Thou . . . hast washed thy feet in the blood of those native
unnatural Traitors, and now becomest a pure English virgin;
a new other Britain, in that new other World: and let all
English say and pray, GOD BLESS VIRGINIA.
—Samuel Purchas, 16231
Indian-hating still exists; and, no doubt, will continue to exist, so long as Indians do.—Herman Melville, 18572
The conquest of the earth . . . is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only . . . something you can set up, and bow down before.
—Joseph Conrad, 18993
EMPIRES ARE BY NATURE PARASITIC. Anglo-America was no exception.4 The European invasion of North America was reminiscent of events to the south, though with important differences: instead of a single great conquest, there were many small ones.5 Yet “conquest” is a word seldom used to describe what happened north of Mexico. The national myth of the United States is built on softer words: “settlement, pioneering, opening up.” When Theodore Roosevelt wrote his epic of American expansion, he called it The Winning of the West, as if the country changed hands in a tough yet gentlemanly poker game. However, a century after Roosevelt, the American historian Patricia Limerick states: “There is no clearer fact in American history than the fact of conquest. In North America, just as much as in South America, Africa, Asia, and Australia, Europeans invaded a land fully occupied by natives.”6
Throughout the three centuries of Spanish rule in Mexico and Peru, Europeans kept the whip hand yet never outnumbered the descendants of the conquered.7 But in North America, native peoples became so weakened by disease and warfare, and so many newcomers poured in from Europe and multiplied, that the English invaders’ form of parasitism became the kind that kills the host.
In 1867 Francis Parkman, America’s popular historian of the mid-nineteenth century, wrote, “The Indians melted away, not because civilization destroyed them, but because their own ferocity and intractable indolence made it impossible that they should exist in its presence.”8 In other words, Indians were not merely unlucky enough to be run over by civilization’s advance but, by being both savage and lazy, were actually to blame for their own extermination. Echoes of this blame-the-victim rhetoric would be heard a century later in Vietnam—with the argument that it was necessary to destroy the village, or even the country, in order to pacify it. As Limerick adds: “It is no easy matter to distinguish the lessons of the Indian wars from the lessons of Vietnam.”9
The first successful British attempt to settle in North America began in May 1607, in what is now Virginia, on the Powhatan River, renamed the James River in honour of the king who had recently succeeded the Virgin Queen.10 The hundred English who landed there had some earlier intelligence, wrung from Americans who had been taken to London on previous voyages. 11 Even so, things got off to a bad start. The site chosen for Jamestown, about 40 miles upstream from the south end of Chesapeake Bay, was marshy, unhealthy and unlikely to fulfill the investors’ aim of finding “all Manner of Mines of Gold, Silver, and Copper.”12
During the first summer, half the English died (perhaps from malaria, an Old World sickness spreading north from the Caribbean). More settlers came, only to suffer hideously in the “starving time” of 1609-10, when some were reduced to cannibalism, eating “the very Hides of their Horses and the Bodies of the Indians they had killed.”13 One man, caught hoarding the salted flesh of his wife, was burned alive for his crime. The survivors decided to abandon the colony, but on the very day they were leaving, ships turned up with reinforcements—a timely deliverance attributed to God.
The local Americans belonged to the Powhatan Confederacy, a recent alliance or conquest-state of some thirty tribes living in two hundred towns and villages.14 Their capital, Powhatan, was eighty miles further upriver, by the falls where Richmond, Virginia, now stands. Some 250 years later, this place would become the capital of a much bigger but much shorter-lived confederacy: the Confederate States of America.
The Powhatans were not entirely naïve about Europeans. In the 1570s they had obliterated a Spanish fort and mission on Chesapeake Bay, and it is even possible that their leader, Wahunsonacock—a man in his sixties whom the English called “King Powhatan”—had had a hand in the demise of Roanoke. He could easily have wiped out the struggling Jamestown colony on several occasions. But he chose not to, most likely because he sought European weapons and goods for his own political ends.
Although the Powhatan Confederacy did not reach far beyond the tidewater lands of Chesapeake Bay, it seems to have been influenced by the larger polities Soto had seen on his rampage further inland. At the head town, the English visited a cluster of lordly buildings on top of a steep hill or mound they called “Powhatan’s Tower,” where the king, flanked by a retinue of tattooed men and women, sat in “a great robe made of raccoon skins.” At another town, the English saw a hilltop temple nearly a hundred feet long.15 The economy, as elsewhere, was based mainly on maize. The newcomers acknowledged that without local supplies of “Bread, Corne, Fish, and Flesh in great plentie which was the setting up of our feeble men . . . we had all perished.”16
King Powhatan and John Smith, Jamestown’s most famous and possibly most able leader, were two of a kind: headstrong and wily, with a mutual regard based on self-interest. Powhatan’s spirited daughter Pocahontas—still a girl when the strangers arrived—spent much of her time with the English, picking up their language and performing cartwheels in the fort. The old tale of her saving Smith’s life may be apocryphal, but she did marry his fellow settler John Rolfe in 1614. The couple and several leading Powhatans visited King James in England, where Pocahontas bore a son before she sickened and died near London in 1617. This bedroom alliance helped stave off open race warfare for several years, though there was often trouble over the colonists’ raids for food. John Smith called his unruly settlers “ten times more fit to spoil a commonwealth . . . than to begin one.”17 In the harsh winter of 1609-10, an exasperated King Powhatan told him: “I know the difference between peace and war better than any man in my country. . . . Why will you take by force what you may quietly have by love? Why will you destroy us who supply you with food? What can you get by war?”18 Some Englishmen were given a practical warning: left dead beside the road, their mouths “stopped full of Bread . . . as it seemeth in Contempt.”19
Over the fifteen years between 1607 and 1622, as many as ten thousand colonists may have landed, of whom up to eight thousand died from hunger, illness and violence, worsened by bad leadership, embezzlement and oppression. The settlement’s death rate was deemed shocking even at a time when lives were hard and short. “Instead of a Plantation,” one resident protested, Virginia “will shortly get the name of a slaughterhouse.” 20 Others defected to the Powhatans, risking the penalties of treason. “Many fled for relief to the savages,” said a contemporary report, “but were taken again, and hung, shot, or broken upon the wheel.”21
The colony survived because of sustained, if not steady, backing from London and a stream of hopeful incomers, not so much drawn as driven across the Atlantic by wars and worsening conditions at home, especially the enclosure (the appropriation by landlords) of common lands. The ultimate success of Jamestown was determined by a new and lucrative addiction—the famous “Sot-Weed,” or tobacco, later immortalized by the poet Ebenezer Cooke in the 1700s and the novelist John Barth in the 1960s.22 The colonists had shown little interest in growing maize, but tobacco was another matter. Like opium in Victorian times and cocaine in ours, the weed made its own way to the purse through the brain.
