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Colonial America and the Character of Colonial Charters. Teaching American History Asbury Park, New Jersey. Alan Gibson’s Email . Agibson@csuchico.edu. Why Study the Puritans and Pilgrims Today? .
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Teaching American History
Asbury Park, New Jersey
Beginning in the 1960s and accelerating (though not without resistance), a new story of the settlement of North America has been told. Now scholars emphasize the diversity of the peoples engaged in settlement, the multiplicity of nations acting, the disease and difficulty of the endeavor, and the exploitation and cruelty of these people to each other. Finally, scholars have emphasized the paradoxical and ambiguous character of the development of democracy and liberty (especially religious liberty) in colonial America.
In addition to the British, the Spanish, the Russians, and the French were also empire builders in North America. Russians colonized Alaska; the French colonized in the Great Lakes and Quebec; the English colonized not only on the east coast but also in Hawaii; the Spanish colonized Florida and migrated from settlements in what is now Mexico north into what is now the United States. Obviously, when all of these nations and nationalities are considered, settlement did not take place only from Europe to the east coast of North America or even only east to the west, but west to east across the Bering Strait, north from Latin America, and south from the Canadian territory. The contest between foreign powers for control over the North American territory is of course integral to the study of American history.
European settlers brought diseases into North America which the Indians’ immune system was unable to fight and thus they died in the thousands. This precipitated a huge demographic transformation. In 1770, there were about 1.6 million Native Americans on the North American continent and about 330,000 Europeans and Africans. By 1800, there were about 1.1 million Natives Americans, many of whom now lived west of the Mississippi and 5.5 million Europeans and Africans. Disease also killed thousands of “English” colonists. The North American continent was settled literally in a race to replace dead colonists and Indians with living colonists. As a result of these massive deaths, “between 1492 and 1776, North America lost population, as diseases and wars killed Indians faster than colonists could settle.” (Alan Taylor, American Colonies)
The relative prosperity of the English colonists in comparison to their English contemporaries resulted primarily from the shortage of labor and shortage of land on the North American continent. With labor scarce and land plentiful, free colonists were not forced to work for others and were eventually able to secure relative prosperity. But the colonists prosperity was achieved, in part, by taking lands from Native Americans. Furthermore, the very conditions that made for the relative prosperity of the colonists – the scarcity of labor – led to the importation of unfree laborers by the thousands.
Colonial society was foundationally different than the world that we live. It contained a different understanding of the relationship of church and state. There was, as Michael Zuckerman has put it, “totalitarianism of true believers.“ The “Peaceable Kingdoms” of the colonial period were not theocracies (priests did not rule), but rather communities of religious uniformity in which taxation was used to support the Christian religion, there was compulsory church attendance, the criminalization of sin, political control of doctrine and clergy, and exclusion of political participation for non- believers.
Colonial society contained a different understanding of the relationship of the individual to society. In these colonial societies, rights were not conceived of spheres of autonomy and liberties carried duties with them. The needs of the few and the one were subordinated to the needs of the many.
Colonial society contained a different understanding of the purpose of law and the ends or goals of government. Laws and constitutions were designed to enforce belief and to prohibit behavior that is deemed to be unworthy of God. Puritans believed that if they did not punish sinners, God would punish them. In assessing the ends and character of government, many colonists reasoned that government was a gift from God and was his creation. It must therefore be view as an instrument to serve God.
North American Continent
the United States evolved out of British American settlements. "The importance of Jamestown,” James Horn has stated, “is understated. The United States evolves out of British America--they are 13 British Colonies, and if you trace back that line of development, it takes you back to Jamestown. Without British America you don't get a United States as it emerges in 1776, a polity based on British institutions, religion, commerce, language. None of that happens.“
James Horn, historian and Jamestown scholar
We are still celebrating the 400th anniversary of Jamestown. Led by William Kelso, archeologists have discovered the original triangular fort and settlement which is now a site of excavation. They have also discovered Werewocomoco – the home of Powhatan and probably the place of the dramatic act in which Pocahontas saved John Smith’s life.
The colonists, at least according to John Smith, included a large proportion of “gentlemen.” This has traditionally been used to suggest that they would not work and to thus explain the difficulties encountered in the settlement, including starvation and political conflict. Recently, however, historians have concluded that the Virginia Company had heard from the members of the Roanoke colony before they were lost that the Indians would trade food for copper. Thus, few men were sent to the colony who had either the training or inclination to farm. Instead, the Virginia Company sent men who were specialists in finding and exploiting the minerals and natural resources of the new world. These men apparently worked diligently to preserve the colony, but lacked the necessary expertise. The colonists were sent to find gold, silver, and mineral wealth, the lost colony of Roanoke, a quick route to the Orient, and a cash crop of some sort (experiments were made with creating perfumes but tobacco became the colonies’ cash crop quickly after it was introduced into the colony by John Rolfe in 1612). Incidentally, women did not come to Jamestown until 1619 (17 years after the settlement of this colony). They were sold to their husbands for the cost of transportation.
One hundred and four people began the journey from England, but only 38 were alive nine months later. In December 1609, replacements brought the number back to 220 colonists, but after the winter only 60 remained alive. Between 1607 and 1622, the Virginia Company transported some 10,000 people to the colony but only 20 percent of them remained alive. In the second year, 440 of the 500 settlers died. In the three year period from 1619 to 1622, 3000 of 3600 of the settlers sent died. Disease, famine, and violence with Indians accounted for the early deaths. Recent studies have suggested that biological evidence suggests that the period surrounding 1607 was the period of the worst drought in 800 years in this area. The winter of 1609-1610 is known by historians as the “starving time.” Jamestown was settled on the banks of the James River on a pennisula 60 miles from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. This was done to shield the colonists from Spanish warships, but it placed the fort and settlement near a swamp and millions of mosquitoes that gave the colonists malaria. Many colonists also died from drinking brackish water which seeped into the wells that they dug.
