You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

How Ghastly Were the Beginnings of European America?

The Savage New World

Few historians are as accomplished or as consistent as Bernard Bailyn, the Adams University professor emeritus at Harvard University and a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for American history. In a long and productive scholarly career, he has worked steadily within the interpretive bounds of “American Exceptionalism.” Last year that phrase erupted into the Republican primary debates as Newt Gingrich cast American Exceptionalism as the true national faith, and demonized President Obama as a heretic prone to regard other national cultures as worthy of respect. Gingrich’s populist version celebrates America as exceptional in its devotion to liberty and endowed with a providential mission to lead and preach to the unfortunate people condemned to live elsewhere.

Never so crass, Bailyn subscribes instead to the scholarly variant of exceptionalism that describes a process of historical development. In the colonial beginning, traditional Europeans sailed westward determined to replicate the hierarchical institutions and late medieval values of their origins. But they encountered a strange and wild land of menace, challenge, and opportunity. Pitted on the frontier against Indians, the newcomers struggled to master a fertile and abundant land. By conquering and prospering, their children and grandchildren became tough individualists endowed with a new set of American values. Rejecting deference to authority and tradition, they competed to get ahead of one another by acquiring private property. Entrepreneurial, resourceful, and innovative, they crafted new institutions including the egalitarian democracy that alone could govern their energies and demand their respect. This notion of a democratic transformation has deep roots in American culture, reaching back through Frederick Jackson Turner’s late nineteenth-century “frontier thesis” to John Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, an eighteenth-century immigrant who famously asked, “What is this new man, the American?” His answer launched American Exceptionalism.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Turner lamented that settlement had just erased the American frontier. He implied that the loss eventually would corrode the egalitarian conditions and values that it had spawned. In the middle of the twentieth century, however, the historian Oscar Handlin offered reassurance in studies of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European immigrants to urban America. Handlin’s “uprooted” people needed no frontier, for American cities offered plenty of competition and challenge to re-make hierarchical Europeans into democratic Americans. The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Handlin joined the history faculty at Harvard, where he became Bailyn’s mentor and, later, his senior colleague. Dedicated to Handlin’s perspective, Bailyn has continued to explore American Exceptionalism in his long career of many essays and books on colonial and revolutionary America.

George A. Crofutt/Library of Congress

In recent years, however, many younger historians have come to distrust American Exceptionalism as too celebratory. They cite the many experiences that do not fit the triumphant story: the life-long poor, the women kept in dependence, the Indians dispossessed to provide lands for the prospering, and the Africans imported as slaves to work the stolen land. Better critics than synthesizers, the newer historians have struggled to come up with a unifying narrative to compete with the simple elegance of the idea of exceptionalism. And most Americans remain blissfully oblivious to the new scholarship, for our popular culture relentlessly celebrates the hoary story of bad old Europeans becoming brand new Americans through the alchemy of a wondrous new land.

In his new book, Bailyn tries to combine the exceptionalist framework with newer scholarship that dwells on the miseries, rather than the uplift, of the settler frontier. Again he casts the colonists as struggling, and failing, to replicate old European ways in the new land. Instead, they had to adapt to “the new configurations of life that were emerging around them. In the process they created new vernacular cultures and social structures similar to but confusingly different from what had been known before.” Yet now Bailyn no longer celebrates this transformation, for the colonists’ “experiences were not mainly of triumph but of confusion, failure, violence, and the loss of civility as they sought to normalize abnormal situations and to recapture lost worlds, in the process tearing apart the normalities of the people whose world they had invaded.” Indeed, Bailyn exceeds any revisionist in depicting seventeenth-century America as a heart of darkness, where natives and newcomers competed in destructive savagery.

While battling the Indians without mercy, the colonizers also divided by nationality, religion, and sheer orneriness into murderous internal factions: “threats from within merged with threats from without to form a heated atmosphere of apocalyptic danger.” In a typically baroque sentence, Bailyn asserts that “they lived conflicted lives, beset with conflicts experienced, rumored, or recalled—unrelenting racial conflicts, ferocious and savage; religious conflicts, as bitter within as between confessions; conflicts with authority, private and public; recurrent conflicts over property rights, legal obligations, and status; and conflicts created by the slow emergence of vernacular cultures, blendings of disparate subcultures adjusting to the demands of heightened aspirations and local circumstance.” The colonies were “replete with bitter rivalries, scandalous accusations, violent encounters, assassination attempts, executions, and above all bloody massacres of the native Indians and earth-scorching raids.” Any glimpse of hope proved fleeting: “it was a false dawn that led to another dark passage of bloodshed and terror—which might have been predicted.”

