Francis Parkman, “A Half-Century of Conflict”

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.

The Deportation of Acadians: The Costs of Empire

The Deportation of Acadians: The Costs of Empire

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.

Francis Parkman, “Count Frontenac and New France under Louis XIV” (1877)


This book, resting in the middle of Francis Parkman’s history of the French Empire describes the empire at its peak, under its most effective leader Count Frontenac.  Parkman’s earlier four books explore the roots causes of the failure of the French empire in America but under the leadership of Frontenac, the possibility of correcting those internal contradictions emerged.  One of Parkman’s major themes is the potential, in frontier-style environments, for individuals to make history.  Frontenac was one of these people after becoming the governor of Quebec.

He must be a great man since there is a statue to him.

He must be a great man since there is a statue to him.

This volume is essentially a biography of Count Frontenac.  Interestingly, Parkman shows that the one chance New France had for survival rested on an effective administrator and military commander.  He challenged by power of Jesuits in New France but he was not a figure who wanted to rethink absolutism.  So far, Count Frontenac and New France under Louis XIV is the first book in the series not to include (even in its subtext) a celebration of liberty as an alternative to absolutism and the Inquisition.  It returns us, largely to the history of great men.  I find it significant in this way that this book was published at the very year Reconstruction in the United States ended, putting to a stop one of the greatest democratic experiments in U.S. history.  Historians date the beginning of the giaganstism of the gilded age in 1877.  I cannot say for sure now if this influenced Parkman, who envisioned this work in his youth, but for the reader of the 1870s, looking for great men, Count Frontenac was a ready example thanks for Parkman’s scholarship.

Frontenac served two terms as governor of Quebec.  In both, he proved to be an effective and diligent administrator.  The problems of long communication between France and Quebec was solved by his capacity to effectively rule Canada on his own.  During the first term Frontenac played with democracy.  Parkman thinks this was a lost opportunity.  “A government, as I have elsewhere shown, of excellent institutions, but of arbitrary methods.  Frontenac, filled with the traditions of the past, and sincerely desirous of the good of the colony, rashly set himself against he prevailing current.  His municipal government, and his meetings of citizens, were, like his three estates, abolished by a word from the country, which, bold and obstinate as he was, he dared not disobey.  Had they been allowed to subsist, there can be little doubt that great good would have resulted Canada.” (26)

Frontenac is most well-known for his wars.  Empire, of the absolutist variant (I am opened minded to other potential types of empire), can only be maintained through violence and administrative cruelty.  Parkman notices that these wars inspired cruelty and even when successful were never fully won.  Despite this, Frontenac did oversee the taming of Quebec’s greatest Indian enemies and the establishment of its broadest boundaries.  Ultimately, political systems that rest on violence and administrative terror will prosper under the leadership of people who are the most legalistic, military-minded, and cruel.

Francis Parkman, “The Old Regime in Canada” (1874)

With The Old Regime in Canada, Parkman finally makes his diagnosis about why French absolutism and aristocracy led to the ruin of the French empire in the New World.  He starts, interestingly enough, with Alexis de Tocqueville.  “The physiognomy of a government can best be judged in its colonies, for there its characteristic traits usually appear larger and more distinct.”  (1067)  So Parkman means to make his criticism of the French Empire a criticism of European absolutism.  Well, as I have already written, it seems to me that Parkman overstates the commitment of the English government to liberty either at home or in the colonies.  Nevertheless, at a time when most historians were content with the chronologically of the doings of kings and elite merchants and religious leaders, Parkman becomes the Thomas Paine of history by boldly rejecting monarchy and hierarchy.

This social history of later 17th century New France is broken up into three parts.  It is also the first to actually study the workings of the French Empire in its core.  The earlier texts either looked to missions, explorers, or the empire’s fragile beginnings.  The first part reveals the problem of bringing feudalism in the New World through the conflicts between various contenders for dominance of Acadia.  This internal struggle between feudal families left them ill-prepared for the challenge of England.  The victorious D’Aunay family expended the last of its wealth and blood on Acadia but left nothing for posterity.

