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

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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.

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

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