Death valley to sunlit uplands: the middle period in early american history

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Ned Landsman has noted how when he relayed to colleagues his intention to write about early American culture and thought in the two or three decades immediately preceding and immediately following the start of the eighteenth century the responses he received tended towards gallows humour. A phrase commonly used was that he was entering into “Death Valley.” The less than enthusiastic response to ambitions to study the mysterious middle years of the colonial American experience that Landsman received was due, I believe, to a perception that while many historians over an extended period had seen that the years either side of 1700 were years of considerable change in early America, with a multitude of events that could attract interest, and, moreover, that historians had also seen that these decades were easily the least studied decades in all of American history, and thus a good period in which one could do interesting and un-replicated work, the scholarly results of the labours of those historians who had decided to study this period was distressingly small. In short, while many historians had ventured forth into the study of these decades, few historians had managed to extricate themselves from the study of these years with very much to show for their labours. The middle years of colonial American history ate scholars up, just as Death Valley is renowned for consuming unwary travellers.

Whether this conceit is true or not, it is clear that the historiographical record of the years between 1660 and 1756 and even more so the years between 1675 and 1720 is much smaller than the historiography of the years of settlement, let alone the heavily studied period of the coming of the American Revolution. Although many historians touch on these years in their studies, very few have successfully written books that take these years as their primary object. For a general history of British North America in this period you need to go back to 1968 and read Wesley Frank Craven’s The American Colonies in Transition, 1660-1713, an authoritative and provocative summary of the period, in which Craven argued that these were years that saw significant transformations in important areas of American life. It needs updating, however. Even more specialist works on these years of supposed transition are few in number. Once you have read Ian Steele’s The English Atlantic 1675-1740, Stephen Saunders Webb’s three books on the 1676 to 1690 period, Richard R. Johnson’s study of New England between 1675 and 1715 and three books that take a slightly longer chronological period in order to study the social history of individual colonies in the last half of the eighteenth century and the first decades of the eighteenth century - Gloria Main’s study of turn of the century Maryland; Anthony Parent’s description of the rise of the Virginia great planters, and Joyce Goodfriend’s treatment of New York as it moved from being Dutch to English, you have virtually exhausted almost all of the monograph length histories of this period as a chronologically distinct historical subject. To these accounts could also be added histories of specific events in this period, such as King Phillips’ War, Bacon’s Rebellion and, of course, the Salem witchcraft trial of 1692. An honourable exception is Alan Gallay’s study of the Indian Slave Trade in the South, which encompasses the years between 1670 and 1717 and examines a specific economic activity in the Lower South within the context of a changing imperial system.

One reason for this comparative neglect might be that the years between 1675 and 1720 were years of particular difficulty for British settlement in the Americas. Lorena Walsh aptly entitles the chapter in her book on Chesapeake plantation management that deals with the decades either side of 1700 as “An Era of Hard Times.” In the last forty years of the seventeenth century and probably at least the first dozen or so years of the eighteenth century, British America lurched from crisis to crisis. Long term economic difficulties were punctuated by a series of violent upheavals not only between European settlers and Native Americans but between different groups of colonists in a single colony. The list of things that went wrong in these years is long: economic pain; political and especially religious discord; a plenitude of wars, both with Native Americans and also with a resurgent French empire and a defensive Spanish empire; rampant piracy in the southern and island colonies; natural disasters, such as the earthquake that flattened Port Royal; and even witchcraft panics, notably in Salem in 1692. Indeed, if we were to single out any years as being the nadir of English experience in the New World, it would be 1691and 1692. In addition to the earthquake in Jamaica and the witchcraft hysteria in Massachusetts, British America was rocked by rebellions in New England, Maryland and most of all in New York, faced annihilation by the French in the West Indies, slave revolt in Barbados and enjoyed, if that is the word, the first outbreak of yellow fever in the West Indies and Lower South for forty years, an outbreak that made it very problematic whether the valuable West Indian sugar islands could be maintained if all the white population disappeared due to disease. To this could be added problems in the metropolitan center, as England struggled both to cope with the aftermath of a surprisingly bloody and still contentious Glorious Revolution, along with facing down, not too successfully, attacks from France, the most powerful nation in Europe. Indeed, the French defeat of the English Navy at Beachy Head in coastal Sussex 1690 had shown England and English America that it could not even defend its own borders, let alone protect North Americans and West Indians from similar attacks by the French. In North America, English failure off the shores of Sussex was replicated in 1690 by a dismal and costly failure to capture New France.

