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In the spring of 1583, the half brother of Sir Walter Raleigh set off from Plymouth, England, intending to settle the east coast of Maine, near the inlet of the Penobscot River. Sir Humphrey Gilbert hoped to tap the rich fishing waters that lay between Newfoundland and the northern peninsula of North America, and on the voyage across the Atlantic, he often sat in his cabin with a book, reading to pass the time. According to most accounts, the book he was reading just before he died in a blustery September storm in 1584 was Utopia, by Sir Thomas More.
More depicted an ideal society, an island which he called "utopia," a Greek neologism meaning "not a real place." More's utopia quickly became synonymous in Western Europe for a world only dreamt of, a society that forever lay on the distant horizons of human potential. Though More depicted his utopia as a land of religious tolerance and democratic equality, he ran afoul of England's Henry VIII and was executed for high treason in 1535 and later canonized by the Catholic church.
Most of the men and women who fled England for the shores of the New World had little time for religious tolerance or for democracy, but like More, they envisioned a utopia. They had to. Every aspect of moving to the New World was fraught with danger. If you wanted to undertake the journey, you had to board a tiny, rickety ship that might or might not get across the ocean. The journey took long weeks, and when you arrived, you arrived nowhere. The New World may not have been total wilderness, but thepresence of Native American tribes was a mixed blessing. They might help you find food or they might kill you. True, in the early seventeenth century, life was nowhere easy, and the prospect of a new beginning was worth the very real possibility of premature death. The Spanish and Portuguese had settled in South America with a far less coherent vision than those who created the colonies of New England, and the choices in early modern Europe were never without risk. Still, emigration posed a formidable challenge and for that reason, those who made the journey tended to be those who saw in the New World the possibility of an ideal world.
Not everyone who emigrated shared that hope, and along with the Puritans, the Pilgrims, and the Quakers came thousands of hangers-on, fortune seekers, military men, and servants. Whether or not they, too, were propelled to construct a society unlike any other we will never know. Their voices are silent, though judging from the writings and sermons that the leaders of the various settlements left, these fortune seekers and military men were likely to pass their time getting drunk in a tavern, speaking lewdly, scheming for ways to accrue wealth, and laughing at the sanctimony of the clergy. But the culture wasn't determined by the opportunists or the servants, especially not in New England, where the Puritans controlled not only the pulpit but the law. The culture was a Puritan culture, and the energy and vision of these early Puritans is woven in the heart of American society.
The settlers emerged from an England that was in a slow burn caused by a combustible tension between Anglicans and Puritans that would soon erupt into civil war. In truth, the first English settlers weren't Puritan at all, nor did they arrive in New England. The men who founded Jamestown in Virginia in 1607 were Anglican, and they were looking for precious metals. Within a few years, they realized that no gold or silver was to be had in the swamps of Virginia, and they slowly turned their attention to a lucrative new crop called tobacco. But though they had commerce uppermost in their minds, an English life in these years was a life suffused with God and faith. Even Captain John Smith, the mercenary, hard-bitten hero of the colony's early years, attributed the survival of Jamestown not to the efforts of men but to the will of God. Explaining how rescue ships from England arrived just in time to save the colony, during the "starving times" of the winter of 1609-1610, Smith wrote that "the God that heard Jonah crying in the belly of hell, he pitied the distress of his servants.... This was not Ariadne's thread, but the direct line of God's providence." Virginia may have been a chartered company created to bring profit to its shareholders, but its settlers nonetheless viewed reality through the prism of seventeenth-century Anglicanism.
Smith himself was a rugged soldier who was very much out for financial reward, as were most of those who gravitated to Jamestown. But the era was suffused with religious mores, and even the most venal inhabitants of the colony would have agreed that their fate was in God's hands and that they could and should thank God for their success. And if the colony thrived and made them and the shareholders wealthy, that would be a sign that they had pleased God. Still, Jamestown did not attract religious firebrands, nor was the settlement a welcome place for Anglican separatists. The religious utopians gravitated to the north.
The first wave to embark for New England was an innocuous group of separatists who set sail from Leyden in the Netherlands, where they had fled from England in 1608. Believing that they would face increasing persecution at the hands of the Anglican clerical authorities who answered to James I, these separatists wanted only to find a place where they could celebrate God and work toward their own salvation in peace. But while Leyden was hospitable, the group feared that their children would be absorbed into Dutch society and lose their sense of identity and mission. So the Leyden separatists set forth once again, across the sea to the new colonies. Intending to migrate to Virginia...
|A Visionary Nation||1|
|Part 1||The Past|
|Part 2||The Present|
|Part 3||The Future?|