Out of Our Past: The Forces that Shaped Modern America

Out of Our Past: The Forces that Shaped Modern America

by Carl N. Degler
     
 

The original edition of this now classic work was hailed by Jacob Cohen in The Nation as "the finest one-volume interpretation of American history extant."

For this Third Edition of Out of Our Past, Carl Degler has added a comprehensive new chapter on the historical development of American families, brought up to date the discussion of U.S. foreign

Overview

The original edition of this now classic work was hailed by Jacob Cohen in The Nation as "the finest one-volume interpretation of American history extant."

For this Third Edition of Out of Our Past, Carl Degler has added a comprehensive new chapter on the historical development of American families, brought up to date the discussion of U.S. foreign policy, greatly expanded sections dealing with the place and history of women in our past, and made numerous changes throughout the text in light of scholarship published since the appearance of the 1970 Revised Edition.

Editorial Reviews

William Henry Chamberlin
Carl Degler presents a skillful, discriminating distillation of the work of many experts in various fields . . . He possesses a gift, too rare among historical scholars, of lucid exposition and an excellent readable style.
D. M. Potter
The best single-volume interpretation of American history now extant. It is not a comprehensive résumé of our long history, but rather an account of the development of the issues, the conditions, and the values which concern us today.
Saturday Review
Pennsylvania History
The author must be credited with a lively style, keen analytic powers, and a truly remarkable ability to synthesize current scholarship on a myriad of subjects.
Potter
The best single-volume interpretation of American history now extant. It is not a comprehensive resume of our long history, but rather an account of the development of the issues, the conditions, and the values which concern us today.
Saturday Review

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780061319853
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
12/28/1983
Series:
Harper Perennial
Edition description:
Third Edition
Pages:
672
Sales rank:
762,211
Product dimensions:
8.02(w) x 5.22(h) x 1.68(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Beginnings

In more ways than is often recognized, the one hundred years after the death of Elizabeth I in 1603 comprise the first century of the modern world. A number of developments peculiar to modern European thought cluster within these years: the true beginnings of modern science in the work of Galileo and Newton, Harvey and Boyle; the first expression of modern democratic ideas by the Levelers and in the Army Debates of the English Civil Wars; the decisive break in a millennium of religious dominance with the end of the wars of religion and the acceptance of the principle of religious tolerance; the achievement of lasting constitutional and representative government in England with the Glorious Revolution of 1688. It was also the time of the first permanent settlement of English colonists.

For America, its origin in this first century of the modern era was filled with meaning. In the New World, the future was still fluid. Europe's ways, both the new and the old, could be planted in America free of the choking weeds of outmoded habits. America would be a testing ground, but it would be difficult to predict what would happen. Some of the European ways would wither; some would strike root; still others would change and adapt to the new environment. For a good part of the century this plasticity was characteristic. But then, by the end of the century, the mold had hardened. In a number of ways what Americans would be for generations to come was settled in the course of those first hundred years.


1. CAPITALISM CAME IN THE FIRST SHIPS

To men coming from the "tightlittle isle" the vast land of America, though untamed and dense with forest, was remarkably like the old, both in the flora that covered it and in the crops that it would yield. Although in a region like New England settlers would soon discover the soil to be thin and unfertile compared with that of the more southern colonies, it was not a desert, and from the beginning a well-organized group like the Massachusetts Bay people were able to wring a comfortable, if not opulent, living from the lean and rocky soil. The Chesapeake colonies had better soil and, as it turned out, a climate conducive to the production of a staple of world-wide appeal—the infamous weed, tobacco.

A land endowed with such promise could not fail to attract a continuous stream of men and women from the shops and farms of Europe. For centuries the problem in Europe had been that of securing enough land for the people, but in the New World the elements in the equation were reversed. "I hear ... that servants would be more advantageous to you than any commodity," wrote a Londoner to a Virginian in 1648. For over three centuries, through wars and revolutions, through economic disaster and plague, the underlying, insistent theme of American history was the peopling of a continent.

Though the pervasive influence which Frederick Jackson Turner attributed to the frontier in the shaping of the American character can be overestimated, the possibility of exaggeration should not hide the undeniable fact that in early America, and through most of the nineteenth century, too, land was available to an extent that could appear only fabulous to land-starved Europeans. From the outset, as a result, the American who worked with his hands had an advantage over his European counterpart. For persistent as employers and rulers in America might be in holding to Old World conceptions of the proper subordination of labor, such ideas were always being undercut by the fact that labor was scarcer than land.

The imagination of men was stretched by the availability of land in America. Though land was not free for the taking, it was nearly so. In seventeenth-century New England there were very few landless people, and in the Chesapeake colonies it was not unusual for an indentured servant, upon the completion of his term, to receive a piece of land. Thus, thanks to the bounty of America, it was possible for an Englishman of the most constricted economic horizon to make successive jumps from servant to freeman, from freeman to freeholder, and, perhaps in a little more time, to wealthy speculator in lands farther west. Not all men were successful in America, to be sure, but, as the emigration literature reveals, enough were to encourage most men in the new land to strive hard for wealth and success.

In America the availability of land rendered precarious, if not untenable, those European institutions which were dependent upon scarcity of land. Efforts to establish feudal or manorial reproductions in the New World came to nothing. The Dutch, for example, tried to set up an ambitious system of patroons, or great landowners, whose broad acres along the Hudson were intended to be worked by tenants. In keeping with the manorial practices common in Europe, the patroon was to dispense justice and administer in his own right the government of his little kingdom. But contrary to the popular tradition that sees these patroonships carrying over into the period of English rule after 1664, only two of the Dutch grants outlasted New Netherland, and of them, only one was in existence ten years later. Under English rule only Rensselaer retained his original grant; all the others returned or forfeited them to the Dutch West Indies Company. It is significant that the other land-granting policy of the Dutch, that of individual small holdings, was much more successful.

At the beginning, Lord Baltimore's attempt to erect manors in Maryland and to create a feudal aristocracy enjoyed more success than that of the Dutch. Some sixty manors were established in the province during the seventeenth century, the lords of which constituted a kind of new Catholic aristocracy. On at least one of these manors, that of St. Clement, manorial courts-leet (for tenants) and baron (for freeholders) were actually held, private justice being dispensed by the lord.

What People are saying about this

Jacob Cohen
"The finest one-volume interpretation of American history extant."
William H. Chamberlain
Carl Degler presents a skillful, discriminating distillation of the work of many experts in various fields. He possesses a gift, too rare among historical scholars, of lucid exposition and an excellent readable style.

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