As Thompson points out, between Henry Hudson’s 1609 voyage to the Delaware Bay and William Penn’s arrival in 1682, “No less than ten different colonial regimes sought to assert their authority in the Delaware Valley” (5). Some people may have sworn their allegiance to as many as eight different political masters. This rapid-fire sequence of Dutch, English, and Swedish colonization makes the seventeenth-century Delaware Valley an exceptionally good laboratory for understanding the complex interplay between “nationalism,” “allegiance,” “subjects,” “race,” and other dimensions of collective identity in the early modern Atlantic world.
Many scholars, impressed by the fluidity and multiplicity of identities in the early modern era, have argued that nationalism is a relatively recent phenomenon. Thompson, however, insists that “the early modern sense of what constituted a nation differed from the modern, but it was not so different as many have supposed” (6). Nor, Thompson continues, were cosmopolitanism (Delaware Valley residents often served multiple rulers and spoke numerous languages) and nationalism necessarily opposing forces. On the contrary, “Cosmopolitan forms of interaction and communication” actually “reinforced…national identities” (13).
Relegating theory primarily to a brief introduction, Thompson allows his argument to emerge out of a meticulous narrative of the successive attempts to conquer the Delaware Valley by one nation or another (though not, usually, Indian nations, which enter the picture primarily as a counterpoint to colonists’ national identities). By “showing” more than “telling” how identities shifted and formed on the ground level, Thompson captures the ambiguity and multiplicity of personal identities in the polyglot Delaware Valley, while also making a compelling case that nationality mattered a great deal. Colonists of all descriptions ultimately insisted on the privileges that came with being part of a nation, invoking their Swedish, Dutch, or English allegiance to claim a certain civil status or to advance their economic fortunes. After 1682, however, large-scale immigration to the new colony of Pennsylvania overwhelmed the small communities remaining from earlier colonization efforts. The emerging notion of “Britishness,” with its insistence on civil equality and its inherent mechanisms for accommodating ethnic and confessional diversity, helped Swedes, Finns, and others to convert their nationalities into ethnic identities under the British umbrella.
Thompson’s theoretical and narrative chapters do not always correspond: The central theme sometimes wanders from the course outlined in the introduction, which could also be more smoothly integrated with the final chapter and epilog. Yet this disjuncture has its virtues; Thompson’s narrative reveals things that his analysis does not. Most notably, the heart of the book focuses more heavily on New Sweden than the [End Page 549] theoretical agenda in Thompson’s introduction might indicate. These absorbing narrative passages establish that Sweden was a far more important player in seventeenth-century America than most historians have recognized. The Contest for the Delaware Valley, in short, is an important scholarly contribution on more than one level.