The second part is an extended look at the religious policy of Canada from the decline of the Huron mission.  The Jesuits attempted a mission to the Iroquois at Onondaga and played a role in long conflicts between the Iroquois and the French-Canadian colonies.  Rather than causing unity among the religious leaders of Canada, they were plagued with conflict.  In a sense, the Inquisition had come to Canada to deal with a variety of heresies.  If this was not bad enough, the royalists fought with the Jesuits who hoped for Papal leadership in the New World.  On the leader of the Jesuits in New France, Francois Xavier Laval, the first bishop of Quebec, Parkman writes: “He thought himself above human law.  In vindicating the assumed rights of the church, he invaded the rights of others, and used means from which a healthy conscience would have shrunk.  All his thoughts and sympathies had run from childhood in ecclesiastical channels, and he cared for nothing outside the church.  Prayer, meditation, and asceticism had leavened and moulded him.  . . . He had passed from a life of visions to a life of actions.  Earnest to fanaticism, he saw but one great object, the glory of God on earth.  He was penetrated by the poisonous casuistry of the Jesuits, based on the assumption that all means are permitted when the end is the service of God; and as Laval, in his own opinion, was always doing the service of God, while his opponents were always doing that of the devil, he enjoyed, in the use of means, a latitude of which we have seen him avail himself.” (1222)  In short, Laval introduced religious absolutism to the colony at the same time the King Louis XIV asserted monarchical absolutism on the secular forces of Canada.  Liberty would have little space to thrive between these two forces.

The third part of this book explores the monarchical absolutism of Louis XIV.  He came to rule with a desire to centralize authority, including that of the colonies.  To this end, he ordered expeditions against the Mohawks, established strong mercantilist policies over the Canadian economy, promoted emigration to Cananda, and enforced policies to encourage marriage.  The attempt to impose a French economy on Canada led to scarcity and low population growth.  Absolutism failed to direct the fortunes of a colony so far from home and ruled locally by feudal arrangements.  Any public meetings were smashed or threatened.  torture was used to enforce French laws, trade remained fettered, and the bishop was given a free hand to crush heresies.  The result was social atomization, idleness, the lack of a skilled workforce, slavery, and underdeveloped agriculture.  As Parkman concludes the Canadians were “an ignorant population, sprung from a brave and active race, but trained to subjection and dependence through centuries of feudal and monarchical despotism, was planted in the wilderness by the hand of authority, and told to grow and flourish.  Artificial stimulants were applied, but freedom was withheld.  Perpetual intervention of government, regulations, restrictions, encouragements sometimes more mischievous than restrictions, a constant uncertainty what the authorities would do next, the fate of each man resting less with himself than with another, volition enfeebled, self-reliance paralyzed, — the condition, in short, of a child held always under the rule of a father, in the main well-meaning and kind, sometimes generous, sometimes neglectful, often capricious, and rarely very wise.” (1377)

Parkman ends the book with an interesting dilemma.  This absolutism crippled Canada’s development, he claims, but it was not the only influence.  Existing alongside it was the Indians, the “wilderness,” and the unsettled working people.


These guys look like they know how something about hard work and discipline.

These guys look like they know how something about hard work and discipline.

Parkman provides a richly documented warning against any of those who think that authority, hierarchy, and working 9-5 will create prosperity.  Hierarchy breeds resistance sometimes, but it always creates laziness, a lack of creativity, and subservience.  Whatever we imagine can replace capitalism and its hierarchies of wealth and power should take as one of its values the maximization of individual freedom.  I reckon a historian years from now will look at the drudgery and tyranny of the early 21st century American workplace, the terrorist threat of unemployment, the welfare dole, and the exhaustion of long work days (which leaves too many of us intellectually capable of only watching television at the end of the day) and understand the social causes of the system’s decline.

Francis Parkman, “La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West” (1869), or Empire and Its (Internal) Enemies

This map shows the three voyages of Rouen Robert Cavelier de La Salle.  These three treks are recounted in the third volume of Francis Parkman’s history of the French Empire in the New World.  The first of these descended the Ohio River.  The second mapped the Great Lakes and the Mississippi.  The third, which ended in La Salle’s death established a colony in present-day Texas.

