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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“Unbelievable!,” he exclaims, “A 50,000-word will which explores the whole business of revaluing, of cheating and so forth. And I published his will, the whole thing, 158 pages in the original. And the question is whether you could be a proper Christian and make money. See, they were caught in a double bind. Max Weber started all this out [with The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism].”

Weber argued that Protestants were driven to make money and create urban centers of wealth to display it because these were an external sign that one had been saved, chosen by God to enter into his grace and be redeemed. But in fact most of the Protestant heretics who settled America believed that salvation was a matter between God and the individual, no matter what their bank balance—and that too much wealth could signify the exact opposite of sanctification: greed and spiritual degradation. Thus the “fair price” controversy and what British economic historian R. H. Tawney called the Puritan “double bind,” a theory Bailyn has adopted. “They were against exhibitionism,” Bailyn tells me. “There were moral prohibitions against making as much as you possibly could—that’s not good! You have to do it within constraints. There’s a big literature about this.”

It makes you think of the con­trast with our hedge fund wealth-worshiping culture, our conflicted attitude toward the “1 percent”—envy and moral disapproval. Perhaps judges should sentence insider traders to write 50,000-word apologies while in prison.

Speaking of price made me think of the overarching question of early America: whether the barbarism, torture, murder, massacre—the ethnic cleansing—that Bailyn describes in The Barbarous Years was the inevitable price we had to pay for the civilization that followed.

When I ask the question of whether there could have been another way for the races to interact than mutual massacre, he brings up one of the few figures who emerges with honor from his chronicle of this savage period: Roger Williams.

“There were people who tried to have amicable race relations,” he says, “but it broke down again and again.”

I had always admired Roger Williams for his belief in religious toleration, which was realized in his Rhode Island colony, a place where all the dissenters and the dissenters from the dissenters could find a home to worship the way they wanted. And I’d admired him for standing as a reminder to certain contemporary zealots that America was a refuge for people who believed there should be a separation between church and state—and that both church and state were better off for it, sentiments that entered into the First Amendment.

But in Bailyn’s account, Williams becomes a great American character as well. Not only was he close to the original inhabitants, he could speak some of their languages and had the humility to recognize he could learn from them.

I told Bailyn what an admirable character his Williams came across as.

“Well, the people at the time didn’t think he was. He was a perfectionist. And no form of Christianity was good enough for him. He started out in the Church of England. He was a very strange man. He was a zealot.


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