Shaped in the Wilderness: The Americans

Along with their few belongings, the American colonists brought with them European traditions which they believed would shape their new society. But their life at the edge of the wilderness proved to be very different from their plans: the power of the church dwindled; labor was in short supply, and the Indians would not help; and they were compelled to take a course independent of their benefactors in London. This new society, republican in nature, is described in these chapters drawn from OSCAR HANDLIN’Sbig history of the American people. Professor of history at Harvard and Pulitzer Prize winner, Dr. Handlin has been at work on this new volume for a decade.

OUT to the limitless distance ran the ocean. From its near edge, the generations of Europeans had watched the turbulent waters recede into the unknown space, within which imagination crowded all the fantastic beings of fable. Here began the end of the world; the mariners hugged the margins of the continent, fearful as in Odysseus’ day of losing sight of the lamiliar universe of rising cliffs and jutting promontories that was their home.

For the mass of men in 1600, the ocean still held the terrors of the past. That a succession of adventurers had reached the outer shores of these uncharted wastes did not in the least allay the fears of the earthbound. Nothing in the chronicles or in the tales that passed by word of mouth gave a friendlier aspect to the waters of the Atlantic.

Yet soon, in their scores, in their hundreds and thousands, and later in their millions, the earthbound men and women of Europe passed across the unfriendly sea. In their coming they created a nation.

Tiny vessels, sixty to two hundred tons in the main, bore the voyagers westward. Riding at anchor in the sheltered bays of the homeland, the ships seemed substantial enough. Their sturdy timber and looming masts, their cabins that rose like castles several stories high in the stern, were impressive in comparison with the harbor craft that flitted about them. At sea, it would be another matter. All became precarious as the isolated specks, buffeted by the elements, beat their way into the unknown immensity before them; and the men below huddled fearfully in the cramped space that set their condition of life.

The Pilgrims who came to Plymouth in 1620 were an unusual group, mostly freemen who paid their own way, with only a few servants among them. Their journey was as comfortable as any could be in the seventeenth century. Two ships carried the company, the Speedwell, of sixty tons, and the Mayflower, of a hundred and eighty. Into the Mayflower, ninety feet long and twenty-four feet wide at its widest point on deck, were crowded twenty-five seamen and a hundred and two passengers, together with swine, poultry, goats, and the other supplies adequate for three months at sea, and also the equipment needed to build the plantation. These were their narrow quarters for sixty-seven days while fierce storms and contrary winds sadly shook them and persistent leaks in the upper works exposed the frailty of their protection from the elements.

The Pilgrims were comparatively fortunate. Indentured servants, transported convicts, captive Irish and Negroes fared much worse. Jammed together to economize on space and fed no more than was necessary to keep them alive, such people could find no relief even in the sight of land; forebodings of the difficulties of an uncertain future heightened their anxiety as they pushed out of mind the homes they had forever left behind. For them, more than for other men, the crossing was an impassable barrier in the way of ever going back. Henceforward they would make their lives between the ocean and the wilderness.

AT THE start, all the colonizing enterprises were tentative. The little troops landed at the edge of the dark forest, the ships withdrew beyond the eastern horizon. Now was the time for survival. All that existed at home as a heritage from previous generations had to be built afresh here, and swiftly, to avert disaster. The people of Charlestown, on Massachusetts Bay, in 1630 took shelter in empty casks before the first rude huts went up. In Jamestown the palisade and magazine for stores took precedence over individual convenience. Only when their toes were firmly dug in could the settlers begin to create the basis for a permanent society, to establish dependable means of earning a livelihood and clear an orderly way of life in the wilderness.

Sooner or later, the first arrivals at each plantation discovered a grave miscalculation in the schemes that had drawn them to America. The hopeful promoters had planned companies to operate like those in other parts of the world. Small groups of traders and fighters and their servants would establish fortified posts, deal with native intermediaries, and carry off precious local products for the greater profit of the investors. That had been the pattern in the East Indies, Muscovy, and Turkey, and also in the Spanish and Portuguese territories of the New World.

But north of Florida the Europeans found few natives and only meager resources to exploit. There was no settled population with which to trade or which to set to work. The country was inhabited by scattered Indian tribes able to vanish swiftly into the wilderness. The simple indigenous economy produced few articles of value to the newcomers, and the red men fled into the forests at the first efforts to press them to labor.

These settlements could sustain themselves only by producing their own food and also those valuable commodities that found ready sale in all European markets. To turn out the grain, tobacco, fur, and fish that would earn the means of keeping the colonies going called for thousands of hands ready to do menial work. Recruitment of an adequate supply of such manpower was the dominant concern of each colony in its earliest decades. Every boatload of freemen and servants was eagerly welcomed for the strength it added and the assurances of permanence it gave. Yet as soon as the population grew and spread away from the first landing places, the original company forms of control became inadequate. The colonists then had to set themselves to the task of creating a society which they did not wish to be different from that which they had left, but which steadily became so under the pressure of novel conditions of life.

They had in mind the homeland scheme of society, where trade occupied the towns and agriculture the countryside and each man had his place in one or the other. Every newcomer could summon up the picture of a community he knew, where ancient institutions regulated his relationships to work, to other men, and to God. Embedded in the village or the guild were tested habits and the capacity for communal decision adequate to cope with all the problems of daily life. Those who departed hoped to re-create in the New World the whole communities they had known in the Old, only purified of their imperfections. They did not succeed; the wilderness proved uncongenial to such concepts of order. In time, the colonies thrived. But their trade was not that of the established guilds and companies. Their agriculture departed from the patterns familiar to European peasants for centuries. Their people did not sort themselves out into the accepted classes set off from one another by wealth, skill, and privilege. Even the towns and villages never acquired the appearance of those of home. The changes intruded into the most intimate human relations and distorted the character of the church and the family. Society here had to contrive new ways of enabling men to live and work with their neighbors.

The planters were not content merely to sustain themselves in isolation; they wished to preserve a connection with Europe, and the origin of the settlements in commercial companies made trade their pre-eminent concern. The newcomers were no sooner established than they devoted all their energies to commerce; and the centers through which overseas trade passed became the first cities of American civilization.

