Herman Melville, “Uncollected Prose”

“A miserable world! Who would take the trouble to make a foutune in it, when he knows not how long he can keep it, for the thousand villains and asses who have the management of railroads and steamboats, and innumerable other vital things in the world. If they would make me Dictator in North America a while, I’d string them up! And hang, draw, and quarter; fry, roast, and boil; stew, grill, and devil them, like so many turkey-legs—the rascally numskulls of stokers; I’d set them to stokering in Tartarus¬—I would.” (1204–1205)

Toward the end of the third volume of Herman Melville’s work, published by the Library of America, we find a rather hefty collection of his published writings. Unlike Hawthorne, who worked mostly in short-fiction and published many collections of his essays, Melville only put out The Piazza Tales, but in the 1850s he wrote several more stories. They are all included here, as are six of his book reviews.


Of the book reviews, I will only highlight two, simply because they deal directly with texts this blog recently examined. Melville wrote a positive review of Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail. Melville was quite impressed with Parkman’s ability to turn his trip into a vibrant examination of frontier adventures. However, he was ambivalent about Parkman’s attitude toward Indians. He noticed (who could not) that Parkman harbored many prejudices toward Indians, which seemed to make it difficult for him to accurately describe the people he lived with. Melville’s point is well-taken here. All people were barbarians once, and most still are. “Why, among the very Thugs of India, or the bloody Dyaks of Borneo, exists the germ of all that is intellectually elevated and grand. We are all of us—Anglo-Saxons, Dyaks, and Indians—sprung from one head and made in one image. And if we reject this brotherhood now, we shall be forced to join hands hereafter. . . The savage is born a savage; and the civilized being but inherits his civilization, nothing more.” (1146). Next is “Hawthorne and his Mosses,” which is less of a book review than an attempt at finding a place for Hawthorne (who Melville clearly saw as America’s greatest voice) in world literature. Like others at the time, Melville was looking for the American voice in literature and seeking cultural independence from Europe. As he concludes: “Let him write like a man, for then he will be sure to write like an American. Let us away with this Bostonian leaven of literary flunkeyism towards England. If either must play the flunkey in this thing, let England do it, not us.” (1164) As we know, these two would become life-long admirers of each other.

Two of the stories collected here are the most notable it seems to me. “Cock-a-Doodle-Doo!” (from which the opening quote derives) and “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids” due to their commentary on progress and inequality. The later story (really two combined sketches) is easier to see in this light for we are given a clear picture of the global division of labor. The “paradise for bachelors” is the urban professional, educated young men in London. “It was the very perfection of quite absorption of good living, good drinking, good feeling, and good talk. We were a band of brothers.” (1264) The second part of the story takes us into a horrible paper factory in New England worked by emaciated and pale young women. In this factory, the line between human and machine is blurred. “Not a syllable was breathed. Nothing was heard but the low, steady, overruling hum of the iron animals. The human voice was banished from the spot. Machinery—that vaunted slave of humanity—here stood menially served by human beings, who served mutely and cringely as the slave serves the Sultan. The girls did not so much seem accessory wheels to the general machinery as mere cogs to the wheels.” (1271) Said now, after a century of scientific management, this may seem trite, but it is hard not be to be in awe of his prescience. Combined with the first part of the story it works as a model of the exploitation of the periphery. Something to keep in mind during the so-called “holiday season.”

“Cock-a-doodle-doo!” is a much more bizarre story. It begins with a polemic against progress. “Great improvements of the age! What! To call the facilitation and of death and murder an improvement! Who wants to travel so fast! My grandfather did not, and he was no fool.” (1205) We can juxtapose this to the previous story and see their relationship, although the remainder of the story is a sometimes baffling account of men’s observations and judgments on the cowing of a cock named Trumpet. Driven to desperation, I search around for some interpretations and found it seems to have much to do with Melville’s relationship to Wordsworth, and by extension English literature itself. It seems to be a polemic for national cultural independence, but I fail to see it. I will take from it, the very convincing questioning of the absolute valuing of everything simple because it is “progress.” One character, who refused to put a price on his cock, take everyone aback. I rather enjoyed that part.

