Chronicles of America 

The Contrast of French and English Colonies

At the end of the seventeenth century it must have seemed a far cry from Versailles to Quebec. The ocean was crossed only by small sailing vessels haunted by both tempest and pestilence, the one likely to prolong the voyage by many weeks, the other to involve the sacrifice of scores of lives through scurvy and other maladies. Yet, remote as the colony seemed, Quebec was the child of Versailles, protected and nourished by Louis XIV and directed by him in its minutest affairs. The King spent laborious hours over papers relating to the cherished colony across the sea. He sent wise counsel to his officials in Canada and with tactful patience rebuked their faults. He did everything for the colonists--gave them not merely land, but muskets, farm implements, even chickens, pigs, and sometimes wives. The defect of his government was that it tended to be too paternal. The vital needs of a colony struggling with the problems of barbarism could hardly be read correctly and provided for at Versailles. Colonies, like men, are strong only when they learn to take care of themselves.

The English colonies present a vivid contrast. London did not direct and control Boston. In London the will, indeed, was not wanting, for the Stuart kings, Charles II and James H, were not less despotic in spirit than Louis XIV. But while in France there was a vast organism which moved only as the King willed, in England power was more widely distributed. It may be claimed with truth that English national liberties are a growth from the local freedom which has existed from time immemorial. When British colonists left the motherland to found a new society, their first instinct was to create institutions which involved local control. The solemn covenant by which in 1620 the worn company of the Mayflower, after a long and painful voyage, pledged themselves to create a self-governing society, was the inevitable expression of the English political spirit. Do what it would, London could never control Boston as Versailles controlled Quebec.

The English colonist kept his eyes fixed on his own fortunes. From the state he expected little; from himself, everything. He had no great sense of unity with neighboring colonists under the same crown. Only when he realized some peril to his interests, some menace which would master him if he did not fight, was he stirred to warlike energy. French leaders, on the other hand, were thinking of world politics. The voyage of Verrazano, the Italian sailor who had been sent out by Francis I of France in 1524, and who had sailed along a great stretch of the Atlantic coast, was deemed by Frenchmen a sufficient title to the whole of North America. They flouted England's claim based upon the voyages of the Cabots nearly thirty years earlier. Spain, indeed, might claim Florida, but the English had no real right to any footing in the New World. As late as in 1720, when the fortunes of France were already on the wane in the New World, Father Bobe, a priest of the Congregation of Missions, presented to the French court a document which sets forth in uncompromising terms the rights of France to all the land between the thirtieth and the fiftieth parallels of latitude. True, he says, others occupy much of this territory, but France must drive out intruders and in particular the English. Boston rightly belongs to France and so also do New York and Philadelphia. The only regions to which England has any just claim are Acadia, Newfoundland, and Hudson Bay, ceded by France under the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. This weak cession all true Frenchmen regret and England must hand the territories back. She owes France compensation for her long occupation of lands not really hers. If she makes immediate restitution, the King of France, generous and kind, will forego some of his rights and allow England to retain a strip some fifty miles wide extending from Maine to Florida. France has the right to the whole of the interior. In the mind of the reverend memorialist, no doubt, there was the conviction that England would soon lose the meager strip, fifty miles wide, which France might yield.

These dreams of power had a certain substance. It seems to us now that, from the first, the French were dreaming of the impossible. We know what has happened, and after the event it is an easy task to measure political forces. The ambitions of France were not, however, empty fancies. More than once she has seemed on the point of mastering the nations of the West. Just before the year 1690 she had a great opportunity. In England, in 1660, the fall of the system created by Oliver Cromwell brought back to the English throne the House of Stuart, for centuries the ally and usually the pupil of France. Stuart kings of Scotland, allied with France, had fought the Tudor kings of England. Stuarts in misfortune had been the pensioners of France. Charles II, a Stuart, alien in religion to the convictions of his people, looked to Catholic France to give him security on his throne. Before the first half of the reign of Louis XIV had ended, it was the boast of the French that the King of England was vassal to their King, that the states of continental Europe had become mere pawns in the game of their Grand Monarch, and that France could be master of as much of the world as was really worth mastering. In 1679 the Canadian Intendant, Duchesneau, writing from Quebec to complain of the despotic conduct of the Governor, Frontenac, paid a tribute to "the King our master, of whom the whole world stands in awe, who has just given law to all Europe."

To men thus obsessed by the greatness of their own ruler it seemed no impossible task to overthrow a few English colonies in America of whose King their own was the patron and the paymaster. The world of high politics has never been conspicuous for its knowledge of human nature. A strong blow from a strong arm would, it was believed both at Versailles and Quebec, shatter forever a weak rival and give France the prize of North America. Officers in Canada talked loftily of the ease with which France might master all the English colonies. The Canadians, it was said, were a brave and warlike people, trained to endure hardship, while the English colonists were undisciplined, ignorant of war, and cowardly. The link between them and the motherland, said these observers, could be easily broken, for the colonies were longing to be free. There is no doubt that France could put into the field armies vastly greater than those of England. Had the French been able to cross the Channel, march on London and destroy English power at its root, the story of civilization in a great part of North America might well have been different, and we should perhaps find now on the banks of the Hudson what we find on the banks of the St. Lawrence--villages dominated by great churches and convents, with inhabitants Catholic to a man, speaking the language and preserving the traditions of France. The strip of inviolate sea between Calais and Dover made impossible, however, an assault on London. Sea power kept secure not only England but English effort in America and in the end defeated France.

