The Idea of America


The Protestant Idea of America


The English Settlement of America

   Along with the Spanish, the Portugese, and the French, the English saw the American continents as unrivalled opportunity for mercantile trade. The English, however, particularly concentrated on the agricultural resources of North America, particularly the trade in tobacco and cotton (which was also exported from India). Unlike the Spanish, French, and Portugese, however, English settlement of the Americas was not solely motivated by commercial concerns. The English who settled America, the English from whom we inherit our world view, settled often for reasons completely different from commercial reasons. While we like to think of these settlers as brave Christians fighting the wilderness in order to freely practice their religion, the religious motivations were slightly different. These early settlers weren't simply coming to America to escape persecution in England, they came to America because it represented an idea. The idea of America was ultimately derived from both Protestant theology and the Christian theories of the end of time.

   The first permanent English settlement was established at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607; it was predominately an agricultural and commercial venture, but.it quickly failed. However, between 1610 and 1650, over eighty thousand English would settle in America in some twenty communities. Most of these communities were settled by radical Protestants, religious dissenters who were persecuted in England. Because they were primarily agricultural settlements, the English government did not see much profit in supporting them; moreover, becase they were primarily settled by religious radicals, the governments of James I and later Charles I saw no reason to help them thrive through favorable mercantilist policies. Because of this disinterest, the English colonies were unbelievably autonomous. They were, for all practical purposes, self-governing.

   The attitudes towards the American agricultural colonies changed dramatically during the years of Cromwell's Protectorate. Not only was England now a Puritan republic, it also began to realize the lucrativeness of exploiting trade in American crops, particularly sugar and tobacco. After the Restoration, Charles II continued to regulate commerce with North America in order to profit from these crops. Sugar, in particular, was wildly popular in Europe. In 1600, barely anybody had ever tasted sugar; by 1700, it had become one of the most sought after delicacies around. Both sugar and tobacco, however, are crops that demand enormous amounts of labor. The English began to use a system of "indentured servitude" to provide the labor for these colonies. Some indentured servants were kidnapped from Native American populations, but most at first were English citizens who had been arrested for some crime, prostitution, or vagrancy, or drawn from citizens who were hopelessly in debt and had no way to pay. Some English were kidnapped and sold into indentured servitude in America. A number of these indentured servants were kidnapped from Africa. An indentured servant was required to labor for several years, usually ten to twenty years, at which time they had "paid off" their servitude and were free to go. By 1670, however, the majority of indentured servants being brought to America were Africans; it was in this year that the English colonies began to convert indentured servitude into legal slavery when laws were instituted that allowed for lifelong indentured servitude and configured genealogy, that is, one's birth to a slave, as enough to make one a slave. This, however, is a story we'll tell when we talk about the Africa Diaspora.

   The economic and religious explanations for the settlement of America make for compelling arguments. Indeed, many British settled for purely economic reasons, such as the New York and Virginia settlements (the Virginians were, however, radical Anglicans), and some, such as the Carolinas, were settled by the king's favorites. For the most part, however, America was religious settlement and a largely Protestant one at that (with the exception of Maryland which was settled by English Catholics and Virginia which was settled by radical Anglicans). America represented an idea to the early, radical Protestants who came to America. It was, for all purposes, a millenial concept, for the religious dissenters and radical Puritans who settled America believed that the end of time was about to occur. They also believed that the key events of the end of time, in particular, a one thousand year rule of saints, would begin in the new continents and spread across the globe. America was the millenium in gestation: it was to that dream that the Puritans and dissenters made their way.

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Radical Protestant Millenarianism


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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 1-26-97