Today's Tartarus of Maids

Today’s Tartarus of Maids

“The Fiddler” is a nice story on talent, genius, criticism, and the artist. Melville’s frustrations over the commercial failings of his works come out strongly in this tale. Hautboy was a brilliant fiddler who enjoyed fame as a youth, but found happiness in obscurity. “Once fortune poured showers of gold into his lap, as shows of laurel leaves upon his brow. To-day, from house to house, he hies, teaching fiddling for a living. Crammed one with fame, he is now hilarious without it. With genius and without fame, he is happier than a king.” (1202) I suppose this was partly Melville coming to terms with the fact that he would never enjoy success as a writer. I wonder if he believed it, however. Was he truly happier in the custom’s house?

Many of these stories and even the book reviews carried with them dualisms. America or Europe. Poor man’s pudding or rich man’s crumbs. Savage or civilized. Paradise or hell. Genius or the fancies of critics. As a believer that justice can be located and measured. We need to remember that the prosperity of the rich people of the world comes at the expense of the poor. This was never far from the surface of Melville’s writings.

Francis Parkman, “The Conspiracy of Pontiac: Volume Two,” (1851)

“Along the Western frontiers of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, terror reigned supreme. The Indian scalping-parties were ranging everywhere, laying waste the settlements, destroying the harvests, and butchering men, women, and children, with ruthless fury.” (640)

Parkman wrote this of the Indians, galvanized by Pontiac, to resist white settlement into the West in 1763. He wrote it after two decades of violence aimed at Indian removal from the frontier. He wrote it at a time that the US army was completing its conquest of Mexico and setting the stage for the violent usurpation of Indian homes. In fact, a simple change of a few nouns and we can turn the above into an accurate description of formal US government policy in the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s. Additionally, at the time of Pontiac’s rebellion the same could be said of white vigilante groups along the frontier.

Volume Two of Francis Parkman’s The Conspiracy of Pontiac covers the suppression of the Indian uprising, the explosion of vigilant violence that touched on the Pennsylvania government itself, and the consequences of the failure for the Indians in the American West after the Seven Years War. The final point is the easiest to see, in part because it was implied by the reasons for the uprising itself. Pontiac saw clearly that the French withdrawal from Canada and the Great Lakes meant the eventual settlement of these areas by the English, but more importantly, the loss of the major diplomatic strategy that the Indians enjoyed, that of the “middle ground.” The fact that the British imposed limits on western settlement after the war (as a cost saving measure and to avoid wars like Pontiac’s from reoccurring) provided some breathing space for Indian autonomy and the possible resurrection of the “middle ground” when the American Revolution broke out.

The major point I would like to explore today has to do with the morality and violence of rebellion. The quote I opened with is about the Indian violence, but the war was closer to gang violence on both sides, with the Indian raiding parties juxtaposed to the Paxton Boys and other vigilante groups. Now just to be clear, I am not necessarily opposed to vigilantism, as long as it is not a cover for violence and theft. As a form of self-defense, it seems some form of vigilantism is required, especially in a revolutionary context. (Worker’s councils of strikers preventing scabs from entering a factory may be one example.) If vigilantism just becomes an extension of the arm of the state, by filling in for the state where it is weak, it is just another statist organization. That seems to be what was going on with the Paxton Boys.

Parkman presents the “Paxton Men” as a group of frustrated frontiersman unable to accept their loss of life and property and driven to violence by the inability of the Pennsylvanian government to protect them. He justified their violence in a way that actually justifies the desperate acts of Pontiac and his followers. Driven to the wall, people are capable of horrible things. “It is not easy for those living in the tranquility of polished life fully to conceive the depth and force of that unquenchable, indiscriminate hate, which Indian outrages can awaken in those who have suffered them. The chronicles of the American borders are filled with the deeds of men, who, having lost all by the merciless tomahawk, have lived for vengeance alone’ and such men will never cease to exist to long as a hostile tribe remains within striking distance of an American settlement.” (702) Again, a few changed nouns and we see that Parkman’s claim, if applied universally, will explain the Pontiac uprising itself. Parkman should know better, having live with various besieged Indian groups while investigating the Oregon trail. Readers in our time need only look back at centuries of vigilant racial violence and violence against labor unions to know the consequences of uncritical acceptance of the mob.


Eventually, the Paxton vigilantes turned on the Quaker government, due to their apparent unwillingness to deal with the frontier attacks. As time went on, various vigilante groups fought amongst themselves. It seems that this is the great fear of the defenders of the state? How to respond to this? These vigilantes were certainly motivated by racism (not unlike in Bacon’s Rebellion), their violence was indiscriminate, we rightfully have little sympathy left for the occupying gangs of state-organized police. Untying this knot is the realization that what both Pontiac and the Paxton vigilantes wanted was a baseline of security of their life and homes. Perhaps there was a missed common ground here.

