Friday, June 5, 2015

The Colonial Experience

The Americans: The Colonial Experience
© 1967 Daniel Boorstin
528 pages
          


   Daniel Boorstin’s The Americans delivers a cultural history of the American colonies, beginning first with profiles on the disparate groups that settled on the eastern seaboard (Puritans, Quakers, and Cavaliers), and then following the growth of American religion, law, and education in the new world.  Though appearing weighty, being five hundred pages or so, the expanse flies by in a multitude of comparatively short chapters, divided (appropriately enough) into thirteen sections.  This is an inbetween America, neither raw nor finished.  For students of American history, this is deftly written, and gives a feel for how truly distinct the settling populations were, both in their origins and in their evolution.  While the Pennsylvania Quakers and New England Puritans set out to create utopias on a fresh plain, for instance,  Virginia’s settlers knew perfectly well that the utopian mark already existed in England, and their intention was to re-create its social institutions. Despite the wide variety of these cultures,  constant resettlement from one area to another in the pursue of fresh land ensured a mix of experience, and  prevented rabid clannishness.   Despite being mostly agrarian, agriculture would be the nascent American civilization’s weak point: flush with land,  no one had any interest in putting a great deal of imagination or work into improving their lot. Once tobacco or cotton had drained the soil, they could simply move on.  Otherwise,  the abounding energy and optimism of the Americas, so distant from the institutions of Europe, allowed for enthusiastic questioning that led to early triumphs in technological and scientific innovation. For Americans interested in the lives of the founders, this provides an enormous amount of  storied context.

Related:
Daily Life in Early America, David Freeman Hawke

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