CUVILLIER, AUSTIN (baptized and early known as Augustin), businessman, militia officer, politician, and jp; b. 20 Aug. 1779 at Quebec, son of Augustin Cuvillier and Angélique Miot, dit Girard; m. 7 Nov. 1802 Marie-Claire Perrault in Montreal, and they had seven children; d. there 11 July 1849.
Augustin Cuvillier grew up in Quebec on Rue Sous-le-Fort, a short thoroughfare at the foot of Cap Diamant inhabited by small retailers and navigators. His father ran a store there until the spring of 1785 when he apparently converted his establishment into a bakery. His sudden death at age 33 in 1789 probably left Augustin, as the eldest of seven children, with heavy responsibilities for his age. Nevertheless, Cuvillier Sr had been a cultivated man with a concern for education, and in 1794 Augustin was registered at the Collège Saint-Raphaël in Montreal; the boy seems not to have completed the course of studies, however.
Cuvillier entered the employ of Henry Richard Symes, a wealthy auctioneer in Montreal. By the turn of the century he had become a dormant partner, and in May 1802 he took over the business from the retiring Symes. He subsequently went into partnership with Thomas Aylwin as Cuvillier and Aylwin and then with Aylwin and John Harkness as Cuvillier, Aylwin, and Harkness in Montreal and Aylwin, Harkness and Company at Quebec. The second partnership, for auctioneering and general merchandising, was assigned to its creditors in October 1806 with debts totalling nearly £14,000 but assets of more than £18,000; the largest creditors were Montreal merchant James Dunlop* and the London supply house of Inglis, Ellice and Company. Despite the failure, auctioneering, which involved the import wholesale of dry goods and their sale in large lots to local buyers, would continue to be central to Cuvillier’s business career. Through it, he developed a knowledge of domestic and foreign markets, a network of contacts, an understanding of banking and finance, and a reputation in the world of British colonial commerce. Indeed, Cuvillier’s career in the British-dominated field of business had led him increasingly from the turn of the century to adopt Austin as an abbreviated and anglicized version of his given name, at first in English and then in French.
By 1807 Cuvillier had recovered from his setback and was in possession of auction rooms on Rue Notre-Dame next to a store occupied by James McGill*. His business expanded – at least he acquired properties – but he remained mired in financial difficulties. Properties belonging to him, including two houses and a three-storey store on Rue Notre-Dame, were seized by the sheriff on suits by the merchant James Finlay (1808), Dr Jacques Dénéchaud* (1810), and Dunlop (1813). In April 1811 a company was formed under his wife’s name, as Mary C. Cuvillier and Company (more commonly, M. C. Cuvillier and Company), and it may have been a front for Cuvillier’s own business.
During the War of 1812 Cuvillier served in the 5th Select Embodied Militia Battalion of Lower Canada known as the “Devil’s Own” – initially as a lieutenant and adjutant. In June 1813, while under cover to find deserters from the militia, he distinguished himself by obtaining intelligence about American forces in the Salmon River area along the New York border, where he was well known as a merchant. By April 1814 he was a captain in the Chasseurs Canadiens, but he resigned that month after an officer of the line was given command of the unit in preference to one of its own officers. In recognition of his services during the war he was granted a medal with Châteauguay clasp and, later, 800 acres of land in Litchfield Township. He ultimately became a supernumerary captain, and he would be given command of a company in October 1820. After the war, in March 1815, Cuvillier had again had his properties seized by the sheriff. One night in late June 1816, while strolling in front of his store, he discovered two robbers inside. Ever combative, he blocked them within by holding tight to the street door, despite their threats of violence, until a neighbour, Joseph Masson, came to his assistance. Soldiers arrived finally to make the arrests.
Meanwhile Cuvillier had become one of the few Canadian businessmen extensively involved in politics. In 1809 he had failed to win a seat in the House of Assembly for Huntingdon County, but he was successful on a second try, in 1814. He quickly became a rising star in the nationalist Canadian party, which dominated the assembly and which found his understanding of the colony’s economy indispensable in the struggles of the house to gain control of government finances.