La Salle, looking like a rough and rowdy frontiersman.

La Salle, looking like a rough and rowdy frontiersman.

As always, Parkman is in awe of the adventures made empire builders like La Salle (or the Jesuits considered in my last post).  Ultimately, La Salle would play the same role as these others, bringing to the New World the forces of absolutism and Roman Catholicism, which he claims is the root cause of the failure of the French empire in the Americas.  At first glance, La Salle strikes us as different from some of the more aristocratic French empire builders.  He was from a non-noble family, although wealthy.  La Salle had a deep intellectual curiosity which led him to study with the Jesuits.  He did not, however, become a zealot or a Protestant.  He found his passion not in religious ecstasy but in the knowing of the unknown.  He had hoped to discover in the New World, the Northwest passage that would  created a linkage between French holdings in Canada and Asia.  His explorations may have established a French claim throughout much of the Mississippi valley, Louisiana and even Texas but the gains were fragile and plagued with frustrations.

When reading the 300 pages of explorations, fort building, fund-raising, and diplomacy with Indians, any reader will find her ability to skim pushed to their limits.  It takes a special perspective to read such an account closely.  I will admit to missing quite enough of what Parkman has to say, but what I paid attention too is of enormous relevance.  When we think about the fates of empires, the enemies tend to external.  The barbarians at the gates of Rome, Gandhi organizing Indian workers for non-violent resistance, or Pontiaic’s unification of the Indians against he British colonists in North America.  With this perspective it is easy to see the empire buildings as a unified class of exploiters.  While I do not want to forgive the soldiers, workers, and sailors who helped construct empire of their many crimes, it does seem that for every bold act of resistance by the conquered, there are numerous small acts of resistance by untrustworthy but necessary allies of the conqueror.  These internal opponents of empire include deserting sailors, soldiers who refuse to commit atrocities, runaway laborers, mutineers, and a motley crew of working people who find their loyalty to people across the walls of empire stronger than their loyalty to their odious, violent, and criminal bosses.  To Parkman’s credit, he fully integrates these acts into his history.  While La Salle made deals with Indians and remained relatively peaceful with various tribes, he was at war with his own workers.  Even his death, at the hands of mutineers in Texas, suggests the ability of sailors, laborers and soldiers to pose an internal threat to empire.  If France had only a dubious control over the Mississippi Valley, this was due to the resistsance of the working class Frenchmen and French Canadians La Salle recruited to man his canoes and forts.

Take this one examples, in Parkman’s own words and ponder who the most reliable enemies of empire were.

“He had returned to Fort Frontenac, and was on the point of embarking for relief, when a blow fell upon him more disheartening than any that had preceded.  On the twenty-second of July, two voyageurs, Messier and Laurent, came to him with a letter from Tonty, who wrote that soon after La Salle’s departure nearly all the men had deserted, after destroying Fort Crevecoeur, plundering the magazine, and throwing into the river all the arms, goods, and stores which they could not carry off.  The messengers who brought this letter were speedily followed by two of the habitants of Fort Frontenac, who had been trading on the lakes, and who, with a fidelity which the unhappy La Salle rarely knew how to inspire, had traveled day and night to bring him their tidings.  They reported that they had met the deserters, and that, having been reinforced by recruits at Michillimackinac and Niagara, they now numbered twenty man.  They had destroyed the fort on the St. Joseph, seized a quantity of furs belonging to La Salle at Michillimackinac, and plundered the magazine at Niagara.  Here they had separated, eight of them coasting the south side of Lake Ontario to find harborage at Albany, a common refuge at that time of this class of scoundrels; while the remaining twelve, in three canoes, made for Fort Frontenace, along the north shore, intending to kill La Salle, as the surest means to escaping punishment.” (854-855)

Empire builders or rebels?

Empire builders or rebels?