The export of commodities which had value in the marketplaces of Europe was long the basis of commerce. Puritan vessels, coasting down to Newfoundland, brought the cod ashore to be cured and packed and then sent abroad. Furs gathered in the interior passed through the warehouses of Plymouth and New Amsterdam. In the Chesapeake colonies, tobacco was the staple, and from the Connecticut and the Hudson valleys went the flour and biscuits that made up the bread trade. The ships that bore these commodities headed mostly for Europe, where the colonists had business and family connections. But the settlers learned also to look to the West Indies for a trade; their closeness to the sugar islands swelled the volume of their commerce and sustained the life of their towns.

Unsettled international conditions encouraged these early starts at overseas trade. In the first half of the seventeenth century, the intruding English and Dutch merchants were still primarily attracted by the prospect of breaking into the closed business of the Spanish and Portuguese colonies. They then acquired the habit of and facility for disregarding inconvenient laws. By mid-century, however, conflicting interests arrayed England and the Netherlands as the chief rivals for commercial supremacy. Open war between the two powers in 1652 gave the merchants of New England and New Netherland an opportunity to expand their trade while the mother countries fought one another. By 1680, Boston and New York (by then in English possession) were substantial commercial cities.

These communities were not altogether like the urban places of Europe. In 1673 Boston, the largest of them, boasted a population of five or six thousand. As returning mariners moved up the bay they glimpsed the masts of the ships clustered in the harbor, the steeples of the three churches, and a few windmills. By the time the anchor dropped this side of the seawall or Old Wharf, they made out the Gothic houses huddled together toward the North End. But when they looked up King Street beyond the down House they also saw the ample fields rising toward Beacon Hill and the Common, where cattle still peaceably grazed.

The cities were not as yet wholly detached from the countryside. Eaid out at first as fortified garrison posts, they subtly mingled in their development the urban features of the medieval town and the rural aspects of the village. Still dependent on their own resources to feed and sustain themselves, they nevertheless continued to trade overseas.

THE merchants whose hands held the lines of commerce were the most important residents. But the raw setting did not allow them simply to do business as in Amsterdam or London. They succeeded only when they accommodated themselves to the wilderness.

David Pietersen de Vries was forty-six years old and already rich in experience and in capital when he arrived in New Netherland in 1639. As owner-skipper he had taken his ships whaling off Greenland and fishing off Newfoundland. He had bought furs in Canada and spices in the East Indies and alternately bartered with and fought the corsairs of the Mediterranean. Now he dreamed of a grand plantation on Staten Island, whence he could tap the trade that moved through the great harbor. But the dream faded. The men he contracted for in Holland did not come; he had trouble with the English on a venture to the Connecticut River; and in his absence the Raritan Indians swooped down to destroy what he had built. He retired to the calm of rustic life on his Manhattan farm.

Other merchants came to terms with the wilderness. William Pynchon of Springfield had settled in the Bay Colony in 1630 at the age of forty, bringing with him the substantial capital left by the proceeds of his estate in Essex. He had quickly perceived the advantages of a site on the Connecticut River and built his storehouse opposite the Indian village of Agawam. From the surrounding countryside, the red men and, later, white farmers brought him furs, beef, pork, and corn to be shipped down the river, the provisions by way of Hartford to the West Indies, the pelts by way of Boston to London. Back from his correspondents abroad came sugar, molasses, rum, textiles, and manufactured goods. This was entirely trade on the book; no money changed hands as Pynchon kept account of the barter transactions. Naturally, the squire was the dominant figure in the community, a magistrate and a dignitary of the church. His neatly clothed figure, from which shrewd, calculating eyes surveyed his world, commanded respect and disposed of power.

His counterpart to the south was William Claiborne, the second son of the lord of a manor in Westmoreland. Claiborne was in his midthirties when he came to Virginia in 1621. A strong man who affected the long flowing hair, the pointed mustache and beard of the courtiers of his time, he built himself a little trading empire on Kent Island in the Chesapeake. Allied with Cloberry & Company of London, he played off Virginians against Marylanders, the parliamentary against the crown parties, settlers against Indians to keep the flow of goods moving. Such men early rebelled against traditional restrictions on enterprise, whether they came from the company, the church, or the colonial government. European connections remained important for the access to market and the capital they provided. But the successful merchant knew that his prosperity depended upon the ability to adapt quickly and freely to the conditions about him.

The tiny groups of officials, ministers, doctors, and lawyers who found their way across the ocean were also unsettled by the new environment. With few exceptions, the men who came to take these posts were those who had no places at home — the failures, the dissidents, the lowborn. Mostly eager to make their fortunes, they were inclined to ally themselves with the dominant merchants. In this situation, professional men could not simply adhere to European standards. No recognized authority effectively regulated their behavior or practice, and they were constantly called on to improvise the means of exercising their skills in the absence of the familiar institutions and tools of home. They had to make do without bishops or libraries, without Inns of Court or surgical instruments, without any of the symbols or artifacts that attested to their competence in the Old World.

In that respect, their problem was analogous to that of a humbler stratum of urban society. Artisans played an essential role in mercantile towns. Coopers and ropemakers and sailmakers fitted out the ships and prepared their cargo; carpenters, tailors, and bakers supplied shelter, clothing, and food. These men, too, had to transfer specialized techniques of making and doing to a new environment. Their number grew steadily — sober, skilled heads of households whose crafts were at a premium in a new society and who therefore earned substantial rewards. No guild rules and few legal restraints hampered them here in the quest for their own advantage in their own ways.

Below these solid folk was a shifting mass of servants working out their terms, and sailors between ships. Hands were scarce, and control was difficult in communities from which escape was easy; and it was no simple matter to keep in their places people tempted by avenues of easy escape.

