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.)
Methodically, group by group, Thompson analyses his emigrating East Anglians, documenting their rootedness, immobility, conservatism and lack of enterprise. Evidence to the contrary is smartly dealt with, sometimes by means of rather remarkable reasoning. Thus, among the gentry was the famous John Winthrop. He had lived in no fewer than five places before he emigrated, and some of his family, with whom he kept in touch, moved off to Ireland; but since there was a ‘residential centre to his life’ in Suffolk, his mobility and breadth of experience can be seen to have been subordinated to his ‘localism’, and in any case, Thompson points out, the gentry always had wider geographical networks than most people. And what of Winthrop’s remarkably worldly-wise son, John Jr, a physician, scientist, innovative technologist, soldier, politician and entrepreneur, the governor of Connecticut and the first American member of the Royal Society, who by the end of his life had lived in no less than seven towns in New England? Highly peripatetic, educated in Dublin and London, a student of medicine in Germany and Holland and a friend of Comenius, he was a veteran of military campaigns in France and of merchandising ventures in the Levant and all over the Mediterranean; but Thompson points to his ‘many reactionary traits’: his adherence to hierarchy, a reference in his writings to the devil and his interest in alchemy. It is difficult to see what degree of mobility would seriously upset Thompson’s formula. By his reasoning, if some of his East Anglians had spent 20 years wandering around China but then come home to die, they would still register in this catalogue as examples of ‘persistent localism’.
The emigrating clergy pose a number of problems: not surprisingly, since 70 per cent of them had undeniably been mobile before they left – some, Thompson admits, were ‘clerical rolling stones’. But since one-third of them returned to England after the Laudian persecutions and ended up ministering to parishes less than 20 miles from their FR, their emigration does not upset their ‘persistent localism’. And if these Puritan preachers were, with respect to the Church of England, rebels, they were rebelling to protect their localism.
Merchants and other enterprisers also present some problems. Admittedly, commercial men do not usually ‘lead static lives’, but a. commercial travelling, Thompson tells us, is different from changes in residential base; b. the Puritan merchants, he says, being ‘pillars of social and religious rectitude’, were in no way – despite ‘some historians’ and presumably Weber and Tawney – ‘agents of change, individualistic, libertarian, venturesome’; c. coastal trading forms a neighbourhood of its own, which, however far-flung, is therefore a species of localism, and ‘inshore water communication could turn quite extended sections of coastline into neighbourhoods’; and d. traders from trading families were ‘following in a tradition’, hence ipso facto were well rooted, and commercial wanderings ‘hardly reduce[d] their sense of belonging to a tightly knit small-town world’.
As for artisans and farmers, Thompson has clear sailing. These were no ambitious, enterprising, wandering Dick Whittingtons (apparently his base-line point of comparison), whatever their ‘restless, youthful mobility’; they neither wanted nor achieved much betterment. They were ‘resolutely rooted’ people whose families had scarcely budged for generations and who spurned ‘technological advance and labour-saving devices’. Why some of them actually emigrated after middle age is, not surprisingly, ‘something of a mystery’. Nor are women and other dependents a problem. They, too, came from long-established local neighbourhood families, and ‘most brides married local grooms.’
Yet all of these people were emigrants. Did they not, in their transatlantic journey – as some historians have rashly alleged – suffer dislocation, traumatic upset; and for this reason did they not experience some shuffling of group organisation, some weakening of old ties, some degree of anomie? No, Thompson says, because they travelled not only in family groups but also in ‘coalitions of families’ – kin coalitions, religious coalitions, clientage coalitions – which weakened the ‘quality of traumatised transformation’ and ‘dampen[ed] eagerness for change and experimentation’. Thus, despite terrifying voyages of three thousand miles in tiny cockleshell boats, ‘clan tentacles’ persisted, ‘a sense of hierarchy [was] transferred’, and the whole emigration experience tended, Thompson writes, to ‘further solidify communities’. And once in New England? There the East Anglians kept their ‘extraordinary social cohesion and discipline’, settled down quickly and securely in new communities, and avoided the ‘anarchic individualism, rejection of community values and family obligations, rootless opportunism, and widespread flaunting of authority’ that Thompson finds among the ‘trash’ who settled Virginia.
What is one to make of this extraordinary story – the product, Thompson tells us, of ‘the largest documented investigation of regional origins ever attempted’? His exhaustive research could only have been done by someone long resident in East Anglia and familiar not only with its most recondite documentary sources but also with its geography, local traditions and ecology. But like much history that attempts to discredit established landmarks and turning points, dismissing them as whiggish or exceptionalist, it ends up saying, in effect, that nothing much really happened. For though ‘wrenched off their firmly planted feet by sudden, unprecedented shocks to their lives’, these conservative resisters of change, these parochial folk of ‘limited social horizons’, quickly overcame the momentary disruption in their lives (‘a yanking out of very deep roots’) and in resettling in America renewed the seamless, transgenerational continuity of their own and their communities’ lives.