Francis Parkman, “The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century”

“Few passages of history are more striking than those which record the efforts of the earlier French Jesuits to convert the Indians.  Full as they are of dramatic and philosophic interest, bearing strongly on the political destinies of America, and closely involved with the history of its native population, it is wonderful that they have been left so long in obscurity.  While the infant colonies of England still clung feebly to the shores of the Atlantic, events deeply ominous to their future were in progress, unknown to them, in the very heart of the continent.  It will be see, in the squeal of this volume, that civil and religious liberty found strange allies in this Western World.” (343)

Works of Francis Parkman

Works of Francis Parkman

With this, Parkman begins the second volume of his Gibbonesque history of the French empire in America.  This volume covers the interactions between the Jesuits, the Huron, the Algonquins, and Iroquois in the early seventeenth century, centering on the rise and fall of the Jesuit missions and the rise of the Iroquois empire, which rose to crush not only the Jesuit missions but several Indian societies as well.  By telling this story, Parkman reminds us how fragile the French empire was in these early days (even if the English settlements were even more so).  Parkman’s position is clear.  While impressed with the Jesuit’s devotion, capacity for sacrifice, creativity, and curiosity, Parkman believes that the destruction of the Jesuits was ultimately a victory for religious freedom in North America.  “Liberty may thank the Iroquois, that, by their insensate fury, the plans of her adversary were brought to nought, and a peril and a woe averted from her future.  They ruined the trade which was the life-blood of New France; they stopped the current of her arteries, and made all her early years a misery and a terror.  Not that they changed her destinies.  The contest on this continent between Liberty and Absolutism was never doubtful; but the triumph of one would have been dearly bought, and the downfall of the other incomplete.”  (712)  However impressive the Jesuits were, never does Parkman doubt that they were on the wrong side of history.  They were representatives of Old World tyranny.  I was similarly conflicted as I read this volume, coming up with, at various times, two different readings.  This volume should rightfully be titled The Jesuits and Iroquois in North America.

Alternatives to European Empires
Parkman insists throughout this work that the choice for America was between English liberty and French absolutism.  However, any reader of The Jesuits in North American will see that there was a third alternative.  The rise of the Iroquois presented a challenge to the diplomatic influence of the French, other Indian societies, and potentially to the settler societies in Virginia and Massachusetts.  Their challenge was not only diplomatic and military.  The Iroquois presented a vision of society, government, culture, and gender that challenged everything both European empires presented.  Instead of the power of capital or the power of family and rank, the Iroquois rose to offic eby “address, ability or valor.” (376)  Instead of monarchy and slavery, the Iroqouis constructed the “council-fire.” Instead of a criminal justice system based on execution and revenge, the Iroquois incorporated atonement and reconciliation into their dealings with criminals.  “A body of hereditary oligarchs was the head of the nation, yet the nation was essentially democratic.  Not that the Iroquois were levellers.  None were more prompt to acknowledge superiority and defer to it, whether established by usage and prescription, or the result of personal endowment.  Yet each man, whether of high or love degree, had a voice in the conduct of affairs, and was never for a moment divorced from his wild spirit.” (382)  Parkman also noticed that the Iroquois religion had a concept of God that was already beyond good and evil.  The most difficult task for a post-theist is to escape the moral authority of a religion otherwise dead.  These Indians had already inoculated themselves from this moral burden of religion, forcing humanity to take up moral questions as free individuals and communities.  I will leave the question of whether the Iroquois had a fighting change to assert their vision over North America.  They were shattered by diseases brought by Europeans.  Yet, in the 17th century, the presented an alternative vision of empire.

The Jesuit
The main story of this volume is the Jesuit missions among the Huron until the martyrdom of the missionaries by the Iroquois.  Le Jeune, Jean de Brebeuf, Isaac Jogues, and the others saw themselves as the vanguard of a religious revolution that would bring the Christianity to the Great Lakes Indians.  It is difficult not to read Parkman’s account of these missionaries without some awe at their amazing commitment.  Unlike the Inquisition back in Europe, these Jesuits were the persecuted, at every moment at risk of being slaughtered by their enemies and faux-friends.  They contain the spirit that the revolutionary needs, most importantly the rejection of half-measures.  When I read about the Jesuits baptizing children dying of diseases, my disgust at the underhanded nature of their “medicine” is tempered by an admiration for their refusal to accept defeat (and for them the loss of a single soul).  Before we go too far, through, remember that the Jesuits were at the same time forces of the counter-revolution, at least if we take Parkman’s reading.  “The Roman Church, sunk in disease and corruption when the Reformation began, was roused by that fierce trumpet blast to purge and brace herself anew.  Unable to advance, she drew back to the fresher and comparatively pure life of the past; and the fervors of mediaeval Christianity were renewed in the sixteenth century.  In many of its aspects, this enterprise of Montreal belonged to the time of the first Crusades.” (545)  So who were these French Jesuits in North America, a Leninist vanguard party, Crusaders, or Inquisitors?  In any case, their honesty was tested and they were martyred and their mission collapsed along with the Huron.