When not bashing heads, the Paxton Boys were quite polite and formal

When not bashing heads, the Paxton Boys were quite polite and formal

A real response, however, is that both Pontiac and the vigilantes were seeing like a state. This is clear in a later chapter when we learn that government fully embraced brutal policies toward the Indians in an effort to end Indian attacks. “So fierce and active were the war-parties on the borders, that the English governor of Pennsylvania had recourse to a measure which the frontier inhabitants had long demanded, and issued a proclamation, offering a high bounty for Indian scalps, whether of men or women; a barbarous expedient, fruitful of butcheries and murders, but incapable of producing any decisive result.” (762) Even if this is explained away as the pressure of the mob, the powers that the various colonial governments and the British state collected to smash Pontiac was impressive and not ever moderate. The problem, it seems, comes from seeing like a state and solving problems like a state would, whether we are state actors or not.


Despite my hostility to much of Parkman’s prejudice and his narrative which suggested that anything that was in the way of the progress of Protestant, English civilization should be opposed for the betterment of the future, there is much that is attractive in this account and I am glad I read it. The chapter on the “Desolation of the Frontier” is particularly moving in its description of the lives of people on the frontier and the horrible situation they were put into, working, in effect as unwitting agents of empire.

Francis Parkman, “The Conspiracy of Pontiac: Volume One,” (1851)

If one was disinclined to read the seven-volume France and England in North America—although I cannot imagine why—they could open up Francis Parkman’s 1851 work The Conspiracy of Pontiac and the Indian War After the Conquest of Canada and read the first four chapters to get a good picture of his basic perspective on the history of empire in North America. In brief, the Indians, although of different tribes with different levels of organization and power, were the “true child of the forest and the desert.” (359) In this way, they were not fit to be true empire builders or a generally progressive force in North American history. The French were a Catholic empire and also retrograde, defeated before they even began, despite their impressive history on the continent. “The character of the people, and the government which ruled them, were alike unfavorable to [the principle of increase]. Agriculture was neglected for the more congenial pursuits of the fur-trade, and the restless, roving Canadians, scattered abroad on their wild vocation, allied themselves to Indian women, and filled the woods with a mongrel race of bush-rangers.” (401) The English pushed their policy forward with power and population growth. Transforming North America rather than being transformed by it. Of course, the English were Protestant, a much more dynamic religion in Parkman’s mind than the Catholic French. You may consult my commentary on the seven volumes of Parkman’s history for more details on this perspective, but as you can see it is rather old fashioned, but has had a lasting impact on the scholarship on the West.


The story of Pontiac actually begins around chapter five, after setting up the context, essentially the conquest of Canada and the French territories east of the Mississippi after the Seven Years’ War, created a diplomatic crisis for the Indians not yet annihilated by the European expansion. They were traditionally French allies, but with France gone, the long-standing policy of playing the European powers off each other was lost. It was a rare moment where the Western Indian polities could agree on the need for resistance.

My reading of Pontiac’s war (a better term than “rebellion”, since that implies he and his supporters were subjects of Europeans, and much better than Parkman’s use of “conspiracy”) is shaped by our own dilemma. Pontiac knew well that his way of life was on borrowed time. Perhaps he could die as the leader of an independent tribe, but this would not be the fate of his children. He was (to borrow Zizek’s term) living in the end times. His choice was to accept fate or to resist is against hope. I suppose most people know that capitalism and industrial civilization is on borrowed time as well. Perhaps few think about it day to day, but who can deny that the environment and our societies are at a breaking point. Parkman wrote something similar about the Pontiac’s decision to rally the Western Indians. “It would be idle to suppose that the great mass of the Indians understood, it its full extent, the danger which threatened their race. With them, the war was a mere outbreak of fury, and they turned against their enemies with as little reason or forecast as a panther when he leaps at the throat of a hunter.” (484–485) Well, I suppose this is Parkman’s usual prejudice. As we have seen in The Oregon Trail, he rarely saw Indians as capable of a sustained effort. Again and again he posits them next to nature.

