So, in theory, this first episode is covering everything that happened in the land that would come to be the United States before 1776. But that’s insane. We don’t need to know all of that. We can really understand all of US History if we just look at two colonies and one year. That’s right! Hello, oversimplification!
Also, if you’re sad that I’m not doing an episode on life in the Americas before Europeans arrived, don’t be sad! Because I already did an episode on that! Check out Episode 6 from Season 2 called “1491.” But here’s the synopsis for now: there were way more Native Americans than we previously thought, they had a huge impact on transforming their environment into a sustainable utopia that the colonists quickly destroyed, and anywhere from 90-98% of them died within 1-2 generations after Europeans arrived. Don’t worry – we’re going to talk more about the Native American experience throughout later episodes, but for now let’s look at the Thirteen Original Colonies!
Welcome to Season 3 Episode 1: Colonial America, or “Who needs dancing when you have tobacco and the Bible?” The main idea of today’s episode – and really this entire season – is that, from the beginning, America has been a conundrum. Because it was founded by many different people in many different places with many different ideas about what they were creating. In some colonies, they were taking advantage of a land of endless opportunity to create wealth, regardless of name or birth. In other places, they were building a “City Upon A Hill” that would become the shining example of a true Christian nation. And in others they were escaping the oppressive autocracy of Europe in search of a blank slate to apply new ideas about equality, liberty, and democracy. Sometimes these competing visions worked OK together. But as we’ll see throughout this season, they are also often the source of our conflicts. So let’s see where it all started.
Act 1: The First Colony
1607. That was the year that the first permanent colony was established by the English. For context, Queen Elizabeth I had died four years earlier but the joint-stock company that founded this colony would name it after her – “Virginia” for the Virgin Queen. 1607 is less than 100 years after Leonardo da Vinci died and Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of his church, sparking the Protestant Reformation. Just four years before our country began to begin, the Tokugawa Shogunate was formed, unifying the island of Japan. In many ways, our two nations rose up parallel to each other, culminating in our historic clash in the 20th century.
The First Wave of European colonization had begun in 1492 and been dominated for the next first century by Spain and Portugal. But now, partly thanks to Elizabeth’s defeat of the Spanish Armada and a growing economic drive on the island kingdom, England was getting in the game.
The economic policy in effect was mercantilism. This stemmed from a new idea that the act of trade itself could generate wealth – up until this point, merchants were fairly low on the social hierarchy in most civilizations (I see you, China) and they brought in luxury goods, but they weren’t a prominent wealth creator on their own. But in England, with a new Protestant emphasis on individualism and a rule of law, guarded by Parliament, to protect them from having their wealth taken away (something that’s much easier for a king to do with goods like tobacco as opposed to land), an early form of capitalism rose.
Private ventures were launched, although they had to be approved by a royal charter, to explore the so-called New World. Basically, wealthy men or families went in together on a new venture, making it easier for middle-class men to gain access to lucrative opportunities. They all jointly had stock in the success of the company… so they were a – you guessed it – joint-stock company!
As with most things, the Chinese actually had already been using joint-stock companies for around 500 years, but the Europeans – especially the English – took them to a whole new level. These companies typically had a national monopoly on trade between England and another place – like the Muscovy Company which controlled trade from Russia, or the famous British East India Company. These companies were highly efficient because they were backed by the Crown and had little competition since royal charters weren’t all that easy to get – once these companies were formed and got hold of some land, they could kind of do whatever they wanted – no wonder they were the bad dudes in Pirates of the Caribbean…
Joint-stock companies were extremely beneficial to the Crown because the government could reap the reward of new trade ventures without having to put up the cost. You see, mercantilism also said the Mother Country should be the primary – and often, sole – beneficiary of any wealth generated by the new companies. So, when the Virginia Company founded the colony of Virginia and began growing tobacco, for example, the only place they could sell that tobacco was back to England. This is fine for now, but give it about 150 years and that’s going to get pretty frustrating to some of the American colonists.
Anyway, in 1607 the Virginia Company, armed with a charter from the new King James I, arrived in the newly-named James River. It was marshy and humid but the deep waters allowed ships to get close to the shore. The small outpost they founded would become Jamestown. Jamestown on the James River in honor of King James? How Alexander the Great of them.
The original goal was to bring back gold and find a river route to the Pacific Ocean. Remember – the entire purpose of setting off into the Atlantic has been to make it to China and India without having to go through the Italians and the Muslim Ottomans. They don’t know it yet, but no one would ever find a river-route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans because it doesn’t exist. At least not until Teddy Roosevelt builds that canal in Panama… sorry, spoiler alert!