In 1612, a couple of years before he married Pocahontas, John Rolfe began to plant a mild Caribbean variety that was already in demand in London from Spanish sources. In 1616 Jamestowners sent more than a ton of this new crop to England; three years later, when they shipped ten tons, the colony showed its first real return on investment, at last turning “smoke into gold,” as Queen Elizabeth had once joked with her wily courtier Sir Walter Raleigh.23 The tonnage soon soared into the hundreds and thousands. By the outbreak of the American Revolution, about one-sixth of the Thirteen Colonies’ exports (by value) would be tobacco.24
Unlike the initial trade in furs, which had required cooperation between the old Americans and the new, tobacco demanded land—and docile hands. Most of the early workers were indentured whites from the London slums and Indians who had been hired or enslaved. The forgotten story of thralldom in America is that many early slaves were indigenous Americans, usually war prisoners sold by their captors in return for guns, copper and other trade goods. Another sinister precedent was set in 1619, when the privateer White Lyon brought some twenty Africans to the colony—the first known shipment of the millions who would be sold in North America over the next two hundred years.25
At about this time, the colony ended landholding in common, a practice that had blunted competition with the Powhatans and among the whites themselves. When Jamestown’s leaders converted the prime land into private estates, lesser fry and newcomers had to fan out into the backcountry and take what they could from the Indians.26 The self-replicating machinery of encroachment and conquest that would gnaw its way across the continent had been installed.
The white migrants of this period were not yet “Americans” except in a geographical sense. They were British (and a few other Europeans), largely unchanged by their new home, behaving with all the desperation, superstition and showy violence of early post-Medieval Europe. (Sir Walter Raleigh’s half-brother Sir Humphrey Gilbert, for example, had been well known in Ireland for lining the way to his field tent with a Kurtz-like avenue of trophy heads.27)
The old Americans were certainly not pacifists either. Like Europe, America had been bloodied for centuries by war among its nations. Neither race had a monopoly on violence or on virtue; both practised massacre, torture and differing forms of slavery. The moral distinction between them is simply that Europe invaded America, not the reverse.28 Even under the rudimentary international law of that time, the indigenous people of the Americas held a right to self-defence.29
In 1618 old King Powhatan died and was succeeded by his brother Opechancanough. With rising encroachment, sickness and interracial crime, the shaky peace between locals and intruders at last began to break down. A charismatic “prophet” arose, calling for a return to the happy days before the English, telling Opechancanough that the pristine world could be restored by a mix of military and sacred power—a message much like Joan of Arc’s in fifteenth-century France. Such movements, called “crisis cults” by anthropologists, often arise in desperate times; this was the first of many that would inspire native resistance in America for the next three centuries, ending in the famous Ghost Dance on the Great Plains in the 1880s.30
The Jamestown authorities struck first: in March 1622 they killed the agitator on a trumped-up murder charge.31 Days later Opechancanough launched his well-planned attack. About 350 colonists, one-fourth of the total, died as Powhatan’s fighters swept through outlying plantations. But the whites regrouped, held the fort at Jamestown and fought back with everything they had. They even poisoned two hundred Powhatans at a peace conference while toasting “eternal friendship”—a deed that may well be the first but would not be the last of its kind.32
The Powhatan War was put to good use by those who had been seeking an excuse to dispense with diplomacy and the faraway Crown’s good name.33 Under European concepts of Natural Law, another people’s sovereignty could be abolished by treaty, by conquest or by declaring them to be subhuman barbarians (the standard excuse for slavery). While American peoples stayed at peace or allied with the English, there was no lawful way to extinguish their title without their agreement, which the Powhatans had been careful not to give. When John Smith had used language suggesting that the English monarch was King Powhatan’s “father” (meaning overlord), the “subtile Salvage” answered, “I am also a king, and this my land . . . neither will I bite at such a baite.”34
But now, with victory, the colonist Edward Waterhouse could gloat:
We, who hitherto have had possession of no more ground than their waste . . . may now by right of Warre, and law of Nations, invade the Country, and destroy them who sought to destroy us: whereby wee shall enjoy their cultivated places, turning the laborious Mattocke into the victorious Sword . . . and possessing the fruits of others’ labours. Now their cleared grounds in all their villages (which are situate in the fruitfullest places of the land) shall be inhabited by us.35
This is one of the clearest statements in American history of how the land was won. Here, at that history’s dawn, Waterhouse lays bare the business end of the conquest machine: the new Americans assault and encroach on the old Americans until they provoke a counterattack, which is sometimes planned by the native leadership and at other times carried out by a radical splinter group. The white authorities then express outrage at what bloodthirsty “barbarians” have done to God-fearing tillers of the earth. A punitive war is then launched with overwhelming force—a war of “civilization” against “savagery,” in which the first Americans are driven further into the “wilderness” or exterminated on the spot.36
Such rhetoric is not, of course, exclusive to America. It is heard wherever rival peoples fight for the same turf—the Middle East and Northern Ireland come immediately to mind. In American expansion, such talk outlived the Indian Wars. It was heard in the Philippines, in Korea, in Vietnam and most recently from both George Bushes when speaking of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Waterhouse’s statement also confirms that the best land was fully cultivated by the original Americans and that they built in the “fruitfullest” spots. Like Powhatan’s capital, most native towns soon became white ones—a transition that explains why archaeologists find relatively few remains of ancient American settlements, especially in the East. Absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence.
