PURITANS AND ADVENTURERS: Changes and Persistence in Early America by T. H. Breen

PURITANS AND ADVENTURERS: Changes and Persistence in Early America

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KIRKUS REVIEW

The Puritan influence on the American founders is familiar enough, but Breen (Northwestern) thinks there was more to the settlers' ""cultural baggage"" that must be taken into account to understand early American social patterns. In nine solid essays--mostly reprinted from scholarly journals--he explores various aspects of this baggage as they affected the settlers of Virginia and New England. Some of the studies, though detailed and informative, produce few surprises. The conflicts between the seignorial Winthrops of Massachusetts and the settlers of that colony, for example, are traced to the setttlers' motivations for leaving England--specifically, the resentment of those living in relatively autonomous agricultural towns to the imposition of centralized authority under Charles I. The Winthrops' efforts to re-establish a gentry-town relationship in New England smacked too much of Charles' meddling; and in trying to set up autonomous towns in Massachusetts, the colonists inadvertently transformed local institutions into more democratically-constituted ones without a gentry. Some of the more surprising findings are such because they seem so obvious. For example, Breen investigates 273 settlers for whom relatively detailed documentation exists and discovers that they were not originally farmers, but artisans. In Massachusetts, however, they became farmers, and the fact that they were new to this livelihood sheds some light on New England's peculiar pattern of land ownership--the small consolidated family farm that was virtually unknown in Europe at that date. In Virginia, the ever-present lure of wealth produced a different pattern of development and attracted a different sort of ÉmigrÉ. Competitiveness, materialism, and individualism all came to the fore; and Breen argues that under the apparent tranquility of 18th-century Virginia, the values of the more boisterous 17th century persisted. In one essay, he shows that the steadily increasing number of black laborers pushed the white gentry into close group cohesion and the collective trappings of class supremacy; in another piece, he contends that the institutionalization of gambling among the gentry was a means of maintaining competition without weakening the social position of the group. Although a directly comparative essay is needed, this collection as a whole illuminates the origins of regional differentiation in America while providing detailed evidence of processes of cultural transformation and change. A rewarding volume.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1980
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press