Americans, claim Butman and Targett in this brisk and fascinating book, spend too much time thinking about the Pilgrims and not enough time thinking about the hardheaded businessmen who did much more to found the main English-speaking settlements in what is now the United States. They have a point. “I am not so simple to think,” wrote Jamestown’s Captain John Smith about England’s North American possessions, that “any other motive than wealth will ever erect there a commonweal.” The settlers who founded Plymouth Colony were much less important than their legend suggests. The more commercially oriented settlements of Boston and Massachusetts Bay soon eclipsed the struggling Pilgrim community. By overemphasizing the idealists and ignoring the pragmatists and opportunists in American history, patriotic historians often mislead their audiences. But that isn’t the whole story; in the seventeenth century, as now, people’s motives were often mixed. The Pilgrims were less otherworldly, and adventurous merchants were less cynical, than superficial observers might conclude.
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