41: Jack Greene’s Pursuits of Happiness

In Pursuits of Happiness: The Social Development of Early Modern British Colonies and the Formation of American Culture, Jack Green situates the American colonies within the larger British colonial empire and determines that they all followed a normative pattern of cultural and social development.

The usual interpretation of American cultural development is the “declension” model.  This model argues that all of American culture followed the pattern seen in New England, where a highly organized, religious, communal culture declined into individualism, liberalism, and entrepreneurial priorities.  While Greene agrees that the declension model makes sense for New England, he argues that the rest of the English colonies in America, the Caribbean, and Ireland followed a “developmental” model, which had three phases:

  • social simplification: most colonies started out as pure business ventures in a difficult, undeveloped world; this raw environment and more permissive, materialistic, and secular culture took only the basics of English culture (probably because people were more interested in surviving)
  • social elaboration: slowly, economies improved, living conditions and thus life expectancies improved, and the early egalitarianism settled into a relaxed but hierarchical form in most of the non-New England colonies by the mid 18th century
  • social replication: economies and populations expanded, people built towns and trading centers, occupational and social structures became more differentiated, culture became more secular, and colonists started to look to England for models of colonial behavior

In America, this process was best modelled by the Chesapeake colonies.  Also in America, the developmental process occurred within an ideology that set up America as ‘a place in which free people could pursue their own individual happiness in safety and with a fair prospect that they might be successful in their several quests.’  Eventually, all the colonies, even New England, got on board with this idea, though New England was careful to couch the quest for individual wealth and personal happiness in the pursuit of safety and community consensus.

And why the development of a relatively uniform worldview in the colonies, which in turn derived from a increasingly uniform (and increasingly British) infrastructure and culture, matter?  Greene argues that the convergence of colonial cultures – each with their own twists on British culture, but still – was critical for the formation of an American cultural order, which in turn was necessary if America was going to revolt against England.

Maybe (probably) I’m missing something here, but Pursuits of Happiness kind of feels like Jack Greene is shooting a dead horse: yes, New England was different from the rest of the country; yes, Puritans were an anomaly in their home country as well as in the New World; yes, the colonists on the eastern seaboard came from England, so American culture had close ties to English culture; no, American culture didn’t all start in New England.  More importantly, the theory of a unitary American culture was debunked in the 1960s, and the notion that New England was the genesis of American culture came under attack around the same time.  Also, do cultures really progress in a linear fashion?  This is likely a strong synthesis of work on the American Revolutionary period, but it feels more akin to Bernard Bailyn than to, say, Amy Kaplan or Bill Cronon.

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