Prompt: Parkman and Jennings in historical context–what contemporary events/developments shaped their approach to historical thinking and writing? How/why might Anderson be different?
With every historian, it is important to remember the time in which they are writing. Often historical context offers insight into the motivations of historians and their biases. In the case of Francis Parkman, he was writing in the late 1800s, so fairly recently after the American Civil War and Westward Expansion. As a result of writing post-Civil War, Parkman’s leaning towards consensus history is likely an effort to create a unified American History for the divided nation to fall back on. Additionally, his proximity to Westward Expansion and the idea of Manifest Destiny spreading across the United States, Parkman portraying the Native Americans in his writings as cannibalistic savages with little to no agency to justify the systematic removal and relocation of Native Americans that the United States is practicing at this point is unfortunately unsurprising. Raised and educated in New England and a fairly Protestant and or Puritanical region, this upbringing adds more understanding to Parkman’s dislike of the French Catholics in his portrayal of them during the French and Indian War. His apparent desire for more narrative history seemed to lead him to use majorly primary sources (from primarily the British perspective) and include little to no cited secondary sources.
Francis Jennings, a historian educated in Pennsylvania, was considerably opinionated regarding other historians. He wrote in the late 1900s around the time of the rise of New History and he was very adamant about calling past historians out for their failings. Historians in this “New History” tended to be considered very radical and argumentative. While Jennings does meet these characteristics in his writing, he does appear to be more open about his bias – another element of history that began to rise in popularity. Additionally, though evidently passing his own judgement, he also tends to provide secondary and primary source citations and evidence to defend his statements. Jennings’ numerous citations (from varied perspectives) and willingness to acknowledge when there is a disparity in fact – such as the disparity over the number killed in the massacre at Fort William Henry – shows a stark contrast to Parkman’s belief in the unnecessity of citations. As he was writing in a period in which historians were researching to provide greater agency to often marginalized minorities, it makes sense why Jennings in his writings would explain the importance of the role of Native Americans in the French and Indian war. He is also mindful to not be ambiguous about the culpability of the parties involved; he clearly states that the idea of the gloriousness of this war as a good vs. evil conflict is entirely false and that both sides committed atrocities. Coming out of a period after the United States, and the world as a whole, had experienced some of the most devastating and horrifying wars in history: the World Wars, Vietnam, etc., Jennings’s stark distaste for the glorification of war likely stems from this recent history.
Writing in the late 1900s and the 2000s, Colorado State and Harvard-educated historian Fred Anderson has experienced the growth of countless new disciplines and perspectives in the history profession. Although he does explore a variety of sources – a good mix of primary and secondary – and attempts to provide a narrative that explores many perspectives, Anderson’s writings seem to still lean toward facts presented by Parkman, particularly regarding Montcalm’s responsibility in the massacres at Oswego and Fort William Henry. He, like Jennings, tends to provide visuals such as maps, but he also seems to follow Parkman’s style of rarely using footnotes – declaring them as impediments to a historian’s success in writing wide-reaching publications. For some of these elements, particularly regarding the footnotes, acknowledging that The War That Made America is a shortened version of his much longer Crucible of War is vital as that may contribute to his brevity in certain events and perspectives.
Ultimately, examining these three historians in their historical context – even briefly – provides insight into their motivations and influences. This examination also reminds us of the importance of recognizing our own biases and historical context as we approach research and paper-writing as no person is free of bias. But it is through acknowledgement of our personal biases and exploration of a variety of perspectives and sources that we are better able to research and write history.
Anderson, Fred. The War That Made America: A Short History of the French and Indian War. New York: Viking, 2005.
Hoffer, Peter Charles. Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Fraud– American History from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin. New York: Public Affairs, 2004.
Jennings, Francis. Empire of Fortune: Crowns, Colonies, and Tribes in the Seven Years War in America. New York: Norton, 1988.
Parkman, Francis, and De La Vergne, Earl W. Montcalm and Wolfe. Little, Brown and Company, 1884.