French and Americans

« previous post | next post »

"In political terms, then, French and Americans were not arguing about equality but about freedom."

You might think that this sentence refers to recent socio-political differences, or maybe to contrasts between the French and American revolutions in the 18th century. But actually it refers to 16th- and 17th-century encounters between Catholic missionaries and native Americans, and the influence of those encounters on European political theories. It comes from the recent book The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity.

Some of the context:

What we’re going to suggest is that American intellectuals – we are using the term ‘American’ as it was used at the time, to refer to indigenous inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere; and ‘intellectual’ to refer to anyone in the habit of arguing about abstract ideas – actually played a role in this conceptual revolution.
When it came to questions of personal freedom, the equality of men and women, sexual mores or popular sovereignty – or even, for that matter, theories of depth psychology – indigenous American attitudes are likely to be far closer to the reader’s own than seventeenth-century European ones. These differing views on individual liberty are especially striking. Nowadays, it’s almost impossible for anyone living in a liberal democracy to say they are against freedom – at least in the abstract (in practice, of course, our ideas are usually much more nuanced). This is one of the lasting legacies of the Enlightenment and of the American and French Revolutions. Personal freedom, we tend to believe, is inherently good (even if some of us also feel that a society based on total individual liberty – one which took it so far as to eliminate police, prisons or any sort of apparatus of coercion – would instantly collapse into violent chaos). Seventeenth-century Jesuits most certainly did not share this assumption. They tended to view individual liberty as animalistic. In 1642, the Jesuit missionary Le Jeune wrote of the Montagnais-Naskapi:

They imagine that they ought by right of birth, to enjoy the liberty of wild ass colts, rendering no homage to any one whomsoever, except when they like. They have reproached me a hundred times because we fear our Captains, while they laugh at and make sport of theirs. All the authority of their chief is in his tongue’s end; for he is powerful in so far as he is eloquent; and, even if he kills himself talking and haranguing, he will not be obeyed unless he pleases the Savages. In the considered opinion of the Montagnais-Naskapi, however, the French were little better than slaves, living in constant terror of their superiors.



  1. Randy Hudson said,

    December 21, 2021 @ 11:16 am

    Thanks so much for posting this! Intriguing suggestion about the history of a very important idea.

  2. Michael M said,

    December 21, 2021 @ 11:53 am

    I would note that this book is extremely controversial, not least for its conflation of an incredibly diverse array of cultures under the term 'American' to which they then ascribed some pretty specific collective beliefs. I would be rather weary of it…

    [(myl) In fairness, the authors do make a big deal of the diversity of "pre-civilization" socio-political structure and attitudes, in contrast to what they picture as a much more uniform traditional view.]

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 21, 2021 @ 12:11 pm

    Yes, I rather doubt the Montagnais-Niskapi and, let's say, the Aztecs (who had their own interactions with inquisitive-and/or-puzzled missionaries) shared a single coherent political philosophy that might be usefully contrasted with that then-dominant in France. Consider the inadequacy of a dictionary that asserts by way of etymology that a particular English lexeme was a loan word from an "American Indian language" without any further specification.

    (Note also that the history of Europe in the 16th through 18th centuries would have been rather less tumultuous than it was if the Jesuit worldview had been universally shared, rather than representing a highly factional point of view in a highly factionalized time.)

  4. Cervantes said,

    December 21, 2021 @ 1:44 pm

    The book got a roasting in NYRB by Kwame Anthony Appiah. The discussion is much too long for this space, but I'll just say this.

    It is well known, or at least very commonly believed, that pre-agricultural societies, in which people lived in small bands and accumulated few possessions, were more egalitarian than the complex societies that have existed for the past 10,000 years or so. Some egalitarian small-scale agricultural societies have also existed, such as Algonquins, but these were really hybrid cultures that practiced gardening along with hunting and gathering. But the premise of the book is that relatively anarchic large-scale agricultural societies have also existed. Their evidence for this is highly dubious, however.

    In post-enlightenment, industrial/capitalist societies, liberty cannot possibly mean what it meant to the Naskapi, partly because the organization of society is far more complicated — the economy requires extensive regulation in order to function — and because what we do is so much more impactful on others. The Naskapi didn't have public highways and didn't need speed limits. They didn't need banking regulations, environmental regulations and infrastructure, public health agencies, professional licensing, or a whole lot of other policies and agencies that can be seen as restricting liberty but are also essential to providing it. This isn't about different political philosophies of native Americans and Europeans, it's about fundamentally different ways of life, requiring different conceptions of liberty.