But absence was exactly what the whites now wanted. The historian Francis Jennings has shown how English attitudes toward indigenous Americans underwent a profound change after the Powhatan War. Until 1622 the English had acknowledged the native peoples to be settled agriculturalists in organized societies with towns, leaders, customary laws and, therefore, inherent rights of sovereignty and ownership. King Powhatan was fulsomely described as “a great emperour,” his subjects having “their own Magistrates for good commanding . . . that would be counted very civill.”37But after the war, the Indians (whom Smith himself had called “poore innocent soules” misused by his colonists) suddenly became demonized as “Outlawes of Humanity.” Their beliefs were condemned as devil-worship and the word savages now took on its full pejorative freight.
Demonization happens in all wars, but this propaganda lived on and solidified into a cornerstone of white entitlement. Myths usually enjoy a certain obscurity around their birth, and it is not often that historians can trace a political fiction back to the instant when it pecks its shell. Yet this one can be securely placed in the years 1622-25 and within the influential writings of the Essex clergyman Samuel Purchas. He never saw the New World for himself but drew freely on information from his friend John Smith and others who did. Purchas knew very well “that the Virginia Indians were sedentary and agricultural and that the Jamestown colonists had been preserved from total starvation by Indian farm produce.”38 In his earliest writings, published in 1613 (shortly before the wedding of John Rolphe and Pocahontas), Purchas had emphasized the importance of fair dealing according to “the milde Law of nature, not that violent law of Armes.”39
But after the war, Samuel Purchas quickly hatched a Big Lie. America became, in his words, an “unmanned wild Countrey” that the Indians “range rather than inhabite.”40 At a stroke, settled farmers were magicked into rootless nomads, and from there it was a short step to conclude that such people, especially when guilty of “disloyal treason” (as he redundantly put it), had no right to the land. “Future dangers,” Purchas went on, should “be prevented by the extirpation of the more dangerous, and commodities also raised out of the servileness and serviceablenesse of the rest.”41 In other words, Indians who posed a threat should be exterminated and docile ones, enslaved. Either way, all could lawfully be dispossessed.42
The lie grew long legs, and it is still widely believed today. Two centuries after Purchas, President Jackson would use it to justify his “removal” of the Five Civilized Tribes from the South in the 1830s, describing Cherokees, Creeks and others—corn farmers descended from the pyramid builders who had seen off Hernando de Soto—as having “traversed but not occupied” the land.43
The history of white America runs down through time in two gathering streams that eventually collide in the Civil War of 1861-65. The slave-owning South flows from the Virginia plantations, while the entrepreneurial North rises from Plymouth and other colonies founded in New England a few years later by Puritans and profiteers. The latter categories weren’t mutually exclusive: “religion and profit jump together,” wrote one of New England’s leaders.44
In December 1620 the Pilgrim Fathers alighted from the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock. Every American schoolchild learns this nation-founding fact. What they seldom learn is that the Pilgrims were soon accosted there in fluent English by a lonely, grief-stricken Wampanoag—a member of the same people whom Verrazzano had visited at Rhode Island nearly a century before. On the face of it, this man, whose name was Squanto, had little reason to be friendly.45 About 1615 he had been kidnapped in a slave raid on the Massachusetts coast—probably by an associate of John Smith—taken to Spain and sold in a Málaga slave market.46 Somehow he escaped, made his way to England and returned via Newfoundland to Massachusetts, an amazing journey that took him four years.
When Squanto got back, he found his hometown, Patuxet, inhabited only by the dead, “a new found Golgatha” strewn with human bones.47 A plague or mix of plagues (likely including smallpox) had struck the New England coast, killing nine out of ten in many places and everyone at Patuxet. Smallpox was terrible enough for Europeans, but because native Americans had no immunity, they caught it far more easily and suffered more severely: “They lie on their hard mats, the pox breaking and mattering and running. [And] when they turn them, a whole side will flay off at once as it were, and will be all of a gore blood, most fearful to behold . . . they die like rotten sheep.”48
Word of Squanto’s town—with empty houses, worked fields and cribs full of corn—had reached the Pilgrims during a land-fall at Cape Cod. They sailed on to Patuxet, renamed it Plymouth and moved in. “The good hand of God favoured our beginnings [by] sweeping away great multitudes of the natives,” their leader wrote, “that he might make room for us.”49
Despite the Almighty’s favour, about half the would-be settlers died that winter of hunger and scurvy. Like the Jamestowners, the Plymouth colonists were mostly fighters, traders and townsfolk, unskilled on the land. Late December was a bad time to turn up in North America anyway, especially after a long crossing. Once they’d eaten everything in the ghost town of Patuxet-Plymouth, the Pilgrims began raiding the country for miles around. The decimated Wampanoags were not a rich source of supply, even at gunpoint. Meanwhile, their western neighbours and traditional foe, the Narragansetts, had avoided the worst of the plague and were threatening the Patuxet region. Probably for this reason, Squanto and other survivors decided to help the newcomers. In the spring, they made peace with the English, teaching them how to grow maize and other American crops and later how to repay the Earth with the autumn festival of Thanksgiving.
