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Colonists interested in self-preservation, not liberty

By John Hickman - posted Friday, 18 January 2013

Perhaps it is the aging of the United States as a political regime that has caused Americans to nervously reexamine their history for legitimation. After all, the core set of political institutions that structure the republic are now more than two centuries old. Recent fervent evocation of American Exceptionalism by conservatives is likely a symptom of anxiety about mortality. Central to their discourse is a national narrative shorn of crucial context and detail. Listen to the rhetoric of Tea Party conservatives and it is difficult to escape the impression that they believe the Atlantic American colonies were settled entirely by European religious refugees conscious of their historical mission to establish a heavily armed libertarian utopia in the wilderness.

Such nonsense has elicited a backlash in the form of renewed popular and scholarly attention to the colonial settlement of America, and Bernard Bailyn's The Barbarous Years is part of that welcome corrective. His retelling of the initial colonial settlements in the Chesapeake Bay, Delaware River, Hudson River and New England in the 17th century offers its share of colonists with firearms and Protestantism. What it doesn't offer are colonists generally committed to the principles of individual liberty. Instead, Bailyn's story is instead one of founding populations established by individuals struggling to survive physically and advance their lot economically. As for religion, the different theological and millenarian inspirations of some but hardly all of colonial elites were barely contained, and contained only for a time, by the determination to make new fortunes.

What makes Bailyn's history especially interesting is his development of the exit option in establishing the founding populations in the colonies. First, the settlers arriving in the Atlantic American colonies had in many cases already migrated within their home countries and across Europe. Many of the English immigrants in Virginia were rootless young men and vagrant children from the streets of London taken into custody by authorities in Jacobean and Caroline England and dumped onto ships bound for the New World. The population of London had been swollen by mass migration from all over England. As indentured laborers on tobacco plantations they experienced grim mortality rates because of disease, poor diets and the violence of the planters who had bought them. Unsurprisingly, poor whites often fled west to the wilderness to escape such exploitation. Although it is now conventional to locate the deep cultural resentment of Southern whites in having lost the American Civil War, readers are entitles to suspect that it dates from before the decades before the English Civil War.


Many of the Dutch settlers in what would eventually become New York were not ethnic Dutch but instead the products of the migration from all over continental Europe, and especially from the German speaking states, to the Netherlands. They were later joined by English colonists from New England who had decided to "vote with their feet" to escape from economic and religious oppression. The extraordinarily cosmopolitan nature of today's New York is thus in part the product of a beginning as a very cosmopolitan Dutch colony.

So the Europeans who became the ancestors of countless Americans today were the products of migrations within England and within the Netherlands, migrations across Europe to get to London and Amsterdam, migrations across the Atlantic, migrations between colonies and migrations westward to the interior of North America. Can it be any surprise that Americans are now among the most residentially mobile people in the world?

Finally, Bailyn pulls no punches in describing the confusion and brutality of the encounter between natives and colonists. Here were the beginnings of the long war to displace the aboriginal inhabitants launched when the European military advantage was less about the technology of warfare than about population size and social organization. The differences in policy toward the natives adopted by elites in the different colonies – whether it began with efforts to assimilate the natives as subordinates or the determination to drive them out entirely – ultimately mattered little to the outcome. The result was war waged against populations that ignored the difference between combatants and non-combatants. This is history related without sentimentality and without apology.

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This is a review of The Barbarous Years: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675, Bernard Bailyn. (New York: Alfred A Knopf 2012)

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John Hickman is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Berry College, USA. He may be reached at

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