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The Project Of French Empire And





For a full century, from the discovery of the New World until the first
effective effort at occupation by any other European people, the Spanish
church and nation had held exclusive occupancy of the North American
continent. The Spanish enterprises of conquest and colonization had been
carried forward with enormous and unscrupulous energy, and alongside of
them and involved with them had been borne the Spanish chaplaincies and
missions, sustained from the same treasury, in some honorable instances
bravely protesting against the atrocities they were compelled to
witness, in other instances implicated in them and sharing the bloody
profits of them. But, unquestionable as was the martial prowess of the
Spanish soldier and adventurer, and the fearless devotion of the Spanish
missionary, there appears nothing like systematic planning in all these
immense operations. The tide of conquest flowed in capricious courses,
according as it was invited by hopes of gold or of a passage to China,
or of some phantom of a Fountain of Youth or a city of Quivira or a
Gilded Man; and it seemed in general to the missionary that he could not
do else than follow in the course of conquest.

It is wholly characteristic of the French people that its entering at
last upon enterprises of colonization and missions should be with large
forecasting of the future and with the methods of a grand strategy.

We can easily believe that the famous Bull of Partition of Pope
Alexander VI. was not one of the hindrances that so long delayed the
beginnings of a New France in the West. Incessant dynastic wars with
near neighbors, the final throes of the long struggle between the crown
and the great vassals, and finally the religious wars that culminated in
the awful slaughter of St. Bartholomew's, and ended at the close of the
century with the politic conversion and the coronation of Henry
IV.--these were among the causes that had held back the great nation
from distant undertakings. But thoughts of great things to be achieved
in the New World had never for long at a time been absent from the minds
of Frenchmen. The annual visits of the Breton fishing-fleets to the
banks of Newfoundland kept in mind such rights of discovery as were
alleged by France, and kept attention fixed in the direction of the
great gulf and river of St. Lawrence. Long before the middle of the
sixteenth century Jacques Cartier had explored the St. Lawrence beyond
the commanding position which he named Montreal, and a royal commission
had issued, under which he was to undertake an enterprise of discovery,
settlement, and the conversion of the Indians. But it was not till the
year 1608 that the first permanent French settlement was effected. With
the coup d'oeil of a general or the foresight of a prophet,
Champlain, the illustrious first founder of French empire in America, in
1608 fixed the starting-point of it at the natural fortress of Quebec.
How early the great project had begun to take shape in the leading minds
of the nation it may not be easy to determine. It was only after the
adventurous explorations of the French pioneers, traders, and
friars--men of like boundless enthusiasm and courage--had been crowned
by the achievement of La Salle, who first of men traversed the two great
waterways of the continent from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the Gulf of
Mexico, that the amazing possibilities of it were fully revealed. But,
whosesoever scheme it was, a more magnificent project of empire, secular
and spiritual, has never entered into the heart of man. It seems to have
been native to the American soil, springing up in the hearts of the
French pioneer explorers themselves;[18:1] but by its grandeur, and at
the same time its unity, it was of a sort to delight the souls of Sully
and Richelieu and of their masters. Under thin and dubious claims by
right of discovery, through the immense energy and daring of her
explorers, the heroic zeal of her missionaries, and not so much by the
prowess of her soldiers as by her craft in diplomacy with savage tribes,
France was to assert and make good her title to the basin of the St.
Lawrence and the lakes, and the basin of the Mississippi and the Gulf of
Mexico. From the mouth of the St. Lawrence to the mouth of the
Mississippi, through the core of the continent, was to be drawn a cordon
of posts, military, commercial, and religious, with other outlying
stations at strategic points both eastward and westward. The only
external interference with this scheme that could be apprehended at its
inception was from the Spanish colonies, already decaying and shrinking
within their boundaries to the west and to the southeast, and from a
puny little English settlement started only a year before, with a
doubtful hold on life, on the bank of the James River. A dozen years
later a pitiably feeble company of Pilgrims shall make their landing at
Plymouth to try the not hopeful experiment of living in the wilderness,
and a settlement of Swedes in Delaware and of Hollanders on the Hudson
shall be added to the incongruous, unconcerted, mutually jealous
plantations that begin to take root along the Atlantic seaboard. Not
only grandeur and sagacity of conception, but success in achievement, is
illustrated by the comparative area occupied by the three great European
powers on the continent of North America at the end of a century and a
half from the founding of Quebec in 1608. Dividing the continent into
twenty-five equal parts, the French claimed and seemed to hold firmly in
possession twenty parts, the Spanish four parts, and the English one
part.[19:1]