In any case, I complete this second volume of Parkman’s massive history with a new respect for both the Iroquois alternative and the Jesuit zealotry.  Perhaps we need a combination of these two forces again to face our predicament, borrowing from that willingness to sacrifice with a clear alternative vision to global capital.

Francis Parkman, “Pioneers of France in the New World: Samuel de Champlain”

What happened to the motley crew that pioneered a French Protestant community in Florida?  In the short-term, it was destroyed but in the long-term it was replaced with a very different formula of empire.

“New England Protestantism appealed to Liberty, then closed the door against her; for all Protestantism is an appeal from priestly authority to the right of private judgement, and the New England Puritan, after claiming this right for himself, denied it to all who differed with him. . . With New France it was otherwise.  She was consistent to the last.  Root, stem, and branch, she was the nursling of authority.  Deadly absolutism blighted her early and her later growth.  Friars and Jesuits, a Ventadour and a Richelieu, shaped her destines.  All that conflicted against advancing liberty–the centralized power of the crown and the tiaras, the ultramontane in religion, the despotic in policy–found their fullest expression and most fatal exercise.” (312)  It is which this diagnosis that Francis Parkman ends the first volume of his massive work on the fate of European empires in North America.



I have not yet seen Parkman deal with the question of slavery, but if slavery (and the general disciplining of labor for a plantation economy) is the original sin of English North America, I wonder if Parkman would agree the victory of the forces of absolutism and the missionary spirit and the seduction of power politics served as the original sin of French North America.  Parkman describes in shocking detail the misery and horror of the early explorers and settlers in the Great Lakes.  Scurvy, starvation, and conflicts with the Indians ensured that few survived.  “A rigorous climate, a savage people. a fatal disease, and a soil barren of gold were the allurements of New France.” (165)  It seems to have been a force of will that implanted France’s presence in North America, but it was the will of the state, of absolutist monarchs, and adventures lacking accountability that squeezed from men’s blood and sweat a fledgling colony.

Through good relations in the French court, the Jesuits were able to establish a strong position in early New France, ensuring yet another authoritarian (as Parkman sees it).   The Jesuits established the French position in Acadia, despite efforts by the English to displace them.  But like everything else in French North America, for Parkman, this was an exercise in autocratic tyranny.  “Rude hands strangled the ‘Northern Paraguay’ in its birth.  Its beginnings had been feeble, but behind were the forces of a mighty organization, at once devoted and ambitious, enthusiastic and calculating.  Seven years later the Mayflower landed her emigrants at Plymouth. What would have been the issues had the zeal of the pious lady of honor preoccupied New England with a Jesuit colony?”  (240)


At the same time, as Parkman describes, Champlain is at work setting a foundation in Quebec.  Like his masters, Champlain’s goal was not an empire of liberty but the establishment of “the Catholic faith and the power of France.” (241)  Parkman blames Champlain, by creating an anti-Iroquois alliance among the Huron and Algonquins, of setting a precedent for diplomatic intervention in Indian affairs.  Again, the sin seems to be the imposition of European absolutism and diplomacy on the New World (for a mid-nineteenth century American like Parkman, a horrendous choice).  This book The Pioneers of France in North America ends with the decline of Champlain in the midst of Indian wars be entered into unwisely as a product of his patriotic and religious zealotry.

