Empire of Fortune

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

This is the third volume of a trilogy that traces the gradual expansion of English influence in America. The first two books—The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest (1975) and The Ambiguous Iroquois Empire: The Covenant Chain Confederation of Indian Tribes with English Colonies from Its Beginnings to the Lancaster Treaty of 1744 (1984)—brought Francis Jennings’ analysis to roughly 1744. The significance of his work is not debatable. His major contribution, especially in this final volume, is to demonstrate that various Indian groups confronting both the English and the French had their own agendas, leaders, and strategies involving both European intruders and other tribes and that they were anything but passive or reactive pawns easily manipulated by colonial authorities. Jennings endeavors to make clear that tribal leaders were rational human beings with defined objectives who exercised power in attempting to achieve them. Jennings also explains how they were deceived by corrupt white men or were the victims of their own tribal or personal ambitions. Jennings does a fine job in delineating the conflicting interest groups within Pennsylvania and the devious role played by the proprietor, Thomas Penn. In fact, this is probably one of the best interpretive studies of Pennsylvania during the Seven Years’ War.

Many of Jennings’ conclusions—for example, his observation that the American Revolution had its origin in the legislative and legal experiences of the colonists before the Peace of 1763—may not be entirely new, but they are formidably buttressed with both facts and vigorous arguments. Thus, the strength of Jennings’ book lies in its effort to present fresh interpretations and new material as well as to recast the history of the Anglo-American colonial experience. Jennings, who for years headed the Newberry Library Center for the History of the American Indian, seeks to replace the romantic narrative histories of Francis Parkman and to supplement the thirteen-volume, magisterial work of Lawrence Henry Gipson, The British Empire Before the American Revolution (1936-1970).

Both the content and style of Jennings’ work make him a revisionist. He has read widely and deeply in both the published and the unpublished literature, and it is undeniable that he has turned up errors in the work of his predecessors, especially Parkman, who wrote dramatic but sometimes biased accounts and did play hob with the facts to make his narratives conform to his overarching interpretation of Anglo-French conflict. Jennings, however—who has a deeply ingrained hostility toward historical as well as political establishments—goes further: In his judgment, Parkman is a “racist” and a “liar.”

From the outset, Jennings makes clear that he is eager to destroy the leading myths of this era. His book is therefore front-loaded with judgments that are themselves debatable about an earlier generation of historians, about institutions, and about human motivation. Aware of what he is about, Jennings also anticipates his critics by insisting that they show where he has erred rather than merely declare him to be controversial. As a result, Jennings writes combatively from a defensive stance.

Unfortunately, Jennings’ writing is free of neither errors nor distortions. Two examples should suffice. Jennings says, “One of [the] cruelest [British] commanders was General James Wolfe who had trained at Culloden and on ’police duty’ in the Scottish Highlands.” He provides two citations. The first, to Gipson’s work, indeed says that Wolfe was on police duty in the Highlands and comments on his courage and his almost meteoric rise in rank but says nothing of cruelty. The second citation is to the novelist-historian John Prebble’s Culloden (1961), which has no documentation and says nothing at all about Wolfe other than that his regiment at Culloden helped stop the men of Atholl. Jennings also omits a few facts: Wolfe had been in the army twelve years before the Battle of Culloden, had led the King’s Liverpool Regiment, and despite his youth was no trainee. Moreoever, Prebble later contradicts Jennings regarding Wolfe’s cruelty. According to Prebble, following the battle General Henry Hawley (known as “the Hangman”) “turned to one of his staff, who is thought to have been James Wolfe, and told him to pistol [shoot] the Rebel dog [young Charles Fraser]. The officer [Wolfe] refused, offering his commission instead.” Prebble infers that Wolfe would rather give up his position than kill a wounded prisoner. Prebble simply does not say what Jennings uses him to substantiate. For Jennings to present Wolfe as Gipson and Prebble do would not have fit his view of the British military attitude toward Indians, a point he wants to make. Was Jennings simply careless in his citation or was he, Parkman-like, determined to make a...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

Kirkus Review. LVI, January 15, 1988, p. 104.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, May 15, 1988, p. 20.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIII, January 29, 1988, p. 42.

The Washington Post Book World. XVIII, March 13, 1988, p. 1.