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The United States of America: A History
Book 1: Chapter II - Colonization


For many years European adventurers continued to resort to the American coast in the hope of finding the way to immediate wealth. Some feeble attempts had been made to colonize. Here and there a few families had been planted. But hunger or the Indians always extinguished those infant settlements. The great idea of colonizing America was slow to take possession of European minds. The Spaniard sought for Indians to plunder. The Englishman believed in gold-mines and the north-west passage to India. It was not till America had been known for a hundred years that men began to think of finding a home beyond the Atlantic.

The courage and endurance of the early voyagers excite our wonder. Few of them sailed in ships so large as a hundred tons burthen. The merchant ships of that time were very small. The royal navies of Europe contained large vessels, but commerce was too poor to employ any but the smallest. The commerce of imperial Rome employed ships which even now would be deemed large. St. Paul was wrecked in a ship of over five hundred tons burthen. Josephus sailed in a ship of nearly one thousand tons. Europe contented herself, as yet, with vessels of a very different class. A ship of forty or fifty tons was deemed sufficient by the daring adventurers who sought to reach the Land of Promise beyond the great sea. Occasionally toy-ships of twenty or twenty-five tons were used. The brother of Sir Walter Raleigh crossed the Atlantic in such a ship, and perished in it as lie attempted to return to England.

It was not a pleasant world which the men and women of Europe had to live in during the sixteenth century. Fighting was the constant occupation of the Kings of that time. A year of peace was a rare and somewhat wearisome exception. Kings habitually, at their own unquestioned pleasure, gathered their subjects together, and marched them off to slay and plunder their neighbours. Civil wars were frequent. In these confused strifes men slew their acquaintances and friends as the only method they knew of deciding who was to fill the throne. Feeble Commerce was crushed under the iron heel of War. No such thing as security for life or property was expected. The fields of the husbandman were trodden down by the march of armies. Disbanded or deserted soldiers wandered as "masterless men" over the country, and robbed and murdered at their will. Highwaymen abounded - although highways could scarcely be said to exist. Epidemic diseases of strange type, the result of insufficient feeding and the poisonous air of undrained lands and filthy streets, desolated all European countries. Under what hardships and miseries the men of the sixteenth century passed their days, it is scarcely possible for us now to conceive.

The English Parliament once reminded James I. of certain "undoubted rights" which they possessed. The King told them, in reply, that he "did not like this style of talking, but would rather hear them say that all their privileges were derived by the grace and permission of the sovereign." Europe, during the sixteenth century, had no better understanding of the matter than James had. It was not supposed that the King was made for the people. It seemed rather to be thought that the people were made for the King. here and there some man wiser than ordinary perceived the truth, so familiar to us, that a King is merely a great officer appointed by the people to do certain work for them. There was a Glasgow professor who taught in those dark days that the authority of the King was derived from the people, and ought to be used for their good. Two of his pupils were John Knox the reformer, and George Buchanan the historian, by whom this doctrine, so great and yet so simple, was clearly perceived and firmly maintained. But to the great mass of mankind it seemed that the King had divine authority to dispose of his subjects an(l their property according to his pleasure. Poor patient humanity still bowed in lowly reverence before its Kings, and bore, without wondering or murmuring, all that it pleased them to inflict. No stranger superstition has ever possessed the human mind than this boundless mediaeval veneration for the King—a veneration which follies the most abject, vices the most enormous, were not able to quench.

But as this unhappy century draws towards its close, the elements of a most benign change are plainly seen at work. The Bible has been largely read. The Bible is the book of all ages and of all circumstances. But never, surely, since its first gift to man was it more needful to any age than to that which now welcomed its restoration with wonder and delight. It took deep hold on the minds of men. It exercised a silent influence which gradually changed the aspect of society. The narrative portions of Scripture were especially acceptable to the untutored intellect of that time; and thus the Old Testament was preferred to the New. This preference led to some mistakes. Rules which had been given to an ancient Asiatic people were applied in circumstances for which they were never intended or fitted. It is easy to smile at these mistakes. But it is impossible to over-estimate the social and political good which we now enjoy as a result of this incessant reading of the Bible by the people of the sixteenth century.

In nearly all European countries the King claimed to regulate the religious belief of his subjects. Even in England that power was still claimed. The people were beginning to suspect that they were entitled to think for themselves—a Suspicion which grew into an indignant certainty, and widened and deepened till it swept from the throne the unhappy House of Stuart.

A little way into the seventeenth century America overcame the refuge of those who would not receive their faith at the bidding of the King. The best part of American colonization resulted from the foolish and insolent oppressions of Europe. At the beginning, however, it was not so. It was from an impulse of vagrant blackguardism that the first American colony sprang.


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