The leader of this venture in Jamestown was Commander Christopher Newport. He quickly had to deal with native tribes in the region, especially the powerful Powhatan Empire. The relations between the two sides were not always bad; they traded with each other and the natives provided gifts of food in the early years of the colony. But, tensions were always high and encounters turned violent quickly.
Under Newport’s management, the colony’s purpose was clear: find gold and explore the land. He didn’t invest much time or energy into building strong infrastructure to help the colony itself survive – again, how Alexander the Great of him – possibly believing they wouldn’t be there for long. Go in, get gold, and get out of there. He was wrong. While Newport sailed back to England to report about the great start the colony was off to, the first mass casualties in the colony were taking place due to dirty water, diseases from mosquitoes, and limited food. Dozens of colonists died and people at the time reported that there were times when as few as five settlers were well enough at any given time to bury the dead.
Even when Newport returned, he continued to spend most of the resources searching for gold. At the same time, the governor of the entire Virginia colony ordered them to construct a massive capitol building, which seemed an incredibly unnecessary waste of precious resources when they couldn’t, you know, feed everyone. Eventually, the people agreed and the governor was politely asked to leave. At that point, a young captain who had been railing against this mismanagement from the beginning took control: yeah, I’m talking about John Smith. I always imagine him with the voice of Mel Gibson, damn you Disney.
John Smith’s leadership can best be described as tough but fair. He ordered that those who are able but do not work will not eat. And it should show us just how treacherous life was in these early colonies that on Smith’s brag sheet is the bullet point that “no settlers died of starvation under his administration.” Woohoo! Way to go John!
Now, very quickly I would like to point out that Disney is absolute garbage when it comes to history. They are what I like to call “fictional history” as opposed to the much-preferred “historical fiction.” I love historical fiction, which is where writers take very real, well-researched historical events or time periods and then insert fictional characters into that world. It’s great and if it’s done right, you learn a ton about history through the eyes of a fictional character.
Here’s the difference: Disney takes real things and real people from history and then changes them around to fit a fictional story they want to tell. This is the worst possible way to handle this because people then think they know what really happened because it is close enough to actual events that no one digs any further. So everyone just assumes that Pocahontas and John Smith fell in love and were married or that there really is a hidden treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence! Ugh. They’re fun but they’re misleading.
So, John Smith was captured by the natives. And he was threatened with execution until he was “saved” by Pocahontas, the chief’s daughter, at the last minute. But this was most likely entirely ceremonial. Meaning, Chief Powhatan wanted to assert his dominance over the new colonists and this was a pre-planned performance to show A) his power and B) his mercy. Now, John Smith might not have known this so he was probably terrified. Pocahontas saved his life again later by warning him that her father had planned an ambush after Smith had threatened to burn Powhatan towns in exchange for food. When Smith left the colony soon after, Pocahontas was told that he had died. Anyway, we’ll get back to Pocahontas in a second.
Eventually the Crown stepped in more directly – partly because of lingering management issues but also probably because they realized how lucrative the new colony would be. John Smith was forced to step down as Governor and he returned to England. More proof that John Smith was pretty good at not letting people starve, as soon as he left Jamestown entered the so-called “Starving Time.” Seriously. After Smith left, Chief Powhatan launched a campaign to starve out the English and try to force them out of Virginia. It worked and during the winter of 1609-1610, over 80% of the colonists died of starvation. They ate dogs, cats, and some even dug up their dead and resorted to cannibalism. So… those were the early Americans!
In the end, the sixty surviving colonists had packed up, gotten on ships, and were like, “Get me the Hell out of here” before they were rescued by two ships with supplies and more settlers who had been shipwrecked in Bermuda but successfully REBUILT their ships and made it to the colony, just a little late. The colonists were probably like, “Wow. That must have been so hard to be lost and forced to live on an island in Bermuda. Meanwhile we were literally eating people.” From that point on, the Virginia Colony grew more stable and began to thrive as a cash crop colony.
The person most responsible for the growing wealth of Virginia? It’s another John named John Rolfe. He revolutionized methods of growing tobacco. Oh, and he also married Pocahontas! So here’s the real story: after John Smith left there was a general state of war between the natives and the colonists. In an attempt to win back English prisoners and stolen tools, a colonist kidnapped the Chief’s daughter, Pocahontas. He did successfully negotiate the return of the English prisoners but Chief Powhatan refused to return the tools and weapons. Pocahontas stayed in an English outpost and eventually converted to Christianity so that she could marry John Rolfe. The marriage was most likely a political one but it was successful – it brought peace between the natives and the English for the next decade. Pocahontas and John Rolfe, along with their baby Thomas, went back to England where she was greeted as a strange princess. And she supposedly saw John Smith again at a party and was overcome with emotion because she believed him to be dead. But, according to onlookers, she also chastized him for his threats against her people that led to the rising tensions. Now, THAT is a movie I would watch.