pontiac's war

Parkman gives Pontiac a bit more foresight, seeing his strategy as reasonable compared to the motives of his followers. He had hoped to create a situation where the English would be temporarily removed from the Western forts, created a space for their traditional ally, the French, to move in.
Pontiac was also engaged in a cultural revival of sorts. The entire Pontiac rebellion can, of course, be interpreted as a reactionary effort. This is Parkman’s interpretation and it has some truth to it. They were reacting to a drastic and sudden change. In one of his rallying speeches he said: The land on which you live I have made for you, and not for others. Why do you suffer the white man to dwell among you? My children you forgotten the customs and traditions of your forefathers. Why do you not clothe yourself in skins, as they did, and use the bows and arrows, and the stone-pointed lances, which they used? You have bought guns, knives, kettles, and blankets, from the white man, until you no longer do without them; and, what is worse, you have drunk the poison fire-water, which turns you into fools.” (499)

The second half of the first volume of The Conspiracy of Pontiac details the warfare in the West in 1763 between Pontiac’s followers and the British. The focus is on the attack on Detroit and various other forts. One thing that comes clear from these events is that much of what took place in that fateful year was less warfare than it was gang violence, on both sides. Neither side could really organize formal militaries to fight these battles. I wonder if this made the battles more vicious and endure longer in the memory of the West. In a way, the battlers were more personal than those fought between armies of mutually indifferent conscripts.

Chief Pontiac

Chief Pontiac

It is hard not to feel something tragic about the Indians in Pontiac’s revolt. Parkman assumed in his story that their failure was not only inevitable, but was likely just, given their backward lifestyle and the block they provided to the spread of the progressive English civilization, but in the context of our last capitalist world when that progressive civilization is leading to our death, we can easily imagine the mad opposition to the dark clouds on the horizon.

Francis Parkman, “The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life” (1849), Part Two

“The human race in this part of the world is separated into three divisions, arranged in the order of their merits: white men, Indians, and Mexicans; to the latter of whom the honorable title of ‘whites’ is by no means conceded.” (274–275)

I do not want to give the wrong idea. Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail is not a Social Darwinian text, creating an odious racial taxonomy of the “American” West. However, statements like this were hard to look away from as I was reading the second half of the book. Parkman was by no means an egalitarian. In his massive history France and England in North America, he explained the failure of the French empire in religious terms (blaming their Catholicism) and often exposed other prejudices. Late in life, he wrote a polemic against women’s suffrage. In fact, he was quite active in the anti-suffrage movement. Pretty much all of his historical works whitewash black Americans and slavery. We do see here, his intense interest in American Indian life, which runs through his historical scholarship. His first major work was a history of the Pontiac revolt. I do not want to say that this translated into respect or a belief in equality. He never backtracked from racial superiority in the writing of The Oregon Trail, but he does hover around an attitude of respect, even when making clear to his readers that the Indians of the plains are not the threat that they some believe them to be.

Francis Parkman

Francis Parkman

Parkman’s real purpose of his Western travels, recorded in The Oregon Trail, was to experience the life of the Sioux (Ogillallah) first hand. He does this for a month or so before returning home. Readers hoping for a start to finish narrative of the Oregon trail itself will be disappointed, and despite the title of the original version (The California and Oregon Trail), he has nothing to say about the West coast destinations of the migrants.

His major conclusion about Indians, derived from his travels, was that they were fundamentally capricious and rather silly in their beliefs. “A grand scene of gambling was going forward with all the appropriate formalities. They players were staking on the chance issue of the game their ornaments, their horses, and as the excitement rose, their garments, and even their weapons; for desperate gambling is not confined to the halls of Paris. The men of the plains and the forests no less resort to it as a violent but grateful relief to the tedious monotony of their lives, which alternative between fierce excitement and listless inaction.” (208) He thinks this capriciousness leads to inaction and ineffectiveness in war and in interactions with whites. In his view, it was also evidence of a type of passivity, a disturbing acceptance of fate. He describes a fairly impressive war-party and goes through great pains describing how brave the warriors were, how they could suffer torture and death. But, “when suffering from a protracted disorder, an Indian will often abandon himself to his supposed destiny, pine away and die, the victim of his own imagination.” (214) To make the point clear, the chapter ends with a comment on the pathetic dismantling of the war-party after all the “fasting, dreaming, and calling upon the Great Spirit.” (214) Examples of this run throughout his reportage. He is amazed a battle where no one was hurt yet many bullets and arrows were expended. He reports on what he sees as irrational sloth, contributing to the debased and desolate environment.

