Ron Rosenbaum interviews historian Bernard Bailyn in the March issue of Smithsonian Magazine: “The Shocking Savagery of America’s Early History.” Bailyn, now 90, has a new book on early American history titled The Barbarous Years.
Bailyn’s insight into the “savagery” of those early European colonists relates closely to our discussion earlier this week on Saturday Night Live’s “DJesus Uncrossed” sketch and its failure to exceed the absurdity of Tim LaHaye’s actual views about the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
Bailyn is speaking of one of the early and bloodiest encounters, between our peaceful pumpkin pie-eating Pilgrims and the original inhabitants of the land they wanted to seize, the Pequots. But for Bailyn, the mercenary motive is less salient than the theological.
“The ferocity of that little war is just unbelievable,” Bailyn says. “The butchering that went on cannot be explained by trying to get hold of a piece of land. They were really struggling with this central issue for them, of the advent of the Antichrist.”
The Antichrist. The haunting figure presaging the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelation plays an important part in Bailyn’s explanation of the European settlers’ descent into unrestrained savagery. The key passage on this question comes late in his new book when Bailyn makes explicit a connection I had not seen before: between the physical savagery the radical dissenting Protestant settlers of America wreaked on the original inhabitants, and the intellectual savagery of their polemical attacks on the church and state authorities they fled from in Europe — and the savagery of vicious insult and vile denunciation they wreaked upon each other as well.
“The savagery of the [theological] struggle, the bitterness of the main contenders and the deep stain it left on the region’s collective memory” were driven by “elemental fears peculiar to what was experienced as a barbarous environment — fears of what could happen to civilized people in an unimaginable wilderness … in which God’s children [as they thought of themselves] were fated to struggle with pitiless agents of Satan, pagan Antichrists swarming in the world around them. The two [kinds of struggle, physical and metaphysical] were one: threats from within [to the soul] merged with threats from without to form a heated atmosphere of apocalyptic danger.”
The rest of the interview/profile is fascinating as well. Go read the whole thing.