COMMERCE also unsettled American agriculture and shaped it into forms that diverged from Old World antecedents. The desire to develop money crops that could be exported as staples influenced the whole character of settlement. Already, from the ship’s deck the newcomers could perceive the abundant stands of timber. The forests of Western Europe had long since been destroyed. Yet wood, drawn at considerable expense from the Baltic, remained essential to the European economy. Tall masts and stout planks, tar and turpentine built ships for war and commerce. Trees supplied the fuel for domestic heating and for the iron, copper, and glass industries. Potash and dyes for the wool manufacturers, shingles and barrel staves were among the other valuable products to be drawn from the forest. In the New World all were abundant. Many a husbandman who went out to plow and reap was tempted instead to hack away at the pine and oak already raised for him and to move on as the line of timber receded rather than attend to the business of farming. The rural population spread thin in the process.

Tobacco had much the same effect. It, too, was in high demand. But it quickly exhausted the soil, particularly since the only implements, the spade and the hoe, permitted the farmers merely to scratch away at the surface. The tobacco growers therefore preferred not to use scarce labor on plots that had been worked over for four or five years, but to shift to the abundant virgin land. British policy after 1660 encouraged the trend. The Navigation Acts protected the market for American tobacco, but also taxed it heavily and put a premium on the best grades, which could more readily be raised on fresh soil.

Only a few treated agriculture simply as a means of subsistence. As they became familiar with the forest, the settlers supplemented their diet by fishing and hunting. But they did not lose sight of the goals of commercial agriculture; they devoted their energies primarily to production for overseas markets that would yield returns for expansion, and some ol them were drawn directly into trade to add to their incomes.

The efforts to create staples for export, the premium on production for the market, and the dispersal of population fashioned a distinctive system of landholding in the colonies. In most parts of Europe, the peasants still lived together in villages and walked out each day to labor in the fields. Often their plots were scattered, an acre here, an acre there, in complex fragments that were the products of generations of subdivision, inheritance, and marriage. And most holdings, whether for a fixed or indefinite term, were conditional — that is, subject to continuing obligations to the crown or to intermediary landlords. By the 1670s the colonies had developed quite different patterns. In the New World, the characteristic farm was a single unified piece of land on which the farmer lived apart from his neighbors and which he owned outright as a freehold, subject only to general taxes.

The first projectors of the colonies had not expected this development and had long sought to establish older feudal forms. The Virginia, Plymouth, and New Netherland companies and the proprietors of Maryland and Carolina attempted in vain to retain a grasp on the land. Ultimately, each yielded in the face of evidence that settlers would come only in response to the lure of the freehold.

In some places, there remained an obligation to pay a nominal annual fee to the proprietor or the crown. Later, in the eighteenth century, the Americans would regard that quitrent as an intolerable burden, having forgotten that it was a relic of their liberation from all the charges that still encumbered land held in Europe, but which could not be transferred to a new society.

This was the striking difference between the development of the mainland colonies and of the West Indies. The latter were islands, the amounts of land limited. What there was of it was quickly allocated among a few large landholders. Incapable of attracting voluntary settlers by the offer of small freeholds, the island planters depended increasingly on involuntary servants who worked on larger and larger plantations. They never developed the substantial group of independent farmers that occupied the coast between Maine and Carolina.

THE settlers therefore discovered that they could not simply carry to their new homes the orderly structure of society they had known in Europe. It was all very well to respect differences in rank, to distinguish among the gentry, the great merchants, the yeomen, the traders, the artisans, and the servants. The law could dictate what clothing each class should wear and determine who should be addressed as “sir,” “mister,” “goodman,” and who without title. But such distinctions early lost their importance, despite all efforts to preserve them. Shifts in status came quickly and easily, and mobility emptied the formal rankings of significance.

The law, for instance, could fix the regulations of servitude — length of term, conditions of labor, and rewards in cash, land, or clothing. But masters had to be increasingly liberal in these matters if they wished to attract the laborers who alone could add value to empty lands. The aggrieved hands could run off into the forest or to another settlement; and harsh treatment lowered the reputation of a colony and made difficult the recruitment of newcomers (except in the case of the Negroes, who had no choice about their coming and remained depressed while others rose). Relatively favorable terms of employment enabled many bondsmen to improve their lot quickly; like Michiel Jansen, who began as a farm servant in Rensselaerswyck, they made their fortunes in a few years. Such alterations in status were common in a society where position was less often inherited than acquired.

Mobility of this sort raised a question it had not been necessary to answer in Europe, where differences in rank were in large part hereditary and w’ere marked by visible distinctions in speech.

clothing, and style of life. The people of the Old World had long since learned that every man had a place or station to which he was assigned by God and which had its own peculiar rights and obligations. The servant and master were what they were not through any particular merit or blame of their own, but as a result of forces and decisions they could not control. Each could strive only to play his own role to the best of his ability.

American experience required a subtler explanation. The settlers had to account both for the stratifications in their society and for the ability to move from one level to another. Men were not born, but rose or descended, to their ranks. That one met with fortune and another with disaster could not have been fortuitous; merit and deficiency had to be part of a larger design. He whose holdings grew larger and purse longer manifestly enjoyed God’s favor as his neighbor visited by misfortune did not. It was tempting under these conditions to fit rise and fall into a Calvinist scheme, to divide human society into the saved and the damned, the saints and the sinners, the prosperous and the poor.

In the Puritan areas where Calvinism was strongest, there was a tendency to identify divine election with rank and to regard the acquisition of wealth as a sign of divine justification. Acceptance of that logic strengthened existing leadership, fortified social discipline, and helped protect the community against untoward change.

Elsewhere differences in rank were not so readily explained, and the disparity in conditions created uncomfortable tensions. The people of Virginia and Maryland learned quickly to question the authority of the would-be gentry. Men who had sustained themselves by their own efforts, who made their own estates and lived by themselves were not likely to be passive or acquiescent. Now and again they burst into turbulent disorder and in 1676 rose up under Nathaniel Bacon to defy the governor in his mansion. Such a rebellion was as yet unthinkable in New England.

The social order the colonists created would not therefore simply be copied from that of the Old World. They had to hold together and act together, be a civil society; this the Puritans knew from the start and the others learned in the struggle to survive. They needed no abstract theory to tell them that only by covenanting with one another toward common goals could they provide for God’s worship, regulate family life, and establish the means of governing themselves. Experience taught them that unless they did so they would sink to the level of the beasts of the wilderness. But the institutions they devised for those purposes were not precisely those of Europe.

