W.J. Eccles, France in America

France in America is a comprehensive history of the French colonies in North America between 1500 and 1783, dealing with Canada, Louisiana and the West Indies. He tackles a great deal of area, a variety of diverse circumstances, and a long period of time at once, and as a result the sections of New France (Canada and Acadia) are best developed. Eccles is particularly interested in the development of French Canadian identity and the remarkable persistence of nationalist sentiment among these people from the British conquest in 1763 to the present.

Political instability in France, arising from European wars and internal religious conflict, hobbled any efforts at serious colonization, and Eccles shows that from 1500-1632 every French attempt was a spectacular failure. At various points their settlements were destroyed by Spanish and English forces, and by the late 1620s almost every trace of French sovereignty had vanished from North America; serious mismanagement and the distraction of a new war with England had cut the last settlements in Quebec off from supply convoys, forcing Samuel de Champlain's tiny settlement to surrender to the English after foraging the dirt for a while.

The following period, from 1632 to 1663, witnessed new efforts spearheaded largely by the Church, which was the only institution with the competence and committment to make a settlement work. A resurgence of religious fervor in early 17th century France helped make this possible. Eccles discusses the emergence of Montreal in 1640, linking the development of urban institutions (including a college that predated Harvard) to the influence of the Church, whereas little concentrated development had occurred in the earlier pattern of dispersed, semifeudal agricultural settlement. Eccles says that the stratified order of French society replicated itself in Montreal, but the free availability of land in New France did prompt people to think of themselves as habitants rather than peasants. Military service was compulsory and Eccles details continual warfare with rather insidious sounding Indians. The French feared that the Iroquois and Hurons would form a trade alliance, so they tried to undermine relations as much as possible to keep themselves relevant. They had been converting among the Hurons for some time. In 1649 the Iroquois attacked them and several missionaries "achieved martyrdom" in the process, but the elimination of the Hurons actually helped the Europeans by clearing a way to the West.

A divisive issue emerged in the merchants' use of liquor to create dependency among the Indians, a practice the Jesuits and others abhorred. Eccles emphasizes again the importance of religion in providing a link to home and some spiritual sustenance; he points out that the Puritans deliberately denied themselves this.

Although the colonies survived, they were not in very good shape. Louis XIV appointed Jean-Baptiste Colbert to control them in 1663, and he set out on an ambitious program to populate the possessions, set up a functioning colonial export economy, and break the maritime power of the Dutch. He wanted to mimic the mercantile relationship of England to its colonies, and curb the opulence of the church in the favor of "productive" citizens (artisans, etc.). He was ultimately more successful in the West Indies, cultivating a lucrative sugar industry that allowed France an advantage in trade within Europe. However, the northern colonies did not fare so well, develop so fast, or come so completely under central control. Canada had become self-supporting in food production, but failed to export a surplus. More worrying was the persistent western push of settlers in spite of official decree against expansion. By 1682 Robert Cavelier de La Salle and Henri Tonti had followed the Mississippi River southward to its mouth and claimed the entire territory for France in the name of Louisiana. Eccles suggests that France did not a new imperial possession to worry about when its current colonies were struggling. However, once the claim was made "France now had to be prepared to expend its blood and treasure to maintain its hold on half the continent without regard for the economic balance sheet."

France had enjoyed twenty years of peace with the Iroquois when, in 1682, local leaders in Quebec determined that it was time to wipe them out, in order to secure an open path for further expansion to the west. The Crown was reluctant to get involved in an unnecessary fiasco, but that is exactly what they got. They furnished the new governor, La Barre, with so few supplies that his troops could barely walk when they reached the Indians, who kindly opted for negotiation rather than outright slaughter for handling the French interlopers. The terms dictated that the French would stay out of the Iroquois' business, more or less.

The Canadians emerged from conflicts with the Iroquois and the English in the late 1680s and early 1690s in a much more advantageous position. Due to political instability at home, such as the Hanoverian succession in England, the combatants did not wish to wage more war in the New World: "Following the Treaty of Utrecht, both England and France desired peace to reconcile their particular internal problems." (118) Eccles argues that the fur trade mattered so much to the French for political and military reasons as much as economic ones - they used control of strategic points along the rivers of North America to secure their influence throughout the continent. "New France was, in fact, a river empire." (147) The French in North America enjoyed peace from 1713-1744, although skirmishes with the English and advances by the Royal Navy in the late 1740s greatly weakened their position. Eccles calls his penultimate chapter "The Preemptive Conquest," suggesting that the drastic reduction of French fortunes following 1763 (and the so-called "French and Indian War") had its roots in the declining commercial and military position of the French during the late 40s and 50s.

A theme found throughout works on different European efforts in North America appears again: that all efforts at colonization depended heavily on the political situation at home in France, Spain or Britain. Domestic distraction spelled disaster for many in the New World, and Eccles shows that one French effort after another was imperiled by tardy supplies, flagging political committment from the Crown or venture capitalists, and other forces. Related problems included mismanagement and insufficient interest in aggressive commercial policies. Eccles and Usner both suggest that, when the Europeans got serious about ambitious, export driven imperial development, they usually made significant headway. However, through much of the 1600s and 1700s, an aggressive colonial economy was not sought either in Louisiana or New France. "France in America" also suggests that the French policy of politically networking with the Indians was ultimately less effective than the English tendency to expand outward and westward without reluctance.

1. False Starts, 1500-1632
2. Merchants and Missionaries, 1632-1663
3. Colbert's Colonies, 1663-1685
4. War and Trade, 1683-1713
5. The Long Peace, 1713-1744
6. The Slave Colonies, 1683-1748
7. The Preemptive Conquest, 1749-1763
8. Aftermath, 1760-1783
9. Epilogue

"Some of the strongest and most useful portions of this study are a good explanation of French domestic developments during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the degree to which they influenced the fate of New France; the tenacity and loyalty of Champlain; the indelible stamp of geography and climate on the fortunes of the French colonial policy; a studied appreciation of the independence of the habitants and, at the same time, the distinctive military character of settlements in a constant guerilla struggle with the Iroquois as well as the British; and valuable analysis of the international rivalry over colonial boundaries and Indians from 1740 to 1763, including a careful examination of British policies and French concern for a Spanish alliance."

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