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"Failed Experiments": The Story of America [Ep. 3]

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
July 19, 2023 3:00 am

"Failed Experiments": The Story of America [Ep. 3]

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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July 19, 2023 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, with plenty of land came plenty of opportunity for experimentation. Bill McClay, the author of Land of Hope, walks us through these planned "utopias", how they failed, and why that matters for us today. 

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Say free this week into your Xfinity voice remote. This is Lee Habib, and this is Our American Stories, the show where America is the star and the American people. Up next, another story from our series about us, The Story of America. Here to tell it is Hillsdale College professor Bill Maclay, author of the fantastic book Land of Hope. When the Puritans attempted to set up their Eden in the wilderness, they expected to grow in their faith. But some had faith in other ideas, and there was plenty of land to test them out. Let's get into this story.

Take it away, Bill. Of course, religious liberty, which is what the Puritans wanted, for them meant liberty to practice their own religion without interference from people who disagreed, who descended from their religious views. We have come to understand religious freedom so that it means not just my freedom to worship, but your freedom to worship whatever wrongheaded thing I may think you shouldn't be worshipping, but you have that right. So the orthodoxy of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in particular came under fire.

It's some very interesting stories we don't really have time to go into. Individuals like Anne Hutchinson, who was a kind of prophetic figure who found the colony was not sort of living up to its Calvinist principle. She ended up being expelled from the colony. Similarly, Roger Williams, this intense, really wound up guy. He became one of the great prophets of religious freedom in a very liberal sense of the term. Williams thought that church and state should be completely separate, not because he was afraid of religion's effects on the state. He was concerned about the state's effects on religion.

Nobody had the right to overrule another man's conscience. Soul liberty was what he called it, and he ended up being also banished and forming his own colony, Rhode Island. Of course, the capital of Rhode Island, you may know, is called Providence.

And things also went the other way. In Connecticut, they thought Massachusetts Bay was too lax. Things were going soft, so they went to form a stricter, more Calvinist, more disciplined colony.

Then there are other colonies outside of New England that also have their own flavors. Pennsylvania was founded by the Quakers, a radical group. They didn't rely on a learning clergy.

They didn't have a clergy at all. That was something that the Puritans insisted on. One of the first things they did, the Puritans, when they established Massachusetts Bay, was to establish a university, Harvard. Harvard was a seminary for young ministers. A learned ministry was very important in their youth, not so with the Quakers or Society of Friends.

They completely rejected almost all the practices of the Catholic Church, including formal services, including reliance on the text of the Bible. They were quite a radical group. Often the Quakers and the Puritans were at odds in the Western Hemisphere. But William Penn, proprietor of Pennsylvania, Penn's Woods, called his colony a holy experiment.

It offered complete freedom of worship for all. It also was very welcoming to immigrants like Germans. The Pennsylvania Dutch, which is actually a corruption of Pennsylvania Deutsch, not today the capital of Pennsylvania, but then the capital was called Philadelphia, which is Greek for the City of Brotherly Love, which is actually a term taken from the Bible.

So there you have Pennsylvania. And the last of the continental colonies was Georgia. It also was built on brotherly love. It was created by a group of British humanitarians who were concerned about the impoverished, the condition of the cities, of the urban poor, people who were thrown in prison for failure to pay their debts, which seemed a rather harsh way to punish a kind of indigence that was very common, a lot of poverty. So the idea was to get this grant from the king to create a colony in which the debtors who would be in prison in Britain could go, start their lives over again.

I'd spoil the suspense, but it didn't work out very well. Interesting point that I think you can draw from all these colonies put together is how many of the colonies derived their origins from some kind of idea. Sometimes it was religious ideas. Sometimes it was, in the case of Georgia, an enlightenment idea. What they were trying to do was to test drive ideas that had no chance of being realized in the old world, but that might find a favorable environment in the new world. It was kind of a proving ground for new ideas, which were almost in every case utopian.

They're very dramatic. And I could go through how each one failed. Puritans found it hard to sustain their religious fervor. The Quakers were overtaken by the very people they let in. It's because of these kinds of things that Daniel Boorstin, a very great American historian of a previous couple of generations ago, actually, said the colonies were a disproving ground for utopias, a disproving ground.

And he's right. But I like to think that this sort of spark of creativity, let's try something new to not settle for the world as it's given, to go somewhere else, to be a land of hope, a land of opportunity, a land of creative adventure. This is part of the American spirit that's reflected in these colonies, even if they didn't succeed. Life's often like that. You make plans, and then life happens to you.

And there's something else, and I'll conclude with this. It is the spirit of self-rule. They were far enough away from the mother country, and the mother country was preoccupied with other things, that they were able to rule themselves and find their own way. They became accustomed to this idea. Yes, they were loyal subjects of the king, proud of their identity as Englishmen, but they ruled themselves.

For them, that was part of being an Englishman. These failed experiments were failed, nevertheless, on their own terms, and are part of the American story. When we come back, more of Bill Maclay's Story of Us, The Story of America, Episode 3 on Our American Stories. Folks, if you love the stories we tell about this great country, and especially the stories of America's rich past, know that all of our stories about American history, from war to innovation, culture, and faith, are brought to us by the great folks at Hillsdale College. And if you can't get to Hillsdale, Hillsdale will come to you with their free and terrific online courses.

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Say free this week into your Xfinity voice remote. And we return to the Story of America series here on Our American Stories with Hillsdale College professor Bill McClay, author of the fantastic book Land of Hope. There's also a terrific young readers edition.

