Francis Parkman

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Francis Parkman (1823-1893) was the greatest of the Romantic historians of 19th century America, specializing on the history of Canada and colonial wars. In many ways he was the leading conservative historian of his era. Despite the handicap of poor health and weak eyesight, he displayed a total command of the sources and a brilliant writing style that engages the modern reader. Liberals strongly dislike Parkman's conservative values.


In the summer of 1846, Parkman traveled in the southeastern corner of Wyoming and lived among the Oglala Sioux Indians. He believed that only in this way could he understand and write adequately about Indian culture. Parkman's The Oregon Trail (1849), based on traversing the actual trail, exemplifies how 19th century eastern male readers observed western violence to purge themselves of femininity.

Parkman followed his sources faithfully in composing his lively, episodic narratives. He eulogized heroic pioneers who struggled to survive in American and Canadian forests. Parkman's heroes were upper-class Frenchmen and Anglo-Americans on whom he conferred courage and other special qualities that were essential to coping with North American wilderness. Parkman identified with such people and sought fame by depicting himself as someone who overcame adversity to write about historical events.

Before his health collapsed, Parkman was a vigorous traveler in love with the west. As he traveled westward on the Oregon Trail in 1846, Parkman closely observed the Native Americans he encountered along the way. As his writings, including The Oregon Trail (1849), suggest, his commentary to some extent reflects a desire to distinguish between white and Indian ways of life and culture; but, like many other writers who wrote about the westward journey, he used the experience to engage in a critique of Yankee mores. Parkman found himself attracted to many aspects of Native American life even as he maintained the ultimate superiority of white culture, and pondered the extent to which his experiences altered his perspective and led to his own adoption of some Native ways.[1]

Parkman felt that specific behaviors were correlated with ethnicity, and that the most favored behavior was exhibited by Yankees of New England. The basis of this preferred behavior was self-restraint and acceptance of responsibility, which New England “brahmins” (leaders such as Parkman himself) were capable of to a degree unreachable in other communities because, he felt, other ethnic groups were not endowed by God with the requisite qualities. Thus, the native leader Pontiac, although seen as "brave," "commanding," and "magnanimous," was only pretending to possess these qualities.[2]

Jacobs (1992) reports that Parkman expressed themes of environmentalism in his writings, in his experiments with plants while a professor of botany at Harvatrd, and in his fascination with natural history. His writings were filled with the wilderness and all that it either promised or threatened, and he exploited environmental themes as literary tools in his historical narratives. As such, his ideas on the subject tell modern scholars much about perceptions of the environment during Parkman's era.[3]

An intensive analysis of Parkman's use of sources, particularly in Montcalm and Wolfe (1884), reveals Parkman as an uncommonly skillful editor of primary sources. Not as skillful in his uses of secondary works, which he often recasts without much thought, in his use of primary sources Parkman can be seen employing four techniques: 1) the invention of detail to secure vividness of portrayal and a certain immediacy, 2) the economizing of verbiage to secure dramatic juxtapositions or to heighten heroic characterizations, 3) the clarification of sequence to achieve proper chronology and a gripping narrative line, and 4) use of an aggressive narrating voice which makes the reader believe the narrator participated in events. This latter technique obscures and often indeed obliterates the sources used, but it achieves admirable results which have recommended the technique to other narrative historians.[4]

New France

His seven volumes on New France represent the most comprehensive history of that French colony. Parkman revised his books and many editions exist.

In The Jesuits in North America he praises the violent Iroquois, allies of the British, for stopping French expansion and limiting the power of the Jesuits, thus opening the way for liberty and Republicanism in North America. Because the Indian was "irretrievably savage," he said, the Jesuits failed in their attempts to Christianize him; because the Indian could not be civlized, "France could not hold the West; North America became English."

