The Shocking Savagery of America’s Early History

Bernard Bailyn, one of our greatest historians, shines his light on the nation’s Dark Ages

The ”peaceful” Pilgrims massacred the Pequots and destroyed their fort near Stonington, Connecticut, in 1637. A 19th-century wood engraving (above) depicts the slaughter. (The Granger Collection, NYC)
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The Antichrist. The haunting figure presaging the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelation plays an important part in Bailyn’s explanation of the European settlers’ descent into unrestrained savagery. The key passage on this question comes late in his new book when Bailyn makes explicit a connection I had not seen before: between the physical savagery the radical dissenting Protestant settlers of America wreaked on the original inhabitants, and the intellectual savagery of their polemical attacks on the church and state authorities they fled from in Europe—and the savagery of vicious insult and vile denunciation they wreaked upon each other as well.

“The savagery of the [theological] struggle, the bitterness of the main contenders and the deep stain it left on the region’s collective memory” were driven by “elemental fears peculiar to what was experienced as a barbarous environment—fears of what could happen to civilized people in an unimaginable which God’s children [as they thought of themselves] were fated to struggle with pitiless agents of Satan, pagan Antichrists swarming in the world around them. The two [kinds of struggle, physical and metaphysical] were one: threats from within [to the soul] merged with threats from without to form a heated atmosphere of apocalyptic danger.”


Bernard Bailyn made his reputation when he took upon himself the leviathan task off cataloging the store of pre-Revolutionary War-era pamphlets, the denunciations and speculations and accusations privately published by surprisingly literate gentlemen farmers, Greek- and Roman-quoting tradesmen—“the Ebenezers,” as I think of them—most of whose colorful and thoughtful works had not been read for two centuries. He drew on that knowledge base to write The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, which won him the first of his two Pulitzers after it was published in 1967.


Bailyn could have coasted on that success, researching and publishing on the multitude of controversies still raging over the meaning of the Revolution and the Declaration and the Constitution. Going forward, the way most historians have done.

But instead, he did something unusual: He stepped backward, not just in time but in spatial perspective. He had what he would call his “cosmic eye” on a grand vision of the massive westward movement from Europe and Africa to North and South America that began before 1492, and he chronicled it in his subsequent book, Voyagers to the West. In examining the interactions of four continents bordering the Atlantic, and seeing them as a single, mutually interacting whole, he reshaped the modern history profession and helped create what is now known as “Atlantic history.”

“From 1500,” he wrote in an earlier book, “it has involved the displacement and resettlement of over fifty million people and it has affected indirectly the lives of uncountable millions more.”

But Bailyn’s “cosmic eye” saw even deeper. He wanted to capture not just physical movements but also “the interior experiences, the quality of their culture, the capacity of their minds, the patterns of their emotions.” He wanted to look inside heads and read minds. Bailyn’s voyage was a monumentally ambitious project, a voyage through unmapped oceans of data analo­gous to the Columbus-era explorers setting out on a vast uncharted ocean.

The opening section of his new book stands out for his profoundly sensitive appreciation of the sensibility of the original inhabitants whom he introduces simply as “Americans” rather than “Native Americans.”


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