08 April 2008

Triumph of the English

Following Columbus, many Europeans explored and began colonizing the Americas. Three nations grew more significant than all the others in the struggle for North America: Spain, France, and England. Jamestown, Qu├ębec, and Santa Fe were each established within months of the others several decades after the Spanish founded St. Augustine, Florida. By some means of reckoning, the English were the last to arrive, the most tardy to initiate serious efforts to colonize, and they came from the smallest country. Yet, they triumphed!

Why did the English prevail?

Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen offer a hypothesis in A Patriot’s History of the United States (2004).

… the appearance of new business practices, a culture of technological inquisitiveness, and a climate receptive to political and economic risk taking.
Schweikart and Allen, 15.

My first observation regarding this hypothesis notes the absence of the Indians that fed the colonists—Spanish, French, English, Dutch, …. Were the American indigenes irrelevant to the struggle, or unable to affect the eventual success of the English? Perhaps their absence has merit, for the English had the least auspicious record of converting the Natives to their way of life (see James Axtell, The Invasion Within [1986]—a book ignored by Schweikart and Allen, although they cite inaccurately the article length version of this book as I’ve noted previously). Be that as it may, let us, as the phenomenologists say, bracket that question while I proceed to identify the key points Schweikart and Allen offer in support of their hypothesis.

New Business Practices

The Company of the Staple, founded in 1356, was among the first joint-stock companies that led England’s development of international trade. Schweikart and Allen also cite the Muscovy Company, the Levant Company, and the East India Company; they could have added the Hudson’s Bay Company, which proved more significant in North America. The principle advantages of the joint-stock companies were that they survived the death of their primary owners and they limited liability because stockholders could lose no more than their investments. These companies facilitated middle-class merchants taking the lead in England’s overseas ventures.

Contrast these business practices associated with the development of capitalism to Spain’s “rigid adherence to mercantilism” (Schweikart and Allen, 11). If they failed to find gold and silver, Spanish ventures were an economic failure. Hernando de Soto, for example, was born into poverty and died a king—an imaginative one in the wilds of America,—but his men failed to bring back a return on the investments that sent them marauding through the future states of Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, and points in between. Their astounding success in efforts “to disturb and devastate the land,” as Rodrigo Rangel put it, did not benefit Spanish colonization. How de Soto’s ecological assault may have facilitated later English colonization takes us back into analysis of questions bracketed, so I defer this part of the narrative for later. Suffice it to note for the moment that the single sentence regarding de Soto in A Patriot’s History fails to offer any clues to his possible significance (10).

The authors of A Patriot’s History note that France abandoned mercantilism later than England, but omit all mention of the joint-stock Company of One Hundred Associates that played a central role in colonization of La Nouvelle-France.

Receptive Climate

Schweikart and Allen bury their exposition of the English “culture of technological inquisitiveness” within their discussion of Europe’s generally receptive climate for “risk taking and innovation” that “reached its most advanced state in England” (15). The stirrup was invented in the Middle East, but used to effect hundreds of years later by Charles Martel’s knights at Poitiers, they tell us (citing a text that lists neither stirrups nor Martel in the index). But Poitiers is in France. They present no English examples to buttress their hypothesis. Rather they quote from the second paragraph of Jack Gladstone’s 1987 Sociological Theory article, “Cultural Orthodoxy, Risk, and Innovation: The Divergence of East and West in the Early Modern World.”

Gladstone’s article supports their contentions, but his clearest statement focused on their central point is a quote from the work of another scholar.

Britain's leadership over this century [1750-1850] was, it must be emphasized, “not in its possession of a . . . best technique [individual inventions were readily licensed and exported (Gladstone’s emendation)], but in its early forging of a culture which, through innumerable minor innovations . . . induced the best techniques” to become widespread.
Gladstone, 120.

Gladstone identifies as his source: Ian Inkster, "Technology as the Cause of the Industrial Revolution, Some Comments." Journal of European Economic History 12 (1983), 651-57.

Rather than offering a narrative that supports their hypothesis, Schweikart and Allen shift ground to a discussion of the development of property rights in England. Much of the next part of the chapter highlights property rights, and threats to such rights, as they go colony by colony through the British settlements that would ultimately form the United States. Instead of developing their intriguing hypothesis, they offer a narrative that does more to serve early twentieth century conservative politics than to perform the work of history.

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