- The End of New France: Falling with Gravity
Now that all the 250th anniversaries related to the Seven Years’ War in America are behind us and the scholarship they helped promote is before us, it is a good time to revisit our understanding of the subject. Much has been learned recently about the French and British administrations, their finances, and their military, and about the colonial and Indian armies that fought what were poorly labeled as the French and Indian War and Pontiac’s Rebellion.
William Nester and Christian Crouch have written books that expressly focus on what caused the fall of New France. This is an old chestnut that has been used to harass Canadian undergraduates for generations. Was it the inevitable cultural failure of aristocratic, backward-looking France and its colonial clone that were no match for the new capitalistic British and American civilization, as Francis Parkman argued amid his appreciation for individual French heroes? Did France abandon New France as the final crisis approached, as Guy Frégault claimed in his classic Québeçois nationalist study? Did Montcalm ruin a close-run finale by attacking too soon on the Plains of Abraham and by surrendering more than he should have, as Bill Eccles has argued? Might a French fleet still have saved New France after Lévis’ victory over Murray and the revolution of 1760 in Britain’s government?
William Nester, author of more than thirty books on a wide range of historical subjects that now include five books related to this war, effectively uses [End Page 70] much recent work on the French navy, finances, and personalities to reinforce his earlier arguments about why France lost New France. He discusses the broader global war from what he calls a French perspective. His thesis is that France lost New France for a host of internal reasons, catalogued as his book opens, and elaborated throughout. The French court is denounced for extravagance and being the willing victim of the nefarious influence of the marquise de Pompador on policy and especially on appointments. The French government is seen as bankrupt and riddled with mediocre and incompetent ministers, admirals, and generals. “France needed a Colbert to organize, a Necker to finance, a Talleyrand to negotiate, a Nelson to lead its fleets, and a Bonaparte to command its armies to win the Seven Years’ War” (p. 5).
This avalanche of weakness and incompetence is not analyzed for the relative significance of each factor, neither is it effectively compared with the similar inadequacies of France’s enemies. For Nester, the only reason why it took so long for France to lose this war was British bumbling, at least until the rise of William Pitt. The foibles of British colonial America are completely ignored, Indians with their own changing priorities are seen as bit players, and New France is described without much use of recent revisionary work on its society, economy, martial methods, or Indian allies. Yet Nester repeatedly insists—as most historians are bound by self-interest to do—that the outcome was not inevitable, events were of consequence, and, particularly, that individuals made crucial mistakes worth our attention. Montcalm could have saved New France on the Plains of Abraham, and General Lévis could still faintly hope that the fleet arriving in the St. Lawrence in May 1760 might have been French, thereby supporting his recent victory and saving New France. While many judge the French negotiation of peace as very successful diplomatic salvage in bad circumstances, Nester considers the Peace...