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Original Sins

Puritans and Adventurers: Change and Persistence in Early America

by T.H. Breen
Oxford University Press, 270 pp., $17.50

Myne Owne Ground”: Race and Freedom on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, 1640-1676

by T.H. Breen, by Stephen Innes
Oxford University Press, 142 pp., $12.95

In English Ways: The Movement of Societies and the Transferral of English Local Law and Custom to Massachusetts Bay in the Seventeenth Century

by David Grayson Allen
University of North Carolina Press, 336 pp., $27.00

Inside the Great House: Planter Family Life in Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake Society

by Daniel Blake Smith
Cornell University Press, 305 pp., $17.50

In the last thirty years American colonial history has been dominated by two broad concepts. The first is that of the core and the periphery, meaning that before the Revolution the colonies were satellites revolving around the civilization centered on London; and indeed that as the eighteenth century progressed they became more rather than less like the English, both institutionally and culturally. The second idea, which has only recently come to the fore, is that of diversity, from one colony to another.

For a long while most of the research was concentrated on New England and the Puritans, so that there was no means of knowing whether or not all the colonies, from Maine to Georgia, resembled Massachusetts. It was usually assumed that they did. Now that the relative neglect of the colonies further south is being remedied, in particular by intensive work on the Chesapeake Bay area, the differences being revealed are quite astonishing. New England was extremely healthy, Virginia and Maryland lethal. New England practiced subsistence cereal agriculture; Virginia lived almost exclusively upon the lucrative cash crop of tobacco.

The New Englanders were devoted to their families, pious, and hardworking. As Professor Breen points out in a brilliant essay, Virginians, gulled by mendacious propaganda issued by the Virginia Company about the streets of Jamestown being paved with gold, were unattached irreligious young males, who were all out to make a fast buck and quite unprepared to do any hard work to get it. Their egotistical individualism led to a distrust of others which “poisoned political institutions” and to a studied neglect of cultural institutions like colleges, schools, or churches; looking out for number one was all that mattered to them.

Starved, harassed by Indians, and torn apart by selfish intrigue, the colony barely survived. It was saved first by the unexpected discovery that tobacco grew there like a weed, and was a commodity highly prized by the English, despite King James’s prescient warning that it was very bad for the health; and second by the arrival of cargoes of black slaves and indentured white servants which relieved the propertied emigrants of the chore of having to do any work in the fields. But even in the middle of the seventeenth century, it was still not a happy society, since the sex ratio of the emigrants was about six to one, and if there is one thing needed to keep young men content, it is women.

Professor Breen’s collection of essays, Puritans and Adventurers, marks an important step in the growing sophistication and complexity of colonial history. He pays close attention to the timing of emigration to explain just what it was that the New England emigrants were trying to get away from, and therefore why they established the institutions they did. In the 1630s many English villagers and artisans were sick and tired of the financial, military, and administrative centralization which Charles and Laud were forcing down their throats. One of the mysteries about the new “consensus” school of British historians who argue that no one was really dissatisfied with the Crown before 1640 is how they explain why 17,000 Englishmen fled the country to go 3,000 miles to the barren shores of New England.

The political and religious system the emigrants established was based on the principle of localism, meaning the local autonomy and self-government in church and state which Charles had threatened at home. Without either nobles or the poor, it was, and long remained, relatively egalitarian in its distribution of wealth, although it inherited from its English past a sufficient sense of deference to superiors to hold the society together, at least until the 1690s. Then the pressure of high taxes and the draft imposed by Indian wars, combined with an erosion of the older religious spirit, led to growing conflicts both within villages and between villages and the governors of the colony. No longer were the villages “peaceable kingdoms” held together by amity, consensus, and brotherly love, and largely free from outside interference. New England was growing up and becoming a more participatory, more conflict-ridden, more crowded, less open, less god-fearing society than it had been in the first two generations after the settlement.

Some of Professor Breen’s essays admirably explain this evolution, laying the main stress on localism as the driving force of the early settlements, and on the breakdown of localism in the 1690s in the face of the growing cost of defending the colony against the Indians and the French. The essays are forceful, well put together, and well argued. They open up new avenues of research, for example the way military organization reflects collective values, and offer new solutions to old problems. One may question, however, whether too much weight has not been placed upon localism in New England, which is merely a miniaturized version of the familiar “Country” ideal.

Professor Breen pays little or no attention to Puritanism as an ideology, despite the extraordinary influence it had upon moral behavior and values in New England. It may well be that in the past puritanism has been overplayed and that secular considerations now deserve more emphasis. But Massachusetts did have both a religious and a political coherence, and this argues against localism as the supreme governing ideal in the society. A better model would be one which allowed for permanent tension between centrifugal and centripetal forces in New England, just as “Country” versus “Court” were in permanent conflict in old England.

