October 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 6
It is true, of course, that once the leap is made the things that may immediately come of it are expensive, disillusioning, and (for the time being, at least) very costly. Irishmen, Vikings, and Heaven knows who else had a look at America. What they had seen, other men set out to exploit, and their exploitation turned out to be somewhat bloody. The number of men who died trying to find America is much less than the number who died trying to determine who was going to own America once it had been found, and the moment of vision was followed by a long period in which it became painfully evident that the way of the explorer is much less costly than the way of the exploiter.
As a sample, there is The French and Indian Wars , by Edward P. Hamilton, which tells of the desperate struggle for North America waged by the French and English people who came over to have a good go at the marvelous land which the explorers had opened.
Mr. Hamilton retells the story of the way the French and English fought to determine final ownership of the land which is now the United States. It is not really a very pretty story, and Mr. Hamilton does not try to dress it up very much. The Indians themselves, the aboriginal inhabitants who, whatever happened, were going to be dispossessed, do not show up in his pages as the Noble Red Men of tradition. They were stone-age men obsessed with the desire to inflict pain, given to cannibalism, valiant only when the odds were on their side, given to hanging back to see how a battle would go before they came frolicking in with knives and tomahawks to scalp, maim, and sometimes actually to boil and eat the luckless ones who were defeated.
Nor do the contending whites come off a great deal better. The stupidity of the British, who finally won, seems to Mr. Hamilton to be only slightly less than the stupidity of the French, who were at last beaten. The French had the game in their hands and finally gave it away simply because what happened in North America was no more than an echo of the power game that was going on in Europe.
Yet there is a little more to it than that. This continent, this immense expanse which finally would become Pittsburgh and Ohio and Detroit and the bewildering busy industrial nexus which we know today, was then emptiness: virgin land, waiting to be entered, a country of strange beauty and quietness and infinite space, grown noisy and crowded now, empty then, lying at the feet of the men who crossed the ocean to use it. The men who came over here fought, for more than a century, fought without conscience and without pity, to see who would finally have title to this land. They knew no more what they were fighting for than the early explorers knew what they were discovering. They knew only that this immense vacuum pulled them, a country to be taken, possessed, and—as well as might be—developed, while the new tribe of Americans moved on their way to the future.
The French and Indian Wars , by Edward P. Hamilton. Doubleday & Company. 318 pp. $5.95.
We are the heirs of all of this now, and to look back is to see ourselves in the process of taking shape. The fury, the cruelty, the sharp acquisitiveness, that actuated the men who fought their way through the French and Indians Wars are part of us today; so, for a saving grace, is the noble vision that had power over them, the vision of what might some day be done with the infinite land they were fighting for. These qualities are still with us. The end of the story is something we ourselves will tell.