The Americans: The Colonial Experience

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Categories: Politics/Government
Publisher: RosettaBooks | Date published: 09/28/2002


In this first installment of his groundbreaking trilogy, The Americans, Daniel Boorstin explores the foundations of American institutions and the American psyche. A history not of famous men, wars and negotiations, but of ideas, cultural formations and the materials of everyday life, The Colonial Experience challenges us to think differently about history. It also earned him the Bancroft Prize in 1959. The opening chapters of The Colonial Experience discuss the peculiar characteristics of some of the original colonists: the Puritans, the Quakers, the settlers of Georgia and Virginia. In Boorstin's account, the emigration to the new world produced a unique environment in which the traditions of the old were set in dynamic tension with the opportunities and uncertainties of life in a new world. The Quakers, largely unhampered by the persecution they had faced in England, found their new status as leaders in the Pennsylvania colony fraught with tension. According to Boorstin, it was the Quakers' overly rigid adherence to their idealistic standards that made them incapable of providing adequate leadership and ultimately guaranteed that their principles would not have the most dramatic impact on the national character. That distinction, in Boorstin's account, belongs to the Puritans. Concerned with the practical matter of realizing the exemplary society, the Puritans were able to develop a flexible, secular ethic that would come to dominate the make-up of the American psyche. This is what is most interesting-and most valuable-about Boorstin's book. The philosophical underpinnings of early American life are continually related to the character of the future United States. The early Americans-in particular the Puritans-were neither swayed by Utopic fantasies nor unduly beholden to the traditions of Europe, and as a result, they created a unique culture based on their own brand of practicality and common sense. The New World experience helped create an utterly new, distinctively American epistemology, and Boorstin meticulously traces this formation through its linguistic, religious, philosophic and political sources. He also pays a great deal of attention to things like geography and place, emphasizing the vastness, the strangeness and the unpredictability of the land as key factors that molded the psyche of all those who worked to make it a home.

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