The comparison between the Spanish and the French methods of
colonization and missions in America is at almost every point honorable
to the French. Instead of a greedy scramble after other men's property
in gold and silver, the business basis of the French enterprises was to
consist in a widely organized and laboriously prosecuted traffic in
furs. Instead of a series of desultory and savage campaigns of conquest,
the ferocity of which was aggravated by the show of zeal for the kingdom
of righteousness and peace, was a large-minded and far-sighted scheme of
empire, under which remote and hostile tribes were to be combined by
ties of mutual interest and common advantage. And the missions, instead
of following servilely in the track of bloody conquest to assume the
tutelage of subjugated and enslaved races, were to share with the
soldier and the trader the perilous adventures of exploration, and not
so much to be supported and defended as to be themselves the support and
protection of the settlements, through the influence of Christian love
and self-sacrifice over the savage heart. Such elements of moral
dignity, as well as of imperial grandeur, marked the plans for the
French occupation of North America.

To a wonderful extent those charged with this enterprise were worthy of
the task. Among the military and civil leaders of it, from Champlain to
Montcalm, were men that would have honored the best days of French
chivalry. The energy and daring of the French explorers, whether traders
or missionaries, have not been equaled in the pioneer work of other
races. And the annals of Christian martyrdom may be searched in vain for
more heroic examples of devotion to the work of the gospel than those
which adorn the history of the French missions in North America. What
magnificent results might not be expected from such an enterprise, in
the hands of such men, sustained by the resources of the most powerful
nation and national church in Christendom!

From the founding of Quebec, in 1608, the expansion of the French
enterprise was swift and vast. By the end of fifty years Quebec had been
equipped with hospital, nunnery, seminary for the education of priests,
all affluently endowed from the wealth of zealous courtiers, and served
in a noble spirit of self-devotion by the choicest men and women that
the French church could furnish; besides these institutions, the
admirable plan of a training colony, at which converted Indians should
be trained to civilized life, was realized at Sillery, in the
neighborhood. The sacred city of Montreal had been established as a base
for missions to the remoter west. Long in advance of the settlement at
Plymouth, French Christianity was actively and beneficently busy among
the savages of eastern Maine, among the so-called neutral nations by
the Niagara, among the fiercely hostile Iroquois of northern New York,
by Lake Huron and Lake Nipissing, and, with wonderful tokens of success,
by the Falls of St. Mary. Thus did the religious zeal of the French
bear the cross to the banks of the St. Mary and the confines of Lake
Superior, and look wistfully toward the homes of the Sioux in the valley
of the Mississippi, five years before the New England Eliot had
addressed the tribe of Indians that dwelt within six miles of Boston
harbor.[21:1]

Thirty years more passed, bringing the story down to the memorable year
1688. The French posts, military, commercial, and religious, had been
pushed westward to the head of Lake Superior. The Mississippi had been
discovered and explored, and the colonies planted from Canada along its
banks and the banks of its tributaries had been met by the expeditions
proceeding direct from France through the Gulf of Mexico. The claims of
France in America included not only the vast domain of Canada, but a
half of Maine, a half of Vermont, more than a half of New York, the
entire valley of the Mississippi, and Texas as far as the Rio Bravo del
Norte.[21:2] And these claims were asserted by actual and almost
undisputed occupancy.

The seventy years that followed were years of storm and stress for the
French colonies and missions. The widening areas occupied by the French
and by the English settlers brought the rival establishments into nearer
neighborhood, into sharper competition, and into bloody collision.
Successive European wars--King William's War, Queen Anne's War (of the
Spanish succession), King George's War (of the Austrian
succession)--involved the dependencies of France and those of England in
the conflicts of their sovereigns. These were the years of terror along
the exposed northern frontier of English settlements in New England and
New York, when massacre and burning by bands of savages, under French
instigation and leadership, made the names of Haverhill and Deerfield
and Schenectady memorable in American history, and when, in desperate
campaigns against the Canadian strongholds, the colonists vainly sought
to protect themselves from the savages by attacking the centers from
which the murderous forays were directed. But each successive treaty of
peace between England and France confirmed and reconfirmed the French
claims to the main part of her American domain. The advances of French
missions and settlements continued southward and westward, in spite of
jealousy in European cabinets as the imposing magnitude of the plans of
French empire became more distinctly disclosed, and in spite of the
struggles of the English colonies both North and South. When, on the 4th
of July, 1754, Colonel George Washington surrendered Fort Necessity,
near the fork of the Ohio, to the French, in the whole valley of the
Mississippi, to its headsprings in the Alleghanies, no standard floated
but that of France.[22:1]