Bailyn describes pre-colonial America as already a brutal land of chronic conflict. While briefly acknowledging native ingenuity in horticulture and crafts, he dwells on their brutality and cruelty in war as best defining their cultures. They allegedly lived in a savage state of chronic anxiety: “None were free from the threat of violence—the unpredictable and uncontrollable violence of the natural world, the unfathomable violence of inner lives that exploded so strangely in dreams, the violence of border wars that erupted repeatedly, year after year, and the psychological violence endemic in cultures that demanded heroic invincibility and endurance and that familiarized children with excruciating cruelty.” Relying on harsh accounts by Jesuit missionaries written after colonization disrupted the native world with greater violence, Bailyn overstates the previous terrors of native life.

Despite characterizing native life as perpetual belligerence, he acknowledges that the colonizers escalated the conflicts with genocidal raids, and by pitting native villages against one another by offering new weapons to their trading partners. Every colony imported mercenaries from Europe’s brutal wars to serve as “hammerours” against Indian resistance. To justify the bloody massacre and the massive dispossession of the defeated, the colonists treated the Indians as filthy barbarians oblivious to religious truth. “They know nothing of God, but serve Satan,” announced one colonial governor. After setting a Pequot Indian village on fire, and butchering hundreds of men, women, and children who tried to flee, Captain John Mason exulted, “We were like Men in a Dream, then was our Mouth filled with Laughter, and our Tongues with Singing; thus we may say the Lord hath done great Things for us among the Heathen, whereof we are glad. Praise ye the Lord!”

In apparently endless wars, both sides tortured captives to especially gruesome deaths, followed by dismemberments for public display. “Some of these . . . bloody encounters were the work of ruthless, avaricious, fearful, or sadistic Europeans; some were the work of drunken, enraged, or vengeful Indians.” Breaking with the usual American polarity that pits the purely good guys against utterly bad guys, Bailyn casts almost everyone as malign and ruthless, as both victim and victimizer.

The colonial leaders felt contempt for their own ragtag colonists, many drawn from orphanages, poor-houses, and prisons. In New Sweden (on the Delaware), an exasperated governor declared that “it would be impossible . . . to find more stupid people in all Sweden.” Violent and choleric, colonial leaders tortured, mutilated, and executed any commoner who questioned their authority or tried to escape to the Indians or to a rival colony. Once civil law replaced martial law, the propertied colonists could breathe easier, but the many indentured servants suffered from courts that supported their exploiters. One lonely young male servant was hung after the Plymouth Colony court convicted him of “bestiality ‘with a mare, a cow, two goats, five sheep, two calves, and a turkey.’ ” (Determined to be thorough, and adhering literally to Leviticus, the court also executed the animals as accessories to the crime.) When white servants became too difficult or too expensive, the propertied colonists created a new “barbarous system of human debasement”: perpetual chattel slavery for imported Africans. The colonial frontier could promote slavery more readily than freedom.

While oppressing the poor and powerless, colonial leaders struggled to command respect or obedience from the propertied, who tended to be crude and grasping arrivistes. In New Netherland, one trader defied the law and declared that he “ ‘wiped his ass’ on it.” The courts struggled to clear dockets replete with “cases of blasphemy, drunkenness, extortion, fornication, receiving stolen goods, and sedition” plus adultery and witchcraft.

J.L.G. Ferris/Library of Congress

Rejecting the romance of seventeenth-century America as a land of bright new opportunity and religious freedom, Bailyn paints a very bleak picture. The emigrants endured long, cramped, deadly trans-Atlantic voyages replete with filth, hunger, thirst, and disease. With great relish, he narrates these voyages of the damned: “Food spoiled, dysentery swept through the huddled population, lice were said to be so thick in the clothes and blankets that when beaten with clubs, blood dripped from the cloth. Disease and delirium so disoriented some people that they fell overboard and drowned.” Upon arrival, “sickly, disoriented passengers” landed in a hot and humid land cloudy with disease-bearing mosquitoes. Winter withdrew the bugs but inflicted cold and hunger on migrants used to temperate Britain. They sweltered with fevers and shivered with pneumonia in flimsy, drafty houses that rotted almost as quickly as they were built. The crude streets and lanes filled with garbage and served as open sewers, breeding the pathogens of deadly dysentery. When able to bear arms, the colonists raided Indian villages and resisted their vengeful counter-attacks. “Death was everywhere. Race warfare ground on relentlessly,” Bailyn remarks. “Family life was twisted, devastated, by early death.” Other colonists mocked little Rhode Island as the “latrine of New England,” but pots were calling the kettle black.

After sixty years of studying colonial America, Bailyn finds it weirder than ever. Possessing a powerful sense of normalcy, he repeatedly characterizes the early colonists and their works as “strange” or “bizarre.” The colonies offered, he insists, “strange, at times bizarre, distensions of familiar European forms of life.” Distorted by many early deaths, colonial households “were complex, jumbled, unstable, at times bizarre.” At best, the colonial settlements could aspire to become “quasi-normal communities.”