One is reminded of Braudel’s interest in the freinages of history, the viscosités – histoire immobile – movements of the past that had no future. One thinks, too, of A.J.P. Taylor’s gloomy prediction that historical interpretations like those of Keith Feiling will end in history that is not simply Tory but so static as to be ‘Byzantine’. And one thinks of Arnold Toynbee’s comments on the family reconstructions of the modern historians of ancient Rome. Apply their prosopography, he suggested, to your own circle of living people, where one has more personal information than notices of births, marriages and deaths, and you will see the limitations. You will see, among living people, something of the agony of decision, the inner turmoil and the subtle alterations caused by ‘seismic shocks’; above all, you will see, or sense, something of the inner world and the personal motivations, which in this case led 2138 people, but not tens of thousands of their countrymen, to ‘yank’ themselves from their deep roots, abandon themselves to a ghastly sea voyage, and reconstruct their lives in strange conditions alongside people from different backgrounds. At the start, Thompson states explicitly that he will not deal with motivation. But motivation may be the key to understanding what distinguishes this emigrant cohort from the great majority of their compatriots who resisted the uprooting forces and stayed home, and it may suggest dynamic elements that cannot be found in genealogies.
Perhaps, however, there is here simply a question of context, or the lack of it – a question of perspective and proportion. Thompson makes much of the fact that 11 of his 37 emigrating Puritan clerics returned to England when the Laudian persecutions ceased: this illustrates, he feels, their ‘persistent localism’. But considering what life in New England was like, and the improving prospects for Puritans in England after 1640, is it not surprising that 26 did not return? But then, he can have it both ways: if they returned to England, that shows their devotion to immemorial roots, hence their ‘persistent localism’; but if they did the opposite and remained in New England, that shows their devotion to their new communities (close approximations of the old), hence also their devotion to ‘persistent localism’. No doubt, as Thompson says, commercial travelling is different from changes in residential base, but is a person who spends his entire adult life in peripatetic merchandising in Britain and Northern Europe unaffected by his translocal experiences – is he still the same home-loving body, stable and rooted, that he was in his youth? Is ‘Dick Whittington’ a realistic base-line by which to measure the ambitions and successes of 17th-century artisans? Should the significance of the rise in the literacy/reading rate among artisans from 20 per cent to 65 per cent between 1530 and 1710, be offset by the fact that most communication remained ‘face-to-face in the time-honoured way’? Is it really true that ‘a solid core of well-established families’ in the wards and parishes of London provided such ‘a sense of community’ for the thousands of newcomers who flocked to the metropolis that ‘the alleged instability of London life’ can be seen as a mere exaggeration?
But perhaps, in the end, the main question is even simpler: do Thompson’s two measures of his East Anglians’ stability and tranquillity in New England – the frequency of settlers’ moves in residence and the distances in miles that they moved after initial settlement – go to the heart of their experiences in America? Observing from his figures that there was not nearly so much movement among these resettled East Anglians as some historians have said, he writes that for these people there was no ‘Wild West abandon’ or ‘destabilising vagabondage, triggering frontier lawlessness and disorder’. ‘Social harmony’, he concludes, ‘was the norm’ for these new New Englanders; ‘order’ and ‘social consensus’ prevailed.
Order and consensus prevailed? Social harmony was the norm? Thompson’s East Anglians must have lived in remarkably isolated cocoons. The most intense and careful study of Boston in Winthrop’s time has proved that that community was a ‘fragmented society, where long-established relationships were non-existent, where families were disrupted, where the church itself was a divisive element, where materialism and individualism were tending toward social chaos’. The antinomian heresy (1636-8), provoked by the East Anglians Anne Hutchinson and John Wheelwright, and supported by at least nine East Anglian merchants, not only tore apart the town’s public decorum but threatened the structure of sexual relations. The most recent scholarly history of Springfield, Massachusetts, settled in part by Thompson’s people, is replete with accounts of ‘physical assaults, slander, family feuds, fraud and witchcraft accusations’. Personal animosities escalated into fist fights and ‘hair-pulling, rib-kicking’ brawls. The standard study of the Connecticut River Valley towns, largely settled by East Anglians, is called Valley of Discord. ‘Dissension,’ we read, ‘was a bitter fact of life in the 17th century, and the more Valley Puritans sought to control it, the more they fostered ideological conflict and widened the gap between ideals and behaviour.’ The East Anglians who joined in the settlement of Sudbury, Massachusetts, named after Sudbury, Suffolk, which sent more emigrants to New England than any other town or village in East Anglia, soon became mired in bitter struggles with their immediate neighbours: they fought battles without precedent over the division of common land, over farming procedures and church organisation. ‘If you persecute us in one city,’ one of the town’s factional leaders said, ‘wee must fly to another.’ And fly they did, to settle elsewhere, in new towns which, too, soon developed schisms. Thompson has little to say about Rhode Island, settled partly by East Anglians, and that is just as well. It was a snake-pit of contentious dissidents – antinomians, Gortonists, familists, socinians, separatists, antipaedobaptists, Quakers and assorted seekers – whose agitations constantly penetrated adjoining communities.