Another minor but irritating objection to Breen’s approach is his borrowing of the concept of the “power-broker” from the social scientists, which seems a wholly unnecessary and unhelpful way to describe John Winthrop or any other local notable. Good politicians are leaders, compromisers, and mediators, and they always have been. The power-broker concept does nothing to strengthen—or weaken—the argument about what happened in the 1690s to upset the political equilibrium. It is one example of borrowings from the social sciences which do not advance understanding, others of which occur elsewhere in Breen’s two books.

Professor Breen is quite right to look at New England society in the setting of contemporary English society where the immigrants were born and bred, but there are several ways in which his view of the motivations of the immigrants is inadequate. For one thing he has made no attempt to compare patterns of agricultural settlement and local custom, despite the fact that many of the poor immigrants fled to find land rather than to avoid Laud. One detailed study of the settlers of a New England township in comparison with the villages from which they came was made almost twenty years ago by Chilton Powell,1 and now Dr. Allen, in the book under review, has undertaken a wider and more intensive study of five communities in Massachusetts. His work is a model of meticulous scholarship on the detailed, microcosmic level, and is convincing as far as it goes. He finds that the specific patterns of local agricultural practice and administrative organization of the English regions whence the settlers came were precisely repeated in New England. This is hardly a surprising discovery, but it does significantly modify Professor Breen’s macro model of reactive religio-political localism.

The earlier study by Chilton Powell found a bewildering amalgam of customs and practice in Sudbury, whose population was drawn from several different parts of England. Dr. Allen finds much more coherence, and more direct continuity, but there are some doubts about the randomness of his sample.2 Moreover, Dr. Allen overstates his case when he flatly declares that he has proved “the remarkable extent to which diversity in New England local institutions was directly imitative of regional differences in the mother country.” Such an assertion may be true up to a point, but it ignores four huge differences between England and New England. The first is geographical: England was overcrowded and land-hungry, whereas New England was virtually empty and labor-hungry. The second is demographic: England suffered from the normal European high rate of mortality, whereas New England, especially in the first generation, was virtually free from infectious diseases. The third was religious: England had an all-embracing state church, whereas in New England, membership in the churches was restricted to the Elect. The fourth was social: a high proportion of English villagers lived under the paternalist thumb of a resident squire, whereas no such class existed in New England. By narrowing his focus to village institutions and ignoring these critical variables, which other local studies by Philip Greven, John Demos, and Kenneth Lockridge have shown to be so important,3 Dr. Allen has inadvertently given us a somewhat distorted picture of reality. The similarities were indeed there, as one would expect, but so were the differences, and any study that does not take both into account is likely to be flawed.

There is a general point of some importance to be drawn from this defect. Dr. Allen’s work is a rather extreme example of the popular “county community” school of English seventeenth-century historians whose intemperate excesses in removing all national issues from the history of that period have recently been exposed by Professor Clive Holmes.4 What conclusion, for example, does Dr. Allen wish us to draw from his discovery that “East Anglican puritan clergy were a third to a half as likely to return to England by 1660 as were West and North Country puritan ministers”? This may well be true, but what is its significance? We are not told in what way, if at all, it illuminates historical understanding. Local history has enormously expanded our horizons in the last thirty years, but it is easy for the authors of such studies to conclude that the parish pump is all that mattered, simply because it is all that their records reveal. This is a serious mistake.

In Virginia, the tobacco plant dictated the emergence by 1700 of a very different society from that in New England. The large scale of the operations needed for this crop caused the development by the eighteenth century of a well-to-do gentry class whose culture—although not economy or labor force—was precisely identical to that of the contemporary English gentry. They had the same classical education, led the same life of leisured sociability, read the same books—The Spectator, Bishop Fleetwood’s Sermons, and so on—and not unnaturally they behaved in exactly the same way. For one thing, they gambled with just the same recklessness and dogged persistence. For some reason, Professor Breen will not accept that they were merely aping the English gentry, and behaving in the way many men are likely to do who have too much money and too little work, and live too exclusively in masculine company. Such is the power of anthropology these days that the heavy bets placed by Virginia gentlemen in the eighteenth century upon quarter horses are transformed by Professor Breen into a symbol of the values of “competition, individualism and materialism.” I remain unconvinced. Wealthy gentlemen, unrestrained by strong religious convictions, have usually been high rollers.

In addition to being compulsive gamblers, the Virginia planters changed their attitude to family life. Recently both I and Professor Randolph Trumbach have identified a major “deep change” in affective life within the family in the upper bourgeoisie, squirarchy, and nobility of England, occurring among the landed elite in about the middle of the eighteenth century.5 Since cultural links were so close, it is hardly surprising to find an identical movement in progress, perhaps just a little later, among the planter gentry of the Chesapeake Bay. In a careful and well-documented study based on private papers, Professor Daniel Blake Smith has found the shift after 1750 from a patriarchal, authoritarian, and emotionally cool family environment to a more intimate, child-centered family characterized by close emotional bonds within the nuclear core and growing autonomy in matters of marriage and career choice. The similarity with changes in England is almost uncanny. Professor Smith’s findings agree entirely with two recent independent studies of American gentry and middle-class family life up and down the Eastern seaboard at that time.6 It therefore seems an established fact that there was a fundamental psychological and social change in family life in this gentry sector of the Anglo-Saxon world in the mid-eighteenth century.

