Skip to content

Response to Review of Between Two Worlds: How the English Became Americans

I’m extremely grateful to Joan Redmond for taking the time to read Between Two Worlds so carefully, and to write about it so sensitively, and delighted that she found the endeavour worthwhile. When one is deep in the thick fog of writing a book, it’s all too easy to lose a clear sense of what it is actually saying, likewise to make out the significance of arguments and the relevance of source material. So it’s hugely gratifying to see the mists cleared away, and find the original vision formed so precisely in the words of a patient and perceptive reviewer like Joan Redmond.

One of the great challenges, as Joan correctly identifies, was uniting the spatial and the temporal: short-term events linked to long-term patterns of continuity and change, and action viewed on both grand and local scales. Colonies sprang into life in different places at intervals, and in each case their histories were both distinct and bound up with each other, as well as with that of the motherland. Many general works of colonial history are organized by colony, usually beginning with Virginia, followed by Massachusetts, Connecticut, and so on. This helps to resolve spatial confusions, but somewhat at the expense of overall chronological understanding. In my book, which is arranged chronologically – and is intended to be a narrative of how English understanding of America, on both sides of the Atlantic, evolved in the 17th century – it is the spatial dimension that suffers. I did my best, but it was a plate-spinning act that it might just be impossible to master to everyone’s satisfaction.

I’d also like to respond to another couple of Joan’s comments. The first concerns the unapologetically English focus of the book. My intention was not to explain the origins of early America; had it been, it would have been an act of egregious chauvinism for me to neglect the contribution of Scots, Welsh and Irish settlers, not to mention that of settlers from France, Spain, Holland, Sweden and France. Instead, I set out to extend into America an already well-defined history of early modern England – my area of expertise. However, these days the justifiable Anglo-centrism of many social and cultural histories (many of which concentrate on particular counties and regions) is indefensible for studies of 17th-century politics and religion. It’s still possible to describe the Civil War in England, for instance, but this cannot be understood without constant reference to the ‘three kingdoms’ of which England was but one. And Between Two Worlds is a political and religious history as well as a social and cultural one, and consequently I may have been at fault. Yet Joan is saying something more important here than simply pointing out an omission. The arrival of migrants from around the British Isles, she suggests, may have affected the whole idea of Englishness in America, and American identity in England – questions at the heart of my book.

A criticism connected to this concerns slavery. Another problem with writing a book of this scope and scale is that almost every subject, each destined to be dealt with in two of three pages (or often, far less), has its own historiography. In many cases, these have produced intimidatingly large bibliographies, and none are larger than those relating to the subjugation of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans. Once again, however, Joan makes a precise and considered point, and one that I should perhaps have addressed more fully, namely how chattel slavery may have affected Englishness, especially that strand of Englishness consisting in the rhetoric of liberty. Of course, as the book describes at length, modern liberty would have been seen by the most innovative and charismatic of transatlantic adventurers as no better than anarchy or tyranny; their liberty was the freedom gifted to subordinates to obey a new, self-appointed elite whose rules followed truths that this elite had defined. Slavery threw up its own contradictions, of course, and necessitated all manner of philosophical and legislative justifications; but in essence it grew naturally out of a social and political world shaped by an immutable sense of inequality ordained by God and nature.