Order and social consensus? Social harmony? Seamless continuity with the past? Perhaps measuring the miles travelled from BP to AH and squeezing the available evidence into the self-evident and unhelpful notion of ‘persistent localism’ (of course they were ‘local’ people, hoping to preserve the village worlds they knew: what else could they have been?) – perhaps that may not be the best way to assess the lives that people led. Thompson has amassed an extraordinary collection of useful data about the East Anglian emigrants of the 1630s, but he has enclosed it in an argument that denies the existence of dynamics in history: change, emergence and creative adaptation.
James Horn’s Adapting to a New World: English Society in the 17th-Century Chesapeake deals with Thompson’s ‘trash’. Though it, also, is the product of extensive research in English sources, also a basically quantitative study that seeks to tell a new story, or at least to set new boundaries and develop new perspectives in an old story, and also an account of English migration to North America in the 17th century, it is different in every way but one from Thompson’s book. Horn, who teaches at the University of Brighton, has taken excellent advantage of the opportunities now available in the US for visiting scholars to do advanced research in American history. He has written an impressive book. His starting-point is a statistical analysis of several lists of emigrating servants from London, Bristol and Liverpool, mainly in the second half of the century, and a file of 600 ‘free’ – independently financed – emigrants that he has himself compiled from many sources: a total sample of several thousand of the 120,000 emigrants believed to have emigrated to Virginia and Maryland in the course of the century. The lists of indentured servants are well known and have been used by others, but Horn has analysed them, here and in earlier publications, in careful detail. Thompson’s ‘trash’ prove to be largely unemployed or underemployed farm workers, artisans and town labourers, for the most part single males from 15 to 25 years of age. Adrift in a highly volatile, depressed labour market at home, they sought security, in some cases survival, by indenting themselves for four years or more of field work in the escalating tobacco economy of Virginia and Maryland. But not only indentured servants: the immigrant settlements included a sprinkling of younger sons and other kin of established English families – merchants and gentry – hoping to make their fortunes in this frontier world, to return home enhanced, or to remain as successful planters in the emerging colonial society.
In describing the lives of his large sample, Horn builds on the work of a squadron of Chesapeake scholars who in recent years have recovered an entire historical world scarcely glimpsed before. No group of social historians I know of – not the Annales historians, not Laslett’s Cambridge Group – has so completely exhumed and so imaginatively and clearly reconstructed a lost world. It was at the start, they have shown, a scattering of primitive settlements which only slowly, in the course of the 17th century, developed into the stable network of integrated communities that would constitute plantation society. Disease was rampant, Indian wars incessant; life was short, young families were broken by early deaths, were reknit, then rebroken; orphans multiplied throughout the land. Immigrant field workers died in such numbers that the European population grew only by constant infusions of new shipments of bound servants, few of whom would live into middle age. Only later in the century did native-born freemen begin to out-number immigrants, and slaves, who suffered no less than the early immigrants and endured worse conditions, come to replace indentured servants in the workforce.
All of this, in remarkable detail, we know from the imaginative yet rigorous, largely quantitative work of Horn’s predecessors in Chesapeake studies. To their findings Horn, concentrating largely on the latter part of the century, has added his own supplements and refinements drawn from his thorough analyses of the emigration lists. But all that forms only the first part of Horn’s book. In Parts II and III he reaches beyond the statistical tables and demographic analyses, and discusses the environment the settlers encountered, the problems of adjustment they faced, the resulting kinship and community patterns, the character of their work, their households and possessions, order and disorder, and religion and popular belief. And he does this, as far as possible, in comparison with parallel patterns of life in England – a bifocalism made necessary by his general, and quite polemical, point of view.