The seventeenth-century settlers shared a common religious background, but marked divergences appeared among them as they established their churches in the wilderness. The people of New England followed a course unlike that of their neighbors to the south.

The initial difference stemmed from the presence in Massachusetts and Connecticut of a small but influential body of religious leaders who had no counterpart elsewhere. The learned clergy and devout laymen who participated in the Puritan migration were a unique, leavening element, drawn from a higher level of society than the rest of the population and animated with zeal. Although a minority, they commanded not only power but also esteem and respect, and they were long able to impose their conceptions of order and discipline upon the churches they founded.

The first Puritans had no intention of cutting themselves off from the Church of England; they were no separatists, such as were to be found in Plymouth. But they carried with them the belief that the Church was the product of a covenant among its members, and that quickly brought them to Congregationalism. In practice, the members were a small, self-selected group, convinced of each other’s piety, who chose the minister, regulated worship, and governed the whole congregation. The tendency to identify spiritual election to the body of saints with material evidences of divine favor put such membership within easy reach of people of wealth and rank, yet often excluded the common mass, who had to attend services and listen to the sermon but who lacked any voice in decisions. The same influential personages, therefore, exercised religious as well as political and economic power, a fact which elicited the obedience of the rest of the community. Moreover, the town was a setting that encouraged a tight religious order. So long as all lived and worked together, there was no room for secret transgression, dissent, or open rebellion.

The planters of Virginia were no less religious than those of Massachusetts. But their settlements lacked the organizational strength of the New England town, and without the religious commitment to Calvinism, they could not develop such local roots as the Congregationalists did. Their churches were therefore weak and unstable, despite the fact that they were established by law and had the support of government.

In theory, Virginia was under the charge of the Bishop of London, as all the English colonies were held to be until the American Revolution. But that cleric before 1670 was not overly concerned with the fate of the remote outposts of his immense diocese, and without rigorous episcopal supervision, the church fell into disorder. It proved difficult to recruit a reputable clergy. Given the opportunities for comfortable livings in the Established Church at home, it was not likely that any but the failures and the disgraced would choose to come to the colonies. Undistinguished by either piety or learning, such men acquired the lax manners of those among whom they resided in the dispersed settlements. The result was a breakdown of the habit of worship and widespread apathy toward the obligations of faith. Religion could not serve as an instrument of social discipline as it did in New England. Personal misbehavior could only be dealt with by the government. A certain David Spiller, who in 1653 was repeatedly brought to court for excessive drinking, name-calling, slander, and immorality, in Massachusetts would certainly have been curbed by the religious authorities. In Virginia he could only be controlled by force; usually such types were not controlled at all.

The Virginia situation tended to become the norm everywhere south of the Hudson. The few Roman Catholic priests in Maryland and the few Calvinist ministers in New Netherland could not hold together patterns of religious life shaken by migration. The failure to do so outside New England profoundly influenced all social relationships. What, in the wilderness, would induce men to obey without fear of divine retribution?

NEITHER habit nor the inner discipline of the family could be counted on here to hold men to conventional ways. However appearances remained unchanged, beneath the surface the alchemy of the wilderness transformed traditional modes of behavior.

The seventeenth-century colonist often imagined himself a biblical patriarch; again and again, in sermons, the family life described in the scriptures was held up as a model for emulation. He was hardly aware that the institution evolving in America was different not only from that of ancient Palestine, but also from that of contemporary England. And the alterations weakened its capacity for controlling men’s conduct.

In Europe the family had been a functioning economic unit in which were joined husband, wife, children, and also relatives and servants who participated in the work of the household. On the land or in the workshop, each person had duties defined by age and status, and each was subject to the authority of the master, who was responsible for the welfare of all. The community of which it was a part assumed general oversight of the family; its sanctions assured respect for the mutual rights and obligations of the members. The disapproval of neighbors, the reproof of the church, and the punishment of the state hung above those who failed to comply with the accepted code.

In Virginia and Maryland the dispersal of settlement destroyed the possibility of close supervision of personal life. Each family was isolated on its own farm, remote from any neighbor and dependent upon its own resources. Yet it was a strain to see only the same faces day after day in the strange environment. In the lingering tensions, quarrels erupted; children and servants were disobedient, and husband and wife abused one another. As a result, gaps appeared in the network of intimate relationships that organized household life. The sermons of troubled ministers revealed the concern with the consequences. But rarely was there an authority to step in to establish an order of what was right and what was wrong.

Such an order was more necessary here than in settled societies. Concentration upon the staple eliminated the diversification of the old household economy. Between the tobacco held and the wilderness there was nothing — rarely a yard or garden to occupy the women and children at traditional tasks. The only alternative to idleness was man’s work; and the wife or son who labored by the side of a husband or father ceased to accept authority as a matter of course. Boys no sooner emerged from adolescence than they insisted on being off to fend for themselves, and the abundance of land permitted them easily to break away.

Often then the husband and wife were left alone and the family ceased to be what it had seemed to be in Europe — a durable institution reaching back across many generations and extending widely through many relationships in the society. Instead, it was an arrangement that held together the conjugal pair and, temporarily, their dependent children.

Marriage lost its religious significance. In the South, where the clergy were few and far between, the traditional rites became a burdensome formality readily dispensed with. In New England, the Calvinist rejection of the sacrament of marriage had the same result. But common to the general secularization was an altered view of what the ceremony meant. Marriage was not the solemnization, in a manner ordained by God, of a relationship that would perpetuate the family as a pillar of society. It was an arrangement effected through a civil contract before a magistrate, or simply by a voluntary agreement, in which two individuals undertook to work together for the satisfaction of their own needs.

That transformation, slower in New England than elsewhere, but everywhere apparent by the 1670s, was symptomatic of a much broader change in the whole society. The colonists were not able to bring intact with them the corporate order of family and church within the community that had governed their lives in Europe. If men were to live by rules and not as brutes in the wilderness, other means of control would have to be made effective.