OK. Before we move on from Jamestown there are two key events in its history that really matter for modern Americans and they both happened in 1619. First, the Virginia Company introduced a very limited representative body known as the House of Burgesses. Eligible voters across the colony’s now four towns elected representatives who could advise the royal representatives chosen by the king. True, this mostly just reflected the basic constitutional monarchy model that existed in England – a Parliament that advised a King (the “King” in this analogy being the head of the company). But this was the first sliver of democracy that was created in the American colonies.
And, seemingly opposite to this achievement, the first enslaved Africans arrived in English America in 1619. 50 Africans – men, women, and children – were brought to Virginia and at least 20 were purchased by Jamestown settlers. So, this is really interesting. From the very beginning, our nation was a strange mixture of new ideas about liberty and democracy clashing with racism and slavery. I’m sure that won’t come back to haunt us…
But wait! Some of you might be thinking to yourself… Jamestown wasn’t the first colony. And to you I say, “Quit interrupting! I don’t go down to where you work and start shouting about the lost colony of Roanoke!” But you’re right. Historians are always careful to say that Jamestown was the first permanent English colony because there was, in fact, an earlier one but it was significantly less permanent.
But wait! Even the Roanoke colony we’re about to talk about wasn’t the first colony. You’re like, “oh my gosh stop doing this just get to creepy disappearances…” I will, but I think it’s interesting that the very first English colonists in the New World, as far as we know, were a group of 100 men, including a team of scientists. They arrived in what would become Roanoke in 1585 – 30 years before the settlers at Jamestown – and they included a metallurgist from Prague named Joachim Gans, who is also the first known practicing Jew in the Americas and a scientist named Thomas Harriot. Harriot has been credited with introducing the potato to the British Isles, bringing some back from the New World – and Ireland thanks him for that – but he is most known as an astronomer. He was the first person to make a drawing of the moon using a telescope, and he did it over four months before Galileo. Cool! He had set up a small lab in the first Roanoke but when the English assassinated a local indigenous leader, they were like, “Yeah we gotta go.”
Two years later, the next English settlers arrived and they built upon the beginnings of a settlement in Roanoke that had been created by this first group. John White – man, so many Johns – became the governor of the new colony and he sailed back to England to gather more supplies. But, he was held up by a war with Spain that necessitated every man and ship to fight for England so he wasn’t able to get back to Roanoke for three years, a long time no matter what but especially because he had left his wife, daughter, and infant granddaughter (the first English born child in the Americas – Virginia Dare) in the New World. When he finally made it back, he reportedly found no trace of the settlers or even the colony. It was as if they had never existed save for one clue – the word “Croatoan” carved into a wooden post.
So what happened to them? Well, that’s kind of the point. We don’t know. The most common theory is that they were killed or abducted by Native Americans. Croatoan was the name of an island just south of Roanoke that was the home of a Native American tribe of the same name. So maybe this was meant to be a clue of where they were being taken? Others have proposed that they could have tried to sail back home and gotten lost at sea; or been attacked by Spaniards marching up from Florida; or maybe they just moved further inland away from the marshy land and were absorbed into a friendly tribe. That would be nice, wouldn’t it? No, they probably all died. Sorry.
What’s fascinating is how little we still know about this so-called Lost Colony. I mean, it’s 2019! We have the internet! But despite over 100 years of excavations, no trace has been found of the town. Most likely, changes to ocean currents and rising waters flooded the site over the last few centuries, but nonetheless archaeologists even today – as we speak – are searching for the true First American Colony.
Act 2: Protestant Puritans on a Pilgrimage to Plymouth
Jamestown and the entire Virginia Colony was typical of what would become known as the Southern Colonies. Across the Southern half of the Atlantic coast, colonies were founded by companies, or by the Crown but for expressly economic purposes. This is in direct comparison to the so-called New England Colonies, which were founded for entirely different reasons. To understand these differences, let’s move from Jamestown up further north to the Massachusetts Bay.