Although begun as a social-scientific examination of migration patterns rooted in quantitative evidence, The Barbarous Years usually offers a morally charged rhetoric rich in vivid adjectives and adverbs jostling for attention within complex sentences. The statistical interludes in the book reveal painstaking and important research that richly illuminates the diversity of the colonial migrants to every region. But Bailyn takes greater delight in longer tangents devoted to colorful eccentrics with utopian plans for colonial settlements. Inevitably, all crash and burn in deadly, burning catastrophes that make a mockery of idealism in a land of brutality. In 1663, Pieter Plockhoy led a Mennonite community across the Atlantic to settle beside the lower Delaware River. He designed a visionary constitution meant to keep peace with the Indians and to promote democracy among the colonists. A year later English troops swept in to destroy the little settlement in an orgy of plunder, fire, and murder. “Plockhoy’s utopia ended in a sudden, fiery death.” So much for the frontier breeding democracy.

Thorough in his alienation from the colonial past, Bailyn treats the multi-ethnic and multi-lingual mix of the colonists as a primary cause for their dangerous instability. Between the English colonies of New England to the north, and Virginia and Maryland to the south, lay the middle colonies. Bailyn characterizes them as “the multicultural, polyglot farrago of Dutch New Netherland—a virtual Babel of north Europeans—pressing south against a strange collection of Swedes and Finns settled precariously along the Delaware River.” Where more optimistic scholars detect the promising seeds of an American future of pluralism and toleration, Bailyn describes a growing menace: “New Netherland, polyglot, polyethnic, and polysacral in its origins, grew ever more complex as the years passed, its population more fragmented, its clangorous diversity more abrasive and more dangerously volatile.”

Overstatement again trumps nuance. In New Netherland (part of which became New York City), the diverse ethnic groups and religious denominations certainly bickered and often sued one another, but we do not find among them the burning, murderous pogroms so frequent in seventeenth-century Europe. The English and Dutch colonists usually reserved that treatment for Indians. Bailyn’s apparent preference for homogeneity also breaks, unwittingly I suspect, with Oscar Handlin’s celebration of “the uprooted,” who improved America by bringing their diversity across the Atlantic.

There certainly was plenty of violence, misery, treachery, and greed to go around in every colony, and Bailyn has ably and thoroughly discredited the romanticism that often encrusts our colonial past. But his course correction has gone too far, exaggerating the very real follies into virtually the entire story. Part of the problem is that seventeenth-century people were themselves masters of hyperbole, eloquent in their lamentations of suffering and in their execrations of rivals. They filled the surviving documents with florid screeds, which provide irresistible quotations for historians naturally drawn to the colorful. We have to look closer to find the patterns of everyday routines, including many neighborly acts between some very different peoples suddenly thrown together in new settings. We will even find important interludes of peaceful exchange and adaptation between natives and newcomers. The historical challenge is to find the ebb of conflict as well as the flow. The full story demands subtlety as well as drama.

Another problem is that Bailyn sets artificial bounds of place and time on his subject. By limiting his attention to the English, Dutch, and Swedish colonies of the mid-Atlantic seaboard after 1600, he neglects the previous (and continuing) Spanish and French encounters with native peoples in that region. Bailyn narrates the English arrival in the Chesapeake region in 1607 as the shock of the European new to unprepared natives. In fact, during the preceding generation, the Spanish had established a Chesapeake mission that the natives had wiped out, which led to a punitive campaign that hung dozens of captured natives by the neck from the yardarms of warships. Well before 1607, the Chesapeake natives learned many unpleasant truths about the Europeans who came across the Atlantic in sailing ships to steal their bodies, their lands, and their souls.

The English and Dutch colonies to the south in the West Indies also receive only passing mention by Bailyn, despite their greater importance to their empires during the seventeenth century. In The Barbarous Years, readers see the colonial landscape through a fun-house mirror where the distortion derives from a decision to deal only with areas later incorporated into the United States of 1776 (and, indeed, only a subset of that geography, for we never see the early Carolinas as colonies). And the book ends abruptly in 1675, on the eve of especially massive and transformative wars with native peoples and a destructive rebellion among the colonists of Virginia.

In sum, The Barbarous Years concludes before the most barbarous period of all in the mid-Atlantic seaboard: 1676–1700. Lacking a logical end point, the book offers no clear picture of transformation, no full description of a new stage in social development. As the narrative moves into the second half of the seventeenth century, Bailyn hints that, in the third generation in America, a new colonial elite of merchants and planters would emerge to create a new order of entrepreneurial enterprise and broadly participatory politics (for the propertied men). But in 1675 the colonists remained stuck in a barbarous world largely of their own making and partly of Bailyn’s imagining. And so the book ends with a cryptic sentence: “They were provincials, listening for messages from abroad, living in a still barbarous world, struggling to normalize their own way of life, no less civil, they hoped, than what had been known before.” They were still becoming exceptional people in a bizarre and bloody land.