Making Americans

English settlers in America might have intended to transmit the traditions of the mother country to subsequent generations. This didn’t exactly happen—partly because the settlers disagreed amongst themselves about which of those traditions deserved preservation, and partly because the experience of life in North America challenged many of the traditions they did want to preserve. The disagreement and the adaptation together led, eventually, to a political revolution.

Malcolm Gaskill puts it bluntly: “Migrants did have one thing in common: they were no longer in England, and they had to get used to it.”

His new book tracks what happened to the English in their three (very different) principal areas of settlement: Virginia, New England, and the Caribbean. He also keeps an eye on what the English who stayed at home—financing these expeditions and attempting to rule them from afar—thought and did, especially in competition with the Spanish, who had settled large swaths of the New World a long time before their geopolitical rivals in London really got started. This gives Between Two Worlds: How the English Became Americans a lot to do, but the author, a professor of early modern history at the University of East Anglia, manages his unruly topic by considering each of the first three settler generations in turn.

Gaskill deals in his prologue with the inauspicious 16th century beginnings of the project, remarking that the English understandably modeled their efforts on the recent conquest of Ireland, the wild tribes of which reminded them of their own pre-Roman-conquest ancestors and of the North American peoples. The first settlement, at Roanoke, “Virginia” in 1585—named for Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, of course—vanished from the earth like Prospero’s insubstantial pageant. To this day, we don’t know what happened to its more than 100 inhabitants.

The years 1607 to 1640 mark Gaskill’s first generation of permanent settlers. Of the four million English in 1600, thousands would journey to the New World during this period. Half of them went to the West Indies, slightly more than a third to the Virginia/Chesapeake area, only 15 percent to New England. Motives varied, but as the “southerly” movement of the new arrivals  suggests, the prospect of a mild climate fit for rich plantations and an interest in “resisting Spanish Catholics—the dark lords of an American empire”—figured prominently in English ambitions. To wrest land from the infidels of Spain and from pagan indigenes—better still, while converting the latter to Protestant Christianity—reconciled, at least to the satisfaction of the English, desires for both liberty and empire. (Two centuries later, Thomas Jefferson’s formula, “the empire of liberty,” would address the same paradox, albeit in very different terms.)

Upon ascending the throne in 1603, James I followed a two-track strategy with Spain. He made peace while endorsing some New World plantations. King James’ restraint in New World settlement bespoke not only diplomatic caution but also the worry (prescient, as it would happen) that large English settlements in the New World might upset England’s place “in the hierarchy of nations.” The New World tail might someday wag the Old World dog. He took care not to use the Crown’s money for investment, leaving colonization to private speculators who nonetheless remained under royal control. Hence the Virginia Company and the Plymouth Adventurers, both established in 1606.

The former reached the Chesapeake Bay under the command of Captain John Smith the following year, founding Jamestown and meeting resistance above all from the Indian chiefs or Paw-Paws, who recognized a rival form of worship when they saw one. As Gaskill puts it, “Indian suspicion on one side, and a haughty sense of entitlement on the other, guaranteed an Anglo-Indian future steeped in misery and bloodshed.” And this notwithstanding the marriage of the entrepreneur John Rolfe to “Pocahantas” (her real name, Mataoka, concealed from the English), optimistically renamed “Rebecca,” after the Biblical mother of two nations. She died less than a decade later, after a publicity tour of England, taking the rather faint hope of peaceful intermarriage and Christian conversion of the Indians with her.

The real answer to lasting English settlement in America was political thought. “Adventurers had to learn that merely installing English settlements in America was not enough,” Gaskill writes. “They had to identify things that made England work socially, politically, and economically and reproduce them. Peopling the land was the key.” If ever a people were, in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s famous phrase, forced to be free, it was the English in North America. More specifically, they were forced to think, and to think politically. It was a habit that would eventuate in independence and republicanism, nearly two centuries later.

The Indian nations and tribes, who had been engaged in fierce geopolitical struggles amongst themselves for centuries, quickly saw the danger of any substantial territorial encroachments by the newcomers. At best, the white strangers might be deployed against traditional enemies. Incidentally, one of the merits of Between Two Worlds is its treatment of the Indians—a treatment free of the American triumphalism of the old accounts, and also of the condescending sympathy for “Native Americans” fashionable in the past half-century. Gaskill describes but makes no attempt to justify the sudden attack on Jamestown masterminded by the apparently friendly Powhatan chief, Opechancanough, whose men murdered 387 unsuspecting settlers in March 1622, then mangled the carcasses.

