Adapting to a New World

Adapting to a New World: English Society in the Seventh-Century Chesapeake by James Horn


Are the Northern New England colonies the only part of British North American that deserves to be called “New England?” In a deeply revisionist account of the social, political, and economic development of the seventeenth society Maryland and Virginia, James Horn argues that the “New England” label could, and perhaps should, also be applied to the southern colonies of the Chesapeake. Arguing against the traditional “exceptionalist” historiographical perspective, which sees Chesapeake society as a radical, unruly break from the English past, Horn argues that the seventeenth century English settlers sought to create a definitively English society in the New World and to a remarkable degree they succeeded.

Horn argues that along many lines – in culture, politics, and social structure – seventeenth century English settlers were quite successful in transplanting a society that was broadly recognizable as English into the soil of the New World. As an example, let’s take two areas were previous historians that noted were radical breaks from the English precedent and firmly “American” – political unrest and demographic instability. Historians of the early Chesapeake have noted that imbalanced sex ratios, high morality rates and population growth sustained only by a constant influx of immigrants marked the Chesapeake off from the England. Horn notes that this “exceptionalist” assumption is only possible because of an ignorance of the English situation. Chesapeake demography mirrored he demographic patterns of immigration into the rapidly growing English urban centers of the seventeenth century. Like the in the Chesapeake, the population growth of cities like London were only sustained by constant immigration and saw imbalanced sex ratios (though not as high as in the Chesapeake) and high morality rates. In this way, immigration to the Chesapeake was part of a broader English pattern.

The same can be said, according to Horn, of another often cited “difference” between England and Virginia and Maryland; the high level of political instability in the colonies. The seventeenth century saw a number of political and social conflicts tear through Maryland and Virginia, mostly famously Virginia’s Bacon’s Rebellion. Historians have cited this as yet another example of the differences between peaceful, organic, and stable England compared to the violent and unstable Chesapeake. But Horn notes the obvious here, seventeenth century England was a place torn by civil war, which saw two coups and a regicide. Horn powerfully notes that the same issues driving conflicts in America – religious division, conflict over who has political authority – were the same divisions that were driving conflict in England. Yet again, the Chesapeake confirms to English patterns.

This is not to say that Horn sees Virginia and Mary society as a perfect copy of England’s. Horn argues that there were clear differences between the Chesapeake and its settlers’ mother county. The largest of these were:  the structures of the Chesapeake’s tobacco economy, the material culture of the Chesapeake (both the poor and, especially the rich, lived materially poorer lives in the Chesapeake than they would have in England), and, most obviously, the presence of Africans and Native Americans. Though that final difference is much more implicit in Horn’s book than explicit. What, to Horn, is key, however is that despite the differences and the needs of adapting Old World norms to New World realties, seventeenth century settlers were able to create a culture and society that was broadly English.

Horn’s book has three central weaknesses. First, many of the differences between Horn and his historiographical adversaries – the exceptionalists – are matters of degree and emphasis rather than massive evidential disagreement. While previous historians have stressed what is different about Chesapeake society, Horn is basically just stressing what is the same between Virginia, Maryland, and England. As extremely valuable as Horn’s work is as a corrective, this lack of true difference makes some of the issues that Horn takes with the work of previous historians seem very much like “glass half-empty, glass half-full” debates. Another weakness of this book is the lack of sustained attention Horn gives Native Americans and Africans in his account. While some of this is forgivable, since Horn upfront states that he is focusing on English setters and not other groups, it still weakens his arguments since one of – if not the – key difference between England and the Chesapeake was the presence of non-Europeans.  The final problem with Horn’s otherwise excellent book is the lack of sustained attention to gender. Like many other social historians Horn is excellent at reconstructing the material lives of men and women in the seventeenth century. However, the weakest part of the book is when Horn turns his attention to less structural matters and more towards cultural issues. How men and women understood their lives – outside of the ideal – are not fully discussed in this book.

TIE-IN: This book strongly contrasts with Jon Butler’s Becoming America – which provides the very opposite argument about colonial American development. Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom provides an example of the “exceptionalist” historiography that Horn takes issue with. Kathleen Brown’s Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs overlaps somewhat with Horn’s account but provides a different (and more complete) narrative of the development of ideas and structure of gender – one that stresses innovation over continuity. However, if one combines this book with Daniel Richter’s Looking East From Indian Country, Michael Gomez’s Exchanging Our Country Marks, and David Fischer’s Albion’s Seed, one has the narrative of the importance of Old World and Pre-Contact culture and ideas to the new societies that developed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Europeans, Native Americans, and Africans all responded to the New World in ways recognizably drawn from older cultural forms. One can add Richard Bushman’s The Refinement of America to Horn’s book to continue the narrative of the importance of English/British culture to the colonies up to the Revolution.


Author: Roy Rogers

I am currently a PhD candidate in American History at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY). My undergraduate education was at Shepherd University (Political Science & History) and I received an MA in History from George Mason University. As a historian, my research interests include early American history, the early American republic (1780 to 1830), political history, religious history, and gender history. I live in Brooklyn with my girlfriend and our cat.

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