The Pilgrims thanked their God for saving them in a “wilderness,” but the feast speaks for itself: turkey, corn, beans, pumpkin, cranberries, potatoes and the rest came from thousands of years of New World civilization.50 It was the heathen, not the Lord, who saved them. Without Squanto and Patuxet, the Plymouth colony might have gone the way of Roanoke.
Although the English had at first been reluctant to grow American corn, hunger proved the best spice. Nowadays, most maize in the United States is processed or fed to livestock, but for the early white farmers it became the staff of life, eaten as cornbread, succotash and hominy, or “hasty pudding.”51 Corn, the Iroquois ethnologist Arthur Parker wrote in the 1920s, became “the bridge over which English civilization crept . . . to a foothold and a permanent occupation of America.”52 Alexis de Tocqueville saw this process for himself when he visited the edge of white settlement in 1831, a tiny hamlet called Pontiac in the Michigan woods beyond an “American village” called Detroit. “Corn is providential in the wilds,” a settler told him. “It grows in the water of our marshes and pushes up under the foliage of the forests. . . . It is corn that saves the emigrant’s family from inevitable destruction.”53
The Pilgrims of Patuxet repaid their native hosts in two ways. In 1622 Squanto and other Wampanoags died in yet another wave of European disease. That was accidental. The second way was clearly intentional. About 1630 William Bradford, a leader of Plymouth, began writing a polemical history of his flock. Although only a decade had passed since the Pilgrims’ arrival—and the help given by the Wampanoags must still have been fresh in their minds—Bradford didn’t care about the facts. What mattered was the myth:
[They had] no friends to welcome them . . . no houses or much less towns to repair to, to seek for succour [and] these savage barbarians, when they met with them . . . were readier to fill their sides full of arrows than otherwise. What could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men. . . . What could now sustain them but the Spirit of God and His Grace?54
This New England contribution to Purchas’s Big Lie isn’t even internally consistent. How can a “desolate wilderness” supposedly without houses or fields be “full of wild men”? Yet Bradford’s work made its way through the centuries into other books and has shaped white America’s perception of itself for a dozen generations. Tocqueville himself reproduced whole pages from a history of New England published in 1826, unaware that the author had lifted much of it from Bradford verbatim, including the passage quoted above.55
Although Pilgrims controlled the Plymouth colony, only about a third of the hundred migrants aboard the Mayflower had been card-carrying members of the Pilgrim sect. Also known as Separatists, these people differed from Puritans in general by withdrawing from the Church of England instead of hoping to reform it.56 The main Puritan colony of Massachusetts Bay was founded at Boston in 1630. Further north, up the coast at Naumkeag, or Salem (later famous for its so-called witches), a mixed group of settlers arrived at the end of the 1620s. In all these places, recent plagues had greatly reduced, though not eliminated, the original inhabitants.57
Both mainstream Puritans and Pilgrims saw themselves as modern Saints migrating from the Old World to the New (a belief system that would eventually spawn the Latter-Day Saints, or Mormons, in the 1830s). They were the new Israelites, a chosen people on a divine “errand” to transform a supposed wilderness into a promised land, as commanded by the Lord in the Book of Genesis: “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will show thee: And I will make of thee a great nation.”58 As a Puritan town meeting was said to have voted in 1640 after becoming troubled in conscience about taking Indian land: “1. The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. 2. The Lord can dispose of the Earth to his Saints. 3. We are his Saints.”59
If America was a second Canaan, turned over to the Saints by God, it was also occupied by “Canaanites”—dusky descendants of Ham, with whom racial mixing was forbidden. The Puritans’ attitude toward American Indians was therefore deeply conflicted from the start: on the one hand, they saw it as their duty to win the “heathen” to the God of Love; on the other they rejoiced when Jehovah reverted to Old Testament form and smote the heathen with plagues or intervened in battle on the invaders’ behalf. The oval seal of the Governor and Company of Massachusetts Bay, struck in 1629, has a Latin inscription surrounding a crude image of a naked Indian, from whose mouth issues a speech-bubble with the words “Come over and help us.”60 It is perhaps the first product of the American advertising industry and by no means the least disingenuous.
In the end the Puritans had it both ways: they were not above slaughtering Indians and selling them into slavery; yet they later established small communities of “Praying Indians,” whose descendants were among the few native Easterners not driven west by warfare or “removed” in ethnic cleansing by the early United States.
Both cultures became deeply changed through contact, a process that would continue along the rolling frontier for centuries, creating (as the historian Frederick Jackson Turner recognized in 1893) a hybrid society wherever native and white America traded blows, goods and ideas. The well-known exchange was of vices, the new Americans taking up tobacco and giving the old Americans liquor in return.61 Less well known is the degree to which white settlers became Americanized in subtler ways. Of the hundreds of words that passed into English, some—such as the Algonquian “caucus”—express abstractions as well as things. At the time of the Revolution, the native language was still widely spoken, even by whites, on the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, where Praying Wampanoags dominated the early whale fishery. 62 Massachusetts Bay used wampum, the indigenous shell currency, as legal tender for decades. And that colony’s law forbidding whites from building wigwams instead of English-style houses gives a strikingly fresh picture of what early Boston must have looked like. It also reveals white fears of “going native.” When Thomas Morton, a settler who enjoyed genial relations with his Indian neighbours, invited them to a Maypole Dance at his farm near Plymouth “to see the manner of our Revels,” the scandalized Pilgrims condemned him as a Lord of Misrule and deported him.63
The greatest Puritan fears, however, lay in the spiritual realm. In 1642 a young man named Thomas Granger was caught having sex with a horse, admitting further pleasures with “a cow, two goats, five sheep, two calves and a turkey.” The judges wanted to know whether he had acquired his tastes in Old England or New—fearing the latter, because “Satan hath more power in these heathen lands.”64 Relieved to learn that Granger’s habits hailed from the mother country, they executed him along with all the four-footed sinners who could be identified.
