According to my entirely unscientific sample of friends and acquaintances, Francis Parkman’s multivolume history, France and England in North America, ranks near if not at the top of the list of the least-read American great books. Two reasons explain why Parkman’s history is currently neglected.
First, it is massive, consisting of seven separate volumes individually published between 1865 and 1892. There is also what amounts to an eighth volume, The Conspiracy of Pontiac and the Indian War after the Conquest of Canada, published originally in 1851 and then in a revised and expanded edition in 1870. This book is what Hollywood would call a prequel: It describes the failure of a 1763–65 Indian war against the British, launched after the British had defeated the French in the French and Indian War. The two Library of America volumes devoted to France and England together exceed 3,000 pages; Pontiac adds another 600 pages to the total. In short, reading Parkman amounts to a serious commitment, on the order of reading Gibbon or Macaulay.
More substantively and probably more important, Parkman is largely unread because he seemingly deals with American prehistory rather than with American history proper. His seven-volume set also pays far more attention to France than to Britain, yet American history arguably begins only with the defeat of the French in the French and Indian War. That is what created the conditions that culminated in America’s declaration of independence a mere 17 years after British troops occupied Quebec.
That consideration, however, justifies reading Parkman all the more. Even if America’s history began only after its prehistory ended, we still need to understand how and why that prehistory concluded. Parkman himself makes the case:
The most momentous and far-reaching question ever brought to issue on this continent was: Shall France remain here, or shall she not? If, by diplomacy or war, she had preserved but the half, or less than the half, of her American possessions, then a barrier would have been set to the spread of the English-speaking races; there would have been no Revolutionary War; and for a long time, at least, no independence.
Parkman is worth reading today not only because his history helps explain how the United States came to be, but also because he was a master of old-fashioned narrative history that speaks uncannily to our time. Parkman’s principal concerns in assessing 17th- and 18th-century North America happen to be surprisingly pertinent to certain political debates engulfing the United States today. In a nutshell, two of the central themes of Parkman’s history are opposition to a vast administrative state seeking to regulate individual behavior (what Tocqueville called “soft despotism”)...