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Reviews in American History 30.4 (2002) 517-529



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In Retrospect:
The Career of Francis Jennings

Kirsten Fischer


Francis Jennings was a dragon-slayer, a man whose foe seemed to rise up over and over again like the multi-headed Hydra of Herculean legend. Indeed, his bêtes noires over the years were legends (and the historians who promoted them), especially myths of righteous European colonists seeking liberty in a land of roaming Indian savages. If it is hard to imagine today that this was once the standard plot in a widely shared narrative of early American history, one that began with visionary Puritans and ended with revolutionary freedom fighters and that mentioned Native Americans and African Americans only as colorful asides, we must nonetheless recall this storyline to understand the passion that infused Jennings's scholarship. Jennings's opening salvo came in 1963 when he lambasted Francis Parkman, the eminent nineteenth-century historian, for lying about his sources in order to craft a romantic fiction that distorted the role of colonists and obliterated the crucial contributions of Indians to the 1758 peace negotiations in Pennsylvania. The article, "A Vanishing Indian: Francis Parkman Versus His Sources," set the tone for Jennings's life work: in the quarter century before he died in November 2000 at age 82, Jennings wrote six books and a number of articles, all of which sought to replace two-dimensional caricatures of Indians with complex political actors while relentlessly attacking the mythology of a freedom-promoting and democracy-producing American frontier (Frederick Jackson Turner, like Parkman, became a prized target). With cutting, sarcastic, sometimes vitriolic language, Jennings hacked away at the foundational myths of this country's colonial past, providing meticulously researched blow-by-blow accounts of European machinations to defraud Indians of their land, together with colonists' justification of that theft with their oft-repeated claims of Indian "savagery" and European "civility." Tirelessly, devotedly, and sometimes (even for his supporters) irritatingly, Jennings unmasked the hypocrisy and greed underlying the settlers' "cant of conquest" as well as the imperialist colonial agenda that he saw purposefully covered up by apologist historians. For Jennings, it seems, the sun never set on the work of Francis Parkman. 1

For all the bombast and the bile, we need historians and histories like these. "Fritz was crazy," a colonialist said to me recently, but maybe that's [End Page 517] how people appear when they have the courage of their convictions and no more patience, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote from a Birmingham jail, for being patient. Despite Jennings's many detractors (his frontal assaults brought many enemies, while his overblown language vexed even the favorably disposed), Jennings's archival work—much of it—has stood the test of time. Furthermore, he led the charge on a number of counts, especially regarding contemporary notions of race as a social construct and Indians as real human beings rather than as vilified or romanticized icons. Neither Indians nor Europeans appear in his books as monolithic or static groups; alliances within and among natives and newcomers shifted as the changing historical context altered people's perceptions of their own self-interest. Even then there are exceptions: Jennings allows that some people looked beyond their own self-interest and behaved with an eye to a larger public good. There are still heroes in his books—people with integrity who did not sell out to the highest bidder—and some of them were colonials: Roger Williams, William Penn, Benjamin Franklin.

Jennings pulled no punches, however. Precisely because every individual is as human as the next and fully responsible for his (and they are mostly men) own actions, the bellicose Puritan elite in seventeenth-century New England are all the more inexcusable; they had options, they knew better, they did not have to behave that way. Jennings took the Puritan leaders to task in The Invasion of America (1975), the first of his three dense volumes on Indian-colonial relations. 2 Jennings admits that in the course of his research he developed a "strong aversion toward...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6628
Print ISSN
0048-7511
Pages
pp. 517-529
Launched on MUSE
2002-12-16
Open Access
No
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