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The War That Made Our World

The War That Made Our World

Friday, 23 July, 2021 - 03:30
Ross Douthat
Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times

Two hundred and sixty-six years ago this month, a column of British regulars commanded by Gen. Edward Braddock was cut to pieces by French soldiers and their Native American allies in the woods just outside today’s Pittsburgh. The defeat turned into a rout when Braddock was shot off his horse, leaving the retreat to be managed by a young colonial officer named George Washington, whose own previous foray into the region had lit the tinder for the war.

This was the beginning of the French and Indian War (also known, much less poetically, as the Seven Years’ War), which I thought as a boy was the most interesting war in all of history.

I had encountered it originally through a public television version of “The Last of the Mohicans,” but I soon found that the real conflict exceeded even James Fenimore Cooper’s romantic imagination: the complexity of forest warfare and the diversity of the combatants on both sides, colonial, European and Native; the majesty of the geographic setting, especially the lakes, mountains and defiles of upstate New York; the ridiculous melodrama of the culminating battle at Quebec, with a wee-hours cliff-scaling that led to a decisive showdown in which both commanders were mortally wounded, James Wolfe in victory and Louis-Joseph de Montcalm in defeat.

In school the war faded into the background of my history classes. In world history it was folded into the larger categories of colonial warfare and endless Anglo-French conflict; in American history it was treated mostly as a prelude to the real business of the American Revolution. (Not only Washington but also Ben Franklin and a long list of future Revolutionary-era officers, from Daniel Morgan to Charles Lee, played roles in Braddock’s doomed campaign.)

But returning to the 1750s as an adult reader of history — and as a columnist trying to offer constructive thoughts about the history wars in K-12 education — I think my childhood self was basically correct. The war that evicted the French from North America was not only incredibly fascinating but also one of history’s most important wars. Indeed, from a certain perspective, it was more important than the American War of Independence: The Revolution merely determined in what form Anglo-America would spread to embrace continental empire and global power, while the French and Indian War determined whether that continent-spanning America would come into being at all.

As a kid, I — a good patriotic American and stalwart New Englander — naturally rooted for the British and the American colonists, from their early string of setbacks at the hands of Montcalm and other canny French commanders through their eventual triumphant invasion of New France. It was particularly easy to identify with the neurasthenic Wolfe, the victor at Quebec, whose self-dramatization and battlefield martyrdom fit with a 9-year-old’s idea of generalship.

For an adult, though, reading books like Fred Anderson’s “Crucible of War,” the best 21st-century history of the conflict, or Alan Taylor’s “American Colonies” for the bigger picture of North American empire, it’s easy enough to end up rooting for the French.

First, because they were obvious underdogs — New France had less than a fifteenth of the population of the 13 colonies, it was constantly being cut off from its motherland by the British Navy, and it’s something of a miracle that it lasted for as long and won as many victories as it did.

But also because the French empire in North America represented an unusual model of European colonization: The combination of the smaller, scattered population, the harsher climate and the distinctive vision of figures like Samuel de Champlain and the French Jesuits all contributed to a friendlier relationship with Native American populations than obtained in the English colonies. (For a Francophilic supplement to Anderson and Taylor, I recommend David Hackett Fischer’s “Champlain’s Dream” and Kevin Starr’s “Continental Ambitions.”)

So a world where the French somehow held on to their territories might have been more Catholic (obviously a good thing) while offering more possibilities for Indigenous influence, power and survival than the world where England simply won the continent.

There’s a terribly poignant moment at the end of Anderson’s “Crucible,” when tribes of the Great Lakes and Ohio River Valley, under the Ottawa leader Pontiac and others, begin to rise against the British shortly after the French retreated from North America. The British imagine that French agents must still be around stirring up trouble, but the reality is that the Native Americans still understand themselves to be in a relationship with the French king and imagine that their war can help bring France back to their aid. But no: They’re alone now with Anglo-America, and foredoomed.

Imagining an alternative timeline, a history in which New France endures and a more, well, “French and Indian” civilization takes shape in the Great Lakes region, isn’t exactly the stuff of the patriotic American education that I wrote about last weekend.

But it also makes a poor fit with contemporary progressive pieties, in which organized Christianity is a perpetual scapegoat for the mistreatment of Native peoples — since it was arguably the power of the church and the Catholic ancien régime in New France, relative to the greater egalitarianism, democracy and secular ambition in the English colonies, that helped foster a more humane relationship between the French colonizers and the Native American population.

Once you recognize that kind of deep historical complexity, you can go in two directions. Along one path lies a kind of cynicism about almost every aspect of the past, where the reader of history is encouraged to basically root for nobody, and the emphasis is always on the self-interest lying underneath every expression of idealism. The French might have modeled what seemed like a kindlier form of colonization, but they were only following their own self-interest as greedy traders and proselytizing Catholic zealots. The New England colonies might have pioneered what seemed like an impressive form of egalitarian democracy, but they achieved their wide distribution of property by ruthlessly crushing the Pequot and the Wampanoag.

This is the mood that I sense, for instance, in Taylor’s “American Colonies” and its sequels, “American Revolutions” and “American Republics” — the last out just this year, and much praised for its disenchanted view of the early-1800s United States. These books are capacious histories, remarkable works of synthesis, in which you sometimes get the sense that apart from the occasional sympathetic victim, the author finds very little in hundreds of years of history to actually admire.

That mood has its place in historical analysis. But continuing my attempts to propose solutions to our current K-12 history wars, I want to suggest a different path, in which the kind of patriotic spirit that made me root for the British at Fort William Henry as a child and the kind of speculations about a Catholic-Huron imperium that I can entertain as an adult are both appropriate.

The first, the patriotism, is a form of gratitude for the particular goods that the American Republic ended up embodying — the initial goods of greater equality, liberty and prosperity for many ordinary people, and then the gradual extension of those goods to people once subjugated and excluded.

The second, the speculation, is a recognition of contingency and complexity — the reality that although the United States we have is good and great in many ways, along another timeline there might lie other goods, other civilizations, that would have been different from our democratic empire but also admirable, and whose real and imagined histories can be usefully contrasted with our own.

Both attitudes cultivate the appreciation of the past that seems essential to sustaining historical memory. On the one hand, you have an appreciation of what was best in the victors and founders, from Wolfe to Washington, who played crucial roles in establishing a continental civilization that we have inherited through no achievement of our own.

And then on the other, an appreciation of figures like Montcalm and Pontiac, and other embodiments of the two peoples, French and Native, who give one of history’s most decisive wars its name: peoples whose potential American futures were stillborn or defeated, but in a different world might have merited patriotism and gratitude as well.

The New York Times

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