ORDER was the immediate and continuing need of the colonists at the edge of the wilderness. Remote from traditional sources of control, the anxious men and women who struggled for survival quickly learned that they would fend off the dangers from the enemies of the forest and from among themselves only if they could labor together in some organized way. Yet the soil of the New World proved inhospitable to the inherited European community that they wished to bring with them across the ocean. Neither church nor family nor any other institution survived the crossing intact. If the venturers in these hazardous enterprises were to cooperate, it would have to be according to fresh rules compatible with the strange conditions, and all too often force was required to make the rules binding.

But the Europeans who became Americans were, by habit and training, hostile to the naked use of violence. The experience of a thousand years had taught them to distinguish between the compulsion cloaked in legitimacy and that which was simply the oppressive exercise of power by one man over another. And precisely because all else in the new universe they explored was uncertain and unfamiliar, they wished to preserve the clarity of the line between brute force and the restraint of law. Otherwise they would find themselves one man set against another, all helpless and without order.

Seventeenth-century Europeans understood that violence was tolerable and even desirable when those subject to it accepted it of their own will, as a means of attaining a goal they could not individually pursue. Men banded together because they could not live alone. In doing so, they agreed to accept the government of the ruler placed over them in order to further their common interests. They thereby formed a body politic within which were lodged the legitimate instruments of coercion. It was so that the passengers of the Mayflower had acted when they covenanted to combine themselves into a civil body politic that could frame just and equal laws to which they could promise all due submission.

The chartered company was one such body politic, and those who voluntarily joined it accepted its governance. But it derived its authority from the sovereign only for a specific purpose, set forth in the document that brought it into being It controlled so much of the lives of its members as was relevant to that purpose and no more. In the wilderness, however, these commercial enterprises became civil societies and were expected to maintain order in all men’s relations with one another. The new role transformed transplanted institutions. The governor discovered that, despite his commission, he was not all-powerful but had to secure the collaboration of those who could give effect to his orders. Rules promulgated in Europe proved less binding than those adopted locally. Diverse groups tried to use the polity in their own interest, and the participants became aware that all were concerned with establishing the regularity of law and the security of privileges. By 1680 the metamorphosis was almost complete; the companies had turned into the political instruments of functioning civil societies.

The process modified the traditional European conception of political power. In the Old World, the monarch stood at the pinnacle of the body politic. His anointment in a religious ceremony lent a sacred quality to the mutual obligations of sovereign and subject. To him all owed obedience. From him all authority emanated; standing at the head of the hierarchy of power, he issued all commissions and gave validity to every action at law.

No one among the immigrants to America questioned the supreme position of the King at the head of the state. The problem was to give it meaning in a remote place under conditions radically different from those of Europe. The character of the people who became colonists and their distance from the source of authority decisively conditioned the way in which the institutions of government passed across the ocean.

THE settlers were not a complete cross section of the population of the lands from which they came. Among them were almost no men who had had any experience with the upper levels of political administration. The mass had had no contact with power except as subjects; in a vague way they were conscious of the links between neighborhood officials and Westminster, but they had no way of knowing how the mechanism actually functioned. Some of the gentry among the migrants had held local office and knew something about the practice of borough or manor courts. But none was familiar with the operations of Parliament or of the King’s councils, and none was learned in the law.

As a result, the colonists were often compelled to improvise, not out of any love of novelty, but out of misunderstanding or ignorance. Lacking a secure grasp of proper procedures, they were driven to act in accord with their own approximations of what seemed right under their own circumstances. That opened the way to significant, though often unperceived, deviations from what had been usual at home.

The sheer distance of the colonies in America from the capitals in Europe had somewhat the same result in impeding the simple transfer of political institutions across the ocean. The slowness of communications lelt an imposing gap between every order and its fulfillment. A command issued in London in March was not likely to reach Virginia until June, and news of whether it had been accepted would not come back until September. If there was any uncertainty or disinclination to obey in the colony, correspondence on the matter could prolong itself a year or more. Under these conditions, large measures of local discretion were unavoidable, and the intentions of the rulers only incompletely became the realities of the New World.

The governors sent out by the crown were men of power. They commanded respect not only because they were often gentlemen of quality, not only because they stood at the head of colonial society, but also because they represented the King’s majesty. In the rude clearings, where all others sank to the level of the savage surroundings, the governors still embodied what was royal and sacred in the Old World. Helmeted and armored, they were force in its traditional guise.

In 1642 and 1643 three such men came to the New World. Sir William Berkeley was thirty-six years old, scion of an influential family, a graduate of Oxford who had already made his mark as a courtier and a playwright. From his impressive brick mansion in Jamestown he was to rule Virginia in its most critical decades. Johan Printz was almost fifty, a veteran of the Thirty Years’ War; a nobleman by birth, he had been a student at the University of Rostock when he drifted into a fighting career, and had served one German princeling after another until he arrived to command the settlement at New Sweden on the Delaware River. Later he was to die of a fall from a horse. But he was now a monumental figure; awed by his four hundred pounds, the Indians called him “Big Guts” and the colonists feared his wile and his soldierly anger. The career and character of Petrus Stuyvesant were somewhat similar. Of the same age as Printz, he too had lived by the sword and was a faithful servant of the Dutch West India Company. He came to America as governor of Curaçao and there lost his right leg in battle. But the stump proved no impediment when he was assigned to New Netherland in 1646. There he established himself in his great bowery and ruled like a czar — vain, choleric, impatient of advice. All three were competent administrators, men accustomed to large enterprise, conscious of their rank and insistent upon unquestioning obedience.

Yet despite the staunch front they maintained, despite their habit of command, all the governors found themselves making subtle changes in the structure of government, not because of open challenges to their authority, but because only thus could they get themselves obeyed. The process was well under way by the time Berkeley and Stuyvesant arrived.

VIRGINIA for almost two decades was the property of a chartered corporation. The seat of its government was London; there the stockholders, meeting in General Court, enacted the rules for its management. Thence instructions went to the governor and his council in Jamestown, who actually administered the colony. Under garrison conditions, the officials on the spot exercised total jurisdiction; within the broad mandate from the company they made rules, enforced obedience, and tried and punished the refractory.