So, before we can understand New England we have to understand Old England. Remember that in the 1530s (about 70 years before Jamestown) King Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church so that, among other things, he could divorce his first wife. His daughter Elizabeth formalized the new Church of England or Anglican Church, which was technically a Protestant church but it actually kept a lot of the same practices as the Catholic Church it broke away from. This angered some people in England who felt like the Anglican Church hadn’t eliminated all of the problematic practices of Catholicism and needed to purify itself. These people were called “Puritans” and they were really annoying to the monarch and other leadership.
Now, Puritan is still a pretty broad term because there were varying opinions on what needed to happen for the church to become sufficiently “pure.” But, this growing movement found a lot of support with pretty much anyone in England who was growing frustrated with the oppressive power of the monarch (who also happened to be the head of the new Church of England. So much for separation of church and state.) So, the growing middle-class in the cities – merchants and educated professionals like lawyers – often became Puritans because it was inherently a more democratic version of English Christianity; and a lot of these people were chafing under all of the economic restraints that came with an royal mercantilist system.
Now, some of these Puritans believed they should go further than just criticizing the Church. They wanted to separate from it entirely and they were called “Separatists” – you see how this naming thing works? They began to create their own independent parish churches and they would bring in “lecturers” – educated young men fresh out of college who had new ideas not just about religion but also about this whole absolute monarchy thing.
OK. So these groups became problematic for the government. So they were kicked out. Well, not kicked out. They were treated so badly in England that they chose to go find a new place to live, thank you very much. They were done with the Old England, so they sailed across the Atlantic and set out creating a New England – that’ll show them!
This was where the Mayflower comes in. Around 100 men and women, a large group of them Separatists – landed on the shores of Cape Cod and anchored at Plymouth Rock. (Fun fact: Plymouth was actually named by John Smith. Oh hey again John Smith! When he was down in Jamestown he led expeditions to explore the coast and got as far as Cape Cod, naming stuff all along the way.) So in 1620, 13 years after Jamestown, the first permanent settlement of Europeans was established in the northern part of the American colonies – a.k.a. New England.
So the Plymouth Colony was actually not super successful. Eventually they would be absorbed into a larger colony nearby – the Massachusetts Bay Colony – but there are a few important things that we need to know about Plymouth. First, is what New England Puritanism looked like. For one, it was really intolerant of other denominations of Christianity, let alone other religions entirely. The Puritans believed that they had it right and everyone else had it wrong. Like, they wouldn’t let anyone dance – so basically colonial New England was the prequel to Footloose. I want to point this out because there is this idea amongst a lot of Americans that our country was founded on the idea of religious freedom but that’s not quite right. Our country, New England specifically, was founded on the ideal of freedom to practice Protestant Christianity. They were just as intolerant of other beliefs as in the Old World. That’s not a good thing, but it’s an important part of our nation’s history that we have to acknowledge.
But… the way Puritan churches were set up also lent itself to a more democratic system than in other religions. Each church was basically independent and just loosely connected with other churches in the colony. This fragmentation made it so that each congregation had a level of freedom to interpret the Bible as they saw fit, which meant that a ton of different denominations branched off – Quakers, Baptists, etc. – and that early New Englanders got used to a level of independence that would be hard to give up. Foreshadowing…
The other key factor in Plymouth history is the creation of the Mayflower Compact. The early months of the colony were rough – most settlers slept on the ship because it was safer and they were all basically slowly starving to death until they met Squanto. (For way more about him, check out my episode on Thanksgiving!) Although the Separatists were a minority on the ship, they were united and very loud and so they dominated the group politics… do I see the roots of America’s infuriating democratic system?
Out of fear that other, non-Separatist settlers (who were referred to as “Strangers” by the Puritans) would not adhere to the group will, they arranged a contract setting up a majority-rule government that would make decisions in the new colony while still swearing allegiance to the king. I want you to notice something here: when the settlers, especially in New England, arrive on the shores of America, they are quite literally on their own. (I’m not counting Native Americans only because they didn’t, so from their perspective – they were alone.) It was pretty easy to do what you want – set up a relatively democratic government, for example – and just say that you were loyal to the Crown. As long as you kept trading with the Mother Country and stayed nominally loyal, you were fine. And this was how the settlers existed for the first 100 years or so. It’s called benign neglect – England left them alone as long as they didn’t cause any trouble. Again, foreshadowing for next episode when England is going to stop being so neglectful and Americans are not going to like it.
