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The Americans: the colonial experience Daniel J. Boorstin

The Americans: the colonial experience

Daniel J. Boorstin

Published June 30th 2010
ISBN : 9780307756480
448 pages
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 About the Book 

The American Colonies survived and thrived due to pragmatism. Daniel J. Boorstin (1914-2004), Librarian of Congress, was a great 20th Century historian who popularized intellectual history. “The Colonial Experience” is the first in his America Trilogy about American intellectual history- (he won the Bancroft History Prize for this first volume and the Pulitzer for his third volume in this series.) Boorstin also wrote about world intellectual history in his Knowledge Trilogy. (The Discovers- The Creators- and The Seekers.) I have read all six books in these twin trilogies.In “The Colonial Experience,” Boorstin presents four themes relating to the role of pragmatism in America. (Boorstin is not quite as free as I am in using the word “pragmatism.”) Nonetheless, I restate his themes in my own words to be more succinct, direct and less academic.Theme I. UTOPIAS DO NOT WORK.The colonies were “a disproving ground for utopias. The grandiose dreams of the Old World were “wrecked and transformed by the American reality.” Boorstin cites four separate colonial experiences of the 17th Century: Puritans of Massachusetts- Quakers of Pennsylvania- criminals and debtors of Georgia- and planters of Virginia to illustrate his belief that success or failure of the colonies depended on the degree to which they adopted pragmatism rather than adhering to abstract ideologies. a) Massachusetts (Success). Pragmatic religion works. Despite the rhetoric (“We shall be as a City upon a Hill”), Puritans of Massachusetts were not utopians, rather they applied practical theology to everyday life. These community builders were stirred by sermons and town meetings to mark boundaries, fight for land titles, enforce laws, and fight Indians. Calvinistic pessimism about the nature of humans discouraged utopian daydreams, so the Puritans concentrated on practical problems: 1) selecting leaders- 2) limiting political power- and 3) devising a feasible federal organization.b) Pennsylvania Quakers (Unsuccessful). Utopianism fails. Quakers don’t believe in creeds- they made a dogma of the absence of dogma. The lack of creed deprived the Quaker of the theological security which had enabled the Puritan to adapt Calvinism to American life. Quakers were nice people who believed in: equality- informality- simplicity- and tolerance, but they were undone by pacifism, a preoccupation with the purity of their own souls, and a rigidity of belief. Compromise with the world is a must. Instead Quakers turned away from the community and inward to themselves. “Neither the martyr nor the doctrinaire could flourish on American soil.”c) Georgia (Unsuccessful). Philanthropic idealism fails as a governing philosophy. The idea seemed brilliant: take the England’s poor, ship them to Georgia, give them a plot of land and teach them to make silk. Georgia’s trustees, from the comfort of London, made detailed and rigid plans too far in advance and too far from the scene of the experiment. Georgians lacked the spontaneity and experimental spirit which were “the real spiritual wealth of America. Philanthropists, like martyrs, missionaries, and apostles of the Good, are dogmatists who have never been noted for their experimental spirit- they are philanthropists precisely because they know what is good and how to accomplish it.d) Virginia (Successful). Transplantation worked. Unlike other colonies, Virginia sought to replicate England’s virtue rather than to escape its vice. Virginia became an aristocracy of enterprising planters who developed the habit of command and took their political duties seriously and ruled Virginia like a large plantation. Virginia was not founded by religious refugees seeking a passionate new Zion or City of Brotherly Love, but Virginians emphasized strengthening the fabric of society by ancient and durable thread of religion which emphasized institutions rather than doctrines. Theme II. EXPERIENCE BEATS “TRUTH.”Americans accepted only self-evident ideas that proved themselves in experience. American facts destroyed European theories. In Europe, rulers and priests controlled knowledge, but American culture was uncongenial to credentials of the special class. Americans did not believe the notion that every institution needed a grand foundation of systematic thought- nor that successful government had to be supported by political theory- nor that religion had to be supported by subtle theology. Questions were to be settled in the arena of experience and the marketplace. As examples, Boorstin cites how doctors, lawyers, ministers, farmers focused on being general practitioners and flexible to new what worked for new challenges.Theme III. PRACTICAL KNOWLEDGE IS DIFFUSED TO THE PUBLIC.Books ceased to be the property of a literary class. Americans published practical knowledge in a wide variety of printed matter: newspapers- pamphlets- broadsides- almanacs- primers- sermons- tracts- practical guidebooks- dictionaries- and Biblical commentaries. This vast variety allowed Americans to develop a standardized American English, spoken by people spread over 3 million miles.Theme IV. HOMESTEADERS OUTFIGHT PROFESSIONAL SOLIDERS.In America, war was a task for armed citizens. Just as everybody in America was somewhat literate but none was greatly literary, everybody was a bit of a soldier but not completely so. In Europe, rulers were reluctant to put the means of revolt into the hands of their subjects, but in America the requirements for self-defense and food gathering had put firearms in the hands of nearly everyone. Because of the poor communications, the vast terrain, and the ways of Indian fighting, war could seldom be a centrally directed operation- instead it was a mass of scattered encounters by small groups and individuals acting on their own.Professional soldiers killed in distant lands and for reasons not understood, whereas the colonial American defended his home and refused to serve as a pawn in a monarch’s grand strategy. Americans did not think of men marching off to battle, but of a man standing beside his neighbors to fend off the enemy attacking his village.Boorstin provides a scholarly yet readable intellectual history of colonial America and presents evidence about the benefits of pragmatism in successful governance. He continues this theme in subsequent volumes in the Americans Trilogy. Pragmatism is part of American cultural DNA. Having a consistent, systematic philosophy may be appealing to some on an abstract intellectual level, but Boorstin had his doubts that there is one grand unifying theory governing human experience. If it exists at all, we will stumble into by trial and error (as Boorstin will continue to explain in coming volumes.)I have read and reviewed all three books in Boorstin’s American Trilogy:Volume 1: The Colonial Experiencehttp://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...(Pragmatism and pursuit of self-interest form successful colonies from the wilderness to the American Revolution.) Winner of the Bancroft Prize for History-Volume 2: The National Experiencehttp://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...(Pragmatism and pursuit of self-interest form a nation from the American Revolutionary War from to the Civil War.) Winner of the Francis Parkman Prize for History-Volume 3: The Democratic Experiencehttp://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...(Pragmatism and self-interest form a Democratic Superpower from the Civil War to the publication of the book in 1974.) Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for History.February 19, 2013