07 September 2016

The Colonial Period

This feels a little premature, seeing as how my students' first blogs aren't even due yet. But I thought I'd get a head start on the colonial period, for any go-getters in my classes.

It'll be exciting (or horrifying, depending upon your perspective) to blog about this unit, as many of our themes mature rapidly during the colonial period. Among these are race, with the establishment of slavery in colonial Virginia. And exceptionalism still owes much to John Winthrop's ideal of the city on a hill. Others, such as freedom and democracy, still have a long way to go. But for all of them, there are fascinating premonitions of modern practice.

Now that we're covering history, I feel more qualified to introduce each theme with some remarks. I've tried to avoid assigning each theme to just one region, either Virginia or New England. But some of them just work better that way, so here they are starting with Virginia:


The history of race in America starts with Native Americans, not slaves. Our first article revisits the first Thanksgiving, with a large dose of context. But as the English displaced Native Americans, the racial narrative gradually transferred to African slaves. They were an alternative to the declining population of indentured servants. The second link describes this institution, and its replacement by slavery. Finally, a third website chronicles the growth of slavery during the late 1600s.




The American Dream

Our economic history began with tobacco. And the topic is still timely, as the first article observes; four hundred years later, we are still trying to discourage its consumption. To get a sense of the risks early tobacco planters ran (starvation), I have linked a second article. Virginia may not fit our idea of the "American Dream", as work was not especially valued there. It was New England that bequeathed us its work ethic, a legacy discussed in our third article.





Of our two representative regions, Virginia got a lot more immigrants. Indeed, because of low reproduction (most of the early colonists were male) and mortality due to starvation and disease, Virginia only survived because of immigration. The first article gives some basic statistics, and explores migrants' motivations. The same general impression, of large numbers and mortality, also applies to the slave experience recounted in the second link (obviously you could also apply this to our theme of race). A much more successful experience played out in New England, which had a healthier climate and attracted more families. The third website discusses this misleadingly-named "great migration", which involved fewer people over a shorter period of time but proved more durable.





Our first link treats Virginia's House of Burgesses, the first representative assembly in the Americas. You could also talk about New England, which combined both representative and direct democracy (in the form of town meetings). The second article tries to identify what, of the Massachusetts political system, anticipated modern democracy. Finally, a third explores the Mayflower Compact, which John Quincy Adams considered "the only instance in human history of that positive, original, social compact" underlying governments.





Freedom had a predominantly religious meaning in the colonial period. And while it has expanded into secular life since then, this original definition is still alive and well in America. The Pilgrims famously left England to escape religious persecution, but went first to tolerant Holland. So why go to America? Our first link explains their decision. They were followed by the Puritans, who sought religious freedom for themselves but not others. The second article describes how this second instance of persecution led to the birth of true religious freedom in Rhode Island.




Here the classic text remains John Winthrop's sermon, "A Model of Christian Charity". In it, Winthrop envisioned the founding of a "city upon a hill". The phrase has usually been understood to emphasize his colony's exemplary (and, by extension, exceptional) role. By far the most accessible introduction to the history is Sarah Vowell's The Wordy Shipmates. The first link is a (much shorter) interview with her publisher. The second article broadens our perspective to situate Winthrop in his Calvinist context. Here, we see that American exceptionalism owes a lot to the idea of a predestined elect.