By MAX BOOT
Is there a finer student of American history writing today than David Hackett Fischer? If so, I don’t know who it would be.
By David Hackett Fischer
Illustrated. 834 pp. Simon & Schuster. $40
This veteran professor of history at Brandeis has turned out one dazzling study after another. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2004 book “Washington’s Crossing,” which used the dramatic thrust by the Continental Army across the Delaware River on Christmas night, 1776, as the focal point for an illuminating study of the American Revolution. He adopted a similar approach in his earlier work, “Paul Revere’s Ride.”
But his true masterpiece was “Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America,” published almost 20 years ago. It argued that much of the regional variation in American culture since the 17th century can be explained by the different geographical origins of various groups of early British settlers. First to arrive were the Puritans, who traveled from East Anglia to Massachusetts. They were followed by “a small Royalist elite” that moved from southern England to Virginia; Quakers who came from the northern Midlands of England and Wales to the Delaware Valley; and finally the Scots-Irish who came “from the borders of North Britain and northern Ireland to the Appalachian backcountry.” Each group, he argued, brought its own “folkways” — everything from “distinctive dialects of English” to “different conceptions of order, power and freedom” — and those folkways have left an indelible impression even on the majority of Americans whose ancestors did not come from the British Isles.
Fischer’s latest work is not quite as novel or daring but, in a smaller way, it helps to shed light on what, to most of us, remains a relatively obscure corner of our continent’s history: the settlement by the French in what became Canada. Although the French lost any hopes of political dominance after Wolfe’s defeat of Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham in 1759, their progeny continue to play an important role not only in Canada but as far away as Louisiana. “Progeny” is not just a figure of speech in this case: Fischer writes that more than two-thirds of the French inhabitants of North America today “are descendants of 1,100 French women who came to Quebec between 1630 and 1680.”
Such success the French had was due, Fischer argues, in large measure to one man: Samuel de Champlain. He was never the senior official of New France; that job always fell to a titled viceroy safely back in France. But during the pivotal years from the founding of Quebec in 1608 until his death in 1635, he was the senior man on the spot. Thus he became known as the father of New France, as well as a soldier, mariner, cartographer, writer, artist, naturalist and ethnographer of renown. But he wasn’t just a man of the frontier. Some of his most important achievements, Fischer suggests, occurred not in the North American wilderness but in the gilded salons of Paris, where his incessant lobbying kept alive royal support for the daring American enterprise. Not the least of his achievements was surviving 27 crossings of the North Atlantic in 37 years without losing a major ship, at a time when every voyage risked disaster.
For all of Champlain’s achievements, few biographers have ever chosen a tougher subject. His papers were lost, and little is known about his early life or inner life. What year was he born? Was he the illegitimate son of the lascivious King Henri IV? Was he originally a Protestant or Catholic? No one knows for sure. It’s not even clear what he looked like, since, as Fischer, notes, only a single “authentic likeness . . . is known to survive from his own time” — and that is a tiny self-portrait in a larger engraving depicting a battle scene.
Fischer responds to this challenge the way any careful researcher would. He scours the record, archaeological as well as historical, to find out what we can reliably conclude, and then fills in the holes with some informed speculation. Because he is a rigorous historian, not a historical novelist, he is always scrupulous about drawing a firm line between facts and inferences, and he presents a wide variety of views. He even includes appendixes to examine competing theories about Champlain’s birth date, the scene of some of his most famous victories, the accuracy of his published writings and other matters of dispute.
Fischer is not a prose stylist to rival the great popular historians — the Barbara Tuchmans, Shelby Footes and David McCulloughs. Arguably he is not a popular historian at all but simply an academic who has reached a wide audience. Yet even when he writes books of doorstop heft, as he invariably does, his plain, unadorned style is never dry or boring, in part because he so often sprinkles intriguing ideas into the narrative.
