First, here is a passage from a 19th-century book called A Voice to America by Thomas Bangs Thorpe.
The Anglo-American is the king of men. He possesses all the powerful and commanding nature of the Anglo-Saxon, the clear, cool head, the sober, calculating mind, the regard for law, the obstinate adherence to justice, but fused and fired by the pure bright air of America, and yet more by the wide freedom of American life, into the go-ahead and tireless energy, which endures no delay and brooks no opposition. The Anglo-American is the controlling type, the leading element of our future population.''
I wonder what Thorpe would think of today's changeling America. I hope his assessment of Anglo-American character will hold true.
And here, his message seems to speak to our age of global crusades for 'democracy':
It is not for us to rule with the barbarous violence of conquest. It is not for us to force a prostrating commercial system upon tributary millions by war, to steal colonies everywhere, to speckle the world with our garrisons, and then to boast that the drum-beat of our army ever greets the rising sun.
For us there is a safer, a surer, a nobler road, to a more desirable and enduring empire. Our destiny is to show the nations what is the greatest amount of national and individual happiness and prosperity which is possible under laws free and enlightened, and with a people self-governed and self-controlling. In the quiet and unaggresssive fulfillment of that destiny we wield the lever that shall move the world.''
And then, I've been reading from a book called The Wild Shores: America's Beginnings, by Tee Loftin Snell.
The book has been forgotten on my shelves for a good while (so many books, so little time) and I've found it quite engrossing. She writes of the various colonies which were the beginning of America as we have known it, including not only the English colonies, but the Dutch, the Swedish, the Spanish, the French, and even the Russian (in what is now Alaska).
In reading about the early days of the English colonies in particular, I'm struck (again) by how precarious those colonies were. Conditions were harsh, the few colonists were surrounded by tribes which were alternately amicable and hostile. Disease and starvation nearly killed off the colonists. They were plagued by what might be seen as incredible bad luck in many instances. There were internal disputes and dissensions that threatened both Jamestown and the Massachusetts colonies. The Jamestown colony in 1610 was down to 59 people, when another 150 men, with Sir Thomas Gates, arrived from England. It was quickly determined that the colony could not survive even with the supplies Gates brought. So they all set sail for England, prepared to abandon Jamestown. From page 91 of the book:
Abandoning James Towne [we] set saile for England," a settler wrote. "But yet God would not so haue [sic] it, for ere we left the river, we met the Lord de-la-Ware." '
He ordered them back to Jamestown. By such a miraculous meeting of pinnaces and ships at the ocean's edge, the colony went on living."
Just barely. Only 150 of the 500 survived the winter, but the arrival of more colonists and supplies enabled them to go on.
Somehow, they survived and grew and prospered, against the odds. Logically, the colonies should not have lasted, but they did.
The New England colonies had their hardships and brushes with extinction too. When a second wave of settlers arrived at the Plymouth colony in 1623, they were appalled at what they found:
But some of the colonists arriving at the end of July in 1623 wept at the sight of the lean, ragged Pilgrims and "wished themselves in England againe." Still, the supplies and the new settlers made survival possible.
Years later, there were other problems. I've blogged before about Anne Hutchinson, one of the later arrivals who became a divisive force in the colony with her freewheeling interpretation of Scripture. Now, of course, she is a feminist icon, and politically correct textbooks and newspaper articles make her out to be a heroine, standing up to the evil Puritan patriarchy.
The book, however, written in 1974, is relatively free of today's political correctness, and we get a much different picture of Mrs. Hutchinson. She had been banished, along with a few followers, from Boston in 1638. Then she turned up in Providence, Rhode Island, in Roger Williams' colony. Williams himself had been a banished dissenter, so would Mrs. Hutchinson and her followers fit right in there?
Witty, egotistical Anne Hutchinson had for three years drawn bigger crowds in Boston than the famous theologian Cotton's intellectual sermons and spread widely her distorted Puritan theology. Banished after a long and noisy trial, she and her husband with her main supporters, former Boston councilman William Coddington and convicted heretic Samuel Gorton, sought a place of their own to settle.
Mrs. Hutchinson, Coddington, and Gorton, in various combinations, revolted against each other periodically in their Rhode Island towns of Portsmouth and Newport. By the end of the second year, Gorton was revolting against everybody. Finally he was whipped and banished. He went to Providence.
The town barely survived his stay of 20 months. What should a tolerant community do with a turbulent character scoffing at laws, insulting officers, dividing the people into warring factions? They denied him the right to vote. He refused to go away. Disgusted citizens left instead, building a new village far down the bay at Pawtuxet. Those remaining in Providence took sides as incidents arose. Once even a gunfight broke out, and people lay dead in the street."
There's more to the story. But it seems to me that this episode illustrates a needed lesson for today: a community can only tolerate so much dissent and division before people come to blows. Our absurd idea of diversity as 'strength' is belied by the incidents described above. And unity, based on commonalities, was essential to the very survival of the colonies and the individuals making up the colonies.
A community cannot last long with a group of people who defy the laws by which the group lives. It isn't possible to maintain the coherence of a community where people scoff at the very values and rules on which the community is formed.
Conservatives often make the argument that diversity is good "as long as it's diversity of ideas", and not just a diversity of 'skin color' or language. That is true up to a point; we have to have the free exchange of ideas and we have to hear all sides of an argument, but it seems that there are limits to how much dissent can be tolerated without breaking the community apart. A few dissenters who question the very basis of our civilization or who refuse to obey its laws and rules can do great damage. 'A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump.'
Most of today's Americans, when hearing the story of Anne Hutchinson and her banishment express shock at how 'harsh' and 'cruel' the Puritan fathers were towards her and towards other dissenters and scofflaws. But few people recognize how essential unity is when a group's very survival is at stake. The Massachusetts colonies were very precarious, and looking back we can see how close they came to not surviving at all.
I wonder whether our descendants will look back and think the same about us?