Studying these years can be both confusing and depressing. It was a period dominated above all by war, both between settlers and Native Americans, especially in Massachusetts, Virginia and South Carolina, and by disease, notably in the Caribbean. Ian Steele’s Warpaths is still unsurpassed as a quick guide to the ubiquity of warfare in this period. More recently, John McNeill’s Mosquito Empires makes a compelling case for the importance of disease as a geo-political and environmental factor of the greatest importance, especially in the 1690s when yellow fever made it impossible for the English to either make new settlements in the Caribbean or to make any inroads into the Spanish Empire, without massive loss of soldiers and sailors. It is hard not to be infected by the pervasive sense of decline and failure that colonial Americans evinced again and again about the years they were living through. Bernard Bailyn captures this feeling well in his outline of the periods of Atlantic history where he describes the marchlands of seventeenth century America as being places of barbarism and savagery, manifest in genocidal wars with Native Americans, the brutal treatment of an increasing number of African slaves, in cultural philistinism and possibly cultural decline. It was a time, he states, of pervasive social disorder and disorientation. It took time for these barbarous lands to become integrated around commerce and trade, a process that seems to have started at the lowest time for British American prospects, the 1690s, and which picked up pace in the 1710s and especially the 1720s.1 [Elliott]

Indeed, such later success seemed implausible as the last decades of the seventeenth century turned into the eighteenth century. Everywhere English America seemed to be running out of steam. The 1690s saw the smallest number of voluntary migrants from England coming to the Americas, although plenty of non-voluntary migrants arrived, such as African captives and British soldiers. Few areas were opened for settlement and in the places where settlement might have seemed possible, as in northern New England and New York and in southwest South Carolina, French and Spanish colonisation schemes formed a great barrier to expansion. White population growth slowed considerably (although black population growth did not slow, as the slave trade to the Americas became more efficient in delivering Africans to the Americas: the result was what seemed to contemporaries to be a noticeable blackening of the population). The French, in particular, were a constant menace to the English, nearly taking over Jamaica in 1694 and easily repelling a weak English attempt to take neighbouring Saint Domingue. Population in many places dipped dramatically, tobacco prices seemed to be in a trough that was perpetual, and the westward expansion of most colonies slowed to a halt as settlers came up against especially determined Native Americans who, as in the Carolinas during the 1710s, were desperate enough and strong enough to stop English settlers from encroaching on their territory. Moreover, the people of English America seemed to be a people in decline, unable to retain their English cultural heritage and prone to ape the supposed barbarism of both Native Americans and Africans. For divines like Cotton Mather, the New England minister, the sad lapses of native born young Americans from the standards he expected were clear evidence of “creolean degeneracy.”2

The pervasive sense of decline that envelops this period is evident not just in the writings of contemporaries, fretting about the deficiencies of the colonies and their decline from the standards of the past, although these were frequent. The first historian of Virginia, Robert Beverley, for example, concentrated in his history on the many failures of Virginians to properly transform their landscape so that it resembled Britain and lamented, as did Ebeneezer Cooke in Maryland a generation later, how native born residents of the Chesapeake were characterised most of all by laziness and cruelty. It is evident also in the writings of modern historians. Just about every study of early British America that ends before 1700 concludes with a portrait of societies in irreversible decline. This depiction of the colonies as failures in 1700 goes back many years. Wesley Frank Craven, in a book published in 1949 on the southern colonies before the Glorious Revolution, entitled his last chapter “Years of Change and Discord.” Philip Haffenden’s account of New England before and after the Glorious Revolution ends with a chapter entitled “The Aftermath of Failure.” Roy Ritchie’s 1977 study of New York before Leisler’s Revolution in 1691 concludes with a chapter called “A Time of Troubles.” Stephen Saunders Webb’s book on 1676 ends with the grand statement that this year marked the “end of American Independence.” Recent works have been just as unimpressed by the state of affairs as the century came to a close. Noleen McIlvenna’s short history of North Carolina before 1713, for example, celebrates the colony as being a haven for small farmers sandwiched between the two great plantation colonies of Virginia and South Carolina but in her very title – A Very Mutinous People – she hints at the turmoil that accompanied North Carolina’s defiant opposition to southern developmental patterns. Peter Wood’s influential textbook on African American history in the colonial period sums up this period as being the time of a “terrible transformation,” as Africans were turned first into slaves and then into plantation labourers.3

