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 …

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Letters

Now, Voyager April 9, 1987