But like I mentioned before, Plymouth remained a small, relatively unsuccessful colony. Maybe it’s because they were all so uptight from keeping themselves from dancing, I don’t know. Eventually they would get absorbed into a larger colony that was established just a few years after the Mayflower landing: the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
This group of settlers were also mostly Puritans fleeing persecution under King Charles and they were led by John Winthrop. Winthrop, a lawyer and Puritan leader, sailed west in the spring of 1630 and on the journey he wrote out a sermon called “A Modell of Christian Charity.” He envisioned the new Massachusetts colony as a special sort of experiment that had a covenant with God and with each other to show the world what a truly Christian community could look like. He famously called the colony “a Citty upon a Hill” with “the eyes of all people” on them. A little self-important, but I mean, he wasn’t wrong.
By the end of the decade, over 14,000 Puritan settlers had come to Massachusetts Winthrop would ultimately be elected governor 12 times. Under his leadership the colony took a moderate, conservative approach to government. Let me clarify: for the time, it was moderate in that it was significantly more democratic than back in the Old World; but from our view, it was very conservative. He emphasized group discipline and individual responsibility to serve the community – he was very similar in this way to our guy John Smith down in Virginia. But he definitely wasn’t progressive: in Massachusetts, only white male members of a Puritan congregation could vote; and to be accepted into a Puritan congregation it had to be approved by those who were already in. This is another important note: most people, especially educated elites – whether it’s the king or John Winthrop or eventually George Washington – are terrified of true democracy. Winthrop called it “the meanest and worst of all forms of government.” Very few people in this time period believed that every single person should have an equal say – that was just mob rule, which… based on our current political system, isn’t necessarily wrong…
But, again, just like in Plymouth there are important slivers of democracy that are popping up in the colonies – especially in the northern colonies. The colonies all established elected legislatures like Parliament back in England and they prohibited ministers from holding public office, continuing to adhere to separation of church and state. In reality, ministers had enormous influence in the government but that wasn’t always a bad thing since ministers were often some of the most educated men in the colony. For example, Harvard College was formed in 1636, just six years after Massachusetts was founded, specifically to train Puritan ministers. So, Massachusetts was conservatively moving in the direction of democracy – or at least a form of democracy that gave white Christian men more say. But there were some who took it even further.
So now, let’s look at a few outliers: badass men and a woman (whoa!) who took the “American dream” further than just economic opportunity or Puritan religious freedom. They saw the New World as a unique opportunity to create an entirely new society that could reject the hierarchy and divisions that had developed over millennia back in Europe. Can you tell they’re my favorite?
Act 3: 1636
So I think we can all agree that the Puritans were annoying. They were strict, had a superiority complex, and ran the Massachusetts Bay Colony with the Bible in one hand and a note saying, “Stop dancing!” in the other. OK. That’s my last dancing joke. But there were a few people who had issues with the very narrow version of “freedom” that had been established in Massachusetts, and they all acted on that frustration in the same year: 1636.
First, we have Thomas Hooker. He was a Puritan lecturer back in England until he was forced to flee to the Netherlands. There, like many Puritans, he lived under the Dutch Republic, a loose confederation of states that allowed for a lot of independence. Those lessons would not be wasted on Hooker. He ended up in Massachusetts where he became the pastor at the earliest established church in Newtown (later renamed Cambridge).
Thomas Hooker took issue with the limited suffrage in Massachusetts. Again, only “freemen” could vote, meaning only individuals who had been formally admitted to their church after a detailed interrogation of their religious views. He eventually split with the Massachusetts leadership over the issue of voting rights and he, and a group of 100 followers, left the colony and founded a new settlement named Hartford in 1636.
His new settlement would eventually grow into the Connecticut Colony and he used this blank slate to create a more democratic society. Describing his new government, Hooker wrote, “They who have the power to appoint officers and magistrates, it is in their power, also, to set the bounds and limitations of the power… through the privilege of election, which belongs to the people according to the blessed will and law of God.” What this means it that elected officials have a duty to serve those who elected them, and if they don’t, the people can limit or take away their power “through the privilege of election.” At his first sermon in the new colony he declared that “the foundation of authority is laid in the free consent of the people.”
You might be thinking, OK yeah cool that’s how democracy works but Hooker didn’t know that. He is describing a new idea that is being thrown around the highest circles of enlightened men at that time: the concept of a social contract between the government and the people in which the people, ultimately, have the power. That is revolutionary. And he wrote this years before John Locke wrote his treatise on ideas like “the consent of the governed” and “unalienable rights.” This is fascinating because I’ve always thought that we straight-up plagiarized John Locke in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution, but it turns out that these ideas were – essentially – native to America. These progressive, democratic ideas have existed in some parts of our country since the very beginning, and I think that’s awesome.