There seemed little reason to doubt that the French empire in America,
which for a century and a half had gone on expanding and strengthening,
would continue to expand and strengthen for centuries to come. Sudden as
lightning, in August, 1756, the Seven Years' War broke out on the other
side of the globe. The treaty with which it ended, in February, 1763,
transferred to Great Britain, together with the Spanish territory of
Florida, all the French possessions in America, from the Arctic Ocean to
the Gulf of Mexico. As a dream when one awaketh, the magnificent
vision of empire, spiritual and secular, which for so many generations
had occupied the imagination of French statesmen and churchmen, was
rudely and forever dispelled. Of the princely wealth, the brilliant
talents, the unsurpassed audacity of adventure, the unequaled heroism of
toil and martyrdom expended on the great project, how strangely meager
and evanescent the results! In the districts of Lower Canada there
remain, indeed, the institutions of a French Catholic population; and
the aspect of those districts, in which the pledge of full liberty to
the dominant church has been scrupulously fulfilled by the British
government, may reasonably be regarded as an indication of what France
would have done for the continent in general. But within the present
domain of the United States the entire results of a century and a half
of French Catholic colonization and evangelization may be summed up as
follows: In Maine, a thousand Catholic Indians still remain, to remind
one of the time when, as it is boldly claimed, the whole Indian
population of that province were either converted or under Jesuit
training.[23:1] In like manner, a scanty score of thousands of Catholic
Indians on various reservations in the remote West represent the time
when, at the end of the French domination, all the North American
Indians were more or less extensively converted to Catholic
Christianity, all had the gospel preached to them.[23:2] The splendid
fruits of the missions among the Iroquois, from soil watered by the
blood of martyrs, were wasted to nothing in savage intertribal wars.
Among the Choctaws and Chickasaws of the South and Southwest, among whom
the gospel was by and by to win some of its fairest trophies, the French
missionaries achieved no great success.[23:3] The French colonies from
Canada, planted so prosperously along the Western rivers, dispersed,
leaving behind them some straggling families. The abundant later growth
of the Catholic Church in that region was to be from other seed and
stock. The region of Louisiana alone, destined a generation later to be
included within the boundaries of the great republic, retained
organized communities of French descent and language; but, living as
they were in utter unbelief and contempt of religion and morality, it
would be an unjust reproach on Catholicism to call them Catholic. The
work of the gospel had got to be begun from the foundation. Nevertheless
it is not to be doubted that remote memories or lingering traditions of
a better age survived to aid the work of those who by and by should
enter in to rebuild the waste places.[24:1]

There are not a few of us, wise after the event, who recognize a final
cause of this surprising and almost dramatic failure, in the manifest
intent of divine Providence that the field of the next great empire in
the world's history should not become the exclusive domain of an
old-world monarchy and hierarchy; but the immediate efficient causes of
it are not so obvious. This, however, may justly be said: some of the
seeming elements of strength in the French colonization proved to be
fatal elements of weakness.

1. The French colonies had the advantage of royal patronage,
endowment,[24:2] and protection, and of unity of counsel and direction.
They were all parts of one system, under one control. And their centers
of vitality, head and heart, were on the other side of the sea.
Subsisting upon the strength of the great monarchy, they must needs
share its fortunes, evil as well as good. When, after the reverses of
France in the Seven Years' War, it became necessary to accept hard terms
of peace, the superb framework of empire in the West fell to the
disposal of the victors. America, said Pitt, was conquered in
Germany.

2. The business basis of the French colonies, being that of trade with
the Indians rather than a self-supporting agriculture, favored the swift
expansion of these colonies and their wide influence among the Indians.
Scattered companies of fur-traders would be found here and there,
wherever were favorable points for traffic, penetrating deeply into the
wilderness and establishing friendly business relations with the
savages. It has been observed that the Romanic races show an alacrity
for intermarriage with barbarous tribes that is not to be found in the
Teutonic. The result of such relations is ordinarily less the elevating
of the lower race than the dragging down of the higher; but it tends for
the time to give great advantage in maintaining a powerful political
influence over the barbarians. Thus it was that the French, few in
number, covered almost the breadth of the continent with their
formidable alliances; and these alliances were the offensive and
defensive armor in which they trusted, but they were also their peril.
Close alliance with one savage clan involved war with its enemies. It
was an early misfortune of the French settlers that their close friendly
relations with their Huron neighbors embattled against them the
fiercest, bravest, and ablest of the Indian tribes, the confederacy of
the Six Nations, which held, with full appreciation of its strategic
importance, the command of the exits southward from the valley of the
St. Lawrence. The fierce jealousy of the Iroquois toward the allies of
their hereditary antagonists, rather than any good will toward white
settlers of other races, made them an effectual check upon French
encroachments upon the slender line of English, Dutch, and Swedish
settlements that stretched southward from Maine along the Atlantic
coast.

