Colonial America: a foreign land?

Sometimes it's tempting to say that the more things change, the more they stay the same. In the 1770s, Americans protested British taxes levied after a war in which Britain fought to defend her American colonists. In 2009, some Americans drew on the imagery and rhetoric of those earlier protests and held "tea parties" bemoaning Obama's plans for healthcare reform. The history of American as an independent nation is thus bookended by protests against two of the least objectionable taxes ever proposed. (Not that health care reform amounts to anything more than a redistribution of profits for the bourgeoisie.) In light of this, it would be easy to fall for the idea that America is and always has been marked by hyper-individualism and stinginess.

David Freeman Hawke's Everyday Life in Early America provides a counterpoint to such a view. This is not a work of special scholarly merit. It was written for popular audiences and is merely a synthesis of the research of many other scholars. However, in addition to being a book I recently finished (the primary reason I'm discussing it), it does an excellent job of providing a look at an American society that was quite different from ours today, which drives home the point that the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

Hawke begins by describing the world of the Englishmen that came to America. He points out that in many places in 17th century Britain, many farmers still tended land in common. Moreover,

youngsters were taught the medieval notion that what they did reflected first on the family, then rippled out to affect the entire community. Whether they became craftsmen, merchants, or farmers, they knew from youth that no man was an island, that their lives and actions were inextricably involved with the welfare of the community. Town fathers regulated the products that citizens brought to market -- judging the quality, the weight, the justness of the price -- and no one questioned their right to do so. (This is not to say that cheating did not prevail; ideals seldom flourish in everyday life.) When someone died in a seventeenth-century English village, no one needed an explication of John Donne's lines, "Do not send to ask for whom the bells toll. It tolls for thee." (p. 8)

In some parts of America (specifically East Hampton, Long Island) community life persisted in much the same way:

All things considered, the life of the town was corporate to a remarkable degree. The citizens were indeed a body, each one integrated into part of the larger whole. Experience came to them in, and by, and through the group; literally and figuratively, they lived in each other's presence. Their houses lay huddled together along a single street. Their field-lots were scattered in every direction -- two acres here, four acres there, but always among a bevy of neighbors. They accepted common tasks and they shared both good and bad fortune. They worked together, they worshiped together, governed together. (p. 20-21, quoting John Demos)

The "profit motive" that the defenders of capitalism present as innate and eternal was little-known in the North:

there was little innovative, risk-taking behavior; there was no determined pursuit of profit. Indeed, the account books of these farm families indicate that they invariably chose the security of diversified production rather than hire labor to produce more wheat or to specialize in milk production. Economic gain was important to these men and women, yet it was not their dominant value. It was subordinate to (or encompassed by) two other goals: the yearly subsistence and the long-run financial security of the family unit. (p. 42-43, quoting James A. Henretta)

While in other regions, particularly Virginia, community was illusory and a cutthroat spirit prevailed:

The worst sides of English life flourished in a brutal, self-centered society that lacked communal bonds of any kind. Manners and morals collapsed. During the "starving time," some "fed on the corpses of dead men, and one who had gotten insatiable, out of custom to that food, could not be restrained until such time as he was executed for it." Excessive drinking prevailed. Community cooperation and restraints found in the village vanished. Every man looked out for himself. In the winter of 1631-1632, one entrepreneur collected two thousand bushels of corn in Virginia and sold them to New Englanders while his brethren at home wanted for food. The ideal of the commonwealth, "in which the interest of ever part would be harmoniously subordinated to the larger interest of the whole society," never appeared. (p. 21)

The community ideal wasn't entirely abandoned, however. Virginia tried four times to hold down 'the excessive and immoderate prices exacted by diverse, avaricious ... practitioners in psychic and surgery,' but with little success. (p. 84) Moreover,

most communities tried to impose restraints on the miller. His monopoly usually had a time limit on it which might not be renewed if his performance failed to satisfy the neighborhood. A contract usually restricted charges to customers. The gristmill, in short, was treated as a public utility. The aim was to "adjust private enterprise to community ends." (p. 147)

Attitudes toward religion also varied by region. To say that early white America was a Christian land may be a stretch:

A pious visitor toward the end of the century found "the lives of the planters in Maryland and Virginia are very godless and profane." The trend that had set in there soon became fixed in most colonies. "Sunday is very badly kept," said a visitor to Pennsylvania, "especially in the rural districts, where most country folk pay little attention to it." (p. 90)

New England was more devout, but their Christianity was quite different from the conservative evangelicalism of today. Their take on marriage might be called progressive in modern parlance: New England departed radially from English custom. The Congregationalists held that nothing in the Bible designated marriage as a religious rite--even pagans got married--and they made it a civil affair officiated by a magistrate. (p. 93)

All in all, Hawke's little volume does an admirable job of explaining the complexity and variety of lifeways in early British North America. Everyone should be able to find a topic of interest, whether it is his discussion of early American furniture or his comments on linguistic differences, but to me its greatest worth is in its demonstration that society and "human nature" are very much malleable. If America today is indeed marked by hyper-individualism and the complete atomization of individual, Hawke shows that this was not always the case. Those of us hoping for a better future can take heart in that.