English Americans weren’t the earliest European colonists when they founded Jamestown towards the end of the 16th century . But they did provide the foundations for the United States and they weren’t afraid to abandon the home country when their interests were at stake.
In August 1585, one of Queen Elizabeth’s favourites, Sir Walter Raleigh, founded an ill-fated colony on Roanoke Island on the Outer Banks of what became North Carolina. Its settlers disappeared without trace not long after. The settlement of Jamestown in Virginia two decades on, was rapidly followed by Plymouth on the south shore of what became Massachusetts. What’s particularly interesting about these settlements is a nuance underappreciated today. These were citizens of late medieval England and they came from a very different time than the people of the later British State which wasn’t English alone in experience and character.
So who were these English colonists and why did they succeed when the Spanish and French had a head start, in some cases by decades?
A big part of it may be intent. The English came to stay and build, the Spanish and French arguably came to find resources before returning home with new found wealth. It’s an admittedly over simplistic answer but at the end of the day the English were more meritocratic and individualistic. People who can fight for their own betterment, rather than just follow the dictates of their rulers, tend to win long term.
The basic English idea of freedom to do better for yourself and family rather than merely do the bidding of others, is a great incentive to stand your ground – indeed it is how the west was won. England was also much more a country of common laws, unlike France and Spain where the rules were whatever the King/Queen or their appointees said they were.
These basic foundations – legal rights and individual betterment – may have been applied unequally in the American Dream but with each passing generation, the wrongs of human nature have improved; unlike in much of the world where raw power remains as rigid as ever.
It is a credit to the English and the other peoples who made up the world’s first ’empire of ideas’ that the countries they founded remain the world’s most successful. It is up to their descendants in America and the people who have joined them from elsewhere to right the on-going wrongs which still see some excluded from equal opportunity.
In short freedom is only freedom when it applies to all, but the American experiment must also be careful to not throw the baby out with the bath water. There is no indication of a higher level of openness to change and improvement outside of Britain or the English speaking world it helped create.
Mark Connolly Founder and Owner of Myorigins.co.uk