During the colonial period in the 17th and 18th centuries, North America was predominantly shaped by four major waves of migration from England or Britain.
The United States of America is commonly considered ‘a nation of immigrants’. For a few centuries countless people from various different countries have been streaming into the U.S.A. to leave their old lives behind and to live the American dream. Indeed, from the point of view of many immigrants, this ‘land of opportunity’ has always been an object of desire.
Because of the coexistence of several groups from different cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds, some famous concepts or ideas have emerged over time. One of them, in particular, stands out – namely the idea of ‘the melting pot‘. With respect to this notion, the U.S.A. is – in the words of the online dictionary Merriam Webster – “a place where a variety of races, cultures, or individuals assimilate into a cohesive whole.”
But both this idea (or myth) of the melting pot and the aforementioned commonly used phrase ‘nation of immigrants’ may distort that in the 17th and 18th centuries North America was predominantly settled by people from Britain (mostly from England) as well as their descendants. Their traditions and views, to a high extent, proved influential in shaping colonial American culture.
The historical impact of the British or English on America is described in detail by the American historian David Hackett Fischer in his book Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (1989). According to Fischer, the first of the four waves of British migration roughly started in 1629.
Prior to that, some people from England, needless to say, had already come to the Americas. By, in metaphorical terms, slowly planting ‘Albion’s Seed’ in the New World, they laid the foundations for the four major migration waves from Britain.
‘Albion’s Seed’ Was Slowly Planted – The Early English Ventures and Attempts at Settlement in the New World
After Christopher Columbus had ‘discovered’ America in 1492, English ships occasionally embarked on voyages to the New World. Despite these early voyages of explorations, there was apparently not so much enthusiasm for oversea expeditions to the Americas in the first years of the 16th century. However, during the second half of the 16th century England decided to venture into the New World, where the Spanish and Portuguese colonialists had found gold and silver.
Especially English merchants were interested in breaking the Spanish overseas monopoly since the vast land of America provided important resources and goods like sugar, tobacco, timber or tropical fruits. The merchants’ efforts received support from the English crown under Queen Elizabeth I (b.1533, 1558-1603).
Moreover, Queen Elizabeth I commissioned the famous English sea captain and privateer Sir Francis Drake (c.1540-1596) to attack Spanish ships and Spanish settlements at America’s Pacific coast. It should be added here that Drake as well as the English naval commander Sir John Hawkins (1532-1595) engaged in the slave trade in this period.
The queen also granted the explorer Sir Humphrey Gilbert (c.1539-1583) a patent to plant overseas colonies. Eventually, in 1583 he claimed Newfoundland for England. Therefore, Newfoundland became the first English possession in North America. Nevertheless, his attempt at colonization finally failed because he and his ships were lost at sea on the return journey.
Later, another famous Englishman, the explorer Sir Walter Raleigh (c.1554-1618), Gilbert’s half-brother, established an English settlement on Roanoke Island in 1585, which is today part of the U.S. state of North Carolina. Historical sources point out that this new area was named ‘Virginia‘ in honour of Elizabeth I, the ‘Virgin Queen’. Ultimately, the settlement only lasted a few years.
Although England’s early attempts to colonize parts of the New World failed, thirty English settlements were set up from 1580 to 1630. Among them was the first permanent English or British colony in North America at Jamestown (in present-day Virginia), which was founded in 1607.
Notwithstanding that the English population in the New World constituted only one of several groups there, the English people there paved the way for England’s future settlements and the migration waves from Britain. Metaphorically speaking, these English people slowly planted ‘Albion’s Seed’.
‘Albion’s Seed’ Began to Grow and Developed into ‘A City upon a Hill’ – The English Pilgrim Fathers and the Puritans
Quite a few textbooks about American history usually emphasize the Puritans, Reformed English Protestants. As their name ‘Puritans’ indicates, they intended to ‘purify’ the Church of England from – in their view – ‘Catholic’ practices. Their migration from the eastern counties of England took place between about 1629 and 1640. Subsequently, the Puritans settled Massachusetts Bay.
We should not equate these Puritans with the Pilgrim Fathers, as they were called, even though they also held Puritan beliefs. In general, the Pilgrim Fathers were religious ‘Separatists’ who broke away from the English state church, the Church of England. Hence, their main aim was to gain religious freedom.
Roughly speaking, they had exiled themselves to the Netherlands, before they sailed on the famous ship Mayflower to America. Finally, they arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620 – that is, prior to the start of the above mentioned Puritan migration wave. By the way, the ‘first Thanksgiving‘ can be traced back to the feast or harvest meal, which was given by the Plymouth settlers in 1621. Yet, in regards to this event, myths, legends and facts blur.
At any rate, the Puritans, by contrast, were still members of the Church of England. Only during the reign of King Charles I did they leave England in masses. From their viewpoint, the king felt attracted to the Catholic rites they hated. Alongside social and economic issues, the king’s attitude towards religion certainly was a contributing factor for the Puritan migration to America.
Adhering to the doctrines of Reformed Protestant Calvinist Orthodoxy and the belief in predestination, the Puritans were determined to establish a deeply religious and God-fearing community without interferences by outsiders. Furthermore, they strove to create a new Zion. To achieve their goal, the people in Massachusetts (or other parts of New England) followed strict religious rules as well as codes of law and order. Within the community, the law was supposed to reflect biblical principles.