After that, “Throughout the Atlantic world, men decided that Indians could not be trusted.” Settler eminences now began to speak not of intermarriage, peaceful trade, and conversion but of the right of war and the law of nations exercised against savages.

As for the Plymouth Adventurers and their descendants, the New Englanders faced analogous circumstances but with a different set of Indian nations, in a harsher climate; and they arrived with more intense religious aspirations. A band of Protestant dissidents landed at “New Plymouth” in 1620, settling in territory where the local tribe had been eradicated by disease.

Interestingly, Gaskill notes that the Mayflower Compact was no “democratic constitution but a company contract to bind the strangers to order upon landing, a quick fix before formal authority was established.” (Many of the Pilgrims were Dutch.) In the same vein, he points out that this and similar settlements in New England didn’t establish beachheads for political liberty; John Winthrop’s 1630 Salem founding was a theocracy supervised by God’s vicegerent, Mr. Winthrop. The settlements were democratic only in Tocqueville’s social sense: No titled aristocrats made the trip. By “liberty” the settlers meant, in the frank words of one, a world free of bishops.

As for the West Indies, settlers worried less about Indians than about the heat, the hurricanes, and the disease-carrying mosquitoes. There, a new aristocracy began to take shape, based on slaves who were imported from Africa to work in a climate Europeans could not bear to work in. By the 1630s the Virginia settlers were beginning to do the same thing. The portentous social distinction between South and North had begun to take shape.

Having made his peace with Spain, James I faced increasingly sharp resistance to his rule from Protestants at home, their suspicions roused especially by the king’s attempts to marry his eldest son to one Catholic princess after another (success came in 1625, when the future Charles I wedded Henrietta Maria of France). By the time the second generation of English Americans took charge, relations with Indians had become foreign relations, slavery was giving rise to a set of New World aristocrats, and civil war loomed in England itself.

With the war, second-generation colonists, writes Gaskill, “were forced to examine their consciences and allegiances to decide what being English meant and what it meant to belong physically and spiritually to America.” The First English Civil War— which pitted a new and more absolutist monarch, Charles I, against Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan “Roundheads”—stirred existing factions in North America, engaging them not only in the political thought forced upon the first generation but in regime-changing political thought. These passions mixed with passions aroused by the already worsening settler-Indian relations.

Puritan victory in England meant that it became, briefly, more like New England. A new Reformation was imposed, this one described as a “Reformation of manners,” including capital punishment for adultery and what Gaskill calls “a united front against popery.” (The draconian law against adultery never saw rigorous enforcement—probably a good thing for the sake of continued English population growth. One emigrant to Virginia wrote that the deer in his new country were as numerous as cuckolds in England.)

Puritan victory did not bring dismantlement of the king’s wartime bureaucracy, which the Puritans simply took over, continuing extralegal absolutism but in clerical garb. The new republic saw the abolition of the House of Lords, the established church, and the monarchy, but the empowered Cromwell and Parliament had no more intention to frame a liberal republic than had the Puritan fathers of New England. Although a bit lax in enforcing the adultery laws, both England and New England went after suspected witches, with England initiating the attacks and (surprisingly, given subsequent accounts) surpassing the New England courts in handing down convictions. At least New England magistrates “insisted on proof of a satanic pact,” unlike their more ardent English-Puritan counterparts.

Fleeing in defeat, Royalists went to the West Indies, sometimes to Virginia. When Parliament threatened to pursue them across the water, they allied themselves with local champions of self-government as putative advocates of—what else, if not the tradition of the English common law (for which the Stuarts and their allies had previously shown little regard).

Cromwell’s designation as “Emperor of the West Indies” put English republicanism, such as it was, on the side of statist centralization. Because the monarchy had sold off most of its lands under the Tudors, the new statists had no choice but to obtain revenues through taxation. Back along the Chesapeake, Catholics and Protestants fought each other in Maryland, with Protestants from as far away as Massachusetts joining the fight, which the Protestants eventually won at the Battle of Severn (near Annapolis) in 1655.