England had defenses other than her great strength on the sea. In spite of the docility towards France shown by the English King, Charles II, himself half French in blood and at heart devoted to the triumph of the Catholic faith, the English people would tolerate no policies likely to make England subservient to France. This was forbidden by age-long tradition. The struggle had become one of religion as well as of race. A fight for a century and a half with the Roman Catholic Church had made England sternly, fanatically Protestant. In their suspicion of the system which France accepted, Englishmen had sent a king to the scaffold, had overthrown the monarchy, and had created a military republic. This republic, indeed, had fallen, but the distrust of the aims of the Roman Catholic Church remained intense and burst into passionate fury the moment an understanding of the aims of France gained currency.

There are indeed few passages in English history less creditable than the panic fear of Roman Catholic plots which swept the country in the days when Frontenac at Quebec was working to destroy English and Protestant influence in America. In 1678, Titus Oates, a clergyman of the Church of England who had turned Roman Catholic, declared that, while in the secrets of his new church, he had found on foot a plot to restore Roman Catholic dominance in England by means of the murder of Charles II and of any other crimes necessary for that purpose. Oates said that he had left the Church and returned to his former faith because of the terrible character of the conspiracy which he had discovered. His story was not even plausible; he was known to be a man of vicious life; moreover, Catholic plotters would hardly murder a king who was at heart devoted to Catholic policy. England, however, was in a nervous state of mind; Charles II was known to be intriguing with France; and a cruel fury surged through the nation. For a share in the supposed plots, a score of people, among them one of the great nobles of England, the venerable and innocent Earl of Stafford, were condemned to death and executed. Whatever Charles II himself might have thought, he was obliged for his own safety to acquiesce in the policy of persecution.

Catholic France was not less malignant than Protestant England. Though cruel severity had long been shown to Protestants, they seemed to be secure under the law of France in certain limited rights and in a restricted toleration. In 1685, however, Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes by which Henry IV a century earlier had guaranteed this toleration. All over France there had already burst out terrible persecution, and the act of Louis XIV brought a fiery climax. Unhappy heretics who would not accept Roman Catholic doctrine found life intolerable. Tens of thousands escaped from France in spite of a law which, though it exiled the Protestant ministers, forbade other Protestants to leave the country. Stories of plots were made the excuse to seize the property of Protestants. Regiments of soldiers, charged with the task, could boast of many enforced "conversions." Quartered on Protestant households, they made the life of the inmates a burden until they abandoned their religion. Among the means used were torture before a slow fire, the tearing off of the finger nails, the driving of the whole families naked into the streets and the forbidding of any one to give them shelter, the violation of women, and the crowding of the heretics in loathsome prisons. By such means it took a regiment of soldiers in Rouen only a few days to "convert" to the old faith some six hundred families. Protestant ministers caught in France were sent to the galleys for life. The persecutions which followed the revocation of the Edict of Nantes outdid even Titus Oates.

Charles II died in 1685 and the scene at his deathbed encouraged in England suspicions of Catholic policy and in France hope that this policy was near its climax of success. Though indolent and dissolute, Charles yet possessed striking mental capacity and insight. He knew well that to preserve his throne he must remain outwardly a Protestant and must also respect the liberties of the English nation. He cherished, however, the Roman Catholic faith and the despotic ideals of his Bourbon mother. On his deathbed he avowed his real belief. With great precautions for secrecy, he was received into the Roman Catholic Church and comforted with the consolations which it offers to the dying. While this secret was suspected by the English people, one further fact was perfectly clear. Their new King, James II, was a zealous Roman Catholic, who would use all his influence to bring England back to the Roman communion. Suspicion of the King's designs soon became certainty and, after four years of bitter conflict with James, the inevitable happened. The Roman Catholic Stuart King was driven from his throne and his daughter Mary and her Protestant husband, William of Orange, became the sovereigns of England by choice of the English Parliament. Again had the struggle between Roman Catholic and Protestant brought revolution in England, and the politics of Europe dominated America. The revolution in London was followed by revolution in Boston and New York. The authority of James II was repudiated. His chief agent in New England, Sir Edmund Andros, was seized and imprisoned, and William and Mary reigned over the English colonies in America as they reigned over the motherland.

To the loyal Catholics of France the English, who had driven out a Catholic king and dethroned an ancient line, were guilty of the double sin of heresy and of treason. To the Jesuit enthusiast in Canada not only were they infidel devils in human shape upon whose plans must rest the curse of God; they were also rebels, republican successors of the accursed Cromwell, who had sent an anointed king to the block. It would be a holy thing to destroy this lawless power which ruled from London. The Puritans of Boston were, in turn, not less convinced that theirs was the cause of God, and that Satan, enthroned in the French dominance at Quebec, must soon fall. The smaller the pit the fiercer the rats. Passions raged in the petty colonial capitals more bitterly than even in London and Paris. This intensity of religious differences embittered the struggle for the mastery of the new continent.

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