There’s little doubt that the Salem witch hunt of the early 1690s owed much of its ferocity to the Puritans’ feelings of isolation on the edge of a dark continent and their dread that Satan was out for revenge on those who had killed or converted so many of his native subjects. “The devil was exceedingly disturbed,” wrote the Puritan divine and prolific author Cotton Mather in his Wonders of the Invisible World, “and is now making one more attempt upon us.”65
The political events in early New England were complex, with constant strife among the various English and American players. The Plymouth colony eventually became absorbed by the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Company, which was much bigger and better funded.66 Connecticut began early in the 1630s as a dissident offshoot of Massachusetts Bay. There were also Puritans in the South (the law books of Jamestown were full of moral strictures), but the dominant feeling there was “Damn your souls! Make tobacco!”67 Mainstream Puritans treated other sects—Quakers, Baptists, Antinomians and the like—as heretics and outcasts, forcing them to make their own colonies in Rhode Island.
One of the shabbier intercolonial fights was Plymouth’s overthrow of Wessagusset, a small Anglican colony at peace with local Indians and therefore a rival in both religion and the fur trade. On the pretext of “saving” Wessagusset from a nonexistent Indian plot, a Plymouth force murdered some of the colony’s native allies in cold blood and made the deed stick to the Anglicans—who then did come under Indian attack and fled back to England. “The trick,” wrote Francis Jennings, was “diverting the blame to the ‘savages.’”68 It was a trick that would be played again many times, most famously in 1773 at the Boston Tea Party, and most bloodily in 1857 at Mountain Meadows, Utah, where more than a hundred California-bound migrants were slaughtered by “Indians” who were mainly Mormons in fancy dress and greasepaint.69
“In our enchantment with the ideal of democracy,” wrote Leland Dewitt Baldwin in his masterly American Quest for the City of God, “we have [asserted] the myth that the American colonies were settled to ensure political and religious liberty. Doubtless some of the colonizers did have this aim, but in by far the most cases they refused liberty to others. . . . Baptists were scourged and Quakers hanged.”70
The power of faith, especially of a fundamentalist turn, in the life and politics of the United States is unique among major modern countries. “No Western nation is as religion-soaked as ours,” writes the cultural critic Harold Bloom, adding that this “demands some understanding, if our doom-eager society is to be understood at all.”71 Many a conversation between an American and a European founders on the rock of piety. In short, most Americans believe that God takes a direct hand in human affairs; most other westerners do not. And many in the United States, like their Puritan forebears, are so certain they are privy to the Almighty’s intentions that they are willing to help him carry them out: some in the positive ways of altruism; others in bigotry and on the battlefield. With their sense of being actors in a war between good and evil fought on Earth but directed from Heaven, such Christians have more in common ideologically with the hardliners of Islam than with the mainstream secular west.
To understand how this cultural gulf has developed, we must make a brief detour to medieval Europe and its aftermath. The Christian soldiers who fetched up in the New World were blown across the Atlantic by the tempests of the Reformation. When Martin Luther made a bonfire of papal decrees at Wittenberg in 1520, he ignited a great heap of ideological and social tinder that had been building up since the high Middle Ages.72 Catholics and Protestants then descended into a pan-European conflict that lasted nearly two hundred years, its fury and madness foreshadowing the twentieth century’s hot and cold wars between right and left. In Britain, the storms would not die down until the end of the Civil War in 1660.
Catholicism had wielded exclusive sway over the souls of Western Europe for a thousand years. Reform movements had arisen from time to time, but they were either absorbed as new religious orders (as the Franciscans were) or brutally crushed as heresies.73 There was no agreed separation of Church and State. Religious dissent was therefore akin to treason, a challenge to the religio-political hierarchy.74
The medieval popes claimed to hold not only spiritual but also temporal power—to be the inheritors of Roman imperial might, or at least the arbiters of who should wield that power as Holy Roman Emperor.75 This claim, both courted and thwarted by barbarian leaders from Charlemagne onward, took a mortal blow when its founding document, the Donation of Constantine—supposedly transferring the Western Empire to the papacy—was shown by a shrewd fifteenth-century scholar to be a fake.76
Donation or not, the pope was still spiritual emperor over the One True Faith. He and his officials anointed all Christian kings. Catholic dogma upheld the social pyramid. Yet the pyramid was being undermined on all sides: by the scandalous behaviour of popes and antipopes; by the harm done to Christendom’s self-confidence by the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century; by the rise of national governments; by intellectual contact with Islam and the rediscovery of Classical knowledge; by the invention of printing and the spread of literacy; and by the shock of the New World, which God had neglected to mention in the Bible.
Even so, Protestantism was a risky business. On what basis could the law apply to folk who did not accept the holy foundation of state power? On what moral footing could their relations with society be built? And if they rejected interpretations of Christian doctrine handed down by the learned doctors of the Church, how would they know what to believe? How would they even tell right from wrong?
As the Church Fathers knew, the Bible was explosive—a contradictory and subversive body of writings that needed careful handling and interpretation. Having arisen as a radical sect of Judaism, Christianity carried within it, like a dormant virus, the seeds of chaos. When ordinary citizens began reading Holy Writ for themselves, they found that the early Christian community of fishermen, misfits and outcasts portrayed in the New Testament bore little resemblance to the vast, wealthy and gorgeous edifice of the Catholic Church. With the revival of Classical learning, it also became clear that the Roman Church was more Roman than anyone had thought. Indeed, the popes’ title Pontifex Maximus had formerly belonged to the high priests of pagan Rome.77
There is much to admire in the Protestant challenge to the old order. It was taken up mainly by the lower and middle classes: by peasants, artisans, freeholders and small business-folk seeking freedom from a top-heavy hierarchy, demanding the right to read and think for themselves. But while some were content to ponder the Bible quietly, others were not. Fanaticism and intolerance soon sprang up like weeds in the liberated acres of the Lord’s garden. (As Mr. Dooley put it, “a fanatic is a man who does what he thinks the Lord would do if He knew the facts.”78) Too many people found that it was all so simple: God was speaking to them personally, telling them what to do. Nowadays, when individuals think that God is speaking to them, that they have been chosen for a great purpose, that they are unquestionably right while everyone else is mistaken or evil, they are likely to be removed from society and treated for mental illness.
