Winner of the Bancroft Prize. "A superb panorama of life in America from the first settlements on through the white hot days of the Revolution." - Bruce Lancaster, Saturday Review
The Colonial Experience is must reading for anybody interested in the development of the American character. --John J. Miller
Volume One covers the American experience from the New England colonies through the War for Independence. The thematic approach might suggest that the question, "What is an American?" can be answered by a grocery list of ideas. Yet if there is one truth about Americans it is that they reveal themselves more in doing than in philosophizing. Unburdened by the systematizing of the European ideologue, they demonstrate repeatedly that they are among the most tolerant people who have inhabited the earth.
For Massachusetts Puritans, orthodoxy and tradition had solved most theoretical questions, freeing them from the theological debates of their European counterparts. The Virginia aristocrats, a remarkable pool of talent, applied the practical skills of running a plantation to running a colony, creating a haven of toleration and rapid growth. By contrast, the fanaticism, utopianism, and pacifism of the Quakers failed to protect Pennsylvania from Indian attacks and drove the Quakers from power. Good intentions did nothing to fix the failed humanitarianism of the Georgia colony.
Americans were great naturalists, learning by experience, experiment, and the evidence of the senses. Where books existed at all, they were more likely to be farming almanacs or medical manuals than heavy tomes in literature or metaphysics.
Americans were least likely to wage war over sacred land or a Bible verse. Moreover, their habits were intensely local and their allegiance was to family, community, and colony, in that order. Militias had to be formed by the command of the British government a thousand miles way. Although citizen soldiers traded their pitchforks for rifles when so ordered, they were quick to return to farming, whether the battle was finished or not. The lack of a standing, professional army drove General Washington to distraction. Here are the roots of civilian control of the military which has haunted us to this day.
Boorstin provides numerous examples to prove, not merely assert, that American character and institutions grew from the facts of American life, not from theory, not from the ideas of Enlightenment philosophers or any age's philosophers. I expected the appearance of certain undeniably significant men-Washington, Adams, Jefferson-but I was surprised to see the amount of time given to the influence of William Penn, William Byrd, Cotton Mather, John Winthrop, and, most notable of all, Ben Franklin, who truly deserved the title of renaissance man. Here are people I can admire. Their example makes volume one the most inspiring of the trilogy.
This mix of biographies and historical happenings makes for an enjoyable, entertaining and enlightening work.
REcommended as pass time reading rather than serious historical research.