Historians have always recognized that something special was going on in England during the half-century or so preceding the outbreak of the Civil Wars there. One thinks at once of the writings of Tawney, Notestein, Haller, and Neale, and more recently of Hill, Hexter, Trevor-Roper, and Stone, to mention only a few. Historians are attracted to revolutions, and what has drawn some of the best historical minds of the present century to these years has been the prospect of uncovering the forces that led to revolution in the 1640s. Whether describing the committee system in the House of Commons or the education of the aristocracy, the rise of the gentry of its fall, the historians have usually had an eye cocked toward England’s revolution.
Now comes Carl Bridenbaugh with a sweeping reassessment. He has set out to describe nearly every aspect of English life during this half century, but for a purpose that English historians have hitherto scarcely glanced at. Professor Bridenbaugh’s vexed and troubled Englishmen are the same Englishmen who will shortly kill their king, but that is not what interests. Bridenbaugh about them. Instead of squinting at Oliver Cromwell as he writes, he has his eye on the fact that nearly 60,000 of these Englishmen abandoned England for America. Although the exodus, which lasted from 1607 to 1642, may be viewed as a prelude to revolution or even as a substitute for it, the things that a historian of the colonies wants to know about England are a little different from what previous investigators have told us. Professor Bridenbaugh is a social historian, a practitioner in the best tradition of the late Arthur M. Schlesinger, and he has embarked on a full-scale social history of the American colonies. In this preliminary volume he has asked himself what previous experiences, what habits and customs the first settlers of America carried with them. He is less concerned with why they came—although he offers some extensive explanations—than with what they were like as people.
The method is old-fashioned. Readers will find few statistics and none of the demographic analyses that have adorned the most recent studies of the period. Bridenbaugh has relied on visiting the places where his Englishmen lived, looking at their houses, and reading what they wrote. He has read everything he could lay his hands on, manuscript and printed, that was written during the period: plays, sermons, ballads, broadsides, letters, diaries, and, above all, court records. One can frequently encounter ordinary people speaking ordinary, unrehearsed language in the testimony taken down in lawsuits; and the book is larded with quotations from such testimony, for it is ordinary people that the author is concerned with. The aristocrats who played so large a role in the wars did not participate in the exodus to the colonies, so they receive small attention.
THE RESULT is an extremely wide-ranging description of what it was like to be an Englishman in the early seventeenth century: where you lived, what kind of house you live in, how you talked, how you felt about your neighbors, what games you played, what sicknesses killed you, how you kept warm (or did not), what you ate and drank (or did not), and how you made a living (or did not). Although Professor Bridenbaugh has offered few comparisons between these people and their American grandchildren, the fact that he will be describing those grandchildren in later volumes has affected the topics he has chosen for discussion, and the fascination of his catalogue of English traits and habits (at least for another colonial historian) lies in holding it up against the later American colonists to see how it fits.
Up to a point it fits very well indeed. Many of the traits we think of as characteristically American turn out to be characteristically English, including our famed social and geographical mobility. Probably people everywhere tend to attribute to earlier generations a stability they miss in their own times, and Americans have been particularly prone to view their ancestors’ lives in the Old World as orderly and settled. But sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Englishmen were a restless lot, tramping the roads in search of greener pastures over the hill, like so many American frontiersmen pushing west. The British Isles were full of waste land, where a man could carve out a few acres for himself without much danger of being put off. It was likely to be submarginal land, not worth plowing, but a good many people had to make a try at living from it. Moving up the social ladder was a little more difficult, but not nearly so much so as on the European continent. For a small fee the heralds would invent the proper ancestry for anyone who wanted a coat of arms; and as Professor Stone has shown, James I and his favorites took in a handsome revenue by selling knighthoods and even peerages to successful yeomen and tradesmen. Gentlemen, as the saying went, were made good cheap in England.
As Professor Bridenbaugh pursues his subjects into their towns and villages, still more qualities on which Americans have prided themselves make their appearance. Ordinary men speak up in town meetings and take a hand in local government. Communities show a sense of responsibility for maintaining schools. Literacy is high. Puritanism is pervasive (as it was in many parts of the American colonies besides New England). Even the litigiousness that has struck many students of the colonies is already present. It has sometimes seemed to me that no American colonist ever paid a bill until he was sued for it. The habit was evidently carried from England.
But if the resemblances are unexpected, so are some of the differences. To readers accustomed to marvel at the hardships suffered by the men and women who left England to brave the perils of the New World, it may be something of a surprise to learn that, because of the chronic shortage of firewood in England, those who stayed to keep the home fires burning could not put on enough wood to get warm. In America, whatever anyone might lack it was not wood for fires. We learn too that while a good many Englishmen were making money in heaps and spending it as ostentatiously as possible, most of the rest of the population could not afford enough to eat. Although the historical demographers have recently expressed doubt that any substantial number of Englishmen starved during these years, it is plain that by comparison with their colonial descendants they were undernourished. In lean years there simply was not enough bread to go around. The great difference between Englishmen and colonists was, infact, that ordinary Englishmen were cold and hungry and poor. In the seventeenth century close to half of England’s population lived below even the low level of subsistence that was recognized at the time to be necessary for decent human existence.
It is not part of Professor Bridenbaugh’s purpose to explain why Englishmen were able to wring so little comfort from their land, nor have other historians done so. We know that this was a pre-industrial economy in which large numbers of poor were to be expected, and we know a little about the movement of prices, wages, and rents. But the figures only spell out the facts without explaining them. Still less do we have an adequate explanation of why the American colonists fared so much better. The answer presumably lies in some combination of English experience and skill operating on the abundant natural resources of the New World.
Yet one remembers that England itself had extensive untapped resources. And in the New World English skills frequently had to be forgotten. In a footnote Professor Bridenbaugh calls attention to the number of specialized handicrafts represented in English surnames that were to become common in America: Chandler, Cooper, Currier, Culter, Draper, Fletcher, Gardiner, Glover, Mason, Mercer, Miller, Sawyer, Saddler, Sherman, Thatcher, Tinker, Turner, Waterman, Webster, and Wheelwright. Most of these names refer to skills for which there was no regular market in seventeenth-century America. Colonists had to do things for themselves to learn new jobs and new habits of work. While they were learning they frequently suffered severe hardships. Many of the first settlers did starve. But before many years the former fletchers and glovers and websters were fatter and warmer than they had been in England and were begetting American children at a speed that far surpassed population growth anywhere in England or Europe.
One would like to know how it happened; and the answer may emerge from Professor Bridenbaugh’s later volumes. In them we will be able to observe the mutations produced in national characteristics when the vexed and troubled Englishmen settled into a new continent with new vexations. Meanwhile it is refreshing to have a look at these people as future Americans. No study of the “English background” has been more suggestive for the understanding of early American history.
May 9, 1968