Hooker solidified Connecticut as an enlightened colony with the passage of the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut in 1639. This document goes further than the Mayflower Compact by establishing individual rights of all people in the colonies that must be protected by the government. In this way, many historians consider it the first written constitution that created a government from scratch. Historian John Fiske explained, “It marked the beginnings of American democracy, of which Thomas Hooker deserves more than any other man to be called the father.” And its true that the Founding Fathers drew upon Hooker’s writings and the Fundamental Orders when drafting our country’s official founding documents.
Hooker’s descendants also made history. His granddaughter married James Pierpoint, the founder of Yale University and ancestor to James Pierpont Morgan – rich dude J.P. Morgan – and another James Pierpont, who wrote Jingle Bells. Cool! His great-granddaughter married Jonathan Edwards, arguably the most influential theologian in American history who helped spark the First Great Awakening and who wrote one of my favorite primary sources of all time: “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” It’s a sermon in which he compares humans to spiders being dangled over the flames of Hell by an angry God. So that’s fun. Oh yeah, and his grandson was Aaron Burr. The guy who shot Hamilton. Whoa.
OK. So in 1636, Thomas Hooker left Massachusetts to found Connecticut on the principle of expanded voting rights and democracy. Awesome. In that same year, another Puritan minister also left Massachusetts to found his own colony. His name was Roger Williams.
Side note: Roger Williams always sounds like the name of a car dealership to me for some reason: “Come on down to Roger Williams Toyota!” Anyway. Williams lived in the Plymouth Colony but he was frustrated with the way many Puritans were conducting their new colony. He specifically called out their treatment of the local Native Americans. He had started up communication with the nearby Narragansett Indians and through that connection, he began to question whether the colony had been founded legally since they hadn’t purchased the land from the natives. Whaaaat?? An old white dude realized at the time how messed up it was that the colonists just straight-up took the land from the natives? That makes me both happy, that some of the Puritan settlers were more woke than I gave them credit for, but also sad, because then why didn’t more people care? Anyway.
After writing an essay that openly condemned the charter from the King of England as corrupt since no one had bought the land first (that’s, like, treason, right?) he was politely asked to leave and he moved to Salem. In the town he was welcomed, but not in the larger Massachusetts Bay Colony where his reputation as a troublemaker preceded him. Side note: He was the pastor of the Salem Church about 60 years before the Salem Witch Trials. I knew that’s all that you were thinking about as soon as I mentioned Salem. Or the cat from Sabrina the Teenage Witch, but that has nothing to do with Roger Williams, unfortunately.
Even though Williams was a Puritan (he actually founded the oldest Baptist church congregation in the U.S.), he disagreed with how tightly the Puritans controlled the colony. He believed in a more true version of religious freedom, which eventually got him exiled from Massachusetts. He avoided the sheriff by slipping away from the colony during a blizzard, taking refuge with the local Wampanoag Indians who offered him shelter at their camp. It pays to be nice to Native Americans, y’all. He spent the winter with various native tribes before crossing the Seekonk River, officially outside the Massachusetts charter. He created a new settlement named Providence, but not before he secured the land legally from the natives – literally practicing what he preached and paying them for the land. Man, this guy was ahead of his time.
His new settlement was intended to be a safe haven for anyone “distressed of conscience.” It basically became the Island of Misfit Toys, populated by religious dissenters or any individual whose beliefs or opinions didn’t match the Puritan worldview. So all the fun people, basically. From the beginning, the government was determined by a straight vote amongst heads of households. Newcomers could be admitted to full citizenship by a simple majority vote and the town agreement restricted the government to only civil (or non-religious) issues. They also established an agreement that declared that Providence would “hold forth liberty of conscience.” All of this means that Roger Williams founded the first place in modern history where citizenship and religion were separate – you didn’t have to be a Christian to vote – as well as a guarantee of religious liberty and separation of church and state.
Other nearby colonies were not a huge fan of Providence, especially because Williams maintained close ties and friendships with the Indian tribes in the area. He was constantly called to mediate between settlers and Native Americans, twice surrendering himself as a hostage to guarantee the return of a tribal leader who had been taken. Besides this “suspicious” affinity and respect for Native Americans, the other colonies – Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Plymouth – were worried that Williams’s colony was too progressive. They considered many of his beliefs to be heresy and worried that it would spread like an infection throughout the colonies. Keep in mind that these were still the early days when survival was the most important question – so there were many leaders who believed that the colonies couldn’t afford to grant true freedom to the settlers because it could risk the community falling apart. Out of this animosity and pressure, Williams traveled to England to secure an official charter from the King for his new Rhode Island colony.