By the time of Cromwell’s assassination in 1658, New England and Virginia had established themselves economically. Trade began to eclipse religiosity in both places. As it did in England: Charles II, crowned in 1660, proved considerably more latitudinarian in doctrine and in morals than were the Puritans. Increased trade also brought greater demand for slaves, especially in the West Indies; not only Africans but English prisoners, Scottish rebels, and the ever-beleaguered Irish were “barbadosed.” Charles II did prove disappointing to merchants in one important respect: Needing revenues as much as his father and as much as Cromwell, he renewed the stiff regulation of trade.

As Gaskill observes, the English civil/revolutionary wars proved to Americans that their difficulties with the mother country arose not simply as a result of defective regimes—monarchs and parliaments alike exacted revenues and demanded obedience—but as a result of the empowerment of the modern state, quite apart from its regime form. A century later, their descendants’ Declaration of Independence excoriated not only the monarch/tyrant but also the Parliament for, among other things, sending tax collectors to eat out their substance.

Increased trade also spelled trouble for the Indians. The more prosperous the American English became, the more numerous they were; the more numerous they were, the more land they wanted. In Virginia, especially, where plantation owners had locked up the best land, new settlers pressed westward.

Meanwhile the British Empire set down its own, grander, imperial policy. In the words of diarist John Evelyn:

Whoever Commands the Ocean Commands the Trade of the World, and whoever Commands the Trade of the World Commands the Riches of the World, and whoever is Master of that Commands the World it self.

Charles II resumed the strategy that had been set down decades earlier by the disgraced Francis Bacon, that of “merg[ing] politics, profit, and natural philosophy”—the conquest of nature for the relief of man’s estate, and particularly the British estate.

By now, about 60,000 English settlers lived in New England. Metacom, or “King Philip” of the Wampanoags, began a major war against them. “This was for the second generation what sea crossings and scratch-building had been for the first: a hardening, defining experience.” Using what we now call guerrilla tactics, the coalition of Indian tribes fought through the bitter winter of 1675-76, taunting their captives with the question, “Where is your God now?” Gaskill describes the “extravagant cruelty” of Indian and Englishman alike: “Indians tortured because martial ritual required it, the English to obtain intelligence.” Two thousand settlers died before the Indian coalition surrendered in July 1677. Sporadic Indian raids continued, and the colonists duly noted that their British brethren had offered no protective aid aside from parish collections, “which were mere gestures.” Nor did the British prove any more helpful in Maryland, where settlers put down a similar uprising.

By the third generation, writes Gaskill, “experience set the colonists apart, creating opposition internally and with England.” Struggles with Indians continued; in the north the tribes began to ally with the French, another Catholic enemy. Catholic James II ascended the throne in 1685, after Charles II died, intensifying the worries of Anglo-American Protestants. West Indian and Virginian settlers added to their slave populations and simultaneously to their worries about slave rebellions. Along the Chesapeake, in the 1680s alone the slave population rose from 4,500 to 12,000. This increase also decreased incidences of manumission; a people engaged in demographically-based dominance of the Indians had no intention of being overwhelmed by emancipated African slaves.

No solution—even in theory—to any of these ethno-political or religio-political dilemmas was available to Americans until a writer of the time, John Locke, began publishing. A political regime founded upon the principle of equal natural rights could form the basis of racial and religious peace in a political community that actually framed laws to conform to that principle. Gaskill mentions Locke in passing but mistakes his natural rights philosophy for “pragmatism.” What made the third generation of Americans react against the excesses of the last witch-hunting spasm, in 1690s Salem, was not pragmatism but an understanding of Christianity that Americans in New England were the first to begin to integrate into their laws.

Writes Gaskill: “Boston’s Brattle Street Church was founded in 1698 not upon scriptural literalism, the ‘New England way,’ or a covenant, but upon nature, reason, and inclusiveness”—in other words, upon a combination of Christianity and Lockean philosophy. What remained of the older generations, he concludes, was a legacy of “extraordinary courage.”

The commercial republic of the future would prove battle-ready, to the dismay of its enemies for centuries to come.