But when delusions of persecution and grandeur seize a whole group, the illness is less easily dealt with. If many are affected, who can say what is normal? At what point does one group’s religious mission become a threat to other groups? It seems to me that the acid test for determining when a religious community has become a peril to itself and others is when it starts killing people on God’s orders. The 1978 massacre at Jonestown in Guyana and the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo gassing of the Tokyo Underground are but two examples of mass psychosis—one suicidal, the other murderous. But today’s standards of collective sanity aren’t easily imposed on the past. The Catholic Church itself had been involved in mass murder for centuries—against heretics and infidels, and later through the Inquisition.
When religious violence occurs on such a scale, there is usually a substantial dose of earthly politics behind the spiritual imperative. This is true of the Crusades, the Aztec sacrifices, the Reformation wars, the al Qaeda attacks and sectarian troubles in Northern Ireland and the Middle East. One thread that runs through all these cases, from the First Crusade to the World Trade Center, is a conviction of supreme moral and metaphysical right (or a facsimile thereof, bearing in mind that fanaticism is often overcompensation for doubt79).
The atrocities of the medieval popes and kings had been committed under an overarching theology formidable enough to persuade most people that Christ allowed his delegates on Earth to practise war, torture and ingeniously painful executions on His behalf. Protestants knew that was bunk, but were soon doing much the same themselves. By its nature, Protestantism was fissiparous, spawning dissidents who hived off to form rival sects. Some were relatively harmless; others became the fascists, Maoists and terrorists of their time. Many came to regard themselves as Saints, above the moral run of humanity, or even as the Elect—the only people God would save on Doomsday. One recent embellishment, very popular in evangelical America, is the curious notion of the Rapture, when God will beam the “saved” up to heaven before unleashing the horrors of the Last Days on Earth.
It is no coincidence that the unravelling of the Catholic tapestry released a host of witches and demons, descended in part from the old heathen beliefs of pre-Christian times. One person’s God became another’s Satan. Europe was gripped by holy paranoia, exploited by rabble rousers and authorities alike. Tens of thousands of “witches” (three-fourths of them women) were tortured and killed, often by being burned alive.80
Despite warfare and poverty, Europe’s population was rising sharply at this time. The increase was partly due to the impact of American crops (which was just beginning) but mainly to a general rebound from the effects of the Black Death, when a third of the population had died, shaking up old patterns of landholding, labour and social consensus.
By weakening the papacy and its Holy Roman Empire, the Reformation also strengthened nation-states—especially Britain. When Henry VIII broke with the Vatican in the 1530s (for worldly reasons, above all to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry his lover Anne Boleyn), the Church of England he set up was less a Protestant body than a nationalized branch of Catholicism. He, and his daughter the Virgin Queen Elizabeth, managed to shoo pragmatic Catholics and Protestants (known as “High” and “Low” Church) into one big top, with the English sovereign as ringmaster instead of the pope.
While most people allowed this broad but flimsy tent to erect itself over their observances, a few did not. Militant Catholics (such as Sir Thomas More, who contested the king’s right to divorce) were liable to arrest for treason. Militant Protestants—the Puritans—denounced High Church “superstition,” wrecking splendid stained-glass windows, statues, rood screens and other church finery—even whitewashing over the great Doom paintings which had cowed and titillated the peasantry with Bosch-like scenes of God’s wrath.
The political temperature rose steeply after a foiled act of terrorism: the Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament and Elizabeth’s successor, the Stuart King James, in 1605. This may have been the work of agents provocateurs. Rightly or not, it was blamed on Roman Catholics, and, like the show trials run by Stalin and McCarthy, became the pretext for a purge of “traitors” and a hardening of state power.
Ironically, the plot’s targets—king and Parliament—soon began fighting each other. Throughout the first half of the seventeenth century, James and his son Charles I were in a position similar to that of President Bush after the 2006 midterm elections: the king had the executive, but Parliament had the funds. Fiscal problems were worsened by inflation caused by the flood of silver and gold from Spanish America.81
The tussle soon spread far beyond money matters. Most Catholics threw in their lot with the nobles and the king, supporting his claim to rule by Divine Right, while the Puritans sided with Parliament and claimed to uphold the common law that had come down from Saxon England and the Magna Carta.82 But the Puritans’ egalitarianism was undercut by their many hates and forbiddings—no dancing, no acting, no sports on Sundays. Their project to make England a Low Church theocracy was no more democratic, at bottom, than Lenin’s dictatorship of the proletariat. In 1633 William Prynne, a hardline Puritan lawyer, wrote against sinful habits such as people drinking toasts, men with long hair and women on stage—things that King Charles and his young queen, who herself dabbled in theatre, were well known to enjoy. For this Prynne had his ears cut off, was fined £5,000 and later jailed for life by order of the Star Chamber, the king’s special tribunal, which, like the arbitrary justice reappearing today in the so-called war on terror, was beyond the law.83
Open civil war broke out in 1642. From their styles of dress and hair, the two sides were nicknamed Roundheads and Cavaliers. The flamboyant Cavaliers, with their long hair and richly feathered hats, were politically conservative but culturally liberal. They supported kingship, nobility and privilege but were easygoing in moral and religious matters.84 The short-cropped Roundheads were Parliamentarians and generally Low Church, from many sects and social factions. The radical Levellers, for example, demanded abolition of the monarchy, a written constitution, land reform, one-man-one-vote and other ideas that had been simmering since the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt, with its protosocialist ditty, “When Adam delved and Eve span, / Who was then a gentleman?”85
The fight between king and Parliament ended, for a time, with the beheading of Charles I and the making of the Commonwealth by the Puritan warlord Oliver Cromwell, who took the Orwellian title Lord Protector.86 Personally honest yet politically ruthless, Cromwell tried to build a war machine strong enough to stop world Catholicism and the return of the Stuart kings.87 A few years later, in the mock epic Hudibras, Samuel Butler would make wicked fun of “Such as do build their Faith upon / The holy Text of pike and gun.”
