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


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


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


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


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.