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New World Symphony

The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction

by Bernard Bailyn
Knopf, 177 pp., $16.95

Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution

by Bernard Bailyn, with the assistance of Barbara DeWolfe
Knopf, 668 pp., $30.00

By the middle of the eighteenth century the British appeared to be losing control of the American colonies. Too many people were multiplying too rapidly; they were dispersed over territory too vast for its British administrators to comprehend. During the years before independence the men who ran the empire tried desperately to make sense out of this explosive growth. Bernard Bailyn believes that historians of early America face a similar challenge. Their subject, once so clearly defined, has in recent years lost intellectual coherence. A flood of specialized new knowledge has called into question the organizing principles that once served colonial historians—the rise of American democracy or the celebration of material progress, for example—and, as Bailyn reminds us, history without a unifying structure is unintelligible.

Historians of early America have generally chosen to ignore the problem. The last scholar even to attempt to bring order to the period was Charles McLean Andrews, an indefatigable researcher who following his retirement from Yale produced the four-volume Colonial Period of American History (1934–1938). His central theme was the changing relation between the colonies and Great Britain, and he became the leading spokesman for what was known as the Imperial School of colonial history. Andrews dismissed as parochial an earlier generation’s obsession with the evolution of American culture, insisting instead that the colonies must be viewed from the perspective of Whitehall. They were, after all, for almost two centuries part of an expanding English world, linked economically and politically to the mother country by an elaborate institutional structure that broke down only on the eve of revolution.

Though Bailyn finds this Anglo-American perspective congenial, he has no desire to revive the Imperial School, at least not in the form originally advanced by Andrews and his students. A new interpretation of early American history, he realizes, must take into account all that has been written since World War II, a copious literature that has fundamentally changed the way we look at the past. The most impressive new work occurred in social history. Colonial historians, employing sophisticated quantitative methods and borrowing insights from the social sciences, concentrated on the experiences of ordinary men and women, small Chesapeake planters and New England farmers, the urban poor, slaves, indentured servants, and Native Americans.

Because this new history involved such large numbers of people, it had almost by definition to treat its subject in small units. This was a history of little communities, each lovingly and painfully reconstructed, and though it was obvious that these communities fit somehow into a larger Atlantic world, no one seemed inclined to put the pieces of the empire back together, to provide, in other words, a coherent structure for early American history.

Bailyn accepts this challenge. The project he envisions is truly Braudelian in scope, a multivolume work which when complete will provide “a large-scale narrative from the beginning of colonization to the advent of the industrial revolution.” Bailyn’s books will cover two centuries and take him “from the bleak island of Foula off the west coast of the Shetlands at the altitude of Greenland to the Lunda Kingdom deep in equatorial Africa.”1 He is in search of patterns of human experience, of ways to bring together the stories of thousands of scattered frontier communities into the development of an Atlantic world.

Bailyn is superbly qualified to take on this work. He has written about the evolution of a ruling elite in seventeenth-century Virginia, about the merchants of early Massachusetts Bay, about the relation between New England educational institutions and family structure, about the political culture of eighteenth-century America, and, most brilliantly in his Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967), about a set of shrill republican ideas—a “Country ideology”—that shaped popular perceptions of political behavior. 2

Bailyn has now completed two parts of the proposed study. The first, The Peopling of British North America, serves as a brief introduction to the entire project. In three essays—originally drafted in 1978—Bailyn outlines his scheme for the reinterpretation of all of early American history. Ideas come tumbling forth, some ingenious, others puzzling, a few irritating, but all in some measure provocative. Voyagers to the West is quite different. It exhaustively applies Bailyn’s approach to a specific migration that occurred on the eve of revolution. Taken together these volumes reveal the promise as well as the pitfalls of writing history on such a grand scale.


The Peopling of British North America opens with an invitation to join Bailyn on a satellite circling high above the earth. From this spectacular vantage point, his readers can watch the history of the past millennium pass below. What principal trends do they observe? They would not particularly notice economic changes, or the development of political institutions, or, even though the satellite provides insight into the “interior experiences” of the great mass of ordinary people, shifting ideas about nature and God. Rather, the readers see human movement, a surging of migrants, men and women pushing out from Europe in search of new homes. The settlement of the New World was only a chapter in the epic tale of the continuous “creation of new frontiers and ever-widening circumferences, the complex intermingling of peoples in the expanding border areas.”

The transfer to British North America of over fifty million people during more than three centuries caught Bailyn’s historical imagination. Who were these men and women? Why did they choose to migrate? What were their lives like on a colonial frontier? If we could answer such questions, Bailyn believes, we might then begin to discern patterns, to establish links between the experiences of specific migrants and the larger economic and social changes that were then sweeping over the Atlantic world. From this perspective, migration becomes an organizing principle for rewriting the history of preindustrial America.

