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The Origins of New England and Virginia

Friday, March 24, 2017 10:27
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Here’s an excerpt from Jack P. Greene’s The Pursuits of Happiness: The Social Development of Early Modern British Colonies and the Formation of American Culture:

“Yet new research into the cultural dynamics and socioeconomic and demographic configurations of the two major centers of English settlement on the North American continent has made it clearer than ever before that during these early years of settlement the Chesapeake colonies of Virginia and Maryland differed profoundly from the principal New England colonies of Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut. Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine how any two fragments of the same metropolitan culture could have been any more different. About the only characteristics they had in common were their ethnic homogeneity, their ruralness, their primitive material conditions, their remoteness from England, and, after their first few years, an abundant local food supply. In virtually every other respect, they seem to have been diametric opposites.

Virginia, as England’s oldest American colony, occupied the crucial place in the transformation of the English conception of colonization during the first quarter of the seventeenth century. Largely as a consequence of that “acquisitive and predatory drive for commodities and for profits to be made on the rich products of the outer world” that characterized European overseas expansion during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Virginia’s orientation was almost wholly commercial from the beginning …”

Virginia was settled by mainstream colonists from the south and west of England. It was a military and commercial enterprise that developed an economy based on cash crop culture. It established the Anglican Church. The bulk of the population came over as indentured servants and the elite was largely filled by the younger sons of the English country gentry. At the same time, Virginia had a permeable social structure, and men who made a fortune in tobacco could rise into the elite.

“Plymouth differed from Virginia and Maryland not only in its relative inability to generate much wealth but also in its deeply and persistent religious orientation of its separatist Puritan leaders. …

If Plymouth differed from the Chesapeake colonies in the slow pace of its economic and demographic growth and the more deeply religious orientation of its dominant leaders and family settlers, the puritan settlements begun with the founding of the new colony of Massachusetts Bay in 1629 presented an even more striking contrast. For one thing, Massachusetts was peopled largely by a short, sudden, and carefully organized burst of immigration. Between twenty and twenty-five thousand Englishmen poured into the colony and adjacent areas in just twelve short years between 1630 and 1642 …

The great migration to New England between 1630 and 1642 had an even deeper religious coloring than than had the earlier and smaller immigration to Plymouth. Indeed, as a collectivity, New England immigrants, in Perry Miller’s words, were “primarily occupied with religious ideas,” and the depth and extent of this religious impulse provided yet another striking contrast with the palpably more secular settlements that had taken shape around Chesapeake Bay. Participants in the great migration were far from being all of one mind with regard with regard to theology, church government, and other religious questions, and the congregational church polity preferred by most of them was conducive to the accommodation of a diversity of religious opinion. Nevertheless, an overwhelming majority of New England settlers were dedicated puritans. “Adherence to puritan principles,” was “the common thread that stitched individual emigrants together in a larger movement,” and puritanism “remained the dominant force of New England culture” throughout the seventeenth century.

Unlike their predecessors at Plymouth, they came to America not simply to find a refuge from the religious impositions of the early Stuarts. Rather, they were moved by the vision of establishing a redemptive community of God’s chosen people in the New World. They saw themselves as a special group joining in a binding covenant with God and sent by Him into the wilderness “as instruments of a sacred historical design.” Their “peculiar mission” was to establish the true Christian commonwealth that would thenceforth serve as a model for the rest of the Christian world. In the societies they created, the church and the clergy necessarily had unusually powerful roles, the relationship between clerical and secular leaders was both intimate and mutually supportive, and full civil rights, including the franchise, were in many communities limited to church members.

The millennial vision of the New England puritan colonists had a powerful social as well as a religious dimension. They came to America not only because they were unable to realize religious aspirations in old England. They were also driven by a profound disquiet over the state of contemporary English society. In towns and rural areas alike, new social and economic forces seemed to be producing a disturbing and ever-widening gap between inherited prescriptions of social order and actual circumstances of life, and the crown and its agents were more and more intruding into many aspects of local affairs – civil as well as religious. To an important degree, the great migration to New England was “an essentially defensive, conservative, even reactionary” response to these developments, betraying a profound fear of social chaos and a deep yearning for order and control. Hence its members were determined to achieve not only perfection in the church but also to create a society that, in contrast to the increasingly anarchic and beleaguered world they were leaving behind, would conform as closely as possible to traditional English conceptions of the ideal, well-ordered commonwealth. …

