In This Remote Country: French Colonial Culture in the AngloAmerican Imagination, 1780-1860. By Edward Watts (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. Pp. ix, 288. Index, notes, bibliography. Cloth $59.95; Paper $19.95).
American attention to the French has been paid only intermittently and, when it has been paid, has often been ambiguous. This is all the more intriguing because the two nations have shared basic values rooted in the Enlightenment. Illinois historiography has roughly paralleled this pattern, with Clarence Alvord's discovery in 1905 of Kaskaskia records (1720-1790) in the Randolph County courthouse spiking interest in France's Illinois Country, only to lapse after midcentury, then recently to regain historians' attention.
Edward Watt's In This Remote Country contributes to this rebirth of interest and brings a welcome complement of symbolic history to the facts of French colonialism and the frontier French through early American nationhood. Delving within and also ranging far beyond Illinois, Watt's fresh insights into how Anglo-Americans before the Civil War perceived the French broadens understanding of the French as well as, of course, their American observers.
Watts divides those who wrote about the French into their detractors and their proponents. George Bancroft, who was in the vanguard of American romantic historians and writers, "simply depicted the frontier French as somehow less than white, as part of the continent's prehistory, and so interesting only as a curiosity, as setting the stage, at best, for the corning purity, virtue, and power of the Anglo-Saxon empire." (p. 9) White cultural dominance and republicanism set the Anglo agenda; consequently, the French were taken for "lessers." Both French marriage and inbreeding with Native Americans and the French unwillingness to practice large scale land usage - either speculation for private profit or commercial farming - consigned the French to an inferior status. The French also practiced Roman Catholicism, which disqualified them as future players, too, because that faith, it was believed, demanded unquestioning obethence to papal authority. Anglo-Protestants believed republicanism depended on a nation of independent, rational thinkers. This broadly based presumption of values underlying behavior belonged to Anglos-Protestant rationale for self-assigned righteousness, manifest destiny, and the classification of all non- Anglos as subordinate. In fact, this tells us much about how Anglos viewed themselves in the early national period and, as a result, how they stereotyped other groups.
Writers singled out the French again for comparison later in the early national period to raise doubt about the wisdom of the AngloAmerican cultural triumph. Watts argues that "the French were used by writers to ask their readers to imagine that the nation had options - imperial nation or peripheral commonwealth - and that their destiny, like that of the French, might be in peace and pleasure rather than in conquest and confrontation." (p. 12-13) These critics idealized the French as being "less materialistic, less racialized, more democratic, more exciting, and ultimately freer than the Anglo-American civilization." (p. 13) Anglo-Americans could fulfill their Revolutionary ideals without lusting for land in Mexico, expanding slavery westward or pursuing wealth through industrial corporations.
General readers should take caution about some of Watt's prose. He occasionally expects readers to bear up under the burdened "culture studies" vocabulary that, over the last decade, crept into historical scholarship. The Anglo-American perspective on the French is a "narrative." "Whiteness" is a problem of the narrative. According to culture studies scholars, whiteness is a complex of ideas developed in the late-nineteenth century to distinguish and define, for political purposes, an Anglo-Saxon identity from other groups. Anglo-Saxons wielded this identity to explain their existing dominion or extension of it over other ethnic groups. …