On his trip to England, he also wrote a book: A Key into the Language of America. Published in 1643, this was a combination phrasebook with observations about the life and culture of the Native American tribes of New England. Through his writing, he hoped to help new settlers better understand and communicate with the indigenous people and he even went so far as to assert that the Native Americans were in no way inferior to Englishmen. Here’s a poem he wrote for the book:
Boast not proud English, of thy birth and bloodRoger Williams, 1643
They brother Indian is by birth as Good.
Of one blood God made Him, and Thee and All
As wise, as fair, as strong, as personal.
This dude was a badass. Keep in mind that this was the era in which white Europeans were developing the belief that different races were significantly different from one another. It would grow into full-blown scientific racism, but most white settlers truly believed that the Native Americans were inferior to themselves – more animal than human. If you’re not sure just how incorrect that is, please listen to my episode, “1491,” on life in the Americas before the arrival of white settlers. His book became a bestseller and made him a celebrity in England; all of this made it easier for him to secure a charter for his colony.
Side note: The next year he wrote another book called The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience, Discussed in a Conference between Truth and Peace. Whoa. Chill on the title length, Roger. Published in 1644, this book argued for a “wall of separation” between church and state and for state toleration of all Christian denominations, including the much-hated Catholics, AND ALSO “paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or anti-Christian consciences and worship.” Hold up. He said that the state should protect the freedom of Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and “anti-Christians,” which I can only assume means atheists? I can’t believe this guy wasn’t killed by a bunch of Puritans. Let’s be honest: if he was a woman he would have been called a witch.
OK. So Roger Williams advocated for true religious freedom and tolerance, kindness and respect for Native Americans; his colony was also the only one that directly elected its governor. Meaning, the governor was not royally appointed but chosen by the people. But also… (there’s more?!) He also opposed slavery?! Ugh, marry me, Roger Williams. In the 1640s, all around him, the New England colonies were passing laws officially making slavery legal. In his settlement of Providence, he banned slavery and he pushed for his entire Rhode Island colony – now a collection of a few settlements – to formally ban the practice. However, the other towns refused and the Rhode Island colony, especially the town of Newport, because a hub for American ships carrying slaves into the colonies.
Even though Rhode Island didn’t end up being a beacon for abolition, Williams was supported in that endeavor by another nearby settlement called Portsmouth founded by a lady (Whaat?!?) who also stirred up trouble in Massachusetts in… you guessed it: 1636.
Anne Hutchinson was born in England to an Anglican cleric who gave her a surprisingly good education for a woman. She went on to have 11 kids – oh my god – and she and her husband became big fans of a Puritan minister named John Cotton. They followed him to Boston where Anne became a midwife who also hosteed weekly gatherings of women at here home. Basically, she would break down and provide commentary on the recent sermons to the women who weren’t allowed at town meetings, giving her the title of “spiritual adviser.” She was essentially doing a live podcast explaining the important events of the day to settlers who didn’t have the time or knowledge to follow the news. Wait…. am I Anne Hutchinson? Eventually, her meetings became so popular that she started hosting discussions for prominent men in the colony as well, including the governor of the Massachusetts colony! Whoa!
Now, here’s where she got herself into trouble. She started spreading a new philosophy: “Free grace theology.” Essentially, Hutchinson argued that anyone is promised eternal life the moment they belief in Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. This was in direct contrast to Puritan teachings that said there was a “covenant of works,” basically you had to work your whole life and constantly act appropriately to be admitted into Heaven. It’s interesting because in this way Anne Hutchinson was like a Protestant of a Protestant.
What I mean is that about a hundred years earlier, Martin Luther had objected to the Catholic Church’s extreme hierarchy and controlled “entrance into Heaven,” most notably with the sale of indulgences. So he broke away and preached that the only requirement for getting into Heaven was to believe in God and be a “true” Christian. Now, a century later, the Puritan leadership is hierarchical and incredibly strict, controlling who is admitted to the church, who has a voice in their government, and how people need to act to get into Heaven. And Anne Hutchinson is like Martin Luther 2.0 saying, “Yeah I don’t think that’s how it works.” But she was a women so they called her a witch.
And I mean, she did claim to be a prophet who received direct revelations from God. And she did prophesize during her trial that God would judge Massachusetts by wiping the colony from existence. And she did say that personal experience and revelations from God were equal to the word of the Bible. And, yeah, that’s pretty much heresy. So she was politely asked to leave. And by that I mean she was banished forever.
