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Wide Spread the Empire

ISSUE:  Spring 1937

The Colonial Period of American History. By Charles M. Andrews. New Haven: Yale University Press. Two volumes. $8.00. The British Empire before the American Revolution: Provincial Characteristics and Sectional Tendencies in the Era Preceding the American Crisis. By Lawrence Henry Gipson. Caldwell, Idaho: The Caxton Printers. Three volumes. $15.00.

It has been said that the youth of America is one of its oldest traditions, that it has been going on now for over three hundred years. This is due to the fact that the colonial period of our history has been generally treated as a mere prelude to our national career, although it lasted eight years longer than the course run thus far by our more glamorous republic. Yet to look upon it from the point of view of our modern civilization is completely to misunderstand it, for nothing could have been more “un-American” than the American colonies. To discard all that has happened since and to write in the spirit of the age which one is recording is indeed difficult, but it has been done by the authors of two ambitious works: Charles M. Andrews in “The Colonial Period of American History” and Lawrence Henry Gipson in “The British Empire before the American Revolution.”

Professor Andrews is commonly recognized as the leading authority on the history of the colonies; and the two volumes of his “Colonial Period” already published—the first of which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1935—constitute only the beginning of an extended work on the subject. The early settlements are dealt with as England’s first experiment in colonization rather than as harbingers of a new order of things in the New World.

An Englishman once said that the words “United States” conjured up visions of a huge counter stretching along the entire Atlantic seaboard across which goods were briskly and eternally changing hands. Perhaps that was our inevitable destiny, for the colonies which evolved in 1776 as the United States were stamped at birth with the mark of the guinea. They had their genesis in monopolistic trading companies, organizations primarily interested in profit and frequently riddled with graft. Two distinct economic factors lay behind the earliest colonizing ventures: the commercial interests which were seeking a profitable investment of their capital, and the landed interests which were seeking more extensive domains from which to draw revenues. The Virginia Company of London represents one of these factors and the Calvert Proprietary of Maryland typifies the other. In connection with the latter, Professor Andrews elucidates the agrarian situation as it then existed in England and shows that the proprietors attempted to establish semi-feudal institutions in America which were already outworn in England. In connection with the former, he shows the close relations which existed between the leading joint-stock companies participating in the colonization movement. The American settlements are treated as an integral part of colonial expansion, and Newfoundland, Bermuda, and Barbados, which remained loyal, are given equal attention with the thirteen colonies which rebelled.

Nowhere will one find so revealing a discussion of the English background of American colonization; but, on the other hand, there is no adequate picture of the development of life on the American soil. Its institutional aspects, it is true, are dealt with in considerable detail, especially in the case of New England. The profound unimportance of the Pilgrim Fathers in the history of American settlement is made abundantly clear, and the undemocratic nature of New England institutions is stressed. The New England character and conscience are given due credit for tenacity in holding to their purpose, but one does not get an altogether favorable impression of the Puritan. Among the chosen people there was much indirect dealing, and the methods by which the Massachusetts Bay Company secured its royal charter in 1629 do not represent half the idealism which was exhibited by the London Company in its really heroic struggle to establish representative government in Virginia.

Professor Andrews is apparently no great admirer of representative government, and he makes a rather bad case for Sir Edwin Sandys and his supporters who sponsored the liberal movement within the London Company. He, in agreement with Professor W. F. Craven, looks upon the dissolution of the Company in 1624 as its just reward for inefficiency, and King James I is made to appear a statesman. There can be no doubt that the documents bear them out in their interpretation, but the documents never tell the whole story. The men who write them see to that. The logic of events is often more revealing than the ex-parte evidence which most documents afford, and the reviewer still does not believe that the King was unbiased in his dealings with the Company or that the Company deserved the treatment which it received. During its later years it had shown a magnificent disregard of immediate returns on its investment, not ordinarily to be expected of capitalists, and if the Puritans displayed any idealism in establishing an asylum where they could worship God according to the dictates of their own conscience and punish all who did not agree with them, the London Company was equally idealistic in attempting to establish a degree of freedom in America at a time when it was much in jeopardy at home. And they deserved well of their country, for Virginia was one day to take the lead in organizing a government which thwarted another English king in his attempt to re-establish the royal prerogative.

In dealing with Virginia, Professor Andrews is hardly at his best. Writing of the Indian massacre of 1644, he states that “Virginia was destined to have no warlike troubles with the Indians during the remainder of her history.” Could he have forgotten that Indian warfare had much to do with the outbreak of Bacon’s Rebellion, or that Virginians fought a considerable engagement with the Shawnees at Point Pleasant in 1774?

One matter that deserves more attention than it has received here or elsewhere relates to the origin of the House of Burgesses. The plan to establish representative government in Virginia was devised at the time when the system of common-ownership—which Professor Andrews points out had nothing to do with communism—was given up, and when lands were to pass into private possession and taxes were to be levied for the first time. Thus representation and taxation went together from the very first, and to be taxed only in this manner was, under any reasonable construction, one of the rights of Englishmen which was guaranteed in the charters.

Professor Gipson has chosen the period which elapsed between the end of King George’s War and the beginning of the French and Indian War as the last opportunity presenting itself before the outbreak of Revolutionary disturbances to view the British imperial system as it operated in time of peace. The three volumes now published deal with Great Britain and Ireland, and the Northern and the Southern colonies respectively. He plans still another volume to deal with continental frontier problems and one to be devoted to the bibliography of the subject. Most of his material has been garnered from original documents, the majority of them in British repositories. From this mass of material he has, without any attempt at dramatization, produced a fresh and interesting narrative of events which in themselves are significant. His outstanding contribution is his discussion of the trade of the Empire. This he follows into all of its ramifications, yet he completely avoids the dullness which such economic studies usually attain.

During this period the troubles of England with her trans-Atlantic colonies were as nothing compared to those she was experiencing nearer home. Her efforts to subjugate the Highlands, to break up the clan system and the individualistic way of life in Scotland, inevitably call up Appomattox and its aftermath. As for Ireland, the following contemporary document tells about all that we need to know concerning the common man: “For the Tenant must not imagine the Landlord wrongs him by demanding an increase of Rent proportionable to the current rate of the product of his Farm. If every Barrel of Bread-Corn, Drink-Corn, or Horse-Corn, if Wine, Flesh, Fish, and all other necessaries for House-Keeping, stand the Landlord in double now, to what it did thirty or forty years ago, then the Landlord puts no hardship on his Tenant if he asks double the old Rent and if he gets it, ‘Tis plain the Landlord is not a Farthing the Richer.” Professor Gipson’s graphic story shows that Englishmen of the lower class were in an almost equally deplorable economic situation. It is small wonder then that thousands from the British Isles turned their faces toward the New World; for it was now nearly a century and a half since that little band of sea-weary men had huddled on the unexplored shore at Jamestown, and the venture was no longer fraught with so much peril. And small wonder, too, that in America, with limitless and unappropriated acres stretching before them, many could not resist extending their boundaries to take in any good land they saw. For land had been the source of wealth, the basis of social and political position, of their former oppressors. It is easily understandable why such men should be stirred to revolution when they thought they saw attempts to clamp the Old World regime about them in the New.

Both Professor Andrews and Professor Gipson have made important contributions to the history of early British imperialism. It is to be hoped that some historian of the future will show us with equal authority by what process the Puritanism of New England and the squirarchy of Virginia each developed a civilization which was concerned with the problem of living, to be completely overthrown in later times by a civilization which is concerned only with the problem of acquiring.


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