The Old Regime in Canada Essay - Critical Essays

Francis Parkman


Francis Parkman, along with William Hickling Prescott and John Lothrop Motley, is one of the great American historians of the nineteenth century and indeed of the twentieth also. Parkman differs from the other two in that he had a controlled style not subject to useless rhetorical flights, and he was more able to give to his writings a sense of immediacy.

His great accomplishment as historian derives from at least three firm beliefs about the art of this craft. He believed that the historian should pay close attention to research, going to primary documents wherever possible, and he made numerous trips, several across the Atlantic, to examine primary sources. He believed the historian should pay strict attention to developing his work dramatically and should closely observe the proportions of the various sections. He believed, finally, that the proper style of historical writing should be vigorous, without studied prettiness or “tricks of rhetoric.” As a consequence of these basic tenets, Parkman’s works remain readable and lively today.

THE OLD REGIME IN CANADA is the fourth of a series of works known collectively as FRANCE AND ENGLAND IN NORTH AMERICA, published in eleven volumes from 1851 to 1892. It reveals his biases and prejudices typically. He disdained commerce, cared little for democracy but hated tyranny, loved the good old days when men were men, was a political reactionary. As Parkman says in his book, “My political faith lies between two vicious extremes, democracy and absolute authority, each of which I detest, the more because it tends to react into the other.” Although he did not “object to a good constitutional monarchy, he preferred a conservative republic.” Further, he obviously respected Englishmen more than he did Frenchmen, and he had greater regard for Protestantism than for Catholicism.

THE OLD REGIME IN CANADA begins with a Preface that sets the tone, a quotation from the nineteenth century French critic of America, Alexis de Tocqueville: “The physiognomy of a government can best be judged in its colonies, for there its characteristic traits usually appear larger and more distinct. When I wish to judge of the spirit and the faults of the administration of Louis XIV, I must go to Canada. Its deformity is there seen as through a microscope.” Parkman’s volume is an attempt to show by what methods the monarchy of France “strove to make good its hold (on North America), why it achieved a certain kind of success, and why it failed at last.”

The first edition of this work begins in 1653, with the Jesuits at Onandaga, not, as in the revised edition, with material drawn from the papers of La Tour and D’Aunay, the rival claimants to Acadia. Immediately the strength of Parkman’s method is apparent. No detail is too small for his consideration and inclusion. He believes, for example, that “the key”...

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