Another reason for the comparative neglect of this period might be that the sources for studying this period are relatively limited. Some of the more important markers of the period, such as the rapid expansion of slave numbers in British America as the plantation system took hold, have so few sources about them as to be virtually undocumented. It is easier, by far, to concentrate on events in the later eighteenth century where evidentiary sources are much more abundant. Best to ignore those sad decades around the turn of the century where factionalism was rife, where individual Americans appeared especially grasping and when, it seems, few events of great importance occurred. I have often challenged historians of early America to name four or five important events in the first two decades of the eighteenth century that are immediately recognisable. Few can do so, although most reference the Yamasee War of 1715-18 and the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. The one exception, of course, is the exception that breaks the rule. This period contains the great set piece of colonial American history, the remarkable events in Salem in 1692 which culminated in the last witchcraft scare to occur on North American soil and about which varying interpretations continue to swirl. Nevertheless, Salem is revealing in its very atypicality. Even if historians investigating the causes of the witchcraft epidemic in Salem are careful to put the events of 1692 in proper historical context, the study of Salem has a certain disembodied quality, a sense of being an episode that tells more about universal truths than about the history of the years immediately following the Glorious Revolution in Britain and the sudden demise in 1691 of the Dominion of New England.4

Another, more important, reason why this period meets with such bad press is that there are few heroes to celebrate, no founders to compare with the men who settled Massachusetts or even Virginia and no idealistic challengers to British rule that can be found in the revolutionary period. There isn’t even an equivalent in the period to Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) as an exemplary man of empire, although Cotton Mather (1663-1728), the last of three generations of Mather intellectuals whose lives Robert Middlekauff traced in an important book published in the early 1970s, has some claim to fame as an intellectual of genuine transatlantic importance. Sir William Phips (1651-1695), the New England adventurer, who gained his knighthood and great wealth as well from a fortuitous discovery of sunken Spanish treasure, might have made a good imperial hero if he had not failed so spectacularly in trying to take New France for the English in 1690. Perhaps Sir Henry Morgan (ca.1635-1688), the pirate governor of Jamaica in the 1680s, might suffice, except to have him as the most famous American is, as Richard Dunn acidly comments, like having Al Capone as the most famous American of the twentieth century. The exception is William Penn (1644-1718), the visionary Quaker leader and founder of the “peaceable kingdom” of Pennsylvania, who is praised not just as the progenitor of an important colony but as a man who had a vision distinctly at odds with the hard men transforming the plantation colonies south of his colony or the declining Creoles who tried to hold onto old ways, unsuccessfully, in New England. Not coincidentally, the history of early Pennsylvania is a shining exception to the general story of woe that dominates this period.

Moreover, even if there were heroes to celebrate, the mood among historians writing about this period would not be inclined to rate them very highly, if only because they tended to white men who, more blatantly than in either the past or future of America, furthered their own ambitions by ruthlessly diminishing the prospects of others who were less fortunate, be they poorer white men, women of all kinds, Africans or Indians. Those men who did very well in the early years of the eighteenth century generally did so by standing on the backs of Africans while crushing as much as they could Native American aspiration for autonomy. They also were insistent, as Kathleen Brown reminds us, on equating planter privilege with patriarchal power: the late seventeenth century saw a significant reduction in women’s autonomy and freedom. Gendered accounts of changing attitudes to women over the seventeenth century are not as likely as in the posit the early seventeenth century as a sort of “golden age” for women, given that the criteria for this “golden age” seem to be a personal independence following on from being widowed at an early age with dependent children and few visible means of support save entering into a quick remarriage. Nevertheless, if historians have eschewed Whiggish notions of women’s freedom rising and falling over time, they usually see this period as one in which female agency significantly declined. Cornelia Hughes Dayton’s work on women in colonial Connecticut follows Brown in seeing the late seventeenth century as time when the position of women in society was particularly precarious.

