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In this book, Jack Greene reinterprets the meaning of American social development. Synthesizing literature of the previous two decades on the process of social development and the formation of American culture, he challenges the central assumptions that have traditionally been used to analyze colonial British American history.
Greene argues that the New England declension model traditionally employed by historians is inappropriate for describing social change in all the other early modern British colonies. The settler societies established in Ireland, the Atlantic island colonies of Bermuda and the Bahamas, the West Indies, the Middle Colonies, and the Lower South followed instead a pattern first exhibited in America in the Chesapeake. That pattern involved a process in which these new societies slowly developed into more elaborate cultural entities, each of which had its own distinctive features.
Greene also stresses the social and cultural convergence between New England and the other regions of colonial British America after 1710 and argues that by the eve of the American Revolution Britain's North American colonies were both more alike and more like the parent society than ever before. He contends as well that the salient features of an emerging American culture during these years are to be found not primarily in New England puritanism but in widely manifest configurations of sociocultural behavior exhibited throughout British North America, including New England, and he emphasized the centrality of slavery to that culture.
Posted November 28, 2003
Jack Greene¿s objective in Pursuits of Happiness is to examine the social development and economic change in Great Britain¿s colonies from 1660 to 1760, and to observe the development of American culture emerging at the end of the American Revolution. He uses an overarching, macro-historical framework in which he looks at the British colonies in the Caribbean, mainland North America, and Ireland and classifies each into one of two models: a developmental pattern represented most clearly by the Chesapeake region, and a declension pattern exemplified exclusively by the New England colonies. In Greene¿s developmental model settlements develop from loosely organized, primitive ventures to economically highly elaborated, institutionally stable and socially mature provinces; in other words, they become ¿more settled, cohesive, and coherent.¿ (81) Greene focuses almost exclusively upon refuting the claim that New England was representative of British pre-Revolutionary colonization attempts. The land of the Puritans was, he continues, ¿atypical, peculiar, even anachronistic.¿ (165) He maintains instead that the Chesapeake region was not only far more similar to early modern Britain than was New England, but that every other colony (including Ireland) mirrored the Chesapeake settlements. Although his concluding chapter describes the various mainland settlements as ¿becoming increasingly alike¿ (170) as the American Revolution approached, Greene¿s New England is . ¿a highly aberrational society, ¿ emphatically anomalous in the overall picture of Britain¿s colonies. To paint this historiographical portrait, however, Greene chooses a selective definition and application of ¿declension,¿ an interpretive concept he uses to describe how New England moved from a state of order, stability and control, to a society characterized by social conflict, weakened institutions and diversion from its original goals. In doing so, Greene ignores contradictory evidence, and reaches his foreordained conclusions based on what are obviously rigidly held assumptions. He is determined to debunk the traditional interpretation of early America in which New England is held to be ¿normative¿ (5) of Britain¿s colonial settlement. His relentlessness leads one to question his interpretation. As one reviewer notes, Greene ¿resents the central position that New England has held¿ over the years in colonial historiography and ¿never relents in his quest for an alternative explanation.¿ Greene might be right by refusing to conclude that colonial New England is the model for social development and that the Chesapeake is a deviant example of British colonization. However, he ignores contradictory evidence and patterns that do not fit his model, and selectively handles his facts in his search for an alternative at odds with prior interpretations. While he does marshal considerable evidence in his extensive argument for New England¿s atypicality, his classifications of settlement patterns in early modern British colonization are contrived, which leave his broad survey with an artificial, manufactured resonance. We can also consider Greene¿s assumptions and main points in light of Robert Berkhofer¿s admonition to all readers: ¿You should examine the author¿s main points, how they went about explicating them and the sets of assumptions that made for their works being exactly the way they are.¿ Greene¿s choices of what to include and exclude are quite telling. In his painstaking, sweeping attempt to show that colonies of the Chesapeake mold were ¿modern¿ like Britain and were gradually but steadily moving from disorder and instability to coherence and well-ordered maturity, Greene is forced to ignore obvious facts and to make significant exaggerations to make his pieces fit. Greene¿s description of the towns of Winchester, Alexandria, Fredericksburg, Richmond and Petersburg as ¿urban settlements¿ (90) in the early to mid-1750s, for example, grossly
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