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.

1.

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.”

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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.”

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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.

This last is Bailyn’s most original as well as most controversial proposition. He is undoubtedly correct to insist that the colonies were part of an Anglo-American empire. To interpret their development in isolation from an expanding Atlantic economy serves only to obscure the dynamic forces that affected the Old World as well as the New. But to divide the empire into “core” and “periphery,” as Bailyn does, muddles our understanding of these complex processes. What are we to make of seventeenth-century New England, for example, where there was an impressive level of literacy, and the settlers created an effective rule of law, built a distinguished university, and published books? Bailyn might respond that New England was exceptional. In Peopling he writes sourly that “to judge by the weight of subsequent scholarship, [the Puritan exodus] must have been a world-historical event.” But it was such an event. The ideas and institutions that emerged in Massachusetts Bay had a powerful effect on North American culture. Moreover, during the seventeenth century it would seem that England itself, racked by riot, rebellion, and civil war, was far more violent than the peaceable settlements in New England.

The division between the English core and the colonial periphery is no more helpful when we turn our attention to the eighteenth century. One wonders what Bailyn means when he describes the colonies of this period as “a ragged outer margin of a central world, a regressive, backward-looking diminishment of metropolitan accomplishment.” It is true that high culture in America imitated that of England and never matched its quality. But by the same standard England’s achievements in music and in the fine arts owed much to the Continent; and its best philosophers were mainly Scottish. In fact, the definition of the core seems to shift elusively from place to place depending on the point that Bailyn wants to make. In any case, comparing levels of civilization within the empire seems a dubious enterprise. No doubt life on the American frontier was often a brutalizing experience, but so too was life in Hogarth’s London. In neither place did ordinary men and women have much time to reflect deeply upon the “metropolitan accomplishment.”

The most serious problem with Bailyn’s interpretation is the absence of a sustained discussion of race. If the American colonies were in fact a marchland, they were one that required Europeans to deal regularly with Africans and Indians. The settlement of early America involved much more than the efforts of white people to maintain forms “of civilized existence.” By the mid-eighteenth century over 20 percent of the American population was black. In Boston there was one black for every fifteen whites. In Virginia blacks made up 40 percent of the population. And in South Carolina blacks were in the majority. The problem for historians of early America is to discover how men and women of different color managed to preserve elements of cultures that owed nothing to the European core.

Though Bailyn undoubtedly appreciates the importance of race in the development of early America, he fails to confront the issue. His four propositions, he writes,

do not involve to any significant extent the movements of either of the two non-Caucasian peoples—the Native Americans and the Africans—whose histories are so vital a part of the story. For, despite the mass of writing, much of it polemical, that is available on both of these groups, we know as yet relatively little about their histories; we have nothing like the density of information about them that is available for other groups.

Such a curt dismissal of the “mass of writing” seems ungenerous. More important, it seems inappropriate in an introduction to a multivolume study of the peopling of America. If the secondary literature on blacks and Indians is really so disappointing—an assessment I do not share—then one would expect Bailyn himself to try to recover their histories, indeed, to tell us what it meant for these particular people to live on the periphery of someone else’s empire.

2.

Voyagers to the West, the first volume of Bailyn’s multivolume history, does not begin at the beginning but in 1773. Colonial migration on the eve of revolution drove some British landlords to distraction. Everyone seemed to be leaving for North America. Soon, they complained, no tenants would be left to work the fields, and the landlords begged the government to close the ports. The ministry decided the problem merited closer study. It ordered all customs officers in England and Scotland to interview the migrants and to keep a register of what they found. The result is a list of 9,364 men and women who moved to America between December 1773 and March 1776. Many of these people gave their ages, their occupations, and their reasons for departing. In Voyagers to the West, Bailyn explains how this extraordinary source yielded information about the peopling of America that even he had not anticipated.

In this record of thousands of separate personal decisions, Bailyn discerned clear patterns. Migration was not a random process. More than half of the people whose names appear on the register sailed from London. This large group—Bailyn labels it the “metropolitan” migration—was made up primarily of single young men who had left the English countryside in search of economic opportunities. They had skills; they were artisans and tradesmen. Whatever bright expectations they may have had when they took to the road, London proved disappointing. Unable to find work and fearful that they would fall into hopeless poverty, they took a chance on America. Most of them—almost 70 percent of all English migrants—hired themselves out as indentured servants. In exchange for passage to the New World, they sold four years’ labor to an American master they had never met.

A quite different “provincial” migration came from northern England and the Scottish highlands. Many members of this group were recruited from among farm families that had been squeezed off the land by so-called improving landlords. Rather than pay the crushing rents that were demanded, the tenants decided to migrate to the American frontier. Agents working for large land speculators assured these men and women that they had nothing to fear. Family members and old neighbors who had already settled in the colonies wrote back to Scotland praising their new homes. The land was fertile; the prospects of prosperity excellent. From America, one Scot reported, came “such favourable accounts…setting forth the richness of the county [sic], the cheapness of living, and the certain prospects of bettering their fortunes etc….that half the people of this country…would emigrate if they were able.” All these small farmers and impoverished tenants had to do was raise the money to pay for their transportation. Thousands of families did so; fathers, mothers, and small children sold their meager worldly possessions and boarded vessels that carried them to America.

