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 and 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”…

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