The system never worked. Unforeseen conditions in the New World and distance from the Old impeded the execution of the company’s wishes and forced the governor to arrive at his own decisions. Yet the spread of settlement outside Jamestown made it difficult for him to make his will felt throughout the colony. As the individual lamilies drifted away from the sheltering but confining palisades they removed themselves from the governor’s power.

In 1618 the company recognized the problem and resolved to deal with it. It marked out a number of territorial jurisdictions, in each of which it asked that a court or meeting consider various matters of local business. No existing term was exactly appropriate to describe these areas, which for the time being were sometimes called shires, sometimes towns, and sometimes counties. Eventually, the last designation became permanent; and as the sessions became formalized, convening regularly four times a year, they were known as the county or quarter courts. Their concerns were not simply judicial. They controlled the militia, made rules of their own, and in effect administered local government.

Meanwhile, in 1619, these bodies were directed to choose representatives to meet together to consider matters that concerned the whole colony. That assembly would become known as the House of Burgesses — again, an inappropriate designation, because no English word fitted it exactly. It had, in its early years, no precise functions or defined procedures. Nor did it meet at regular intervals. It was simply a convention of the prominent men in the colony, who came together to act upon matters of common concern, often sitting with the council. After a decade or so, the meetings became more regular and more systematic, and the House of Burgesses gradually took on the character of a legislature, not through any deliberate plan but because the situation required that general rules be made by people drawn from all parts of the settlement, who alone could see to their enforcement.

The first session in 1619 occupied a good part of its time with petty details, the complaints of servants, the control of drunkenness, the punishment of misdemeanors, and the like. But as the political system developed, it became clear that the effective power to get anything done resided not in the grand assembly that met in Jamestown but in the county courts, which could muster the military power to support the general laws. Although the courts met only quarterly, they quickly worked out means of exercising their control through the year.

By the 1620s they were accustomed to designating those members who lived in a particular district or parish to act as a vestry, or local governing body. Here the men of influence came together to administer the affairs of their area in accordance with the broad directives of the county court, on which they also sat in its quarterly meetings. As settlement became stable, power was fixed in the hands of the families of wealth and position, and the vestries were chosen by co-option. Later, the practice of public election became common, but that consisted only of the approval by the people of the list the vestry presented them. The election was not a means of selecting officers, but rather a way of giving general recognition to those already designated.

The system was comprehensible in terms of the conditions of the time. The great landowners were not only the wealthiest individuals in a region; because they controlled large numbers of servants, they also disposed of the most power. They alone could exact obedience, and therefore they alone could sit on the vestry effectively. For the same reason they appeared on the bench of the county court, which could rule only with the sanctions they supplied. And only by securing their attendance could the House of Burgesses expect its wishes to be carried out. The governor, in theory, had the power to commission justices of the peace. But he too realized that the sealed paper had value only in the hands of men with power to use it — that is, exactly the same persons who appeared in the vestry, the county court, and the House of Burgesses. The system worked because it rested on local power.

Here was a significant inversion of the relationship to authority. In England and France the King’s legitimate right to rule was delegated by successive steps down to the justice or the bailiff who acted on his behalf in each village. The American colonists of the seventeenth century never questioned the propriety of that scheme. But it did not work in the New World. Instead, authority accumulated on the local level and passed upward by the representation of those who held it.

Only when those who held local control themselves divided into antagonistic groups were these nascent political institutions further altered. In Virginia that occurred in the 1670s, when families that possessed exceptionally large landed estates began to set themselves off from the rest of the county gentry. The Blands, the Byrds, the Carters, the Ludwells, and the Masons were often men with capital who had arrived since the first pioneering days, and their holdings were far greater than their neighbors’. Generally, the instrument of their participation in politics was the council.

In the earliest days, it had been the only body with which the governor had shared power. But it had sunk in importance in the half century between 1620 and 1670. when it seemed often simply to merge with the Burgesses. Then, as the difference between the great and the greatest men in the colony became more distinct, the council took to meeting by itself as the agency of the uppermost group in society. At that point the characteristic features of the provincial polity were clearly defined: the governor, who was appointed from London, an assembly of the local gentry, and a smaller council of would-be aristocrats shared power.

THE developments in Virginia were representative of those in the other mainland colonies. Nearby Maryland was the possession of a lord proprietor rather than of a chartered company. But it had been settled by much the same kind of people as Virginia and followed a very similar course.

The Dutch and Swedish colonies differed in their failure to develop an assembly, in part at least because the companies retained greater control and preserved the military character of the early government. A smaller population, confined to a restricted area, was also more readily cowed. Yet even in New Netherland, authority tended to drift toward the holders of local power. And after mid-century, calls for some representative governing body showed that the dominance of the governor and council would not long remain unchallenged.

In New England, too, power shifted to a local base, although the compact communal nature of settlement complicated the evolution there.

The Pilgrims came to Plymouth with a clouded title and with powers derived not directly from the crown but from the larger Virginia Company. Properly speaking, there was no legitimate authority; whatever right to govern existed emanated entirely from the agreement among those who held power. While the settlers clung together in the place of their first landing, they ruled themselves in meetings under the leadership of a governor and assistants. Their town embraced features of the organization of English boroughs grafted onto company forms. But when, in the next two decades, the Plymouth folk spread out into a half-dozen different centers, a more elaborate structure appeared. Each cluster of families became a town, and from 1639 on each sent deputies to an assembly which, with the governor and assistants, exercised political power in the colony.

The town was also the nucleus of power in Massachusetts. Salem was already functioning after this fashion before the Bay Company formally look possession, and thereafter each penetration of new settlers into the interior proceeded through the creation of new communities. In each place, the freemen met regularly, made the important decisions of common interest, and designated the selectmen who governed in the interim. Of course they chose the prominent men, the godly and wealthy most properly entrusted with authority. But the character of the officeholders did not change from year to year, and those once elected tended to retain power indefinitely. When vacancies occurred, moreover, the officeholders were in the best position for co-opting new men to share their responsibilities. In practice, therefore, the role of the meeting was that of approving their choices and of resolving conflicts within the ruling group. Like the vestrymen of Virginia, the selectmen of New England ruled because they held local power. It was obvious, John Winthrop pointed out, that “some must be rich, some poore, some highe and eminent in power and dignitie; others meane and in subieccion.”

