This long essay began as an effort on the part of the great historian Bernard Bailyn to organize his own thoughts after three years of work on his epic multivolume series The Peopling of British North America, the first volume of which, Voyagers to the West, won a Pulitzer Prize. This published version is based on Bailyn's Curti Lectures at the University of Wisconsin. Bailyn's topic, if not evident from the title, is the:
...movement of people outward from their original
centers of habitation--the centrifugal
According to Bailyn, and I know of no reason to doubt him, this massive process has not been studied to any great degree in the past. His effort is intended to correct this oversight and he here lays out a series of propositions which guide his thinking about the topic:
The peopling of British North America was an extension
outward and an expansion in scale of
Examination of the settlement and development patterns
for the whole of British North America
After the initial phase of colonization, the major
stimuli to population recruitment and settlements
American culture in this early period becomes most
fully comprehensible when seen as the exotic
Most of this seems pretty unexceptionable--after all, in grade school, we learn that Virginia was settled by the wealthy, New England by Puritans, Maryland by Catholics, Pennsylvania by Quakers, New Jersey by Swedes and New York by the Dutch, why would be surprised that the immigrants do not fit a uniform pattern?--but as he develops the propositions a little further, some fresh thoughts emerge. For one thing, he makes a strong case for the idea that land speculation in America was widespread and cut across the entire economic strata, virtually from the day the first immigrants got here. This notion serves as a counter balance to the prevailing wisdom that such schemes were a late arrival and were a tool of absentee capitalists used to exploit innocent agrarians.
Another particularly useful idea is contained in Proposition Four; the idea that many of the peculiarities of American culture (religious fanaticisms and odd cults) and much of the brutality (the raw savagery displayed, by men and women, in war against the Indians) actually resulted from the internal contradictions and rough edges of our European cultural inheritance being freed from the restraints of the institutions which had kept them in check. Here on the periphery of Western Civilization:
All of these overt violations of ordinary civil order--Indian
wars, slavery, garrison government, the
This seems like a useful way of thinking about not merely matters like the genocidal policy towards Indians in America, but also the equally rough treatment of native populations elsewhere on the West's perimeter : South Africa, Australia, India, etc..
There is something odd though about Bailyn's utter deemphasis on the ideology and beliefs of immigrants. The external factors which he has identified must have been quite powerful, but were they really determinative of the whole process? It makes perfect sense that the movement of peoples to North America would be in part an outgrowth of general patterns of mobility in Europe, that later immigrant waves would be attracted by jobs and land and that North American culture would reflect it's European heritage. But if we consider the fundamental tension in society to lie between the desire for freedom and the desire for security, as I have frequently argued in these pages, then surely the thing that stands out most about these early American pioneers is the degree to which they were willing to completely forsake security in order to find freedom. After all, while immigrants of the 19th and 20th Century can be understood to have been taking advantage of preexisting opportunities in an industrialized America, the first few generations of settlers faced a much more perilous future trying to hack a living out of an unknown and often hostile land, already inhabited by natives with whom relations ran none too smoothly.
The imbalance in early America, in favor of freedom with no regard for security, must have influenced precisely what types of people were willing to come and take on the forbidding wilderness and it must have had a profound effect on the type of culture that they developed here. At least in this introduction, Bailyn does not seem much concerned with the influence of ideas, which I find to be a major shortcoming of the work. Hopefully, this glaring oversight is rectified in the actual volumes of the series.
-WIKIPEDIA: Bernard Bailyn
-OBIT: The Revolution of Bernard Bailyn: The eminent historian, who died last week at 97, helped put ideas back in the center of the study of early America (DANIEL N. GULLOTTA, AUGUST 15, 2020, The Bulwark)
-OBIT: Eminent scholar of early U.S., Bernard Bailyn, dies at 97 (Hillel Italie, 8/07/20, AP)
-REVIEW: of TO BEGIN THE WORLD ANEW: The Genius and Ambiguities Of the American Founders By Bernard Bailyn (Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post)
-REVIEW: of To Begin the World Anew by Bernard Bailyn (Michael Kenney, Boston Globe)
Book-related and General Links:
-About Bernard Bailyn (Harvard)
-ESSAY: The Battle of Bunker Hill (Bernard Bailyn, The Decisive Day is Come, The Massachusetts Historical Society)
-LECTURE: The Challenge of Modern Historiography (Bernard Bailyn, American Historical Association)
-Remarks by Dr. Bernard Bailyn (White House Millennium Evening)
-INTERVIEW: The Past IS Unpredictable: A Conversation with Bernard Bailyn (National Endowment for the Humanities)
-INTERVIEW: Bernard Bailyn On the Teaching and Writing of History (History Matters! National Council for History Education)
-ESSAY: Bernard Bailyn: An Appreciation (Jack Rakove, National Endowment for the Humanities)
-ESSAY: The Regressive Historians (Kenneth Lynn, from The American Scholar, Volume 47, Number 4 (Autumn 1978)
-ARCHIVE: "bailyn" (NY Review of Books)
-REVIEW: of THE PEOPLING OF BRITISH NORTH AMERICA An Introduction. By Bernard Bailyn (Esmond Wright, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of VOYAGERS TO THE WEST. A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution. By Bernard Bailyn (John Gross, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of THE DEBATE ON THE CONSTITUTION Federalist and Antifederalist Speeches, Articles, and Letters During the Struggle Over Ratification. Edited by Bernard Bailyn (Theodore Draper, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of FACES OF REVOLUTION Personalities and Themes in the Struggle for American Independence. By Bernard Bailyn (Forrest McDonald, NY Times Book Review)
-AWARD: PULITZER PRIZE HISTORY Bernard Bailyn 'Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution'
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