Why are we spending so much time exploring colonial America?
I’ve long considered it the most fascinating period of American history. It is when all the truly important stuff really got started. If you have ever wondered why we care about “freedom” or “White identity,” the answer is rooted in the colonial era. If you have ever wondered how we got colonialism, white supremacy, racism and so forth, which are all of so much interest to the Left, the answer is rooted in colonial America. The roots of our regional cultural divisions also trace back to the colonial era.
“In significant contrast, the colonists referred to Negroes and by the eighteenth century to blacks and to Africans, but almost never to Negro heathens or pagans or savages. Most suggestive of all, there seems to have been something of a shift during the seventeenth century in the terminology in which Englishmen in the colonies applied to themselves. From the initially most common term Christian, at mid-century there was a marked drift toward English and free. After about 1680, taking the colonies as a whole, a new term appeared – white. …
Most arresting of all, throughout the colonies the terms Christian, free, English, and white were for many years employed indiscriminately as metonyms. A Maryland law of 1681 used all four terms in one paragraph! …”
If you find the above excerpt interesting, it comes from pages 95-97 of Winthrop D. Jordan’s White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812.
Here’s my understanding of the matter from years of research:
1.) Colonialism – In the beginning, there was colonialism. By the late 16th century, it was obvious in Elizabethan England that colonies were a source of wealth in power and that England should have colonies. Spain was England’s great rival at the time and the wealth it amassed from the New World was being funneled into Spain’s religious wars against the Protestants in Europe.
2.) Racialism – As the English began to explore Africa, the Caribbean, and North America in the 16th century, they began to develop their first theories of racial differences. Who were these people? Why do they look so different from us? Why are their cultures so different?
3.) Slavery – By and large, the English came to the New World to get rich. None of the earliest colonies were founded with slavery in mind. New England never became a slave society. The West Indies and Chesapeake started out growing tobacco and relying on indentured servitude.
The switch to slavery happened for a number of reasons the most important of which were 1.) the unhealthy tropical and subtropical climate of the Caribbean and lowland South, 2.) the increasingly abundant supply of slave labor in West Africa and 3.) the dwindling supply of indentured servants from England when the economy improved after the Restoration and new colonies opened up.
4.) White Supremacy – It wasn’t so obvious at the first. The English didn’t arrive in the New World with a racialized sense of identity. They were English, Christian and free. In New England, the Puritans spent decades trying to Christianize and integrate the Indians into their settlements. In the Chesapeake, the English at Jamestown initially tried to live with and Christianize the Indians. In the West Indies, the English presence there was hotly contested by the French, the Dutch and the Spanish. There were a number of things which worked against the development of white supremacy.
White supremacy developed over time because of the introduction of slavery, the failure to Christianize the Indians and the race wars with them and the growing religious and ethnic heterogeneity of the colonists. South Carolina, for example, was ethnically diverse from the outset. There were West Indian settlers, but also English settlers, French Huguenots, a smattering of Germans and later the Scots-Irish. Maryland was a proprietary colony owned by Catholics and it attracted a number of dissenting Protestant groups. The Middle Colonies were full of Dutch, Danes and Swedes before the English took control of the region.
5.) White Identity – It could have gone a different way. Look no further than the Spanish and Portuguese colonies where Whites mixed so heavily with Africans and Indians. The same is true of the French who also mixed heavily with the Indians in Canada. Why didn’t that happen in British America? Surely, it did happen to some degree, but an effort was made to stop it.
The answer seems to be that the English were far more xenophobic than the Spanish, Portuguese and French. A conscious decision was made that it was desirable to remain English and White in a world that was in flux. They were surrounded by Indians, African slaves and non-English settlers. They made a choice to mute the importance of ethnic and religious identity in favor of racial solidarity.
That’s how we got White identity. It was the first truly American tradition that spanned the colonies. It grew out out the emerging creole societies of 17th century British America. What’s particularly interesting is that White identity is older than the United States. It is older than the Enlightenment. John Locke was unknown in the American colonies when White identity was gaining traction in the 17th century. He was still largely unknown right up until the American Revolution.
The American colonists who revolted in 1776 were already and had long been English, Christian, free, and White. They considered themselves “free” for generations before “free” came to mean “republican.” It was only much later still that “free” came to mean “liberal” and “democratic.”
What is American identity today in 2017? It was decoupled from its English, White and Christian roots in the late 20th century. American identity is now said to be “our values.” It is freedom and equality. It is synonymous with liberal democracy. And yet, there are also other elements to it like opposing “anti-Semitism” and “racism” and “discrimination.” The term “liberal” has been transformed to such a degree that it would be unrecognizable to the founders of liberalism.
American identity has collapsed into abstractions and strong sentiments. It is unraveling at the seams. It has even been transformed into something hostile to expressions of White identity.