The Therapy Of Distance


Of course, the American Indians had never read Grotius or Vattel and were ignorant of European military etiquette. They were skilled, courageous, and ruthless guerrilla fighters, and the colonists had to follow their example. Backwoods warfare was nothing like the polite game of military chess described by Defoe. It was individualistic warfare, warfare without rules, which dissolved all sorts of distinctions—not only between officer and private, but even between soldier and civilian.

The military profession was only one of the monopolies that dissolved in the American remoteness. “Besides the hopes of being safe from Persecution in this Retreat,” William Byrd wrote in 1728, “the New Proprietors [of New Jersey] inveigled many over by this tempting account of the Country: that it was a Place free from those 3 great Scourges of Mankind, Priests, Lawyers, and Physicians. Nor did they tell a word of a Lye, for the People were as yet too poor to maintain these Learned Gentlemen.” But as important as their poverty was the sheer distance of the colonists from the Old World citadels of privilege.

In religion, the remoteness of America as well as its vast spaces made it impossible to preserve the monopoly of the Established Church. The Puritans in New England were not noted for their toleration. They warned away all heretics, and they harried the Quakers from their midst. Meanwhile Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania gladly welcomed refugees. And the American backwoods proved to be a boundlessly tolerating landscape. There was room enough for everybody. “If New England be called a Receptacle of Dissenters, and an Amsterdam of Religion,” the Reverend Hugh Jones of Virginia wrote in 1724, “Pennsylvania the Nursery of Quakers, Maryland the Retirement of Roman Catholicks, North Carolina the Delight of Buccaneers and Pyrates, Virginia may be justly esteemed the happy Retreat of true Britons and true Churchmen for the most part. …” But even in Virginia, as Jones observed, “the Parishes being of great Extent, Every Minister is a kind of Independent in his own Parish.” Commonly there was no nearby church where the prescribed ceremonies could be performed. “In Houses also there is Occasion, from Humour, Custom sometimes, from Necessity most frequently, to baptize Children and church Women, otherwise some would go without it. In Houses also they most commonly marry, without Regard to the Time of the Day or Season of the Year.” The wonderful independence and variety of American religions never ceased to amaze the visitors from abroad. In 1828 Mrs. Trollope found the churchgoing Americans “insisting upon having each a little separate banner, embroidered with a device of their own imagining.” “The whole people,” she wrote, “appear to be divided into an almost endless variety of religious factions.”

In England the higher learning as well as religion had been a monopoly of the Established Church. Nonconformists had difficulty securing admission to Oxford or Cambridge (the only English universities till the early nineteenth century), while Catholics and Jews were absolutely excluded. The dissenting academies, although they set high academic standards, had no power to grant degrees. In America, by contrast, at the time of the Revolution, nearly every major Christian sect had a degree-granting institution of its own. The flourishing variety of sects nourished a variety of institutions. By the early eighteenth century New England Puritans and their secessionists had set up Harvard and Yale, while Virginia conformists of the Church of England had their College of William and Mary. New-Side Presbyterians founded Princeton University; revivalist Baptists founded Brown University in Rhode Island; Dutch Reformed revivalists founded Rutgers in New Jersey; a Congregational minister transformed an Indian missionary school into Dartmouth in New Hampshire; Anglicans and Pres-byterians joined in founding King’s College (later Columbia) in New York City and the College of Philadelphia (later the University of Pennsylvania).

Americans were happily distant from the London headquarters of the monopolies of the medical and the legal professions. That was where professional guilds guarded their antique silver, displayed their charters, and organized to keep out competitors. And where they preserved pedantic distinctions among their several branches. The aristocrats of the legal profession were the barristers, fortified in their London Inns of Court, which held the power to admit to the bar, and the monopoly of practice before the high courts. Attorneys, while not authorized to plead in court, set the machinery of the court in motion. Then there were the solicitors, private legal agents whose province it was to look after routine legal matters. Besides these there were notaries (organized in their Scriveners’ Company), who prepared the documents that required a notarial seal, in addition to patent agents and still other specialists. Their English citadel was London—but there was no American London.