Seigneurial tenure and development in French Colonial America, 1688 to 1760

UPDATE 15/10/15: Here is the link to the paper on ACADEMIA

As I finish my preparations for the job market, I have also finished formatting a first draft of a paper on the role of seigneurial tenure for Canada’s early economic development. I have sent it to some colleagues for comments. I will soon upload the paper on Academia (I will update this post when it is ready). In the meanwhile, you can send me an email at to ask me a copy.

Below is the abstract and the introduction

Abstract: This paper argues that the important transfers from peasants to landlords through private taxes and duties under seigneurial law in the French colonies in North America in the 18th century have been underestimated. They represented a labor income tax which ranged between 4.75% and 6.61% which is a conservative estimate. This high burden of taxation – which was not used to produce public goods – created a supply-side impediment for economic growth.

When Canada was first settled in the 17th century, it was settled by the French who opted to locate themselves in the St-Lawrence Valley (modern day Quebec). Generally, the historiography of that colony points to poor economic performance. Until recently, estimates of that poor performance did not exist. Most of the discussion was qualitative and numerous scholars dissented from that viewpoint.  However, new empirical evidence has solved this problem by providing a long series of wages and prices to compare living standards over time and across regions.The inhabitants of the colony were generally poorer than British settlers in the United States by a substantial margin while they were roughly as rich as the inhabitants of France.

This data points to a certain role to be given to seigneurial tenure – the system of land tenure – as a factor in retarded economic development were correct. In this paper, it is argued that it was an extractive institution which acted like a predatory state. Using the aforementioned data, we can create a measure of the economic burden imposed upon the economy by this system of law and then discuss the type and the quantity of public goods it produced. It is argued that this system of law which allowed landlords to exact fees and dues from peasant households led to an important tax on labor that would have represented between 4.75% and 6.61% of the typical household labor income. The tax revenues generated were not used to finance the production of public goods. The predatory nature of seigneurial tenure contributes to explaining the slow growth and the low levels of living standards in the French colony relative to the American colonies.


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