The business community found Cuvillier equally useful. His presence in the councils of the Canadian party mitigated the party’s inherent hostility to commercial interests. In addition, he became the driving force in the assembly for the incorporation of a colonial bank when, after the war, the redemption of the army bills threatened to leave the colony once again without paper money or sufficient specie [see James Green*]. In February 1815 he proposed that the assembly study the possibility of establishing a bank; his resolution was discussed without any result in action. Efforts on his part in the two following years produced greater progress but were frustrated by prorogations of the legislature. Finally, in May 1817, impatient at the delay, Cuvillier’s supporters in the Montreal business community, led by John Richardson*, formed the Bank of Montreal as a private association. Cuvillier was made a director and appointed to crucial committees. In early 1818 he succeeded in piloting a bill of incorporation through the legislature only to have Governor Sir John Coape Sherbrooke* set it aside for royal assent, which was not forthcoming. The whole procedure was renewed in early 1821, and finally, in the summer of 1822, a charter was granted. In September 1818 Cuvillier had become one of nine founding shareholders in the Montreal Fire Insurance Company; by 1820 he was president of the firm.
On the political scene Cuvillier made an impact in 1817 by revealing to the assembly partiality and conflict of interest on the part of judge Louis-Charles Foucher, who had recently rendered a decision adverse to Cuvillier in a business dispute. The Canadian party, having adopted a policy of harassing administrative and judicial officials, had recently impeached chief justices Jonathan Sewell and James Monk*, and though it had failed to obtain their dismissal, it eagerly impeached Foucher in turn; however, adjudication of the charges became bogged down in politics [see Herman Witsius Ryland]. In 1820 Cuvillier unsuccessfully proposed passage of a law to remunerate members of the assembly as a means of opening the house to candidates from walks of life other than the liberal professions; Louis-Joseph Papineau* opposed the project as too democratic.
During the great debates over control of the colony’s finances, Cuvillier scrutinized the executive’s accounts and provided figures and financial analyses while Papineau and John Neilson argued the party’s principles. In 1821 the assembly included Cuvillier among four commissioners to conduct difficult negotiations with representatives from Upper Canada over the division of customs duties between the two colonies. Two years later he chaired a committee of the assembly investigating the defalcation of Receiver General John Caldwell. Throughout the 1820s and even beyond Cuvillier and Neilson preached fiscal responsibility on the part of the assembly and denounced what they considered to be its tendency to excessive appropriations for non-administrative expenses, such as public works.
In 1822–23 Cuvillier was active in the Canadian party’s campaign against a proposed union of the Canadas. Joseph Masson, who also campaigned against union, noted at the time that he and Cuvillier benefited from their affiliation with the Canadian party, since many Canadian retailers preferred to wait for merchandise from them rather than go to a British wholesaler. Nevertheless, auctioneering was a precarious business, and Cuvillier’s association with one Jacques Cartier, probably of the Richelieu valley, ran into difficulties in the summer of 1822. In early 1823 Cuvillier could not pay the firm’s large promissory notes held by the Bank of Montreal, and the partnership had to be dissolved. Cuvillier bounced back once more, only to be in financial difficulties again during the commercial crisis of 1825–26. At that time he slammed the door on the Bank of Montreal over the lending practices of its president Samuel Gerrard*, but he survived the crisis.
Although Cuvillier’s financial difficulties affected his attendance in the house, they did not undermine his prestige. During the absence of Governor Lord Dalhousie [Ramsay] in Britain in 1824–25, Cuvillier, along with Neilson and Denis-Benjamin Viger*, was particularly courted by Lieutenant Governor Sir Francis Nathaniel Burton*. Cuvillier chaired the budget committee of the assembly when the house worked out with Burton a compromise supply bill which became a model for its future demands. After Dalhousie’s return Cuvillier responded energetically to the governor’s defiant policies, and in November 1827, when Dalhousie rejected Papineau as the duly elected speaker of the assembly, it was “the Bankrupt auctioneer,” as Dalhousie disdainfully characterized Cuvillier, who moved the house’s denunciation of the action. Nationalist committees counter-attacked in early 1828 by electing Cuvillier, Neilson, and Viger to take to London mammoth petitions complaining of Dalhousie’s administration. Informed of his election only hours before the departure of the ship, Cuvillier hurriedly confided his business and his family to Masson.
The delegates arrived in England on 12 March 1828. Like almost all visitors from Lower Canada – of whatever political stripe – who had preceded him to London, Cuvillier was dismayed at official ignorance of and indifference to the colony’s problems. Worse still, the colonial secretary, William Huskisson, initially seemed hostile. Cuvillier was soon reassured, however, by discussions with English political and business figures. Public opinion, to which the government was highly sensitive, was with the Canadians, he informed Masson. To Hugues Heney, a prominent Canadian nationalist, he wrote (in English), “There is an inherent aversion to despotism in the great mass of the people of this Country, which will screen us from the ambition of a Minister. . . . Freedom is a root which when taken, will grow in spite of every obstacle, and in America, no power on Earth can root it out.” In June, during the formal inquiry conducted by a committee of the House of Commons, usually known as the Canada committee, Cuvillier gave lengthy testimony on the colony’s most controversial political and economic issues. He favoured the colony’s system of seigneurial tenure and the traditional French civil law, and argued for a legislative council and judiciary independent of both the executive and the people. On the other hand he opposed the establishment of a colonial aristocracy and any change in what he called the constitutional “pact” of 1791 without the consent of both parties to it, Britain and the colony. While awaiting the committee’s report he visited Paris, where “the state of morality is wretched and religion, of course, in the lowest state imaginable.”