One of the leading figures of the English Puritan community, John Winthrop (1588-1649), alluded to the determination to establish a new Zion in Massachusetts by mentioning for the first time the well-known phrase “city upon a hill” in his sermon ‘A Model of Christian Charity’:
“For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us…” (This quotation is derived from a few passages from the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew 5. 14-15.)
Winthrop, a longterm governor of Massachusetts Bay, wanted the Christian colony to serve as a model of order and morality for humanity.
Ever since, the phrase has been referred to the U.S.A. as a whole. It is an example of expressions concerning American exceptionalism. Unsurprisingly, several US politicians / Presidents have employed this phrase in their speeches.
If we use our metaphor again, through the migrations of the Pilgrim Fathers and the Puritans ‘Albion’s Seed’ began to grow. Until the end of the 18th century it continued to grow because of three other waves of British migrants.
‘Albion’s Seed’ Kept Growing, or the Other Major Migration Waves from Britain – the Aristocrats, the Quakers and the Immigrants from the British Borderlands
On the one hand, when the English Civil War(s) commenced in 1642, a number of Puritans retuned to England to support the Parliamentarians in the fight against Charles I and the Royalists. On the other hand, a second major migration wave to America occurred from roughly 1642 to 1675. This wave carried royalist aristocrats and gentlemen mainly from England’s south and west. Most of them were younger sons of English aristocratic families.
Their American destination was Virginia. Here the aristocrats and gentlemen formed an elitist and hierarchically organized society. They also had particular ideas of liberty and government such as the concept of freedom as a condition of independence and the conceptions of minimal government and self-government. After all, during the founding period of the U.S.A. at the end of the 18th century, several descendants of these gentlemen or, more precisely, their ideas exerted a huge influence on the U.S. Constitution.
Other characteristics of this society encompassed an allegiance to the Anglican faith and a strong sense of honour. Interestingly enough, the majority of the white population in Virginia consisted of indentured servants as well as landless or poor whites.
Afterwards, two additional major migration waves from Britain brought many English Quakers and a high number of immigrants from the Northern British borderlands to America. From about 1675 to 1715 the Quakers – who had lived in England’s North Midlands before their migration – resided in the Delaware Valley (around Philadelphia), while later, from roughly 1717 to 1775, the people from the borderlands of northern Britain moved to the Appalachian backcountry.
For instance, the Quaker community was founded on a remarkable work ethic, a Christian notion of spiritual equality and a pluralistic idea of reciprocal liberty. The latter represented a Christian concept, embracing all humanity.
It entailed religious freedom or “liberty of conscience”, as the Quaker’s most prominent member, William Penn (1644-1718), worded it. Notably, for the Quakers, liberty of conscience even applied to ideas they believed to be false. Suffice it to say, in this context, that these conceptions were or have been influential in American society.
As a result of the other migration waves from Britain to America, ‘Albion’s Seed’, so to speak, kept growing besides, for example, other migrants from Britain, German Pietists in today’s state of Pennsylvania, Dutch settlers in ‘New Netherland’ (i.e. areas of the present-day states of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware as well as outposts on Rhode Island and in Pennsylvania), French Huguenots and African slaves. Yet, trouble loomed among the British colonists.
Big Trouble among the British (Regions) in Colonial America
Undeniably, these groups of colonists shared striking characteristics. That is, they migrated from Britain, spoke English and were Christians. In spite of these shared characteristics and their familiarity with traditional British or English rights like trial by jury, the protection of property rights and the right of representative government, the British groups of migrants were culturally different from one another. Each of them highly influenced the cultural identity of the respective settlement region.
Nonetheless, even within the settlement regions internal crises arose occasionally. Apart from these internal crises, the major cultures in British America did not get on with each other from the beginning. We may infer the early British colonists’ hostile attitude towards one another from the following statements:
In 1651, a Puritan judged Virginians: “I think they are the farthest from conscience and moral honesty of any such number together in the world.”
Many years later, in 1736, a Virginian, William Byrd II, viewed Puritans with contempt, as some passages in one of his letters show: “They have a great dexterity in palliating a perjury so as to leave no taste of it in the mouth, nor can any people like them slip through a penal statute…A watchful eye must be kept on these foul traders.”
Judging from the Puritans’ and the Virginians’ stated opinions, they hated the Quakers who were said to “pray for their fellow men one day a week, and on them the other six.”
The Quakers, in turn, despised the Puritans in New England. At the end of the 18th century, a Pennsylvanian Quaker labled them as “the flock of Cain.”
Additionally, the Quakers, Puritans and Virginians alike expressed their dislike of the borderers from the north of Britain by calling them savages, barbarians, ‘Vandals of America’, an “unlearned and uncivilized part of the human race” and “a spurious race of mortals.”
The settlers of the backcountry equally disdained the aforementioned groups. (These statements can be found in Fischer’s Albion’s Seed on pages 821 and 822.)
All in all, there was high potential for big trouble.
On many occasions, their mutual antagonism deteriorated into violent regional conflicts. Correspondingly, as far as the regional cultures of British America were concerned, during the colonial period America neither resembled ‘a cultural melting pot’ nor ‘a United States’, even though the migrants came from the same part of the world and had striking characteristics in common. Regardless of these conflicts, the British roots of what became the U.S.A. are indisputable.
Sources and Further Reading:
Cannon, John. Ed. Dictionary of British History. Rev. ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Fischer, David Hackett. Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. New York, and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Hannan, Daniel. How We Invented Freedom & Why It Matters. London: Head of Zeus, 2013.
McDonald, Forrest. Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1985.
Unger, Irwin. These United States: The Questions of Our Past. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2007.