3. In one aspect it was doubtless an advantage to the French missions in
America that the sharp sectarian competitions between the different
clerical orders resulted finally in the missions coming almost
exclusively under the control of the Jesuit society. This result insured
to the missions the highest ability in administration and direction,
ample resources of various sorts, and a force of missionaries whose
personal virtues have won for them unstinted eulogy even from unfriendly
sources--men the ardor of whose zeal was rigorously controlled by a more
than martial severity of religious discipline. But it would be uncandid
in us to refuse attention to those grave charges against the society
brought by Catholic authorities and Catholic orders, and so enforced as,
after long and acrimonious controversy, to result in the expulsion of
the society from almost every nation of Catholic Europe, in its being
stigmatized by Pope Benedict XIV., in 1741, as made up of disobedient,
contumacious, captious, and reprobate persons, and at last in its being
suppressed and abolished by Pope Clement XIV., in 1773, as a nuisance to
Christendom. We need, indeed, to make allowance for the intense
animosity of sectarian strife among the various Catholic orders in which
the charges against the society were engendered and unrelentingly
prosecuted; but after all deductions it is not credible that the almost
universal odium in which it was held was provoked solely by its virtues.
Among the accusations against the society which seem most clearly
substantiated these two are likely to be concerned in that brand of
ultimate failure which has invariably been stamped on all its most
promising schemes and efforts:[26:1] first, a disposition to compromise
the essential principles of Christianity by politic concessions to
heathenism, so that the successes of the Jesuit missions are magnified
by reports of alleged conversions that are conversions only in name and
outward form; second, a constantly besetting propensity to political
intrigue.[27:1] It is hardly to be doubted that both had their part in
the prodigious failure of the French Catholic missions and settlements
within the present boundaries of the United States.

4. The conditions which favored the swift and magnificent expansion of
the French occupation were unfavorable to the healthy natural growth of
permanent settlements. A post of soldiers, a group of cabins of trappers
and fur-traders, and a mission of nuns and celibate priests, all
together give small promise of rapid increase of population. It is
rather to the fact that the French settlements, except at the seaboard,
were constituted so largely of these elements, than to any alleged
sterility of the French stock, that the fatal weakness of the French
occupation is to be ascribed. The lack of French America was men. The
population of Canada in 1759, according to census, was about eighty-two
thousand;[27:2] that of New England in 1754 is estimated at four hundred
and twenty-five thousand. The white population of five, or perhaps even
of six, of the American provinces was greater singly than that of all
Canada, and the aggregate in America exceeded that in Canada
fourteenfold.[27:3] The same sign of weakness is recognized at the
other extremity of the cordon of French settlements. The vast region of
Louisiana is estimated, at fifty years from its colonization, at one
tenth of the strength of the coeval province of Pennsylvania.[27:4]

Under these hopeless conditions the French colonies had not even the
alternative of keeping the peace. The state of war was forced by the
mother countries. There was no recourse for Canada except to her savage
allies, won for her through the influence of the missionaries.

It is justly claimed that in the mind of such early leaders as Champlain
the dominant motive of the French colonization was religious; but in the
cruel position into which the colony was forced it was almost inevitable
that the missions should become political. It was boasted in their
behalf that they had taught the Indians to mingle Jesus Christ and
France together in their affections.[28:1] The cross and the lilies
were blazoned together as the sign of French dominion. The missionary
became frequently, and sometimes quite undisguisedly, a political agent.
It was from the missions that the horrible murderous forays upon
defenseless villages proceeded, which so often marked the frontier line
of New England and New York with fire and blood. It is one of the most
unhappy of the results of that savage warfare that in the minds of the
communities that suffered from it the Jesuit missionary came to be
looked upon as accessory to these abhorrent crimes. Deeply is it to be
lamented that men with such eminent claims on our admiration and
reverence should not be triumphantly clear of all suspicion of such
complicity. We gladly concede the claim[28:2] that the proof of the
complicity is not complete; we could welcome some clear evidence in
disproof of it--some sign of a bold and indignant protest against these
crimes; we could wish that the Jesuit historian had not boasted of these
atrocities as proceeding from the fine work of his brethren,[29:1] and
that the antecedents of the Jesuits as a body, and their declared
principles of moral theology, were such as raise no presumption
against them even in unfriendly minds. But we must be content with
thankfully acknowledging that divine change which has made it impossible
longer to boast of or even justify such deeds, and which leaves no
ground among neighbor Christians of the present day for harboring mutual
suspicions which, to the Christian ministers of French and English
America of two hundred years ago and less, it was impossible to repress.

I have spoken of the complete extinction within the present domain of
the United States of the magnificent beginnings of the projected French
Catholic Church and empire. It is only in the most recent years, since
the Civil War, that the results of the work inaugurated in America by
Champlain begin to reappear in the field of the ecclesiastical history
of the United States. The immigration of Canadian French Catholics into
the northern tier of States has already grown to considerable volume,
and is still growing in numbers and in stability and strength, and adds
a new and interesting element to the many factors that go to make up the
American church.





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