The influence of French immigration on the political history of the United States
The influence of French immigration on the political history of the United States BY ELIZABETH H, AVERY,

 

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Reproduction des préface, introduction et conclusion


PREFATORY NOTE

The investigation of which the results are herewith presented was begun with the thought of preparing a paper for the Seminary of American History in the University of Minnesota. A very brief survey sufficed to show that here was a field, practically unworked, intensly fascinating, and of no small importance. The study was therefore continued and the paper was expanded to the present limits.

At no stage of the research, have I consciously labored to establish a pre-conceived theory. Indeed, in the main, the results reached are far other than I should have anticipated. The conclusions of a first effort in a new field are necessarily somewhat tentative, and I shall be quite satisfied if the results of this study shall lead others, better equipped, to continue the investigation, whether the final results agree with those here reached or not.


INTRODUCTION

The formerly accepted theory that American institutions are almost exclusively of Anglo-Saxon origin, has of late been vigorously attacked. In particular, large claims to a share in the honor of building the American nation have been asserted on behalf of the Dutch. Whatever the final judgment of sober historical criticism on such claims may be, it is evident that much is to be gained by careful study of the influence of other than English-speaking peoples on the origin and development of our institutions. Such a study in regard to the early French settlers will be attempted in this paper.

At the outset we are confronted by the fact that, in the main, these settlers fall into two groups: the French Protestants, mostly refuges from persecution at home, who came to the Atlantic colonies; and the French Catholics, who, coming for purposes of traffic or sent by a paternal government, founded settlements in the « old Northwest » and the Mississippi valley. For clearness of treatment, it seems best to study separately the effect of these two streams of immigration, and then to compare their influence.


COMPARISON AND CONCLUSION

In reviewing and comparing the facts adduced in the foregoing study, the two main lines of French immigration to this country present a striking contrast. The Huguenot as a Huguenot, a Frenchman is and has been for many a decade practically forgotten. This descendants speak the same language as the descendants of the Puritan and the Cavalier. They mingle with them in the mart, the Senate House, and the place of worship, and are practically undistinguishable from them. No peculiarity of costume or manner calls attention to them as a people of alien race. The worthy deeds of their Revolutionary ancestors are reckoned to the credit of the Anglo- Saxon race, and the very Constitution that those ancestor did so much to fashion and the national career that owed so much of its early success to their guidance are vaunted as the peculiar glories of the same race. That our debt to the Huguenots is a great one is a fact that does not lie upon the surface history. It is indeed only beginning to be recognized.

The traveller through the Atlantic states must needs look carefully to find traces of these early French immigrants; the traveller in certain parts of the Northwest and of Louisiana must needs close his eyes, if he would forget the fact of French occupancy.

But the peculiar feature of the contrast is, that the Huguenot who seems to have disappeared and left no trace behind him, proves on careful investigation to have made a mighty impress upon our national history, the records of which fill many of the most valuable and fascinating pages of our public documents; while the Frenchman of the Northwest, whose picturesque and romantic memorials are so abundant, has left no enduring mark and the pages of the national records in which he appears are of little value in the study of our growth into a nation.

It is a pertinent and perhaps a timely question, why this difference? Why should people of the same race, coming to the new world at so nearly the same time, differ so widely in their influence upon the young nation of which they became a part?

To some the off-hand, easy answer may seem to be the true one. « ‘The Huguenot was Protestant, therefore progressive; the other was Catholic, therefore reactionary. » But an answer based on hasty generalization and religious prejudice cannot be accepted as final; especially as on the surface of history there is no evidence that the moving force of Hamilton’s career, for instance, was an absorbing devotion to Protestantism.

On the other hand, there can be no question that the Protestant Reformation in France was a mighty link in the chain of causes that have led to our national greatness. The Huguenots were tested and sifted by fierce religious persecutions, and when at last the infamous Revocation drove them from their native land, it was verily a chosen remnant that sought these western wilds Let Pilgrim or Puritan boas – as he may – of the zeal for religious freedom that exiled him from home, the Huguenot can point to yet a nobler record of unswerving devotion to principle.

Yet further, it was not true, as it has been so often elsewhere from the days of the primitive church onward, that « not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble were called; » the best blood of France flowed in the veins of the original Huguenots, and when they came to America, « they brought with them […] an ancestral influence of education, refinement, and skillful enterprise, as well as of religious fidelity. »

Hence if the doctrine of heredity be admitted to have any force, we may partly understand how the graceful diplomat upholding his country’s honor with skillful tact at a court where all was chaos should be of a race celebrated for its ease and polish of manners; how the founder of our financial prosperity should be descended from a race of people renowned for their success in amassing wealth; and above all how the successful statesman who carried his honor so unsullied through all his political life that « when the spotless robe of the judicial ermine fell upon him, it touched nothing less spotless than itself, » should trace his ancestry to a refugee to whom freedom of conscience and loyalty to principle were even dearer than was the historic city so beloved by every Protestant in France.

