The Right Coast

March 09, 2005
The French, the English, and the Indians
By Maimon Schwarzschild

The sad story of Ward Churchill, the faux Indian -- although he is a real enough example of much that is awry in American education -- has motivated me to re-read Francis Parkman's classic history of France and England in North America. Parkman's story of the contest between France and Britain in the New World is beautifully, irresistably written. It reads like a novel, or rather far better than most novels.

Parkman is unsentimental, of course, about the seventeenth- and eighteenth century American Indians. They are more savage than noble in his portrayal. Their inveterate warfare was as much against each other as against the the European settlers, and featured a distinctive and rather terrifying taste for torture.

Parkman gives an unforgettable picture of the French soldiers, settlers, missionaries, and traders who explored the forests and plains of Canada and much of what is now the central United States. But the French were eventually defeated by the British-Americans. Parkman blames the French defeat largely on the Bourbon political culture of despotism. Centralised control by the royal Court at Versailles meant endless intrigue, conspiracy, and above all the stifling of initiative by the French settlers themselves in North America.

Parkman wrote in the years after the US Civil War. He was nearly blind, and in chronic bad health, but he visited the scenes he wrote about, as well as the archives in France and in Canada. His books (happily, there are many volumes) are wonderfully readable today.

In fairness to academia, it should be said that Parkman was a Harvard professor. Then again, he was professor of horticulture, not of history.

(For today's orthodoxy about the likes of Francis Parkman, see the entry in the officially sanctioned Dictionary of National Biography of Canada -- this from a Canadian Government website, by the way: Parkman's appeal is "sinister"; "his appeal is to innate chauvinism"; "[t]here is no question but that Parkman's version was thoroughly bad history". What's more Parkman was "rich"; and "a staunch member of the Great Man school of history". And so sneeringly on.)