The Canada committee’s report responded favourably to most of the delegates’ demands, and on the financial issues Cuvillier enjoyed total victory. After his return to Lower Canada he hoped to translate his success into an appointment as the colony’s agent in London, which, as “the nerve centre of the world,” he had found to be a businessman’s paradise. However, the financial question having been settled in favour of the assembly, it was thought, Papineau turned the attention of the Patriote party (as the Canadian party was known from 1826) to more strictly political objectives, such as achieving an elective legislative council. Under the circumstances he preferred Viger as agent, and a confrontation between Papineau and Cuvillier over the matter in early 1829 marked the beginning of Cuvillier’s estrangement from the Patriote party. Cuvillier’s alienation increased as, later that year and early in 1830, he defended the Bank of Montreal and its charter – although with uncharacteristic clumsiness on occasion – in the face of rising popular resentment of the bank and strong attacks on it by Papineau and the Patriote party. In March 1830, however, Papineau nervously noted that a group of admiring deputies was coalescing around Cuvillier.
Cuvillier was returned for Laprairie County in the elections of 1830. In January 1831, when Governor Lord Aylmer [Whitworth-Aylmer] was obliged to open the legislature from his sick bed, Papineau (as speaker), Louis Bourdages*, and Cuvillier alone were invited to represent the assembly at the brief ceremonet the following month the Patriote Louis-Michel Viger* noted that Cuvillier was “eyed scornfully every day” and thought that he was “declining in the opinion of the members.” In March the assembly finally voted on its London agent and chose D.-B. Viger; only the members from the Eastern Townships and four or five Canadians supported Cuvillier, Papineau recorded with relief. Cuvillier confronted the Patriote party again later that year when he argued that a proposed provincial board of audit should be staffed with permanent auditors rather than political appointees. At the end of 1831 Cuvillier, with Neilson, Dominique Mondelet*, and other moderates, opposed the fabrique bill presented by Bourdages on behalf of the Patriote party.
The rift between Cuvillier and the Patriotes appeared outside the assembly as well. In early 1832 a group of nationalists, led by Édouard-Raymond Fabre*, met to form the Maison Canadienne de Commerce as a national wholesaling enterprise; Cuvillier was conspicuous by his absence. During a hotly disputed by-election in Montreal that spring Cuvillier energetically backed the government candidate, Stanley Bagg, exhorting the electors to broaden the representation in the assembly by returning a merchant rather than the Patriote candidate, Daniel Tracey*. When a riot broke out at the poll, Cuvillier, who had been appointed a justice of the peace in 1830, was one of the magistrates considered responsible for summoning the troops to fire on the mob; three Canadians were killed. Papineau fanned the flames of public outrage, and Cuvillier found himself vilified as a “bureaucrat” by Patriote supporters.
In 1833 Cuvillier denounced in the assembly Patriote demands for an elected legislative council. The following year he was one of only six Canadians who refused to support the 92 Resolutions, which subsequently constituted the Patriotes’ electoral platform. That same year the adversaries of the Patriotes formed a constitutional association in Montreal. At its first meeting Cuvillier moved support for “the continuance of the existing connection between the United Kingdom and this Province.” A popular Patriote song of the time, “C’est la faute à Papineau,” reviled him as a turncoat. Papineau was determined to have his head, and Cuvillier left politics at the time of the elections of 1834 after having served for 20 years in the legislature; in defeat he was disillusioned to think that he had owed his seat to the Papineau machine rather than to his own merit.
Significantly, Cuvillier’s conflicts with the Patriote party had developed at the very moment that his business fortunes were improving. He had become Montreal’s leading auctioneer, notably of imported manufactured goods, fish, salt, and liquors, and of the stock of bankrupt merchants; in 1836 he made costly renovations to his store, then situated on Rue Saint-Paul. In addition to auctioneering he acted as an agent, a trustee, and a stockbroker, selling the shares of various Canadian banks. In 1836 he was named a Montreal director of the Bank of British North America, founded that year to act as a colonial bank in London. During the 1830s he expanded into Upper Canada. So prominent had Cuvillier become in Montreal that he served as president of the city’s Committee of Trade from 1837 to 1841 and as a member of the group that secured its incorporation as the Montreal Board of Trade in 1841–42.
