North America: One New World, Two Big Ideas
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Thu Jul 3 14:08:50 UTC 2008
July 3, 2008
One New World, Two Big Ideas
By DAVID HACKETT FISCHER
THIS week, we the people of North America are staging two celebrations.
The Fourth of July is the 232nd birthday of the United States, and it will
be observed as John Adams prescribed in 1776: a day of deliverance in more
ways than one, with solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty ... pomp and
parade ... shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations
from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever
In Canada, today, another ceremony will mark the 400th anniversary of
Quebec City, the first permanent settlement in New France. The ancient
city has organized a party that John Adams could not have imagined, with
months of festivities, fireworks and performances. And this morning, at
precisely 11, the hour when Samuel de Champlain and company were thought
to have landed at Quebec, bells will peal across Canada, from Newfoundland
These great anniversary festivals, as Adams called them, are about many
things. They commemorate the founding of new societies and the formation
of cultures that flourish today. But they also celebrate ideas, which are
the true touchstones of our way of life, more than any material
foundation. Richard Hofstadter wrote of the United States that it has been
our fate as a nation not to have ideologies but to be one. He seemed to
think it was a form of American exceptionalism, ugly words for an
erroneous thought. Not so. The same might be said in a different way of
Canada and Quebec. In each place, ideas grew from dreams of prevoyant
people, to borrow Champlains word.
In the United States, July 4 is about a great idea in the Declaration of
Independence its vision of liberty and freedom, equality and
self-government. The Continental Congress gave Thomas Jefferson a
difficult task: frame a vision of liberty and freedom that all could
Most Americans believed passionately in liberty and freedom, but they
understood those ideas in very different ways. Town-born New Englanders
had an idea of ordered freedom and the rights of belonging. Virginias
cavaliers thought of hierarchical liberty as a form of rank. Gentleman
freeholders had much of it, servants little, and slaves nearly none.
Quakers in Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey believed in a reciprocal
liberty of conscience in the spirit of the golden rule. African slaves
thought of liberty as emancipation. Settlers in the Southern backcountry
understood it as a sovereign individuals right to be free from taxes and
government, and to settle things his own way: Dont tread on me!
In 1776, Jeffersons job was to bring together these Americans who were
united by their passion for liberty and freedom, but divided by their
understanding of those ideas. With much help from Adams and Benjamin
Franklin, he created a new vision of these principles with many contrived
ambiguities, studied evasions and deliberate omissions on contested
questions. Slavery was not condemned and equality was not defined, nor
could they be without disrupting the common cause in 1776. And yet
Jeffersons soaring vision gave these ideas room to grow, and that great
process became the central theme of American history.
What we might remember today is that Quebec City and Canada grew from
another great idea, different from that of the United States, but just as
expansive and important, and it too will challenge us for a thousand
The idea was Champlains, the central figure in New France for three
decades, from 1603 to 1635. He had a dream that grew from his experiences
in France. As a child in the small seaport of Brouage, he had become
accustomed to diversity. As a youth in the province of Saintonge, he lived
on the border between different cultures and religions, and moved easily
Born in 1567, he came of age in a time of cruel and bitter conflict. From
1562 to 1629, France suffered through nine civil wars of religion; two
million to four million people died out of a population of 19 million.
Champlain was a soldier in these wars. He became a devout Catholic who
deeply believed in a universal church that was open to all humanity, and
supported Henri IVs policy of religious toleration for Protestants.
He served the king as a soldier and secret agent, working for peace and
tolerance in France. He also moved in a circle of French humanists who
lived for faith and reason, science and truth. In a troubled time, they
kept the vital impulse of humanism alive. These forgotten men inherited
the Renaissance and inspired the Enlightenment.
With the kings encouragement Champlain and other like-minded men turned
their thoughts to the new world. Champlain traveled through the Spanish
Empire, and was shocked by the treatment of Indians. He made a written
report to the king with his own vivid paintings of Indians burned alive by
the Inquisition, beaten by priests for not attending Mass and exploited as
forced laborers. With others in his circle, Champlain planned a New France
that would be different from New Spain. On his first visit to North
America in 1603, he went unarmed with one French friend and two Indian
interpreters into the middle of a huge encampment of Indians from many
nations Montagnais, Algonquin, Etchemin near the mouth of the Saguenay
He approached the Indians with respect, joined with them in a long tabagie
(tobacco feast) and made an informal alliance that endured for many
generations. The same thing happened in 1604, when he made peace with the
Penobscot Indians of Maine at a tabagie in what is now downtown Bangor. It
happened again with the Micmac of Acadia in 1605 and the Huron and many
Algonquin nations after 1608.
All this happened while Champlain was instrumental in founding three
French-speaking cultures in North America Qubois, Acadian and Mtis. These
Frenchmen did not try to conquer the Indians and compel them to work, as
in New Spain. They did not abuse them as in Virginia, or drive them away
as in New England. In the region that began to be known as Canada, small
colonies of Frenchmen and large Indian nations lived close to one another
in a spirit of amity and concord. This successful partnership was made
possible in large measure because of Champlains dream of humanity.
Certainly, Champlains founding ideas like Jeffersons were constrained.
Jeffersons vision of liberty could not solve the problem of slavery, or do
justice to the Indians. Champlains vision of humanity embraced the Indians
but not his servants. Still, their founding principles define our lives
today. As the celebrations begin in Canada and the United States, the
people of North America are heirs to two great ideas: Jeffersons and
David Hackett Fischer, who teaches history at Brandeis University, is the
author of Washingtons Crossing and the forthcoming Champlains Dream.
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