Their influence has been altogether disproportioned to their numbers, for in « determining the character of a country, a hundred selected men and women are more potent than a thousand men and women taken at random. »

The French of the Northwest and the Mississippi valley were of an altogether different type and their occupancy of the country was due to far other causes. Whether from the lower strata of society, or as in some cases from the higher grades, they were uneducated and unused to self-government. They were in general well disposed, cheerful, contented, often industrious and enterprising in business ventures. Yet on the whole, their virtues were those of the slave rather than of the freeman. « An ignorant population, sprung from a brave and active race, but trained to subjection and dependence through centuries of feudal and monarchical despotism, was planted in the wilderness by the hand of authority and told to -grow and flourish. » They could obey unquestioningly the command of priest or governor. To think, to decide for themselves, and then to follow loyally, if need be heroically, the dictates of reason and of conscience was entirely foreign to their habits.

In these contrasting types of character is to be found the first and probably the most potent cause of the remarkable contrast in their influence on American history. That a people brave, refined, intelligent, loyal to principle, sifted by long and fierce persecutions, fleeing to the New World solely that they might be free to follow the very highest ideals, should have proved one of the most powerful factors in national development is not at all surprising. That a people of a low grade of intelligence and wholly untrained in the art of self -government, should have neither the desire nor the ability to be an active force in nation-building, is also not surprising. So far as these types of character were determined by differences of religion, so far has the Protestantism of the one, the Catholicism of the other contributed to the result.

But while difference of character counts for so much in the solution of the problem, another factor must also be reckoned with, namely: the different circumstances under which these two off-shoots from the French race entered into our national life. The Huguenot became an American citizen before the formative period » of our history. The time and the circumstances favored his throwing himself as a vitalizing force into the political life that was just beginning to be. The Frenchman of the Northwest became an American citizen by the issues of war, and the Louisiana Creole by purchase. In both cases, an already organized government extended its sway over him. He was not asked nor expected to take part in it, except under established conditions, and his remonstrances and petitions were, as a rule, dismissed or unfavorably reported on. It was the intention to arrange matters for all newly acquired territory in accordance with principles previously determined. Habituated to altogether different methods of jrovernment, unfamiliar with democratic ideas, untrained in political thinking, the new citizen had small chance to make himself felt.

To character, then, must be added opportunity as having favored the political influence of the Huguenot. To lack of opportunity may be attributed in some degree the want of political influence on the part of the French Catholic.

Yet another element must be noted an element, however, that is perhaps the resultant of the two already mentioned the complete and rapid absorption of the Huguenot in the mass of the American people. « Sooner than any other, and more completely, they became American in speech, conviction, and habits of thought. » This complete absorption, which has tended to make them forgotten as Huguenots while they are gratefully remembered as American patriots and statesmen, probably contributed very largely to their political influence. Because they were so early and so completely Americanized, there was no occasion for race jealousies and antipathies; they had no French notions to import into governmental methods; they did not act unitedly as a faction but individually as citizens devoted to the best interests of their adopted country. That thus acting, the leading men among them almost without exception worked for the same ends, and especially for greater centralization of government points strongly in the direction of an inherited race tendency.

The Canadian and the Creole on the other hand, were not absorbed nor assimilated. Even after the influx of American immigrants intermarriages were for a long time infrequent. Indeed their assimilation was more often with the Red Man than with other European settlers. Slowly and unwillingly they assumed the rights and duties of American citizens, clinging all the while tenaciously to their own customs and language. Had they been a more aggressive people politically than they were, they could not thus as aliens have forced the ideas of a decadent old-world despotism upon a vigorous and growing young nation.

Many minor causes were doubtless contributory to the result; more extended investigations may yet reveal other important causes; but the facts at present accessible emphasize these three, difference in character, in opportunity and in ability to be assimilated. And they are amply sufficient to account for the observed differences in result.

To the Canadian and the Creole, we owe gratitude for patriotic services; for much of the material development of the regions that they were the first white men to enter; for a great part of the romance of western history; and for picturesque survivals: but for political development, almost nothing.

To the Huguenot we must be grateful, that while bringing no new political inventions, he brought himself, and gave himself with all his heritage of character and ability to the new nation, working with energy, persistence, and success to make the best political ideas of the age supreme in its Constitution and potent in its development.

Of late years we are having another influx of French immigrants, this time threatening to overwhelm Puritan New England with a Catholic population from across the Canadian borders. It is yet too soon to determine the effect of this migration, but it has caused grave concern to many observers. It is but a part of the general problem of foreign immigration than which no other question is of more vital importance. The facts herewith presented point by an easy inference to a speedy and complete transformation of the immigrant from an alien into an American with American habits of thought, as one of the essential principles for its solution.

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