The Peopling of British North America Summary

Bernard Bailyn

The Peopling of British North America

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The settlement of British North America was of crucial importance to the development of Western civilization. Over the past twenty years, resourceful scholars have increasingly illuminated that highly complex peopling process. Most of the pertinent research has concentrated upon rather narrow topics, however, and the mass of data generated remains unintegrated and seems to defy traditional interpretative structures.

In this introductory volume, Bernard Bailyn of Harvard describes his efforts to draw together both old and new studies into a comprehensive reappraisal of early American history--a project to be fulfilled in three subsequent volumes.

Here, Bailyn advances four rather unconventional propositions. First, he insists that the peopling of the colonies began as simply an extension of domestic migrations already well developed within Britain and Europe. Largely propelled by economic motives, displaced people naturally spilled over into the Atlantic migration. Toward the end of the seventeenth century, their movement to America began to influence increasingly demographic arrangements in the Old World. Bailyn’s second proposition is that settlement patterns in the colonies were highly differentiated, varying markedly even within the same region, shaped by local conditions. Third, especially during the eighteenth century, the continuing need for labor on the one hand and land speculation on the other served as twin stimuli for two very different kinds of migration to America. Particularly intriguing is Bailyn’s fourth proposition: that if early America is to be fully understood, it must be recognized as a periphery of Europe, not unlike the English marshlands, whose culture was an exotic mixture of civility and brutality.

Brilliantly conceived and written with style and grace, this introductory essay presents a bold and provocative framework for a grand synthesis of early American culture. It is an ambitious project, but Bailyn has both the mind and the means to accomplish it in masterful fashion.