Francis Parkman, “Montcalm and Wolfe” (1884) – The Empire is Dead, Long Live the Empire

I have finally completed France and England in North America by Francis Parkman by reading Montcalm and Wolfe.  It is the longest of the seven works in the series and in Parkman’s view the most essential.  It reads like a history of the sieges, personalities, victories, and defeats of the Seven Years’ War in America.  I suspect, unless the reader finds that type of history appealing, most find these accounts tedious.  Since Parkman’s essential position is realativly unchanged throughout the 3,000 pages, I find myself not much more enlightened on either the French empire in North America nor Parkman’s contributions than I did when I started this odious project.  But, it is done.

Louis-Joseph de Montcalm commanded the French forces during the Seven Years’ War.  James Wolfe was a general of the British forces.  Both figures died in the 1759 siege of Quebec, one day apart.  This fact gives the story some drama that is not uninteresting.  Certainly we have good reason to compare these two fellows and see how they reflected the empires they defended.  Montcalm was a military man from his youth, entering the army at fifteen.  Montcalm’s elevation to captain was purchased by his father.  He fought in the War of Austrian Succession in Bohemia and was captured.  Parkman believed that Montcalm reflected one side of a deep division in the empire, between Old France and New France.  “A like antagonism was seen in the forces commanded by the two chiefs.  these were of three kings, — the troupes de terre, troops of the line, or regulars from France; the troupes de la marine, or colonial regulars; and lastly the militia.”  (1095)  It was Montcalm’s, Old France, troops that led to the early French victories that so uplifted Montcalm’s name.  Wolfe, like Montcalm, was European and saw his military chops honed in the War of Austrian Succession, although he was fifteen years younger than his French counterpart.  He also worked to sustain the British empire at home, helping to crush the Jacobite uprising of 1745 when he was not yet 20.  Parkman takes a bit more time describing his character, discussing his family, friendships, and anxious character.  Although both are clearly servants of empire and products of the Old World, Parkman seems to me to want to paint Wolfe as a more sympathetic, emotional, and modern figure.

Death of General Wolfe

Death of General Wolfe




Parkman ends the book with the siege of Quebec, leaving the last years of the war and the Peace of Paris as more of an epilogue.  Clearly he sees that siege as – for all intents and purposes – as the climax of the war.  It also seems to pass the torch of empire to New England (Parkman, like other Harvard-trained historians of the 19th century sees the U.S. birth in New England).  “New England has still more cause of joy than Old, and she filled the land with jubilation.  The pulpits resounded with sermons of thanksgiving, some of which were worthy of the occasion that called them forth.  Among the rest, Jonathan Mayhew, a young by justly celebrated minister of Boston, pictures with enthusiasm the future greatness of the British-American colonies, with the continent thrown open before them, and foretold that, ‘with the continued blessing of Heaven, they will become, in another century or two, a mighty empire;’ adding in cautious parenthesis, ‘I do not mean an independent one.’ He read Wolfe’s victory aright, and divined its far-reaching consequence.” (1419)

The total collapse of the French new world empire came at the very moment that the French monarchy was at its peak of power.  “All strife was over between the Crown and the nobles; feudalism was robbed of its vitality, and left the mere image of its former self, with nothing alive but its abuses, its case privileged, its exactions, its pride and vanity, its power to vex and oppress.  In England, the nobility were a living part of the nation, and if they had privileges, they paid for them by constant service to the state; in France, they had no political life, and were separated from the people by sharp lines of demarcation.  From warrior chiefs, they had changed to courtiers.” (842-853)

In contrast to this the English colonies offered diversity, representative governments, religious freedom, and a lack of strict class lines.  Even New England with its “narrow village life” and its “view of human nature” produced a civic vitality lacking in New France.  In his rare consideration of colonial Virginia, Parkman finds a feudal world of strict class lines, slavery, agriculture.  He talks of the other colonies and their individual character.  I do not want to pick at each of his descriptions.  Any historian can find fault in the details if not in the general picture.   Parkman, however, is making a case for the moral, political, and economic strength of unruly diversity over the centralized hierarchy of absolutism.  “This was was the strife of a united and concentrated few against a divided and discordant many.  It was the strife, too, of the past against the future; of the old against the new; of moral and intellectual torpor against moral and intellectual life; of barren absolutism against a liberty, crude, incoherent, and chaotic, yet full of prolific vitality.”

I would hesitate to suggest to anyone to read through France and England in the New World but I do think it is a valuable exercise to ponder the history of empire.  Both in reality and historiographical, we live in an age of empire.  In fact, we have lived in such an age for centuries but the changing nature of empire has sometimes confused us.  Parkman ends his account with the decline of one empire and the rise of another.  He does not care to analyze the decline of the British empire in America.  Perhaps he did not have to.  No 19th century American reader could have missed that the British empire had grown too large and the unruly forces that proved victorious against French absolutism would soon turn their sights on their own masters overseas.  I doubt that Parkman could be totally oblivious to the imperial ambitions of the United States after the Revolution.  He wrote this account while the U.S. conquered the “Great West.”  One of the major tools of that conquest, the Dawes Act, passed near the time of Parkman’s death strikes me as an attempt to destroy the very diversity that gave British North America such vitality.  By forcing Indians from reservations with the goal of turning them into tax paying, English-speaking, Americans, the U.S. government relied on a tool that never worked for empires.  No empire in world history survived through the imposition of homogeneity.  The Roman Empire, the Qing, the Ottomans, the Soviets, and even the British empire at its peak had to accept and  even embrace its diversity.  The tools of empire and many, and often seductive.



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