The Therapy Of Distance

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Daniel J. Boorstin, recently appointed Librarian of Congress, and one of the most distinguished of American historians and social critics, recently gave a series of lectures in England, to be published later this month by Random House, Inc., under the title The Exploring Spirit . “The Therapy of Distance” is one chapter of the new book. —The Editors

 

COPYRIGHT © 1975, 1976 BY DANIEL J. BOORSTIN

With the settlement of the colonies in North America, for the first time in history the English “provinces” became transatlantic. The story of American civilization gives us an opportunity to see what may happen when a prospering old culture detaches a piece of itself to a great distance. On the other side of a broad ocean the civilization of Englishmen became something it never could have become within their little island. “Not a place upon earth might be so happy as America,” Thomas Paine observed in 1776. “Her situation is remote from all the wrangling world, and she has nothing to do but to trade with them.” But that was not the whole story.

The American colonies were not, of course, the first settlements of Englishmen outside of England. In fact, as Charles H. Mcllwain has shown, there was an ancient distinction in constitutional law between the realm of England (England itself) and the dominions (other lands “belonging to” England). The American colonies were not the first testing ground of the capacity of the English Constitution to provide machinery for selfgovernment beyond the island.

In the seventeenth century, while Englishmen in America were building colonies, the Irish, separated by only a few miles of water, were trying without success to assert their right to legislate for themselves. The English Commonwealth Parliament of 1649, with the arrogance of a parvenu, declared that Parliament alone (“the People … without any King or House of Lords”) should have the power to govern England and “all the Dominions and Territories thereunto belonging.” The very same declaration which proclaimed England “to be a Commonwealth and Free-State” thus silently declared that Ireland had no right to govern itself. Free Englishmen asserted their right to make laws for all those whom they “possessed.” For the first time there emerged into constitutional parlance the notion of “British Possessions.” The irony of this situation, which escaped most English statesmen, was vivid enough to the dyspeptic Irishman Jonathan Swift, who called “government without the consent of the governed … the very definition of slavery.” The Irish, Swift noted, were well enough equipped with arguments, but the torrent of power prevailed—“in fact, eleven men well armed will certainly subdue one single man in his shirt.”

Ireland was too close to England, and the stakes of the Irish empire too great, for the Irish prophets of revolution to prevail. The Irish proponents of self-government lost. In fact, before the settlement of the American colonies, the only place in the English dominions (i.e., outside England) where the right to self-government was successfully asserted was in the tiny Channel Islands, which neither threatened nor promised enough to justify a battle. The doughty Channel Islanders had the gall to argue that if anyone was dependent on anyone else, the English were dependent on them , since they were the remaining fragment of the dukedom of Normandy, whose William had conquered England.

While Cromwell’s army could master next-door Ireland, neither he nor his successors could effectively assert the power of the English Parliament over the transatlantic Americans. Three thousand miles of ocean accomplished what could not be accomplished by a thousand years of history. The Atlantic Ocean proved a more effective advocate than all the constitutional lawyers of Ireland.

The significance of sheer distance appears from the earliest settlement of Englishmen in the New World. Here is how William Bradford describes what happened in midNovember, 1620, when he and the other Pilgrim Fathers had their first view of the American coast: … after longe beating at sea they fell with that land which is called Cape Cod; the which being made and certainly knowne to be it, they were not a little joyfull. After some deliberation had amongst them selves and with the master of the ship, they tacked aboute and resolved to stände for the southward (the wind and weather being faire) to finde some place aboute Hudsons river for their habitation. But after they had sailed that course aboute halfe the day, they fell amongst deangerous shoulds and roring breakers, and they were so farr intangled ther with as they conceived them selves in great danger; and the wind shrinking upon them withall, they resolved to beare up againe for the Cape, and thought them selves hapy to gett out of those dangers before night overtooke them, as by Gods providence they did. And the next day they gott into the Cape harbor wher they ridd in saftie.