How to torture an American: force them to conceive of a history of the United States wherein we are not the greatest military force on earth, we are aggressive bullies and thieves, and others are more wily and sophisticated than we are. Now, make them tell that story. Actually, I don’t think it can be done. Even the most leftist American historian I’ve ever read is a patriotic apologist. C’est le nationalisme. Le nationalisme est un bourbier.
This is a natural habit well cultivated by a tendency never to ask others for their opinion. My professional training reinforced the inclination. None of my masters ever asked me to read any American history written by a non-American. What’s more, none of them even asked me to read histories of other North Americans. It is in this way that I was trained to keep my thinking parochial and my attitude dismissive. Now, I struggle to teach myself the history of Nueva España and Nouvelle-France in order to broaden my take on American history. It’s damn hard to do so, by the way. It’s pretty much the ignorant leading the stupid.
Happily, I stumbled onto a history of the French in North America (subtly entitled The French in North America), which is largely a history of Canada. What a difference your perspective makes! The author is English but he was trained in Canada and France. Free from many of our prejudices and assumptions, he makes daring statements. The most surprisingly nuanced is that the greatest military force in North America in the seventeenth century was the Iroquois Confederacy. Upon reflection, I think it’s largely true. The group dominated the northeastern part of the U.S. at that time and being a combination of six nations, it was significant in numbers — giving it a numerical advantage over its foes. It certainly outnumbered the European settlers in the colonies. I have yet to discover an American textbook that in anyway acknowledges the superiority of any Indian nation or body. I guess the Canadians and French don’t feel threatened by acknowledging this truth.
Also, during the course of his story, the author — W. J. Eccles — recounts a number of incidents of aggression on the part of English colonists against the Canadians. I was completely unfamiliar with these. No one had ever instructed me before that New Englanders raided Acadia and Newfoundland for spoils. These were apparently unprovoked and the sole purpose was to steal from the French. So noble. Did I mention that these New Englanders settled the territory before the Puritans? I guess that’s how Squanto knew already knew English and could teach them how to plant corn so they wouldn’t starve to death. Anyway, so much for our founders coming to our shores in search of religious liberty. Damn the inconvenience of truth. Pillaging pirates, not prayerful Puritans — these were our English forefathers in the northeast.
Well, we can always console ourselves with the myth of social Darwinism: Anglos conquered the continent — driving out the French, Spanish, and Native Americans — because it was their manifest destiny as the greater culture/force (chosen by God). Through various military endeavors, we eventually bested the Indians and took their land. Those pathetic Frenchies weren’t up to the task. But, wait! Eccles says: early on, the French realized that they were grossly outnumbered and militarily inferior to the Indians in North America. The French government determined that it did not wish to commit the necessary money and troops to fully develop Canada. The returns would not be that great, and it was more interested in besting the English in Europe. As such, they came up with an Indian policy that was essentially to trade with the Indians and depend on them for protection and assistance. In short, they opted to be the subservient in order to make money off of the fur trade. They decided that was all they really wanted with North America anyway. Genius. Then, they figured out that they could use their settlements in America as a thorn in the flesh of the English. They — along with their Indian allies, to whom they gave guns in return for valued furs — could mount enough of a military threat to force the English to commit troops to protect their colonies. This would siphon off soldiers from the battlefields of Europe, giving the French the advantage they preferred there. Further, the French realized that with proper encouragement, they could sit back and let the rebel colonies do the dirty work for them. If the English were busy fighting their colonists, the French would again have the advantage in Europe, as the English would be fighting two fronts. (Unfortunately, in the end, they did have to send in the navy to save us because alone the American military was not up to the task and colonists were too cheap to pay for the necessities of war.) Shortly thereafter, Napoleon would prove the wisdom of this policy and lead the French empire to dominance. As painful as it is to accept, to the French, the Americas were but a pawn. We may have been undertaking a noble experiment, but they were playing at a larger game.
So, here is a bit of American history from a completely different perspective — one in which we are not the grand heroes and enlightened victors. In this history, we are cheap, greedy, aggressive, and militarily inferior to both the French and <gasp> the Indians. I dare you to tell that story to your children. Oh, the horror! Don’t worry. It would never make it past the Texas School Board.