Cromwell’s dictatorship came undone soon after his death in 1658. With Charles II returning in triumph to the throne two years later, England awoke from the Puritan nightmare. Theatres reopened, writers and thinkers filled their lungs, and the new king set an example of loose living (thousands today believe themselves, with cause, to be descended from him). The wrangling between king and Parliament resumed for a while, to be settled by the Bloodless Revolution of 1688, when royal power was at last tamed by the Bill of Rights.88
The day of the hardline Puritans was done. Most were eventually drawn back into the Anglican mainstream; others would take the more moderate path of Methodism. The wider society reabsorbed the extremes, slowly growing more tolerant and varied in the process. England would yet undergo many stumbles on the way to modern democracy, but God withdrew to Heaven and forsook taking sides on Earth.
So it went in the mother country. Not so in her colonies. In its New World haven, Puritan zealotry not only lingered but grew rank. The religious migrations to America had been a divorce of convenience—the sects seeking room in which to thrive; London happy to see them go. Low Church radicals therefore had a much higher profile in the American population than they had at home.89
As the Puritans’ hopes for Britain died along with Cromwell’s Commonwealth, their dreams for the New World became grander and more obsessive, inspired as much by the Book of Revelation as by Augustine’s City of God. In his Wonder-working Providence of Sion’s Saviour in New England(the title really says it all), one of Boston’s leading settlers prophesied that in America “the Lord will create a new Heaven and a new Earth, new Churches, and a new Commonwealth. . . . Who would not be a Soldier on Christ’s side, where there is such a certainty of victory?”90Virginal America would be “the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”91
John Winthrop, the founder of the Boston colony, had preached in this vein even before his ship had raised the muddy shore of Massachusetts.92 “We shall be as a city set upon a hill,” he foretold, “the eyes of all people are upon us.” Winthrop’s words are now lodged so deeply in the American soul that Ronald Reagan may not have known whom (or what) he was quoting when they flowed smoothly from his tongue three and a half centuries later.
In the Puritan view, America would purify England, Europe and the world—a concept that “in secularized form [has] become the vaunt of the United States.”93 By fulfilling biblical prophecy, the New World was hastening the end of time itself—a notion that would rattle down the centuries until Francis Fukuyama naïvely declared that history had “ended” with America’s winning of the Cold War.94
Beyond the Puritans’ colonial redoubt, such ideas seemed increasingly absurd. By the end of the seventeenth century, the European Enlightenment was dawning and Old Englanders still outnumbered New Englanders by a hundred to one. Small, isolated populations can evolve quickly in new directions; they also tend to retain archaic features that fade from the larger gene pool. In biology this process is called genetic drift; in human culture it is called provincialism.
The English Civil War has yet to end in two places: Northern Ireland, where it was still being fought with “pike and gun” until yesterday, and America, where its opposing theologies spread with the white invader across the continent.95 The first case lies outside this book, and the two have grown very different over time, but what they share is an archaic parochialism. In Ulster the war against “popery” thrived in the old style for ethnic reasons. In America it found new bones of contention, transforming itself from a fight among Christians into a cultural war between fundamentalism and humanism, faith and evidence, Jehovah and Darwin. “The narrow conservatism and religious bigotry of the Bible Belt,” Leland Baldwin pointed out in 1981, “are the creation of forces that emerged from the decaying corpse of Puritanism.”96
Modern America’s kulturkampf, like seventeenth-century Britain’s, is a war between regions and classes: between the sophisticated internationalism of the seaboard and the parochial extremism of the inland “backwoods.” Ironically, Harvard College, founded by Puritans in 1636, has become one of the world’s great seats of learning, while peculiar institutions such as Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University of Lynchburg, Virginia, nourish a mindset that the ghost of Cotton Mather might applaud.97
At first, America had been only a refuge for the Puritans, a faraway place in which to follow their beliefs in isolation. But the “Soldiers on Christ’s side” were nothing if not fighters, and they soon took the chance to expand at the cost of non-Christian neighbours ill-equipped to resist. “Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance,” sang the Psalmist, “and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron.”98
Break them they did. New England’s version of the Powhatan War was the destruction of the Pequots, whom Herman Melville described in Moby Dick as “a celebrated tribe . . . now extinct as the ancient Medes.” Little celebrated as a people today, they live on in Melville’s great novel as the whaling ship Pequod, his microcosm of America—a “cannibal of a craft” containing multitudes.99
The Pequots’ homeland was southern Connecticut from Saybrook to Rhode Island, and their head town was on the Pequot River, now the Thames. Disliked by the English because they traded with the Dutch, the Pequots were also at odds with their fellow Americans, the Mohicans and Narragansetts.100
The number of white settlers was rising steeply as thousands fled the build-up to the English Civil War. The widowed acres around Plymouth and Boston were no longer enough.101 Opportunity came in the mid-1630s, when smallpox hit Pequot and Narragansett towns that had somehow escaped the earlier outbreak. “God hath hereby cleared our title to this place,” exulted Governor Winthrop, who had earlier described the region as “full of Indians.”102
Trouble of all sorts came to a head, not only between but within the races. Massachusetts hoped to bag Connecticut for itself and shut out Plymouth, other English, and the Dutch colonies along the Hudson from New Amsterdam (now New York City) to Fort Orange (now Albany). The Pequots’ native enemies also mobilized. Traders and settlers began to swarm onto Pequot territory, sparking the usual round of strife and vendetta.
