The First Great American Land Boom

GREAT history is made by men who are ignorant of the pattern into which their work is to be fitted. Columbus looked for Asia, and stumbled against a new world. The Spanish sought El Dorado, and explored the United States. The English hunted for a northwestern passage to China and picked up North America.

The Puritan leaders came to establish themselves in New England as a landed aristocracy, and they were turned into a cod fish aristocracy, so-called; to set up a theocracy in Boston, and they created there a hot bed for the sprouting of all manner of new creeds, new cults, new isms.

Massachusetts is depicted as a democratic colony, in contrast with aristocratic Virginia. It was; but its rulers were not democrats. Perhaps as many persons of rank and quality were in the migration of the Roundheads to New England as there were in the migration of the Cavaliers to the Old Dominion; full as much blue blood in one stream of migration as in the other. In either instance the proudest immigrant was hardly more than a poor relation of the lesser gentry in the old country.

Naturally the more prosperous and well placed at home never have been among the millions of immigrants to America. John Winthrop, for example, was land poor, like many of the minor gentry, when he decided to try his fortunes in the New World. He had also lost his modest post under the Government, and his large family, as he said, "could not keep sail with their equals."

An unreconstructed southerner once lamented that Plymouth Rock did not land on the Pilgrim Fathers. A million Plymouth Rocks did land on the men who came to found a landed aristocracy in New England. . . and turned them into Yankee traders. The glacier that strewed Massachusetts with boulders was a great democrat. The Puritan aristocrats could not carve memorial estates out of such a stingy soil or have a servile class to sweat for them. Those stony fields never could be cleared by indentured servants or negro slaves.

At the top, Massachusetts was just as aristocratic as Virginia. But Nature was democratic in one colony and an aristocrat in the other. And Nature generally wins.

New England was an economic democracy, a democracy at the bottom, because by the time a man had rolled the stones off a patch of ground, the lean earth would yield him only enough to keep him and his family. There was nothing left for an idle landlord.

Since the aristocrats could not maintain their aristocracy on the land, they left it free for all comers. It was the only free land at first, because the soil in the other colonies was too rich to be given away by the privileged class.

The chartered company that the Puritans formed parceled out the soil of Massachusetts to groups of colonists and each group divided its allotment among its members. As the woodlot, pasture and meadow of a farm often were separated, many of the farmers built their homes in the village, around the common and the meeting house. That was the birth of the New England town, which was to be a training school in democratic government.

Most of the people who settled America came to better their lot in this life rather than in the next. Only a minority came to any colony for religious reasons.

Many among the thousands who poured into Massachusetts were drawn by a desire to worship in the Puritan way. Some others, like the men of Marblehead, were primarily intent on catching fish. The one lure that Massachusetts held for all alike was the land, the first ever offered on equal terms to the landless masses of humanity.

That was the earliest land rush in American history. As many as 17 shiploads of colonists arrived at the port of Boston in the first year of its existence. There were 4000 people and 20 towns and villages at the end of four years. By the close of the first decade, Massachusetts had a population of 16,000 and had pressed ahead of Virginia. As many as 300 ships in 11 years brought 20,000 settlers to New England as a whole.

The story of colonial Massachusetts cannot be understood unless it is remembered that land was one magnet and Puritanism another that drew people to the colony. To think of it only as a settlement of Puritans would be to go far astray and flounder in confusion.

While the many were rolling the rocks or hooking the cod, a few at the top were laboring full as hard—and as honestly—to fasten upon the colony an aristocratic and theocratic despotism. Gov Winthrop abhorred democracy as the "meanest and worst of all forms of Government." Rev John Cotton though that he had propounded an insoluble conundrum when he asked, "If the people be governors, who shall be governed?"

The Puritan leaders did not come to Massachusetts to promote either political or religious freedom. They greatly advanced both, but in spite of themselves.

James Morgan, Boston Daily Globe, Nov 2, 1927, p. 12