His thesis in “Champlain’s Dream,” which these days might be considered daring, is that Champlain was an admirable, heroic figure — a stance that runs counter to the recent trend in historiography to debunk and demean most “dead white males,” especially those who were explorers and settlers. Many of them richly deserve this opprobrium for slaughtering and otherwise mistreating the indigenous peoples they encountered. But Champlain was different. He was more interested in learning from and cooperating with Indians than in exploiting them. He treated most of those he met with “dignity, forbearance and respect,” and, Fischer writes, they largely reciprocated: “He had a straight-up soldier’s manner, and Indian warriors genuinely liked and respected him.”
That does not mean he was able to avoid conflict altogether. By drawing closer to certain tribes, notably the Montagnais, Algonquin and Huron, he incurred the wrath of their enemies in the Iroquois League. Champlain and a handful of other Frenchmen went along with war parties of allied Indians in three campaigns in 1609, 1610 and 1615. He and his men, although few in number, made a crucial difference with their arquebuses, which scattered the terrified Iroquois who had never before seen a “thunderstick.” Even then, Fischer writes, Champlain “did not intend a war of conquest.” Rather, his objective was to deliver “one or two sharp blows” that would deter Iroquois attacks “by raising the cost of raiding to the north.” He largely succeeded in keeping the Iroquois from attacking the French until 1640 — after his death.
Champlain was considerably more enlightened in his attitude toward the Indians than most of his contemporaries. He did use the word sauvage, but in the 17th century it simply meant “forest-dweller.” He did not believe Indians to be inferior to Europeans. He found them, Fischer writes, “to be the equal of Europeans in their intelligence, and superior in physical strength and the proportion of their bodies.” Not that Champlain ever “went native.” He censured his Indian friends for not having a king, a monotheistic religion or a body of laws — and for torturing their captives. Fischer concedes that he was “ethnocentric in some of his attitudes,” but argues that “his thinking was more generous and large-spirited than some of the judgments that have been made against him” in our time.
Champlain’s relatively tolerant attitude was the product, Fischer argues, of his upbringing. Champlain was born to an haute-bourgeois seafaring family in Brouage, a “cosmopolitan town” whose traders sailed to the farthest reaches of the globe. It also lay in a region of western France contested by Protestants and Catholics, who, in the late 16th century, were often at each other’s throats. As a young man, Champlain fought in France’s costly wars of religion, giving him his fill of violence and intolerance. He also visited Spain’s New World colonies from 1599 to 1601, where he was revolted by the abuses inflicted on African slaves and Indian laborers. “Champlain strongly favored the spread of Christianity in the New World, but not by cruelty and violence,” Fischer writes. He wound up dreaming “of a New World where people lived at peace with others unlike themselves,” and tried to make New France the realization of his dream.
Thanks in no small part to Champlain’s humanistic philosophy, the French were able to establish more amicable relations with local tribes than were the Spanish, Dutch or English. In fact many Frenchmen wed Indian women with the encouragement of their leaders, who “were more tolerant of marriages with Indians than of unions with Protestants.” These intermarriages spawned a whole population of French-Indians, the Métis, with their own distinctive culture.
Although Fischer does not mention it, the close French-Indian connection would be viewed in a more sinister light by New Englanders, who were subject to vicious attacks in the 17th and 18th centuries by what Cotton Mather described with horror as the “half-Indianized French, and half-Frenchified Indians.” Those Anglo-French conflicts were prefigured by an English expedition in 1629 that drove Champlain and his small cohort out of Quebec. (The settlement was returned in 1632 following a peace treaty with France.)
That the English ultimately triumphed in the battle for North America was due mostly to the fact that they vastly outnumbered the French. There are many explanations for this disparity, but surely it had something to do with the fact that most of the English settlements offered greater freedom. Although he insisted on tolerance for Protestants, Champlain imposed severe restrictions on speech and press, and he did not create any analogue to the elected assemblies in the English colonies. “The habitants of Canada were not encouraged to think of themselves as free people,” Fischer writes. “In New France, limits on liberty and freedom were imposed by the will and judgment of an absolute ruler who was accountable only to another absolute ruler in Paris.”
Thus, for all his achievements, Champlain’s blind spot may have proved fatal to the ultimate realization of his dream.