A Half-Century of Conflict was the last of Francis Parkman’s major works. The “final” work of his series on the French New World empire was written earlier. He feared he would die and considered the final work, covering the decline and fall of the empire during the Seven Years’ War, the most important. It was published in 1892, just before his death, eight years after Montacalm and Wolfe. The length of time to complete the work, which struck me as intellectually the most straight-forward of the works, suggests how Parkman’s age and health difficulties were getting to him. Maybe fatigue for this ambitious project also was getting to him. (As a reader of this massive work, I can understand that fatigue.) Since his youth, Parkman was unable to write or even read for more than a few minutes at a time. He suffered from nervous breakdowns. His hands shook so he has to write in a special box. Friends and associates read documents aloud to him. All of works, including his first history of Pontiac’s Rebellion and his memoirs of the Oregon trail, were written under the curse of this affliction. We may be quite lucky that any of these books were produced. I am not sure if these difficulties enrich the work, but they are worth pointing out.
A Half-Century of Conflict is a story of the fragility of empire at its peak of power. Between 1700 and 1750, the French empire in the New World did reach its administrative, geographical, military, diplomatic, and economic peak. The rise of English power in Europe and America during the same years presented a constant threat to the French. A series of brutal wars, mostly offshoots of distant European conflicts, drove the colonies into disorder and violence.
My previous posts on Parkman have pointed out his argument, mostly unchanged over the near forty year evolution of this project. Parkman argues that the fall of the French empire was due to its reliance on religious and political absolutism. England’s success is based on its reliance on economic, religious, and political freedom. Rarely does Parkman systematically prove this point and any modern historian can poke holes into Parkman’s position from either side. Indeed, he spends so little time on conditions in England that the reader suspects Parkman maintains a prejudice. However, if there is a kernel of truth to Parkman’s claim that an empire of the people is destined to be more successful than an empire of kings, we have much to worry about in our situation of democracy at home and empire abroad. Such empires are not so easily toppled.
“At the beginning of his reign [Louis XIV] two roads lay before him, and it was a momentous question for posterity, as for his own age, which one of them he would choose: whether he would follow the wholesome policy of his great minister Colbert, or obey his own vanity and arrogance, and plunge France into exhausting wars; whether he would hold to the principle of tolerance embodied in the Edict of Nantes, or do the work of fanaticism and priestly ambition. The one course meant prosperity, progress, and the rise of a middle class: the other meant bankruptcy and the Dragonades; and this was the King’s choice. Crushing taxation, misery, and ruin followed, till France burst our at last in a frenzy, drunk with the wild dreams of Rousseau. Then came the Terror and teh Napoleonic wars, and reaction on reaction, revolution on revolution, down to our own day.” (339)
A Half-Century of Conflict is mostly an account of the military conflicts that arose from the wars of Louis XIV and the turmoil that they caused at home. Since Parkman’s emphasis is on France, we are exploring an empire strained by war and internally fragile. The more ominous model of a the English alternative (an empire of relative liberty and home with exported oppression) is not fully studied.
A large part of the fragility of the French empire came from its dependence on France and its monarchy, which left it vulnerable to incorporation into wider conflicts. French Canada likely has about as much in stake in the War of Spanish Succession as did Senegalese did in the First World War, but in both cases the periphery was drawn into the conflict at great cost to both the people living there and the empire itself.
It is the horror that sprung from these wars that struck me as I read these accounts. Indian tribes were drawn in or displaced. The Acadians, after the English conquest, suffered hunger and the devastation of modern siege warfare. Distant claims in the “Great West” that once were stable became weak. On Western forts, Parkman writes: “France had now occupied the valley of the Mississippi, and joined with loose and uncertain links her two colonies of Canada and Louisiana. But the strength of her hold on these regions of unkempt savagery bore no proportion to the vastness of her claims or the growing power of the rivals who were soon to contest them.” (615)
The siege of Louisbourg, part of the imperial extension of the War of Austrian Succession connects the horrors of war with the fragility of the empire at its peak with the internal enemies documented in Parkman’s account of La Salle. This siege led to the loss of Acadia until the peace treaty returned it.
The siege led to a breakdown of discipline among the French soldiers and local residents, who turned to stealing to survive. La Salle learned that the class discipline encouraged disorder and resistance. The French empire had become no more democratic in the hundred years since La Salle’s explorations. Peace may have kept these internal enemies at bay, but the crisis of war allowed these forces to return. French Acadia and French Canada at large survived another two decades, in spite of, not because of its commitment to absolutism.
In my next post, I will cover Parkman’s Montcalm and Wolfe and suggest what lessons we can draw from this account of a long dead empire.