In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt gave a speech to the American Historical Association. The former president—himself a historian of no small talent—was dismayed by the specialization and dry scientism even then overtaking the discipline and addressed his remarks toward the possibility of “history as literature.” Historians, he argued, were not just compilers of dusty facts; they were, or should be, artists. Their task was to turn the undigested data of the past into something splendid and imperishable, in the same way that Michelangelo wrested transcendence from a block of marble. An aesthetic sense was necessary to accomplish anything meaningful: “vast and fundamental truths,” Roosevelt warned, “can be discerned and interpreted only by one whose imagination is as lofty as the soul of a Hebrew prophet.”

Roosevelt’s exhortations did little to stem the discipline’s decline. Today’s historians tend to be minutiae-obsessed academics writing for other academics, or else outright propagandists who despise the past (and sometimes both). Far from uncovering “vast and fundamental truths,” their work too often concerns the topical, the trendy, and the tedious.

Perhaps this explains why the recent bicentenary of Francis Parkman, the great chronicler of the Anglo-French rivalry for North America, largely passed without observance (in striking contrast to the 1923 centenary, which was marked by public exhibitions and a spread in the New York Times). Parkman’s virtues are precisely those rejected by modern historians: palpable passion for his subject; an exhilarating sense of scale and purpose; and a singular knack for placing his readers in the middle of the action. Beguiled since boyhood by “a taste for the woods and the Indians,” Parkman poured his vast talents and energies into memorializing the centuries-long struggle of the Old World for mastery of the New, producing a picture of America’s origins that remains unsurpassed—both as analysis and as art.

Parkman was born in 1823 to a family eminent among Boston’s Brahmin class. He was marked out early for a respectable career—perhaps as a Unitarian divine, like his father, or else as an attorney. But the muse of history had other plans: young Francis fell under its spell while a sophomore at Harvard, directing his first, precocious efforts toward a study of the French and Indian War. The ambition grew with the execution: “I enlarged the plan,” he recounted in a later letter, “to include the whole course of the conflict between France and England; or, in other words, the history of the American forest. . . . my theme fascinated me, and I was haunted with wilderness images day and night.”

The result was one of the most remarkable achievements in American letters. France and England in North America, published in six volumes across the span of three decades, astonished readers with its finely wrought prose and unerring command of historical detail. Beginning in the sixteenth century with his protagonists’ first abortive efforts at colonization and ending on the Plains of Abraham 250 years later, Parkman’s sprawling narrative elevated the contest for the continent to the level of epic.

Though Parkman published several other works, including a memoir of time spent on the Oregon Trail and a history of Pontiac’s Rebellion, it is on France and England that his fame chiefly rests. Reviewers were quick to sense the magnitude of the accomplishment. The Atlantic pronounced it “a book for all mankind and for all time,” on par with the works of Herodotus and Thucydides; later admirers included Oliver Wendell Holmes, C. Vann Woodward, and Edmund Wilson. And as recently as 1983, when the Library of America brought out its indispensable two-volume edition, the Washington Post declared it “the greatest history ever written by an American. . . . a thousand years from now, if there are still Americans, Parkman will be their Homer.”

Like all great American artists, Parkman worked from life. Born too late to witness the drama itself, he insisted on seeing as much as possible of the vast stage on which it was acted. “I have visited and examined every spot where events of any importance in connection with the contest took place,” he wrote in the preface to his final volume, “and in short, the subject has been studied as much in the open air as at the library table.” He spent a month with an Oglala Sioux tribe to understand the conditions of Native American life, and a spell living with Passionist monks in Rome provided insight into the mystic heart of Catholicism. The overall approach was of a piece with the Romantic movement: try to grasp the vital essence of things, over and above their ancillary details.

This emphasis on essentials led Parkman to train his gaze firstly on institutions. The societies of the 13 colonies were relatively open and tolerant, drawing diverse emigrants in the tens of thousands. Agriculture, commerce, and the manual trades provided a modest but broad and self-sustaining prosperity, buttressed by a legal regime that protected property and supported enterprise. “Here,” Parkman tells us, “the prize was within every man’s reach; patient industry need never doubt its reward.”

