Thomas Kidd, Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University, lives up to his title with this excellent overview of Colonial America. The book will serve well as a textbook for university classes. It gives just what is needed to start and sustain many interesting discussions.
There used to be a consensus among historians about how to teach Colonial America. It was agreed that two religious groups should be discussed, Puritans and Quakers, in order to set up the core story about three sections, South, Middle, and North, uniting politically in a secular enlightenment and revolution. To set up the Civil War and modern discussion regarding civil rights, there was the story of how slavery arose in Virginia, due mainly to a dysfunctional economy. Additionally, there was a parallel side-story: religious in-fighting in a “Great Awakening” accidentally set up the American Revolution’s democratic feistiness, and a revivalist, George Whitefield, who accidentally set up the American Revolution’s unity. There were also two men of pure genius: Ben Franklin, who represented America’s urban scientific future, and Jonathan Edwards, who represented the possibility of self-taught philosophic sophistication on an American frontier. This framework usefully promoted America’s purpose in the world: the promotion of secularized liberty and civil rights.
In 1974 this self-congratulatory framework for general education in Colonial American history was popularly restructured for college classes with the publication of Gary B. Nash’s textbook, Red, White, and Black: The Peoples of Early America (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall). Nash’s new framework made the Puritans look terrible, the Quakers acceptable, and both the enlightenment and revolution, hypocritical. The great benefit of this book was that it forced many WASP (white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant) college students in America to look at history in a way that made them uncomfortable. Nash’s book is now in its seventh edition.
American Colonial History is a preferable textbook option because it is not based on tweaking the old model; rather it is geographically balanced and raises religion to its appropriate place at the center of the many varied stories of cultural encounters, emphasizing the “clash of cultures and faiths.” Overall Kidd’s textbook, much like Nash’s, is unsettling. Kidd wants the standard college student in America to see Colonial American history through widely diverse ethnic, religious, and regional lenses.
Kidd is an avowed evangelical Baptist, and this brings good edginess to the book. He is an expert on, and appreciator of, religious people “clashing.” This is no insider history tracing the roots of consensus values. The outsider quality of the book hits quick: paragraph one of the Introduction is about Cahokia on the Mississippi River. Paragraph one of chapter one is about Buttermilk Creek in Texas. The book offers sweeping coverage of American colonial history: it starts in Mexico, swishes through the Great Lakes, and eventually swipes down the East Coast, Caribbean, and then back west. Puritan Boston is not emphasized. The first paragraph of the chapter devoted to African slavery is about the Dutch in Manhattan. Kidd is at his best in his chapter on the Glorious Revolution because he emphasizes the anti-Catholicism at its core. He does not get sidetracked in the ideological origins of what later would be revolutionary political arguments. He sticks to his theme, and shows well, especially in Maryland, that anti-Catholicism was front and center in people’s minds during the colonial period.
Kidd is especially good with quotations and short stories about people. This is not really a book about cultures and faiths. He is not interested in analyzing differences between the Huron and Iroquois or the Jesuits and Franciscans. He is interested in people interacting with people. Everybody is religious, and Kidd helps to show the religious notions behind their actions. There is a matter-of-factness to his writing. He dismisses historians who have given “a disproportionate share of attention to chattel slavery” (p. 167). Slavery in North America was much bigger than the story of slave codes. He tells a story of people distinguishing “negros” from “Christians” in Barbados, and how an Anglican missionary in South Carolina “pioneered a system of severe punishments against slaves” (p. 164). Religion is much bigger than doctrinal differences. He quotes a poem written by the British in the Seven Years War: “The time will come when both Pope and Friar/Shall both be roasted on the fire” (p. 281).
Kidd offers a geographically balanced, religiously well-founded, history of Colonial America. At the very end of American Colonial History on p. 297, Kidd offers a short and powerful justification for the book’s form and content:
The civic mandate of knowing the “basics” of American history would put Jefferson and the delegates of Philadelphia front and center, and the mandate is not wrong. But we must be mindful that there is more to the early American experience than the coming of independence. Colonial American history forms a dizzying kaleidoscope of cultures, faiths, and tragic clashes of incompatible powers. The struggle to balance the aspects of history that made us different, and those facets that made us Americans, is perhaps the greatest challenge facing historians today.