Go to Amazon or the Usual Suspects and pick it up. When we last left off, Bill told us how each of the colonies came to be and what ideas they were founded upon. Most failed in their mission, but what does that say about us? Let's return to the story.

Here again is Bill McClay. It's equally a part of our American character that we are adaptable. We don't just sit in a sulking pose and just think about, oh, we failed. We failed to create our utopia.

All is lost. No, we go on. Part of being a people in search of hope, of grounds for our hope, it means that the search doesn't always stop in any particular place.

We're hopeful and we turn our hopes in a variety of directions. So that combination of profound idealism and also adaptability seems to me to summarize some very key elements in the American character. But we're still a ways away from Americans thinking of themselves as Americans.

They may be clearly different to the eyes of an outward observer, but we don't necessarily have Americans self-consciously thinking of themselves as Americans, as opposed to Englishmen. Not yet. Not yet. How does that come about? Well, let me go back, as we historians always like to do, we're just always going back. But I want to go back to the fact mentioned in passing that there was no overall plan for the British colonization of America.

There was not a sort of strategy that was going to be enacted in phases and anything like that. It was a very haphazard thing, which was very good for liberty, for self-rule, for Americans developing their own institutions. And this was different from the French and the Spanish, from the Spanish especially, who consciously saw colonization as a program to enrich the mother country. And the French are sort of in the middle. The French are not quite as averse to settlements, places like Green Bay, Wisconsin. But by the French settlement, the settlement of New France, as they called it, was fairly thin. The biggest interest was in exports for trading.

They were seriously invested. They had forts to defend their settlements and defend their territory. But again, not quite as centralized as the Spanish. The English were different from either. I think a lot of people would trace it back to Magna Carta, the great document in which King John, there's never been a King John since him in English history.

That's a name that sort of lives in infamy. King John signed under the pressure of his barons, of the nobles, concessions that established an area, a zone of rights and independent power for them. It wasn't a broadly democratic document. And actually, if you ever look at the Magna Carta, half of it would be pretty unintelligible to you because a lot of very specific things. But there is a general principle that there are certain rights that the nobles had that could not be taken away by the king.

And this is a very, very vital central principle to the British way of doing things, to what's different about it. Now, beginning of the 17th century, by then, France and Spain both are under the rule of absolutism, the all powerful monarch who is thought to have the right to rule from God. 1603, James I comes to power in England, and he's kind of a fan of the divine right of kings. What ensues is a big fight over whether or not England is going to go the way of the continent or continue to hang on to that principle that there are rights, inherited rights of the barons. Certainly in the case of Magna Carta, the nobles that the king not only could not violate, but in some way had to accommodate those entities as part of the ruling of the nation. By the time the Glorious Revolution comes along, you have it established that the king is constitutionally responsible to the parliament. The parliament and the king share power, but in some sense parliament has supremacy, and that would only grow in the years after that. You have a mixed constitution, you have a balance of power between the executive, the king, and the legislative, the parliament. Looking backwards from America, we see, oh, this has some of the elements of American constitutionalism. All this is going on, there's a civil war that King Charles I, the successor to James I, is deposed and has his head removed, decapitated, which is quite an extraordinary thing.

If you think of the monarch as a kind of divine person, this is a tremendously consequential act. It's a very tumultuous 17th century, but by the end of it, you have these certain matters seemingly pretty much settled. But one consequence of all this is that England didn't have a whole lot of time to devote to thinking about America.

And the distance, the sheer distance, the difficulty of oceanic travel, trans-oceanic communications, meant that the colonies continued to be able to largely rule themselves. They thought of themselves as Englishmen. They didn't really think of themselves as Americans. They might think of themselves as Virginians and Englishmen, but the American part has a sort of missing sector of their consciousness.

So now, go back to the question, how does this begin to change? How do they start to think of themselves as Americans? The short answer is another war, the French and Indian War. And this had to do with the difficulties that English American colonists were having with their desire to expand westward and encountering fierce resistance from the French and from their Native American allies. This was a battle that the British colonists would not be able to win on their own. And it really was an expression of the competition between the French and the English or the British over the future of North America. Was North America going to be a British colony or was it going to be a French colony? It doesn't go well at first for the British because they didn't commit the necessary resources. Finally, the British prime minister threw in a lot of money, doubling the national debt, imagine that, to win the battle.

Why? Because he understood such a commitment was going to be necessary. Britain was going to continue to hold and expand her possessions in North America. He saw the value of America, in other words. Not everybody did.

So keep that in mind. In the end, the British win. The Treaty of Paris settles the fate of North America. It would be British North America. There were parts of French-speaking North America whose residents would leave. This is how Louisiana, the Cajuns of Louisiana, come to occupy that land.

They really were forced emigrants. But by and large, except for a few islands, the French gave up their colonial possessions. So it was a huge victory for the British over the French. But like every victory in war, triumph on one front meant problems, new problems, fresh problems on other aspects. One of the problems was that this era that we've called salutary neglect of the colonies, that is, letting them go their own way, no effort to kind of harness colonial wealth, that period was now going to come to an end.

And part of it was because of that huge expenditure of money to fight the war, to fight the French and Indian War. And a special thanks to Bill Maclay. He's the Victor Davis Hanson Chair in Classical History and Western Civilization at Hillsdale College.

He's also a board member at the Jack Miller Center. And please pick up his book, Land of Hope, or the Terrific Young Readers Edition at Amazon or the Usual Suspects. Idealism and adaptability. They were the bulwark, the basis, the fundamental nature of our character. The story of America here on Our American Stories.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-07-19 04:12:49 / 2023-07-19 04:21:02 / 8

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