When Parkman returns to his guides, and Fort Laramie, he returns to reporting on the more international population of migrants following the Santa Fe Trail. There are hints in the final hundred pages of The Oregon Trail of dark foreshadowing about just how horrible the consequences of this migrant would be for the environment and people of the West. They met one armed migrant who claimed that he had a mission during his travels of killing an Indian. Encounters like this convince us immediately that despite the often festive nature of both the migrants and the Indians along the trail, as well as the elaborate rules of the game described in the last post, there was always a brutal reality of violence and power below the surface. For what were these migrants, ultimately, if not the extension of white American power over the continent?

The hints of environmental devastation are just as strong. People slaughtering snakes and keeping trophies. The constant sounds of axes levelling forests. The slaughter of the buffalo. Bears being frightened and chased off by armed gangs of migrants. Parkman admits some of this impact openly. “We soon came in sight of [Bent’s Fort], for it is visible from a considerable distance, standing with its high clay walls in the midst of the scorching plains. It seemed as if a swarm of locusts had invaded the country. The grass for miles was cropped close by the hoses of General Kearney’s soldierly.” (276) As is well known, the buffalo hunts took on a festive atmosphere and were engaged in for sport, more than need. One of his companions challenged: “Do you see them buffalo? Now I bet any man I’ll go and kill one with my yager.” (325) Parkman contributed to the prejudice of the expanding white America over the nature of the West. Several times he refers to the animals of the region (buffalo and sheep are two examples I recall) as being stupid and strangely clannish and arbitrary. This is not so different from how he interpreted the Indians he encountered.



Not insignificantly, the final chapter of The Oregon Trail is called “The Settlement,” which describes both the return to St. Louis after Parkman’s frontier adventures but also the future of the West he toured, although he was not fully aware of it yet. “Little more than a hundred miles now separated us from the frontier settlements. The whole intervening country was a succession of verdant prairies, rising in broad swells and relived by trees clustering like an oasis around some spring, or following the course of a stream along some fertile hollow. These are the prairies of the poet and the novelist. We had left danger behind us. Nothing was to be feared from the Indians of this region, the Sacs and Foxes, the Kanzas, and the Osages.” (337) The reason for this comparative peace was that this land and these people were already consumed by the United States’ empire.

St. Louis at the time of Parkman's travels

St. Louis at the time of Parkman’s travels

Francis Parkman, “The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life” (1849), Part One

“One morning, a piece of plank, standing upright on the summit of a grassy hill, attracted our notice, and riding up to it, we found the following words very roughly traced upon it, apparently by a red-hot piece of iron. MARY ELLIS, DIED MAY 7th, 1845, AGED TWO MONTHS. Such tokens were common occurrence. Nothing could speak more for the hardihood, or rather infatuation, of the adventurers, or the sufferings that await them upon the journey.” (56)


My apologies for beginning my look at Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail with this bit of pathos. Indeed, I am not particularly interested in stressing the hardship and suffering of the trail. Any high school text book can do this adequately. But this makeshift tomb did strike me as an impressive piece of Americana for another reason. The Oregon Trail was created by thousands of working people, from many different nations, men and women, adults and children, through interactions with local people. Sure, the government had a thin role through forts and the occasional army presence, but the trail was a vernacular creation. This tomb was just one of the small relics left behind by these people. Ah, forgive me, I feel I am still within the mythology of the American past: The rugged individual staking out, with courage, the settlement of the West. Is it possible to tell this story (especially through the mind of someone like Francis Parkman) without regurgitating these myths? Nevertheless, let me stand by this. The Oregon Trail, according to Parkman anyway, was created by a motley, international crew of settlers, some Romantic frontiersman, some practical patriarchs and matriarchs, some Indians who through the participation may have helped ensure the end of Indian autonomy in the West. The state seemed distant at best. Perhaps this is really a story of bottom-up vernacular creation. Maybe the myths are correct.


