault was probably from less illustrious ancestry. He was sent to New France in 1715, at age 25, to serve under the intendant, Michel Bégon. On 11 Aug. 1715, Bégon appointed him king’s storekeeper at Quebec, a post he held for the next 25 years. Indeed, in an administrative system characterized by the clientage of its high officials, he managed to retain the confidence of four successive intendants. He became a close friend of Bégon, who left him in charge of his extensive private interests when he returned to France in 1726. Claude-Thomas Dupuy*, Bégon’s successor, prized his friendship only slightly less than his generous credit. In fact, when Dupuy departed from New France in 1728, he owed Foucault 27,082 livres. Gilles Hocquart*, intendant from 1729 to 1748, relied heavily on Foucault’s administrative abilities and, in contrast to Dupuy, did much to extend the storekeeper’s private interests. Although Foucault was not one of François Bigot*’s inner circle, Bigot did recommend his appointment, in 1752, as first councillor and keeper of the seals of the Conseil Supérieur, a promotion which afforded him the dubious honour of presiding over that body’s final session on 28 April 1760.
It was Hocquart, however, who exerted the greatest influence on Foucault’s career. Because Hocquart regarded him as one of the most trustworthy and capable officials in New France, his functions were gradually extended into several branches of the civil administration. For example, on 18 April 1733, he was appointed to the Conseil Supérieur. While conceding that Foucault possessed no legal training, Hocquart assured the minister that he would study law under the attorney general Louis-Guillaume Verrier. In 1737 Foucault was named principal writer in reward for his frequent assistance in the financial affairs of the intendancy. He was also employed from time to time to investigate natural resources and agricultural conditions. Although he retired as king’s storekeeper in October 1740, he took charge, almost immediately, of the financial management of the royal shipbuilding industry. In 1740 and again in 1747 he served in place of Jean-Victor Varin* de La Marre as controller of the Marine. For these heavy responsibilities he received the modest salary of 600 livres until 1742 and 900 livres thereafter, in addition to his stipend as a councillor and occasional bonuses. Hocquart’s repeated attempts to increase his salary failed.
Foucault’s private affairs prospered, however, in other ways. For example, he operated his own store at Quebec conjointly with the king’s store. It catered to the dry goods requirements of the town populace and involved him in the agricultural trade of the countryside. He also owned at least one small fishing vessel, the Manoir, and he chartered others in partnership with various Quebec merchants. He bought and sold land at Quebec and he even tried to manufacture fish glue for export to France. Like many other Quebec merchants, moreover, he consigned and sold imported goods to fur-traders, a branch of his commerce that was definitely enhanced by his marriage on 3 June 1718 to Catherine Sabourin, dit Chauniers (d. 1731), daughter of a Montreal merchant. His ties to the colony’s economic élite were strengthened, moreover, by the marriage, in 1744, of his daughter Marie-Claude-Geneviève to Guillaume Guillimin*, a Quebec merchant and, like Foucault, a councillor. In 1747, two other daughters, Marie-Thérèse and Louise-Catherine married respectively Jean-André Lamaltie, a Quebec merchant whose father was a prominent Bordeaux merchant, and Joseph-Étienne Nouchet, assessor to the Conseil Supérieur whose father Joseph was director of the Domaine d’Occident in Canada.
Foucault also benefited during the 1730s from Hocquart’s policy of developing New France’s industrial-agricultural economy by encouraging selective private initiatives. On 3 April 1733 he was granted a large seigneury, with two leagues of river frontage, on the Richelieu. He did little to improve it, however, and it was withdrawn in the massive reunification of undeveloped seigneuries in 1741, only to be returned to him, with an extra league of frontage added, on 1 May 1743. Another league of frontage was added on 1 Nov. 1744, making his one of the largest seigneuries in the colony. Foucault sold his house at Quebec for 2,650 livres to build a grist mill on his seigneury, and by 1746 he had settled six habitants on his land. By 1747 a presbytery had been constructed and, with Hocquart’s assistance, Foucault persuaded Maurepas to pay for the establishment of a parish priest.
On 27 April 1735, Foucault had been granted the lower St Lawrence fishing post of Saint-Modet, in partnership with Nicolas-Gaspard Boucault. They established a sedentary fishery, and in 1736 they obtained 200 barrels of porpoise oil. Although they were forced to withdraw in 1737, following a dispute with Pierre Constantin over legal title to Saint-Modet, they were granted a second post, Apetépy, on the Labrador coast, on 1 May 1738. Foucault also obtained Maurepas’s approval, in 1739, to join François Daine and Louis Fornel in exploiting the fisheries of the remote Baie des Esquimaux (probably Hamilton Inlet).
Given these extensive private interests and the quasi-private nature of the financial administration in New France, it was almost inevitable that Foucault’s affairs would become enmeshed with the king’s. The revenues from both went into his private cash-box, and the accounting system in New France was notoriously inadequate. It was not always clear, for example, whether the large credits Foucault extended were from his own or from the king’s revenues. Consequently, when a creditor proved insolvent, he could shift the loss from his own to the king’s ledger. In Dupuy’s case, however, the king refused to accept any liability and Foucault was forced to absorb a loss of more than 11,000 livres.
Other conflicts arose over Foucault’s purchases of supplies at Quebec for the king’s service. In 1740 Maurepas learned that he had paid two livres more than the market rate for wheat dispatched on the king’s account to Martinique the previous year. He suspected that Foucault was favouring some friend or relative, but Hocquart’s investigation revealed that he had actually purchased the wheat from himself under the fictitious name of Lemieux. Dealings like these may have played a part in Maurepas’s decision to send a special agent, Jean de Laporte de Lalanne, to investigate New France’s financial administration in 1740, and revelations about them may also have had something to do with Foucault’s rather sudden retirement as king’s storekeeper in 1740. Even so, he seems to have profited personally thereafter in his function as a buyer for the king’s shipyard.
But despite his successful administrative career and extensive private interests, Foucault ended his days in post-conquest Canada as an enfeebled and poverty-stricken old man. The tenants had long since been driven from his seigneury on the Richelieu and his fishing enterprises had ceased altogether. In addition, the French defeat cut him off from the 600-livre pension he had enjoyed since his retirement as principal writer in April 1751, and his salary as first councillor was discontinued in January 1761. He was left with his store at Quebec and 875 livres per year from the sale of his house in 1758. Though anxious to join his daughter Marie-Thérèse in France, he was unable to sell his store to an Englishman, even after borrowing 5,100 livres to refit it as a house. Obliged to remain in Canada, he received infrequent news of his son Nicolas-Denis, who acted as a controller of the Marine in Louisiana after 1763. In 1764 he made a final futile request for the restoration of his pension, describing “the most dismal situation to which I am reduced; at 75 years of age with no resources and burdened by infirmities which put me in dire need. . . .” He died two years later, a pathetic victim of France’s expulsion from North America.
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