This week, we the people of North America are staging two celebrations. The Fourth of July is the 232nd birthday of the United States, and it will be observed as John Adams prescribed in 1776: a “day of deliverance” in more ways than one, with “solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty ... pomp and parade ... shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.”
In Canada, today, another ceremony will mark the 400th anniversary of Quebec City, the first permanent settlement in New France. The ancient city has organized a party that John Adams could not have imagined, with months of festivities, fireworks and performances. And this morning, at precisely 11, the hour when Samuel de Champlain and company were thought to have landed at Quebec, bells will peal across Canada, from Newfoundland to Vancouver.
These “great anniversary festivals,” as Adams called them, are about many things. They commemorate the founding of new societies and the formation of cultures that flourish today. But they also celebrate ideas, which are the true touchstones of our way of life, more than any material foundation. Richard Hofstadter wrote of the United States that “it has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies but to be one.” He seemed to think it was a form of “American exceptionalism,” ugly words for an erroneous thought. Not so. The same might be said in a different way of Canada and Quebec. In each place, ideas grew from dreams of “prevoyant” people, to borrow Champlain’s word.
In the United States, July 4 is about a great idea in the Declaration of Independence — its vision of liberty and freedom, equality and self-government. The Continental Congress gave Thomas Jefferson a difficult task: frame a vision of liberty and freedom that all could accept.
Most Americans believed passionately in liberty and freedom, but they understood those ideas in very different ways. Town-born New Englanders had an idea of ordered freedom and the rights of belonging. Virginia’s cavaliers thought of hierarchical liberty as a form of rank. Gentleman freeholders had much of it, servants little, and slaves nearly none.
Quakers in Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey believed in a reciprocal liberty of conscience in the spirit of the golden rule. African slaves thought of liberty as emancipation. Settlers in the Southern backcountry understood it as a sovereign individual’s right to be free from taxes and government, and to settle things his own way: Don’t tread on me!
In 1776, Jefferson’s job was to bring together these Americans who were united by their passion for liberty and freedom, but divided by their understanding of those ideas. With much help from Adams and Benjamin Franklin, he created a new vision of these principles with many contrived ambiguities, studied evasions and deliberate omissions on contested questions. Slavery was not condemned and equality was not defined, nor could they be without disrupting the common cause in 1776. And yet Jefferson’s soaring vision gave these ideas room to grow, and that great process became the central theme of American history.
What we might remember today is that Quebec City and Canada grew from another great idea, different from that of the United States, but just as expansive and important, and it too will challenge us for a thousand years.
The idea was Champlain’s, the central figure in New France for three decades, from 1603 to 1635. He had a dream that grew from his experiences in France. As a child in the small seaport of Brouage, he had become accustomed to diversity. As a youth in the province of Saintonge, he lived on the border between different cultures and religions, and moved easily between them.
Born in 1567, he came of age in a time of cruel and bitter conflict. From 1562 to 1629, France suffered through nine civil wars of religion; two million to four million people died — out of a population of 19 million. Champlain was a soldier in these wars. He became a devout Catholic who deeply believed in a universal church that was open to all humanity, and supported Henri IV’s policy of religious toleration for Protestants.
He served the king as a soldier and secret agent, working for peace and tolerance in France. He also moved in a circle of French humanists who lived for faith and reason, science and truth. In a troubled time, they kept the vital impulse of humanism alive. These forgotten men inherited the Renaissance and inspired the Enlightenment.
With the king’s encouragement Champlain and other like-minded men turned their thoughts to the new world. Champlain traveled through the Spanish Empire, and was shocked by the treatment of Indians. He made a written report to the king with his own vivid paintings of Indians burned alive by the Inquisition, beaten by priests for not attending Mass and exploited as forced laborers. With others in his circle, Champlain planned a New France that would be different from New Spain. On his first visit to North America in 1603, he went unarmed with one French friend and two Indian interpreters into the middle of a huge encampment of Indians from many nations — Montagnais, Algonquin, Etchemin — near the mouth of the Saguenay River.
He approached the Indians with respect, joined with them in a long tabagie (tobacco feast) and made an informal alliance that endured for many generations. The same thing happened in 1604, when he made peace with the Penobscot Indians of Maine at a tabagie in what is now downtown Bangor. It happened again with the Micmac of Acadia in 1605 and the Huron and many Algonquin nations after 1608.
All this happened while Champlain was instrumental in founding three French-speaking cultures in North America — Québéçois, Acadian and Métis. These Frenchmen did not try to conquer the Indians and compel them to work, as in New Spain. They did not abuse them as in Virginia, or drive them away as in New England. In the region that began to be known as Canada, small colonies of Frenchmen and large Indian nations lived close to one another in a spirit of amity and concord. This successful partnership was made possible in large measure because of Champlain’s dream of humanity.
Certainly, Champlain’s founding ideas — like Jefferson’s — were constrained. Jefferson’s vision of liberty could not solve the problem of slavery, or do justice to the Indians. Champlain’s vision of humanity embraced the Indians but not his servants. Still, their founding principles define our lives today. As the celebrations begin in Canada and the United States, the people of North America are heirs to two great ideas: Jefferson’s — and Champlain’s.
David Hackett Fischer, a teacher of history at Brandeis University and the author of Washington’s Crossingand and the forthcoming Champlain’s Dream.