Other historians have not perceived the settlement of the colonies in quite this way. It is not surprising, therefore, that Bailyn finds the literature of early American migration disappointing. “It was the greatest population movement in early modern history,” he observes, “and yet, despite all the recent writing on early American history, our understanding of this great westward transfer of people is a blur, lacking in structure, scale, and detail.” In little more than a hundred pages, Peopling attempts to clarify this global process. Bailyn’s model for the reinterpretation of early American history is built around four separate “propositions,” each of which he justifies in considerable detail.

First, Bailyn reminds us that migration to the New World must be seen as fitting into European patterns of movement. Social historians of early modern England have discovered that ordinary men and women were not the sedentary beings that we once supposed. These people regularly moved about the countryside in search of marriage partners or better jobs. Many drifted to London, a city which by the middle of the seventeenth century contained one tenth of the nation’s population. According to Bailyn, some Englishmen—perhaps those who found themselves in particularly desperate circumstances—tried their luck in America. The trip to the New World was simply a “natural spillover” of a domestic labor market. For most of these adventurers, the colonies held little positive attraction. They would have preferred to stay home. By the eighteenth century, however, the situation had changed dramatically, and increasingly men and women migrated to America not because they failed to find work in England, but because they wanted to live in the New World. The colonies came to be regarded as a land of opportunity; they were a magnet for thousands of people looking to better their lives.

Secondly, Bailyn holds that, contrary to the notion that still flourishes in American history textbooks, there was never a “typical” New World community. As we know from scores of recently published local studies, the economic and demographic character of early New England towns varied considerably, and these farm villages looked nothing like the sprawling county communities of the Chesapeake. Philadelphia’s relation to its hinterland was quite different from that of Boston or New York. For the migrant these were distinctions of considerable importance. Some regions provided greater economic opportunities than others. Some welcomed skilled artisans; others attracted farm families. “The fortunes of the arriving newcomers,” Bailyn explains, “must be seen against this varied and shifting background.”

Bailyn’s third proposition, more fully developed in Voyagers, finds two general patterns prevailing among the many thousands of people who came to America. One stream of European migrants came to the New World as indentured servants; another was drawn by the prospect of acquiring land.

This proposition transforms land speculators and those who recruited servants into major figures in the peopling of North America. Such persons—especially the land speculators—have been reviled in the pages of American history as unsavory opportunists who systematically exploited European migrants. Though colonial entrepreneurs may have engaged in sharp practices, Bailyn writes, they were the driving forces of transatlantic migration. They helped determine not only the numbers of people who came to British North America, but also their social character.

The indentured labor force is a case in point. Seventeenth-century planters desperate for field hands would purchase just about any indentured servant who was offered them. Merchants delivered thousands of unskilled workers to America during this period. By the 1730s, however, market conditions had changed substantially. American employers increasingly demanded a supply of skilled servants, and the recruiting agents responded by sending thousands of indentured artisans and tradesmen to the colonies where they were absorbed into an expanding commercial economy.

The land speculators recruited a different type of migrant, luring European farm families to the American frontier with promises of fertile land at cheap prices. They appealed primarily to tenants who dreamed of personal independence. According to Bailyn, for most men and women the dream came true. “Many of these free families,” he declares, “were destined to be frontiersmen in each successive generation. Consumers from the start, they were producers too, and prolific contributors to the rapidly increasing population.”

Finally Bailyn argues that the colonies must be viewed as borderland or “marchland” as he calls it, a violent, half-civilized outback where European migrants gave themselves over to bizarre forms of primitivism. “American culture in this early period,” he writes, “becomes fully comprehensible when seen as the exotic far western periphery…of the metropolitan European culture system.” Living on a wild frontier with Native Americans and African slaves, generation after generation of white settlers struggled continuously to maintain what they regarded as the superior standards of the metropolitan core. But they always failed. Even after the more prosperous colonists of the eighteenth century had acquired a veneer of gentility, they sensed that their culture retained much of “the violence and extravagance and disorder of life in a marchland.” A kind of ineradicable savagery always lay just beneath the surface of daily life in colonial America. This primitivism revealed itself in the acceptance of black slavery, the brutality of Indian war, and the violence of popular politics. It is no wonder that the British dispatched over fifty thousand felons to the North American colonies during the eighteenth century. The men who ran the empire viewed America much as they viewed Ireland and the Scottish Highlands, in other words, as places not fully civilized.

  1. 1

    Bernard Bailyn, “The Challenge of Modern Historiography,” American Historical Review, No. 87 (1982), p. 1.

  2. 2

    The major works are “Politics and Social Structure in Virginia,” in J.M. Smith, ed., Seventeenth-Century America, (University of North Carolina Press, 1959), pp. 90–115; The New England Merchants in the Seventeenth Century, (Harvard University Press, 1955); Education in the Forming of American Society (University of North Carolina Press, 1960); The Origins of American Politics, (Random House, 1968); and The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson, (Harvard University Press, 1974).

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