During the rebellion of 1837 Cuvillier was major and commander of Montreal’s 5th Militia Battalion. In November 1837 he and Turton Penn, as magistrates, signed the requisition for military assistance that enabled British troops to march on the rebel stronghold of Saint-Denis. In January 1838 he was a founder and vice-president (under Pierre de Rastel de Rocheblave) of the Association Loyale Canadienne du District de Montréal; it denounced both the leaders of the rebellions and the supporters of a union of the Canadas and called for a continuation of political reform “particularly in conformity with the spirit of the Constitution of 1791.” With the approval of the administrator and commander of the forces, Sir John Colborne*, Cuvillier issued paper currency to offset suspension of specie payments to the troops during the rebellions; the currency was redeemed after their suppression. He suffered a serious set-back in 1837–38 after the failure of a Montreal merchant cost him £3,000 and provoked a run on his bills. The Patriotes looked forward maliciously to another humiliating failure for him, but he appears to have disappointed them.
In the wake of the report of 1839 by Lord Durham [Lambton] on the situation in the Canadas, Cuvillier joined with Neilson and D.-B. Viger in opposing union, and in 1841, during the first elections to the assembly of the united legislature, he was returned for Huntingdon on an anti-union ticket. The leader of the Lower Canadian reform forces in the assembly was the former Patriote Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine*, who still held a grudge against Cuvillier for his opposition to the 92 Resolutions. However, hoping to win the Neilson–Viger group in the assembly over to his strategy for the survival of the Canadians within the union, La Fontaine reluctantly allowed himself to be convinced by the Upper Canadian reformer Francis Hincks* that Cuvillier would be a better nominee for speaker than more radical reform candidates. Cuvillier could rally the tories since he spoke fluent English and had extensive business connections in both sections of the united province; at the same time his election would be a reassuring triumph for the Canadians since he had opposed union, the civil list, equal representation from both sections (Lower Canada being more populous), funding of the debt at the expense of Lower Canada, and proscription of the French language in the legislature. Cuvillier was elected.
As speaker, Cuvillier developed exceedingly cordial relations with successive governors. In 1844 he supported Governor Charles Theophilus Metcalfe in his battle against La Fontaine and Robert Baldwin* for control of patronage. This decision cost him the Huntingdon seat during elections that year, and he was defeated by La Fontaine’s forces in Rimouski as well. At 65 Cuvillier saw his public career at an end. He returned to his auctioneering business, now called Cuvillier and Sons, which counted among its clients the Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice. In 1845 the seminary offered at auction its domain lands closest to Montreal, and Cuvillier himself was among the largest purchasers, spending £3,220. Four years later he contracted typhus; he died on 11 July 1849 and was buried the following day in Notre-Dame church.
Cuvillier was for a time a rare figure in the history of Lower Canada. Historians have perceived the conflict between the British merchant community and the nationalist Canadian (later Patriote) party as an important cause of the rebellions of 1837–38, yet from 1814 to 1828 Cuvillier was able to reconcile the antagonistic interests of the two groups. With the radicalization of the Patriote party from the late 1820s, however, Cuvillier became representative of a number of Canadian nationalists, such as Heney, Frédéric-Auguste Quesnel*, Joseph-Rémi Vallières de Saint-Réal, Pierre-Dominique Debartzch, and Jean-Marie Mondelet and his sons Dominique and Charles-Elzéar*, who dropped out of the party in alarm or were excluded as traitors. Their absence enabled radical Patriote leaders to push the reform movement ever more rapidly and surely towards disaster.
A portrait of Austin Cuvillier painted by Théophile Hamel* hangs in the Speakers’ Corridor of the House of Commons in Ottawa; the PAC holds a photograph of this painting. A second portrait, at the Château Ramezay in Montreal, has been reproduced in E. K. Senior, Redcoats and Patriotes: the rebellions in Lower Canada, 1837–38 (Stittsville, Ont., 1985).
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Cite This Article
Jacques Monet and Gerald J. J. Tulchinsky, “CUVILLIER, AUSTIN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 31, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cuvillier_austin_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:||Jacques Monet and Gerald J. J. Tulchinsky|
|Title of Article:||CUVILLIER, AUSTIN|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1988|
|Year of revision:||1988|
|Access Date:||May 31, 2023|