Mount Adams, Washington (1875) by Albert Bierstadt (Princeton University Art Museum - Gift of Mrs. Jacob N. Beam/Public Domain)

The situation in New France was different. Settlement was restricted along confessional lines (only Catholics needed apply), and the economy was built around the fur trade, which—relying as it did on small numbers of unattached men venturing into the interior—proved less than ideal for development. Where agriculture did take hold, as along the St. Lawrence River, its growth was choked by the quasi-feudal seigneurie system. Thus, while the acreage over which the fleur-de-lys flew was much greater than that covered by the Union Jack, by the middle of the eighteenth century, North America was home to just 70,000 French subjects as compared with 1.5 million British. 

If Britain’s advantages were wealth and numbers, France’s edge was organization. Rather than autonomous colonial governments, the management of New France was entirely in the hands of royal officials, who ruled with the same absolutism that prevailed in the metropole. War-making was much simpler: there was no haggling with provincial authorities over men and money, nor were French generals compelled to factor local sensibilities into their campaign plans. The resources and energies of Canada, Louisiana, and Acadia, though less considerable than those of British America, were all harnessed to a single design: that of “a gigantic ambition striving to grasp a continent.”

But as an artist (and a romantic artist at that) Parkman was not content to leave his subjects to the whims of vast, structural forces. Within the circumstances given to them, men did in fact make their own history: institutions determined the game’s odds, but players made its outcomes. A talented and lucky gambler—the savvy Comte de Frontenac, for instance—could win even on a bad hand, while someone like Edward Braddock could lose with a royal flush.

To center history on the choices of human beings is necessarily to embrace contingency, and one of Parkman’s most attractive qualities is his keen eye for forks in the road. France and England is replete with occasions at which history might have turned out differently. The Jesuits, for instance, might have succeeded in the conversion of the Iroquois, securing for Christ (and France) the most powerful native nation in North America; on the other side, the English desperadoes who took Quebec City in 1629 might have refused to return it, strangling New France in the cradle.

Parkman never lets his imaginative powers eclipse the factual underpinnings of his work. Not that he was entirely without bias: a WASP born in the Mecca of American WASP-dom, Parkman reflexively subscribed to various prejudices, especially concerning Native Americans (whom he saw as interesting but benighted, doomed by the irresistible forces of history to displacement by European civilization) and Catholicism (which could inspire beautiful art and heroic feats of devotion but ultimately exercised a reactionary and socially stultifying influence). On the whole, however, France and England is a remarkably scrupulous—even scientific—account, informed by thousands of pages of historical documents (many found, moldering and long-forgotten, in obscure European libraries). Its methodology was rigorous: “the statements of secondary writers,” we are assured, “have been accepted only when found to conform to the evidence of contemporaries.”

The struggle for continental mastery ended with the Seven Years War, the last of four major declared Anglo-French wars (and dozens of what we might today call “low-intensity conflicts”). After a bumbling start, British generals began delivering victories in the field, British warships achieved mastery of the seas, and British financiers marshalled the wealth of the world’s leading economy. With the 1763 Treaty of Paris, control of Canada and her inhabitants passed irrevocably to Albion. (Louisiana, by a clever French diplomatic maneuver, was ceded to Spain, whose possession it would remain until Napoleon grabbed it back with an eye toward making a quick sale.) Though still a major player in Europe, France saw its hopes for global supremacy enduringly dashed, and the Bourbons’ star began its descent.

But perhaps the most important legacy of the rivalry’s end was to make possible the United States. As long as the 13 colonies lived in fear of French power, the attractions of independence would always be trumped by the need for protection; by finally annihilating New France, Britain also undid the ties that held together its empire. Thus began a bright new era in world history, one that Parkman—ever the patriot—remained hopeful about. The United States, he wrote in the conclusion to his final volume, “has tamed the continent, peopled the solitude, gathered wealth untold . . . now it remains for her to prove, if she can, that the rule of the masses is consistent with the highest growth of the individual; that democracy can give the world a civilization as mature and pregnant, ideas as energetic and vitalizing, and types of manhood as lofty and strong, as any of the systems which it boasts to supplant.”

To read Parkman in 2023 is to imbibe some of this perspective, to understand the civilization that has grown up here over the past four and a quarter centuries not as a foregone conclusion but rather as the fruit of terrific and uncertain labors. It is to see the continent as it must have seemed to those pioneers—Champlain, de Salle, even Washington as he ventured west toward his rendezvous at Fort Necessity—before whom it loomed, full of unbounded possibility.

Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images


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