War broke out after some people—who may not, in fact, have been Pequots—killed two fur traders, starting with John Stone, a West Indian pirate who had tried to hijack a Plymouth ship and was later “caught in Boston rolling in bed with another man’s wife.”103 While fleeing Puritan wrath for his wild night, Stone was unwise enough to kidnap some Connecticut Indians, who broke free and killed him. Few mourned his passing until a more respectable Englishman was slain on Block Island two years later. Again, this murder was probably not the Pequots’ work. But Massachusetts used both killings as an excuse to crush the Pequot nation before it could recover from the pox.
By some accounts, the English slaughtered the Block Islanders and sold the survivors into slavery; others say the expedition was a fiasco. Either way, the Pequots besieged Fort Saybrook and tried to negotiate a truce, inquiring whether it was the English practice to kill women and children—something the Dutch on their western border had been doing, but the native peoples normally did not. When told they should fight and find out, the Pequots answered defiantly, “We are Pequots and have killed Englishmen, and can kill them as mosquitoes.”104
They made good on this threat by killing nine settlers in April 1637. Connecticut and Massachusetts then vied to escalate the war and be first to take the Pequot land by right of conquest.105 Connecticut’s force was the nimbler and more ruthless. Its leader, John Mason, decided to massacre a sleeping town instead of engaging in battle. Some of Mason’s officers baulked at this unchivalrous plan—as did his Narrangansett allies, who held back. But after a night of prayer during which the Lord was deemed to give His blessing, the officers went along.106 “Sometimes the Scripture declareth women and children must perish,” one said when criticized afterwards. “We had sufficient light from the Word of God for our proceedings.”107
The proceedings began on a May morning in 1637, and the chosen place was a stockaded town called Mystic. It would be the most terrible slaughter since Soto burned Mobile a century before. Unlike Soto, Mason did not face many fighting men. Mystic was a soft target, and he knew it: most of the warriors were away, getting ready to defend their capital on the Pequot River to the west.108
The English attacked at first light, breaking in the gate and cutting down the occupants while many were still asleep. They soon tired of dragging townsfolk from their beds. “We must burn them,” Mason shouted; he then “brought out a Fire Brand, and . . . set the Wigwams on Fire.”
And thus in little more than one Hour’s space was their impregnable Fort with themselves utterly Destroyed, to the Number of Six or Seven Hundred. . . . Thus was God seen in the Mount, Crushing his proud Enemies and the Enemies of his People [the English], burning them up in the Fire of his Wrath, and dunging the ground with their flesh. It was the Lord’s Doings, and it is marvellous in our Eyes!109
Cotton Mather later added approvingly, “No less than 600 Pequot souls were brought down to hell that day.”110 The main native force hastened to the scene but got there too late, finding only some Narragansetts stunned by the methods of their Christian allies: “It is too furious, and slays too many,” they protested.111
The Plymouth colony did not take part, but its chronicler gave details he must have heard from witnesses: “It was a fearful sight to see [the Pequots] thus frying in the fyer, and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stincke and sente thereof, but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice.”112
The word genocide is sometimes bandied about loosely nowadays, but Mason’s action against the Pequots fits a strict definition.113 Puritan authorities later killed male prisoners in cold blood at Boston, selling the women and children into slavery. The English followed up with ethnocide, banning the very word Pequot and erasing native place names.114 So it was that the Pequots became extinct as the ancient Medes; their river was renamed the Thames, and their old capital became New London. Mystic itself escaped the naming purge, perhaps because it was mistaken for an English word.115
Unhappily for the Puritans’ hopes of doing as they pleased in the New World, the might of the English Crown followed them across the sea soon after the restoration of the Stuart dynasty. In the mid-1660s, London conquered the Dutch colonies along the Hudson River. Renamed New York, these lands became the personal fiefdom of Charles II’s brother, the future James II. The Saints were outflanked and potentially contained.116
The answer, the Puritans decided, was to start another war, conquer what was left of native sovereignty around their colonies and let the Indians take the blame. So forty years after their extermination of the Pequots, they provoked and crushed the Wampanoags, the very people who had been helping them for more than half a century. At the same time, the whites turned on their other local allies, the Narragansetts.117 Known as King Philip’s War (from an English name for the Wampanoag leader Metacom), the bloody campaign put an end to native power in much of New England.118
But it also spelled the end of the Puritans’ own autonomy, which in their dreams had grown from mere isolation to a Puritan theocracy spreading west from Massachusetts and Connecticut to the Pacific. When British officials descended on Boston in 1676 to investigate the settlers’ reckless conquest, they were appalled at the destruction on both sides. The war, they reported to London, had cost six hundred white lives, twelve hundred houses, eight thousand head of cattle, a vast sum of money and “upward of three thousand Indians, men, women and children destroyed, which if well managed would have been very serviceable to the English.”119
The American Revolution was still a hundred years away, but one of its most potent seeds was planted with those words. The settlers wanted the land without the Indians. Britain, taking the wider view of a world power, hoped to enlist indigenous peoples as allies for its empire, especially against the French at Quebec and Montreal. With its line of former Dutch outposts on the Hudson, the Crown now blocked the Saints’ path across the continent. The Puritans’ divorce from London had suddenly become less distant and more acrimonious, contributing not only to the Revolution but to modern Americans’ mistrust of their own central government.
Puritan influence would indeed go on to pervade North America, but it would do so from within the settler culture, spread not by any formal theocracy but by New Englanders migrating westward to the frontier lands. There, where men “hunger after religion,” the heirs of the Saints would plant their visions and destinies like apple seed wherever they went. Faith and profit, “jumping together,” would become the American way.