His argument, similar in part to Thompson’s, is laid out somewhat repetitiously in introductory passages, and then elsewhere in the book. He argues that the 17th-century colonies have been misunderstood, indeed distorted, by the parochialism of American historians, victims apparently of a persistent teleology, who have insisted on seeing these settlements as ‘incipient independencies’ instead of what they were, ‘far flung English provinces closely linked to metropolitan society by ties of politics, commerce, kinship, and a common culture’. He aims to show ‘the degree to which English values ... shaped settlers’ adaptations to the New World’. Englishmen overseas, he (like Thompson) writes, were still Englishmen. But since one cannot demonstrate continuity in Virginia and Maryland by tracing innumerable obscure individuals by name, one must do so by comparing regional cultures on both sides of the Atlantic; and that comparison forms the core of the latter two parts of Horn’s book. In great detail he explores the local cultures of two regions of England from which many of the Chesapeake settlers came – the Vale of Berkeley in Gloucestershire, and central Kent – and compares them with the settlements in two Virginia counties, Norfolk and Lancaster, and at certain points with St Mary’s County, Maryland, which has been the subject of especially detailed study by the Chesapeake historians. It is his extended comparison that allows him to trace the adaptations of English regional life to the conditions in North America and to conclude that tidewater society ‘was emphatically English, not just in name but in temperament’.
This is puzzling. What else could the Chesapeake colonies have been but variants of English communities? Could English colonists have reacted and behaved like Frenchmen or Spaniards or Swedes, who also attempted, naturally, to re-create their own familiar worlds in the Western Hemisphere? Of course English colonists in the 17th-century Chesapeake lived, as far as they could, as Englishmen; of course they adapted, as far as they could, English institutions, laws and culture, worshipped in English ways, and assumed that they were part of a larger world whose core lay in the English villages, towns and cities from which they or their predecessors had come. And more generally: no one now would doubt, I would have thought, or be surprised to discover, that colonial Americans, then and later, were part of an englobing British-Atlantic world; that American constitutional, political and intellectual life was a provincial variant of England’s; that in the end, America, like Scotland, was one of England’s cultural provinces; that the colonies’ political ideology was an adaptation of England’s; that the peopling of the English settlements in North America was an extension of the mobility patterns of England, later of Britain.
Since this seems obvious, something else must lie behind Horn’s argumentative formulation. It proves to be his desire to refute something more elusive than simple-minded teleologists intent on finding ‘incipient independencies’ or blinkered searchers for the early traces of the theoretically ideal American. His true target is what he calls a ‘developmental model’, which he believes certain historians have attempted to construct, ‘that proceeds from chronic social and political instability in the 17th century to a golden age of prosperity and consensus in the 18th’. Who the historians are who think the 18th century was a golden age of prosperity and consensus I do not know. But as for ‘developmental models’ – is that not what history is all about? That the soul and substance of history is change, evanescence, adaptation, adjustment and the enfolding of inheritances with innovations, deliberate and undeliberate, I take to be self-evident. What happens in history is what develops: what changes, what passes, what emerges, what rises and falls, in the end the ever-changing experiences that people have had. The freinages, the viscosités, the blockages, the static moments, too, had origins and in time they, too, passed; their life histories, their beginnings and ends, are essential parts of the story. Since nothing is static, all history implies, not a tale of improvement, not an assumption that things move forward to an inevitable conclusion, only that things once existed, evolved into something different, and are no more.
In fact, the earliest years of the 17th century, which Horn discusses only in passing, were barbarous years of radical disorder, slaughterous race conflicts, disease and sudden death. Gradually, these conditions were overcome and were followed by the slow evolution of communities that were indeed English, but provincial variants, in just the ways Horn describes them. For Horn is too good a historian not to ignore his own argument in the face of obvious evidence. Thus while he derides the ‘developmental model’, he provides excellent – at some points delicately modulated – illustrations of precisely the ‘model’ he abjures. In tracing how ‘the fabric of English society and culture was maintained by the transfer and adaptation of English values, norms, and attitudes, which represented the major continuities between life in the Old World and the New,’ he shows not only change after change, adaptation after adaptation, but the desire for change. ‘The view,’ he writes, ‘that English settlers desired to re-create colonial society in the image of the society they left behind is only partially valid.’ And again: ‘there is little to suggest that the great majority of immigrants were interested in re-creating the complex provincial and urban societies they had left behind.’ Only in the early 18th century, he suggests, could a ‘symbolic landscape’ similar to England’s be found in America. So things developed.
Horn has written an important book: a synthesis of a generation’s study of the 17th-century Chesapeake world fused with his own analytic contributions. For all its statistics and demographics, it is no crabbed monograph; it has amplitude and imagination, and it reveals comprehensively, not a new theory of early American history, but how inherited culture shaped Englishmen’s responses to the conditions of life in the Upper South, and how that cultural intermediation moulded the development of a provincial society.
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