Category Archives: Colonial America

Kirk Cameron has found the “secret sauce” that made America great

It’s apparently made of seventeenth-century religious dissenters.

“I want to know the secret sauce,” he recently told MSNBC.  “Tell us what it is so we can move forward with it. What I discovered is the seeds that blossomed into this great nation really began with the faith of the Pilgrims.”

This is the subject of his upcoming movie Monumental, which hits theaters March 27.  It’s an appropriate title; judging by the trailer, it does have a lot of monuments in it.

If I’m not mistaken (someone correct me on this if I am), the particular monument highlighted near the end of that clip is the National Monument to the Forefathers, dedicated to the memory of the Pilgrims in 1889.  It’s also prominently featured in the film’s  poster.  You can see it just behind Cameron’s arm, the one in which he’s not clutching the American flag like it’s a piece of carry-on luggage.

Cameron’s opinion that you should look to the Pilgrims if you want to find the “secret sauce” that made the American character is a pretty common one.  Many Americans who dig down in search of the nation’s moral foundations stop once their shovels hit Plymouth Rock, assuming that there’s nothing else to excavate. This has always interested me, because when you think about it, the Pilgrims and the Puritans don’t sum up even the colonial experience, much less the entire history of early America.

I mean, why them?  They were neither the first settlers to set up shop in America nor the most typical ones (assuming there was such a thing as a “typical” group of colonists).  Why should we consider the Pilgrims normative, rather than the Jamestown colonists, the Dutch inhabitants of old New York, the Cavaliers of Virginia, the Germans of Pennsylvania, the Scotch-Irish settlers of the Carolina backcountry, the Irish immigrants of the mid-1800’s, the southern and eastern Europeans of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and so on?

Partly, I think, it’s because the Puritans left an extensive paper trail, and thus colonial historians wrote more about them.  But I suspect it’s also because the Pilgrim past is a more useable one for people who believe Americans have tumbled from some towering religious or moral height.  As I said some time ago, conservatism seems to me to be a philosophy that is fundamentally restorative—the goal is to return to the good old days when all was right with America.  In order to hold this belief, one must first assume that the good old days were indeed good.  To folks who want to build a more cohesive, moral, and purposeful nation, the Pilgrims are a pretty good model.  From this perspective, the Pilgrims were the essential ingredient in the creation of America.  It’s easy to forget that they weren’t the only game in town.  In fact, as Jack Greene argues in his book Pursuits of Happiness, New England was in many respects downright atypical when you look at to early American development as a whole.

For more on the Monument to the Forefathers and the selective nature of how we remember history, I recommend this 2008 post at American Creation.  I should note that personally, all snark and nitpicking aside, I like Kirk Cameron.  He’s maintained his integrity and decency while working in the entertainment business, and that’s worthy of admiration.  As for this film project, I think his heart is in the right place, but I’m guessing that both the American past and the American future are a little more complicated than he’d have us believe.

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Filed under Colonial America, History and Memory

The military legacies of our conflicts with Canada

Eliot Cohen argues that the battles America fought along the corridor connecting New York with Canada shaped the way the U.S. has approached warfare down through the years.  Check out his editorial in today’s Wall Street Journal, a sample of the arguments in his forthcoming book.

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Filed under American Revolution, Colonial America, History and Memory

A colonial romance movie

…is shooting this fall in Virginia.  It’s based on Mary Johnston’s 1900 novel To Have and to Hold, about a Jamestown settler who marries a girl pledged to a nobleman.  The book was wildly popular when it was first published, and was the basis for two silent films. You can read it online for free, if you’re so inclined.

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A wider view from Tryon Palace

The New York Times has a piece on the recently constructed North Carolina History Center at New Bern.  It’s part of the same site that includes a reconstruction of Gov. William Tryon’s impressive eighteenth-century house.

What’s cool about the article is that it uses the center’s exhibits to explain some of the ways historic interpretation has changed over the years.  Rather than focusing exclusively on Tryon and those who sat with him atop the pinnacle of colonial society, the exhibits widen things out a little by examining the everyday lives of ordinary North Carolinians, the ways the environment shaped human history, and so on.  And, of course, the center employs all the latest gadgets in order to engage in its audience.

Check out the link to the center’s website in the article, too; it takes you to a short video where you can get a taste of the exhibits.

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Filed under Colonial America, Museums and Historic Sites

A Catholic take on Pilgrim ironies

Mark Shea is an extremely witty fellow who blogs and writes prolifically from a Catholic perspective.  I always find his reflections well worth reading.  In a recent piece he examines the religious dissidents who settled New England, and some of the ironic developments resulting therefrom, all the way through the Civil War and down to the present day.  Check it out.

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Filed under Colonial America, History and Memory

Beck and Lillback stumble through Native American history

Some kind soul has posted video of Beck’s train wreck-like foray into Native American history (the subject of a lengthy tirade in my last post) to YouTube.

After delving into Pre-Columbian archaeology, Beck gets Peter Lillback’s take on colonial Indian-white interaction.  Lillback argues that the earliest English settlers got along swimmingly with the local tribes, a statement with which the Virginia Indians who ran afoul of the Jamestown colonists would probably take issue.  He also seems to believe that William Penn’s conciliatory Indian policies were something other than an aberration.

Anyway, here you go.  I hope you find it as stupefyingly appalling as I did.

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Filed under Archaeology, Colonial America, History and Memory, Tennessee History

Listening to details

I’m reading Stephen Brumwell’s excellent Redcoats: The British Soldier and War in the Americas, 1755-1763.  One of his chapters deals with the unique challenges of campaigning in the New World: rugged terrain, severe weather…and insects.  Lots and lots of insects. 

I usually don’t think much about insects when I read military history, but to a lot of eighteenth-century British soldiers who crossed the Atlantic, they were an inescapable and ubiquitous fact of life.  This is the sort of thing that wouldn’t occur to you unless you read accounts from people who were there and experienced it.  One of the strengths of Brumwell’s book is his intensive research in first-person accounts, and in fact it’s surprising to see how abundant and rich the primary material from these soldiers is.

This outstanding use of primary sources reminded me of another fine book I read several years ago called City Behind a Fence: Oak Ridge, Tennessee, 1942-1946, by Charles W. Johnson and Charles O. Jackson.  Oak Ridge was a town that sprang up out of nowhere, built solely as a home for the effort to create the radioactive material used in the first atomic weapons.  Because the city was built so quickly, there was a lot of mud everywhere, a fact that early residents remembered in great detail.  Again, this was an aspect of the historical experience that probably would have gone unnoticed if it weren’t for the fact that it was so prominent in the reminiscences of early residents, so the authors gave it the emphasis it deserved.

This is one of the reasons it’s important to be receptive to primary sources.  By “being receptive” I don’t just mean consulting them; I mean listening to them as well as asking questions of them.  We can get so caught up in framing our questions properly that we miss the things they’re telling us that we don’t even think to ask.  These two otherwise unrelated books are both well worth reading, partly because of the questions the authors asked but also because they remembered to listen.

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Filed under Colonial America, Historiography, Tennessee History