American Colonies

I’ve quoted Alan Taylor’s American Colonies: The Settling of North America a couple of times already, and now that I’ve finished it I just wanted to recommend it in the strongest possible terms. This is a book that really takes colonial America out of the dusty world of potted elementary school fables and brings it to life. Taylor’s technique is to reject the ahistorical process of “knowing” that the United States of America would be the political descendant of the Anglophone colonies in New England and the Chesapeake Bay. Instead, he situations those colonies inside a larger British imperial project that also existed in the West Indies, Nova Scotia, and Hudson’s Bay as well as Spanish (New Mexico, Florida, California), French (Louisiana, Ohio River Valley, etc), Dutch (New York), and even Russian (Alaska, Pacific Northwest) colonial projects.

The key theme, however, concerns a process that was distinctive to the Anglophone settlements. This is the supercession of a dynamic of class (placing European nobility above commoners, whether native, European, or African in origin) with one of racial solidarity:

In 1676, Virginia erupted in rebellion when the frustrated servants and freedmen blamed their plight on an insensitive, exploitative, and unqualified class of ruling planters. Led by Nathaniel Bacon, the ill-fated rebellion invited increased crown intervention in Virginia’s government. To stem that encroachment and defend their power, the leading Virginians created a more popular mode of politics, which required an alliance between common and great planters. At the same time, the passage of time and increased fortunes permitted the planter elite to perfect a genteel style that commanded greater respect from the common planters. Their alliance became both easier and more essential at the turn of the century, when the great planters switched their labor force from white indentured servants to enslaved Africans. Class differences seemed less threatening as both the common and great planters became obsessed with preserving their newly shared sense of racial superiority over the African slaves. As the historian Edmund S. Morgan has aptly argued, the colonial Virginians developed the American interdependence of elite rule, popular politics, and white racial supremacy. That distinctive combination increasingly set the colonies apart from both their English origins and the colonies of other empires.

An interesting subplot in the book is the tradeoff faced by 17th and 18th Century Englishmen between health and wealth. Due to the greater availability of land, non-deceased New Englander were richer than people in the mother country, and the American South was richer than New England. But the “death by tropical disease” gradient ran in the opposite direction, such that immigration to Virginia was an extremely risky proposition.