Journal of Civil Law Studies


Some 400 years ago the French discovered what was to become New France or French North America. Their effort of colonization spread on a vast region stretching from present Nova-Scotia in Canada to the Great Lakes region and down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana. Apart from the latter, the two main northern Atlantic colonies were Acadia and Canada (the name for the present Canadian province of Quebec). French presence lasted in Acadia until 1710 and in the last two

(Canada and Louisiana) until the early years of the 1760’s when the former was transferred to Britain and the latter to Spain. This was the end of French presence in Northern America. But did whatever one may call culture, and what is more legal culture, survive in these three places? Answering that question is the purpose of this article.

Before entering the heart of the matter, one must perform the uneasy task of defining (?) what is meant by legal culture. I made up my mind to call it “a collective, intuitive, spontaneous and traditional perception” of what law means in a given society, be it that of the people (the folk culture) or of the lawyers (the learned culture). The anthropological side of my own self favoured the former, my legal side the latter. Yet I decided to try to have a look at both of them. Here is the result:

1) It is quite difficult in all three territories to speak of a learned French culture. During the whole period, trained lawyers existed in small number in Canada, in very, very small number in Louisiana and they were none in Acadia. Furthermore, the lawyers in Canada were essentially familiar with the Coutume de Paris which, whatever its importance was, cannot be called French legal culture in a time when scores of customs still existed and thrived in France.

2) A folk legal culture undoubtedly existed in all three territories, but to the best of readily available information, it was not a French folk legal culture, but a provincial folk legal culture. The best example one could find was perhaps Acadia and Louisiana after the arrival of Acadians deported by the British after 1755. There is clear evidence of their reliance on customs from Western France, especially Poitou, wherefrom they originally had migrated to America. They kept these customs in spite of statutory provisions which imposed the Coutume de Paris throughout New France.

If there is an influence of French legal culture in these regions it is a learned one which only appeared in the 19th century in both Louisiana and Quebec through the advent of codification which sent back to the French Civil Code of 1804. Thus the tradition is a quite recent one and cannot, in my view, be dated back to the French colonial period.

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