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Image British Origins: The Factor of Generations

The four migrations came not only from different regions, ranks and religions, but also from different generations. The key concept here is that of an historical generation—not a demographic cohort but a cultural group whose identity is formed by great events. In the turbulence of the twentieth century, for example, everyone recognizes the “generation of the Great Depression,” the “generation of World War II,” and the “generation of the ’60s.” Seventeenth-century England had similar historical generations, which were defined by the same events that set the major folk migrations in motion.

Each of these migrations created a culture which preserved something of the moment when it was born. The Puritans settled Massachusetts within a period of eleven years from 1629 to 1640—an epoch in English history which is remembered by Whig historians as the “eleven years’ tyranny.” This was the time when Charles I tried to rule without a Parliament and Archbishop William Laud attempted to purge the Anglican Church of Puritans. The great constitutional and religious issues of this epoch were carried to the Puritan colonies and became central to the culture of New England—persisting as intellectual obsessions long after they had been forgotten in the mother country.

A large part of Virginia’s migration of cavaliers and indentured servants occurred between 1649 and 1660, an unstable era of English history called the interregnum. In this period of disorder the dominant elite was an oligarchy of English Puritans, and their victims included a group of defeated Royalists, some of whom carried to Virginia a culture which was defined not merely by their rank and party but also by their generation—in its fascination with constitutional questions, its obsession with honor, and its contempt for the arts of peace. The culture of America’s tidewater south was to retain these characteristics long after England had moved beyond them.

The Friends’ migration to the Delaware Valley happened mainly in the years from 1675 to 1689. This was part of an historical epoch which began with the Restoration, and continued through the reigns of Charles II (1660-85) and his Catholic brother James II (1685-88). In this period of English history, the great questions were about how people of different beliefs could live in peace together. That question was central to the cultural history of the Delaware colonies, and remained so for many years.

Another period of English history followed the Glorious Revolution

A Short Chronology of Anglo-American History, 1558-1760

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of 1688, when a pattern of political stability formed “as suddenly as water becomes ice,” in historian J. H. Plumb’s words.34 The government of England passed firmly into the hands of an oligarchy of country gentlemen. This solution created new problems which concerned the relationship between England’s governing elite and others—in particular, the people of Ireland, Scotland, America, the London mob and the rural poor. Violent conflicts set in motion yet another wave of emigration which brought to America the great question of whether the rights of English gentlemen belonged to other people. These issues took root in the American interior, where they survive even to our own time. All four folk cultures of Anglo-America preserved the dominant themes in English history during the years when they began.

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