The First Frontier: Life In Colonial America Essay, Research Paper
The First Frontier: Life in Colonial America
John C. Miller
Lanham: University Press of America, 1966.
In his historical novel The First Frontier: Life in Colonial America John C. Miller tells of the taming of a harsh frontier. He tackles such topics as Puritans versus Quakers, southern plantation versus cities, and everyday life in the colonial period.
Most people do not realize how similar Quakers and Puritans really are. Both came to the new world to escape persecution. The Puritans planned to create a Heaven on Earth. The Quakers desired a fresh start in order to create an apostolic church. The main difference in belief between the two consisted of timing. The Puritans believed that God changed people slowly into what he desired them to be. The Quakers expected a sudden spark of inner light which signaled contact with the Almighty (p. 74). However, both groups promoted high standards of moral behavior, inflicted harsh punishments, and discouraged outsiders from trying to enter their settlement. Most recreational activities in which Englishmen participated were considered shameful in the eyes of these strict religious societies.
In addition to religion, Miller speaks of the differences between southern plantations and cities. The majority of the population resided in rural areas because farming proved necessitous. Due to the large number of people required to operate a plantation, jobs were plentiful, and plantation owners typically had large numbers of children. Philadelphia, the largest city, topped all others in traffic control, street cleaning, and lighting. On the other hand, some disliked it due to William Penn s severely rectangular city plan (p. 124). Cities had perks like the theater which rural areas lacked, however, the Puritans were not concerned with this because they disapproved of theater as they did of many things. Southern Plantations were renowned for their hospitality to travelers. In fact, hotels complained that they could not make a living because plantation owners took in travelers without charge. Also, some cities had schools for children to attend, but rural children almost always lived too far away. Therefore if these children were to be educated it had to be by their parents or a hired tutor which lived with the family. City dwellers saw many other people, but plantation people saw few which would explain their desire to take-in travelers. Overall, even though they lived in the same newly discovered world, life in these two dwelling places differed greatly.
Besides religion and lodging, the author also discusses an array of other aspects of everyday life in the colonial period. Most of these Englishmen living in the colonies dressed typically of their social rank; few tried to cross these unspoken barriers and dress out of rank. As far as occupations go, farming was the most widespread of them all. When it came to beverages, their drink of preference tended to be beer above anything else which when brewed correctly was more hygienic than water. Not only did they not desire to drink water, they tended to stay away from bathing also because the water was liable to carry disease. When it came to courtship and marriage, parents usually made these decisions for their children. Also, for a while, a shocking practice called bundling was permitted. A young man and woman, fully clothed, lay in bed together, crawled under the blankets and exchanged confidences and endearments (p. 1930). Eventually this practice came to be looked unfavorably upon and it went out of style. Marriages usually were preformed rather blandly without a clergyman or all the festivities of modern ceremonies. Legally, women were the property of their husbands. By the number of court cases in which women sought protection from their husbands, it seems as though what would be now considered abuse occurred abundantly in colonial America. The law would not permit a man to kill his wife, but stopped short of really protecting her. Also, because of the perilous conditions in this frontier, many people lost their spouses due to death therefore remarriages took place often.
Although the historical information of Miller s book seems accurate and informative, it could have been written better. The novel was not too long or too short, but at some time it appears to be written for the average person and at other times the author expects the reader to know what certain uncommon words mean. For instance, Miller talks about the beliefs of Calvinism without explaining them (p. 66). Although I am familiar with such beliefs, I believe that the average person does not know about the elect, predestination, infant damnation, and depravity unless they are just interested in religion and have studied it. Also, in the chapter entitled Social Rank and Dress he mentions Englishmen who return from the Grand Tour (p. 117) but does not explain what the Grand Tour entails.
In a way, this work is both easy and hard to read. Most of the wording, with only a few exceptions, is easy to understand and therefore read. However, in my opinion, the author did not try hard enough to keep the reader s interest, but the history section in the library is not my favorite section (nor is it my least favorite). Because of this fact, I consider myself a bit biased.
One tool of which the author should have taken advantage was the visual aid of maps. These colonies and the geographic hardships thereof could have been better understood with the assistance of drawings. Descriptions of housing and clothing would have been better and more accurately visualized by the reader if designs were included in the digest. In my opinion, Miller should have provided maps and a few drawings for his audience.
Next, I would have required the writer to draw more upon his own wording instead of including so many lengthy quotes. Although I have not made a calculated effort to find an exact percentage, it appears that at least one third of this book consists of borrowed wording and information. Maybe, he should have done a bit more researching of his own.
On the other hand, one element the author did get right was humor. Miller often uses subtle humor to enhance the readability of his work and the enjoyment of his audience. For example, after telling of Samuel Sewall who had lost two wives, ten children, and fourteen grandchildren by death, Miller comments that Samuel Sewall was the most assiduous funeral-goer in Boston. Humor proves to be a beneficial addition to the novel.
All taken into consideration, The First Frontier: Life in Colonial America is not too bad for a historical book. If some one asked me to recommend a novel of this type to them, I would definitely mention Miller s book to this person but warn them of a few undefined words, long quotes, a lack of maps, and the historical subject matter. However, it would also only be fair to mention the great addition of humor to his novel of which the author makes great use. In addition to my critique of Miller s work I would also have to include some interesting things I learned from it. Such as, the practice of bundling; I am definitely going to have to tell my parents about this! I am now able to differentiate between the Puritans and Quakers, imagine the life of the farm family, be thankful for the laws today which protect wives from their husbands. Of all the topics in history, this one appealed to me because I have often mentally put myself in the colonists shoes and imagined what it would be like for me to have to build a colony literally from the ground up. This historical work has enlightened me in the real hardships faced by these charter Americans without whom we would not have the great nation we are proud to call our own.