Even the commercial interests of the French in the Great Lakes was corrupted with the taint of absolutism and the absolutist monarch.  “The English colonist developed inherited freedom on a virgin soil; the French colonist was pursued across the Atlantic by a paternal despotism better in intention and more withering in effect than that which he lief behind.  If, instead of excluding Huguenots, France had given them an asylum in the west, and left them there to work out their own destinies, Canada would never have been a British province, and the United States woudl have shared their vast domain with a vigorous population of self-governing Frenchmen.  A trading company was not feudal proprietor of all domains in North America within the claim of France.  Fealty and homage on its part, and on the part of the Crown the appointment of supreme judicial officers, counts, and barons, were the only reservations.  The King heaped favors on the new corporation.” (314-315)

There are, of course, many more stories to tell, of diplomacy, war, adventure, and the challenge of the English.  The main argument of Parkman in his accounting of the era of Champlain is to define the French New World empire as an empire of authority and tyranny, betraying the promise of America.

Richelieu, advocate of absolutism

Richelieu, advocate of absolutism

Our immediate response is to scoff at his prejudices (anti-French, anti-Catholic).  As any school-child knows now, the English empire in North America was not less tyrannical.  The Puritans were anything but advocates of religious liberty.  Virginia became a slave society within a century of Jamestown.  Class discipline, capitalism, exploitation, expropriation, and incomprehensible horrors accompanied Europeans of all types in their American adventures.   I urge readers to refer to the masterly The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker for more on these horrors and our ancestors resistance to them. However, whatever his prejudice, Parkman is an ally of liberty and this comes through on every page.  And it should give us some encouragement that the “center of civilization”, France, was so horribly ill-equipped politically, religiously, and socially for an new epoch.  Champlain was of the middle ages, in Parkman’s view.  That liberty even had a chance in America, with all of these forces set against it for so long, might be enough to keep out spirits up.


Francis Parkman, “Pioneers of France in the New World: Huguenots in Florida”

For my next reading assignment, I have decided to tackle Francis Parkman’s France and England in North America.  Combined, this work straddles seven volumes (or 2 Library of America volumes totally almost 3,000 pages).  I will approach this text with the single question: What can a left libertarian learn from a mid-19th century Harvard historian writing endlessly about dead empires?


Clues to this can be found on the first page of his general introduction.  Parkman writes: “The springs of American civilization, unlike those of the elder world, lie revealed in the clear light of History.  In appearance they are feeble; in realty, copious and full of force.  Acting at the sources of life, instruments otherwise weak become mighty for good and evil, and men, lost elsewhere in the crowd, stand forth as agents of Destiny.  In their toils, their sufferings, their conflicts, momentous questions were at stake, and issues vital to the future world, — the prevalence of races, the triumph of principles, health or disease, a blessing or a curse.  On the obscure strife where men died by tens or by scores hung questions of as deep import for posterity as on those mighty contests of national adolescence where carnage is reckoned by thousands.” (13)  Parkman is stressing the role of individuals in making history and points out that it is in the frontiers areas, the areas distant from “civilization” that individual makes history.  At first glance, this can be a case for not only “history from below” but also for a reorientation of our historical consciousness and our political action to the local level.  National history, and unfortunately global history, aggrandizes greatness.  Parkman, 150 years ago, was presenting a powerful alternative to the history of great men.  How effective he will be at this we will consider as I go through this work.

Parkman also gives what seems to be his main thesis in the general introduction, and it displays a strong anti-French and anti-Catholic prejudice.  I am not sure yet if he is saying that English and Protestant values were destined to be victorious.  I suspect the work would have been much shorter if that was the case, but he does suggest that the victors were on the right side of history.  “By name, local position, and character, one of these communities of freemen stands forth as the most conspicuous representative of this antagonism; — Liberty and Absolutism, New England and New France.  The one was the offspring of a triumphant government; the other, of an oppressed and fugitive people: the one, an unflinching champion of the Roman Catholic reaction; the other, a vanguard of the Reform.  Each followed its natural laws of growth, and each came to its natural result.  Vitalized by the principles of its foundation, the Puritan commonwealth grew apace.” (14)  These two perspectives seem at first glance to be contradictory.  Either societies and empires develop along natural laws according to their root values (as Toynbee might agree), or individuals in certain circumstances such as frontiers can be the leading force in historical change.