As settlement spread, the leaders in each town, eminent in wealth, power, and dignity, reached out for a share of control in the colony. Within a decade they had transformed the company organization transferred from England. Who were the stockholders or freemen, entitled to vote in the General Court? Not a narrow group of the original promoters, but all those property holders admitted to the privilege by the towns. Shortly they became too numerous to gather as a body. Instead, the town meeting designated representatives to act for it in the General Court, which became a legislative assembly. Here, too, government was effective because it rested upon the local organization of power.

In Connecticut and Rhode Island the dependence upon local authority was clearer still. There the individual towns actually antedated the organization of any central government. The settlers made their clearings, built their meetinghouses, and chose their rulers independently, until the needs of defense and common action persuaded them voluntarily to unite in each of the two colonies. There, as elsewhere on the mainland, the assembly remained the medium through which the holders of local power joined to establish general order.

EACH colony developed along parallel but separate lines. In each, the immigrants who were making homes in the wilderness contrived a political system as best they could to give them an equivalent of the stable relations they thought they had known at home. Bringing with them a common heritage and confronting similar conditions, they converted the company form into workable governments that represented the actualities of power.

In the process, the connections with the crown were relatively unimportant. Through this whole period Englishmen had closer and more pressing subjects of political concern. The disturbances that began under the Stuarts continued through the Cromwellian decades and were by no means resolved by the Restoration. Few gave much thought to the remote and unproductive colonies in these years of turmoil and experimentation. As a result, decisions made in London had little effect upon the developing American institutions.

In 1624, for instance, the crown vacated the charter of the Virginia Company and turned the colony into a royal province. That change, however, had no visible influence upon internal political evolution. Thereafter the King rather than the company appointed the governor. But that official still had to secure the assent of those he ruled; and he had to accept the development of the assembly, of the counties, and of the parishes to do so.

The settlers rarely thought about the remote questions of authority. Government, in their eyes, was a means of maintaining local order. Justices of the peace and selectmen, courts and assemblies were useful because they could protect men against enemies, punish the disorderly, resolve conflicts among individuals, and undertake such projects, useful to all, as the support of schools and churches, the construction of roads, and the provision of ferries. All these efforts required the use of force, to ensure obedience and to collect taxes. It was a matter of course that the officials were men who disposed of such force.

Seventeenth-century Americans, like Europeans, were accustomed to thinking of office as a kind of property, the holder of which was expected to profit from the fees and privileges associated with it. The small exactions for every service were preferred to higher taxes on all property. Fees, however, mounted up in the purses of those who received them and were accounted among the legitimate rewards of politics.

Those who held and those who sought power therefore soon turned their attention to distribution of the spoils. Accustomed to thinking in terms of the limited space of the Old World, they considered land the greatest prize at first, and the maps of each province were crisscrossed with enormous grants of thousands of acres. (To make something of these wilderness tracts would be another matter, of course.) Monopolies of various kinds were also deemed precious — of trade with the Indians, of bolting flour, of operating mills and lerries. It was over the allocation of prizes that the local gentry sometimes fell out. Political conflicts generally originated in disputes about the award of these concessions.

In Virginia, the most dynamic and expansive of the provinces, such conflicts culminated in Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676. Nathaniel Bacon, a gentleman of good family and liberal education, but very ambitious and arrogant, was a recent arrival who found himself at odds with the clique around Governor Berkeley. Bacon had land but wanted more; his scheme for a monopoly of the fur trade failed, and he wished an aggressive Indian policy. He drew around him malcontents aggrieved because the country’s wealth had been committed into the hands of the men in authority and favor. The challenge to the ruling group also excited some ordinary settlers unhappy about the privileges of the local magnates and about the heavy fees exacted by sheriffs and clerks. The uprising at first had a measure of success. But it dissolved, as did similar insurrections in other colonies, when it became clear that the destruction of privilege might also destroy the order of which privilege was a part. The county gentry who at first followed Bacon wanted a share of the spoils, not their total elimination.

The Puritan colonies established the connection between privilege and order more easily. There, religious sanctions firmly sustained all the institutions of discipline and control. In the first decades of settlement, power and church membership were closely linked. Church membership determined who would participate in government; and respectability, wealth, and position helped to determine church membership. But as the years passed an increasing number of children of the best families failed to achieve the experience of conversion, were denied membership and therefore excluded from an active role in the polity. If the process continued to shrink the number of members, they would not be able to hold power, and the original order would dissolve. The concept of the halfway covenant, which admitted such people to membership, averted the danger. In effect, that compromise allowed a position in the church to pass from generation to generation within the family—pragmatically, within the respectable families— in each community. With that position, too, passed the privileges of sharing political control.

The vastness of what was available, throughout the colonies, relieved the tension of the conflicts over the prizes of politics. There was no end to the land yet untaken, and even the unsuccessful competitor for a grant could not feel totally disappointed when he considered how much remained to be exploited. There was room for all. And as the colonies expanded, old privileges tended to shrivel in value by comparison with the new opportunities constantly being opened. That took the bitterness out of defeat and sustained the evolving order.

EXPERIENCE demonstrated that, in the long run, men profited most if the society could but assure them an orderly basis for conducting their own operations. The wilderness, once men learned to exploit it, offered them all the goods their hearts desired; it most lacked regularity, predictability, security. The fertile virgin soil would amply reward those who tilled it, and there were endless opportunities for trade and for the exercise of craft skills, if only those who applied themselves to their tasks could be sure that none would trespass or break an agreement or take by force or deceit that which did not belong to him. To be sure that they would reap what they had sowed, sell what they had bought, and be paid for what they had made, the colonists needed the safeguards of law.