If we want to understand why historians are reluctant to invest the leading men of the period with heroic status we can take Virginia as a case study. In this colony, a number of late seventeenth century planters, such as the most successful Virginia planter of his generation, Robert “King” Carter (1663-1732), as well as William Fitzhugh (1651-1701) and William Byrd I (1652-1704), have left enough records for their lives to be traced in some detail. Fitzhugh and Byrd, Sr. were ambitious and hard-headed immigrants who attained wealth through marriage (in Fitzhugh’s case to an 11 year old) and increased that wealth through the relentless acquisition of land and slaves. Fitzhugh was an entrepreneur, making money through slave dealing and mercantile activities as well as through planting. Byrd Sr. was similarly ecumenical in his economic activities, pursuing the tobacco and Indian trades as well as getting involved in trade with New England and the West Indies. Their correspondence reveals them to be determined self-seekers and committed philistines. Robert “King” Carter was much more successful than either Fitzhugh or Byrd Sr. By his death he had accumulated the largest estate ever seen in Virginia through a combination of trade, agriculture, and the fruits of office-holding. It amounted to 333,000 acres of land and 829 slaves, with other slaves having already been given away to his children. His business career was characterised by extreme ruthlessness, both in the single-minded way in which he built up his estate and in the extreme brutality that he meted out to his unfortunate slaves, both in respect to punishment and in regard to an unremittingly hard labor regime. He deserves a biography, similar to that written by Rhys Isaac about his son, Landon (1710-1778) or that about William Byrd II (1674-1744) written by Kenneth Lockridge, in which his power and pretensions could be examined in detail.5

The leading men of other colonies were no better, were perhaps worse, than Carter in their relentless materialism and indifference to others outside their family. The Beckfords of Jamaica were probably even richer than “King” Carter and came from even murkier social origins. Beckford (d.1710) came to Jamaica in the early 1660s, twenty years after “King” Carter’s father moved to Virginia, and quickly amassed enormous wealth, even though, according to contemporaries, he may have started out horse-stealing and engaging in illegal trade with Spanish America. Richard Sheridan suspects that he may have been close to a millionaire when he died following a scuffle in the Jamaican House of Assembly, occasioned by his son and namesake Peter (ca. 1665-1735) murdering a fellow Assemblyman.6 Peter Beckford II and his brother Thomas (ca. 1667-1737) built on the fortune of their father, using all the advantages that birth and access to high office gave them. At this death in 1735, Peter Beckford left a personal estate of over £200,000, more than 30,000 acres of land and over nearly 1,400 slaves. Like Carter, he made his money in many ways and was, according to all accounts, the hardest of hard men in a place not short of such characters.

Gallay makes the some comments about South Carolinian planters, condemning their character while recognising their successes. For Gallay, South Carolinian planters “shared no common purpose but to accumulate riches.” Uninterested in building a community, which at least was something positive that a repressive Puritan elite in New England had in their favour, they were “incorrigible” and “politically corrupt,” unwilling to obey any laws that interfered with their moneymaking schemes. They did not become so disagreeable because they were corrupted by slavery; they were self-aggrandising from the start. He concludes: “From first settlement, South Carolina elites ruthlessly pursued the exploitation of fellow human beings in ways that differed from other mainland colonies, and they created a narcissistic culture that reacted passionately and violently to attempt to limit their individual sovereignty over their perceived social inferiors.”7 I have quoted this at length not just because it is a powerful indictment of the origins most powerful class in early America that echoes Edmund Morgan’s indictment of Virginia planters and Richard Dunn’s searing antagonism to West Indian planters written in the 1970s but because it both continues a longstanding antagonism to the values of the American South (Gallay’s book is intended to be a study of the founding of the South as a distinct American region) and also announces, in a way common for historians writing in the twenty first century , his antagonism to currently fashionable political ideologies celebrating entrepreneurship, the virtues of wealth creation over communal values and the triumph of individualism and materialism over more traditional value systems.

