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.

jesuits

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.

Champlain

Champlain

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)

jesuits

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.