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French Historical Studies 23.2 (2000) 239-258

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France in America

Robert Forster


Teaching National and Regional History in a Global Age

I continue to believe that national histories have a place in the university curriculum alongside courses on transnational themes, Western civilization, and world history. Indeed, they provide essential training in the historical depth and perspective needed for teaching and learning at other levels. In addition to teaching such broadly based courses as Western civilization or world history, a historian might offer, for example, a course entitled Autobiography and History (with a focus on French figures), Anthropology and History, or France in America—to name three I have given over the years in addition to those in my specialty, modern French history.

So, how should the French historian tailor his or her expertise to meet a wider topical, temporal, and geographic scope without simply using French history as a case study to make a generalization already established in a more general course or to identify French variations to broad transnational historical issues (i.e., race, class, gender, religion, family, economic development, political change, or cultural mutation)? In this essay I will argue that we can devise a course that contributes to many of these transnational issues without being misled by our knowledge of French history into expecting certain preconceived responses and outcomes. Throughout, the goal should be to demonstrate over a wide range of issues how a new environment challenged and transformed the received wisdom and customary behavior of people born and raised in France.

When I first thought about French encounters outside the metropole, I was convinced that “Frenchness” would remain strong and that [End Page 239] the legacy of the French presence abroad would be distinct from that of such other imperial nations as Britain or Spain. However, as I began to review the histories of New France and the French West Indies, I was impressed by the plasticity of Frenchmen and Frenchwomen under the impact of different environments, economies, and cultures. Though a certain Frenchness remained, it was much less marked than I had anticipated.


For a course similar to one I taught on “France in America” I suggest the following outline. Divide the course about equally between New France (Canada) and the French West Indies, ending the first section in 1763, perhaps with an epilogue on Québec from then to the present. In the second half of the course concentrate on Saint-Domingue from the creation of the plantation economy to the founding of the Haitian republic in 1804; an epilogue would consider the final end of slavery in Martinique and Guadeloupe in 1848. A major focus of the course should be French relations with Amerindians in Canada and with African slaves in the Antilles. A central question would be Why was there such a difference in these two sets of interracial relations?

The comparison between the two colonial areas should include economic geography and demographic profiles, not only of the two French colonies but also of contemporary British North American settlements. Indeed, the British colonial experience in America deserves considerable treatment. It points up the fundamental contrast between a colony of settlement and one devoted to trade and a religious mission. Although the French “settled” the Saint Lawrence Valley from Québec to Montréal, they occupied only a minor portion of a vast land arc stretching from Newfoundland to New Orleans, with outposts as far west as Alberta. Beyond the Saint Lawrence Valley a thin chain of forts and depots guarded strategic points along lakes and rivers. Beyond these outposts was an even thinner population of missionaries and fur traders who relied on the Indians, for sustenance in the wilderness and to act as intermediaries in the fur trade. The French administration encouraged intermarriage with the Indians (without success) and encouraged diplomatic alliances against the British (with success).

The British North American colonies, on the other hand, were first and foremost settlement colonies. From the early seventeenth century on, the British arrived in large numbers and as families. Both immigration and birth rates were high. By 1700...


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