"Liberty may thank the Iroquois, that, by their insensate fury, the plans of her adversary were brought to nought, and a peril and a woe averted from her future. They ruined the [fur] trade which was the life-blood of New France; they stopped the current of her arteries, and made all her early years a misery and a terror. Not that they changed her destinies. The contest on this continent between Liberty and Absolutism was never doubtful; but the triumph of the one would have been dearly bought, and the downfall of the other incomplete. Populations formed in the ideas and habits of a feudal monarchy, and controlled by a hierarchy profoundly hostile to freedom of thought, would have remained a hindrance and a stumbling-block in the way of that majestic experiment of which America is the field. The Jesuits saw their hopes struck down; and their faith, though not shaken, was sorely tried. The Providence of God seemed in their eyes dark and inexplicable; but, from the stand-point of Liberty, that Providence is clear as the sun at noon. Meanwhile let those who have prevailed yield due honor to the defeated. Their virtues shine amidst the rubbish of error, like diamonds and gold in the gravel of the torrent."[5]

Parkman's books

  • The Oregon trail: sketches of prairie and Rocky-mountain life‎ (1st ed. 1849; 1920 edition online) 479 pages full text online
  • The Pioneers of France in the New World (1865) full text online
  • The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century (1867) full text online
  • La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West (1869) full text online
  • The Old Régime in Canada (1874) full text online
  • Count Frontenac and New France under Louis XIV (1877) full text online
  • A Half Century of Conflict (1892) full text online
  • Montcalm and Wolfe: The French and Indian War. (1884), full text online
  • David Levin, ed. Parkman: France and England in North America, (2 vol. Library of America, 1983)
  • Letters of Francis Parkman, 2 vols., ed, by Wilbur R. Jacobs (1960)

Further reading

  • Eccles, W. J. "The history of New France according to Francis Parkman," William and Mary Quarterly (1961): 163–75, hostile attack by a rival
  • Farnham, Charles Haight. A Life of Francis Parkman. (1900).
  • Gale, Robert L. Francis Parkman (1973)
  • Jacobs, Wilbur R. Francis Parkman, Historian as Hero: The Formative Years. (1991). 237 pp., standard scholarly study
  • Jacobs, Wilbur R. "Some Social Ideas of Francis Parkman," American Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 4 (Winter, 1957), pp. 387–397 in JSTOR
  • Jacobs, Wilbur R. "Francis Parkman's Oration 'Romance in America'". American Historical Review, Vol. 68, No. 3 (Apr., 1963), pp. 692–697 in JSTOR
  • Jacobs, Wilbur R. "Francis Parkman: Naturalist-Environmental Savant," The Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 61, No. 3 (May, 1992), pp. 341–356 in JSTOR
  • Jennings, Francis. "Francis Parkman: A Brahmin among Untouchables," William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 3 (July 1985), pp. 306–328 in JSTOR extreme attack from the far Left
  • Tonsor, Stephen. "The Conservative as Historian: Francis Parkman." Modern Age 1983 27(3-4): 246-255. online at ISI
  • Wade, Mason. Francis Parkman, heroic historian (1942).
  • Wish, Harvey. The American Historian: A Social-intellectual History of the Writing of the American Past (1960) ch 6 on Parkman.
  • Additional Online Books Regarding Parkman


  1. Philip G. Terrie, "The Other Within: Indianization on the Oregon Trail." New England Quarterly 1991 64(3): 376-392.
  2. Stephen P. Knadler, Francis Parkman's Ethnography of the Brahmin Caste and the History of the Conspiracy Of Pontiac. American Literature 1993 65(2): 215-238. 0002-9831
  3. Wilbur R. Jacobs, "Francis Parkman - Naturalist - Environmental Savant." Pacific Historical Review 1992 61(3): 341-356. 0030-8684
  4. Richard C. Vitzthum, "The Historian as Editor: Francis Parkman's Reconstruction of Sources in Montcalm and Wolfe." Journal of American History 1966 53(3): 471-486. in JSTOR
  5. See online version