New England’s Generation: The Great Migration and the Formation of Society and Culture in the Seventeenth Century.

New England’s Generation: The Great Migration and the Formation of Society and Culture in the Seventeenth Century. – book reviews

Kenneth Lockridge

New England’s Generation: The Great Migration and the Formation of Society and Culture in the Seventeenth Century. By Virginia DeJohn Anderson (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. x plus 232 pp.).

The little book is a quiet reflection on the society and culture which 693 settlers of New England put together in the years between their arrivals in the 1630’s, and their deaths in the decades thereafter. In an age in which scholarly works either assume a false monumentality or sparkle with trendy jargon, Virginia DeJohn Anderson is content to build on the work of Timothy Breen and Stephen Foster, and to know New England through its settlers.

There is much to like here. Anderson makes it clear that we can truly identify these settlers, who arrived on seven ships between 1635 and 1638, as Puritans. Diverse as they were in regional origins and occupations, representative indeed of the English population as a whole in many respects, they were also the products of a process of self-selection and screening designed to produce only pious and orthodox emigrants. Their aim was to live in spiritual harmony while achieving a modest, independent “competency” as farmers or artisans. While they ended their lives in forty-five different communities scattered from Maine to New Jersey, most in fact had stayed in the second or at most the third town they had sampled, because they had found there both the spirituality and the competence they had sought. It was this distinct first generation, with most of the adults born between 1600 and 1619, and all united by their great pilgrimage, whose determination and success echoed through the self-flagellating jeremiads of their children and grandchildren. With time, the guilt felt by later generations for not measuring up to the standards of the founding generation diminished. The tiny–compared to British migration elsewhere in the seventeenth century–cohort of first settlers of New England then emerged simply as heroicized ancestor figures. They became creators of a chosen people of liberty, or of whatever qualities the speaker of each new generation wished to invoke. The author suggests that never did so small a cohort echo so strongly through so long a history; yet, as foundation myths go, Polynesians in fact trace their cosmologies, existences, and characteristics back to a single ancestor, ancestral pair, or canoe. And in the end that is what the first New England settlers became, almost entirely mythic.

So Anderson takes us nicely from the statistics of migration studies and from migrant culture to their absorption into local legend. Along the way she comes very close to a profound analysis of the migrants’ common world view and motive. She notes (p. 30) that most came from English villages where manorial institutions were weak and where competitive, commercial, individual farms had become the rule. She adds that most, however, were not yeomen but artisans or, if on the land, were mere husbandmen. She then observes: “What they sought in the New World was a material life that would support–not threaten–their spiritual goals. They knew only too well the dangers of wealth and covetousness, and scarcely wished to ride the proverbial camel trying to squeeze through the eye of the needle. But they also understood that the incessant demands of poverty would likewise undermine their capacity to concentrate on their spiritual duties. Most colonists therefore carefully chose a middle path, aiming for the modest prosperity that they called ‘competency'” (p. 123). The linkage of the material and the spiritual is exquisitely drawn out here, but Anderson never underlines fully the conclusion toward which all this evidence points.

Michael Walzer suggested many years ago that Puritanism in England and in New England was above all an attempt to manage the tides of modernity–of population growth, inflation, monetarization, commercialization, individual competitiveness, social polarization, (indeed also of centralization and state building)–sweeping over England in the years 1450-1630. (1) Robert Cushman, pamphleteer for the Pilgrim migration, offered one version of this strategy when he said “the straitness of the place is such as each man is fain to pluck his means (as it were) out of his neighbor’s throat, [and] there is such pressing and oppressing in towns and country, about farms, trade, traffic, etc. so as a man can hardly anywhere set up a trade but he shall pull down two of his neighbors … so it is easy to see that the straitness of the place, having in it so many strait hearts, cannot but produce such effects more and more–so as every … man should be ready to say, ‘let us not thus oppress … one another, but seeing there is a spacious land, the way to which is through the sea, we will end this difference in a day.'” (2) Cushman was probably wrong when he thought “straitness” was the sole cause of the competitiveness he abhorred, but in any event his solution was to manage the horrors of modernity by migration to America. Other Puritans shared his point of view.

In this perspective, Anderson’s migrants were clearly marginalized men from villages most exposed to these new forces, exposed not simply to population growth a la Margaret Spufford’s Contrasting Communities (3) but to all the consequent and parallel competitiveness, oppression, and prospective failure attendant on social modernization in England. Forced to the margins, as small artisans or husbandmen, they faced the choice of succeeding by cutting their neighbors’ throats, metaphorically at least, or of failing and having their own throats cut. In this horrifying new age, what had happened to the medieval ideal of Christian charity, once defined as mutual love among all persons? One migrant not in Anderson’s sample, John Winthrop by name, worried a great deal about this issue. He gave a speech on the way to Massachusetts, called “A Modell of Christian Charity.” The “Modell” is in fact primarily a long reflection on how to balance the medieval meaning of Christian charity with the new, tempting yet spiritually deadly realities of the marketplace, and specifically, with the unforgiving law of contracts. The speech is a portrait of a man caught in agony between the securities of the medieval age and the temptations, and terrors, of the modern. John Dane, an interloping, marginal tailor who came to Massachusetts among Anderson’s migrants in order to avoid “temptation,” was another instance of exactly the dilemma seen in Cushman and in Winthrop. (4) For all these men, as, I suspect, for her migrants in general, the temptation was to assert the self, and to succeed; the fear was by succeeding to destroy human charity, or alternately to fail and so go under.

In the New World, such men could have their cake and eat it too. They could have the independent yeoman “competency” which was one of the attractions of the post-medieval age, or as in Winthrop’s case, even aspire to more; yet, through the very abundance of new lands available, through communal covenants emphasizing sharing and arbitration, through price controls and, if John Cotton had his way, through restrictions on usury, (5) they could be sure that all persons shared in this opportunity, treated one another with decency, and hopefully, with the help of God’s grace, regarded one another with love. Truth is, this migration was an heroic attempt to combine the virtues of the middle and the modern ages. Until Salem, the terrors at its heart lay unrevealed. (6)

Kenneth Lockridge University of Montana


(1.) Michael Walzer, “Puritanism as a Revolutionary Ideology,” History and Theory III (1964): 59-90.

(2.) Robert Cushman, “Reasons and Considerations Touching the Lawfulness of Removing Out of England into the Parts of America,” as found in John Demos, Remarkable Providences (Boston, 1991), 4-11.

(3.) Margaret Spufford, Contrasting Communities: English Villagers in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Cambridge, 1974).

(4.) John Dane, “A Declaration of the Remarkable Providences in the Course of My Life,” as found in Demos, Remarkable Providences, 60-70.

(5.) Jesper Rosenmeier, “John Cotton on Usury,” William and Mary Quarterly XLVII (Oct., 1990): 548-565.

(6.) Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft (Cambridge, Mass., 1974).

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