Nevertheless, this period does not deserve to be as neglected as it has been.8 Indeed, one contention in this book is that the mysterious middle period of early American history is ripe for re-examination and for intensive research because it is in this period that the various historiographical trends that I have argued above have been so important in reshaping the contours of early American history – the geographical turn, the turn towards empire and the cultural turn – can be most easily seen to be historically important. We can only make sense of events in this period, for example, if what happened in British America is contrasted with developments in Britain, Asia, Africa and the rest of the Americas. It was a crucial period, moreover, in the history of European imperialism, with the British developing the lineaments of the fiscal-military state which allowed them to expand their imperial ambitions consistently throughout the eighteenth century while both the Spanish and especially the French began to conceive of geo-politics increasingly in imperial terms with conflict in the Americas becoming a substitute for costly competition in Europe. The late seventeenth century was very much the beginnings of a certain kind of imperial age. Finally, the related developments in politics, economics and culture that John Brewer, Steve Pincus, Tim Harris and Mark Knights and other historians of late Stuart Britain believe were profoundly transforming later Stuart Britain (possibly into the first modern state, as Pincus insists occurred around the years of the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89: other historians make less bold claims about the period) allow for a plenitude of the types of histories connected to cultural themes that are naturally envisaged by historians attuned to what is termed the linguistic or cultural turn in early modern historiography. In addition, studying this period seems very important if we take the view that the driving forces shaping the history of colonial America ought to be Native Americans and African Americans. These years were critical years in the history of European-Native American relations. It was in this period that the majority of the settled tidewater areas of British North America came to resemble the British West Indies in being mainly free of Native Americans. Much of British America turned, to use James Merrell and Daniel Richter’s phrase, from being “Indian” country to being “European” country. And that European country was often as dominated by Africans as by Europeans. The information gathered in the enormously important internet resource, The Transatlantic Slave Trade Data Base, shows that it was during the last years of the seventeenth century and even more the first two decades of the eighteenth century that England and then Britain really mastered the art of slave trading with Africa. Importation of African captives increased markedly in this period, providing the human base for the most significant social and economic transformation of the period, the development of the large integrated plantation in Barbados in the 1660s and 1670s (best analysed in Russell Menard’s Sweet Negotiations of Sugar) which was transferred across the Caribbean and into the Chesapeake and Low Country South during the last years of the seventeenth century. It was in this time that commentators started to say about coastal South Carolina and about the island colonies that they were more “negro countries” than European settlements.

But let’s deal with chronology and region first. What happened in these years that made them, first, such “hard times” and, second, so pivotal in the transformation of British America from probable failure to undoubted success? Historians tend to start with the Restoration of 1660 and with a new desire by Charles II and his officials to make the American colonies conform to metropolitan desires. It was hardly unusual that he wanted to do so, given how in the thirty years prior to him becoming King the colonies, in what was the true period of imperial salutary neglect during the tumults of the English Civil war, had been able to develop any which way they wanted. Some historians, notably Stephen Saunders Webb, have seen in imperial efforts to reorganise empire after 1660 a conscious plan, led by militant soldiers, to reduce the colonies into abject subservience to the Crown. But the majority of historians disagree, arguing, as Richard Dunn notes in an important essay on the Glorious Revolution, that until at least 1675 most colonies operated as autonomous entities, barely responding to English imperatives, with the most important colonial governors – men such as Sir William Berkeley in Virginia, Sir Thomas Modyford in Jamaica and Lord Willoughby in Barbados, 9operating as “independent potentates.” Much of the impulse towards social and political development originated from within rather than from outside individual colonies as tiny and beleaguered seventeenth century settlements became distinctive polities. The most notable example of a colony driven by interior rather than exterior impulses seems to be Virginia where Governor Berkeley was prominent in forcing rapid and contentious social and political development in a few short decades, initiating changes that by the early eighteenth century made Virginia a quite different place than it had been before. When the Crown’s disjointed efforts to make colonies behave and conform became more urgent in the 1670s, the various colonial subcultures of British America were sufficiently distinctive that colonial English Americans tended, in Brendan McConville’s words, “to view metropolitan English norms as alien and thus threatening.” One of the major changes that occurred during the next forty years was a cultural shift in how colonials came to see metropolitan culture, from threatening towards becoming a standard of behaviour and social and political values to which all should aspire.

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