Alexander Buchanan (1798-1851) and His Books: Part 1

It may simply be an instance of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, but it seems like everywhere I turn in our rare book room I run into vestiges of Alexander Buchanan.

As a reasonably important historical figure, it’s not surprising to see his name pop up here and there every now and then, but this barrage of six books is unprecedented.

So who was this Alexander Buchanan?

Alexander Buchanan was born in Gosport, England, on April 23, 1798. John Buchanan, Alexander’s father, emigrated with his family in 1802 and settled in Quebec City, where he was surgeon to the garrison, in 1803. In 1814, Alexander was apprenticed to Andrew Stuart, a Quebec City lawyer, and was called to the bar in 1819. He argued his first case before the Court of King’s Bench in Montreal in 1821 and subsequently settled there. He went into practice first with his mentor’s brother, James Stuart, a renowned Montreal lawyer and former Solicitor General; and, after the latter’s appointment as Attorney General, with the equally renowned Charles Richard Ogden, himself Solicitor General. In 1824, Buchanan married the conventiently-named Mary Buchanan, daughter of the British consul in New York. He was appointed King’s Counsel in 1835, and a judge of the Court of Requests and justice of the peace in 1839.

Buchanan is best known for his subsequent work as Chair of two important commissions of inquiry in 1842. The first was set up to revise the acts and ordinances of Lower Canada. Buchanan’s Report, which was presented in three sections from 1843 to 1845, incorporated the previously scattered laws into one volume; it recommended that these laws, which were in both French and English, be codified and translated to promote their dissemination, and resulting in the publication of the Revised Acts and Ordinances of Lower Canada in 1845.

The second commission was to inquire into the system of seigneurial tenure in Lower Canada. In this period of economic and political change (and some revolutionary ferment after the uprisings of 1838), many people were demanding that the system of seigneurial tenure be abolished or at least reformed. In his report, Buchanan came down on the side of those opposing seigneurial tenure, calling it a relic of “barbaric ages”, a system of servitude disastrous for agriculture and industrial development that no longer met the needs of the population, and he recommended it be abolished. Sadly, Buchanan, who died in 1851, did not live to see the final abolition of the seigneurial system in 1854.

Buchanan was a keen collector of books and built a large private library, which was a rare thing in the Canadian colonies of the day. The collection was was so significant that a catalogue of it was printed shortly after Buchanan’s death:

Catalogue of the library of thr [sic] late Alexander Buchanan, Esq., Q.C. : being one of the most select and complete collections of valuable books in this province comprising the principal and most important works on the civil, French, and English law; the Greek and Roman classics; standard works in English literature; and the productions of the principal writers in French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese languages. Montreal : Printed by Wm. Salter & Co., St. James Street, 1852.

The catalogue has been digitized and is available online here. And though we don’t have a copy of the catalogue in our library, we do have one of the actual books listed in the catalogue. Our copy of the Dictionnaire des fiefs et des droits seigneuriaux utiles et honorifiques, par M. Renauldon (Paris: chez Knapen, 1765) is listed as item #215 in the catalogue and bears Buchanan’s autograph signature. His acquisition of this title is also a refection of his work as Chair of the commission on the seigneurial system, described above.

So often we find a bookplate or an inscription with a name that, if followed, will lead to naught.  Thankfully, here with Buchanan’s books, the clues lead not to empty ghosts but to a fully fleshed character and a part of Canadian history.

For more about Alexander Buchanan and his books in our library, stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3 of this post.