Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction

Pete found an online seal generator, so from now on, I will be able to bestow a snappy image, as well as my gratitude, on any academic text that makes its point in fewer than 250 pages.

Today's recipient: Bernard Bailyn's The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction (1986). This slim volume provides a basic overview of the questions driving historians' investigations into European migration to North America in the 17th and 18th centuries. Bailyn is mostly concerned with migration from Britain, but also includes discussion of Germans who ended up in British North America.

Bailyn builds his argument on four propositions:
  • First, transatlantic migration was an outgrowth of a culture of internal migration that characterized early modern Britain.
  • Second, migration was not a single, unified process, but a combination of distinct, independent migrations.
  • Third, after the earliest phases of migration, subsequent emigrants crossed the ocean in order to fill the demand for (increasingly skilled) labor and to speculate in land.
  • Fourth, American culture is best understood as a backward-looking outpost of European culture, not as a forward-looking frontier.

With these points, Bailyn situates himself directly at the center of the prevailing historiography of 20 years ago. For the historians of the 1970s and 1980s, migration could be explained mostly in economic terms as a story of unemployed Englishmen, labor demand, and the free movement of free and temporarily unfree people to a land of opportunity.

Today, the scholarship is tending toward an emphasis on the coercive elements of migration. David Eltis, among others, has redirected the historiographical narrative to place involuntary migration at the center and to treat voluntary migration as the exceptional story in transatlantic migration history.

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