One of the most fascinating aspects of popular interpretation of American History, especially among the Christian nation believers, is the assumption that everything started fresh, that American history started when we got here and is not connected to anything that happened before. This leads to a dangerously simplistic and naive perspective that ignores and denies previous social reality.
Like many, I was taught that the Puritans left England, then Holland, because they were persecuted for their religion. Actually, while they were suppressed in England, that could hardly be called "persecution"; and they left Holland because they saw their children acculturating and did not like that. And the settlers who made Virginia a success - not the original incompetents - were refugees from the English Civil War, in other word, the losers in that conflict.
We did not start fresh.
Albion's Seed demonstrates convincingly that we brought our cultural traditions and perspectives with us, mostly from 4 specific regions in England: The Puritans into New England, the Quakers into Pennsylvania, the Cavaliers into Virginia and further South, and Borderlanders (mostly from the border between England and Scotland) through Pennsylvania into the Appalachians, Kentucky and Tennessee. While each of these four cultures adapted, the survival of cultural traditions remained strong and pervasive.
What is frequently forgotten in all this is that these cultural migrations were not isolated from a larger historical context but were in fact intimate descendants of a larger historical context. Both the European wars of religion and the English Civil War had lasting effects which underpin much of the future history of the American colonies and the eventual United States.
The English Civil War (1642–1651) was a series of conflicts over the way government in Great Britain would be handled. The outcome was to severely limit, for a time, the independent powers of the monarchy and the ability of the monarchy to impose religious orthodoxy. By the time of the American Revolution, the monarchy had regained much of this power, but in the early days of the American colonies, the issues of government control and religious imposition were of constant concern (God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution by Thomas Kidd).
The English Civil War had effects on colonial history that are usually forgotten. First, when the English Civil War started, many Puritan men from New England went back to England to participate - on Cromwell's side to be sure. Second, after the royalists (Cavaliers) lost the war, many of them migrated to Virginia, forming the wave of settlers that made Virginia successful, albeit on the model of landed and privileged gentry that they brought with them from England.
In retrospect, however, I think that the European Wars of Religion had an even greater and more lasting effect on Colonial history, one which disppears behind the facade of Puritan mythologies about creating a New Jerusalem in the New World.
Following the Reformation and the splintering of religious sensibilities into numerous denominations and cults, Europe experienced a series of conflicts between 1524 to 1648 that were primarily about religion or that included religious concerns as a major element of the wars. This included the 80 Years War in Holland and Belgium (the Low Countries), the French Wars of Religion (1562–1598), and numerous smaller conflicts. Even colonial conflicts included religion as a factor, such as fear of Catholics in Canada and fear of Anglican domination in Puritan New England (see God of Liberty).
By the time the Puritans migrated to New England, Europeans had gone though over 100 years of religiously-motivated or religiously-impacted conflict, resulting in great loss of life. The Puritan's concerns about religious liberty and the freedom to do their own thing were not isolated cultural events, but the result of decades of conflict and self-definition. Europeans took their religion very seriously, and they did not mind imposing wherever possible.
So colonial - American - culture was born in an environment of political and religious tension.
Aside from religious aspects, a number of cultural patterns were brought to the New World by European settlers, many or all of which still afflict us today:
- The idea that property and money are more important than people, which developed into vulture capitalism and neo-liberalism.
- Exceptionalism - an assumed superiority of European culture, which developed into white supremacy and religious extremism.
- Calvinism - religion based on beliefs and metaphors with a mean-spirited totalitarian streak.
- Liberty as the "right" of the privileged to oppress and abuse, which developed in the Deep South into chattel slavery and white supremacy.
- No possibility of compromise, which we associate with the Deep South but which also afflicted Puritan/Yankee culture, Borderlander culture, and Quaker culture.
- Others (outsiders, proponents of other religions, Native Americans) are not worthy and can be used or disposed of as needed to further the dominant culture's interests.
- Cultural aggressiveness, in which violence and predation are considered not only normal but actually righteous.
- Dominionism - it's our world and we can do with it what we want, which has developed into the modern insanity of Dominionism and Reconstructionism.
These patterns are with us today very strongly:
- Global dominion (neo-liberalism and global corporations)
- Perpetual war
- Totalitarianism and authoritarianism
- Exceptionalism (both American and Christian)
- Media control and propaganda
- Religious liberty being defined by the Religious Right as the ability to impose on others which claiming to be persecuted
- White supremacy
In our early days, we developed numerous mechanisms for protecting individual freedom from government and religious tyranny, such as the Bill of Rights. But we have never been honest about the cultural sicknesses that we brought with us and have developed into modern myths. One has only to look at the suppression of rights for all others (minorities, women, etc.), the attitude of destructive righteousness that pervades much of the "religious right", and the utter selfishness of the financial elites to see the same patterns surviving and flourishing.
- Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America by David Hackett Fischer (http://smile.amazon.com/Albions-Seed-British-Folkways-cultural-ebook/dp…)
- God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution by Thomas Kidd (http://smile.amazon.com/God-Liberty-Religious-American-Revolution-ebook…)