Pocahontas act of saving John Smith’s life was probably an act in which his life was spared so that he could become a member of the Powhatan tribe and the English settlers could be integrated into the Powhatan empire. Powhatan seems to have had designs for the English and to have seen a purpose in establishing them as members of the tribe. In this ceremony, Pocahontas (whose name means something like “brat,” “little wanton,” or “favorite daughter” in the Powhatan language) was given the power to admit Smith to the tribe or to allow him to be killed. Her intervention established him as her brother in the tribe. We do not know if they truly had a love relationship, but she was probably only between 10 and 14 years old. Smith incidentally did not write about this event until seventeen years after it had taken place. In 1613, the colonists captured Pocahontas. She accepted Christian conversion, took the name Rebecca, and married a colonist named John Rolfe in 1614. She was eventually taken to England to serve as a symbol of peace and cooperation and as an advertisement for the Virginia Company and a symbol that the Natives could be civilized. She died of disease at 21 while in England.
Jamestown convened the first legislative assembly in British North America in 1619 (the same year as slavery was introduced into the colony). The General Assembly was formed following orders from the Virginia Company to establish a uniform government over the colony.
The Pilgrims first moved to the famously tolerant nation of Holland to worship as they pleased. This move, in itself, proved to be harrowing. Pilgrims were arrested trying to leave England. In one dramatic escape to Holland, the women and children of the group were literally left on the dock because English officials arrived at the time that the men had boarded but the women had not. Moving to Holland worked in a sense, but the Pilgrims faced a number of problems there. Some had difficulty finding adequate work; others found the language and culture too foreign. William Brewster became embroiled in a religious debate that led James I to ask government officials in Holland to call for his arrest. He had to go into hiding. Furthermore, there was concern of impending war between the Netherlands and Spain. Mostly, however, the Pilgrims worried about their future as a people if they stayed. Their young, they feared, would not maintain their religious identity unless they could grow up free from influences that were not so much corrupting as erosive of their cultural identity.
Various hardship, fears of war, and concern with cultural extinction led the Pilgrims to plan to come to North America. This is also a long, dramatic story. James I would not grant them a charter because he would not recognize their religion. Still, he allowed them to obtain a patent for land north of the Jamestown settlement from a group of “Adventures” who sought to make money from their trip. This group thought that the Pilgrims might provide cod to England. The Pilgrims needed supplies and a boat to get to North America. The Pilgrims thus indentured themselves to an investment group. Still, the details of this indenture changed and there was no clear cut agreement when they left.
The colonists saw Native Americans during their early days, but their first substantial encounter was a surprise attack by the Indians, perhaps precipitated by colonists’ thefts of Indian corn bins and plundering of their grave sites. The place where this first encounter took place is still called “First Encounter” Beach.
The colonists and the Indians did not, however, have a simple relationship of hatred. The colonists grew to love and respect Massasoit and never forgot the aid that he provided in the first year of their efforts to create a colony.
Still, although desperately difficult, life in Plymouth was not as difficult as in Jamestown. The population of the colony rose steadily. To 390 by 1630 to 549 by 1637 and then to 1360 by 1657. By 1657, divisions became to occur in the people. Unlike the original generation, they were not bound entirely by the same beliefs. A government structure arose, but it was very primitive.
1628 – English Puritans send out an advanced party to build a settlement on Cape Ann, north of Boston.
1629 – Group of Puritans obtain a charter that became the Massachusetts Bay Company. Unlike other charters that stipulated that a Board of Directors and a Chairman stay in England and answer to King’s authorities in London in an annual board meeting, this charter neglected to mention where the board of governors would meet. The Puritans were thus free to create their own autonomous government without monarchial oversight.
1629 - Charles I dissolved Parliament and placed even greater restrictions on religious dissenters. The Puritans decided to resettled in North America.
April 7, 1630, four ships with four hundred people set out from England across the stormy Atlantic. They arrived two months later. Eventually, one thousand came in the first wave.
Witches were considered Satan’s recruits. They were a product of a belief system that ruled out chance and stressed to a frightening degree the hand of God in the affairs of men. If bad happened, somebody have caused it.
Dissent was not welcome. Baptists, Quakers, Anglicans, and Catholics need not apply. Puritans emigrated to New England to realize their own ideal of a uniform society - and certainly not to champion religious toleration and pluralism. All dissenters were given, in the words of one Massachusetts Puritan, “free Liberty to Keep Away From Us.”
Dissent, however, arose from within the church in the persons of Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson. Williams believed that the Puritans had not separated enough from the Anglican and Catholic churches. He was accused of heresy and fled south from Massachusetts Bay to found what would become Providence, Rhode Island. Williams believed that “forced religion stinks in God’s nostrils.” Rhode Island became a haven for religious toleration and diversity. Baptists, Lutherans, Methods - all Protestant sects saw it as a place to settle.
Hutchinson challenged Puritan orthodoxy on the relationship of “justification” and “sanctification.” This dispute is quite intricate. Justification was the infusion of divine grace. Sanctification involved moral conduct, including Christian behavior, piety, even prayer. This was a debate about the relative relationship of grace versus works (not faith versus works) to salvation. Hutchinson was put on trial and defended herself - quite successfully - in a dramatic trial. But eventually, she blurted out that her knowledge of God was “an immediate revelation.” She suggested that she had a proximity to God that was unique. This was considered heresy and she was banished from the colony.
Finally, colonial charters were statements of basic English liberties. They codified basic liberties protected in common law. They seem remarkably regressive to us, but they were progressive in many ways. For example, the number of capital crimes was greatly reduced in colonial America over the mother country.