  5. KeithB said,

    December 21, 2021 @ 4:51 pm

    Another book about this, focusing on the southwest, is "Storms brewed in other Men's Lands"

  6. AntC said,

    December 21, 2021 @ 5:14 pm

    we are using the term ‘American’ as it was used at the time, to refer to indigenous inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere; …

    Used at the time by whom? The Europeans with a European slant on a wild variety of cultures? Or used by the 'Americans' themselves? _Was_ there a collective consciousness of those who lived in the continent(s) now known as the Americas? Then why use an Italian/Spanish-derived personal name to describe it? Rather use a native american word.

    How could a consciousness span the hunter-gatherers of the northern Americas to the highly structured/hierarchical cultures of meso- or southern Americas? The latter surely would need 'extensive regulation'; the Aztecs practiced slavery, for example.

    This sounds like another 'noble savage' fairy-tale.

  7. John Swindle said,

    December 21, 2021 @ 7:36 pm

    Did Jesuit missionary accounts of Native American thought change French political thinking? It wouldn't require the peoples of the Americas to have thought of themselves as Americans. It wouldn't require them all to have had a single culture or political system or political philosophy. It would require Jesuits to have heard remarkable ideas and reported them back, and French people to have heard them and taken them to heart. I'm eager to read the book, with due regard for the cautions of Kwame Anthony Appiah.

  8. languagehat said,

    December 22, 2021 @ 8:43 am

    I would note that this book is extremely controversial

    The book got a roasting in NYRB

    Yes, a lot of people are so terrified of someone with a radically different take on human history that they seize with delight on the errors and omissions inevitable in any work of this scope to say "See? It's terrible and worthless and you can ignore it and go back to your original uncontroversial ways of thinking!" Just for the record, I've read a great deal of history about lots of parts of the world — and as a copyeditor who worked for an academic press, I'm well aware of the mistakes inherent in all writing, even the most scholarly and well-vetted — and I think Graeber was one of the great thinkers of our time and everyone would benefit from reading his books. But by all means avoid them if crimethink worries you.

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 22, 2021 @ 9:50 am

    FWIW, this from the free-preview portion of the reportedly negative review by Appiah, suggesting that the authors do not elsewhere treate "Americans" as an undifferentiated mass:

    "A mode of production, they insist, doesn’t come with a predetermined politics. Societies of hunter-gatherers could be miserably hierarchical; some indigenous American groups, fattened on foraging and fishing, had vainglorious aristocrats, patronage relationships, and slavery. Agriculturalist communities could be marvelously democratic. Societies could have big public works without farming. And cities—this is a critical point for Graeber and Wengrow—could function perfectly well without bosses and administrators."

  10. David Marjanović said,

    December 22, 2021 @ 9:55 am

    wild ass colts

    Naturally I want to read this as wild-ass colts… it would fit perfectly.

    Some egalitarian small-scale agricultural societies have also existed

    The highlands of New Guinea come to mind. To take a decision, the whole village sits down together and discusses till everyone is convinced.

    Conversely, to accumulate wealth and power in the hands of a few people, a society needs a big surplus, but agriculture isn't the only way to get there. The salmon-based cultures of the Pacific Northwest were extremely hierarchical, slavery included.

  11. David Marjanović said,

    December 22, 2021 @ 9:58 am

    Societies could have big public works without farming.

    Göbekli Tepe comes to mind.

  12. David Marjanović said,

    December 22, 2021 @ 9:59 am

    …I seem to have a new catchphrase.

    Anyway, Göbekli Tepe is older than farming, so it can't even have copied the idea from a farming-based society.

  13. Cervantes said,

    December 22, 2021 @ 10:55 am

    My objections to the book are based on my own extensive knowledge of history and the fact that it's basically full of shit. It isn't "crimethink," it's just a pile of crap.

  14. Butcher Pete said,

    December 23, 2021 @ 6:37 am

    Thanks for the excerpt and, by way of the comments, a heads up regarding Appiah's review.

    Couldn't find much to object to in the excerpted passage. It reminded me of when I was younger and I was rushing through the classics. I read Herodotus, Thucydides, and City of God back-to-back and I swear I thought I was slipping back in time. Herodotus seemed so much more modern in his outlook than St. Augustine. I don't think I would find a whole lot of common ground with the Jesuits either.

  15. Philip Taylor said,

    December 23, 2021 @ 12:19 pm

    "My objections to the book are based on my own extensive knowledge of history and the fact that it's basically full of shit. It isn't "crimethink," it's just a pile of crap" — that's a good enough recommendation for me : order placed.

RSS feed for comments on this post