All Too Firmly Planted

Bernard Bailyn

  • Mobility and Migration: East Anglian Founders of New England, 1629-1640 by Roger Thompson
    Massachusetts, 305 pp, £39.50, April 1994, ISBN 0 87023 893 0
  • Adapting to a New World: English Society in the 17th-century Chesapeake by James Horn
    North Carolina, 461 pp, $65.00, September 1994, ISBN 0 8078 2137 3

It is no new thing for British historians to write knowledgeably about American history. They were at work by the early 18th century, wrote significant histories (mainly Tory) of the American Revolution soon after the event had concluded, and in the 19th century produced, in G.O. Trevelyan’s six volumes on the Revolution, one of the magisterial works of Whig historiography, and in the two American volumes of Lecky’s History of England in the 18th Century a masterpiece of balanced judgment, character analysis and comprehension of complex issues. Many have followed, and in our own time British-American historians continue to write on such major, established topics as Anglo-American diplomatic and military relations, the Revolution, the Civil War, race relations, the New Deal and the Cold War.

The intersection of two elements seems to mark a new area of peculiarly intense interest: in the early colonial period, much of North America was an immediate part of the British world (and some of its most important records are available therefore only in British archives); and Early Modern migration – not ‘immigration’ as such but something broader – which bridges the Atlantic and plays into major currents of globally innovative historical research in demography, social structure, and gender, ethnic and racial relations.

Two new books by British historians, the products of exacting research in the migration history of the Early Modern period, exploit these possibilities. Both claim that their exhaustive research in British archives and their detailed knowledge of, and orientation to, the English world have allowed them not only to see things Americans have missed but also to recast basic elements of early American history. Both aim to correct the misunderstandings of earlier writers, and though both books are technical studies, both propose or imply broad visions of 17th-ccntury Anglo-America.

Roger Thompson, who teaches at East Anglia, has spent years – it must have been decades – studying the genealogies of 2138 East Anglians among the 14,000-21,000 emigrants in the Puritan-led Great Migration to New England of 1630 to 1640. His genealogical research is prodigious. The most experienced researchers deep in the stacks of the New England Historic-Genealogical Society in Boston are amateurs next to him, and he spares the reader nothing. He does not, it must be said, have a light touch. A third of the book consists of lists of names of emigrants, followed by coded information about them. Thus: DOB (date of birth), FR (family roots), AH (adult home, with numbers in parentheses to show distances from FR to AH), N0 or N1 (to show which generation made the move to AH) etc; with a letter code for the dependability of the sources. Whole pages are packed with tracings of the most intricate genealogical connections among obscure tradesmen, farmers, clerics and gentry, as well as well-known leaders like the Winthrops. The tracings go back, in one section, three generations. A 16-page Appendix lists the main sources for these reconstructions, name by name, and there are 21 tables that summarise in statistical form some of the enumerated information.

Thompson’s main point is never lost, however, in this dense catalogue of names, kinship ties and tabulations. Indeed, his basic argument is reiterated on almost every page. No reader could possibly miss Thompson’s point, which is directed at two targets, one real and important, the other less so. The latter is the long-since faded shadow of Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis, here interpreted as the claim that Americans have, from the start, been ‘individualistic, restless, questing people, breaking free from hierarchies and institutions, in love with the new’, abandoning tradition, community structures, deference etc. But no historian I know believes there was anything like this instant abandonment of tradition, hierarchy and the familiar structures of everyday life. I would have thought it now universally agreed that the changes that developed in the lives of transplanted Europeans in pre-Revolutionary America were forced adaptations, erratically developing products of the need to survive and the desire to prosper under altered, often difficult conditions. Extemporisations, which often began in bewilderment and were commonly devised in the hope that one day the old ways would be recovered, gradually became settled practices. It took the firestorm of the late 18th-century republican Revolution to move that whole provincial culture to see, unevenly and incompletely, that the glass was half full not half empty – to transform deficiencies into advantages. Nothing in Thompson’s exhaustive documentation of his East Anglians’ traditionalism, conservatism and desire to retain a familiar world alters that picture; in some ways it reinforces it.

Thompson’s second target is more consequential. It was Peter Laslett, adopting the techniques of the French historical demographers to the records of obscure English villages of the 17th century, who in 1963 first established what seemed to be the surprising modernity of English village life, at least with respect to the ubiquity of geographical mobility and the small, nuclear size of family structure. A new picture quickly came into focus as innovative books and articles on social structure and mobility appeared on all sides. In time, the initial propositions of this new social, demographic history were qualified, refined and elaborated, illuminating not only Early Modern British history but also, by extension, the population history of the Caribbean and British North America.

Thompson admits that ‘the model of a residentially static society is no longer tenable’, but his 2138 emigrating Greater East Anglians (from Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire) and their numerous kin show none of the now familiar characteristics of Early Modern society, residential or otherwise. Concentrating chiefly on numerical measures of distances travelled – from birth-place to work-place, for example, or to adult home – he concludes that, far from being ‘transient drifters for whom New England was a last resort in an itinerant existence’, his people were deeply rooted in their local communities; they were ‘long-settled’, ‘home loving’ folk, ‘not used to lives of upheaval and mobility’, ever rejecting ‘change and experimentation’. New England, Thompson tells us with splendid verve, ‘was not to be a rubbish bin for England’s trash’ (the trash, he believes, headed South: on which see Horn, below.)

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