The law administered by the governor of a military plantation was inadequate in a civil society precisely because it was unpredictable and hung upon the whim of a single individual. Yet the inherited system of law was not readily transported across the ocean. In Europe, lawyers and judges in courts argued the meaning of texts, prescribed courses of study prepared them for judgment, and they could consult books and records for confirmation of their views. None of this apparatus was available in the wilderness; neither the trained jurists nor the books. The deficiency was particularly grave in the case of Englishmen, for their common law rested largely on an accumulation of precedents with which few colonists were familiar. Some had had experience with the local courts of the Old World, in which custom and tradition counted heavily. But their recollections were necessarily imperfect, and in any case there were significant variations among the practices of the different districts from which the settlers came.

The law therefore could not simply be transplanted from European to American soil, and those who attempted to do so encountered a hostile reception. The Burgesses of Virginia in 1658 considered the question, “Whether a regulation or total ejection of lawyers?” They answered, “By the first vote. An ejection.” The law was not to be received but improvised in response to immediate practical conditions.

The men who made the judgments that became law were swayed by personal interest and by the prejudices of their time and position. But they were also guided by some notion of what was just; religious faith and habit persuaded them that there was a standard by which to recognize and punish wrongs, by which to resolve disputes, and by which to preserve the peace. To rule in accord with that standard, it was necessary to consult experience, the Bible, and other sacred or learned texts, and the teaching of the ministers.

But memory was a fallible instrument; the recollection of past decisions faded with the passage of years and with the death of those who had made them. Records were not well kept and were difficult to consult. Often the members of an assembly or the officers of a court could not be sure of what precisely their predecessors had actually done. In the Puritan colonies, concern with maintaining a standard of justice and with letting the people know what it was led to the promulgation, from time to time, of restatements of the law or codes. But in most parts of the continent, judges and representatives had to determine the merits of each issue as it arose with no more guidance than their own sense of justice gave them.

In this fluid situation, men could not rely for protection on status, custom, or tradition; there was always the danger of some infringement by the ignorant or heedless others, and it was essential that each be vigilant in the protection of his own rights. Even in New England the community could not be counted upon to help those who did not call upon it; and elsewhere he who did not guard his own privileges would surely find them trampled on. Hence the sensitivity of the colonists to their liberties — a term then still synonymous with privileges or rights.

The colonial charters had assured the people who went to the New World that they would continue to enjoy the liberties and immunities of free and natural-born subjects. Those phrases in England had a meaning defined through the centuries by the common law; they were intended to guard the individual in a remote place against arbitrary action by the company or its officers.

But the relevance of these guarantees to wilderness conditions was by no means clear. As the colonists developed their own polities, they had to begin slowly and imperfectly to work out their own definitions of their liberties. Claims were made in petitions and affirmed in codes or ordinances. No man’s life was to be taken, or his good name stained, or his person arrested, or his wife, children, or goods seized, or his labor pressed to public service unless by the terms of some law applicable to all. Each had the right to a trial by jury, to move away if he wished, and to fish and fowl in the great ponds and bays. There were to be no monopolies, nor any bond slavery, villenage, or captivity, except according to law.

AFFIRMATIONS such as these were broad and general not out of any conscious denial of the importance of differences in rank nor out of any desire to maintain that all people were equal. It was not at all incongruous that they should go on, for example, to provide one punishment for gentlemen and another for common folk. Rights often were associated with all men rather than with particular classes, because the dictinctions were less readily perceived in the wilderness than in the Old World. Men alone could turn the forests into homes; the more men, the better and faster. The settlements eager to expand therefore welcomed immigration. The landowner, teased by a shortage of the labor which alone could make his holding profitable, and the merchant, whose trade would thrive with an increase in the number of producers and consumers, were alike eager to do all they could to attract newcomers. The assurance that all men in the New World were secure in the enjoyment of extensive rights was one of the means of doing so.

The effects were visible in the steady improvement of the status of servants. Their complaints were heeded, not only out of fear that they might otherwise run away but also out of concern for the reputation of the colony. Stories of ill treatment would surely affect the future number of arrivals. Terras were shortened, discipline relaxed, and the interpretations of unclear contracts were heavily weighted in their favor. By 1680, although they were bound for the years of their service, they had substantial rights, for they were on their way to being freemen.

By contrast, the Negroes, who served for life, remained sunk in the degradation that was the lot of all servants at the beginning. Totally strange, they did not even know how to complain. They had in any case been brought against their will; their fate once they arrived had no effect whatever upon the volume of the traffic. Therefore, all doubts were resolved against them, and the discipline by which they were bound became steadily more severe. They were totally devoid of rights.

The distinction which now became clear between the freeman and the slave hinged upon the relationship to rights. The European society the settlers left had known no such sharp distinction; it had rather recognized a gradation of ranks, at each level of which men enjoyed particular privileges or freedoms, wider at the top, narrower at the bottom. The New World by 1680, however, had come to distinguish between the totally free and the totally enslaved, those with rights and those without.

The Americans as yet were far from carrying the logic of that position to its extreme. On through the next century there would remain elements in the population that were free and yet disadvantaged in respect to some of their rights — women, the poor, and the aliens, for example. For there was not, in this period, any complete or comprehensive statement of rights, everywhere binding. Rather, sporadically, as the occasion demanded, individuals arose to assert boldly, and sometimes successfully, that a privilege was theirs and was not to be violated. Not everyone was in a position to raise his voice. Nor did the succession of such claims as yet erect a reliable barrier against those who held power and were determined to use it. But a body of precedents was accumulating that would have genuine importance in the future.

The emphasis upon rights reflected the vagueness of the law and the looseness of society. The colonists were concerned about their freedoms precisely because these freedoms were not securely grounded in a stable community and had to be defended.

They had hoped to maintain orderly relations among themselves through a government of laws and had created a polity out of the materials they had brought with them in the company form. The governments that emerged were instruments of local power, generally used for the advantage of those who controlled them. But in the process of creating these agencies, the colonists had in practice discovered that the authority to rule depended upon consent and that free men had rights to defend. The next century would attach profound meanings to these vague propositions.