Francis Parkman, the great historian whose epic history of the British and French empires in North America I looked at earlier in the year, experienced the Oregon Trail in 1846, after graduating from law school. He did not go as a settler, but as a reporter. During his investigations he participated in a buffalo hunt with the Sioux. He returned and experienced a collapse in his health, something that would plague him for the rest of his life. Out of his experiences came The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life, appearing first in serial formation in 1847 and in book form in 1849 (as The California and Oregon Trail, to profit off the gold rush). He had already hoped to work on Pontiac’s revolt, his first major historical work, and his reportage was a place holding work toward what he felt was a more important historical investigation.

Almost immediately the reader gets a sense of the transnational solidarities of the participants in the Oregon Trail. “The passengers on board the Radnor [the boat Parkman used to navigate the Missouri River before setting off on the land route] corresponded with her freight. In her cabin were Santa Fe traders, gamblers, speculators, and adventurers of various descriptions, and her steerage was crowded with Oregon emigrants, ‘mountain men,’ negroes and a party of Kanzas Indians, who has been on a visit to St. Louis.” (9–10) Some of the characters he describes meeting are almost out of film stereotypes of nineteenth century frontiersmen. Sorry to quote again, it is too lovely. “As I stood at the door of the tavern, I saw a remarkable looking person coming up the street. He had a ruddy face, garnished with the stumps of a bristly red bread and a moustache; on one side of his head was a round cap with a knob at the top, such as Scottish laborers sometimes wear: his coat was of a nondescript form, and made of a gray Scotch plaid, with the fringes hanging all about it; he wore pantaloons of coarse homespun, and hob-nailed shoes; and to complete his equipment, a little black pipe was struck in one corner of his mouth.” (11–12) Parkman’s early impressions seems to have been that the people he was surrounded by (did I mention a large group of Mormons?) were much more interesting than the rather dull environment.

I do not want to give too cheery a picture, however. Fear was real, and Parkman described in on the faces of some of the pioneers he encountered, whether bachelors or entire families. Difficult alliances were formed among groups for protection against Indians, forcing the creation of makeshift councils and decision-making structures.

The infamous conflicts with the Indians are here as well, but Parkman’s narrative shows them for a bit of a facade. He reports violence from time to time, but neither side dared open confrontation if it could be avoided. The Pawnee, for instance, looked upon the wagon trains as a source of income (and the train prepared for theft as simply part of the cost of doing business on the train). Shows of bravado and intimidation occurred, but avoidance of large confrontation was the rule. For example, when Parkman’s group was out hunting for buffalo they ran into a group of Pawnee. “The amazement and consternation were mutual. Having nothing but their bows and arrows, the Indians thought their hour had come, and the fate that they were no doubt conscious of richly deserving, about to overtake them. So they began, one and all, to shout forth the most cordial salutations of friendship, running up with extreme earnestness to shake hands with the Missourians, who were as much rejoined as they were to escape the expected conflict.” (63) On the next page we learn that Parkman bought the friendship of people from the same group with a half-pound of tobacco, while a neighboring group of emigrants lost one man to the Pawnee and were forced to huddle in camp for a day or two. I do not want to give these encounters, based on threats and sometimes violence, a too festive atmosphere, but I get the sense that what was happening was a bit of a game (perhaps like drug dealers and police) that often ensnared people tragically, but when carefully played, left both sides intact. Unfortunately, it seems too few of the emigrants fully understood the rules.

When examining power on the Oregon Trail, it seems there are four forces, but none of them dominate enough to control the other three. One center of power were the emigrants themselves, forming organizations to protect themselves and survive. They were armed, provisioned, and organized (to a degree). A second group was the United States government, but they were largely absent outside of visits to forts. Their power was not projected outward very much, at least not in 1846, when Parkman was there. A third group, more extensive than the government, were transnational corporations such as the American Fur Company (owned by a US citizen, but many of the employees were French-Canadians and Indians). As Parkman said of Fort Laramie, “Here their officials rule with an absolute sway; the arm of the United States has little force; for when we were there, the extreme outposts of her troops were about seven hundred miles to the eastward.” (97) The final group, were the Indians, who seemed—according to this account—more interested in securing a steady income from the emigrants than preventing the migrations entirely. It seems that there is a space here for taking seriously the vernacular organizations formed by the emigrant themselves, but I do not know of any scholarship that does this.

American Fur Compay's Fort Laramie

American Fur Compay’s Fort Laramie

Most of the rest of The Oregon Trail details Parkman’s time living with the Sioux. What we can learn about his attitudes about them and the nature of their society will be reserved for my second post on this excellent example of early American reportage.

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.


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?