Parkman starts his story in Florida where a struggle between Protestantism and Catholicism began with the French Huguenot attempt to establish a Protestant colony.  It starts, with empire at its worst and most paranoid.  De Soto’s violent pillage through the lower Mississippi.  These expeditions ravaged the Indian communities but failed to lead to a Spanish presence in Florida.  While the Pope gave all of North America to Spain, their presence was limited in the 16th century, leading to the paranoia that would result in tragedy for the French Protestants.

The French Protestant expedition reminds us of the English Protestant emigration of a century later.  Religious dissenters, displaced peasants, and frustrated working people crammed onto a ship for the new world.  “The body of the emigration was Huguenot, mingled with young nobles, restless, idle, and poor, with reckless artisans and piratical sailors from the Norman and Breton seaports.”  (37) Just the type of motley crew required for an empire of liberty.  Their first attempt was at Rio Janeiro and failed much like the later colony or Roanoke.  Attacked by the Portuguese and plagued with internal religious divisions (Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist) the leader Villegagnon fled and the settlers dispersed among the Brazilian Indians.


In 1562 a second attempt was made by the sailor Jean Ribaut and he chose the coast of Florida for the colony.  Through diligent work and the aid of the local Indians, the colony survived but its role was not clear.  Would it be a bastion of the French military in the New World to aid in its conflicts with Spain or would it be a Commonwealth – a model of free people?

The colony, Fort Caroline, was populated by a motley crew of buccaneers, rebels, and settlers.  Survival require discipline and labor.  These  divisions reached a climax in mutinies and plots against the colonial leader, Laudonniere.  La Roquette urged the settlers to seek out the rich gold and silver deposits rumored to be up the river.  Why labor endlessly when wealth flowed in the rivers?  (This is a question we must all ask, living in an over-developed, obese, and post-scarcity society.)  Pirates used the colony as a base of operations against Spanish shipping.  All in all “the malcontents too the opportunity to send home charges against Laudonniere of peculation, favoritism, and tyranny.” (66)  A revolution was brewing before the colony had even got a real start.  It was a libertarian experiment to be sure, but French weakness in the region and these internal divisions made it an easy victim of the Spanish.

Pedro Menendez de Aviles was the force that would bring the counter-Reformation to Fort Carolina.  “The monk, the inquisitor, and the Jesuit were lords of Spain, — sovereigns of her sovereign, for they had formed the dark and narrow mind of that tyrannical recluse.” (83)  This is the culture that created Menendez.  According to Parkman Menendez used tyranny and military discipline to establish the Spanish colony of St. Augustine (just south of Ft. Caroline), sunk the French ships and marched on Fr. Caroline.

The details are not important, but the end result was the massacre of the French Huguenots for the dual crime of religious heresy (not being Catholics) and opposing the Spanish New World Empire.  The chapter ends with the return of the favor, as Dominique de Gourgues sailed to the site of the former Ft. Caroline (the Spanish rebuild a fort there).  Gourgues exacted his revenge on the resident Spaniards, but Menendez lived for another ten years.

Parkman believes this was a great tragedy for France’s new world empire.  “It was [Menendez] who crushed French Protestantism in America.  To plant religious freedom on this western soil was not the mission of France.  It was for her to rear in northern forests the banner of absolutism and of Rome; while among the rocks of Massachusetts England and Calvin fronted her dogged opposition.  Long before the ice-crusted pines of Plymouth had listened to the rugged psalmody of the Puritan, the solitudes of western New York and the stern wilderness of Lake Huron were trodden by the iron heel of the soldier and the sandalled foot for the Franciscan friar.  France was the true pioneer of the Great West.  They who bore the fleur-de-list were always in the van, patient, daring, indomitable.” (139)

Could France have sustained a place for the motley crew of religious dissenters, vagabonds, pirates, and runaway sailors?  Maybe the defeat of this experiment in freedom was doomed.  Maybe Parkman is aggrandizing its potential.  The history of Ft. Caroline shows its internal contradictions, disorder, and tyranny.  In any case, the Spanish did snuff out an interesting experiment that was not allowed to fully mature.

All murderous empire builders need a statue.

All murderous empire builders need a statue.