But everywhere, at least in the three “orthodox colonies” of Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut, and New Haven, the purpose of their settlements was the same. Although they were by no means disinterested in achieving sustenance and prosperity, they put an enormous emphasis upon establishing well-ordered communities knit together by Christian love and composed only of like-minded people with a common religious ideology and a strong sense of communal responsibility. Insofar as possible, they intended to maintain order, hierarchy, and subordination; to subordinate individual interests to the public good; to shun all public disputes; to maintain tight control over economic life; including especially the unruly forces of the market; to subject the moral and social conduct of themselves and their neighbors to the closet possible social discipline; and systematically exclude the contentious and the deviant from their midst. …”

New England was settled by a small group of Puritans who found themselves at odds with mainstream British culture. It was a millenarian religious enterprise. The saints of New England had come to the New World to create their perfect Christian commonwealth which would be a model for the rest of Christendom. They were a covenant based society that strongly policed individual behavior and settled in tight knit communities around meeting houses and town squares. Most of the original settlers of New England came over as families rather than as indentured servants. Their leadership from the Old World was transplanted to New England. Their economy wasn’t based on any staple crop.

“Between 1607 and 1660, the English emigration to America had thus produced on the eastern coastline of continental North America two simplified expressions of contemporary English society. But they were extremely different from each other. Chesapeake society was highly materialistic, infinitely more secular, competitive, exploitative, and very devoted to commercial agricultural production for an export market. Its high demand for labor and high mortality rates combined to produce a population that was disproportionately male, young, single, immigrant and mobile. The process of family formation was slow. Social institutions were weak, authority was tenuous, and individualism was strong. With only a slowly developing sense of community, the Chesapeake exhibited a marked proclivity toward public discord.

If, in many of these respects, the Chesapeake was “the most dynamic and innovative society on the Atlantic seaboard” during the early seventeenth century, the puritan colonies of New England were the most self-consciously and successfully traditional. With low mortality, rapid population growth, a benign disease environment, and a far more fully and rapidly articulated Old World-style society, the intensely religious colonies of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Haven, moved by powerful millennial and communal impulses, exhibited rapid community and family development. With strong patriarchal families, elaborate kinship networks, and visible and authoritative leaders, localities quickly developed vigorous social institutions, including many schools, and deeply rooted populations. Mostly involved in cereal agriculture and with no generalized source of great economic profit, the puritan colonies displayed a relatively egalitarian wealth structure and an extraordinarily low incidence of social discord and contention. It is hardly possible to conceive how any two settlements composed almost entirely of Englishmen could have been much more different.”

In New England and the Chesapeake, we don’t find John Locke.

This is hardly surprising. Virginia and New England were founded generations before John Locke wrote his Two Treatises of Government. The former was founded with the example of the Spanish conquistadors and the East India Company in mind. The latter was founded as a Puritan theocracy.

In the past, I have written here about how Jamestowne and Virginia eradicated Tsenacommacah. The English in the Chesapeake only became Virginians over the course of several generations. They developed a sense of White racial consciousness through their experience in a multiracial environment. In 1622, the Powhatan Indians attempted to exterminate the Whites and killed a fourth of the colonists. Although that incident is no longer taught to our children in our public schools, it changed the tradition of the Virginia colonists and altered the course of Southern history.

I wrote this after visiting Jamestowne:

“The most important lesson to take away from Jamestown is that “blood, sweat, and tears” – not any abstract philosophy – is what enabled “Virginia” to supplant “Tsenacommacah.” The English burned Indian villages up and down the James River. They sailed up the James and its tributaries in their boats and pacified the countryside with a mobile strike force armed with rifles and heavy armor. They burned Indian fields to reduce the Powhatans to starvation.

Ultimately, the English succeeded after they finally adopted a realistic appraisal of their military circumstances in Virginia. They built the wall across the peninsula, expelled all the Indians, and imported as many White colonists from England as possible. They forbid trading with the enemy. They thought squarely in terms of their own self interest, not wishy washy idealism. …”

Some of you are probably wondering: isn’t that a violation of liberty and equality? Isn’t that a violation of natural rights? Isn’t that racism and xenophobia? Yes, it was. It makes sense when you realize that none of these concepts existed at the time. They had nothing to do with the founding of the American colonies. There is an older tradition here that we have forgotten under liberalism.


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