Roger Williams saw all of this happening and was like, “That’s my kind of lady!” so he invited Anne and her supporters to settler near him at Providence. She established the settlement of Portsmouth, but eventually had to leave after her husband died, fearing that she was still too close to the reach of Boston and the Puritan administration. She ended up in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam where she lived with her younger children at an ancient landmark called Split Rock, now the Bronx in New York City.
Tensions between the Dutch and nearby Native Americans were high and in 1643, while Roger Williams was traveling around England as a famed author and Thomas Hooker was leading the Connecticut colony, Anne Hutchinson, along with six of her children, was massacred by Siwanoy Indians. The only surviving member of her family was her nine-year-old daughter Susanna who was taken captive. That seems like an appropriate ending for the one woman in our story who actually tried to live her life with the confidence of a white dude.
So what is Anne’s legacy? Well it has changed over time. At the time, the Puritans called her a “hell-spawned agent of destructive anarchy,” which sounds like a bad lyric from an 80s metal band, but whatever. In 19th century America, especially as the abolition and woman’s suffrage movement grew, she was a crusader for liberty and individual rights. In 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne published The Scarlet Letter and many literary critics believe that Hester Prynne was inspired by Anne Hutchinson. By the 20th century, she was seen as a feminist leader who terrified the patriarchy, not because of her religious views but because she was an assertive, highly visible woman who refused to conform to the Puritan idea of womanhood. In 1987, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis formally pardoned Anne Hutchinson, revoking her order of banishment by John Winthrop 350 years earlier. Thanks Dukakis!
Her descendants include Stephen Douglas (the guy who beat out Lincoln for the Senate), Franklin Roosevelt, both George Bushes, Mitt Romney, and Ted Danson. And her own heritage, apparently, traces her ancestry back to Eleanor of Aquitaine, which should make total sense to anyone who listened to Season 1 of this podcast. In short, I love Anne Hutchinson.
So let’s recap:
In the South, the early colonies were founded based on adventure, exploration, land and wealth. They retained close ties to England out of economic necessity, since England was the only one allowed to buy their cash crops and they needed the protection of the Crown to continue to renew their business charters and protect their land. But they also stayed more culturally connected to England – many of the Southern settlers were Anglican and, since most were young single men, they planned on eventually either moving back to England to marry or bringing an English bride over to America. This illustrates one version of the “American dream”: wealth. These Southern colonists were in many ways the original “Rags to Riches” story, especially since many of them were prisoners, indentured servants, or just from the lower social classes back home. And it’s important to note that this wealth was built on the backs of enslaved Africans, but more on that in a few episodes.
In New England, we see the earliest colonies founded on the basis of religious zeal and a desire to build a new community that would reflect “true” Christian values. These settlers were often families, they were fleeing persecution or seeking more religious independence, and so they did not stay as connected to England. Once they got here, very few intended to go back. Their version of the “American dream” was freedom – but a very narrow type of freedom: freedom to practice their version of Christianity, not religious freedom carte blanche.
And New Englanders don’t need slave labor in the same way that the South thinks they do. Their soil is rocky, farms are small – so they didn’t have use for enslaved Africans like on massive plantations. But their coastline was perfectly suited for shipping and trade, so they were happy to make money as the middlemen – receiving newly arrived Africans and selling them to Southern plantation owners for a profit.
Over time the New England economy developed differently – it relied on trade and, eventually manufacturing, rather than large-scale agriculture. The northern colonies would grow into their role as a center of trade. And they would chafe under the mercantilist policies that required them to only trade with England much more than the South – who was, in general, happy to have a steady market for their cash crops. Already, we should be noticing two paths – the North and the South – diverging. They’re not incompatible – both want to be mostly left alone to practice their religion or work their land as they see fit. But, from the beginning, the culture, ideology, and general founding philosophy of the northern and southern colonies were different. But I’m sure that won’t cause any problems down the road…
And there were those who saw America as a true land of opportunity for all – for all Christians, even for non-Christians, for Native Americans, for women. These voices were in the minority but they were there.
For now, one thing is clear: all of the colonies were founded because the new settlers wanted some form of freedom and independence. Whether it was escaping the rigid class structure of England to find economic opportunity, freedom to practice your form of Christianity without persecution, or true freedom from Old World power structures, all early Americans had that in common. And so even though the colonies were founded for different reasons and developed distinct cultures, they will be able to unite, for a while, when that liberty and independence from the oppressive forces in England is threatened.
Is that George’s music I hear?
To be continued…