Seventeenth-Century America Essays In Colonial History Syllabus

On Teaching

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Seventeenth-Century America: Essays in Colonial History.Edited by James Morton Smith. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, for the Institute of Early American History and Culture at Williamsburg, Va., 1959. Pp. xv, 238. Index. $5.00.)

The major part of this book consists of a half-dozen monographs by as many different authors on important aspects of seventeenth-century Virginia history. Besides this, there is a similar essay on Massachusetts Bay, a critical discussion of the historical accounts of the colonies in the seventeenth century written in or near the period, a lecture pointing out the significance of the experiences and changes of the period that resulted in the American way of life, and an excellent introduction summarizing the essential contribution of each chapter and supplying enough connective tissue to produce a unified whole.

The lecture on the significance of the period for future American history points out how the strange, new, and elemental experiences of the colonists engendered in them the conviction of divinely ordained mission. At one time or another peoples from the ancient Jews to the Germans of the days of the last Kaiser and the English of the days of Kipling have been effectively inspired by such a conviction.

The essay on moral and legal aspects of the dispossessing of the Indians makes a strong case for the Indians, but may be a little too much inclined to apply modern standards. The preponderance of official pronouncements by church and state seems to have held that non-Christians had no right to own anything—not even their own bodies. The principle of "finders-keepers" was thus applied by the absolute sovereigns to the unowned New World. Uninterrupted possession even by an interloper could be argued as nine points in the law if the possessor were strong enough. If evidence existed that would enable one to run clear abstracts of title for all the land on earth, it is doubtful whether he would find one square inch of soil that did not at one or more times show transfers of title through forcible, uncompensated dispossession. No doubt many of the Indian tribes occupied lands that they had acquired by conquest.

The essay on Indian culture indicates that because of friction between Indians and white settlers there was not too much conscious borrowing by one from the other. With some important exceptions this is undoubtedly true. The American wilderness, however, was conquered by pioneers who had as much of the characteristics of the Indian as they did of the old country Englishman. The requirements of the environment may to some extent have produced the survival of the same characteristics in the pioneer as in the Indian, but there was much that has escaped the documents.

The painstaking and industrious effort to search out the social strati from which the majority of the early settlers came will be much appreciated by historical scholars. Research tends to solidly confirm the earlier supposition, sometimes questioned, that the majority were of the substantial middle class. The importance of this finding should not blind one, however, to the importance of this other fact that if the newcomers contained a preponderant number who were deeply dissatisfied with conditions in England and who had enough initiative and courage and energy to do something about it, such as getting into jail or coming to America, these people would be truer seed of the American people of today than the washed-out people, regardless of social class, who were content to take things lying down and remain where they were.

The author of the essay on the Anglican church is convinced that English statesmen and churchmen realized the importance of strengthening the establishment in the colonies as an instrument of imperial control but concludes that confused and changing political and religious conditions resulted in failure to take effective measures. The chapter on the church in New England is restricted to a treatment of the disciplinary functions of the church. The influence of its theological tenets on such things as economic enterprise and education are omitted. An investigation of the Puritans' attitude toward the place of equity in judicial decisions re-establishes the balance in the statement of the truth. The author might have cited a few of the many cases where decisions were based solely upon reason and common sense and then justified by quoting a text from the Bible that by no stretch of the imagination could be related either to the case or to the decision.

The essays on the origins of the Virginia landed aristocracy and the control of local and provincial governments is well done. The essayist gives more attention in his discussion of local government to the vestrymen than to the county justices; but since they were in the nature of interlocking directorates, it makes no real difference. In his concluding paragraphs the writer states that the situation in Virginia at the time of the Glorious Revolution in England and the disturbances in the colonies had more points of similarity to situations in the other colonies than differences. This may be true. There was in each of the colonies a ruling class that held the balance of power between the British government and a large group of colonials who had little political power. The ruling class to a considerable degree maintained its position down to the American Revolution by playing the other groups against one another. An important difference between colonies is revealed at the outbreak of the American Revolution when the Virginia aristocracy kept step with the humbler folk, whereas a much larger proportion of the aristocracy in most of the other colonies sided with the British. The essays as a whole are examples of the solid, honest research and writing that can and should be done over the whole field of American history.

Indiana University Albert L. Kohlmeier

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