Book Review: Voyagers To The West

Voyagers To The West:  A Passage In The Peopling Of America On The Edge Of The Revolution, by Bernard Bailyn

This book won the Pulitzer Prize, and in reading this massive, epic history of a narrow time range in American colonial history, it is easy to see why.  There is the usual wit and charm that comes from Bailyn’s writing [1].  There is a blend of different approaches of history that work amazingly well in tandem:  a discussion of broad social trends that become visible when one looks at the statistical resources of eighteenth century British officialdom that is combined with a look at the people involved in the late colonial exodus to British North America that is so granular as to be focused on specific key individuals who engaged in land speculation, sought to help or hinder the movement of people from London and Yorkshire/Scotland to the colonies, or who participated in that movement and sought to make a better life in a strange new world for themselves and their families.  On all levels of this complicated and immensely interesting story Bailyn succeeds in weaving together the best of quantitative approaches with traditional narratives, and that sort of consummate achievement is worthy of all the awards it received.

The narrative of this book is a large one and a complex one, coming in at more than 600 pages of material that covers a small span of time between the French & Indian War and the beginning of the American Revolution, with a focus on the last three to five years, when there is a great deal of data that was present to examine the composition and motivation of the move from the British Isles to the North American colonies from Florida to Nova Scotia.  This magnum opus is divided into five parts and sixteen chapters, with numerous subheadings as well.  The first part of the book provides a background to the study with a look at the West as a magnet to people in the British Isles (I) with a discussion of the expanded world of 1760-1776 (1), the dilemma of British policy of wanting to discourage emigration but also settle the empty lands of the colonies and profit from improvement and land speculation (2), and the search for the facts in the register of emigrants and the limitations of that source (3).  After that Bailyn masterfully discusses the dimensions of late colonial British migration (II) with a look at the magnitudes, locations, and flow of that emigration (4), the identities and motivations of emigrants that show there was a dual flow between young male London indentured servants and convicts in the Chesapeake and intact Yorkshire/Scottish nuclear families searching for freeholding land in the Carolinas/Georgia and in New York/Nova Scotia (5), and the arrivals and destinations of those emigrants (6).  Bailyn then turns his attention to the mobilization of the labor force that was flowing to the colonies through transportation (III), including the demand for that labor and the importance of skills (7), the sources of that labor among London, the provinces, or convicts (8), the recruitment of that labor through broadsheets and register offices and even enticement and kidnapping (9), as well as the sales and distributions of indentured servants, which reminded observers of the public sales that were associated with chattel slavery (10).  At this point, Bailyn turns his attention to the peopling of the peripheral lands (IV), showing the relationship between Yorkshire and the Maritime Northeast of Nova Scotia and neighboring provinces of the future Canada (11), the failure of efforts to recruit Europeans to settle in the swamps of Florida (12), and the greater success at building a future plantation society in the gulf coast of the future Redneck Riviera (13).  Finally, the last three chapters of the book discuss the population of the Great Inland Arc (V) of North Carolina (14), Georgia (15), and New York (16), where land speculation and the desire for freedom and free land brought fame and honor to some and ruin to others.

If you have an interest in the patterns of British behavior and of the massive population surge of the colonies of British North America on the eve of the American Revolution, this book is certainly a worthwhile one.   There are multiple layers of achievement here that worth celebrating.  For one, Bailyn’s skillful use of statistical procedures as well as the available source data on emigration and land ownership and speculation allows the data to serve a larger and fascinating narrative that would not have been obvious without his keen eye and sound historical judgement.  Additionally, this is a work that combines multiple types of historical approaches, with a look at political history as well as institutional history and economic history, that shows the breadth of Bailyn’s expertise in Atlantic History, tying together concerns on both sides of the ocean in a narrow time window.  In addition to all of this, though, Bailyn’s work allows the reader to understand the tensions and the ambiguities behind British imperial rule that would lead to a rupture between the periphery and the core of the British Atlantic Empire, because ultimately the British wanted too many things that were in conflict with each other and were unable to act in their best long-term interests because their own self-interest in profiting from land speculation as well as rack rents to fund their home improvements ultimately were in conflict with their desire to keep a quiescent population at home profiting them in industries and agriculture.  This is a story that Bailyn tells with immense expertise and a wide range of skills.

[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.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Book Review: Voyagers To The West

  1. Pingback: The Strange Paradox Of Second Acts | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Crabgrass Frontier | Edge Induced Cohesion

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