Colonial Divisions?

Ed’s third question deals with differences between the colonial North and the colonial South. As he points out, textbooks often present the northern colonies, most notably the New England colonies, as religious, enchanted, and driven by consumer goods. The south is presented as a place obsessed with profit and with slavery. I think these divisions are largely artificial. The roots of this division are twofold: it stems partly from a temptation to read antebellum sectional divisions back on the colonial period, and partly from Jack P. Greene’s synthetic history of the colonial period Pursuits of Happiness (1988). In Pursuits, Greene argued that Americans have too long been taught that New England was the source of the United States’ political and intellectual heritage. Greene showed that New England was in fact atypical: its demographics and culture were wildly different from that of the mid-Atlantic, the Chesapeake, Carolina, and the Caribbean. New England was comprised primarily of families and it resulted in a self-reproducing population of English people almost immediately. No other English region in the New World was like that. Far more typical were the wild demographies of the Chesapeake, where migrants were comprised mainly of young single men and it took decades to create a self-reproducing English population. Greene, I think, was right on about New England’s atypicality, but his synthesis has led to other divisions between New England and everywhere else. I don’t find these particularly productive.

Take religion, for example. New England’s puritans were a pious lot, and the Chesapeake harbored England’s lawless and godless. New Englanders lived in an enchanted, supernatural world, full of devils and witches and  portents. In Virginia, damned souls made tobacco for profit (apologies to Edward Bond). It’s a common portrait, and it would make historians’ lives so much simpler if it were true. But it isn’t. Consider this document:

“Upon the first day of April my wife was washing a bucke[t] of clothes, and of a sudden her clothes were all besprinkled with blood form the first beginning to the rincing of them, at last in such abundance as if an hand should invisibly take handfuls of gore blood and throw it upon the linnen. Where it lay all of an heape in the washing-tub, she sent for me in, and I tooke up one gobbet of blood as big as my fingers end, and stirring it in my hand it did not stain my fingers nor the linnen: Upon this miraculous premonition and warning from God having some kinde of intimation of some designe of the Indians (though nothing appeared till that day) I provided for defence, and though we were but five men and mistrusted not any villainy towards us before: yet we secured our selves against 20 savages which were three houres that day about my house. Blessed be the name of God.”

You’d think that this prophetic bit of blood in the laundry came from New England, but if you thought that, you would be wrong. James Horn uses this document from Virginia in 1644 in his book, Adapting to a New World: English Society in the Seventeenth-Century Chesapeake (1994, quote on page 381), to introduce a chapter on religion and popular belief. Horn argues, quite convincingly and with plenty of evidence, that English society in the Chesapeake was highly religious, and not all that different from New England. Edward Bond, in his Damned Souls in a Tobacco Colony: Religion in Seventeenth-Century Virginia (2000) makes a similar argument: historians must take the religiosity of English people outside of New England seriously.

The same goes for New England and slavery. Slavery was not just the province of the colonial South and Caribbean. Slavery was legal in all colonies; New York City’s population was 40% enslaved by the middle of the eighteenth century. The great merchant houses of Newport and Providence were up to their necks in the African slave trade. And New England’s founding fathers, even the oft-admired Governor John Winthrop, were perfectly happy to trade in Indian slaves with the Caribbean. (How else would one dispose of captured survivors of the Pequot War? We’ll be hearing more from Linford Fisher on this shortly.) No one in New England or elsewhere was making abolitionist arguments. (Well, hardly anyone, but that’s a post for another time.)

I suppose it is convenient to teach undergrads from the formula of difference, but I think a greater understanding of colonial English society emerges from thinking about similarity.  The divisions of the antebellum world shouldn’t be read onto the seventeenth and eighteenth-century past.

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