The Magazine

Lord of the Wilderness

A colonial power-broker gets his due.

Dec 25, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 15 • By PATRICK J. WALSH
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White Savage

William Johnson and

the Invention of America

by Fintan O'Toole

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 416 pp., $26

William Johnson (1715-1774) became First Baron of New York in 1756 when George II rewarded him for his victory at Lake George during the French and Indian War. Johnson, superintendent of Indian affairs, successfully recruited Iroquois to fight for Britain. His achievements and rise to aristocracy were remarkable for an impoverished Irishman from County Meath whose family had once fought against England.

Although not holding the balance of power between the French and British in North America, the Indians were important allies, especially for trade in furs that sold for high prices throughout Europe. Being fewer in number than the English colonists, the French had to cultivate a strong relationship with the Indians. The French also approached the Indians as human beings, and treated them respectfully; the English treated them as inferiors till William Johnson settled on lands owned by a wealthy uncle in 1738 along the banks of the Mohawk River near Albany.

This volume is a welcome look at the nearly forgotten and fascinating man who married an Indian, became a wealthy merchant, and was adopted into the Mohawk tribe as Warraghiyagey, "a man who undertakes great things." Europeans romanticized Johnson as a lord of the wilderness who understood and tamed the noble savage. Benjamin West celebrated Johnson in his paintings. And James Fenimore Cooper's Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans was based on aspects of Johnson's character.

Fintan O'Toole, of the Irish Times, has written a fine narrative, but one clouded by the contemporary political jargon of daily journalism. He is not satisfied with a straightforward historical look at Johnson and his time; his Johnson is seen through a haze of the present, what Allen Tate called provincialism, the inability to transcend one's own time.

O'Toole uses Johnson to address what he sees as the overriding concern of our time: "Globalization . . . [a] fancy term for Americanization." O'Toole believes that "corporations imagine a universal America [and] that American power in the world is based on the hard facts of economic and military might." This "derives from the potency of the American epic: the conquest of the New World; the triumph of 'civilization' over 'savagery'; the vestigial glamour of the defeated indigenous people; the invention of the 'white race'; the allure of heroic, individualistic violence."

In exploring "the circumstances that gave rise to America's myth of itself," O'Toole turns Sir William Johnson, a champion of British imperialism, into a kind of trailblazing hero for a failed multiculturalism--although even this point, sprinkled through the work, does not hold, as O'Toole admits later that Johnson swindled the Indians out of land and was himself a slave owner.

O'Toole also says there were aspects of Johnson's Irish background that made him "peculiarly sensitive" to the nature of Indian culture. But this is even less defined than Johnson's multiculturalism. You could ascertain that Johnson had sympathy for the Indians because the Irish had also suffered under British imperialism. But O'Toole suggests that Johnson's bond with the Indians stemmed from a shared "ancient animist religion" predating Christianity--a faith of "sacred trees" and "holy wells," which Johnson was supposedly familiar with in Ireland. This is, of course, more provincialism, an intrusion of the present into the past, since this type of druidic paganism is popular in modern Ireland.

O'Toole questions the integrity of words like civilization and savagery. He correctly points out that Western man is not superior to other human beings; but what he fails to recognize is that certain Western standards of truth are superior to the standards of other civilizations.

The use of any word is a moral choice, so it is a shame that O'Toole does not question other word meanings, especially multiculturalism. Such words are part of a provincial view of the world that, Allen Tate said, "sees in material welfare and legal justice the whole solution to the human problem."

Patrick J. Walsh is a writer in Massachusetts.