In The Beginning: 1607–1798

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“We are a nation of immigrants.” It’s a politician’s generality at an ethnic picnic, a textbook bromide swallowed and soon forgotten. It is also, as it happens, a profound truth, defining us and explaining a good part of what is extraordinary in the short history of the United States of America. There is no American ancient soil, no founding race, but there is a common ancestral experience of moving from “there” to “here.” Among the founders of this nation who believed that they were agents of destiny was an English preacher who said in 1669, “God hath sifted a nation that he might send choice grain into this wilderness.” The grain has arrived steadily and from many nations. “Americans are not a narrow tribe,” wrote Herman Melville; “our blood is as the flood of the Amazon, made up of a thousand noble currents all pouring into one.”

We begin arbitrarily with a seventeenth-century English migration that produced the First Families of Virginia (founded in 1607) and Massachusetts’s Pilgrim Fathers (1620). Arbitrarily because already in 1643 Isaac Jogues, a French Jesuit missionary visiting New Amsterdam, said he heard eighteen languages spoken in that seaport town, which probably included Mediterranean and North African dialects and the Hebrew of a small settlement of Sephardic Jews.

But the stock planted in the 1600s was basically English. In the eighteenth century it turned “British” as Scots and Irish arrived in significant numbers, then partly European through an influx of Germans, and African, too, through the thousands of involuntary black immigrants brought in on the hell ships of the slave trade.

Those initial colonial migrations to “British North America” illustrate forces that are still at work in 1993. The names, faces, and languages change, but the basics remain. Immigrants are pushed out of their original homes by war, upheaval, misery, and oppression. They are pulled toward America by the promise of economic betterment and a chance to breathe free. Sometimes they are lured by promoters who want their passage money or their labor and skills. Sometimes they have come in legal or actual bondage.

But whenever and wherever they have come, they have changed what they found. That was clear from the moment that seventeenth-century England sent the first immigrant wave. The land was ripe for mass exodus. Civil, religious, and class war raged from beginning to end of the century, encompassing in their course the execution of one king and the expulsion of another. Major changes in the economy drove small farmers off their subsistence plots in favor of sheep. “The people … do swarm in the land as young bees in a hive,” said one clergyman. “The land grows weary of her inhabitants,” said another—by name John Winthrop, soon to move with fellow Puritans to a place called Massachusetts Bay.

The London government planted colonies to help houseclean the surplus population. Some started under the rule of private corporations that looked for gold and silk and settled for the profits in fish, fur, and tobacco. Some were begun by like-minded religious seekers, some by individuals to whom the king gave huge tracts of wilderness to turn into profitable agricultural estates. All needed people to thrive, and got them. Some 378,000 Englishmen and women left for the Western Hemisphere during the century; 155,000 wound up on mainland North America. They came on the Mayflower ; they came in groups brought over by colonial proprietors who got so many extra acres of land per head of immigrant. They came as indentured servants, under bond to work a term of years. Some came in fetters at the request of unchoosy colonial administrators, like the governor of Virginia who asked London in 1611 for “all offenders out of the common gaols condemned to die.” There may have been, over the decades, as many as 50,000 of such “felions and other desperate villaines.”

They brought the imprint of England in their baggage. Without stinting other contributions, there isn’t any question that constitutional self-rule, Protestant individualism, capitalism, and the work ethic were hammered into the national character in the seventeenth-century English. And yet English with a difference. “They ate the white corn-kernels parched in the sun,” Stephen Vincent Benét wrote in 1943, “and they knew it not, but they’d not be English again.” Autocratic rule was modified almost at once because London was far away—and freedom attracted new settlers. Virginia demanded and got a representative assembly in 1624; all the other colonies followed in due course.

It was an age of religious rigidity, but state-imposed conformity had to bend to the needs of settlement. In 1632 King Charles I gave his supporter Cecilius Calvert, Lord Baltimore, the future state of Maryland (named for the Catholic queen). Calvert saw to it that his fellow Catholics, under heavy pressure back home, were tolerated within its borders. In the 168Os a different king bestowed yet another colony on William Penn. The Quaker Penn opened Pennsylvania not only to other members of the Society of Friends but to “dissenters” of every description. In different colonies intolerance rose and fell, but more often fell as population grew and spread. “Here,” reported New York’s governor in 1687, “be not many of the Church of England, few Roman Catholics, abundance of … singing Quakers, ranting Quakers, Sabbatarians, Anti-Sabbatarians, some Anabaptists, some Independents, some Jews; in short, of all sorts of opinions there are some, and the most part none at all.”