Chronicles of America 

French Exploration of America

France, when she undertook the creation of a Bourbon empire beyond the seas, was the first nation of Europe. Her population was larger than that of Spain, and three times that of England. Her army in the days of Louis Quatorze, numbering nearly a half-million in all ranks, was larger than that of Rome at the height of the imperial power. No nation since the fall of Roman supremacy had possessed such resources for conquering and colonizing new lands. By the middle of the seventeenth century Spain had ceased to be a dangerous rival; Germany and Italy were at the time little more than geographical expressions, while England was in the throes of the Puritan Revolution.

Nor was it only in the arts of war that the hegemony of the Bourbon kingdom stood unquestioned. In art and education, in manners and fashions, France also dominated the ideas of the old continent, the dictator of social tastes as well as the grim warrior among the nations. In the second half of the seventeenth century France might justly claim to be both the heart and the head of Europe. Small wonder it was that the leaders of such a nation should demand to see the "clause in Adam's will" which bequeathed the New World to Spain and Portugal. Small wonder, indeed, that the first nation of Europe should insist upon a place in the sun to which her people might go to trade, to make land yield its increase, and to widen the Bourbon sway. If ever there was a land able and ready to take up the white man's burden, it was the France of Louis XIV.

The power and prestige of France at this time may be traced, in the main, to three sources. First there were the physical features, the compactness of the kingdom, a fertile soil, a propitious climate, and a frontage upon two great seas. In an age when so much of a nation's wealth came from agriculture these were factors of great importance. Only in commerce did the French people at this time find themselves outstripped by their neighbors. Although both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean bathed the shores of France, her people were being outdistanced on the seas by the English and the Dutch, whose commercial companies were exploiting the wealth of the new continents both east and west. Yet in France there was food enough for all and to spare; it was only because the means of distributing it were so poor that some got more and others less than they required. France was supporting at this time a population half as large as that of today.

Then there were qualities of race which helped to make the nation great. At all periods in their history the French have shown an almost inexhaustible stamina, an ability to bear disasters, and to rise from them quickly, a courage and persistence that no obstacles seem able to thwart. How often in the course of the centuries has France been torn apart by internecine strife or thrown prostrate by her enemies only to astonish the world by a superb display of recuperative powers! It was France that first among the kingdoms of Europe rose from feudal chaos to orderly nationalism; it was France that first among continental countries after the Middle Ages established the reign of law throughout a powerful realm. Though wars and turmoils almost without end were a heavy drain upon Gallic vitality for many generations, France achieved steady progress to primacy in the arts of peace. None but a marvellous people could have made such efforts without exhaustion, yet even now in the twentieth century the astounding vigor of this race has not ceased to compel the admiration of mankind.

In the seventeenth century, moreover, France owed much of her national power to a highly-centralized and closely-knit scheme of government. Under Richelieu the strength of the monarchy had been enhanced and the power of the nobility broken. When he began his personal rule, Louis XIV continued his work of consolidation and in the years of his long reign managed to centralize in the throne every vestige of political power. The famous saying attributed to him, "The State! I am the State!" embodied no idle boast. Nowhere was there a trace of representative government, nowhere a constitutional check on the royal power. There were councils of different sorts and with varied jurisdictions, but men sat in them at the King's behest and were removable at his will. There were "parlements", too, but to mention them without explanation would be only to let the term mislead, for they were not representative bodies or parliaments in the ordinary sense: their powers were chiefly judicial and they were no barrier in the way of the steady march to absolutism. The political structure of the Bourbon realm in the age of Louis XIV and afterwards was simple: all the lines of control ran upwards and to a common center. And all this made for unity and autocratic efficiency in finance, in war, and in foreign affairs.

Another feature which fitted the nation for an imperial destiny was the possession of a united and militant church. With heresy the Gallican branch of the Catholic Church had fought a fierce struggle, but, before the seventeenth century was far advanced, the battle had been won. There were heretics in France even after Richelieu's time, but they were no longer a source of serious discord. The Church, now victorious over its foes, became militant, ready to carry its missionary efforts to other lands--ready, in fact, for a new crusade.

These four factors, rare geographical advantages, racial qualities of a high order, a strongly centralized scheme of government, and a militant church, contributed largely to the prestige which France possessed among European nations in the seventeenth, century. With all these advantages she should have been the first and not the last to get a firm footing in the new continents. Historians have recorded their reasons why France did not seriously enter the field of American colonization as early as England, but these reasons do not impress one as being good. Foreign wars and internal religious strife are commonly given and accepted as the true cause of French tardiness in following up the pioneer work of Jacques Cartier and others. Yet not all the energy of nearly twenty million people was being absorbed in these troubles. There were men and money to spare, had the importance of the work overseas only been adequately realized.

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