Jack P. Greene’s Pursuits of Happiness: The Social Development of Early Modern British Colonies and the Formation of American Culture is one of the most thought-provoking books about the origins of American culture that I have read in a long time.
In this book, Greene argues that British America can be divided into six cultural hearths: the Chesapeake, New England, the Atlantic Islands, the West Indies, the Middle Colonies and the Lower South. The Chesapeake, which was the oldest cultural hearth, was in the mainstream of British colonial development. In contrast, it was New England which was the extreme aberration.
New England was founded by Puritans who came to the New World to build their ‘City on a Hill’. It started out as a theocracy and rapidly achieved a high degree of cultural solidarity. It was unable to find an agricultural staple. The Chesapeake was founded by more mainstream settlers who came to the New World to improve their condition in life. It started out as a highly individualistic and materialistic society. Tobacco, however, quickly became the Chesapeake’s agricultural staple.
From 1607 until 1776, the Chesapeake and New England expanded demographically and territorially and became much more complex societies, but they tended to move in opposite directions. New England became much more secular, individualistic, materialistic and disorderly as it moved back into the British cultural mainstream and the Atlantic economy. The Chesapeake remained secular, but it became more creole and less individualistic, materialistic and disorderly over time.
Expanding the scope of his inquiry, Greene shows that the Atlantic Islands and West Indies, the Lower South, the Middle Colonies, and Britain and Ireland all tended to follow the Chesapeake’s trajectory. Like the Chesapeake, Britain was an individualistic, materialistic society which in the century that followed the Restoration became more secular and developed a more cohesive ruling class. Ireland had an agrarian economy. It was dominated by a Protestant country gentry which owned great landed estates. The first English plantations were in Ireland, not in Virginia.
In the British West Indies, sugar became less profitable over time as the plantation complex swept through the Caribbean and boomed in Saint-Domingue. As in Chesapeake, the black population in Barbados eventually became self-sustaining and creole. The White population in Barbados and Jamaica also became more creole. In the 18th century, there were fewer absentees and greater civic investment in the islands. Meanwhile, the Atlantic Islands of Bermuda and the Bahamas never developed a plantation complex. They also developed a creole population and slipped into a quiet stagnation.
The Lower South developed much like the Chesapeake and West Indies. From the beginning, it was a slave society. Its people were individualistic and materialistic. It had an established Anglican church. It exported rice as an agricultural staple while the Chesapeake exported tobacco and the West Indies exported sugar. From rude beginnings, the Lower South grew wealthy and its elite became more genteel and cohesive like its counterparts in the West Indies and Chesapeake.
The Middle Colonies (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware) also followed the Chesapeake pattern. Their great agricultural staple was grain. The Chesapeake also exported grain and pig iron. New York was individualistic and materialistic like the Chesapeake. Even the Quakers of Pennsylvania were more focused on commercial development and the Middle Colonies were ethnically and religiously heterogeneous because they lacked the Yankee drive toward social conformity. Like the Middle Colonies, Maryland had a large Catholic population and Virginia and the Lower South had the Scots-Irish in the backcountry.
Overall, the American colonies which started out from very different origins became more similar to each other over the course of the 18th century. All the British colonies had undergone a great economic expansion in the century before the American Revolution. The West Indies were the most prosperous colonies followed by the Chesapeake, the Lower South and the Middle Colonies. In terms of average per capita income, the Lower South was the wealthiest region on the continent, but the Chesapeake had the larger Southern economy. The Middle Colonies were the most middle class place on earth. New England was a great place to live too, but it was the poorest region of British America.
Here’s what I found so fascinating about Pursuits of Happiness:
1.) First, it is a reminder of the central role played by the Chesapeake in the origins of American culture which owes more to Jamestown than Plymouth. Contrary to the conventional wisdom of Northern historians, Virginia was the cultural and demographic center of gravity of British America. It remained the center of the gravity of the United States until the 1830s. Virginia produced 4 out of the first 5 presidents and helped produce the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
2.) Second, it is a stark reminder that the South was in control of the idea of America until Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860 (neither John Adams or John Quincy Adams was reelected), which is why Southern Nationalism was so late in developing. By the 1830s, wealth and power within the Union had shifted away from the Chesapeake and to New England and the Lower South.
3.) Third, I thought that Greene’s most fascinating observation was the mercurial role of New England. As a Puritan theocracy, it started out as an extreme outlier. It became much more like the other British colonies over the 18th century which was a development that made the American Revolution possible. After the American Revolution, New England became more deviant and distinctive again under the Virginia Dynasty. The insight is that America’s regional cultures have moved in different directions over time. If these tectonic shifts were going on in the past, could it still be going on today?
For the Alt-South, Jack P. Greene raises our awareness that America was more obvious to previous generations. It was more obvious to the Revolutionary generation. It was certainly more obvious to the Greatest Generation after the Great Depression and Second World War. In contrast, we feel like we live in a much more divided country.
Most importantly, Pursuits of Happiness sheds a lot of light on how America could elect Donald Trump as president of the United States. How could a New Yorker resonate so deeply in the Heartland? It makes sense when you realize that the great divide in colonial America was between the individualistic and materialistic colonies and the more communal and moralistic colonies. In that respect, New York and Pennsylvania were aligned with the South. As Greene writes, the overwhelming majority of the ancestors of White Americans came in here in search of economic opportunity, not to serve some grand moralistic purpose. They were simple people who just wanted to have a better life.
How did Donald Trump become president? Jack P. Greene reminds us no section outside of New England “considered itself to be a New Israel or to have a world-affecting divine mission to perform.” He says “the extraordinary outpouring of people from the British Isles and continental Europe was the result not of “discontent and persecution at home,” not of a determination “to enlarge the realm of English power,” not of a desire “to reach the glories of the other world,” and not even “visions of liberty.” Rather, what “stirred people into these extraordinary activities,” as G.R. Elton has written, “was a drive for land and fortune.” Lured to America “by promises of riches” they were primarily moved by “the common and acceptable human emotions of greed and the search for greater wealth.” Except for the New England puritans, Perry Miller has noted, most immigrants “came for better advantage and for less danger, and to give their posterity the opportunity of success.”
If we are honest with ourselves, we can look at the character of New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Carolina and the West Indies and see more than a little of Donald Trump in our ancestors.
Note: President Trump didn’t win a single Eastern state.