T.H. Breen,
Puritans & Adventurers
(Oxford University Press, 1982)

With this book, T.H. Breen presents a valuably, insightful study of colonial Virginia and the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th century. Many historians have assumed that all early settlers shared a common set of ideas ("cultural baggage"), and this oversweeping notion has hindered our efforts to learn about the first English Americans. Breen's thesis hinges around a notion of change and persistence, not only between the two colonies but among sections within each colony. He does a wonderful job comparing and contrasting the Virginia and Massachusetts colonies, explaining how the two areas developed so differently from one another and yet eventually came together in the pursuit of an America independent of Britain.

In this collection of scholarly essays, Breen breathes new life into colonial American history and strikingly points the way for further research.

Breen devotes the first half of the book to Massachusetts Bay. Combing the incomplete yet important records of who the settlers were, where they came from and why they perhaps chose to emigrate from England, Breen finds that the most widespread influence on these men and women was the foolish endeavor of the Stuart king to monopolize control over government, religion and local custom. Their emigration to Massachusetts was a conservative reaction, for they wanted to recreate their traditional societies and live as their ancestors had lived. Often, families from the same English community came over together, and they were largely free men and women with few if any servants. Many were middling artisans who had to learn the ways of farming in America, but the bay colonists from the very start worked together as a community.

Virginia, on the other hand, was settled by adventurers seeking wealth; distrustful of their fellow men, these colonists scattered themselves on isolated farms and plantations. There was no central community, and settlers reacted heatedly to the slightest hints of centralization. Even the massacre of hundreds of settlers by Indians in 1622 failed to encourage mutual cooperation among these people. Over time, indentured servants came willfully and sometimes by coercion, but their spirits were broken upon arriving in the undisciplined, hopeless Virginia colony. To a large degree, the dregs of English society came to Virginia as a last resort, exacerbating the problems experienced by Virginians for the first 100 years of the colony's existence. Virginia may have failed altogether had it not been for the discovery of tobacco. Eventually, when significant numbers of slaves were brought in to work the plantations, only then did any type of social organization take root in Virginia.

Massachusetts settlers' were predominantly Puritan, community-oriented and industrious; Virginia's settlers were adventurers seeking overnight wealth -- largely nonreligious, fiercely individualistic and highly competitive. While Massachusetts did not change much in the 17th century due to its success from the start, the culture further developed its demand for local control of all aspects of community life; Virginians lived day to day, learning nothing from past failures over the colony's first century of existence. The colony experienced one drastic change after another, including a violent schism between the more genteel settlers in the form of Bacons' Rebellion. After a century of failures, the employment of slave labor finally allowed for the establishment of a community of sorts among planters and a virtual end to class struggle among white men. The values of the past influenced both colonial peoples in the 18th century, and commitments to local control and individual liberties helped bring these once-divergent peoples together under the banner of a newly created United States of America in 1776.

This book deserves a spot among the most useful studies of early colonial history. Breen examines all potential factors to explain cultural change and development in the two colonies. Anyone interested in the real story of American colonization should add Puritans & Adventurers to his or her essential reading list.

by Daniel Jolley
10 September 2005

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