These two great streams of people—the “metropolitan” and the “provincial”—had quite different experiences in the New World. The indentured servants were sold off in the Middle Colonies, most of them ending up in Maryland. These migrants suffered horribly on the trip across the Atlantic. Servants complained of sickness, cramped quarters, inadequate food. But however miserable the voyage itself may have been, the first weeks in America were worse. Captains sold these men off the decks like cattle; human beings were transformed into commodities, and the servants deeply resented what they were forced to endure. One British officer wrote from America, “They sell the servants here as they do their horses, and advertise them as they do their beef and oatmeal.” And in 1758 an English visitor to Williamsburg discovered that the white servants “are used no bater than so many negro slaves that are brought in hare and sold in the same manner as horss or cows in our market or fair.”

The “provincial” families who elected to “come free” fared somewhat better upon arrival in America than did the indentured servants. The Scots moved as quickly as possible to the frontiers of New York and North Carolina. They seldom found conditions in the New World to be quite as marvelous as they had been led to believe, but they obtained land. That they were no longer dependent on landlords, that they had at least obtained economic and social freedom on the furthest periphery of the British empire, was a heady experience. In this distant marchland these men prospered; some even grew rich. “It was a risky world,” Bailyn writes, “where one lived not in a dense and elaborately nuanced human environment…but in a loose, still-forming society where it was possible to proceed alone, free of encrusted burdens and ancient obligations.”

Bailyn describes the migration well. Because the register of the 1770s is so rich a source, however, it tempts the reader to believe that it contains the whole story. That would be a mistake. Missing from the first volume are the large numbers of Germans and Scotch-Irish who also journeyed to America on the eve of revolution.

3.

Bailyn’s accomplishment must be judged against the standards that he himself puts forward in the introductory essay to Peopling, where he calls for a general interpretation that “provides a framework for a comprehensive, developmental narrative of early American history.” What he gives us, however, is a sprawling story of thousands of men and women on the move. Though Bailyn explores the far corners of the Atlantic world and brings to life many strange and colorful people who inhabited the American outback, he never manages to rise above the swirl of human movement.3 One looks in vain, for example, for some connection between the experiences of these ordinary migrants and the popular political ideology which, in his earlier work, he argued helped to set off the American Revolution and shape the character of the new republic.4

The problem may be the result of how Bailyn perceives migration. Like Samuel Johnson, whom he quotes approvingly, Bailyn sees the peopling of eighteenth-century America as involving various “rays diverging from a focus.” But a more accurate metaphor would surely concentrate our attention on patterns of interdependency. An expanding market economy, stimulated by generous credit and fueled by consumer desire, brought blacks and whites to the New World in various conditions, some free, some half-free, some slave. However dissimilar their backgrounds in Europe and Africa may have been, they were linked together by a burgeoning commercial system. Of the British servants whose American destinations are known, some 93 percent ended up in colonies associated with slavery. Most of the indentured servants described in Voyagers, for example, were sold in Maryland, a colony that also absorbed thousands of blacks. As Bailyn observes, the white servants possessed special skills; they were “goldsmiths, backgammon-table makers, bookbinders, harpsichord makers, watch-movement makers.” And in Maryland they produced luxury goods for prosperous planters, in other words, for the members of a colonial élite who owed their fortunes to black labor.5

What of the possible link between immigrant experience and political ideology? Evidence presented in Voyagers suggests how we might plausibly make such a connection. The thousands of indentured servants who poured into the Middle Colonies on the eve of revolution had come of age when London was ridden with political discontent; they had some experience of an urban atmosphere alive with Wilkesite agitation and talk of liberty. Once they had landed in America, however, they found themselves—according to one Maryland minister—“three, four or five years…to all Intents & Purposes, Slaves.” Whatever the motives that brought them to the New World, these servants endured for a short, formative period of their lives a humiliating state of unfreedom.

It is not surprising that as soon as these servants had served their time, they gave up the trades that had made them so desirable on the labor market and headed west to acquire land. British administrators were struck by such seemingly illogical behavior. The former servants passed up good wages in the cities for a hard life of farming on the frontier. “But all this is patiently borne and submitted to with the greatest cheerfulness,” Governor Moore of New York reported, for “the satisfaction of being land holders smooths every difficulty and makes them prefer this manner of living to that comfortable subsistence which they could procure for themselves and their families by working at the trades in which they were brought up.” In the colonial outback, they joined the Scots, the Ulster-Irish, and the Germans, people who had escaped decaying feudal societies and who were determined to maintain their freedom in a new land. Along this early American frontier stretching from New Hampshire to Georgia, migrants insisted that personal independence required property as well as prosperity.

It is on the periphery of the empire that one discovers a peculiarly American political culture. To British administrators, the people who lived on the colonial frontier seemed truculent to the point of violence, unnecessarily suspicious of authority, crassly materialistic, and intensely anti-aristocratic. The country rhetoric of the revolutionary era—a body of radical political ideas analyzed in Ideological Origins—struck a responsive chord among these independent yeomen. It is unfortunate that the historian who has written the most important book on late eighteenth-century political ideology as well as the most stimulating study of early American migration should, at least in this first volume, see no apparent connection between the two enterprises.

This Issue

January 29, 1987

  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). 

  3. 3

    In his “Braudel’s Geohistory—A Reconsideration,” Journal of Economic History, Vol. II (1951), pp. 277–282, Bailyn criticized Fernand Braudel’s La Méditeranée et le monde méditerranéen à l’épôque de Philippe II on very similar grounds. 

  4. 4

    The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, (Harvard University Press, 1967). 

  5. 5

    See David Galenson, “White Servitude and the Growth of Black Slavery in Colonial America,” Journal of Economic History, No. 41 (1981), pp. 39–48; and Aubrey C. Land, Colonial Maryland, A History, (KTO Press, 1981), pp. 288–289.