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  • Reckoning with Williams: Capitalism and Slavery and the Reconstruction of Early American History *
  • Russell R. Menard (bio)

As is the case with, I suspect, many American historians of my generation, my introduction to Eric Williams was through his critics. I thought of him as an inventive but fundamentally wrong-headed historian who need not be taken seriously, so I avoided reading him until circumstances arose that made it impossible to avoid Capitalism and Slavery any longer. When I read the book straight through, I was enthralled and annoyed that I had not read it at the beginning of my graduate studies, hence this essay, which hopes to persuade others not to repeat my mistake.

In part my reaction reflects the merits of the book in its own right. Quite simply, it is a powerful, engaging book, which enables one to think of early American history in new ways. My reaction also reflects the apparent current “crisis” in early American history as a field of inquiry. The present “crisis” of early American history, which can be viewed as a subset of the crisis of modern historiography, grows out of the collapse of the nationalist paradigm that dominated the field through the 1950s. 1

That paradigm which viewed the colonial period as the prehistory of the United States was overwhelmed during the 1960s by scholarship reflecting the social scientific interests of English and European early-modernists and by the multi-cultural work of scholars who came of age over the past decade. The outpouring of scholarship from these two movements, much of which focused on the experience of small groups and particular communities rather than on the colonies as a whole, led to what might be called the deconstruction of early America. 2 This persuaded some of the most prominent historians of early America that the field lacks coherence, direction and a sense of purpose, that colonialists are busily and it seems rather mindlessly producing new empirical knowledge at a rate that has outstripped the ability of the field to absorb it, as a consequence leaving the field with a severe case of “intellectual indigestion.” 3 That crisis is also evident in the recent efforts by prominent historians to produce new syntheses of where we stand in the field, none of which were fully successful because their authors could not come up with generalizations comprehensive [End Page 791] enough to contain some of the most interesting developments in recent scholarship, and thus they synthesized the field around the early modern social science tendencies but paid insufficient attention to recent scholarship on women, native Americans and blacks, thus fostering the illusion that early America was a white man’s country. 4 If one accepts this analysis of the current state of the field, there are signs that the “crisis” is deepening.

When early American history deconstructed in the 1950s, it was quickly reassembled in several large regional lumps: New England, the Middle-Atlantic colonies, the Chesapeake, the West Indies, and the Lower South. 5 This regional scheme, which was widely accepted, provided the field its structure and gave direction to research for the next twenty years or so, as scholars took up the challenge of working out the similarities and differences among the several regions. There is evidence, however, that these regions are not as cohesive as scholars have assumed, and that the process of deconstruction is about to proceed further, and fragment the colonies into much smaller, more numerous and, therefore, much less manageable lumps. A recent paper by Lorena Walsh is a case in point. Walsh argues, quite persuasively in my view, that as an economic region at least “Chesapeake” is much too gross a category, that the economy of the settlements around the Chesapeake Bay is better understood as a product of at least three distinct regions: areas growing sweet-scented tobacco, areas growing oronocco tobacco, and areas that were peripheral to the international tobacco economy. 6 Walsh’s analysis suggests that many of the debates current among historians of the tobacco coast might be resolved by reconceptualizing the region. For example, the question of whether it is reasonable to characterize the Chesapeake economy as one subject to booms and...

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