Book Review: The Peopling Of British North America: An Introduction

The Peopling Of British North America:  An Introduction, by Bernard Bailyn

How good is this book?  After I finished reading this book I looked up my local library system on the author’s other books and found four of them with topics ranging from essays on the art of history to the philosophical underpinnings of American Independence to this book’s topic on the migration of people to British North America.  I requested all of the books.  I had never heard of this gentleman before reading this book despite my own considerable interest in population migrations and my own participation in them from time to time [1], but I have heard of him now, and he is an excellent writer with a strong sense of wit, a great prose style, and a dedication to research in some of the often-forgotten areas of statistical and demographic history that I am quite fond of as a data-minded historian.  Given the strength of this book, until I see otherwise, I will assume that every book this author writes is going to be worth reading.  As someone who has wasted far too many hours reading bad books, it is a real pleasure to read a great book by an unfamiliar author who writes about compelling and interesting material that has contemporary and personal relevance.

In terms of its contents, this book is a brief book and a moderately scattered one in the best way.  The three related and connected essays of this volume only reach 130 pages in length, but they manage to provide an effective and worthwhile and deeply interesting introduction into the early roots of the American regional identities that exist.   In the first essay, the author discusses the high levels of mobility of European life for a long while, which belies our own images of static and stable village life.  In the second essay, the author looks at the complications of patterns that fail to be as orderly as we might think, and which hide a great deal of complexity beneath convenient labels.  In the third essay, and most interesting, the author imagines a Domesday Book of the American colonies in roughly the year 1700 that would describe four courses around British North America, beginning in New England, moving to the Middle Atlantic States, then the Chesapeake Bay area, and then to the Carolinas.  These essays are admittedly sketches, but they demonstrate the way that data helps us to recognize some important aspects of the colonial migration.

There are at least a few important observations that this book brings out.  Among them was the insight that there were two different British avenues of immigration, one of them for single and impecunious men out of London who had often first migrated from their own smaller towns and villages there in search of better opportunity and the second families seeking freeheld land offered by speculators in the New World.  The second important insight is that life in colonial America combined the brutality of life at the margins of civilization with a deliberate attempt to maintain high levels of civility and decorum, leading to a culture that combined refinement and violence often in the same people.  This is definitely a phenomenon I am personally familiar with.  The author makes his points without stridency and shows himself very knowledgeable about colonial American life and its repercussions and consequences.  If you are looking for a short book to introduce you on the phenomenon of cultural pathways in North America, this book is a worthy one, and likely the gateway to many other such books in one’s reading future.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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