H105, American History I

Reading Guide for Week 4

Last week we examined the Chesapeake region and its transformation in the 17th century from a labor system based on indentured English servants to a labor system based on enslaved Africans.  This rise of a chattel slavery system, with an attendant slave trade infrastructure, would transform capitalism throughout the entirety of the Atlantic world:  Africa, Europe, and the Americas.  It would also transform personal identity.  For people from Africa and from Europe, and from within the Americas, it would mean the reduction of numerous ethnicities, languages, and religions into a single identity focused on race:  blackness, or whiteness, or “Indian.”  This does not mean that people’s various other identities were erased, just that race became a new layer of identity, one with serious power disparities, and thus one with serious social, economic, and political advantages versus disadvantages.

This week we shall examine a more peripheral region of this Atlantic world, New England, whose main role became to provision the more lucrative English and other European colonies in the Chesapeake and the Caribbean more fully committed to slave labor and commodity agriculture.  Yet the colonies in New England were also to some degree inspired by a less secular and more religious vision of special opportunity in the “new world.”  You shall see this in the famous “city on a hill” passage from John Winthrop, a passage rediscovered and quoted by 20th- and 21st-century American politicians.  In New England the process of justifying any action and any behavior was extraordinarily intense, whether that justification related to dispossessing Native Americans from their land, social dancing, attending college, wearing wigs, or seeing angels.  New Englanders sought to construct what they imagined to be a perfect society #151; yet that ambition brought with it ferocious self-scrutiny, cultural anxiety, and social conflict.  How did a community preserve its vision of social order, when that social order was pressured from the outside as well as from the inside?  These were some of the crucial quandaries that beset the New England colonies over the course of the 17th century.


Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity”(1630):  One of the main leaders of the Massachusetts colony established in 1629, John Winthrop discussed first moral reciprocity in society, and then, in a famous passage, the question of divine favor (or disfavor) for the Massachusetts colony.  In outlining his system of moral reciprocity, what was the social role of a supposedly “inferiour” person?  Of a supposedly “superiour” person?

Winthrop, “Reasons to be considered....” (ca. 1629):  Here, after discussing the economic problems and moral corruptions in England, Winthrop justified the colonization of Massachusetts.  In his view, what were the differences between the English in Virginia and the English in Massachusetts?  What were the differences between the English and the indigenous Americans inhabiting New England?  How did he justify appropriating land from the indigenous Americans?  What made it “lawful” in his mind?

Freeman, “Not-So-Distant Relations?”:  Freeman discusses her discovery that her ancestors had not only benefitted from the dispossession of Native Americans — like at least all “white” people who have ever lived in the United States and Canada — but that some of her ancestors had actually perpetrated that dispossession.  Yet how does Freeman move beyond the easyness of mere guilt, to something more difficult, and more potentially constructive, for everyone in the present who has benefitted and continues to benefit from that dispossession?  The moral question of a perpetrator is already complicated, since not all perpetrators are equally willing, but the moral question of a beneficiary is that much harder.  There are many more beneficiaries than perpetrators, because beneficiaries extend into the future ... and continue to extend into the future.


Shephard, letter to his son Thomas Shepard III (1672):  Shephard’s 14-year-old son was taking an important step towards manhood in attending Harvard College.  What did Shephard (Class of 1653) urge his son (Class of 1676) to do with his time in college?  What kinds of activities did he warn against?  What was the proper balance between responsibility and pleasure?

Mather, “An Arrow Against Profane....” (1684):  Mather, a prominent Puritan leader, described the proper reasons and ways to dance.  Who was allowed to dance with whom?  Why?  Who was not allowed to dance with whom?  Why not?  What was the ideal relationship between the mind and the body; between reason and emotion?  What categories of people did Mather associate with emotion?  With reason?

Noyes, “Reasons Against Wearing....” (ca. 1703):  A Salem minister who had presided over the notorious witch trials, here Noyes identified yet another new symptom of social disorder in Massachusetts — the wearing of periwigs.  By who?  What were the social distinctions that were threatened by the wearing of periwigs?  What were the supposedly “natural” differences between men and women?  Whom did he consider to be the main threat to social order?  Men, or women?  The “Generality,” or “Magistrates and Ministers”?

Reis, “Trouble with Angels”:  What cultural associations did Puritans make concerning the presence of angels?  How did gender figure into their cultural associations?  How are those cultural associations about angels different now in the modern day?  How does Reis explain this?  How would you explain it?