Since this evolution was identical on both sides of the Atlantic and up and down the Eastern seaboard, the principle of parsimony of explanation makes redundant Professor Breen’s theory that “in the course of a century of development, Virginians transformed an extreme form of individualism, a value system suited to soldiers and adventurers, into a set of regional virtues, a love of independence, an insistence upon personal liberty, a cult of manhood, and an uncompromising loyalty to family.” I do not see much connection between the values of Jefferson and Madison and those of the self-centered ruffians who loitered about the streets of Jamestown in the early and mid-seventeenth century, drinking and playing bowls, and waiting for the next shipload of black slaves from the West Indies or white indentured servants from England to turn up to cultivate the tobacco for them.

But if the Chesapeake planters of the eighteenth century were identical in their culture, their leisure activities, and their family behavior to their English counterparts, in one other aspect they were fundamentally different: to work their fields the English hired free (white) tenants, the Americans bought imported (black) slaves. The role of blacks in Virginia in the late seventeenth century, which is the subject of Professor Breen’s second book, is not exactly a new topic, having been studied by Professors W.F. Craven and Edmund Morgan, among others.7 But what Professor Breen brings to the foreground is the importance up to 1680 on the Virginian Eastern Shore of the free black property owner. In an article in the first book, Professor Breen shows how the white indentured servant and the black slave were equally oppressed and how they often cooperated on equal terms in rebellions. In his second book he shows how up to 1680 the free white land-owner also regarded the free black land-owner, not as the same as himself, but as equal before the law. White magistrates apparently lacked any overriding sense of racial prejudice, and no one saw anything odd about a black slave-owner.

Professor Breen has discovered that up to 1676 there were more free blacks in Virginia than at any other time before Emancipation. Race prejudice was not, it appears, built into the American system of values from the start, but only developed as a result of certain specific events. Because Western society had been familiar with the institution of slavery for thousands of years, and since it had been found ethically acceptable by every great moral philosopher from Plato to Locke, it is usually assumed that the English not only readily embraced the institution of slavery as soon as blacks became available on the market, but also that racial prejudice and legal discrimination were present from the beginning. But Professor Breen’s fascinating account proves that for a couple of generations in seventeenth-century Virginia the two races lived fairly comfortably side by side with little or no legal and not much psychological prejudice. White servants plotted with black slaves to revolt against their common bondage, and the numerous free black small-holders sued white small-holders in the courts on the accepted basis of personal equality of rights.

It is an extraordinary and convincing story. What turned the scales and ended this half century of a biracial society, classified by property rather than skin color, was, first, Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676—a popular rising of slaves and servants—which terrified the great property owners; and, second, the enormous expansion of the slave trade from the Caribbean and then Africa. More efficient, cheaper, and more tractable labor was now obtainable from the slave market than from England. Soon the number of blacks became relatively so great that they created fear; fear led to repression; repression led to legal discrimination and personal degradation; degradation led to racial prejudice. And so here we are today, just beginning to struggle out of this abyss into which we stumbled, partly because of historical accident, three hundred years ago.

These books are examples of vigorously written history that has relevance to our present condition and future prospects. They help us to trace back the origins of our localism, our diversity, our belief in participatory democracy, our stubborn individualism, our respect for the electoral process and our suspicion of politicians, our affection-bonded, child-oriented, nuclear family, and our racial prejudice. All are rooted in specific events in our past, which are being laboriously uncovered by the historians. As a result we may not be much better at handling the future, but at least we are wiser about how we got to the present.

Letters

The Worm’s Eye View April 30, 1981

Credit for Innes April 2, 1981

  1. 1

    Sumner Chilton Powell, Puritan Village: The Formation of a New England Town (Wesleyan University Press, 1963).

  2. 2

    My colleague, Professor John Murrin, tells me that three of the five villages are atypical, since an abnormally high proportion of the settlers came from a single English district.

  3. 3

    Philip J. Greven, Four Generations: Population, Land and Family in Colonial Andover (Cornell University Press, 1970); John Demos, A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony (Oxford University Press, 1970); Kenneth A. Lockridge, A New England Town, the First Hundred Years: Dedham, Massachusetts 1636-1736 (Norton, 1970).

  4. 4

    C. Holmes, “The Community in Stuart Historiography,” Journal of British Studies, XIX, 1980.

  5. 5

    Lawrence Stone, Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 (Harper and Row, 1977); R. Trumbach, The Rise of the Egalitarian Family: Aristocratic Kinship and Domestic Relations in Eighteenth-Century England (New York, 1978).

  6. 6

    Carl Degler, At Odds: Women and the Family in America, 1776 to the Present (Oxford University Press, 1980); Mary Beth Norton, Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800 (Little, Brown, 1980).

  7. 7

    Wesley F. Craven, White, Red and Black: The Seventeenth Century Virginian (University Press of Virginia, 1971); Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (Norton, 1975).

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